If you read my review of the Welborne Laurel 300B's, you know I'm a sap for wood. Picture these walnut monoblocks, AR turntable and veneered Klipsch Heresies, not to mention six or eight guitars, and you want to make sure Silverstein doesn't deplete any old growth forests in pursuit of his music. So you wouldn't have lost the bet if you'd have wagered I'd be hot to hear Grado's hand made mahogany moving magnets. Since I've been quite fond of their earlier $180 Z1+ and know it well, I thought it would be informative to step up the ladder and see how the Grados sound at higher price points.
Having seen positive notices on the $300 Grado Reference Platinum, I guessed it would be a fair upgrade, and so I spoke with John Grado. Nephew of the legendary Joe Grado, John presides over the business, claimed to be the oldest family-run enterprise in audio today. John started in the family business as a young teenager. Did he care that I was going to listen to his baby on a 28-year-old AR with the well-criticized original arm? No. In fact he asked whether I would like to hear the Platinum's more expensive sibling. "But I'm using this old turntable, with an arm all the snobs hold their noses at how could I possibly hear the difference?" John was confident that I would, and shipped off the Platinum, and the 2.6 times the price tag Reference Master ($800).
If you know the old AR XA, you're familiar with its hard-to-find plastic headshell. I reasoned that a good process would be to mount the Grados each in its own shell. Easier said than done. Eric LeWinter at Lyle Cartridges said "Jeff you're going to have a problem." I thought he was talking about the well-known hum concerns in using Grados with the AR, and told him that by using George Merrill's recommended ground wire on the AR my Z1+ wasn't humming. But Eric was referring to the fact that the wood Grados have top holes and couldn't mount to the AR shells, which only take screws from the bottom. A short chat with Grado's John Chapis, who happens to have 3 AR tables, solved the problem. Chapis would drill through the plastic top of the AR headshells, and voila. My AR is on Tall Tiptoes, with a Ringmat, and now on a Mana Acoustics Reference Table.
I'm never sure what any of these words like Reference, Statement, Signature, and even Entry Level mean. Whether they're Gordon Holtisms or Pearsonisms, or have crept into language as a sort of caste system, who cares. Steve Sullivan mentioned that Joe Grado had told him he was the first user of the "signature" moniker. To me a designer makes a Statement in every product he or she creates, at any price point. The $40 Grado cartridges and $50 headphones are as much a Statement as stuff at the top of the line, and from a consumer point of view, perhaps a bigger one. The word "reference" has been so overused and diluted from multiple meanings, that I suggested that David Robinson convene a roundtable to figure out what it means, or should mean.1 So I'm not worried about what the cartridges are called, but how they sound.
To "break in" the Grado Master Reference I put on Karl Munchinger's 1965 St. Matthew's Passion (OSA 1431), a mint London Stereo ffrr. What I heard wasn't Bach, it was the Voice of God. Not the Voice of God of Ravi Shankar and Allah Rakha, or La Fernanda de Utrera singing por Soleares, or even Charlie Parker or Jimi or Robert Johnson. I heard an angelic cathedral of sound of such sublime sonority and purity that it hurt. 8 sides later...
As a rookie reviewer and one who sometimes looks at the vocabulary of audio reviewing much like Groucho said to Margaret Dumont, "Say, you haven't stopped talking since you got here; you must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle," I don't have lots of reviewer-speak for the Grados. But as a storyteller I prefer to use analogy. Have you ever tried to figure out what Rickie Lee Jones is singing? I mean, even with the album cover lyrics in your lap? With the Reference Master revealing the articulations of her hipster mumble, I could figure it out easily. Oh, so that's what she's saying!
Speaking of album covers in your lap, I often say that CDs could be the demise of musical literacy, because kids can simply not get at the 6 point type stuck in that tiny package. I know, I know, CD ROM notes projected on the home theater screen, websites, etc. But how many of you got your musical education about lyrics, composers, sidemen, and great critical writing from those LP jackets?
