Reference Cartridge Reviews

Photo by Jones Studio Ltd.

Reference1 & Master1 Cartridges

Grado Reference 1 Moving Magnet Phono Cartridge

You shouldn't count out MM cartridges; this one is superb and has a number of advantages.
By John Sunier / AUDIOPHILE AUDITION

Intro

Ever since I graduated from an earlier Shure VR-15 many, many years ago I have been one of those typical analog audiophiles only into moving coil cartridges. I had thought they were the only truly high fidelity choice for a quality tone arm in a good turntable system, and feared problems of hum with moving magnet cartridges. Well, recently my longtime MC cartridge gave up the ghost after many years by suddenly reducing its right channel to less than half the level of the left. Research proved it not repairable and so a similar price-range cartridge to the Grado being reviewed went painfully to the trash heap.

Grado Technology

I shouldn't have had any qualms whatever about moving magnets! I am even more pleased with this flagship Grado MM cartridge than I ever was with my moving coil. There were no hum problems whatever, and the cartridge was much easier to install in my SME-V arm than I had expected. It lined up perfectly in all the parameters that are so important in setting up a phono cartridge, and I didn't need the little aluminum shim that had been required with my MC cartridge due to its smaller size. The clean flat sides and bottom of the Grado are much easier to line up properly in the arm and on the disc than was the MC cartridge. And I could now sell off my Sumiko Flux Buster demagnetizer, since moving magnets not only don't need demagnetization, but are moreover completely ruined by it! I frankly had the shakes about this whole switchover, because it had been about 15 years since I had carried out any sort of cartridge mounting or turntable setup and had forgotten most of what was involved. My concerns were of no concern with the Grado.

Grado has two lines of cartridges. The Prestige Series are the affordable designs, with a combination of metal and plastic materials plus replaceable styli. They have a grading system consisting of different colors running from Black to Gold. Grado entered the world of high-end audio with the Reference Series of wood-body MM cartridges, which like the Prestige series, have a similar grading scale for the user to select the best value for their budget and application. Each cartridge has a high tolerance nude magnet and coil assembly which is isolated from the structure. The styli cannot be replaced but can be sent in to Grado for retipping. Some of the many Reference Series cartridges are now available in either a high or low output version. The low output model would require a MC-type phono preamp to step up the voltage for a high-end line level preamp. In the case of the Reference 1 the low-output version at the same price was only .5mv whereas the high-output provided for review was 5mv. I was very thankful for Grado's choice of the high output version; I have a very long though high quality RCA cable going from my SOTA TT to my Sunfire AV preamp, and previously I had a problem of very low level interference from a local rock FM station. Now not only is the interference completely gone but the level at the AV preamp is about double what it formerly was - so much so that I need to lower levels when I am doing a comparison between a vinyl and CD/SACD version of the same recording, whereas it used to require raising the level considerably to match the digital sources.

All of Grado's cartridges use a derivation of the moving iron principle in three proprietary areas: Optimized Transmission Line cantilever technology, the Pivoted Fixed Axial Stylus-Generator Module, and the Flux-Bridger Generator System. The OTL stylus cantilever design eliminates resonances at the key junctions. All the separate sections are telescoped into one another, made of different alloys - some solid and some hollow - and then bonded together with a black material which controls and absorbs resonances that travel on the surface of the cantilever. This design makes records sound quieter and improves soundstaging and detail.

The Stylus-Generator Module brings the OTL cantilever shaft to a fixed axial pivot supporting the entire cantilever assembly. This type of support if more linear than conventional "teeter-totter" designs that balance the cantilever's mass with an iron armature. It has a very low tip mass, lowering distortion and giving longer vinyl life, and this system allows for implementing the Flux-Bridger Generator System. The latter uses four separate magnetic gaps between which the miniature element of the cantilever moves - creating an increase in flux in one gap while reducing it in the other. This highly efficient and perfectly balanced system requires fewer turns of coil than conventional designs, giving Grado cartridges lower mass and lower electrical inductance and making them insensitive to tone arm cable capacitance. Probably not many phono cartridges are actually made in the U.S. anymore, but all Grado cartridges are. They are each hand assembled and tested for frequency response, channel output, balance, phase linearity, inductance and resistance.

Listening Tests

The very first thing I noted after the much higher volume level compared to my previous MC cartridge was the reduction of LP surface noise. Even though I use a VPI LP cleaning machine and different liquid treatments, plus zapping with a MapleShade Ionoclast ion generator and treating the stylus with Last's Stylast, and even though my high-end hearing is somewhat rolled off from what it was years ago, the surface noise on certain of my older LPs has still been annoying. In setting up the VTA of the Grado cartridge I used my old standby vinyl, the original Proprius Jazz at the Pawnshop, and in particular the track Lady Be Good. There is a section near the end where when VTA is perfect the sax jumps right out at you and a "ding" that is either a cymbal or cash register rings rather than sounding damped. I've used that track a lot and it has become scratchy. With the Reference 1 it didn't sound any different from the rest of the LP - yet there was no noticeable rolling off of the extreme high end.

The third attribute of the Grado I noticed was more weight and color in the sound than I was getting with my old MC cartridge. I tried a couple A/B disc comparisons again in which I had found the audiophile CD or SACD had somewhat superior bass end support than the identical recording on vinyl. Now they matched almost perfectly with the Grado, once I adjusted levels to match. This sort of improvement makes jazz recordings sound more rhythmic and exciting. One of the comparisons I made again was the recent F.I.M. K2HD mastered directly from the Toshiba direct disc of pianist Jun Fukamachi "at Steinway." Before the two sources had sounded amazingly identical, now my actual direct disc, playing on my SOTA turntable with the Grado, pulled slightly ahead sonically, which seems to be more logical all around.

Some of the "deep mono" audiophile reissues on vinyl from Pure Pleasure sounded more realistic and involving than they ever had before, especially when I made use of the handy mono option on my Sunfire preamp - a useful feature that was missing on the previous preamp. I also really dug an old LP with Slam Stewart and Major Holley playing their double basses along with their vocalizations - one one each of the front channels. These basses were walkin' AND talkin'! (One of them sang in unison with his bass and the other one octave higher - I forget which is which - but there's absolutely no doubt listening to them.)

Other attributes I felt to be part of the Reference 1's sound were its highly detailed resolution and its outstandingly low distortion. In other comparisons I had made with identical recordings on CD or SACD there was often a high degree of similarity with the vinyl on the turntable, with perhaps a touch more "air" around the instruments in the vinyl reproduction vs. the optical disc. Now that air was still there, but in addition I was often hearing tiny details in the sound that were either not audible on the digital copy or reduced in clarity.

Summary

I have heard that some audiophiles are simply turned off by the so-called signature sound of moving magnet cartridges. After my experience with the Grado MM I don't know what they are talking about. The Reference 1 has a highly detailed, hi-res sound that is never metallic or annoying, even with poorer recordings. Neither is there the unnaturally rising high end slope of many MC cartridges. I can't imagine anyone being displeased with the sweet sound of this lovely cartridge. If you are looking for a quality cartridge, don't count out MM designs, especially this one. If your turntable system isn't quite at the level of my vacuum SOTA/SME/MapleShade-supported system, check out some of the other Reference Series models, at prices down to around $300, or the Prestige Series, running from about $60 to $220.

- John Sunier

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GRADO's The Reference Phono Cartridge

Michael Fremer / Stereophile - Analog Corner

I don't know whether it was Mrs. Nachman or Mr. Nachman, but back in the late 80's one of them took a dump on Joe Grado's head, and it wasn't pretty. But it was expected, for the Nachmans were my pet birds, and that's what bird's do when they perch on shiny domes. The Nachmans have since gone to that great birdcage in the sky, and I bet if I'd asked Joe Grado back then where he thought the cartridge business would be in 1998, he'd have said in the same general neighborhood--along with Betamax (still better, and I still use it), Elcaset, RCA Selectavision, and the rest. But I didn't ask Joe Grado about the future back then because the present was about his $200 8MZ cartridge, which I reviewed and found to have a lump in the midbass. Joe came over to convince me it didn't, and that what I'd heard was due to my setup. After moving speakers and subwoofers around and after Joe had been anointed by one of the Nachbirds, the lump remained. We called it a (messy) day. So here we are in 1998, and Grado is still in the cartridge business and doing better than ever with a new line of wooden-bodied models, the top of the line being the $1200 Reference, Grado's most expensive model ever.

Grado Reference: $1200

Even though Joe Grado invented and patented the moving coil cartridge and thus collects a royalty on every one made by anyone, his company doesn't build them. Instead, over the years Grado has specialized in moving-magnet cartridges, in which the coils are fixed between the magnetic pole pieces and a miniature generating element moves within the lines of flux created by the coil/magnet assembly ("Flux-Bridger Generator System"). There are four magnetic gaps, and as the element moves between opposing pairs, the flux increases in one while decreasing in the other.

Most cartridges use a rubber fulcrum "see-saw" type suspension: one end is the cantilever, the other a thin wire attached at the back of the motor assembly. The Grado uses a very short, low mass, self contained suspension ("Optimized Transmission Line Stylus /Cantilever"). The entire line of Grado cartridges features extremely high output; 4.8mV at 5cm/S, claimed frequency response from 10Hz to 60kHz and average channel separation of 30dB from 10Hz to 30KHz. Grado claims that the system's low inductance of 45mH (millihenrys) makes it impervious to capacitive high frequency rolloff.

The $1200 Reference is the top of wooden-bodied line, which features specially cured mahogany casings. According to John Grado (Joe's Nephew), who now oversees the company and who co-designed the new line with John Chaipis, the Reference series begins with the magnetic generating system mounted in the standard Grado plastic body, 90% of which is then carefully milled away. The rather large coils are then mounted and potted to the chasis using three different damping materials. According to Grado, whereas in previous designs there were 43 parts having 43 different resonant frequencies, in the Reference series all parts are potted (the cantilever assembly is also bonded into place and is not removable), thus damping the entire cartridge. Finally, the assembled cartridge is glued into the cured wooden body, which further damps and/or tunes the system.

The Reference and the Master ($800) use a five-piece cantilever assembly of very low mass, and ultra-high-purity, long crystal, oxygen-free copper coil wire. The Master model is fitted with a nude elliptical diamond, the Reference uses a true ellipsoid tip. All parts used in the Master and Reference models are finished in-house and polished to an extremely high tolerance. Final assembly is by hand.

The Reference is the finest fixed-coil cartridge I've ever heard, and one of the finest-sounding cartridges I've ever heard especially in the midrange----regardless of design. But it does have a few frustrating quirks: The distance between the stylus tip and the threaded mounting holes is such that getting the overhang correct in the Graham arm required me to literally force the cartridge to the very back of the headshell mounting slots. Even then, the stylus tip was slightly too far forward for proper overhang. Since the Graham is properly "Spec'd" and since every other cartridge I've used with it fits comfortably somewhere midway in the slots, the Grado is clearly "off-spec." So make sure it's compatible with your arm before buying, or make sure you can return it you can't achieve proper overhang.

Another frustration is the pitch thread of the mounting holes drilled into the wooden body. While the rest of the industry seems to have standardized this, allowing you to use your choice of cartridge mounting hardware, Grado's nonstandard pitch requires you to use the supplied slotted screws. Not a major problem, but a minor annoyance.More serious was the cartridge's (all Grados' actually) susceptibility to induced motor noise. When the cartridge got close to the center of a record, which brings it close to the motor on many turntables (Regas, VPI 19, etc.) I heard hum through the speakers, though this was well masked by most music. If your motor is outboard, no problem. Most Rega owners I've spoken with who've installed Grados (mostly the $300 Reference Platinum) can live with the hum.

There's one other problem: The underdamped, high compliance suspension, while making the Reference a superb tracker---better than any MC I've ever auditioned----made the cantilever oscillate wildly on the lead-in grooves of many records that presented no problems for lower compliance cartridges. When records are pressed, the hot vinyl biscuit is spread from the center outward. By the time the vinyl reaches the outer area of the stamper, it has begun to harden, especially with improperly pressed 180gm records (many of the recent German-pressed WEAs, for example), which take longer for the vinyl to spread. While the record looks flat, under illumination you can see a surface oscillation that causes the Grados to go wild. While I never experienced audible tracking problems, woofers pumped and watts were waste, it wasn't a pleasant sight. Perhaps a low mass arm like the Infinity Black Widow or the Grace 707 could tame this, but who's using them today? Once you're in an inch or so from the edge of the LP, the problem goes away.

