I recently spent a few weeks reviewing and comparing the Ortofon 2M Blue and the Audio-Technica VM540ML turntable phono cartridges. I’ve been excited to see how some of the most popular entry-level and midrange cartridges compare for a long time. So, eventually, I bought a few cartridges to do my own testing.
I have also compared the Ortofon 2M Blue and the VM540ML against the Audio-Technica AT95E and the Ortofon 2M Red. You’ll find links to those articles towards the end.
(The VM540ML is the successor of the now discontinued AT440ML cartridges.)
I found that the Ortofon 2M Blue and the VM540ML both provide a high level of details, dynamics and openness. The biggest difference I found between the two is that the VM540ML sounds smoother and has more soul than the Ortofon 2M Blue. In my ears, the 2M Blue sounds slightly crisp whereas the VM540ML sounds smooth as silk.
I think the most important criteria for comparing and choosing audio gear is enjoyment. How much do I actually enjoy listening to music with one cartridge versus another? Is it engaging? Is it fun? Do I want to keep on listening to music?
If I am totally honest, I have to say that I enjoy listening to music a lot more with the VM540ML than with the Ortofon 2M Blue. My main reason for powering up my turntables is to enjoy that rich, soft and smooth sounds that LPs provide. And the VM540ML does a much better job at providing that silk smooth sound than the Ortofon 2M Blue. Without becoming lazy or boring at all.
I am sure there are systems and personal preference that will make the 2M Blue a better match and choice than the VM540ML. But in my ears and on my system, the 2M Blue simply becomes too crisp and too in my face. Especially in the midrange.
We’ll get into more details later, but first a few words on how I did my testing.
To be able to quickly swap between cartridges for back-to-back comparisons, I had all the cartridges mounted on separate headshells. I used my Audio-Technica AT-LP120USB turntable that has a tonearm with a “quick-release” that makes it easy to quickly swap between cartridges.
I used audiophile-graded headphones instead of speakers to make for a more “isolated” listening experience without background noise and negative effects arising from “less than ideal” listening room acoustics. (I am currently between houses and temporarily live in a medium-size hotel room so bringing in my speakers wasn’t really a valid option anyway…)
My “reference” turntable is currently a $700 Rega Planar 2 with a $600 Rega Carbon cartridge. I had the performance of that reference setup in the back of my head when I did the reviews and comparisons. To have a “reference” benchmark for the testing.
Here are the key components of my test setup:
Turntable: 2018 Audio-Technica AT-LP120USB (with preamp removed)
Preamp: Rega Fono Mini A2D
Headphone amp: Schiit Magni 3
Headphones: Focal Elear
I used a protractor and a stylus force gauge to make sure that the cartridges were set up correctly and operating according to their specifications. I also gave the new cartridges a decent amount of playing time before my testing, but I cannot guarantee that they broke-in fully.
The VM540ML is one of the cartridges I have had for a few years. I bought it to replace the AT95E that came stock with my AT-LP120 turntable, and it immediately transformed the sound of that turntable.
The VM540ML replaces the legendary AT440ML cartridges which has been the go-to cartridge for many vinyl enthusiasts for a long time.
I have found statements on forums saying that the VM540ML is a complete bargain and would be a much more expensive cartridge if it had been produced by a smaller manufacturer than Audio-Technica. That Audio-Technica sell the VM540ML way too cheaply. I am no expert to say if that is true or not, but it makes a lot of sense in my ears. It is my top cartridge recommendation below $300 for sure.
You can check the current price on Amazon by clicking here (affiliate link).
Stylus Type: Nude square shank / MicroLine
Weight: 6.4 g
Rec. tracking Force: 2.0 g
Rec. load capacitance: 100-200 pF
Output level at 1 kHz: 4.0 mV
Channel Separation at 1 kHz: 28 dB
The Ortofon 2M Blue
The Ortofon 2M Blue is one of the cartridges I bought solely for the purpose of these cartridge comparisons. It sits between the Red and the Bronze in 2M range of cartridges which (save for the mono versions) consist of the Red, Blue, Bronze and Black.
The Blue has the exact same body as its little brother, the Red, but it features a Nude Elliptical stylus that provides more details and dynamics.
If you have an Ortofon 2M Red, you can upgrade it to a 2M Blue by replacing the stylus with a 2M Blue stylus. Their bodies are the same and their styli are interchangeable.
You can check the current price on Amazon by clicking here (affiliate link).
Stylus Type: Nude Elliptical
Weight: 7.2 g
Rec. tracking Force: 1.8 g
Rec. load capacitance: 150-300 pF
Output level at 1 kHz: 5.5 mV
Channel Separation at 1 kHz: 25 dB
Comparison: Ortofon 2M Blue vs. VM540ML
Sound and enjoyment factor
The Ortofon 2M Blue seems to be a cartridge that divides the vinyl community in two.
Some love it for its ability to provide texture, dynamics, details and openness.
While others hate it for its lack of soul and tendency to sound crisp and harsh in the midrange.
It is a definitely a cartridge with a distinct personality.
When I compared the Blue with the Red (link below) I found that the Blue provided significantly more details and texture over the Red. The question is if you like that or if it gets too much. Too analytical. Too crisp. I guess the answer is down to personal preference and system matching.
When I compare the Ortofon 2M Blue with the VM540ML, I found the VM540ML to be smoother and more rolled off without sacrificing details or dynamics.
When I listen to Leonard Cohen ‘Live in London’ his voice sounds smooth as silk with the VM540ML but becomes slightly harsh with the Ortofon 2M Blue in my ears. Almost digitized in lack of a better word.
Does the 2M Blue provide more texture than the VM540ML in the low end? Maybe. But it is not significant in my opinion.
The VM540ML is sometimes reported to sound bright in the top end. And that might be true. When I compare it to the $600 Rega Exact that sits on my Rega Planar 2 turntable, the VM540ML is definitely a tad brighter sounding. But it never becomes harsh or fatiguing. It is still smooth.
I believe the Ortofon 2M Blue is a great cartridge if you are looking for a cartridge under $300 that provides tremendous details and dynamics.
And I believe the VM540ML is the best cartridge you can buy under $300 if you are looking for a bargain high-end MM cartridge that perfectly combines openness and dynamics with soul and smoothness. In my honest opinion, the VM540ML sounds like a more sophisticated cartridge than the 2M Blue overall.
The 2M Blue has a higher output level than the VM540ML and it is definitely noticeable. When I swap from the 2M Blue to the VM540ML, I have to turn the volume knob quite a bit to get the same music volume.
Sibilance and IGD
I did not manage to provoke sibilance or inner groove distortion worth mentioning from either the Ortofon 2M Blue or the or the VM540ML.
I did put a lot of efforts into adjusting tracking force and VTA so that the carts operated according to their specifications. With ideal operating conditions, these cartridges should not give major sibilance or IGD headaches.
Based on forum research, I found that these are both good trackers. Especially the VM540ML which appears to be a real tracking monster.
In this article, I have reviewed two of the most popular (upper) midrange cartridges on the market.
I found that they sound quite a bit different and I believe they should be carefully picked based on the personality you are looking for in a cartridge.
In that regard, I hope this review gave some kind of value to you.