Sonata1 & Platinum1
I recently purchased a Grado Reference Platinum, and the other Bruce K (who edits PVX) asked me to share my impressions. For the "record", I am probably a more romantic/Dionysian than I am an accuracy conscious/Apollonian listener. I like to get swept away by the music whenever possible. Within the limits of my hearing acuity, taste, etc., I will also attempt a comparison between the Grado and the Audio-Technica ML-150 cartridge which I happily used for the past two years.
First of all, the Grado was dead quiet the minute I put it into the system-I could turn the volume up ALL the way on my Classe 4, and would only hear the faintest, barely discernable rushing sound. This in comparison to the AT, which was fine at low volumes, but when it was turned up had an annoying slight buzz present during any quiet passages. As for the main question, yes, the Grado is stunningly gorgeous in it's sound! Took about 10 hours for the sound to settle in, and since then I've been in heaven. I'll try to give you some flavor for it's personality, and how it sounds on some favorite records.
Imagine the sort of movie technique where the opening credits begin with a still photograph of some people, or an old sepia-toned street-scape from the 1880's, or whatever. You see some credits roll by, then suddenly the scene becomes unfrozen and begin to move, become actual film footage. All the objects in the scene are still there, their spatial relationship to one another is the same, but they are now suddenly imbued with "life".
That's how I would characterize the change from the AT-ML150 to Grado. The 150 is wonderfully even-handed and neutral, balanced, impeccable in its voicing-maybe like David Niven or Alec Guiness?-while Grado is still very refined, but more energetic- perhaps Peter O'Toole, or Harrison Ford? More life-force in there somehow-a characteristic of palpability and realness in things that still sit well back in the musical image. Oh nuts, I'm already wrestling with Reviewspeak...
My main excitement comes from how 3-dimensional and present each instrument sounds when reproduced by this cartridge-like a real object of definite mass vibrating in space. All percussion instruments are far closer to the real thing than I had ever expected to hear on my home setup. Same for snappy, vibrating strings of uptight bass, and for the bite of brass instruments, for realistic blatttt of bassoon, and on and on the list goes. The Grado seems to sort the instruments out into separate entities with great aplomb-I don't mean I can "see" the soundstage and place all the instruments geographically, but that they are each distinguished acoustically from one another. (I find J. Valin's recent drawings in Fi depicting instrument locations faintly disturbing in this vein, since when I listen to music at home, I want to be caught up emotionally in the music and not try to visualize all the individual instruments in their physical positions, counting the chairs in each row. Then again, when I go to the symphony, I spend a lot of time listening with my eyes closed.....) The Platinum certainly sounds spacious. If hard pressed, I'd say the overall presentation has more volume(I mean virtual cubic feet of performance space here, not decibel level) than the other MMs I've had in my system.
Big ensemble pieces like Pictures at an Exhibition (Classic Records/RCA) and Brahms 4th (Solti, London-too damn heavy in the bass!) are more vivid and fleshed out than I have ever heard them before, with individual voices, timbres, and sonic personalities clearly expressed with a kind of quickness and speed in presentation which really increases the excitement. The biggest differences, though, are in smaller groups, which is what I listen to the most often. Among some perennial favorites;
As Long As There's Music/Charlie Haden and Hampton Hawes, in which the Haden's uptight bass sings and moans much more closely to the real thing. Action of the bow, snap of the strings, more there. Schubert's Trout Quintet(BASF) comes alive with this Grado compared to all the other times I've listened to the record. One of my best friends is a violinist in a string quartet, so I've heard this piece alot over the years. I like this version, despite a lot of tape hiss. My Foolish Heart from Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard, one of the most beautiful jazz pieces ever recorded. The brush work on the skins of the drums is so delicate, each wire seemingly captured distinct from all the others, and the vibration of the body of LaFaro's bass more full and palpable, as you might feel it on your skin sitting 15 feet from him in the actual room. In Stravinsky, L'Histoire du Soldat (Chicago Pro Musica) and Preludium for Jazz Ensemble/Ragtime for 11 Instruments (Stravinsky, on Columbia), there's more clarity of presentation, more defined presence of each player in the acoustic whole. Archie Schepp and Dollar Brand? Duet- I love the performances on this ,but never liked how the piano seems about 40 feet wide. But Schepps sax feels a lot more real with the Grado, mostly in the dynamics-he goes from soft breathy things to sudden loud honks, and this is portrayed with astonishing speed. Again, more like hearing the real instrument in front of you. Luis Bonfa and Don Burrows/Brazil(Jazzman), guitar harmonics and wood flutes presented with more richness and believability. If you like Brazilian music, this is a great album.