That said, the Reference was unlike any Grado I've ever heard. The midbass hump was gone, for one thing. For another, The Reference's reproduction of the leading edge of low-frequency information, and it's overall portrayal of bass dynamics and pitch, were the best I've heard from any cartridge: solid powerful, authorative. And the Grado scored over 90% in the all important midrange: rich, complex, believable. String sound was glorious, male and female vocals sounded right. Plush and "cushiony" it was a midrange sound I just sank into and didn't want to leave. The strings on Nat Cole's Love is the Thing just sang!

The Reference produced a believable soundstage, with outstanding width and very fine depth, though height was slightly low. On the Belafonte album, when he asks the balconies to sing on "Matilda" I couldn't hear it coming from the heights. The Grado delivered transients and instrumental textures with suitable speed and appropriate grit, giving them body and three dimensionality.

With its high output and outstanding tracking ability, the Grado offered a sense of ease and control over wide dynamic swings that made listening a relaxing yet rewarding experience. Music exploded from a quiet, velvety backdrop, rendering low-level details much like the finer moving-coils.

My biggest complaint about the Reference's sound was about the top, where it could sound a bit less refined than some other, mostly more expensive cartridges. Part of the problem probably lay with the less than perfect alignment I was able to achieve. Using the Graham-specific Wallytractor, I noted that, as the stylus traveled across the record, it moved slightly forward of the minimum tracking error arc scribed onto the device. Unfortunately, I could not move the cartridge any farther back in the headshell.

I played Joni Mitchell's Blue straight through---both sides, then. Listening to her voice, her guitar and piano, the timbres, textures, images, and subtle dynamic shifts in music, and especially the overall picture the Grado painted, I asked myself what more I might want from what I heard. The answer was "Very little." Mitchell's physical presence between the speakers was spooky---not as a reproduced "voice" but as a living, breathing person. The guitar sound perfectly blended the transient of the string pluck and the excitation of the wooden body.

The Grado didn't unravel transient information or present the fine crystalline details of air and space like the better moving-coils, but what it did in the middle was so pure and right, and what it did on bottom so dynamic and note perfect (if not the last word in low-bass extension), I found myself listening to record after record long after I should have stopped to start writing this.

I believe John Grado when he says that, while he anticipated selling a total of about 1000 cartridges of the four model Reference line, he's sold over 5000, mostly the least expensive $300 Platinum and the most expensive Reference.

Stereophile Vol.21 No.3

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Top Grades to Grado

by Larry Brotzen / UltimateAudio - GRADO's "The Reference" Moving Iron Cartridge

The package containing Grado's "The Reference" moving iron cartridge comes with a special surprise inside. New, out of the box, the cartridge's sound is nothing out of the ordinary. Well, gentle friend, be prepared for what happens after some twenty hours of playing. If you love the sound of moving magnet and moving iron cartridges, then your in for the treat of your life! Once The Reference completely opens it's throat to sing, it's performance will astonish you. Grado's Reference combines the smooth, relaxed response of its genre with the stunning spatial resolution and transparency of its moving coil brethen. In short, The Reference's performance will stun you and forever change your perception of the sound of moving magnet or moving iron cartridges.

GOING TO SCHOOL

Earlier this year, I was discussing the relative merits of some phono preamplifier stages with Harry Weisfeld of VPI. Weisfeld in passing mentioned about an interesting new cartridge from Grado Labs. So I called John Grado for more information on their new ultimate Reference series of moving iron cartridges. Grado explained that the Reference Series was exclusively distributed in Europe for the past year or so. After adding a specially selected mahogany wood body and further refining the moving magnet design, they decided to market the product in North America. At $1200. The Reference is Grado's top of the line model in their reference series of cartridges.

John Chaipis, one of The Reference's designers, remembers with some fondness, the trials and tribulations encountered by the design team. Chaipis and Grado spent a great deal of research and development time until they were able to create the sound they heard in their heads(and without sample to sample variation).Their ultimate goal was a cartridge that persuasively conveys the naturalness , intensity and purity of live music. The Reference was specifically designed to mimic the sound of live music and in particular, the human voice. This philosophy was originally the vision of Joseph Grado, an opera singer, and the company's founder.

Chaipis explained that one of the secrets to the sound of The Reference cartridge is the use of optimized transmission line technology or OTL. This means that the cantilever consists of five separate sections (in The Reference) telescoped into each other. According to Chaipis, "a cartridge is subjected to microphonics." The signal travels along the cantilever creating what he calls ëskin noise" .To address this problem, Chaipis created a cantilever where the first forty percent of the cantilever consists of a regular tube inserted into a second tube. The second tube functions as a noise blocker" Grado repeats this procedure several more times in order to further reduce "skin noise". Finally, this composite aluminum and brass material is inserted into a brass shank connected to the cartridge's generator. To further refine The Reference's performance, Grado and Chaipis chose a specially designed low mass, true ellipsoid diamond.

DOING HOMEWORK

Possibly The Reference's strongest suit is its ability to drive any phono section. The cartridge's robust 4.5 mV output is especially good news for tube buffs. No more tube rush and loss of dynamics that often accompanies the use of low output moving coils! Simply connect your arm to the moving magnet stage and set your loading to 47K. The performance of The Reference was insensitive to capacitive loads up to 220 pF. The Klyne, Joule Electra and conrad johnson Premier 15 phono stages that saw action with the Grado were becoming companions. Even a short pit stop with the Jadis JP8OMC proved a happy marriage.

The Reference is not excessively sensitive to VTF, VTA or azimuth. Nevertheless, the cartridge's sound will benefit from a little extra attention to detail. Set the VTF at 1.8 grams, give or take a smidgen, and you'll be in heaven in about 24 hours. Azimuth was pretty much straight up and down (vertical) with almost no need to for adjustment. Drop the rear of the cartridge to a few degrees and voila, beautiful music. Do remember to keep the stylus guard when not using the cartridge because the cantilever is permanent, not removable like most moving iron cartridges!

PASSING THE FINAL EXAM

The Reference can be best described as having a poise and refinement that few cartridges possess. It's like appreciating a beautiful rose bloom. As you get closer to the flower, you suddenly become aware not only of it's visual beauty, but it's softness and scent. As you become more familiar with this cartridge, you not only appreciate its performance, but become more aware of the music's splendor. In Edgar's Wand Youth"(EMI ESD 7068) you are drawn into the pageantry of the "Dancing Bear" movement. You hear an expansive soundstage populated with scintillating woodwinds and strings punctuated at the rear of the stage by a shimmering tambourine and the thunder of the lumbering bass drum. In comparison to current ultimate cartridges, The Reference's low frequencies were very good but lacked the deepest extension and definition.

This cartridge differs from van den Hul's Black Beauty(at $5000) and other moving coils in its inimitable singing quality. It isn't that one is right and the other is wrong. Rather each is an alternative version of the music. If you were to ponder the wonders of David Oistrakh performing Mozart's Third Violin Concerto (Testament Records EMI ASD 2304), you'd be astonished, as was I, by the utterly sumptuous tone and singing portamento of his violin. This Testament reissue recaptures a golden moment in recording history and The Reference helps recreate that magical moment. What distinguishes The Reference from the other transducers is it's ability to recapture the ephemeral liquidity of Oistrakh's violin. The music is unforced and seems to have intrinsic naturalness to it's flow. Perhaps, things are a little sweeter than real life-but only in the sense that a singer with a naturally beautiful voice makes everything they sing sound beautiful.

You'll never guess, of course, that The Reference was especially adept in it's rendering of the human voice. Witness the classic Record's reissue of Ella Fitzgerald's Let No Man Write My Epitaph (Classic Records Verve V6 4043.) Compare for instance, Ella's renditions of "Black Coffee" with "Misty". You can easily discern the different miking patterns and perspectives of each track. Yet, this is undeniably Ella's voice, complete with all the dulcet sweet and quivering overtones. The single piano accompaniment keeps in line with direct and poetic renditions offered here. This disc's collections of ballads are a sure fire winner on a quiet evening at home.

Another very special vocal treat is the recent reissue of Ray Charles and Betty Carter (DDC LPZ 2005). This Duo's rendition of Baby, It's Cold Outside" is pure peaches and Cream. I cannot recall ever being so entranced by the sheer beauty of the interplay of these two exquisite voices. The sly and seductive insinuations are so delightfully communicated as to make you wish the music would never end. You forget your reviewing a cartridge and, before you know it, the record's over. This is what The Reference does best - it disappears.

Now, I would never claim that this transducer has the resolution of a Black Beauty or some other moving coils on the market. Still, The Reference retrieves a good portion of the information of the record groove. You are not really aware that anything is missing, so seductively is the sonic web woven. Your perspective here is more natural without any artificial highlighting, yet with enough detail to keep you enthralled. You do not hear the etched outline of instrumental images that is so popular nowadays. The difference is that the images are a bit softened even maybe more closely approximating the concert hall sound. The soundstage is slightly darkened, in the way a theater's lights are dimmed to heightened the theatrical event.

Part of what is unusual about The Reference is that it is the first moving iron or magnet in my experience that throws soundstage as huge and realistic as the best moving coils. Whether using my own modified MBL 101s or the von Schweikert VR-8s, I experienced an immense soundfield, extending far beyond the side and rear walls of my listening room. Take for example, Classic Record's reissue of The Pines Of Rome (RCA LSC 2436). You are confronted with an immense soundstage. About the only quality missing is that cushion of air surrounding each section of the orchestra.

THE REPORT CARD

Grado's The Reference is the first moving iron cartridge with the credentials to compete with todays finest moving coil cartridges. Other cartridges may offer slightly better resolution or are less forgiving but the Grado was always welcome in my listening systems. If you are shopping, looking for a cartridge that will satisfy your musical cravings and your equipment, Grado's The Reference is for you. No other moving iron or magnet cartridge has provided me with more musical enjoyment!

UltimateAudio Vol.1 No.2

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A Study in Analogical Delight

By: Charles Hollander / POSITIVE FEEDBACK - GRADO's New Master Reference Cartridge:

In the never ending quest for the most Dudely vinyl front-end, over the years I have owned, swapped, bought and sold a small fortune's worth of phonograph cartridges, moving coil step up devices, tone arms, head shells, turntables, platter pads, interconnecting cables, record cleaning machines, dust bugs, LP treatments, DIN plugs, variously plated RCA jacks, wiring harnesses, fluxbusters, stylus cleaners, etc. I wouldn't admit my addiction to anyone other than a fellow audio Dude or Dudeen. Only brothers on the quest, readers of Positive Feedback, would understand the audio lust one can develop for, say, a pair of coaxial cables that might optimize your phono rig. I must have them! Cable madness; or to use the Latinate form, Dementia Coax!

Recovering from a nearly terminal bout of Dementia, I was saved when CD's appeared. No longer did I have to balance the various sonic thumbprints of turntable, cartridge, tone arm, tone arm wires, interconnects, RCA jacks and plugs, step-up devices, cartridge overhangs, azimuth, rake angle, etc. (my personal Zen koan, an unsolvable puzzle, the working at which might nudge me closer to Enlightment). CD's eliminated all those Audio Zen concerns in one swell foop. Cartridge manufacturers freely admit IM and THD distortions generated by their best cartridges are way higher than all amplifiers, So I got on the CD bandwagon.

My vinyl quest ended with a VPI turntable and an Osaka Mat, with a pooged Souther Tri-Quartz linear tracking arm, and a variety of cartridges. Recently I re-wired my Souther with audiophile tone-arm wires, and I installed gold-plated -directly to-copper RCA female connectors, for which I was rewarded with a significant overall improvement. The souther arm, being so low in mass, performs best with supertracking cartridges (tracing even the subtlest grooves with such exquisite delicacy that most moving coils can't come close), so mostly I used top-of-the-line fixed coil type.(I'd been through a moving coil phase with more massive tone arms). Though the souther is not without its quirks, it is great on all but the most badly warped LP's.

The CD revolution raised the bar for the whole industry, challenging speaker and electronics designer-Dudes to measure up to a new standard of excellence. And they have. Surprisingly, its true for the cartridge -designer-Dudes too, though I haven't been listening to cartridges, not being as into it as I once was. For ten years I've been on a vinyl vacation. So it came as quite a revelation to hear the latest Grado cartridge in my rig. After tweaking the Grado into alignment I was converted. The soundstage got wide and deep on Dire Straits "Private Investigations" from their Love Over Gold" album(Warner Bros, 1982); and on the Grand Prix du Disque winning Mahler's Third (Unicorn, 1970) Jascha Horenstein and the London Symphony Orchestra, the sound was gloria in excelcis.

