I'll get right to the point: Grado's "The Reference" is a superb phono cartridge. If you're looking for an outstanding high-output device suitable for use with a moving-magnet phono stage, "The Reference" will take you to analog playback heaven. It's one of the finest phono cartridges I've ever heard.
Grado's "The Reference" is the top-of-the-line cartridge in Grado Laboratories' recently-introduced Reference Series of relatively affordable fixed-coil cartridges, ranging from the $300 Reference Platinum to the $1200 Reference- "The cartridge so nice they named it twice", as Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio puts it. Like all Reference Series cartridges, it features a wood body to combat resonances (looks handsome, too), tracks at around 1.5 grams (and tracks like a mother, sailing through the Shure TTR 101 trackability test record), is relatively non-fussy regarding VTA (mine is a few thousandths of an inch lower than parallel to the record surface), loads at 47k, is insensitive to capacitive load, and puts out a robust 4mV of out-put into an MM phono input.
The Grado incorporates a number of novel features, such as an "Optimized Transmission Line" cantilever constructed from separate sections made of different materials fitted into one another to combat resonances, and a miniature generating element attached to the end of the cantilever that moves between four separate magnetic flux gaps, creating an increase in flux in one gap while reducing it in the other to generate the musical signal. The design requires fewer coil turns than the other cartridge designs, allowing the Reference series cartridges greater response with lower mass (as well as other advantages). "The Reference" needs about 20-40 hours of break-in before it performs at it's best - it mellows out and gets richer and more open - although make no mistake, it's impressive out of the box.
But as we know, in high-end components, numbers and specs don't exactly tell the tale, do they? Here is the tale:
For decades, Grado's have been recommended by audiophiles as the cartridges of choice for people who want to make the leap from run-of-the-mill generic phono cartridges to high quality phono playback at a modest cost (Today's lowest price Grado, The Prestige Black, will set you back a whopping $40). Grado's of the past have always enjoyed a reputation for delivering highly musical and enjoyable sound, albeit with a pleasant warmth and richness along with abundant, if not state-of-the-art moving-coil-like detail and frequency extension. The Reference Series is Grados effort to build upon the strengths of previous classic (and make no mistake, they are classic) Grado designs and improve them.
The Grado "The Reference" succeeds brilliantly. First and foremost, it's tonal balance is to my ears, near-perfect. Some moving coil cartridges can sound a bit lean, especially if the associated equipment leans, excuse me, in that direction. Not this Grado. Yet neither is it overly plump, like many previous Grado designs. Midrange tonality is spot-on and the bass, especially the midbass, is among the best I've heard from any cartridge in terms of presence, dynamic punch, tightness, and harmonic integrity. The upper midrange is remarkably clear and detailed - on records such as Tal Farlow's Cookin' on All Burners (Concord Jazz CJ-204) or Selling England By The Pound by Genesis (The Famous Charisma Label CAS 1074), cymbals that previously sounded like a wash of undifferentiated sounds resolve into individual instruments, each to their own distinct struck-metal character and harmonic signature.
As you might expect from a high-output cartridge, high-level dynamics are outstanding. If you like to listen to rock music and are listening for a cartridge that delivers the perfect combination of power and finesse, your search can end here. The other day, I was listening "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" from Blue Oyster Cult's Agents of Fortune (Columbia PC 34164) and I was amazed to hear hitherto-undetected cowbells, guiros, and other percussion instruments in the mix amidst the roaring guitars and thundering drums and bass - all in perfect proportion. The cartridge simply excels at keeping individual vocal and instrumental sounds separate in their proper place in the soundstage, even in the most complex, densely orchestrated musical passages. Plus, fine musical detail is resolved with absolutely no sense of that over-etched quality you hear with some moving coils. On the other hand, the Grado does not homogenize or gloss over the sound of a record - if the recording is a Superdisc, it'll sound like one, but if it's too bright, it's glare'll be mercilessly exposed. If the recording has a soundstage, you'll hear it in proper proportion; if it's flat, it won't be rendered with any sense of artificial enhancement (too much "L minus R as some might say).
Even considering these impressive sonic attributes, the most noteworthy (pun intended) attribute of this most excellent cartridge is it's ability to render the distinct timbres of instruments and vocals with - I don't take this phrase lightly - astonishing veracity. At times, instruments sound so real it's scary. You know how you sometimes jump when you hear a sound on a record that momentarily fools you into thinking it's "there". That happens alot with "The Reference". Whether it's a sharp transient-type sound like the pluck of a nylon string guitar, or the crack of a snare drum, or an instrumental with more gradual attack such as a slowly-swelling synch (down, boy!), instruments are delineated with uncanny, and I mean, uncanny realism. This makes for thrilling listening experiences; the interplay among the many different types of acoustic and electric instruments - woodwinds, acoustic and electric guitars, marimbas, multiple harmony vocals, tenor saxophones, and much more - on Gentle Giant's In A Glass House (WWA 002) was rendered in spectacular fashion. Whether I was listening to female vocals, tenor saxophones, grand pianos slapped electric bass, or you name it, it was a pleasure to simply revel in the sound of the instruments.
O.K. Is this the best cartridge in the world? What's the catch? Well, "The Reference" doesn't have the ultra-ultra resolution, in terms of detail, low level dynamics, and the very tail end of a note's decay, which so many moving-coil cartridges have. If your looking for the ultimate in this sonic regard, I'm afraid your gonna have to spend alot more than "The Reference's" $1200 price tag. Also if the gain of your preamp or phono stage accommodates moving coil cartridges only, the 4mV "The Reference" will be unusable. Let's keep this in perspective, though: if the best moving coils get, say, 98 percent of what's on the disc, in my estimation "The Reference" brings back around 92 percent or so. That said, the overall sonic presentation is so good that I don't ever get any sense of "missing" anything in the music - the Grado "The Reference" is that well balanced.
If your analog playback system is set up for a moving-magnet-gain-level cartridge, you simply must hear what "The Reference" can do. Mine now sings and rocks and grooves and stomps and seduces and caresses and thrills. In fact, I can think of any higher compliment to pay Grado's "The Reference" than to say nowadays I simply love listening to records.