Sonata1 & Platinum1
Early March brought another hardware upgrade, something a little retro; a new phono cartridge for my Thorens turntable. Over the past decade I pushed aside my extensive vinyl collection in favor of music on CD format. The recent purchase of a Linn Majik Kontrol preamp reminded me what a good phono section could reveal from a well recorded LP so I decided to dabble back into vinyl with a cartridge upgrade.
GRADO - Reviews, Reputation and Experience I always liked Grado Labs' products, their headphones and particularly their phono cartridges. I've owned and listened to several other manufacturers offerings, many are very good, all are different. I usually gravitated back to the slightly warm, clean and very listenable products from Grado. This time I chose the Grado Reference Sonata-1, a high output (4.0mv) wood body phono cartridge that retails for $600.00 You can find several reviews of its sonic performance on the internet and I'll add my impressions a little later herein.
The cartridge comes packaged in a protective wooden box that is lined and padded. Mounting screws and stylus guard are included, instructions are rather minimalist. If you are a child of the digital age, or an aging analoger like myself, you may find the effort required to setup a turntable tonearm and cartridge considerable. At the very least proper alignment requires a few tools, patience, good eyesight and some dexterity. Before mounting the cartridge it was helpful to read a few comments, suggestions and glean some tips from experienced analog audiophiles ( aka vinylphiles). My favorite informational site is vinylengine.com another is AudioKarma.org. Both sites provided tips on tuning the turntable platter suspension, replacing headshell wires, cleaning and lubing the bearings and changing the drive belt before mounting the cartridge.
Getting the "perfect" alignment of a phono cartridge onto a tone arm is another story. Many vinylphiles report they can set a cartridge in under one hour. ( The compulsive ones may spend the next year tweaking for "perfection") With a calm mind and steady hand I started on what would be for me a 3 hour effort. The task involved measuring, adjusting, interpolating, taking a break, readjusting, lowering the tonearm height, finessing, doubting my aging eyesight, taking a break, tweaking, and remeasuring. There were moments of sweaty palms as I dreaded the thought of damaging the needle. (Thankfully Grado supplies that very useful stylus guard ). A couple more looks at the set-up, adjust the tracking force, walk away from it. Is that really sitting square ? One more adjustment of the cuing arm height, confirm the tracking force (1.55g) and OK Good Enough. I carefully replaced the turntable on it's shelf, got everything level, reconnected and ready for the first LP. (Now I remembered why some friends called it anal-log.)
I purchased a few new albums and gathered some old favorites to audition the new Grado. Not far into the first spin, a side of Joni Mitchel's album "Hissing of Summer Lawns", I caught myself in a smile. The sound was magical. Detailed, solid and dimensional. Joni's songs are very poetic so being able to clearly hear the lyrics along with the distinct musicians on this album really heightens the experience. The last song on the album's side, "Shades of Scarlet Conquering" would be another early trial through which the Grado Reference Sonata-1 sailed through effortlessly. There wasn't the slightest hint of inner groove distortion. No doubt a decent mechanical set-up helped here, but this Grado's improved lower mass nude elliptical stylus tracks extremely well. The first LP and I was grinning to the ears.
Complete Clapton, a four disc offering from Reprise. On side 2, the cut: "Let It Rain", I never realized there was so much (detail) in that recording. Played loud, Clapton's wailing guitar solo's came cutting through clear and true (not shrill, brittle or edgy). The percussion in Bellbottom Blues had convincing texture. You could feel and almost see, hands playing an Indian dumbeg in the drumming section. Even while playing loud passages the Grado Reference Sonata-1 could reveal subtle textures and depth in a well recorded performance.
A quick note on my Radford Transmission Line loudspeakers, they are renowned for producing very deep accurate and taught bass. When the program is there, the Grado Reference Sonata-1 plays deep with authority and speed. The opening crescendo in Close Encounters movie soundtrack demonstrates this. On Rebecca Parris' 1984 album "Passionate Fling" the bassist is close-miked and plays some open string notes that can be felt as well as heard. There is visceral power as well as subtle timbre in the playback.
Album followed album, jazz, rock, concert music, then my wife called me for dinner. I had been attentively listening for three hours which is something I seldom do with my CD's. That fact alone constitutes a glowing recommendation for the Reference Sonata-1.
After a couple weeks of break-in I played Sheffield Lab's 1978 Direct to Disc recording of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. This album has it all; wide bandwidth, (soaring violins, deep tympani) extraordinary dynamic range and an inspired performance well recorded and produced. I cranked up this classic and sat back. Afterwards my wife (Viki) commented: "That was a beautiful sounding record, I liked that a lot". Viki will modestly tell you she is no "golden ears" and lacks an audiophiles' descriptive vocabulary, but she listens keenly. She knows when something sounds superb and correct. Hers was a glowing review. The Grado tracked flawlessly through that monster of a pressing. I just wished every LP could sound that good.
As a HiFi enthusiast for over 35 years, I've listened to many systems and music formats and have concluded there is no "absolute" sound. Without exception every component has a voice, a sonic character, and adds slight coloration. Among the best out there some may sound crisp dry and more analytical, others sweeter more fluid and articulate; each one communicating a little differently to the listener.
To my ears the Grado Reference Sonata-1 has a voice that is pleasant, smooth and relatively transparent to listen through; more like a warm musical instrument than a brilliant analytical device. I spent many hours spinning old favorites and discovering extra detail and nuance in the best of my vinyl collection. The sound is precise, lyrical and engaging, the stereo image solid and dimensional. In a price range that passes for mid-fi these days, the Reference Sonata-1 is an excellent articulate performer, making a dramatic improvement in my analog system. There is little doubt that I will be playing a lot more vinyl records from here out.
The newly redesigned Platinum1 and Sonata1 have had their coil design reconfigured, and the effective moving mass of their generating system has been reduced by 17%. All this is hand-assembled within a machined, new processed, Australian Jarrah wood housing. The Platinum1 and Sonata1 models use a modified four piece OTL cantilever technology achieving a 10% tip mass reduction over the Prestige series and ultra-high purity long crystal (UHPLC) oxygen free copper wire in the coils. The Platinum model uses Grado's specially designed elliptical diamond mounted on a brass bushing, and the Sonata model uses Grado's specially designed nude elliptical diamond.
What People are saying about the Sonata...
and about the Platinum...