The bass of the Grado cartridge is notable; it is so right (timbre, pitch, pace,) that you might think its exaggerated, but not for silent passages. Usually I hear some cutting lathe sound--You know, Dude, that low-frequency whoosh on lead-in and cut out grooves. If a turntable has any bearing problems, or failure to isolate feedback, whoosh becomes WHOOSH, and whoosh is where all those flaws might show up; lead -in or cut-out. On well made records my VPI HW-19 turntable shines inky black, darkness visible dead quiet. (Audio TRIVIA?) Who said; The only good turntable is a dead turntable!" And the Grado is just as dead quiet; meaning it doesn't exaggerate bass on silent grooves. It has great "low-level bass resolution". It easily reproduces the differences between total silence and muffled bass drum (particularly it's decay in Mahler Third) an ability many stylus assemblies get too excited to do well. That is a key indicator of a Dudely cartridge---fast settling.

John Grado (Founder Joe's Nephew) claims the secret of the new Mahogany clad line of (technically, moving iron) cartridges is in miniturization and potting; three layer epoxy potting to help stifle resonances of the forty-three discrete parts that make up the coils, magnets, cartridge body, etc. (for minimal physical resonances); and miniaturization of the stylus assembly to reduce it's mass, thus raising it's resonances beyond the audio band (for cleaner and more extended high frequency response). Another benefit of miniaturization is that fast settling styli recover from large and small displacements very quickly, making cleaner transients. The Grado's are probably faster than moving coils because they don't have to drag the excess mass (coils fitted to the end of the cantilevers) through the movement of inertia. Miniaturization also reduces the output of the Master Reference from the 4.0 millivolts of the older Grado's to a less brash 1.6 millivolts---a large change, but not one that requires a step-up device. You can still play the Grado straight through any standard phono stage. John Grado claims the new Master Reference's measured response is from 10 Hz to 60k Hz. Pretty impressive: wide band, fast, clean and non-resonant.

I haven't the test equipment to verify or disprove claims for bandwidth and crosstalk (-30db) specs; that's why this review is only a thumbnail sketch. I did notice that with some of my interconnect cables, the high end seemed a little too laid back for me.

I've found that cables come in about three different voicings. Some are laid back, back of the hall, as if they had group-delay designed in, and are often prescribed for overly bright CD players. Some are brighter, front of the hall, as if they were very low-loss and time coherent, and are often prescribed to counter rolled off "too tubey" sound. Then they are the mid-halls, or medium cables---variations in between laid back and up front. The Grado Master Reference seems pretty cable responsive, so you can voice it to your taste and system.

In my somewhat warm big rig, I've found "up-front" cables sound best with the Grado, allowing its dynamics to bloom and high frequencies to soar. With low-loss cables from tone arm to preamp, the Grado Master Reference retrieves all I ever heard any cartridge get from vinyl, including those costing even seven to ten times as much. The bass is as in most previous Grado's BIG without BOOM, and able to retrieve low-level detail. The highs approach the best moving coils in airiness and delicacy, without ever sounding etched. There is .. NO TIZZ. The midranges are just plain DROPDEAD GORGEOUS.

With other cartridges, regardless of price, the female voice has often become screechy and harsh reaching up for the big loud note. Female voices have ,at last, found a cartridge that flatters. Soloists, duets, choirs; it doesn't matter; the Grado won't shatter. It also sails unperturbed through all my hard to track cartridge-buster.

Demo-discs. Altos, mezzos, Sopranos Coloratures; bring'em on Dude. Similarly, Tenors Baritones, and bassos. Solo violins, harpsichords, bluegrass banjos, bass drums, tympani, cymbals, synthesizers and all those instruments that would get cartridges over-excited without proper braking horsepower, or proper damping, or proper materials; bring them onto. The Grado will do them proud.

As concerns the other performance parameters - freedom from grit and grain, clarity, spatiality, musicality - the Grado Master Reference has all the right stuff, all first class. The current Grado may represent a new performance plateau. It's the best moving iron cartridge I've ever heard, and it's making a stir among those who Know. It may be as subtle as the best moving coils, but I haven't A/B auditioned it against each of the contenders in my big rig, so I can't say. It's got to be close. I can say, if your into vinyl, and Lady singers in particular - Diana Krall to Kiri Te Kawana - do your ears a favor and audition the new Grado. The Grado has ended my vinyl vacation: let it end yours.

POSITIVE FEEDBACK Vol.8 No.1

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The Absolute Sound - The Grado Reference Cartridge

The Grado Reference is a great cartridge. It is the cartridge I will take into the twilight of analogue. It could well be the last - and the best - cartridge you will ever buy. Here are the reasons.
By: Adam Walinsky

Start to judge a component by it's quality of resolution, the ability to separate sounds from each other. Resolution is what Richard Brown listens for when he designs his BEL amplifiers, which are still the best I have heard. Here is Brown's Law; Equipment is capable of smearing, confusing, or otherwise distorting two different sounds. Thus a speaker may mute a loud bass note, making it sound like a softer one; the intended dynamic contrast is lost. Or an amplifier may layer the entire orchestra with sweet chocolate; there is no apparent difference between one woodwind and another, or between a violin and a viola. Many components demonstrate how easy it is to impose a signature sound on the music.

But whatever distortion is imposed by a component necessarily tends toward informality: Distortion makes different sounds alike. Conversely, it is not possible for any component to make two like sounds seem different. The best, the most accurate, a component can be, is to preserve the differences that already exist. An audio component or system cannot create, between two musical sounds, more of a difference than was created when the instruments first set the air about them to vibrating.

Therefore says Brown, the way to use our most sensitive measuring devices--Our ears--is to listen for the sharpest difference between notes, between instruments, between voices. The greatest differences will mark the most accurate reproducing equipment. This is true for tonality, for harmonics, for dynamic contrast and shading; the more internal differences, the greater accuracy.

The Grado Reference has spectacular resolution. Carissimi's Jonas and Baltazar with the Liszt Ferenc Academy Chamber Choir and Corelli Chamber Orchestra (Hungarton SLPX 12059) are unearthly recordings: With the Grado, you are not only conscious of each individual voice in the small choir; you can hear the singers singing. You hear their breath, the shape of their mouths, the roll of the tongue off the palate. The performance, the music itself, become far more personal and direct an experience.

Another example; Most concerto recordings, played over most systems, give you a reasonably good idea of the dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. But the great concerti aren't simple dialogues; they are full of other voices, as in the counterpointing solo cello, and the softly plucked strings in the finale of Beethoven's G Major piano concerto. In the concert hall we hear all of this without strain or effort; it's just there. With most home systems, those voices are muted, and if you don't listen very carefully, they disappear. The Reference lays it all out before you, which can directly contribute to enjoyment of the music.

Mozart wrote his concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, KV 365, to be played by him with his sister, and it's charm depends on the dialogue between the two pianos, in which the pupil repeatedly mimics the master. My record is by Emil Gilels with his daughter Elena (DG 2530 456), Their playing is captivating, but is easy to lose track of who is playing when. The Grado's resolution keeps them clear and separate, and the piece retains it's meaning.

One aspect of resolution is microdynamics, the clear differentiation of delicate nuance. The playing of Wilhelm Kempff, rooted in the old European tradition, relied for it's tremendous strength and expressiveness on a great range of tonal and dynamic shadings. With the Reference, quiet passages of Mozart's Piano Concerto No.23, K. 488 (DG2535 204), were lambent every nuance of the piano set against the delicacy of the winds and the pluck of strings. The better the playing, it seems, the more it benefits from good equipment that preserves the most delicate of shadings. Listen at low levels, and you are sure to hear subtle instrumental passages that you have missed before, even in the best known pieces.

The Grado's resolution may be due to the central design principle of the Reference Series; The entire mechanism is potted. From the $1200 Reference down to the $300 Reference Platinum, every cartridge in the line is immersed in three different epoxies in a proprietary process, and then put in a wood body,. From that point, no further work can be done on the interior of the cartridge. The stylus can be retipped, but it cannot be replaced. John Grado says that before this process, each of the cartridge's 43 parts had it's own resonant frequency: now, to the extent that any resonant survives the potting process, it's all one. This may explain the Reference's observed resolution, which is another way of describing the absence of masking or coloration.

The second characteristic by which to judge audio components is tonal character. The best of all audio experiments, to be conducted by any audiophile, was devised by HP a few years ago. Go to a live concert, he suggested, and listen to the orchestra as if it were a sound system. If you do that, your first overwhelming impression will be that, compared with any home system, the frequency spectrum of live music is shifted dramatically lower. There is a palpable solidity to the foundation laid down by the basses and cellos. At the other end, there are no screeching highs, no stainings trebles. The sound is comparably more full and rich than we are used to hearing in audio, a sound I had never a home system imitate to any plausible degree. To be faithful to this sound, a component requires great strength in the bass, and a complete absence of strain or stridency in the treble.

This closely describes the tonal character of the Reference. Putting this cartridge into your system is likely to add substantial weight and color to your sound, which makes it much more like the real thing. This is not a distorting overlay; the cymbals and flutes don't thicken. But on the Beethoven Fourth of Klemperer and the Philharmonia (Angel H-3619), I heard the cellos in the fourth movement for the first time. Similarly, because the continuo was richer than ever before, Laudate II(proprius 7860) also took on a new and truer shape.

Getting the bass right can also mean letting the rhythm come through, and the Reference does. Plucked strings are the rhythmic foundation of Mozart's Symphony 27 (who ever thought that jazz invented the walking bass?) My record is by Schroder with the Academy of Ancient Music (L'Oiseau-Lyre 414-472), and the trust of the beat as revealed by the Reference gives piece tremendous drive and momentum.

The same drive comes through in Bach cantatas like "Gott Soll Allein Mein Herze Haben," BWV 169 (Nonesuch H-71256). To hear the cello, double-bass and organ swelling up behind the great basso Jakob Stampfli or the tenor Theo Altmeyer is to feel all the joy with which Bach worshipped the Lord.

Almost all my recordings of the cantatas are on Nonesuch, which leased German recordings of the 1960's. These are not sonic spectaculars; they are not even good. But the Reference makes them sound like music, giving vibrancy and even beauty to the sound.

This points to the third great characteristic of the Reference; it has outstanding low distortion. I regard conventional steady-state distortion measurements as of limited utility at best. The complexity of musical waveforms seems to open the way for distortions too difficult for existing measurements. So any number of high-priced moving coils supplied by their manufacturers with response curves of utter flatness, in fact distort actual music horribly, covering it with a pressure layer of high-frequency sharpness. Such distortions may be hard for machines to pick out, but our ears can hear them too well. Moreover distortions appear to be additive in their effects.

That is, take a bad record, and play it with a distorting cartridge. The painful result will seem more than twice as bad as either alone. But play the same record with the Reference, and the distortion seems almost to vanish.

The Reference's outstanding tonal character allows it to portray the violin with such accuracy and conviction. Another finding of the HP experiment---listening to the orchestra as if it were a sound system--is that the violin is the most difficult of all instruments to reproduce. Heard live, the violin is clear and full of character, the string, the bow, and the rosin all palpable; easy to see why it has been the mainstay of the orchestra from its first invention. The process of recording and reproduction, however, seems to hone and sharpen the violin, leaving behind an edge of pure steel. A real violin sounds closer to a cello than it does to a violin portrayed by most of our systems. These effects are magnified by close miking; so even on a marvelous recording like McGegan's Mozart Horn Concertos with Lowell Greer on Natural Horn (HMU 7012), the violins played in most systems are painfully steely, sharp, and thin. Only with the Reference have I heard these violins sound naturally warm.

Lovers of top-end moving coils renowned for their purity may find the Reference, at first hearing, to give a softer sound than they have been used to. I would urge them to listen to the violins on any of McGegan's fine HMU recordings---the Mozart, Corelli's Concerti Grossi, Handel's Water Music. If the violins can play reasonably loud without a steely edge, fine; but if, as I suspect, they will seem to lack texture and body, if their "purity" cuts like a razor--why then, trade up to the Reference.

So forget the demonstration records, the cannon shots, massed horns, and thunderous drums. The purpose of great systems, after all, is to better hear great music. Get out the 1960's Angels Of Klemperer and the Philharmonia (like the Mozart Symphonies 31 and 34, S-36216), or the Nonesuch Bachs, the Columbia Louis Armstrongs, the Italian Quartet's Beethoven and Mozart on Philips. These great performances have until now been obscured, almost crippled by distorted sound. With this cartridge, they are almost pure joy.