Some interesting changes in pop music, too. In Toto 1V, the crescendos in the song"Africa" had always been smeared together. For the first time, I could relax into the music and hear the individual elements. In Steely Dan's "AJA" the title track has always been a favorite. But Wayne Shorter's solo (about 5 minutes into the song) has also always seemed slightly too forceful, less listenable than the rest of the song. The Grado just sailed right through without detaching in any way. And the percussion instruments are deliciously rendered-especially a shaker in the left channel that I'd never even noticed before! On Third World's Rock the World album,"Love's got Me Dancing On The Floor" has more clearly defined instruments, but it's still unlistenably sibilant(I was vainly hoping the Grado would sort that out, but no such luck).
Some places where the AT-150 shines? Mostly on the older records. On records in good shape I noticed more surface noise with the Grado on lead-in grooves; on older records, I'm more aware of wear and general noise the whole time. Maybe this is because the Grado has an elliptical stylus, and the A.T.'s line-contact design is getting down into the less-injured parts of the groove? For instance, I have a well-loved Reprise LP of John Renbourn's The Lady and the Unicorn. On "Scarborough Fair" the Grado starts out making a more life-like portrait of the ensemble, but when I hit the flute part, where record is most worn (and this is the innermost track on that side, too) the worn parts are more noticeable than with the ML-150. Robbie Robertson Down By The Crazy River comes across with his voice thick and heavy with the Grado, while the AT rendered it in a more reticent way. I prefer the AT's Rendition, but I'm inclined to think that the song was mixed with too much bass energy, since in general, I prefer the timbral portraits painted by the Grado. I have noticed less difference in vocals between the two carridges, than I have in instruments, for whatever that's worth.
I really like being able to see the stylus and cantilever when I am setting the needle on a record. The Grado cantilever seems to hang down a whole quarter of an inch.,and is very easy to cue. This also makes it a breeze to use the last fibre brush to clean the stylus, since you can see what you're doing. I also like the body design, which makes it far easier to put into initial rough alignment with the protractor ( gawd, the Sumiko SHO must be impossible). You can tell the thing is hand-made, but also assembled with great care and precision-on my cartridge the cantilever and stylus are in superb alignment with the body. I found changes in VTA to be waaaay more obvious with this cartridge than with the ML-150. Maybe this means the 150 is more forgiving, but I found that when the Grado snapped into place , I really knew it was right. Like the feeling when you swing the bat and hit the baseball in exactly the right sweet spot. During the 2 years I had the 150, I kept wondering if I simply was too insensitive to hear the VTA differences-they seemed so subtle when I would raise or lower the arm by what seemed to be substantial amounts-but now I have experienced firsthand that isn't that way with all cartridges. Not that I'll be wanting to fuss with VTA-I have it in a nicely averaged setting now (tail slightly down) for playing both Classics and cheapo Dynaflexes.
The stylus guard is made out of a matching piece of mahogany with two shiny brass studs that fit into the holes in the underside of the cartridge-a very elegantly resolved way to protect the stylus, which fits in with general woody personality of the object (my wife keeps joking that I've fixed a wine cork to the end of the arm!) The mounting holes are drilled and tapped into the top of the body, right into the wood, so you use bolts without nuts. I called Grado Labs and asked them how gentle I had to be about tightening bolts into the wood. They said the mahogany had been cured and hardened after tapping, and that I could put more pressure on the bolts than I'd originally dared to use.
In closing; this is a wonderful product, and I am utterly charmed by it. I know when the rock is worn out, I will have to send it back to Grado for retipping. But I don't care!!! There is a much bigger emotional payoff for me than any of the other cartridges I've lived with whose styli were always user-replaceable(for less than purchase price of another complete cartridge). I've not been able to experience a Clavis or a Grasshopper in my own system-I'm sure they would be even more satisfying in their own particular ways. But at the level of investment that brings you a Reference Platinum($300), the performance is amazing. I also admire the whole way the Grado company seems to operate-a very high level of personal interest in their customer's satisfaction. Much human involvement in building of cartridges too, which I know leaves room for human error, but it also means each unit has to pass muster in front of caring eyeball and ear. Also, have you noticed? No fancy brochures, no ad's either-it's obvious that they put as much of their $$ into the product as they can.
Still impressed with the ML-150, but head over heels in love with the Grado.
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...