The package containing Grado's "The Reference" moving iron cartridge comes with a special surprise inside. New, out of the box, the cartridge's sound is nothing out of the ordinary. Well, gentle friend, be prepared for what happens after some twenty hours of playing. If you love the sound of moving magnet and moving iron cartridges, then your in for the treat of your life! Once The Reference completely opens it's throat to sing, it's performance will astonish you. Grado's Reference combines the smooth, relaxed response of its genre with the stunning spatial resolution and transparency of its moving coil brethen. In short, The Reference's performance will stun you and forever change your perception of the sound of moving magnet or moving iron cartridges.
GOING TO SCHOOL
Earlier this year, I was discussing the relative merits of some phono preamplifier stages with Harry Weisfeld of VPI. Weisfeld in passing mentioned about an interesting new cartridge from Grado Labs. So I called John Grado for more information on their new ultimate Reference series of moving iron cartridges. Grado explained that the Reference Series was exclusively distributed in Europe for the past year or so. After adding a specially selected mahogany wood body and further refining the moving magnet design, they decided to market the product in North America. At $1200. The Reference is Grado's top of the line model in their reference series of cartridges.
John Chaipis, one of The Reference's designers, remembers with some fondness, the trials and tribulations encountered by the design team. Chaipis and Grado spent a great deal of research and development time until they were able to create the sound they heard in their heads(and without sample to sample variation).Their ultimate goal was a cartridge that persuasively conveys the naturalness , intensity and purity of live music. The Reference was specifically designed to mimic the sound of live music and in particular, the human voice. This philosophy was originally the vision of Joseph Grado, an opera singer, and the company's founder.
Chaipis explained that one of the secrets to the sound of The Reference cartridge is the use of optimized transmission line technology or OTL. This means that the cantilever consists of five separate sections (in The Reference) telescoped into each other. According to Chaipis, "a cartridge is subjected to microphonics." The signal travels along the cantilever creating what he calls ëskin noise" .To address this problem, Chaipis created a cantilever where the first forty percent of the cantilever consists of a regular tube inserted into a second tube. The second tube functions as a noise blocker" Grado repeats this procedure several more times in order to further reduce "skin noise". Finally, this composite aluminum and brass material is inserted into a brass shank connected to the cartridge's generator. To further refine The Reference's performance, Grado and Chaipis chose a specially designed low mass, true ellipsoid diamond.
Possibly The Reference's strongest suit is its ability to drive any phono section. The cartridge's robust 4.5 mV output is especially good news for tube buffs. No more tube rush and loss of dynamics that often accompanies the use of low output moving coils! Simply connect your arm to the moving magnet stage and set your loading to 47K. The performance of The Reference was insensitive to capacitive loads up to 220 pF. The Klyne, Joule Electra and conrad johnson Premier 15 phono stages that saw action with the Grado were becoming companions. Even a short pit stop with the Jadis JP8OMC proved a happy marriage.
The Reference is not excessively sensitive to VTF, VTA or azimuth. Nevertheless, the cartridge's sound will benefit from a little extra attention to detail. Set the VTF at 1.8 grams, give or take a smidgen, and you'll be in heaven in about 24 hours. Azimuth was pretty much straight up and down (vertical) with almost no need to for adjustment. Drop the rear of the cartridge to a few degrees and voila, beautiful music. Do remember to keep the stylus guard when not using the cartridge because the cantilever is permanent, not removable like most moving iron cartridges!
PASSING THE FINAL EXAM
The Reference can be best described as having a poise and refinement that few cartridges possess. It's like appreciating a beautiful rose bloom. As you get closer to the flower, you suddenly become aware not only of it's visual beauty, but it's softness and scent. As you become more familiar with this cartridge, you not only appreciate its performance, but become more aware of the music's splendor. In Edgar's Wand Youth"(EMI ESD 7068) you are drawn into the pageantry of the "Dancing Bear" movement. You hear an expansive soundstage populated with scintillating woodwinds and strings punctuated at the rear of the stage by a shimmering tambourine and the thunder of the lumbering bass drum. In comparison to current ultimate cartridges, The Reference's low frequencies were very good but lacked the deepest extension and definition.
This cartridge differs from van den Hul's Black Beauty(at $5000) and other moving coils in its inimitable singing quality. It isn't that one is right and the other is wrong. Rather each is an alternative version of the music. If you were to ponder the wonders of David Oistrakh performing Mozart's Third Violin Concerto (Testament Records EMI ASD 2304), you'd be astonished, as was I, by the utterly sumptuous tone and singing portamento of his violin. This Testament reissue recaptures a golden moment in recording history and The Reference helps recreate that magical moment. What distinguishes The Reference from the other transducers is it's ability to recapture the ephemeral liquidity of Oistrakh's violin. The music is unforced and seems to have intrinsic naturalness to it's flow. Perhaps, things are a little sweeter than real life-but only in the sense that a singer with a naturally beautiful voice makes everything they sing sound beautiful.
You'll never guess, of course, that The Reference was especially adept in it's rendering of the human voice. Witness the classic Record's reissue of Ella Fitzgerald's Let No Man Write My Epitaph (Classic Records Verve V6 4043.) Compare for instance, Ella's renditions of "Black Coffee" with "Misty". You can easily discern the different miking patterns and perspectives of each track. Yet, this is undeniably Ella's voice, complete with all the dulcet sweet and quivering overtones. The single piano accompaniment keeps in line with direct and poetic renditions offered here. This disc's collections of ballads are a sure fire winner on a quiet evening at home.
Another very special vocal treat is the recent reissue of Ray Charles and Betty Carter (DDC LPZ 2005). This Duo's rendition of Baby, It's Cold Outside" is pure peaches and Cream. I cannot recall ever being so entranced by the sheer beauty of the interplay of these two exquisite voices. The sly and seductive insinuations are so delightfully communicated as to make you wish the music would never end. You forget your reviewing a cartridge and, before you know it, the record's over. This is what The Reference does best - it disappears.
Now, I would never claim that this transducer has the resolution of a Black Beauty or some other moving coils on the market. Still, The Reference retrieves a good portion of the information of the record groove. You are not really aware that anything is missing, so seductively is the sonic web woven. Your perspective here is more natural without any artificial highlighting, yet with enough detail to keep you enthralled. You do not hear the etched outline of instrumental images that is so popular nowadays. The difference is that the images are a bit softened even maybe more closely approximating the concert hall sound. The soundstage is slightly darkened, in the way a theater's lights are dimmed to heightened the theatrical event.
Part of what is unusual about The Reference is that it is the first moving iron or magnet in my experience that throws soundstage as huge and realistic as the best moving coils. Whether using my own modified MBL 101s or the von Schweikert VR-8s, I experienced an immense soundfield, extending far beyond the side and rear walls of my listening room. Take for example, Classic Record's reissue of The Pines Of Rome (RCA LSC 2436). You are confronted with an immense soundstage. About the only quality missing is that cushion of air surrounding each section of the orchestra.
THE REPORT CARD
Grado's The Reference is the first moving iron cartridge with the credentials to compete with todays finest moving coil cartridges. Other cartridges may offer slightly better resolution or are less forgiving but the Grado was always welcome in my listening systems. If you are shopping, looking for a cartridge that will satisfy your musical cravings and your equipment, Grado's The Reference is for you. No other moving iron or magnet cartridge has provided me with more musical enjoyment!