Grado and Rega - for decades these names have been balm to the pocketbooks of blue-collar vinyl lovers, providing high performance and terrific value. Given the state of the world's economy, we thought it might be a good time to catch you up on a few recent offerings from both companies-no matter what color collar you happen to wear to work.
One thing Rega and Grado deliver, and in my experience this is true regardless of which of their models you choose, is that vague thing we call "musicality." For me, the term "musical" is not so much a matter of tonal balance - cool vs. warm (though warmer is generally friendlier and hence perceived as more musical) - but weather or not a given system of piece of equipment grabs our minds and emotions and pulls us into a recorded performance.
Grado's hundred-and-eighty dollar Prestige Gold cartridge has it's flaws-a lack of inner detail and audible grain being chief among them (the latter brings to mind the tannic pull of a young red wine) but its strengths are such that you can easily listen through them. These strengths include a somewhat-too-warm yet very pleasant (and yes euphonious) balance, a sweet if not hugely airy treble, a taut if not especially layered bass, and a remarkably lively presentation. Interestingly, these additions seem to compliment the sound of certain instruments, like Stevie Ray Vaughn's classic Fender Stratocaster/Super reverb amp combo and Nathan Milstein's famous Stradivarius (on both of which the cartridge sounds sweet, warm and liquid, reminiscent of what we hear with certain tube electronics). But that doesn't mean the Prestige Gold will limit your musical enjoyment. I played a wide range other LPs during my time with it, most memorably Acoustic Sounds' gorgeously produced set of Ella Fitzgerald's George and Ira Gershwin Song Books and two recent Sundazed pressings-Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and, for Dylan fans the must have mono-edition of Blonde on Blonde. In both cases the Prestige Gold's sound was readily identifiable, but after just a few seconds it didn't seem to matter much, so engaging were the results. With its narrow profile and metal body, the Prestige Gold has classic Grado looks and sound.
Now, if you can spring for it, let me tell you that everything the Prestige Gold does well, plus a whole lot more, can be found in the wood-bodied Grado Statement Sonata. Though it's $500.00 retail is significant leap up, so is it's sound. Whereas the Gold sounds a little scruffy and a mite too warm, the Sonata retains that model's welcoming qualities and sweet sounding treble adds far greater neutrality, refinement, and resolution. The Sonata has an impressive top-to-bottom uniformity of frequency response, rendering the complex harmonic structure of Nathan Milstein's Stradivarius as ravishingly as it does Ella Fitzgerald's honeyed upper register, slightly smokey middle, and throaty lower range. Dynamics, too, are much improved over the Gold. Not only with micro-level information-the small peaks and valleys required to convincingly deliver Bach partita or those little trills Ella sprinkles into her performances-but with large scale orchestral pieces, too, such as Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15 (Haitink/London Philharmonic, London) where the last movement segues from full-scale crescendo to lilting chamber symphony, Wagnerian quotes and all. This record also displays the Sonata's marvelous holography and transparency, with a gorgeous orchestral spread and layers of depth. And though the Sonata showed consistent excellence with stereo staging and imaging, one always sensed a truth to the recording, without exaggerated effect.
The phono preamp I used is Grado's newish PH-1. Another wood-bodied product, the PH-1 is the culmination of years of work in which Grado strived to build a versatile phono preamplifier that would work equally well with both high and low-output cartridges (from 0.4-4.5mv) with low noise, wide bandwidth, high headroom, accurate RIAA amplitude and phase coherence, and low output impedance. Installing the PH-1 is simplicity itself. The back panel has input and output jacks, a ground post, and a connector for 12V power supply, while the front has the Grado logo and a red LED power-on indicator. Gain is switched via a toggle on the bottom panel. (I had the chance to experiment with both settings, as the prestige Gold is high output at 4.5mv and the Reference Sonata is low at .5mV).
Most outboard phono stages are sensitive to placement, and the Grado did hum ever so slightly until relocated well away from associated power supply transformers and system cables. Otherwise the PH-1 requires no special install considerations Which is a very good thing, because this is a very good phono preamplifier. Its sound is open, airy, and easy, with a large, expansive presentation. It can be delicate when required, and yet can scream with the loudest rock playback-check out Stevie Ray's Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" and Tin Pan Alley' from Couldn't Stand The Weather (Epic). The PH-1 shares many attributes with the Statement Sonata; It's holographic, laying out a convincing soundstage in all directions, including height (as heard in the Shostakovich No. 15); its warm, but not unnaturally so; and it brings a lovely quality to lower octaves, rendering them with texture, tonal refinement, and, when asked for, power.
Grado offers an awful lot of terrific analog at affordable prices- and that's worth a listen, even if you haven't been squeezed by this economy.