It has been over seventeen years since the compact disc took the Audio world by storm with its promises of "perfect sound forever." We are in the year 2002 and see more and more music lovers with an interest in natural sound pursuing vinyl and revitalizing dusty old records from their shelves. They are finding out that the LP medium still makes CD sound positively sterile and crude in comparison. We are not talking of course of those poorly mastered records with lots of inner groove distortions and generally poorly made vinyl processing, but just in general terms, analog LP reproduction with an excellent table, arm and cartridge can lead the music lover to receive a very pleasurable experience indeed, one that is utterly relaxing and quite fulfilling.
There has always been much disagreement in the audiophile community as to which type of cartridge design has been best, either the moving coil or the moving iron-moving magnet concepts. With yesterdays' technology I could see that the moving coils despite their advantages had severe shortcomings. In fact practically all the pre 1980 cartridges had horrendous high frequency peaks that started to rise about 8khz. The Ortofons were detailed but very irritating with prolonged listening exposure. Supexes had pellucid midranges but still impaired music with a raw whitish top end. More often than not audiophiles who had never gone to live concerts reveled in this kind of hallucinatory fascination of better detail and sharper transients; a surreal alternative that simply does not exist in the real event.
Those who were in the other camp, primarily individuals as Peter Pritchard and Joseph Grado stressed the fact that moving magnets and moving irons were simply a better way to go. Pritchard for example, used very high compliance cartridges during his design work at Audio Dynamics but the arms of the day failed to do justice to the exceptional capability that his cartridges, could achieve. For instance, his ADC model 25 pickup system, an induced magnet design from the late 60s needed a stable extremely low mass arm capable of keeping the required tracking force of 0.7 grams accurately while maintaining the incredible compliance (120 x 10-6cm/dyne in the lateral and an equally high 50x10-6cm/dyne in the vertical). The result: collapsing of cantilevers and poor reproduction of sound since the old arms were incapable of retrieving the cartridges' true potential. After some years of research there came a proliferation of low mass arms (Vestigial, Grace, Infinity Black Widows, etc.). However they are all gone now and the fascination for the moving magnet has just about disappeared.
Come Joe Grado, the originator of the moving coil cartridge and vehemently opposed continuing research in the moving coil concept. He has always felt that the moving-coil principle is in essence not an ideal design and not as musical as the alternative, the flux bridger concept, in turn a moving-iron variant.
Despite flirtations with other famous pickups, namely Koetsu, Clearaudio and Lyra, using an exhaustive proliferation of components to preserve synergy at all costs and with audio experience of more than forty years in collecting over 20,000 classical LPs, the moving coil, in this writers' opinion has never been able to deliver a truly satisfying natural sound reproduction from the record groove in a manner that makes one forget there is an audio component in the chain.
Indeed in practically all cases, one way or another the moving coil alters the structure and timbre of the musical tone. Yes, today's best moving coils do capture the steep transient attacks as well as the musical wave fronts in a manner that conveys the glory and impact of the real instrument. However, why is it that the strings always sound wrong!! Let me make it perfectly clear that this is where not only the moving coil but also practically all transducer technology including the exotic types such as the electrostatic and FM cartridges has really lagged behind.
In real live music, strings have an ease and rosin quality that makes recorded music seem like a pale copy of the original sound and CDs of course sound even worse; positively flat. Analog reproduction comes closer but is still very difficult to approximate, since the whole problem starts in the recording process, all the way to the record cutters and unto the playback gear.
Grado cartridges since the beginnings of the original Signature series were famous for recreating string reproduction better than practically any other cartridge extant. Going through my arsenal of Signature collections at my disposal I started listening from the fabled Signature 1, 2 and 3 to the 8 and culminating on the last one, the XTZ model. The gap has always been like being in a roller coaster. Sometimes the tradeoffs were: superb transient definition, tracking ability but thinner sound and a lack of midrange warmth. The end result was frustrating for the music lover who needed a cartridge capable of retrieving everything contained in the record groove but with a budget not in the millionaire level.
Which brings us to the updated Statement cartridge developed by John Grado, Joe's nephew and the successor to the throne to the Grado family. It now makes more reasonable sense than ever before to own a high end Grado cartridge, primarily if your conception in sound reproduction is of a pure but unadulterated form. Let me now tell you the great news: this is tonally and harmonically not only the best Grado cartridge ever made but tonally and harmonically the most natural sounding cartridge for the reproduction of all musical instruments. Woodwinds, piano and string reproduction are all in a class by themselves. Voice reproduction, a true forte of Grado cartridges needs no accolades here: the vocal sound is positively breathtaking.
