In the never ending quest for the most Dudely vinyl front-end, over the years I have owned, swapped, bought and sold a small fortune's worth of phonograph cartridges, moving coil step up devices, tone arms, head shells, turntables, platter pads, interconnecting cables, record cleaning machines, dust bugs, LP treatments, DIN plugs, variously plated RCA jacks, wiring harnesses, fluxbusters, stylus cleaners, etc. I wouldn't admit my addiction to anyone other than a fellow audio Dude or Dudeen. Only brothers on the quest, readers of Positive Feedback, would understand the audio lust one can develop for, say, a pair of coaxial cables that might optimize your phono rig. I must have them! Cable madness; or to use the Latinate form, Dementia Coax!
Recovering from a nearly terminal bout of Dementia, I was saved when CD's appeared. No longer did I have to balance the various sonic thumbprints of turntable, cartridge, tone arm, tone arm wires, interconnects, RCA jacks and plugs, step-up devices, cartridge overhangs, azimuth, rake angle, etc. (my personal Zen koan, an unsolvable puzzle, the working at which might nudge me closer to Enlightment). CD's eliminated all those Audio Zen concerns in one swell foop. Cartridge manufacturers freely admit IM and THD distortions generated by their best cartridges are way higher than all amplifiers, So I got on the CD bandwagon.
My vinyl quest ended with a VPI turntable and an Osaka Mat, with a pooged Souther Tri-Quartz linear tracking arm, and a variety of cartridges. Recently I re-wired my Souther with audiophile tone-arm wires, and I installed gold-plated -directly to-copper RCA female connectors, for which I was rewarded with a significant overall improvement. The souther arm, being so low in mass, performs best with supertracking cartridges (tracing even the subtlest grooves with such exquisite delicacy that most moving coils can't come close), so mostly I used top-of-the-line fixed coil type.(I'd been through a moving coil phase with more massive tone arms). Though the souther is not without its quirks, it is great on all but the most badly warped LP's.
The CD revolution raised the bar for the whole industry, challenging speaker and electronics designer-Dudes to measure up to a new standard of excellence. And they have. Surprisingly, its true for the cartridge -designer-Dudes too, though I haven't been listening to cartridges, not being as into it as I once was. For ten years I've been on a vinyl vacation. So it came as quite a revelation to hear the latest Grado cartridge in my rig. After tweaking the Grado into alignment I was converted. The soundstage got wide and deep on Dire Straits "Private Investigations" from their Love Over Gold" album(Warner Bros, 1982); and on the Grand Prix du Disque winning Mahler's Third (Unicorn, 1970) Jascha Horenstein and the London Symphony Orchestra, the sound was gloria in excelcis.
The bass of the Grado cartridge is notable; it is so right (timbre, pitch, pace,) that you might think its exaggerated, but not for silent passages. Usually I hear some cutting lathe sound--You know, Dude, that low-frequency whoosh on lead-in and cut out grooves. If a turntable has any bearing problems, or failure to isolate feedback, whoosh becomes WHOOSH, and whoosh is where all those flaws might show up; lead -in or cut-out. On well made records my VPI HW-19 turntable shines inky black, darkness visible dead quiet. (Audio TRIVIA?) Who said; The only good turntable is a dead turntable!" And the Grado is just as dead quiet; meaning it doesn't exaggerate bass on silent grooves. It has great "low-level bass resolution". It easily reproduces the differences between total silence and muffled bass drum (particularly it's decay in Mahler Third) an ability many stylus assemblies get too excited to do well. That is a key indicator of a Dudely cartridge---fast settling.
John Grado (Founder Joe's Nephew) claims the secret of the new Mahogany clad line of (technically, moving iron) cartridges is in miniturization and potting; three layer epoxy potting to help stifle resonances of the forty-three discrete parts that make up the coils, magnets, cartridge body, etc. (for minimal physical resonances); and miniaturization of the stylus assembly to reduce it's mass, thus raising it's resonances beyond the audio band (for cleaner and more extended high frequency response). Another benefit of miniaturization is that fast settling styli recover from large and small displacements very quickly, making cleaner transients. The Grado's are probably faster than moving coils because they don't have to drag the excess mass (coils fitted to the end of the cantilevers) through the movement of inertia. Miniaturization also reduces the output of the Master Reference from the 4.0 millivolts of the older Grado's to a less brash 1.6 millivolts---a large change, but not one that requires a step-up device. You can still play the Grado straight through any standard phono stage. John Grado claims the new Master Reference's measured response is from 10 Hz to 60k Hz. Pretty impressive: wide band, fast, clean and non-resonant.
I haven't the test equipment to verify or disprove claims for bandwidth and crosstalk (-30db) specs; that's why this review is only a thumbnail sketch. I did notice that with some of my interconnect cables, the high end seemed a little too laid back for me.
I've found that cables come in about three different voicings. Some are laid back, back of the hall, as if they had group-delay designed in, and are often prescribed for overly bright CD players. Some are brighter, front of the hall, as if they were very low-loss and time coherent, and are often prescribed to counter rolled off "too tubey" sound. Then they are the mid-halls, or medium cables---variations in between laid back and up front. The Grado Master Reference seems pretty cable responsive, so you can voice it to your taste and system.
In my somewhat warm big rig, I've found "up-front" cables sound best with the Grado, allowing its dynamics to bloom and high frequencies to soar. With low-loss cables from tone arm to preamp, the Grado Master Reference retrieves all I ever heard any cartridge get from vinyl, including those costing even seven to ten times as much. The bass is as in most previous Grado's BIG without BOOM, and able to retrieve low-level detail. The highs approach the best moving coils in airiness and delicacy, without ever sounding etched. There is .. NO TIZZ. The midranges are just plain DROPDEAD GORGEOUS.
With other cartridges, regardless of price, the female voice has often become screechy and harsh reaching up for the big loud note. Female voices have ,at last, found a cartridge that flatters. Soloists, duets, choirs; it doesn't matter; the Grado won't shatter. It also sails unperturbed through all my hard to track cartridge-buster.
Demo-discs. Altos, mezzos, Sopranos Coloratures; bring'em on Dude. Similarly, Tenors Baritones, and bassos. Solo violins, harpsichords, bluegrass banjos, bass drums, tympani, cymbals, synthesizers and all those instruments that would get cartridges over-excited without proper braking horsepower, or proper damping, or proper materials; bring them onto. The Grado will do them proud.
As concerns the other performance parameters - freedom from grit and grain, clarity, spatiality, musicality - the Grado Master Reference has all the right stuff, all first class. The current Grado may represent a new performance plateau. It's the best moving iron cartridge I've ever heard, and it's making a stir among those who Know. It may be as subtle as the best moving coils, but I haven't A/B auditioned it against each of the contenders in my big rig, so I can't say. It's got to be close. I can say, if your into vinyl, and Lady singers in particular - Diana Krall to Kiri Te Kawana - do your ears a favor and audition the new Grado. The Grado has ended my vinyl vacation: let it end yours.