Is it perfect? Of course not. The many inherent distortions of the vinyl process, recording and playback, can be lessened but never eliminated. At a less comical level, the Reference requires warm-up. Each time you begin a listening session, it must play at least two sides before the cantilever relaxes and the magic is full apparent.

The Grado Reference cost $1200. Retipping, which Grado says should take place over 3,000 hours is $800. It is a great bargain, and I would take it over any number of cartridges I have heard that sell up to five times its price. If you are planning to spend $700 or $7,000 for a cartridge, you owe it to yourself to listen to the Grado Reference. Indeed if you are planning to listen to records ever again, you should hear this cartridge. In the present state of the art, this is as good as it gets.

- Adam Walinsky

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The GRADO Reference Phono Cartridge

By Frank Doris /Fi Magazine

I'll get right to the point: Grado's "The Reference" is a superb phono cartridge. If you're looking for an outstanding high-output device suitable for use with a moving-magnet phono stage, "The Reference" will take you to analog playback heaven. It's one of the finest phono cartridges I've ever heard.

Grado's "The Reference" is the top-of-the-line cartridge in Grado Laboratories' recently-introduced Reference Series of relatively affordable fixed-coil cartridges, ranging from the $300 Reference Platinum to the $1200 Reference- "The cartridge so nice they named it twice", as Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio puts it. Like all Reference Series cartridges, it features a wood body to combat resonances (looks handsome, too), tracks at around 1.5 grams (and tracks like a mother, sailing through the Shure TTR 101 trackability test record), is relatively non-fussy regarding VTA (mine is a few thousandths of an inch lower than parallel to the record surface), loads at 47k, is insensitive to capacitive load, and puts out a robust 4mV of out-put into an MM phono input.

The Grado incorporates a number of novel features, such as an "Optimized Transmission Line" cantilever constructed from separate sections made of different materials fitted into one another to combat resonances, and a miniature generating element attached to the end of the cantilever that moves between four separate magnetic flux gaps, creating an increase in flux in one gap while reducing it in the other to generate the musical signal. The design requires fewer coil turns than the other cartridge designs, allowing the Reference series cartridges greater response with lower mass (as well as other advantages). "The Reference" needs about 20-40 hours of break-in before it performs at it's best - it mellows out and gets richer and more open - although make no mistake, it's impressive out of the box.

But as we know, in high-end components, numbers and specs don't exactly tell the tale, do they? Here is the tale:

For decades, Grado's have been recommended by audiophiles as the cartridges of choice for people who want to make the leap from run-of-the-mill generic phono cartridges to high quality phono playback at a modest cost (Today's lowest price Grado, The Prestige Black, will set you back a whopping $40). Grado's of the past have always enjoyed a reputation for delivering highly musical and enjoyable sound, albeit with a pleasant warmth and richness along with abundant, if not state-of-the-art moving-coil-like detail and frequency extension. The Reference Series is Grados effort to build upon the strengths of previous classic (and make no mistake, they are classic) Grado designs and improve them.

The Grado "The Reference" succeeds brilliantly. First and foremost, it's tonal balance is to my ears, near-perfect. Some moving coil cartridges can sound a bit lean, especially if the associated equipment leans, excuse me, in that direction. Not this Grado. Yet neither is it overly plump, like many previous Grado designs. Midrange tonality is spot-on and the bass, especially the midbass, is among the best I've heard from any cartridge in terms of presence, dynamic punch, tightness, and harmonic integrity. The upper midrange is remarkably clear and detailed - on records such as Tal Farlow's Cookin' on All Burners (Concord Jazz CJ-204) or Selling England By The Pound by Genesis (The Famous Charisma Label CAS 1074), cymbals that previously sounded like a wash of undifferentiated sounds resolve into individual instruments, each to their own distinct struck-metal character and harmonic signature.

As you might expect from a high-output cartridge, high-level dynamics are outstanding. If you like to listen to rock music and are listening for a cartridge that delivers the perfect combination of power and finesse, your search can end here. The other day, I was listening "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" from Blue Oyster Cult's Agents of Fortune (Columbia PC 34164) and I was amazed to hear hitherto-undetected cowbells, guiros, and other percussion instruments in the mix amidst the roaring guitars and thundering drums and bass - all in perfect proportion. The cartridge simply excels at keeping individual vocal and instrumental sounds separate in their proper place in the soundstage, even in the most complex, densely orchestrated musical passages. Plus, fine musical detail is resolved with absolutely no sense of that over-etched quality you hear with some moving coils. On the other hand, the Grado does not homogenize or gloss over the sound of a record - if the recording is a Superdisc, it'll sound like one, but if it's too bright, it's glare'll be mercilessly exposed. If the recording has a soundstage, you'll hear it in proper proportion; if it's flat, it won't be rendered with any sense of artificial enhancement (too much "L minus R as some might say).

Even considering these impressive sonic attributes, the most noteworthy (pun intended) attribute of this most excellent cartridge is it's ability to render the distinct timbres of instruments and vocals with - I don't take this phrase lightly - astonishing veracity. At times, instruments sound so real it's scary. You know how you sometimes jump when you hear a sound on a record that momentarily fools you into thinking it's "there". That happens alot with "The Reference". Whether it's a sharp transient-type sound like the pluck of a nylon string guitar, or the crack of a snare drum, or an instrumental with more gradual attack such as a slowly-swelling synch (down, boy!), instruments are delineated with uncanny, and I mean, uncanny realism. This makes for thrilling listening experiences; the interplay among the many different types of acoustic and electric instruments - woodwinds, acoustic and electric guitars, marimbas, multiple harmony vocals, tenor saxophones, and much more - on Gentle Giant's In A Glass House (WWA 002) was rendered in spectacular fashion. Whether I was listening to female vocals, tenor saxophones, grand pianos slapped electric bass, or you name it, it was a pleasure to simply revel in the sound of the instruments.

O.K. Is this the best cartridge in the world? What's the catch? Well, "The Reference" doesn't have the ultra-ultra resolution, in terms of detail, low level dynamics, and the very tail end of a note's decay, which so many moving-coil cartridges have. If your looking for the ultimate in this sonic regard, I'm afraid your gonna have to spend alot more than "The Reference's" $1200 price tag. Also if the gain of your preamp or phono stage accommodates moving coil cartridges only, the 4mV "The Reference" will be unusable. Let's keep this in perspective, though: if the best moving coils get, say, 98 percent of what's on the disc, in my estimation "The Reference" brings back around 92 percent or so. That said, the overall sonic presentation is so good that I don't ever get any sense of "missing" anything in the music - the Grado "The Reference" is that well balanced.

If your analog playback system is set up for a moving-magnet-gain-level cartridge, you simply must hear what "The Reference" can do. Mine now sings and rocks and grooves and stomps and seduces and caresses and thrills. In fact, I can think of any higher compliment to pay Grado's "The Reference" than to say nowadays I simply love listening to records.

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The Grado Reference Master & Platinum Cartridges

By Jeffrey Silverstein / Positive Feedback

If you read my review of the Welborne Laurel 300B's, you know I'm a sap for wood. Picture these walnut monoblocks, AR turntable and veneered Klipsch Heresies, not to mention six or eight guitars, and you want to make sure Silverstein doesn't deplete any old growth forests in pursuit of his music. So you wouldn't have lost the bet if you'd have wagered I'd be hot to hear Grado's hand made mahogany moving magnets. Since I've been quite fond of their earlier $180 Z1+ and know it well, I thought it would be informative to step up the ladder and see how the Grados sound at higher price points.

Having seen positive notices on the $300 Grado Reference Platinum, I guessed it would be a fair upgrade, and so I spoke with John Grado. Nephew of the legendary Joe Grado, John presides over the business, claimed to be the oldest family-run enterprise in audio today. John started in the family business as a young teenager. Did he care that I was going to listen to his baby on a 28-year-old AR with the well-criticized original arm? No. In fact he asked whether I would like to hear the Platinum's more expensive sibling. "But I'm using this old turntable, with an arm all the snobs hold their noses at — how could I possibly hear the difference?" John was confident that I would, and shipped off the Platinum, and the 2.6 times the price tag Reference Master ($800).

If you know the old AR XA, you're familiar with its hard-to-find plastic headshell. I reasoned that a good process would be to mount the Grados each in its own shell. Easier said than done. Eric LeWinter at Lyle Cartridges said "Jeff you're going to have a problem." I thought he was talking about the well-known hum concerns in using Grados with the AR, and told him that by using George Merrill's recommended ground wire on the AR my Z1+ wasn't humming. But Eric was referring to the fact that the wood Grados have top holes and couldn't mount to the AR shells, which only take screws from the bottom. A short chat with Grado's John Chapis, who happens to have 3 AR tables, solved the problem. Chapis would drill through the plastic top of the AR headshells, and voila. My AR is on Tall Tiptoes, with a Ringmat, and now on a Mana Acoustics Reference Table.

I'm never sure what any of these words like Reference, Statement, Signature, and even Entry Level mean. Whether they're Gordon Holtisms or Pearsonisms, or have crept into language as a sort of caste system, who cares. Steve Sullivan mentioned that Joe Grado had told him he was the first user of the "signature" moniker. To me a designer makes a Statement in every product he or she creates, at any price point. The $40 Grado cartridges and $50 headphones are as much a Statement as stuff at the top of the line, and from a consumer point of view, perhaps a bigger one. The word "reference" has been so overused and diluted from multiple meanings, that I suggested that David Robinson convene a roundtable to figure out what it means, or should mean.1 So I'm not worried about what the cartridges are called, but how they sound.

To "break in" the Grado Master Reference I put on Karl Munchinger's 1965 St. Matthew's Passion (OSA 1431), a mint London Stereo ffrr. What I heard wasn't Bach, it was the Voice of God. Not the Voice of God of Ravi Shankar and Allah Rakha, or La Fernanda de Utrera singing por Soleares, or even Charlie Parker or Jimi or Robert Johnson. I heard an angelic cathedral of sound of such sublime sonority and purity that it hurt. 8 sides later...

As a rookie reviewer and one who sometimes looks at the vocabulary of audio reviewing much like Groucho said to Margaret Dumont, "Say, you haven't stopped talking since you got here; you must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle," I don't have lots of reviewer-speak for the Grados. But as a storyteller I prefer to use analogy. Have you ever tried to figure out what Rickie Lee Jones is singing? I mean, even with the album cover lyrics in your lap? With the Reference Master revealing the articulations of her hipster mumble, I could figure it out easily. Oh, so that's what she's saying!

Speaking of album covers in your lap, I often say that CDs could be the demise of musical literacy, because kids can simply not get at the 6 point type stuck in that tiny package. I know, I know, CD ROM notes projected on the home theater screen, websites, etc. But how many of you got your musical education about lyrics, composers, sidemen, and great critical writing from those LP jackets?

Back to cartridges. The $800 Grado Reference Master is second from the top of Grado's line of mahogany encased moving magnets. The line starts at the $300 Platinum, continues to the $500 Sonata, then the Master, and is currently topped with the $1200 Reference Reference. John Grado says to consider the Platinum and Sonata sisters and the Master and Reference sisters, by virtue of the fact that the two pairs have differences in the generators.

The Platinum (and Sonata) models use a modified four piece cantilever technology achieving a 10% tip mass reduction over their less costly Prestige series and ultra-high purity long crystal oxygen free copper wire in the coils. The Platinum uses a specially designed elliptical diamond mounted on a brass bushing, while the Sonata uses a nude elliptical diamond.

The Master (and Reference Reference) use a five piece cantilever and achieve an additional 5% tip mass reduction over the Platinum. The Master uses a nude elliptical diamond and the top Reference uses Grado's true ellipsoid design diamond. All in the series have an output of 4.5mV @ 5.0 CMV (45 degrees) and are recommended to track from 3/4 to 2 grams. (I set them to track at 1.5). In the mahogany Reference series the generator/stylus module is not replaceable allowing a redesigned one-piece magnetic circuit and a reduction of chassis resonances. Cartridges must be returned to Grado for re-tipping. Resonances are a key issue at Grado, as I learned when I visited their Brooklyn manufactory. John showed me how three different kinds of damping substances (epoxy? silicone? adhesive? — all three? I didn't want to know their secrets.) Were applied to various portions of the internal device.

