A BRIEF HISTORY LESSON...
Grado cartridges, which have been in production since the early fifties, burst upon the high-end audio scene in the late seventies with the release of Joe Grado's ground breaking Signature. At the time, the original Signature set new standards for both performance and price. This $275 marvel (yes, $275 was a big deal then for a cartridge!) enthralled Harry Pearson and the staff at The Absolute Sound, and they, in turn, captured the imagination of the entire audiophile community. The evolution of the Grado signatures became a central saga in the pages of TAS from 1977 through 1980. With each new issue, we read of stunning new sonic enhancements coupled with staggering price escalations. By 1978, the Signature III was available at the unfathomable retail price of $750! Ironically, a 5.5% rate of inflation would bring us almost exactly to the Statements $2500 retail price in the year 2000. To further rub salt into this open wound, the October 1999 issue of Audio listed 21 other cartridges with prices equal to or greater than that of the flagship Grado, led by the Clearaudio Insider Reference topping the scales at $10,000! My, how times have changed.
Since Joe Grado continued to make Signature cartridges, he kept the Signature name. John, his nephew, continued to make the other Grado cartridges. Eventually, john launched a new series of state of the art phono cartridges called The Reference series. At the top of this hierarchy sat The Reference, at $1200. Like virtually every other Grado moving iron cartridge, The Reference weighed 6.5 grams, had a recommended tracking force of 1.5 grams, produced an output of 4.5 mV, an estimated frequency response from 10 Hz to 60 KHz add was based upon a flux bridge design. And this cartridge was indeed different as well. It had a mahogany body and "optimized transmission line technology"(OTL), a five section, telescoping cantilever made of a composite brass and aluminum material.
A REVOLUTIONARY DESIGN
With a price more than double that of Grado's The Reference, the initial question concerns the Statement's design. Is it revolutionary? "No," says John Grado. The company's basic moving iron design is more than 30 years old! Over time, virtually every aspect of its performance has been scrutinized, explored, tested and reevaluated. The designers know exactly what does what and why. Armed with this wealth of knowledge, Grado / has been able to offer a wide range of cartridges with some remarkable performance to price ratios. As new materials or techniques become available within the well known context of the basic cartridge design.
"OK," I say, "how in the world did you ever come up with Australian Jarah wood for the cartridge body?" Well, that turns out to be a fascinating story in and of itself. A 23-year-old Grado lover from Australia stopped by the rather unassuming factory one day and had a great visit. He extolled the virtues of Jarah, such as its hardness, and John was intrigued. After the fan returned home, he sent a piece of this locally popular timber back to Brooklyn. It was ultimately tried for both headphone and cartridge designs (but not before a number of years had gone by); the result was satisfying.
Showing off my familiarity with the evolution of The Reference series, I ask John if the Statement had pushed the OTL envelope even further with more sections of different combinations of materials. Once again the answer was polite, but simple No. The latest cartridge uses a single piece Boron cantilever. Since it is so difficult to machine, it is one of the few components that Grado has made for them.
So how can the output be so low in comparison with all of your earlier designs? "Turns," Grado replies patiently. In comparison to the other models, the Statement has far fewer turns, resulting in much lower output. While The Reference is listed with the ubiquitous Grado level of 4.5 mV, the Statement has an uncharacteristic 0.75 mV. This output puts the Statement in the high-end range of moving coils and way below what would normally be expected for a moving iron. The Statement can move right in and seem comfortably at home in most systems where a moving coil has previously been king of the hill. It will not overload most phono stages. Judging on output alone, I would have surely believed the Statement to be a moving coil.
When I raised the question of tip geometry, we ultimately decided to report it as a "proprietary design." Taken as a whole, the Statement was described as more open, with a more realistic soundstage and even more of the traditional Grado magic as an evolutionary extension of a well-honed design.
