There aren't many dynasties in the high-end audio, particularly ones that extend back the vast eons to it's founding days in the 1950's.The Grado folks, however, have been present since the very beginning and Father Joe has been a leader in phono cartridge development for roughly half century, It shouldn't be surprising, therefore, that I turned to the Grado firm while looking for an affordable path to reference quality analog sound. Companies like Shure may have an equally distinguished history, but no company I know of has the same lineage in terms of owner-designers from the same family refining their product over a period of decades. Koetsu is the only potential rival I can think of, and it's much younger (not to mention more expensive) dynasty.
The combination of the Grado Statement Sonata cartridge and PH-1 phono amp also just happened to exactly meet the $1,000.00 limit I currently define as "affordable." I grant you that this meaning of "affordable" is also one that could only apply to high-end audio. There also are much cheaper approaches to entry-level analog. Phono pre-amps from Creek, Musical Fidelity, Rega, and Sumiko, for example, cost substantially less than the $500.00 list of Grado's PH-1. You also do not need to spend $500.00 for the Statement Sonata phono cartridge, since Grado sells a range of cartridge models that begin at all of $40.00. And don't you think that the cheapest Grado can't be particularly good. It is! The fact is, however, that the Statement Sonata cartridge and PH-1 phono amp make a superb combination, they are easy to set up, and they produce some of the best sound around. I also feel it will be of more than passing importance to an audiophile shopping in this price range that the Statement Sonata and PH-1 will really produce excellent sound and also will work well in virtually any properly set up tone-arm and turntable.
One of the great joys of analog should be that there are at least as many different "voices" to cartridges as there are to musical instruments and speakers and that you can match the sound of a cartridge to your particular taste in sound. I don't know, however, of many dealers today who will give you the chance to audition different cartridges, or who can explain the interface problems with given phono pre-amps and tonearms. I'd like to think there was a true analog specialist within driving range of every reader's home, but few dealers really specialize in analog sound these days. And worse, manufacturers tell me far to many horror stories about dealer who provide no auditions or badly set up gear, and then perhaps worse- than try to sell the product with no right or wrong set up.
This doesn't mean that Grado Statement Sonata cartridge and PH-1 are not "bullet proof". They can be set up incorrectly and they can produce hum in some combinations of tonearm and turntable. However, they are far more system tolerant than most such combinations.
For obvious reasons, the PH-1 phono preamp and Statement Sonata are an exact match in terms of loading and gain. The Statement Sonata is less simple to set up and handle than the PH-1, but is very practical and reliable for any audiophile willing to provide a minimum of care. Even though the Sonata has a low 0.5mv output more common to moving coil cartridges than moving-magnet types, I had no hum problems with a variety of Audioquest, Triplanar, and VPI tone-arms, and tracking was good to very good with tracking force set at 1.5 to 1.7 grams, even with warped records.
The cartridge body of the Sonata is shaped in ways that allow easy visual alignment of vertical azimuth and the vertical tracking angle. Alignment using the cartridge body produced good results in both areas and was consistent with both a new and broken-in cartridge. This is not true of far too many of today's cartridges.
Some care is needed in mounting and handling the cartridge. The Statement Sonata does not have the user changeable stylus of older Grados. It has a wood body that matches the PH-1's case, but this body only partially protects the open mechanism and stylus assembly is not as robust as the ones in older Grados. It uses much smaller, modified four-piece OTL cantilever technology to achieve a 10 percent tip-mass reduction over the Grado Prestige series. As a result, the Sonata does need careful handling while its being mounted in the tone arm.
However, the Statement Sonata does not require exceptional care once mounted. The specially designed nude elliptical diamond stylus in the Sonata is relatively tolerant to different set-ups and groove variations, but still produces an immense amount of natural musical detail. Far too many cartridges with complex stylus shapes produce excess treble energy or increased record noise or have trouble with slightly warped or worn records. The Statement Sonata lowers smoothly into the groove . The cartridge does not produce any of the jitter as it is first lowered into the groove or goes into the lead-out groove at the end of the record that other Grados did, and the cartridge body rides safely above the record even with warped records.
In short, be careful to protect the stylus assembly during set-up, pay strict attention to the cartridge and tonearm mounting instructions, and provide proper grounding of the phono preamp and tonearm. Be reasonably smart about lowering and raising the cartridge while playing records, and you have a cartridge that should survive quite handily for years.
As for the sound of the Grado Statement cartridge and PH-1 phono preamp, I was not surprised to get excellent sonic results for the money. Grado has always delivered in this respect. I was surprised; however, by the improvement in sonic nuances that the Statement Sonata cartridge made over the Grados I've auditioned in the past.
I expect superb midrange performance with a Grado product. Grado has been providing this for it's entire existence. In the past, however, this superb midrange has come at a price of deep bass and upper octaves that weren't quite as tight and clean as the midrange. The result has been a rich, but slightly imbalanced sound, similar in many ways to older tube preamps and amplifiers.