OK, so how do the two cartridges track up? Could I not say I like the $800 Master better? Sure I could, but I did like it better. But the $300. Platinum could be one of the great bargains in quality cartridges today. Try not to use the male-oriented "One is better" model. Using Italian wines as a metaphor, let's look at the Platinum like a powerful bottle of Chianti Classico — excellent, warm, exciting, goes with food wonderfully, about $30 in your local restaurant — and probably the best wine in the house. Move up to a pricier white table cloth Northern Italian restaurant, and let's order an $80 Brunello di Montalcino (I mean a Master). Luscious, more complex, rarer, a bit more delicate and perhaps less aggressive than the Chianti. But seductive, charming, airy, and more refined. Both wines the best of their kind. If you can afford Brunello at each meal, why not? But it doesn't take anything away from the less pricey wine.

As far as cartridge prices go, the last time I bought one, the heyday of the Shure Supertracks — a hundred bucks or so got you a lot of Moving Magnet, so I never thought I'd be saying that a $300 cartridge or an $800 one was a bargain. But they both are. Quality is usually a bargain.

Some listening notes

I found the Master open, airy, and great on the timbral transients. Antonio Janigro's cello on a just-opened 1960 Living Stereo (LSC-2365) was rosiny, and you could hear the softness of the horsehair on the bow. It brought back memories of my practicing the cello, that is until my teacher threw up his hands in despair when I put down the bow and started playing Charlie Mingus and Willie Dixon lines.

The sound on the Master seems to emerge from a velvety silence — the kind you can hear in the lead-in groove. My recent additions of the Welborne Gatekeeper power conditioner and Mana Acoustics stands certainly contributed to this, but the Grado's noise floor and ability to "disappear" was clear.

The air and soundstaging on the Master was almost shocking. An original stereo pressing of Nina Simone's 1958 debut album on Bethlehem, Little Girl Blue (BS 6028), one of my "finds" of the year, exposed the then 25 year old Simone's genius on piano, and her erotically intimate voice. The ambiance of piano, drums and bass grew tall, and I was no longer listening to the acoustics of my room, but of hers. If you can find this record, pay good money for it — you will hear Simone before producers got to her, recently out of Julliard, and playing piano in Brubeck's league. Some later Simone albums were spotty in terms of material choice, and to my ears overproduced at times. This gem, revealed by the Grado diamond, has a purity and magic I haven't heard on her later work. The Grado Master delineated the depth of her voice, and its complex overtones, while handling the power and delicacy of her classically trained yet jazz piano. And Steve Sullivan said he could hear the strings on the bass being pulled before the pluck — bass transients were that detailed.

I must say that I listened to the Master for a few weeks before swapping in and breaking in the Platinum. John Grado had gotten me worried and thought I might be disappointed in the lower priced cartridge after hearing the other first. Wrong. After only six or eight hours of breaking in, the Platinum opened up and was quite lovely. I found that in a day or two, I didn't miss the Master at all (well, OK a little). I tried not to listen for how they differed as much as how well the Platinum sounded. And it sounded damn nice. This is not only a likable cartridge, but quite an elegant one. Acoustic jazz, classical, rock, electronic — all felt natural and balanced. The Platinum is punchy and ballsy where it needs to be, though I did notice that the leading transients on bass notes weren't as detailed — the Master revealed more there. (You have to get something for 500 bucks more, no?) I found the Platinum fast and exciting, again with the Master edging it out in airiness and speed of transients.

One of my favorite "art rock" albums, Alan Parsons Project's 1979 The Turn of A Friendly Card (Arista AL9518) continued to entertain, with the Platinum giving it more primal rock energy and the Master opening up its spacious renaissance references and "Brit-Steely Dan" subtleties. And Vollenweider's still-amazing White Winds (CBS FM39963), my pick for "Best New Age Woodstock Whole Wheat Pizza Restaurant Soundtrack," did just fine bass wise, chime wise, and harp wise. (Speaking Marxwise, have you ever noticed how Andreas on that album cover is a dead ringer for Harpo?) Again, the Grado Master ruled transientially, but I'd never presume to kick a Platinum out of bed.

Though I haven't heard anywhere near the number of cartridges as my esteemed colleagues in audio journalism, I sense that the Grados are in the top of their class as far as moving magnets. A visit to Grado's plant is like a visit to a great watchmaker. Apt, because I believe Joe was in that line originally. You see master craftsmen and women with a decades of "squint" etched into their eyes, walking around with loupes permanently welded to their brows. Man is that stuff tiny. Little teeny parts. And moving magnets and headphones are all the Grados currently make, so you're getting the family specialty, evolved and improved over decades of trial and error.

Steve Sullivan, who does a lot of listening with me and knows my system, got a chance to hear both cartridges. It should be noted that his personal reference system includes a Garrott Decca cartridge mounted on an Eminent Technologies 2 air-pumped arm on the Sota Black Star 3 turntable. The list of his meticulous modifications and tweaks could expand this article into the next issue. He said:

"I hear a significant difference between the two Grados, one that makes the $500 difference really worth it, if you have the money. At any rate, a difference that would make anyone, I think, think twice. In my briefest of hearings, I hear the less expensive Grado as slightly darker, with not as much extension into the upper harmonics. To me the Master sounds slightly cleaner than its down-the-line cousin. But they're both good buys, and a prospective buyer shouldn't be discouraged from the lesser because he can't afford the greater. I like it (the Platinum) a hell of a lot better than some audiophile favorites."

I might consider checking out the Master for someone thinking about a moving coil — $800 certainly buys you a lot of beautiful detail and speed and transients — and you don't need a new phono stage. I could see putting a $300 Platinum into the Christmas stocking of just about every "starter" audiophile who hasn't changed their cartridge in years. There are a lot of turntables out there with old Shures, Pickerings, and lesser cartridges. I might even go so far to say that if a fledgling audiophile had a grand to spend on a first system upgrade, I'd put a kit together including a Grado Platinum, Welborne Gatekeeper, a can of Caig Pro Gold, a few Tiptoes, and a few hundred bucks worth of budget wire. That's a lot of bang for the money.

How to choose? You look at the wine list, you look in your wallet, and you look at which dinner companions you're trying to impress. And you taste. But wine is gone in a few gulps — a cartridge keeps delivering its juices for quite some time. When it comes to the Grados, you won't be disappointed with either one — it's a matter of taste and budget. Cent anne. Cin cin.

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Sonata1 & Platinum1 Cartridges

Grado Reference Sonata-1 phono cartridge is added

By Ron Zeman

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.)

Listening:

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.

Next Up:

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.

Conclusion:

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.

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GRADO Reference Sonata

By Michael Jones / AUDIOENZ

Part of my job as the editor of AudioEnz is to talk to hi-fi retailers about which products are particularly good and might be worth attention in the pages of this magazine. Being "on the caolfacc" gives a good hi-fi retailer a unique insight into the various pieces of hi-fi equipment that any reviewer simply cannot have.

I'm regularly told about speakers, amplifiers, CD players and even AV receives that are particularly good performers or have something of interest about them.

But I can't remember the last time any hi-fi retailer mentioned a phono cartridge to me, until recently. Peter Munt, manager of Eastern Hi-Fi in Newmarket Auckland, started raving to me about the wooden bodied Grado cartridges, particularly the Sonata. I had been impressed with the lower-end Grado Prestige Gold and made a note to see if a Sonata could be made available for review. It was, and a couple of months later it arrived.

While the Prestige Gold used Grado's standard plastic body – in use since Adam was a young audiophile – the upper ranges of Grado cartridges now use a wooden body. The Sonata is made out of mahogany. The cartridge body is threaded, which can make it easier to mount the cartridge on the tonearm.

Upper and Lower

There are two wooden body ranges in the Grado lineup; both have models with the same name. The Reference range is the high output, 4.5mV and the Statement range is the low output, 0.5 mV. So the Reference Sonata (the one under review) is the High output cartridge, while the Statement Sonata is the low output model.

I listened to the Reference Sonata mounted on a Rega RB300 tonearm. The Rega is mounted on my modified Thorens TD150 mk2 turntable. Amplication, including phono, is through my Plinus 8150 and speakers are the classic ES14.

While the Prestige Gold is a great cartridge for the money, the Sonata is a great cartridge full stop. And, particularly here in New Zealand, it is a great value for the money.

Bass through the Sonata was particularly good, I found – solid and powerful, with very good pace and timing. The broader midrange was simply wonderful. Vocals in particular came across very well, both tonally and very articulate. I must admit that my reaction surprised me. The ability of this piece of hi-fi equipment to involve the listener in the music and want to continue listening is priceless.

Above all, the Sonata brought out the best aspects of good analog reproduction. The sense of momentum in the music, the sense of involvement, the sense that there were real people playing and singing – all areas that CD can struggle with some two decades on.

The Sonata is a refined and dynamic cartridge. It offers performance ahead of what you might expect for the price. Above all, the Sonata encourages you to play more of your LPs – and what greater recommendation can there be?

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The Grado Reference Master & Platinum Cartridges

By Jeffrey Silverstein / Positive Feedback

If you read my review of the Welborne Laurel 300B's, you know I'm a sap for wood. Picture these walnut monoblocks, AR turntable and veneered Klipsch Heresies, not to mention six or eight guitars, and you want to make sure Silverstein doesn't deplete any old growth forests in pursuit of his music. So you wouldn't have lost the bet if you'd have wagered I'd be hot to hear Grado's hand made mahogany moving magnets. Since I've been quite fond of their earlier $180 Z1+ and know it well, I thought it would be informative to step up the ladder and see how the Grados sound at higher price points.

Having seen positive notices on the $300 Grado Reference Platinum, I guessed it would be a fair upgrade, and so I spoke with John Grado. Nephew of the legendary Joe Grado, John presides over the business, claimed to be the oldest family-run enterprise in audio today. John started in the family business as a young teenager. Did he care that I was going to listen to his baby on a 28-year-old AR with the well-criticized original arm? No. In fact he asked whether I would like to hear the Platinum's more expensive sibling. "But I'm using this old turntable, with an arm all the snobs hold their noses at — how could I possibly hear the difference?" John was confident that I would, and shipped off the Platinum, and the 2.6 times the price tag Reference Master ($800).

If you know the old AR XA, you're familiar with its hard-to-find plastic headshell. I reasoned that a good process would be to mount the Grados each in its own shell. Easier said than done. Eric LeWinter at Lyle Cartridges said "Jeff you're going to have a problem." I thought he was talking about the well-known hum concerns in using Grados with the AR, and told him that by using George Merrill's recommended ground wire on the AR my Z1+ wasn't humming. But Eric was referring to the fact that the wood Grados have top holes and couldn't mount to the AR shells, which only take screws from the bottom. A short chat with Grado's John Chapis, who happens to have 3 AR tables, solved the problem. Chapis would drill through the plastic top of the AR headshells, and voila. My AR is on Tall Tiptoes, with a Ringmat, and now on a Mana Acoustics Reference Table.

I'm never sure what any of these words like Reference, Statement, Signature, and even Entry Level mean. Whether they're Gordon Holtisms or Pearsonisms, or have crept into language as a sort of caste system, who cares. Steve Sullivan mentioned that Joe Grado had told him he was the first user of the "signature" moniker. To me a designer makes a Statement in every product he or she creates, at any price point. The $40 Grado cartridges and $50 headphones are as much a Statement as stuff at the top of the line, and from a consumer point of view, perhaps a bigger one. The word "reference" has been so overused and diluted from multiple meanings, that I suggested that David Robinson convene a roundtable to figure out what it means, or should mean.1 So I'm not worried about what the cartridges are called, but how they sound.

To "break in" the Grado Master Reference I put on Karl Munchinger's 1965 St. Matthew's Passion (OSA 1431), a mint London Stereo ffrr. What I heard wasn't Bach, it was the Voice of God. Not the Voice of God of Ravi Shankar and Allah Rakha, or La Fernanda de Utrera singing por Soleares, or even Charlie Parker or Jimi or Robert Johnson. I heard an angelic cathedral of sound of such sublime sonority and purity that it hurt. 8 sides later...

As a rookie reviewer and one who sometimes looks at the vocabulary of audio reviewing much like Groucho said to Margaret Dumont, "Say, you haven't stopped talking since you got here; you must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle," I don't have lots of reviewer-speak for the Grados. But as a storyteller I prefer to use analogy. Have you ever tried to figure out what Rickie Lee Jones is singing? I mean, even with the album cover lyrics in your lap? With the Reference Master revealing the articulations of her hipster mumble, I could figure it out easily. Oh, so that's what she's saying!