The Statement was particularly easy to mount, with clearly labeled outputs posts in a standard configuration with threaded holes in the top of the wooden body for a simple and straightforward mounting. I set it up as I would any other cartridge with to overhang, with the bottom of the body essentially parallel to the record's surface when playing. I started with tracking at 1.7 grams. Although I tried various other arrangements, none made major differences, as the cartridge was robust in most regards. I did find it a bit skittish if the tracing force became too low. Unlike some earlier Grado offerings, I had no problem with tracking, wobble or hum in any of three different turntable tonearm combinations that I tried.
First and foremost, the Statement is a cartridge rightfully battling for a position at the head of the class. Without question, this is the finest moving iron design I have ever heard. Having said that, I have heard many moving coils that are far superior to other moving irons/magnets that I have auditioned. The moving iron/magnet contest is over, the Statement taking the blue ribbon, but the real test is just beginning. Just how good of a cartridge is this oddly unorthodox and simultaneously traditional design?
The Statement is a "tweener" -- it has more output than most moving coils and less than most moving irons. Since the majority of audiophile analog setups are capable of accepting moving coils, the output of the Statement will be relatively high. This will lead to a number of perceptions and assumptions. Remember that loud only means loud. Yes, the Statement will be relatively louder at the same volume settings as those used for other cartridges with lower output. Tonal balance shifts with volume level, as does our general perception of dynamics. Only with time does the cartridge begin to fully illustrate its true characteristics. But it takes very little time to realize some of the clear advantages of higher output. For one, noise is lessened as the requisite volume is lowered to achieve the same SPLs. With tube setups such as mine, the inherent noise floor is pushed deeper into the background, another benefit of lower volume settings.
With intrusive amusical sounds lessened, you might expect the Statement to bring out more detail against a blacker background. That did indeed occur. The Statement consistently did a fine job of reproducing detail, and it was able to do so during both loud and complex passages. Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances provided an excellent illustration of these strengths. The impressive dynamic range of this recording was also handled very well by the Statement, clarifying one of those first impressions. In addition to being loud in an absolute sense, the cartridge did an excellent job of reproducing all the subtle volume levels in the performance. Its sonic characteristics remained essentially unchanged during soft or loud sections, and its clarity remained intact as well.
While the Statement played louder, in a relative sense, at the same volume settings as most coils I had on hand, that is hardly the whole story. The Statement loved being played loudly. Its performance was exemplary at higher levels, with no change in character, no confusion and no loss of any major musical element. It had great dynamic capability at both high and low levels, making every contrasting sound level obvious. The combination of black backgrounds being able to play loudly and great dynamic capability was captivating on recordings that could take full advantage of these strengths. The great Athena release of the Rachmaninoff was one of those recordings, but the effects are equally captivating on multitracked artistry such as The Art Of Noise's "Instruments Of Darkness." The open, spacious, dynamic, in the room performance were engrossing.
The Rachmaninoff served as an excellent illustration of the Statement's treatment of the soundstage. It was very wide, with good to very good recreation of depth. Sounds were located precisely within the soundstage and stayed in place with neither wander of placement, nor diffusion of image. The overall character was both open and airy. With respect to perspective, the Statement placed you close to the performers, since it put the front of the stage in a plane with the speakers. As I have written before, I personally prefer a slightly more distant perspective where the soundstage is behind and wrapping around my speakers. Often when a soundstage is as in the room as this, there are obvious tonal aberrations. I did not find this to be true with the top of the line Grado. The staging added to the dynamic capability, bringing an element of excitement to many performances, such as Rickie Lee Jones' debut recording or any hit track from the fabulous histories of Queen or the Who.
Tonal balance seemed fine throughout the frequency range. I chose two favorites to assess the bass. The first was an old mono recording of "Comin' Home Baby" by Herbie Mann. The lower regions were tight and clean, and had the ability to propel the pace of the music. Going for a much higher standard of quality, I opted for "Righteous Boogie Bass" from Ray Brown and John Clayton's Super Bass. On this splendid recording, the bottom was smooth, open and clear. Individual bass lines were easy to distinguish and follow. The nuance of how a string was plucked or bowed was readily obvious. The lower frequencies enriched the sound with a sense of space, and provided the forceful drive to the pace of the musical Statement.
