Start to judge a component by it's quality of resolution, the ability to separate sounds from each other. Resolution is what Richard Brown listens for when he designs his BEL amplifiers, which are still the best I have heard. Here is Brown's Law; Equipment is capable of smearing, confusing, or otherwise distorting two different sounds. Thus a speaker may mute a loud bass note, making it sound like a softer one; the intended dynamic contrast is lost. Or an amplifier may layer the entire orchestra with sweet chocolate; there is no apparent difference between one woodwind and another, or between a violin and a viola. Many components demonstrate how easy it is to impose a signature sound on the music.
But whatever distortion is imposed by a component necessarily tends toward informality: Distortion makes different sounds alike. Conversely, it is not possible for any component to make two like sounds seem different. The best, the most accurate, a component can be, is to preserve the differences that already exist. An audio component or system cannot create, between two musical sounds, more of a difference than was created when the instruments first set the air about them to vibrating.
Therefore says Brown, the way to use our most sensitive measuring devices--Our ears--is to listen for the sharpest difference between notes, between instruments, between voices. The greatest differences will mark the most accurate reproducing equipment. This is true for tonality, for harmonics, for dynamic contrast and shading; the more internal differences, the greater accuracy.
The Grado Reference has spectacular resolution. Carissimi's Jonas and Baltazar with the Liszt Ferenc Academy Chamber Choir and Corelli Chamber Orchestra (Hungarton SLPX 12059) are unearthly recordings: With the Grado, you are not only conscious of each individual voice in the small choir; you can hear the singers singing. You hear their breath, the shape of their mouths, the roll of the tongue off the palate. The performance, the music itself, become far more personal and direct an experience.
Another example; Most concerto recordings, played over most systems, give you a reasonably good idea of the dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. But the great concerti aren't simple dialogues; they are full of other voices, as in the counterpointing solo cello, and the softly plucked strings in the finale of Beethoven's G Major piano concerto. In the concert hall we hear all of this without strain or effort; it's just there. With most home systems, those voices are muted, and if you don't listen very carefully, they disappear. The Reference lays it all out before you, which can directly contribute to enjoyment of the music.
Mozart wrote his concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, KV 365, to be played by him with his sister, and it's charm depends on the dialogue between the two pianos, in which the pupil repeatedly mimics the master. My record is by Emil Gilels with his daughter Elena (DG 2530 456), Their playing is captivating, but is easy to lose track of who is playing when. The Grado's resolution keeps them clear and separate, and the piece retains it's meaning.
One aspect of resolution is microdynamics, the clear differentiation of delicate nuance. The playing of Wilhelm Kempff, rooted in the old European tradition, relied for it's tremendous strength and expressiveness on a great range of tonal and dynamic shadings. With the Reference, quiet passages of Mozart's Piano Concerto No.23, K. 488 (DG2535 204), were lambent every nuance of the piano set against the delicacy of the winds and the pluck of strings. The better the playing, it seems, the more it benefits from good equipment that preserves the most delicate of shadings. Listen at low levels, and you are sure to hear subtle instrumental passages that you have missed before, even in the best known pieces.
The Grado's resolution may be due to the central design principle of the Reference Series; The entire mechanism is potted. From the $1200 Reference down to the $300 Reference Platinum, every cartridge in the line is immersed in three different epoxies in a proprietary process, and then put in a wood body,. From that point, no further work can be done on the interior of the cartridge. The stylus can be retipped, but it cannot be replaced. John Grado says that before this process, each of the cartridge's 43 parts had it's own resonant frequency: now, to the extent that any resonant survives the potting process, it's all one. This may explain the Reference's observed resolution, which is another way of describing the absence of masking or coloration.
The second characteristic by which to judge audio components is tonal character. The best of all audio experiments, to be conducted by any audiophile, was devised by HP a few years ago. Go to a live concert, he suggested, and listen to the orchestra as if it were a sound system. If you do that, your first overwhelming impression will be that, compared with any home system, the frequency spectrum of live music is shifted dramatically lower. There is a palpable solidity to the foundation laid down by the basses and cellos. At the other end, there are no screeching highs, no stainings trebles. The sound is comparably more full and rich than we are used to hearing in audio, a sound I had never a home system imitate to any plausible degree. To be faithful to this sound, a component requires great strength in the bass, and a complete absence of strain or stridency in the treble.