Back to cartridges. The $800 Grado Reference Master is second from the top of Grado's line of mahogany encased moving magnets. The line starts at the $300 Platinum, continues to the $500 Sonata, then the Master, and is currently topped with the $1200 Reference Reference. John Grado says to consider the Platinum and Sonata sisters and the Master and Reference sisters, by virtue of the fact that the two pairs have differences in the generators.
The Platinum (and Sonata) models use a modified four piece cantilever technology achieving a 10% tip mass reduction over their less costly Prestige series and ultra-high purity long crystal oxygen free copper wire in the coils. The Platinum uses a specially designed elliptical diamond mounted on a brass bushing, while the Sonata uses a nude elliptical diamond.
The Master (and Reference Reference) use a five piece cantilever and achieve an additional 5% tip mass reduction over the Platinum. The Master uses a nude elliptical diamond and the top Reference uses Grado's true ellipsoid design diamond. All in the series have an output of 4.5mV @ 5.0 CMV (45 degrees) and are recommended to track from 3/4 to 2 grams. (I set them to track at 1.5). In the mahogany Reference series the generator/stylus module is not replaceable allowing a redesigned one-piece magnetic circuit and a reduction of chassis resonances. Cartridges must be returned to Grado for re-tipping. Resonances are a key issue at Grado, as I learned when I visited their Brooklyn manufactory. John showed me how three different kinds of damping substances (epoxy? silicone? adhesive? all three? I didn't want to know their secrets.) Were applied to various portions of the internal device.
OK, so how do the two cartridges track up? Could I not say I like the $800 Master better? Sure I could, but I did like it better. But the $300. Platinum could be one of the great bargains in quality cartridges today. Try not to use the male-oriented "One is better" model. Using Italian wines as a metaphor, let's look at the Platinum like a powerful bottle of Chianti Classico excellent, warm, exciting, goes with food wonderfully, about $30 in your local restaurant and probably the best wine in the house. Move up to a pricier white table cloth Northern Italian restaurant, and let's order an $80 Brunello di Montalcino (I mean a Master). Luscious, more complex, rarer, a bit more delicate and perhaps less aggressive than the Chianti. But seductive, charming, airy, and more refined. Both wines the best of their kind. If you can afford Brunello at each meal, why not? But it doesn't take anything away from the less pricey wine.
As far as cartridge prices go, the last time I bought one, the heyday of the Shure Supertracks a hundred bucks or so got you a lot of Moving Magnet, so I never thought I'd be saying that a $300 cartridge or an $800 one was a bargain. But they both are. Quality is usually a bargain.
Some listening notes
I found the Master open, airy, and great on the timbral transients. Antonio Janigro's cello on a just-opened 1960 Living Stereo (LSC-2365) was rosiny, and you could hear the softness of the horsehair on the bow. It brought back memories of my practicing the cello, that is until my teacher threw up his hands in despair when I put down the bow and started playing Charlie Mingus and Willie Dixon lines.
The sound on the Master seems to emerge from a velvety silence the kind you can hear in the lead-in groove. My recent additions of the Welborne Gatekeeper power conditioner and Mana Acoustics stands certainly contributed to this, but the Grado's noise floor and ability to "disappear" was clear.
The air and soundstaging on the Master was almost shocking. An original stereo pressing of Nina Simone's 1958 debut album on Bethlehem, Little Girl Blue (BS 6028), one of my "finds" of the year, exposed the then 25 year old Simone's genius on piano, and her erotically intimate voice. The ambiance of piano, drums and bass grew tall, and I was no longer listening to the acoustics of my room, but of hers. If you can find this record, pay good money for it you will hear Simone before producers got to her, recently out of Julliard, and playing piano in Brubeck's league. Some later Simone albums were spotty in terms of material choice, and to my ears overproduced at times. This gem, revealed by the Grado diamond, has a purity and magic I haven't heard on her later work. The Grado Master delineated the depth of her voice, and its complex overtones, while handling the power and delicacy of her classically trained yet jazz piano. And Steve Sullivan said he could hear the strings on the bass being pulled before the pluck bass transients were that detailed.