At the opposite frequency extreme, I opted for some old favorites as well. With Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo A La Turk", the upper range of the piano, as well as the electrifying cymbals, was excellent. There was no added hardness or brightness, and nothing offensive was done to the music. My second specific challenge was the solo violin from the third movement of Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade. It was simply lovely in its natural sweetness, no doubt preparing me to hear any number of additional Arabian tales. What truly impressed me was the recreation of the harp in this movement: with all too many cartridges, it either loses it's identify or is lost almost entirely. The Statement did a great job in bringing it out, thanks to its clarity and resolution of detail.
Nothing was added in the ever so critical midrange, and clarity was equally strong. But it was here where I had my only real questions about the performance of the Statement: While everything was pleasant and musical, it just wasn't as rich in harmonic textures as the best moving coils I have heard. Admittedly, this is a criticism at the level of a quibble. The Statement did reproduce full, rich harmonic structures. In listening specifically for midrange richness, I played all sorts of music, a great deal of which hadn't seen the light of day in years. One such recording was Rapture by Anita Baker. The vocals were magical, but my listening notes invariably focused on other characteristics. While enjoying "You Bring Me Joy" for the umpteenth time, I noticed black spaces, great pace, smooth jazz with real world dynamics and different sounds from different places.
Since the cartridge was so easy to listen to, I found myself missing little things. Said more precisely, it wasn't as though these sounds weren't there, they had just become less obvious. For example, Herbie Mann hums when he plays, but this didn't stand out with the Statement. I didn't sing along with backup vocals as much as usual, as they had moved deeper into the background. And yet, even weak voices tended to sound very natural. A great illustration of this was Laurie Anderson's monologue preceding "O Superman" from United States of America. Rickie Lee Jones provides another fine example. By the same token, I have used other cartridges in my systems where these vocals are slightly richer and fuller - almost pushed up in the mix somewhat. The more time I spent with the Statement, the more I was aware of this one unique concern of harmonic richness in spite of a consistently satisfying musical presentation.
As time went on, I grew progressively more comfortable with the Statement. I learned that it really didn't enjoy being played at atypically low level=levels, preferring the music to be played at or near realistic levels. The Statement invariably had me tapping my foot, singing along or dancing by myself. The cartridge did a splendid job of conveying the pace and rhythm of the music, but it always did so musically. There was no mid-bass, dance club emphasis, nor was there a surgically precise dissection of the music into discrete pieces where the rhythm would be easier to follow. Never in my listening sessions did I think of the cartridge as fast, although it was always quick. The former, to me, is an artifact of hi-fi and not music. The latter is a musical trait. Again, an example best illustrates my point. I suggest listening to something like the stunning direct to disc Sheffield Lab recording of "Corner Pocket" by Harry James. The tightness of the musicians was brilliantly captured by the quickness of the Grado, but there was never an artificial perception of reproductive speed. In many ways, this is a wonderful recording to pull all my impressions together. The moving iron was open, extended at both extremes, smooth, natural, dynamic, rich, big, close, punchy and very musical.
The Grado Statement is a great cartridge using any standard of comparison. While it is a moving iron design, it may not work well in systems best suited to such designs. Its unusual output level will make it a nearly perfect match for virtually every phono-stage in existence. In such systems, it will further reduce noise. In any case, it truly minimizes concerns with setup, as it is easy to install and remarkably tolerant to most setup parameters. Sonically, its wide and open sound-staging, close perspective, consistent clarity, high and low level dynamics, overall frequency balance and steadfastly satisfying musicality make it very easy to live with for a long time. While the design itself may be evolutionary, the performance can readily be regarded as a revolutionary step forward.