Speaking of album covers in your lap, I often say that CDs could be the demise of musical literacy, because kids can simply not get at the 6 point type stuck in that tiny package. I know, I know, CD ROM notes projected on the home theater screen, websites, etc. But how many of you got your musical education about lyrics, composers, sidemen, and great critical writing from those LP jackets?

Back to cartridges. The $800 Grado Reference Master is second from the top of Grado's line of mahogany encased moving magnets. The line starts at the $300 Platinum, continues to the $500 Sonata, then the Master, and is currently topped with the $1200 Reference Reference. John Grado says to consider the Platinum and Sonata sisters and the Master and Reference sisters, by virtue of the fact that the two pairs have differences in the generators.

The Platinum (and Sonata) models use a modified four piece cantilever technology achieving a 10% tip mass reduction over their less costly Prestige series and ultra-high purity long crystal oxygen free copper wire in the coils. The Platinum uses a specially designed elliptical diamond mounted on a brass bushing, while the Sonata uses a nude elliptical diamond.

The Master (and Reference Reference) use a five piece cantilever and achieve an additional 5% tip mass reduction over the Platinum. The Master uses a nude elliptical diamond and the top Reference uses Grado's true ellipsoid design diamond. All in the series have an output of 4.5mV @ 5.0 CMV (45 degrees) and are recommended to track from 3/4 to 2 grams. (I set them to track at 1.5). In the mahogany Reference series the generator/stylus module is not replaceable allowing a redesigned one-piece magnetic circuit and a reduction of chassis resonances. Cartridges must be returned to Grado for re-tipping. Resonances are a key issue at Grado, as I learned when I visited their Brooklyn manufactory. John showed me how three different kinds of damping substances (epoxy? silicone? adhesive? — all three? I didn't want to know their secrets.) Were applied to various portions of the internal device.

OK, so how do the two cartridges track up? Could I not say I like the $800 Master better? Sure I could, but I did like it better. But the $300. Platinum could be one of the great bargains in quality cartridges today. Try not to use the male-oriented "One is better" model. Using Italian wines as a metaphor, let's look at the Platinum like a powerful bottle of Chianti Classico — excellent, warm, exciting, goes with food wonderfully, about $30 in your local restaurant — and probably the best wine in the house. Move up to a pricier white table cloth Northern Italian restaurant, and let's order an $80 Brunello di Montalcino (I mean a Master). Luscious, more complex, rarer, a bit more delicate and perhaps less aggressive than the Chianti. But seductive, charming, airy, and more refined. Both wines the best of their kind. If you can afford Brunello at each meal, why not? But it doesn't take anything away from the less pricey wine.

As far as cartridge prices go, the last time I bought one, the heyday of the Shure Supertracks — a hundred bucks or so got you a lot of Moving Magnet, so I never thought I'd be saying that a $300 cartridge or an $800 one was a bargain. But they both are. Quality is usually a bargain.

Some listening notes

I found the Master open, airy, and great on the timbral transients. Antonio Janigro's cello on a just-opened 1960 Living Stereo (LSC-2365) was rosiny, and you could hear the softness of the horsehair on the bow. It brought back memories of my practicing the cello, that is until my teacher threw up his hands in despair when I put down the bow and started playing Charlie Mingus and Willie Dixon lines.

The sound on the Master seems to emerge from a velvety silence — the kind you can hear in the lead-in groove. My recent additions of the Welborne Gatekeeper power conditioner and Mana Acoustics stands certainly contributed to this, but the Grado's noise floor and ability to "disappear" was clear.

The air and soundstaging on the Master was almost shocking. An original stereo pressing of Nina Simone's 1958 debut album on Bethlehem, Little Girl Blue (BS 6028), one of my "finds" of the year, exposed the then 25 year old Simone's genius on piano, and her erotically intimate voice. The ambiance of piano, drums and bass grew tall, and I was no longer listening to the acoustics of my room, but of hers. If you can find this record, pay good money for it — you will hear Simone before producers got to her, recently out of Julliard, and playing piano in Brubeck's league. Some later Simone albums were spotty in terms of material choice, and to my ears overproduced at times. This gem, revealed by the Grado diamond, has a purity and magic I haven't heard on her later work. The Grado Master delineated the depth of her voice, and its complex overtones, while handling the power and delicacy of her classically trained yet jazz piano. And Steve Sullivan said he could hear the strings on the bass being pulled before the pluck — bass transients were that detailed.

I must say that I listened to the Master for a few weeks before swapping in and breaking in the Platinum. John Grado had gotten me worried and thought I might be disappointed in the lower priced cartridge after hearing the other first. Wrong. After only six or eight hours of breaking in, the Platinum opened up and was quite lovely. I found that in a day or two, I didn't miss the Master at all (well, OK a little). I tried not to listen for how they differed as much as how well the Platinum sounded. And it sounded damn nice. This is not only a likable cartridge, but quite an elegant one. Acoustic jazz, classical, rock, electronic — all felt natural and balanced. The Platinum is punchy and ballsy where it needs to be, though I did notice that the leading transients on bass notes weren't as detailed — the Master revealed more there. (You have to get something for 500 bucks more, no?) I found the Platinum fast and exciting, again with the Master edging it out in airiness and speed of transients.

One of my favorite "art rock" albums, Alan Parsons Project's 1979 The Turn of A Friendly Card (Arista AL9518) continued to entertain, with the Platinum giving it more primal rock energy and the Master opening up its spacious renaissance references and "Brit-Steely Dan" subtleties. And Vollenweider's still-amazing White Winds (CBS FM39963), my pick for "Best New Age Woodstock Whole Wheat Pizza Restaurant Soundtrack," did just fine bass wise, chime wise, and harp wise. (Speaking Marxwise, have you ever noticed how Andreas on that album cover is a dead ringer for Harpo?) Again, the Grado Master ruled transientially, but I'd never presume to kick a Platinum out of bed.

Though I haven't heard anywhere near the number of cartridges as my esteemed colleagues in audio journalism, I sense that the Grados are in the top of their class as far as moving magnets. A visit to Grado's plant is like a visit to a great watchmaker. Apt, because I believe Joe was in that line originally. You see master craftsmen and women with a decades of "squint" etched into their eyes, walking around with loupes permanently welded to their brows. Man is that stuff tiny. Little teeny parts. And moving magnets and headphones are all the Grados currently make, so you're getting the family specialty, evolved and improved over decades of trial and error.

Steve Sullivan, who does a lot of listening with me and knows my system, got a chance to hear both cartridges. It should be noted that his personal reference system includes a Garrott Decca cartridge mounted on an Eminent Technologies 2 air-pumped arm on the Sota Black Star 3 turntable. The list of his meticulous modifications and tweaks could expand this article into the next issue. He said:

"I hear a significant difference between the two Grados, one that makes the $500 difference really worth it, if you have the money. At any rate, a difference that would make anyone, I think, think twice. In my briefest of hearings, I hear the less expensive Grado as slightly darker, with not as much extension into the upper harmonics. To me the Master sounds slightly cleaner than its down-the-line cousin. But they're both good buys, and a prospective buyer shouldn't be discouraged from the lesser because he can't afford the greater. I like it (the Platinum) a hell of a lot better than some audiophile favorites."

I might consider checking out the Master for someone thinking about a moving coil — $800 certainly buys you a lot of beautiful detail and speed and transients — and you don't need a new phono stage. I could see putting a $300 Platinum into the Christmas stocking of just about every "starter" audiophile who hasn't changed their cartridge in years. There are a lot of turntables out there with old Shures, Pickerings, and lesser cartridges. I might even go so far to say that if a fledgling audiophile had a grand to spend on a first system upgrade, I'd put a kit together including a Grado Platinum, Welborne Gatekeeper, a can of Caig Pro Gold, a few Tiptoes, and a few hundred bucks worth of budget wire. That's a lot of bang for the money.

How to choose? You look at the wine list, you look in your wallet, and you look at which dinner companions you're trying to impress. And you taste. But wine is gone in a few gulps — a cartridge keeps delivering its juices for quite some time. When it comes to the Grados, you won't be disappointed with either one — it's a matter of taste and budget. Cent anne. Cin cin.

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GRADO REFERENCE PLATINUM CARTRIDGE

Grado's $300 Platinum cartridge is the entry-level model in the brand's new Reference Series.
By: Ken Kessler / HI-FI NEWS - 

Once upon a time, when we spun vinyl out of choice rather than desperation, Grado produced some of the hottest entry-level cartridges money could buy. Provided that your turntable had a shielded motor (Joe Grado believed that shielding the cartridge itself compromised the sound), you could buck the moving-coil pressure groups with a high-output bargain. The FTE+1 (selling for a mere $15 in the late 1970s) and its myriad siblings set more than a few thousand impoverished audiophiles on the road to audio bliss. So successful was Grado, a far smaller company than Audio-Technica or Shure or the other cartridge giants, that it ran as the UK's Number Two choice for years, Avis to Ortofon's Hertz.

For whatever reason, after a decade concentrating on headphones (and doing astoundingly well with them) nephew John Grado is again promoting the cartridges, while Uncle Joe enjoys his retirement. Despite a number of detail changes and innovations over the years, any Grado owner who skipped from 1979 to 1997 would feel right at home with the latest models. Yes, even the fixed-stylus, wooden-bodied Reference models, which are so far removed from the grey or tan plastic cheap'n'cheerful gems of yore that you'd be forgiven for thinking you were looking at some rare Asian moving-coil.

Entry-level for the top-end four-model Reference Series is the $300 platinum, a fixed-coil design housed in a solid mahogany body measuring exactly one inch fore and aft or 25mm for Europe. Height is 15mm, and the width is 17mm at the widest point. Unlike old Grados, the reference doesn't have parallel sides; they bow out like a tiny coffin. Morbid, true, but at least Grado resisted putting miniature handles on it. The wood, by the way, is specially selected and cured, in order to ëtune' the cartridge; I wonder if Orthodox Jews can order pine? The fixed stylus (atypical for Grado, which used to supply a notoriously difficult tool for removing the styli in the older models) is the result of a redesigned one-piece magnet circuit and the craving for a reduction in chasis resonances.

Grado's elliptical tip is mounted via a brass bushing to the company's "OTL" (optimized transmission line) cantilever, said to be good for a 5% reduction in tip mass: four sections which are "telescoped" into each other, mixing hollow and solid sections and different alloys, bonded together with materials which help to damp the assembly. A special coating also deals with resonances.

The cantilever has a fixed axial pivot, its end moving in the flux created by fixed coils and fixed magnet (so a Grado is not strictly a moving magnet). The "Flux-Bridger" system's four magnetic gaps are "bridged" by the generating element, increasing the flux in one gap while reducing it in another. The coils are of ultra-high purity long crystal oxygen-free copper wire(UHPLC).

Call me an old dog immune to new tricks, but I remember the "Grado Hop" and the humming from proximity to unshielded motors, so I installed the Reference platinum in an SME V with damping fluid, fitted to the Mitchell Gyro Dec. Here's the only detail which makes installation less than straightforward; the cartridge is installed with two 9mm-long screws which enter straight into the wooden bodyshell. You definitely do not want to tighten these screws as if they were metal into metal, because the threads in the cartridge are, well, wood. The screws can only enter from the top, so you won't be able to use arms where the cartridge has to be attached from the underside, like the Decca International.

Embarrassingly, the Grado Hop seems to have been reduced to the tiniest of shimmies, so my paranoia was misplaced; the new Grado did not go all Little Egypt the instant it hit the disc surface. Tracking smack in the middle of the preferred range, at 1.8gms, and with the SME set for maximum damping, the platinum actually behaved like a low-compliance design rather than a softly-sprung 1958 Buick. It held the groove beautifully, sailing through tough passages with a facility just short of Shure-tracking.

As with Grados from the past, all that's needed of your pre-amp is a dead-quiet 47k ohm input. Grados are completely immune to capacitance variations, so you don't have to fiddle with this beyond proper alignment. The old "snaps into focus" trick works well with Grados, which respond to arm-height manipulation with vivid results. In the past, I always ran Grados with the top of the headshell parallel to the LP: the Reference Platinum seemed happy with the back of the arm a shade lower than the front, but this might change as the cartridge loosens up a bit through use.

Even though the review sample was an absolute virgin, it sounded sweet and rich straight out of the box. Running it in a bit resulted in not-too-dry bass, so keep that in mind if you hear a demo with a Reference fresh out of its little wooden container. Less zippy and certainly quieter than eldritch Grados, the Reference Platinum sounds like a cross between an older Signature and a romantic moving-coil. If anything, the focus seems to be on refinement rather than detail retrieval, absolute neutrality or even three-dimensionality, though the Platinum is no slouch in any of those categories.