I must say that I listened to the Master for a few weeks before swapping in and breaking in the Platinum. John Grado had gotten me worried and thought I might be disappointed in the lower priced cartridge after hearing the other first. Wrong. After only six or eight hours of breaking in, the Platinum opened up and was quite lovely. I found that in a day or two, I didn't miss the Master at all (well, OK a little). I tried not to listen for how they differed as much as how well the Platinum sounded. And it sounded damn nice. This is not only a likable cartridge, but quite an elegant one. Acoustic jazz, classical, rock, electronic all felt natural and balanced. The Platinum is punchy and ballsy where it needs to be, though I did notice that the leading transients on bass notes weren't as detailed the Master revealed more there. (You have to get something for 500 bucks more, no?) I found the Platinum fast and exciting, again with the Master edging it out in airiness and speed of transients.
One of my favorite "art rock" albums, Alan Parsons Project's 1979 The Turn of A Friendly Card (Arista AL9518) continued to entertain, with the Platinum giving it more primal rock energy and the Master opening up its spacious renaissance references and "Brit-Steely Dan" subtleties. And Vollenweider's still-amazing White Winds (CBS FM39963), my pick for "Best New Age Woodstock Whole Wheat Pizza Restaurant Soundtrack," did just fine bass wise, chime wise, and harp wise. (Speaking Marxwise, have you ever noticed how Andreas on that album cover is a dead ringer for Harpo?) Again, the Grado Master ruled transientially, but I'd never presume to kick a Platinum out of bed.
Though I haven't heard anywhere near the number of cartridges as my esteemed colleagues in audio journalism, I sense that the Grados are in the top of their class as far as moving magnets. A visit to Grado's plant is like a visit to a great watchmaker. Apt, because I believe Joe was in that line originally. You see master craftsmen and women with a decades of "squint" etched into their eyes, walking around with loupes permanently welded to their brows. Man is that stuff tiny. Little teeny parts. And moving magnets and headphones are all the Grados currently make, so you're getting the family specialty, evolved and improved over decades of trial and error.
Steve Sullivan, who does a lot of listening with me and knows my system, got a chance to hear both cartridges. It should be noted that his personal reference system includes a Garrott Decca cartridge mounted on an Eminent Technologies 2 air-pumped arm on the Sota Black Star 3 turntable. The list of his meticulous modifications and tweaks could expand this article into the next issue. He said:
"I hear a significant difference between the two Grados, one that makes the $500 difference really worth it, if you have the money. At any rate, a difference that would make anyone, I think, think twice. In my briefest of hearings, I hear the less expensive Grado as slightly darker, with not as much extension into the upper harmonics. To me the Master sounds slightly cleaner than its down-the-line cousin. But they're both good buys, and a prospective buyer shouldn't be discouraged from the lesser because he can't afford the greater. I like it (the Platinum) a hell of a lot better than some audiophile favorites."
I might consider checking out the Master for someone thinking about a moving coil $800 certainly buys you a lot of beautiful detail and speed and transients and you don't need a new phono stage. I could see putting a $300 Platinum into the Christmas stocking of just about every "starter" audiophile who hasn't changed their cartridge in years. There are a lot of turntables out there with old Shures, Pickerings, and lesser cartridges. I might even go so far to say that if a fledgling audiophile had a grand to spend on a first system upgrade, I'd put a kit together including a Grado Platinum, Welborne Gatekeeper, a can of Caig Pro Gold, a few Tiptoes, and a few hundred bucks worth of budget wire. That's a lot of bang for the money.
How to choose? You look at the wine list, you look in your wallet, and you look at which dinner companions you're trying to impress. And you taste. But wine is gone in a few gulps a cartridge keeps delivering its juices for quite some time. When it comes to the Grados, you won't be disappointed with either one it's a matter of taste and budget. Cent anne. Cin cin.