This closely describes the tonal character of the Reference. Putting this cartridge into your system is likely to add substantial weight and color to your sound, which makes it much more like the real thing. This is not a distorting overlay; the cymbals and flutes don't thicken. But on the Beethoven Fourth of Klemperer and the Philharmonia (Angel H-3619), I heard the cellos in the fourth movement for the first time. Similarly, because the continuo was richer than ever before, Laudate II(proprius 7860) also took on a new and truer shape.
Getting the bass right can also mean letting the rhythm come through, and the Reference does. Plucked strings are the rhythmic foundation of Mozart's Symphony 27 (who ever thought that jazz invented the walking bass?) My record is by Schroder with the Academy of Ancient Music (L'Oiseau-Lyre 414-472), and the trust of the beat as revealed by the Reference gives piece tremendous drive and momentum.
The same drive comes through in Bach cantatas like "Gott Soll Allein Mein Herze Haben," BWV 169 (Nonesuch H-71256). To hear the cello, double-bass and organ swelling up behind the great basso Jakob Stampfli or the tenor Theo Altmeyer is to feel all the joy with which Bach worshipped the Lord.
Almost all my recordings of the cantatas are on Nonesuch, which leased German recordings of the 1960's. These are not sonic spectaculars; they are not even good. But the Reference makes them sound like music, giving vibrancy and even beauty to the sound.
This points to the third great characteristic of the Reference; it has outstanding low distortion. I regard conventional steady-state distortion measurements as of limited utility at best. The complexity of musical waveforms seems to open the way for distortions too difficult for existing measurements. So any number of high-priced moving coils supplied by their manufacturers with response curves of utter flatness, in fact distort actual music horribly, covering it with a pressure layer of high-frequency sharpness. Such distortions may be hard for machines to pick out, but our ears can hear them too well. Moreover distortions appear to be additive in their effects.
That is, take a bad record, and play it with a distorting cartridge. The painful result will seem more than twice as bad as either alone. But play the same record with the Reference, and the distortion seems almost to vanish.
The Reference's outstanding tonal character allows it to portray the violin with such accuracy and conviction. Another finding of the HP experiment---listening to the orchestra as if it were a sound system--is that the violin is the most difficult of all instruments to reproduce. Heard live, the violin is clear and full of character, the string, the bow, and the rosin all palpable; easy to see why it has been the mainstay of the orchestra from its first invention. The process of recording and reproduction, however, seems to hone and sharpen the violin, leaving behind an edge of pure steel. A real violin sounds closer to a cello than it does to a violin portrayed by most of our systems. These effects are magnified by close miking; so even on a marvelous recording like McGegan's Mozart Horn Concertos with Lowell Greer on Natural Horn (HMU 7012), the violins played in most systems are painfully steely, sharp, and thin. Only with the Reference have I heard these violins sound naturally warm.
Lovers of top-end moving coils renowned for their purity may find the Reference, at first hearing, to give a softer sound than they have been used to. I would urge them to listen to the violins on any of McGegan's fine HMU recordings---the Mozart, Corelli's Concerti Grossi, Handel's Water Music. If the violins can play reasonably loud without a steely edge, fine; but if, as I suspect, they will seem to lack texture and body, if their "purity" cuts like a razor--why then, trade up to the Reference.
So forget the demonstration records, the cannon shots, massed horns, and thunderous drums. The purpose of great systems, after all, is to better hear great music. Get out the 1960's Angels Of Klemperer and the Philharmonia (like the Mozart Symphonies 31 and 34, S-36216), or the Nonesuch Bachs, the Columbia Louis Armstrongs, the Italian Quartet's Beethoven and Mozart on Philips. These great performances have until now been obscured, almost crippled by distorted sound. With this cartridge, they are almost pure joy.
Is it perfect? Of course not. The many inherent distortions of the vinyl process, recording and playback, can be lessened but never eliminated. At a less comical level, the Reference requires warm-up. Each time you begin a listening session, it must play at least two sides before the cantilever relaxes and the magic is full apparent.
The Grado Reference cost $1200. Retipping, which Grado says should take place over 3,000 hours is $800. It is a great bargain, and I would take it over any number of cartridges I have heard that sell up to five times its price. If you are planning to spend $700 or $7,000 for a cartridge, you owe it to yourself to listen to the Grado Reference. Indeed if you are planning to listen to records ever again, you should hear this cartridge. In the present state of the art, this is as good as it gets.
- Adam Walinsky