I don't know whether it was Mrs. Nachman or Mr. Nachman, but back in the late 80's one of them took a dump on Joe Grado's head, and it wasn't pretty. But it was expected, for the Nachmans were my pet birds, and that's what bird's do when they perch on shiny domes. The Nachmans have since gone to that great birdcage in the sky, and I bet if I'd asked Joe Grado back then where he thought the cartridge business would be in 1998, he'd have said in the same general neighborhood--along with Betamax (still better, and I still use it), Elcaset, RCA Selectavision, and the rest. But I didn't ask Joe Grado about the future back then because the present was about his $200 8MZ cartridge, which I reviewed and found to have a lump in the midbass. Joe came over to convince me it didn't, and that what I'd heard was due to my setup. After moving speakers and subwoofers around and after Joe had been anointed by one of the Nachbirds, the lump remained. We called it a (messy) day. So here we are in 1998, and Grado is still in the cartridge business and doing better than ever with a new line of wooden-bodied models, the top of the line being the $1200 Reference, Grado's most expensive model ever.
Grado Reference: $1200
Even though Joe Grado invented and patented the moving coil cartridge and thus collects a royalty on every one made by anyone, his company doesn't build them. Instead, over the years Grado has specialized in moving-magnet cartridges, in which the coils are fixed between the magnetic pole pieces and a miniature generating element moves within the lines of flux created by the coil/magnet assembly ("Flux-Bridger Generator System"). There are four magnetic gaps, and as the element moves between opposing pairs, the flux increases in one while decreasing in the other.
Most cartridges use a rubber fulcrum "see-saw" type suspension: one end is the cantilever, the other a thin wire attached at the back of the motor assembly. The Grado uses a very short, low mass, self contained suspension ("Optimized Transmission Line Stylus /Cantilever"). The entire line of Grado cartridges features extremely high output; 4.8mV at 5cm/S, claimed frequency response from 10Hz to 60kHz and average channel separation of 30dB from 10Hz to 30KHz. Grado claims that the system's low inductance of 45mH (millihenrys) makes it impervious to capacitive high frequency rolloff.
The $1200 Reference is the top of wooden-bodied line, which features specially cured mahogany casings. According to John Grado (Joe's Nephew), who now oversees the company and who co-designed the new line with John Chaipis, the Reference series begins with the magnetic generating system mounted in the standard Grado plastic body, 90% of which is then carefully milled away. The rather large coils are then mounted and potted to the chasis using three different damping materials. According to Grado, whereas in previous designs there were 43 parts having 43 different resonant frequencies, in the Reference series all parts are potted (the cantilever assembly is also bonded into place and is not removable), thus damping the entire cartridge. Finally, the assembled cartridge is glued into the cured wooden body, which further damps and/or tunes the system.
The Reference and the Master ($800) use a five-piece cantilever assembly of very low mass, and ultra-high-purity, long crystal, oxygen-free copper coil wire. The Master model is fitted with a nude elliptical diamond, the Reference uses a true ellipsoid tip. All parts used in the Master and Reference models are finished in-house and polished to an extremely high tolerance. Final assembly is by hand.
The Reference is the finest fixed-coil cartridge I've ever heard, and one of the finest-sounding cartridges I've ever heard especially in the midrange----regardless of design. But it does have a few frustrating quirks: The distance between the stylus tip and the threaded mounting holes is such that getting the overhang correct in the Graham arm required me to literally force the cartridge to the very back of the headshell mounting slots. Even then, the stylus tip was slightly too far forward for proper overhang. Since the Graham is properly "Spec'd" and since every other cartridge I've used with it fits comfortably somewhere midway in the slots, the Grado is clearly "off-spec." So make sure it's compatible with your arm before buying, or make sure you can return it you can't achieve proper overhang.
Another frustration is the pitch thread of the mounting holes drilled into the wooden body. While the rest of the industry seems to have standardized this, allowing you to use your choice of cartridge mounting hardware, Grado's nonstandard pitch requires you to use the supplied slotted screws. Not a major problem, but a minor annoyance.More serious was the cartridge's (all Grados' actually) susceptibility to induced motor noise. When the cartridge got close to the center of a record, which brings it close to the motor on many turntables (Regas, VPI 19, etc.) I heard hum through the speakers, though this was well masked by most music. If your motor is outboard, no problem. Most Rega owners I've spoken with who've installed Grados (mostly the $300 Reference Platinum) can live with the hum.
There's one other problem: The underdamped, high compliance suspension, while making the Reference a superb tracker---better than any MC I've ever auditioned----made the cantilever oscillate wildly on the lead-in grooves of many records that presented no problems for lower compliance cartridges. When records are pressed, the hot vinyl biscuit is spread from the center outward. By the time the vinyl reaches the outer area of the stamper, it has begun to harden, especially with improperly pressed 180gm records (many of the recent German-pressed WEAs, for example), which take longer for the vinyl to spread. While the record looks flat, under illumination you can see a surface oscillation that causes the Grados to go wild. While I never experienced audible tracking problems, woofers pumped and watts were waste, it wasn't a pleasant sight. Perhaps a low mass arm like the Infinity Black Widow or the Grace 707 could tame this, but who's using them today? Once you're in an inch or so from the edge of the LP, the problem goes away.
That said, the Reference was unlike any Grado I've ever heard. The midbass hump was gone, for one thing. For another, The Reference's reproduction of the leading edge of low-frequency information, and it's overall portrayal of bass dynamics and pitch, were the best I've heard from any cartridge: solid powerful, authorative. And the Grado scored over 90% in the all important midrange: rich, complex, believable. String sound was glorious, male and female vocals sounded right. Plush and "cushiony" it was a midrange sound I just sank into and didn't want to leave. The strings on Nat Cole's Love is the Thing just sang!
The Reference produced a believable soundstage, with outstanding width and very fine depth, though height was slightly low. On the Belafonte album, when he asks the balconies to sing on "Matilda" I couldn't hear it coming from the heights. The Grado delivered transients and instrumental textures with suitable speed and appropriate grit, giving them body and three dimensionality.
With its high output and outstanding tracking ability, the Grado offered a sense of ease and control over wide dynamic swings that made listening a relaxing yet rewarding experience. Music exploded from a quiet, velvety backdrop, rendering low-level details much like the finer moving-coils.
My biggest complaint about the Reference's sound was about the top, where it could sound a bit less refined than some other, mostly more expensive cartridges. Part of the problem probably lay with the less than perfect alignment I was able to achieve. Using the Graham-specific Wallytractor, I noted that, as the stylus traveled across the record, it moved slightly forward of the minimum tracking error arc scribed onto the device. Unfortunately, I could not move the cartridge any farther back in the headshell.
I played Joni Mitchell's Blue straight through---both sides, then. Listening to her voice, her guitar and piano, the timbres, textures, images, and subtle dynamic shifts in music, and especially the overall picture the Grado painted, I asked myself what more I might want from what I heard. The answer was "Very little." Mitchell's physical presence between the speakers was spooky---not as a reproduced "voice" but as a living, breathing person. The guitar sound perfectly blended the transient of the string pluck and the excitation of the wooden body.
The Grado didn't unravel transient information or present the fine crystalline details of air and space like the better moving-coils, but what it did in the middle was so pure and right, and what it did on bottom so dynamic and note perfect (if not the last word in low-bass extension), I found myself listening to record after record long after I should have stopped to start writing this.
I believe John Grado when he says that, while he anticipated selling a total of about 1000 cartridges of the four model Reference line, he's sold over 5000, mostly the least expensive $300 Platinum and the most expensive Reference.