What that Grado-owning time traveller would notice, going from vintage to modern is just what you'd expect from the passage of time; a mellowing. The Reference Platinum is a mature Signature 8. And just like its illustrious forebear, the Platinum is a real honey for those who want neither moving-coil nor Deccas. If this is the bottom of the range, then what does the $1200 flagship model offer?

HI-FI NEWS & RECORD REVIEW

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The GRADO Reference Platinum Phono Cartridge

Further thoughts and Impressions
by Bruce Kennett / PRIMYL VINYL

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.

-Bruce Kennert

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Grado Reference Platinum Phono Cartridge

By Dayna B / AUDIO ADVENTURE - The World According To Grado

Grado may well be the oldest family-owned manufacturer in the hi-fi biz. From 1953, when founder Joseph Grado began production of phono cartridges on the kitchen table to the present, with Nephew John Grado now at the helm, the company's design policy has always been to strive for musical realism. It has been my experience that Grado has always emphasized the word "musical".

In an effort to retain more of the musical nature of the analog signal captured on LP's, John Grado has turned to wood for that essential "soul" That is, the body of the Reference Platinum phono cartridge is mahogany.

SOME THINGS WE KNOW ABOUT IT

This cartridge is a hand crafted fixed coil that undergoes meticulous curing processes between production steps to ensure optimal sonic characteristics. This advanced design utilizes several of Grado's patents. The optimized Transmission Line (OTL) cantilever consists of four sections of different alloys telescoped within one another. Each of the pieces is held together with damping material. The whole point of the multipiece cantilever is to reduce extraneous resonances.

The Pivoted Fixed Axial Stylus-Generator Module is more complicated. Let's go simple-the important thing here is that the miniature generating element is attached to the end of the cantilever (opposite the stylus) where the fixed axial pivot is located. Basically, this increases the response time.

The Flux-Bridger Generator System consists of four magnetic gaps that the miniature generating element of the cantilever bridges in order to produce the musical signal. Both efficiency and balance in signal generation are the goals.

These are all design innovations seen previously in Grado cartridges. So, aside from the wooden body, what is new? First, the plastic that holds the Pivoted Fixed Axial Stylus-generator Module is pared down to the minimum capable of holding the parts in place. Second, the assembly is potted within the wooden body. In order to further the control resonances, all internal wiring is potted. (Note: Since the Generator Module is potted, the Reference Series cartridges do not allow for stylus replacement).

THE GOOD STUFF

On LP's, the tonal balance of the Reference Platinum appeared smooth. The highs had detail aplenty. On Misa Criolla (Philips 420 955-1), the voices possessed a chilling realism. Jose Carreras was at a once powerful and refined; the choir was ethereal. The exceptional timbral accuracy of this cartridge highlighted the textures of instruments in such a manner as to bring life to the music. Fabulous! We're talkin' music that brims with emotion! Subtle tonal inflections and slight variations to note were intact, and thus added to the illusion of live music.

The Reference Platinum was able to extract quite a bit of the minute info that otherwise lies hidden beneath distortion and noise. Misa Criolla's gentle passages were delicate-you'll be tickled by the detail of the small percussive instruments. Small-scale dynamics were quite impressive. These small, but important variations in loudness inject excitement into the music.

The quick handling of transients will make your heart leap. The piano and percussion instruments, still on Misa Criolla, had a quick initial strike and a let-go that was nearly as quick. The harpsichord and panpipes shone. On Indigo Girls (Epic FE 45044)-great album! -the guitar strings maintained distinct, individual plucks. The drums were precise, with punchy impact; the sticks were appropriately woody.

The greatest strengths (those others are just peanuts, yes?) of the Grado Reference Platinum cartridge lay in rhythm, pace and soundstaging. Rock music can demand alot in the way of rhythm and pace so I cranked up P.J. Harvey's Rid Of Me (Island/ILPS8002/514 696-1). Right off, rimshots slammed. The beat and tempo were just so very very! And Rock the house steady. Yeah, baby! Let's get intellectual: the Grado recreated an exceptionally stable harmonic structure in a phase-coherent manner. What? It imaged like crazy!

The soundstage was expansive; depth was well delineated. Localization of images was exceptional with a high degree of spaciousness, especially on well-recorded LP's. Individual images were surrounded by an airy bloom. Inter-instrumental space-silent.

Now superb phase coherence has a way of revealing recording "errors". For example, when a kickdrum "kicks" it shouldn't "inhale" fist If it does, the recording is out of phase. Try "Land of Canaan" on Indigo Girls; one of the mikes for the drum kit is out of phase and presents a pressurized feeling just preceding percussive events. The image becomes indistinct. The Grado not only makes you aware of this, but also identifies the out-of-phase mike as one on the left just over the tom-tome. Scary.

SUM STUFF

The Grado Reference Platinum phono cartridge is the most musical cartridge I've ever heard, period! It is so "realistic". It can recreate a tremendous sense of speed without seeming artificial. If the tonality is off, it errs on the side of sweet and warm. It is also one of the best imaging products around. Even if you had $2,500, we might question your sanity if you passed up the $300.00 Grado. Is it truly reference quality? You bet! But who cares? Go buy the Grado and just enjoy the music!

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How Low Can You Go?

The Grado Reference Platinum
By John Crossett

I can't count the number of times I've heard or read someone complaining about the high cost of high-end audio gear. The more I hear these pronouncements, the more I'm puzzled. I mean, who ever said that it had to cost a fortune to own a high-end system? The best description of the high-end that I've ever read is by Harry Pearson of T.A.S., who wrote, "It's not the cost that makes a piece of equipment high-end, it's the sound." I couldn't agree more.

Our journey this time takes us, once again, to the less expensive end of the high-end and to the sweltering summer heat of Brooklyn, New York, and Grado Lab's offices. We'll have a look and a listen to the low output Grado Reference Platinum cartridge. Our question is, Can one find high-end sound in a $300 moving iron cartridge?

Description

The Grado Reference line of cartridges is one of the most distinctive looking I've ever seen. In order to minimize vibrations, which degrade the sound, the entire inner workings are epoxied to the inside of a beautiful mahogany body. A distinctive "G" (for Grado, naturally) is engraved on the front. The upshot of this assembly is better sound through reduced vibration. The downside is that the stylus is not user replaceable. Grado re-tips these cartridges at their factory for half the cost of the cartridge.

There are two versions of the Platinum, each with different output voltages. Both Platinums have an elliptical stylus mounted on a brass bushing connected to a four piece cantilever. The Low Output Grado Platinum, the subject of this review, has a 1.5mv output (4.8mv in the regular version), weighs 6 grams, is loaded for 47K ohms, and has a suggested tracking force of 1.5 grams. As you go up the Reference line (the Sonata, the Master, the Reference and the Statement) the stylus shape changes and loses mass. Each stylus tracks, retrieves information, and avoids vinyl wear and tear, better than the more massive one below it.

Setting Up

I mounted the Reference Platinum to my Signet XK-50 tonearm on my VPI HW-19 turntable. Mounting was made easy by Grado's thoughtfulness in tapping the mounting holes drilled into the mahogany body. No having to fiddle with teeny tiny bolts, thank goodness. The turntable was connected to my ARC SP-6a pre-amp. I gave the cartridge some few hours to break in before I did any serious listening. I tried both the low and high gain settings on my Audio Research to see which would give me enough gain so as not to have to turn the volume control up too high. I was hoping that I could keep the volume control at about 10 or 11 o'clock; any higher and I might have heard too much noise. In the pre-amp's low gain setting I found I had to turn the volume control past 12 o'clock. Just as I feared, I heard more noise than I could take. While listenable, I knew detail was being obscured. On moving to the pre-amp's higher gain setting (adding about 10db), I found that now I could keep the volume control at 10 o'clock.

The Wood Effect...(Sorry Clark)

Straight out of the box the Platinum exhibited a much warmer sound than did my reference Monster Alpha 1. This had the effect of fleshing out images that the Alpha 1 would eviscerate. As the cartridge broke in further, its true character began to emerge. I liked it.

I recently purchased a used vinyl copy of Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (Impulse AS 26). I gave it a good cleaning on my VPI record cleaner and then tossed it on the turntable. The real fun of listening to this is that I also have the 20 bit remastered Impulse CD to compare it with. This was going to be interesting. The record sounded fabulous. There was a real sense of air around the musicians, the sound of the instruments infusing the air differently depending on the instrument. The bass sounded tight, full and woody, with a convincing sound of fingers plucking strings. The toms and bass drums were appropriately hefty and the snares realistically snappy. The cymbals sounded like brass dishes, not white noise. Of particular importance to me, the soundstage was deep from the left rear corner through to the right rear corner. I often hear the depth only in the middle. In comparison to the CD, good as it is (and it is good), the album gave me more of a sense of the real thing, of being at the recording studio.

Playing Respighi's Ancient Dances And Airs (Mercury SR 90199), I noted very smooth strings and a particularly wide soundstage. The surface noise that I had noticed when using my my Alpha 1 was so diminished that listening to this performance again was a treat. With the Grado, I was better able to differentiate the sections of the orchestra. To get a good feel for how the Platinum Low Output handled vocals, I reached for my copy of Roy Orbison's Greatest Hits (Monument SLP 18045). Oh boy, did Roy sound present. I could close my eyes and let my ears "see" Orbison standing in front of me, just behind the plane of the speakers. Everything that made Orbison's voice the beautiful instrument it was came through, nothing added, nothing subtracted. This was about as close as I'll ever come to hearing Roy live. I could tell that there was a small amount of reverb added to Roy's vocals, something I hadn't noticed with the Alpha 1.

On Dr. John's album, In A Sentimental Mood (Warner Brothers 9 25889-1), the duet between the good Dr. and Rickie Lee Jones on "Making Whoopee" was truly special. Rickie Lee's voice had a sweet roughness, contrasting nicely with Dr. John's gruffness. Each singer was in his own space. On Ella Fitzgerald's Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie (Classic/Verve V6-4053), the microdynamics and subtle vocal inflections in Ella's voice were readily apparent, making her seem in the room. I could hear the bass player's fingers plucking the strings, and I could hear the wooden cavity of the upright bass resonate. One small problem was that I couldn't make out the guitar as easily as I felt I should. Sometimes I could hear it along with the bass, and sometimes not. I found this a little disconcerting.

As I stated in my Get To Know Me article last issue, soundstaging is very important to me. As a matter of fact, I'm a soundstage freak. I want to hear it. It adds to my enjoyment of stereo listening. Duke Ellington's Columbia album Ellington Indigos(CS 8053 six eye) is one of Columbia's best efforts. With the Platinum Low output I got width and layering that I have never heard before. With the Alpha 1, I now realize, sounds could be characterized as appearing in the front, middle, or back of the stage only. The Grado, on the other hand, seemed capable of placing each musician anywhere on the stage. It was very enjoyable, for instance, to be able to hear one row of musicians right behind the other, in what was a finer gradation of depth. My room's back wall had no bearing on the rear of the soundstage, instead being replaced by the recorded acoustic. Once you've heard it done right, it's hard to go back.

The Down Side

Let me say right up front that my system with the Grado Reference Platinum Low Output cartridge never fooled me into thinking I was listening to live music. But then, I've never heard any piece of equipment, no matter how expensive, that made me think I was hearing live music. There is something about the sound of live music that instantly identifies it as live. I've never heard or read an accurate description of this phenomenon, and I'm not going to attempt writing one myself. I'll just say that you know it when you hear it. While the best equipment I've heard delivers stunning reproductions, the sounds are always, clearly, reproductions.

Listening to my system with the Grado, I found the leading edge of transients to be foreshortened, not having the sharpness live sound has. Brass instruments didn't have realistic bite, this being most evident on the Respighi record. Snare drums and percussion instruments didn't snap as they should when struck. This was brought out clearly when listening to Duke Ellington's Jazz Party In Stereo (CS 8127), as the opening cut features a number of percussionists. The leading edges of transients were smoothed over, not at all real sounding. There was also a certain two dimensional quality that always revealed the lie of the reproduction; this in spite of the Grado's relative excellence in reproducing layered depth. I would notice this especially on vocal recordings, the singers having a certain cutout quality as opposed to a fully rounded, three dimensional feel.

