Sonata1 & Platinum1
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."
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
The newly redesigned Platinum1 and Sonata1 have had their coil design reconfigured, and the effective moving mass of their generating system has been reduced by 17%. All this is hand-assembled within a machined, new processed, Australian Jarrah wood housing. The Platinum1 and Sonata1 models use a modified four piece OTL cantilever technology achieving a 10% tip mass reduction over the Prestige series and ultra-high purity long crystal (UHPLC) oxygen free copper wire in the coils. The Platinum model uses Grado's specially designed elliptical diamond mounted on a brass bushing, and the Sonata model uses Grado's specially designed nude elliptical diamond.
What People are saying about the Sonata...
and about the Platinum...