This cartridge cleans up every recorded disc sound it touches a kind of garbage (you name it) that we have accepted as part and parcel of disc reproduction; it simply vanishes here, but without any loss of harmonic or musical material. Let me at this time say this: The more you know about the sounds of live music, the more impressed you are going to feel about the efforts this cartridge has made in the quest for the perfect pickup. Yes, this output is low (0.5 mv); the lowest ever offered by Grado, yes it demands a high quality medium to high mass tone arm with minimum resonance modes, high purity cables, etc But, what a revelation it is to hear not only the transient attacks correct (like the best moving coils) but also the tonality of the musical instrument for the first time correct.
I have stayed until the wee hours of the night using two state of the art systems and in every case LP reproduction was an unqualified joy.
This cartridge allows us to hear the musical harmonics to sound convincingly without falsifying any frequency domain. The depth on this cartridge is just outstanding. The field of the orchestra spread out as in live music. Instruments are located in their proper position. In fact the resolution of this cartridge is so high that I wanted to know if I missed anything by not going to a moving coil cartridge. When I did go back to a highly touted recent MC comparably priced to the Statement (one that a very famous editor gave a 5-star rating in a recent periodical) there was just no comparison: Whatever warmth the moving coil cartridge competitor had it was obviously hyped. This obviously is accomplished by an ingenious compensation in the design to allow for the mechanical system limitations. It simply is not natural. Please note if you did not compare the two cartridges the MC sounded perfectly fine: articulate, detailed with no apparent rising response. When we bring in the Statement, the instrumental line improvement is very obvious: the tonal colors of the instruments are palpably real and with a greater sense of air, gravity and proportion. The flux bridger moving iron design wins by a greater degree in also providing a natural sound with a more holographic presentation.
In another case, comparing an expensive MC cartridge now carrying a $10,000.00 price tag, the Statement was superior in tracing the grooves accurately. The MC competitor failed to stay in the grooves with the violent modulations during a climactic Flamenco vocal passage on a now collectable M and K direct disc recording. The Grado tracked flawlessly at 1.5 grams, the MC even at a high 3.5 gram tracking force generated lots of modulation distortion.
Every time I hear one reviewer tout this cartridge or the other they go at lengths to describe how much excitement they can hear with a new product without making sense of how natural it reproduces music. It makes me suspicious of these so-called golden ear reviewers. Let me state that the redeeming quality of any audio product is how long it can provide listener satisfaction with the lowest listening fatigue in the long term with anything but being conscious of a sound. A transducer is that similar.
With the revised Grado Statement I hear no grain; there is purity in the reproduced sound that I have never heard with any cartridge or cartridge system before it. This level of performance is so high that it allows the greatness of music whether it is a Bach Cantata or the B minor Sonata by Liszt or the magical voice of a Luciano Pavarotti manifest itself in all its glory and splendor.
Is the new Statement the finest cartridge in the world? Some cartridge in this exalted price level as well as far more expensive ones have many outstanding qualities: excellent spatial definition, superb frequency response linearity, many have just as much resolution, or superb tracking ability. Nonetheless, I guarantee you that NONE has ALL the qualities of the new Statement. Therefore, if you must have a cartridge that makes all musical instruments sound correct in their timbre regardless of price consideration then you have a tour de force of cartridge design if there ever was one. Forget the moving coils Let us now crown the Masterpiece of Pickups: the new Grado "The Statement."
Associated Components used in the evaluation:
Infinity IRS V and QRS mk II speaker systems; Clearaudio Reference turntable with Clearaudio Souther and ET 2.5 tonearms; Oracle Premier mk II and Linn Sondek LP-12/Lingo turntables with Grado Signature tonearms; Clearaudio Insider Reference Wood, Lyra Helikon, Koetsu Rosewood Signature and other vintage Grado Signature cartridges; Conrad Johnson Premier 8A and VTL 240 tube amps; Conrad Johnson Premier 7A and Audio Research SP-10 Mk II preamps; Acrotec 8N/6N and Van Den Hul The First Interconnects and speaker cables.