Sonata1 & Platinum1

Sonata1 & Platinum1
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Sonata1 & Platinum1 REVIEW

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.

Sonata1 & Platinum1

Features:

Buy Grado Direct from 4OurEars.net
Frequency Response
10-60
Principal
MI
Channel Separation at 1KHz
40
Imput Load
47K
Output at 1KHz 5CM/sec.
5mV
Recommended Tracking Force
1.5
Stylus Type
E
Inductance
45mH
Resistance
475
Compliance CUs
20
Stylus Replacement F=Factory
F
Mounting
S
Weight
6.5

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...

"After a week of warm-up, during which the Sonata was most notable for the solidity of its bass and power of its subsonic bass, the sound started to become very musical."
— Andrew Marshall / Audio Ideas Guide / Canada
"For the extra money, the Reference Sonata represents a leap of performance beyond the Platinum and hints at what an expensive moving coil can do."
— Stereophile / Robert Reina Vol.21, No.6
"No cartridge reproduces a female voice better than this."
— Stereophile / Robert Reina Vol.21, No.6
"I'd go so far as to say that the Sonata reminded me more of my Koetsu Urishi ($4000) then of my 8MZ."
— Stereophile / Robert Reina Vol.21, No.6
"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?"
— Michael Jones / AudioEnz
"...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."
— Notes and Updates to Ron's Audio-Files / Ron Zeman

and about the Platinum...

"Let me say straight out: like the Maggie 1.6QRs or the Goldman SRA, the Grado Platinum is one of those incredible bargains that doesn't just give you a "taste" of high fidelity but pretty much the whole enchilada for the price of, er, a whole enchilada."
— Fi magazine / Jonathan Valin Vol.3, No.11
"A prime advantage/disadvantage of phono reproduction is that every cartridge sounds different. Choosing one is like selecting wine, a process easy to get lost in. But if the cartridge is good enough, like Grado's Platinum, you'll get lost in the music."
— Audio / Ivan Berger Vol.82, No. 2
"On Antel Dorati's interpretation of Stravinsky's Firebird, the Platinum's reproduction of room sound and image dimensionality gave a vibrant sense of realism to the work."
— Stereophile / Robert Reina Vol.21, No.6
"If this is the bottom of the range, then what does the flagship model offer?"
— HiFi News / Ken Kessler
"At the level of investment that brings you a Reference Platinum, the performance is a amazing!"
— Primyl Vinyl Exchange / Bruce Kennett
"The Grado Reference Platinum phono cartridge is the most musical cartridge I've ever heard, period!"
— Audio Adventure / Dayna B Vol.4, No.1