It has been said that Grado cartridges can hum when used with VPI or Rega turntables due to their unshielded motors. I have never run into this problem using Grados on my old Rega Planer 2 turntable and I didn't experience it this last time. Losing the hum is, however, the reason Grado made the low output version of their Reference line. While I haven't had any hum problems, your mileage may vary. (I had a hum problem with my Grado Cartridge. Accent on Music in Mt. Kisco, NY helped me solve it. I moved the turntable further away from my other components. As always, choose your dealers wisely.–DH)

The Finished Product

So, what answers have we come up with? Where has our journey taken us this time? Does the Grado Reference Platinum Low Output cartridge offer the high-end sound for the low-end bucks? Do you have to spend a lot to enjoy better than mass market sound? The Grado Platinum Low Output cartridge suggests a "yes" to the first question and a "no" to the second. While it's not perfect (but then, what is?), it does many things well, and some even better. For a small investment, the Grado Platinum offers many improvements in sound over cheaper cartridges, including Grado's own. The Grado should sound better in systems that run toward the lean (i.e. solid state) rather than the warm and lush (i.e. tube based), where its added richness will help, not hinder, the sound. I can see the audiophile on a budget putting together an analogue front end that includes the Grado Platinum, either the high or low output version, and one of the less expensive turntables such as the Music Hall, Rega, or Thorens.

This is one leg of our journey that I have really enjoyed. So much so that I am keeping the review sample. It's low output lets me set my volume control higher, where I find the sound is better. I plan on spending the next few months getting reacquainted with my record collection. As for you, give the Grado Reference Platinum a listen. You might find that high-end sound just got a little more affordable.

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GRADO Reference Platinum & Sonata phono cartridges

By Robert J. Reina / Stereophile

I used to call the $30.00 Grado ZTE+1 cartridge "the first free nickel bag of high-end audio." A classic junkie case is my friend, Frank Doris, Fourteen years ago, Frank was seeking a $75 replacement stylus for his mid-fi college-dorm stereo. Instead, I suggested Grado's then-entry-level cartridge, the $20 GTE+1. Frank went for the worm and was hooked by the sonic improvement wrought by this economical cartridge "upgrade." His stereo then went through a rapid series of upgrades culminating in an Audio Research/Mark Levinson system funded via a refinancing of his mortgage. Eventually he quit his aerospace job, became managing editor of the Absolute Sound, and still works in the audio industry today. Never before have I seen a $20 consumer product have such a profound impact on an individual's life.

For decades, the Grado name has been synonymous with providing affordable cartridges that hint at the performance of expensive moving-coils. Although Grado Labs founder/designer, Joseph Grado may be best known for inventing the moving-coil cartridge, and for marketing moving-iron cartridges in the 70's that were more expensive than any moving-coil then available in the US (that is until the original Koetsu Rosewood broke the four digit price barrier), his greatest impact on the affordable market was the introduction of the Signature 8 cartridge in the early 80's. This $200 reference moving-iron design represented a drastic price reduction from his previous decade of efforts and had few glaring flaws. It's smooth tonal balance, superb dynamics and resolution of detail, and soundstaging capabilities competed with many more expensive moving-coils of the day. Plus, it was an excellent tracker. More expensive Grado Signatures were also available; as one ascended the price scale, improved detail resolution, soundstaging and neutrality were the rewards.

All of the Grado cartridges shared a rich, seductive midrange that made them attractive to audiophiles who cherished realistic vocal reproduction. Over the years, Joe Grado refined and updated his designs, and in the last decade I've developed a familiarity with a good number of Grado Signatures -- the 8, 8M, 8MR, MCX, 8MZ, and TLZ - and a Siggy has always resided in my affordable reference system.

Pass the baton to nephew John

Grado Laboratories is now owned and operated by Joseph Grado's nephew, John Grado. John began his association with Grado Labs as a child in the 50's. Uncle Joe was then designing cartridges on the kitchen table in his apartment. John lived downstairs and frequently visited Uncle Joe, as he felt Joe's Hydrox cookies were superior to his mother's Oreos. These creme-sandwich liaisons eventually led to a job sweeping floors in the new Grado factory (on the site of the grocery store John's grandfather had opened in Brooklyn in 1918), and then to an apprenticeship: John learned the cartridge business from Uncle Joe and John Chaipis, Grado's Chief Engineer, who has been with Grado Labs for 40 years.

When John Grado purchased Grado Labs from his Uncle in the early 90's, he manufactured the standard line of cartridges and headphones, while Joe Grado continued to produce the Signature cartridges as Joseph Grado Signature Products. Now, as the Signature series of cartridges has ceased production, John Grado and Chaipis have a new line of high end cartridges to replace the Signature line: the Reference series.

The Reference cartridges take one step further the fundamental parameter of all Grado designs: minimization of resonances. As Michael Fremer explained in his favorable review of the $1200 flagship Grado The Reference cartridge (March 1998, p.59), the reference Series differs from the older Grado's from current Prestige series (40-$180) in that magnetic generating system is potted with damping material, then glued into a cured wooden body. In the Reference series, as in the old Signature series, output is a very high 4.5mV, and Grado claims insensitivity to capacitive load. Unlike those in the older and Prestige Grados, Reference styli are not user-replaceable.

Isn't it good, Brooklyn wood

At $300 and $500, respectively, the Platinum and Sonata cartridges reviewed here are the two entry-level cartridges in the Reference line. Each is designed around The References short, low mass-self contained suspension ("Optimized Transmission Line Stylus/Cantilever"), but the Platinum and Sonata reduce cost by using a low mass, four piece cantilever assembly. The same ultra-purity, long crystal, oxygen-free copper wire from The Reference's coils is used in the entire series of wooden body cartridges. The Platinum and Sonata differ from each other and from The Reference in ther shapes of their styli. While The Reference is mounted with Grados true ellipsoid diamond, the Sonata uses a nude elliptical diamond, and the Platinum uses the less costly elliptical diamond found in the Prestige series. Grado claims that, as one goes up in price in the Reference series, tip mass is reduced.

As I 've used the Grado Signature 8MZ for the first five years, I was particularly interested in how far the entry-level Reference Platinum has advanced the performance of the Signature 8 series. One aspect that separated the Grado Signatures of the past from more expensive moving-coils was a relative lack of transparency. Even the best Grado Signatures always placed veils between the listener and the music compared with the best moving-coils, and there was a limited degree of resolution in the high frequencies, which were not completely grain-free.

Reference Platinum: $300

Right out of the box, the Reference Platinum demonstrated the benefits of resonance reduction from the new wooden-body designs: compared with the old Signature 8, a veil or two were removed. This was not noticeable in the improved resolution of low level detail, soundstaging, and ambiance reproduction. A certain resonant Grado "sound"- in retrospect, probably a euphonic coloration - had vanished. The new Grado "sound" is more neutral.

Vocal reproduction on the Platinum was still first-rate. Janis Ian's voice (Breaking Silence, Analogue Productions APP027) had a tactile and immediate quality, and Cassandra Wilson's (New Moon Daughter, Blue note 32861) was silky and seductive. The Platinum's excellent detail resolution and reproduction of subtle low-level dynamic contrasts provided a certain delicacy and immediacy to Mighty Sam McClain's vocals (Give It Up To Love, Audio Quest AQ-1015) and make it easier to follow the individual guitar notes on the Fender Stratocaster solo than did the Signature 8MZ. Overall, the tonal balance was natural and uniform, save for a slight midbass thickness on certain recordings.

The Platinum showed it's best with classical recordings. On Antal Dorati's interpretation of Stravinsky's Firebird (Mercury Living Presence, SR90226), the Platinum's reproduction of room sound and image dimensionality gave a vibrant sense of realism to the work. There was a continuousness of the dynamic presentation of the pizzicato string passages in this work that was reminiscent of a live performance.

Classical recordings also brought out the Platinum's greatest shortcoming--its limited resolution during complex, densely modulated passages. On Cage's Third Construction, From Pulse (New World? Classic NW319), the Platinum was reminiscent of an expensive moving-coil during the delicate, quiet percussion passages, but in loud, complex passages the instrumental definition became more confused and muddy.

In extreme cases, this resolution limitation could cause a temporary shift in the cartridge's presentation of tonal balance. When a densely modulated recording included passages of significant midrange and high-frequency energy, the upper midrange was push forward in those passages and was more prominent than the balance of the frequency spectrum. Also, during loud passages vocals can take on a sibilant quality. On For Duke (Realtime RT-101), the piano and ride cymbals were very natural and realistic during the quiet passages, and the trumpet solo's bite and burnished quality were as realistic as I've heard on any recording. But when the ensemble brass and woodwind tuttis entered, all of the instruments became tense and forward, as if the orchestra had stood up and was leaning forward into the audience.

This deficiency, however, was a minor shortcoming that rarely manifested itself on most classical works. On Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony (EMI SLS 5117), the delicate woodwind, percussion, and solo piano passages were spectacular.

Reference Sonata: $500

As I swapped out the Platinum for the Sonata, I began to wonder if spending the extra $200 bucks would eliminate this weakness in the Platinum (the Sonata is basically a platinum with a more refined stylus-tip). It did that, and more. The Sonata did not suffer from the Platinums problems of high-level congestion and tension. In audition, it was even less veiled and more extended in the high frequencies, with improved resolution of inner detail and, overall, a more refined presentation.

The improved detail, transient speed and decay, and improved hall sound were very noticeable on George Crumb's Makrokosmos III (Nonesuch H 71311). This piece for piano and percussion makes extensive use for silence, and tends to separate the cartridge men from the boys. The subtle slurs on the hand drums, the decays on the battery of unorthodox percussion instruments and the reproduction of the room sound impressed me so much that I wrote in my notes "I wonder how much better the $1200 The Reference can be" (I learned the answer after a visit to Michael Fremer: based upon a listening session at his digs, I support his enthusiastic feelings for this pickup). Although I had noted that the platinum was an evolutionary improvement on the Signature 8MZ, on the Crumb recording the Sonata was a clear leap beyond. I'd go so far as to say that the Sonata reminded me of my Koetsu Urishi($4000) then of my 8MZ.

The cartridge made me want to mine my lode of Teresa Sterne-produced Nonesuch chamber recordings from the 70's Charles Wuorinen's Ringing Changes (Nonesuch H 71263), another percussion extravaganza, was breathtaking with the Sonata. The staging was precise, and I could follow the pitches on each individual drum. At times, I felt as if the musicians were in the room with me.

King Crimson's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Atlantic AT 7263) is another acid-test for a cartridge. On "Easy Money" the Deacon chimes shimmered and were perfectly placed in space, despite the dynamic churning of the bass guitar, Mellotron, bass, and drums swell during the instrumental buildup before the final verse, there are delicate percussion shadings in the background that are way down in the mix. With the Sonata, it was easy to follow these movements despite the electric cacophony up front.

Messiaen's Turangalila revealed more information with the Sonata. With the more expensive cartridge I was able to follow the attack and subtle dynamic techniques of the pianist, which were more uniform and smoothed out with the Platinum. Still, the Sonata's reproduction of Pulse did not articulate the high frequency extremes like an expensive moving-coil, but the wide and continuous dynamic performance and the illumination of the back wall of the stage brought out the best qualities of my Audio Research VT100 amplifier.

Overall the Sonata bettered the Platinum at both frequency extremes. Jascha Heifetz's tone on the Sibelius Violin Concerto (RCA LSC-2435) was sweet, searing, yet silky--the finest string tone I've heard from Grado - and the bass/drum/bass synthesizer duet on Jeff Beck's "Beyond The Veil" (Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop, Epic OC 44313) was tight, clean, and dynamic - the best I've ever from any cartridge.

How well did the Sonata perform in an area of historic strength for Grado - the voice? A quick spin of my original pressing of Ella Fitzgerald's Clap Hands", Here comes Charlie! (Verve V64053) produced the following listening notes: "No cartridge reproduces a female voice better than this."

Summing Up

John Grado has succeeded in extending his Uncle Joe's Legacy: high-quality analog reproduction for little money. At $300, the Reference Platinum cartridge is a fine evolutionary improvement on the classic Grado Signature 8 series, and is an extraordinary value for entry-level audiophiles. In fact, with so much new vinyl available today, a CD - only audiophile should consider taking the vinyl plunge by getting together a phono front-end like the Grado/Rega/Creek. It would be money well spent.

For the extra $200, however, the Reference Sonata represents a leap of performance beyond the platinum, and hints at what an expensive moving-coil can do. In fact, the performance level in a $20,000+ reference system was so impressive that it may be difficult for many to rationalize spending much more for a cartridge.

- Robert J. Reina

Stereophile Vol.21 No.6

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