Grado also is basically a moving-magnet design and this has had another kind of sonic price tag. Joe Grado (the current President John Grado's Uncle) is one of the inventors of the moving-coil cartridge, but he always felt that moving coils were too resonant and had an artificial life that only came from upper octave peaks and ringing. He also was reluctant to experiment with small, fragile cantilevers and style shapes. There is no question that Joe Grado was right in many respects. Far too many moving coils had - and have - a rising top end that adds artificial "life" to the music as well as produces added groove noise. Even Today, many cartridges seem to have cantilever assemblies that are far too fragile and either fail or change the sound of the cartridge with time.
At the same time, the older Grados tended to sound very smooth but lack the life and detail of the best moving-coils. They always sounded a bit over-controlled and dull to me. They had air but did not keep up with the steady improvement in the best moving coils, and their upper octaves never quite had the level of musical energy they should. Cartridge loading was also a problem. High impedance loading gave the Grados more life, but at the expense of control and clean sound. Low impedance loading made them smother but dulled them.
The Statement Sonata and PH-1 combination are a different story in every respect. The deep bass is far better in terms of power, control, and detail. The sound of organ music is excellent even with my most demanding old Crystal direct-to-disc LP's. The same is true of the bass drums on my old Telarc demo records, and the God-awful cannons at the climax of the Telarc 1812. The Sonata even does a good job in resolving the loudest, bass heavy passages in the Telarc Saint Saen's Third symphony, which is the LP from hell in terms of complex bass passages.
More importantly, the Sonata does a great job in reproducing the bass with classic jazz, bass guitar, and ordinary symphonic music. It also really gets down into the detail of the rhythm line in remasterings of old rock. (Try Credence Clearwater Revival's Chronicle, Fantasy Stereo CCR-2) There also seemed to be a natural synergy between the Statement Sonata and PH-1. I got slightly better bass using the PH-1 than using my much more expensive Krell and Pass phono preamps - something that was not true when I used the PH-1 with other brands of cartridges. Perhaps it's a matter of a better match in cartridge loading. In any case you get very, very good bass for the money.
Yes, the midrange was excellent. It was more detailed than was the case of my older Grado cartridges, but was still rich, sweet and compelling. Maybe still just a touch warm, but just a touch. I'd call it seductive rather than colored, and the sound staging in the midrange was a real joy. I don't know of any moving coils that do not cost more for the cartridge alone than the Grado Statement Sonata and PH-1 combined, that do as good a job of providing an open, three dimensional, and stable sound stage. And, the sound stage does not degrade with complex musical material. (Excellent reproduction of the sound stage in complex Bach and Tellemann chamber music in German Chamber Music, Accent 8019) My reference, $4000.00, van den Hul does do better, but the Grado really provides an outstanding soundstage for the money.
The upper octaves of the Sonata Statement were also more extended , more open, and had more air than older Grados. I did not measure the frequency response in detail-I've learned the hard way that such measurements rarely correlate to what I hear. The upper octaves of the Grado Sonata did, however, extend to the limits of my test records and sounded very smooth. More important, there was no hint of glare or excess energy, but there was a lot of upper octave detail and air. (Very good results with a special pressing of the L.A.4's Watch What Happens, Concord Jazz CJ63, and Direct Disc Recording by Charlie Byrd, Crystal, 8002).
The Upper octaves of the Sonata Statement and PH-1 did have limits. Some expensive moving coils do a better job in the upper octaves, and my Krell and Pass phono preamps did outperform the PH-1 in this region even when I drove the PH1 with the Sonata. At the same time, the upper octaves of the Statement Sonata and PH1 combined with the midrange to produce a very nice illusion of natural mid to mid-rear hall sound. If you like live music - which has an amazing lack of high frequency energy common on virtually all-modern recordings - You will find the Grados upper octaves do a very good job of matching musical reality. If you want to make the sound of LP's have the same tendency toward upper octave glare as most CDs, this isn't the combination for you.
As for the issue of musical life and dynamic excitement, the Statement Sonata and PH-1 do very well indeed. You will not hear any of the false excitement or energy that comes from the upper octave peaks and resonances in many - if not most- moving coils. You will hear more sound stage life than in older Grados, more natural life in solo instruments, more sound stage life and excitement to those recordings that have both depth and natural musical energy.
I would argue that the very best moving coils still have more apparent "life" and dynamic energy than the Sonata. I've done a lot of comparative listening in the past years to moving coil cartridges and direct copies of the master tape used to make record. Most of the time, the tape does have more life and energy than an LP offers when reproduced by a moving coil. It is clear that something is happening with such a cartridge that is more a matter of exciting coloration than accuracy. Ironically this coloration is particularly common with moving coil cartridges that use very exotic styluses and cantilevers, have very low outputs, and are extremely expensive. In general, the more you pay, the more colored and exotic the sounds tend to get.
If you want to carry out comparative listening on your own, I have found Sumiko and van den Hul cartridges provide some of the best moving coil sound around, and both have moving coil models in the same general price range as the Statement Sonata. At the same time, it should be clear that the Grado dynasty has gotten better with time, and the Statement Sonata and PH-1s are remarkably lifelike and musical combination. (Each incidentally, also works very well indeed on it's own) I suspect that a few "affordable" combinations in anything like their price range are free of listening fatigue, and offer as musically natural as sound.
Very nice indeed!