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Grado Reference Series Platinum 1 Cartridge Review

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Don’t Blame the Tools…

To see what the Grado really sounds like, I mounted it on my SME V and hooked it up to the Allnic H-1500 II phono stage.  I had tried the Allnic with the Audio Technica 150 MLX cartridge, but although it sounded much better than the budget phono stage, it still had a high frequency peak.  The Reference Platinum responded quite differently.  The frequency response was smoother, revealing the true nature of the cartridge.

The overriding sound of Grado wood bodied cartridges is the wood itself.  Wood, even though there is a small amount, resonates.  That’s not a criticism.  If the wood were replaced with acrylic, the acrylic would resonate, and acrylic sounds horrible.  Outside of a nude design, carbon fiber, or perhaps magnesium, the body of the cartridge will contribute to the sound of the cartridge.

What is most surprising is how similar the midrange and upper bass was compared to a Koetsu Rosewood, from about 10 years ago.  Admittedly, the comparison is flawed:  I’m going by aural memory, which is problematic.  However, I still have the impression of warmth, overlaid with an attractive amount of wood resonance.  The resonance seems a bit like that of a cello or viola, but not pronounced.  Just as some classic horns are famous for the sound of their enclosures, the sound of these cartridges is defined by the wooden body.

The bass quality is dependent on the tonearm.  In my experience, the Grados need a tonearm with some kind of damping, or a low mass arm, or a combination of both qualities.  Indeed, the bass was better with damping, than without, which can be dialed-in with the SME V, which is also a low-mass arm.  The suspension of the Grado wants to spring around with some mismatched tonearms.  Some people call it “the Grado dance.”  This isn’t a manufacturing defect; it is due to the interaction of tonearm mass and cartridge compliance.  Generally speaking, the Grados seem more sensitive to the issue than most cartridges, but that’s not a criticism.

Once the damping and tracking force were adjusted, bass was deep and rich,  with some added warmth.  Subjectively, the warm sound seems to slow down bass lines and obscure transients.  It doesn’t sound bad.  It’s just not a strength.  The bass reminds me of some ultra-high compliance cartridges from the ‘70s.  It’s the opposite of some of the tightly wound, ultra-low compliance moving coils from the ‘80s and ‘90s, some of which seemed to be missing 2 or 3 octaves.

The highs are sweetened by the wood resonance.  Rather counter-intuitively, the body resonance comes into play much more in the highs.  Why?  Because of the RIAA pre-emphasis.  Highs are cut much “hotter” on vinyl, than are the mids and bass.  That’s why you can hear “sst… sssttssttst… tssffftsss,” or something like that, from the cartridge body/stylus while playing vinyl.  I’m speaking of the sound you hear not from your speakers, but from the cartridge.  You’ll never hear much midrange emanating from the cartridge body; sympathetic resonance in the mids is overwhelmed by resonance in the highs.  After the phono stage EQ RIAA de-emphasis, the bass, mids and highs are brought back into proper balance, but artifacts produced by the “hot highs” will still be there.  Those artifacts could include mis-tracking and cartridge resonance.  In this case, we have fairly obvious, though benign, resonance.

Speaking of mis-tracking, the cartridge does a good job with complex high frequency information and transients.  The only time the cartridge sounded like it was falling short was on inner grooves where “groove pinch” comes into play.  I hear similar problems with other cartridges that use elliptical tips.  Also, on cymbals and sibilance, I could hear the relatively high mass of the aluminum cantilever contribute a little extra sizzle.  No shame in it, though.  These cartridges are budget components, and you’ll have to pay substantially more for a line-contact stylus and boron cantilever.

Transients are good enough.  Macro dynamics are quite good.  It’s the little tiny things that are somewhat smoothed over by the elliptical tip, aluminum cantilever and wooden body.  No magic can overcome physics.

What gives the cartridge a warm sound also magically improves imaging on many records.  Imaging outside the speakers was very good, and the center image was very solid.  The depth was quite good, and I could hear layers.  So the wood giveth, as well as taketh away.  For chamber music, jazz, classical and vocals, the strong imaging and warm balance will work with the music.

Still Relevant 

Just as the DL102 and SPU are still appropriate and relevant, so too are the wooden-bodied cartridges.  In a way, these cartridges, with their particular resonances, blend well in my system, which tends towards the overly analytical.  For instance, the SME V has very little resonance, and can sound dry. 

What I strongly recommend is trying out the lower output version, the Statement series, which requires a higher-gain phono stage.  If you have a preamp with enough gain for a moving coil, the Statement Reference Platinum 1 has noticeably better high frequency response.  It’s smoother and better extended.  Also, it tracks better.  Why should that be?  The little bit of iron, at the opposite end of the cantilever from the stylus that is moving around generating a signal in the coils of wire, has less magnetic interaction with the coils.  This seems like a reasonable assumption.  If I’m wrong, and you have an electrical engineering degree, then please prove me wrong.  Until then, it seems like a clear cut case of fewer windings having less magnetic interaction with the magnet or piece of iron.

As you move up the range, tracking and distortion improve.  You get the warm tonal balance, but everything else improves.  So, whether for an entry level cartridge, or for a reference caliber system, you should consider the Grado wooden bodied cartridges.  It’s much better to err towards warmth, than to threadbare.

What is most interesting is how the performance of the same cartridge seems much better twenty years later.  Is it because everything in my system has improved?  Or has the cartridge quality improved?  I tend to think it’s both.  It’s still relevant today.  Will it still be in another 20 years, if I make it that long?  Probably so.

One Response to Grado Reference Series Platinum 1 Cartridge Review

  1. Adam says:

    Hi Phillip –

    Thanks again for another informative review. I wish I understood all the electrical engineering details. Wish there was more time in the day to read up and study.

    Currently I’m running the EVO Blue Point Special III and it is too hot for my system. I also have a Zu version of the DL-103. Which while nice, doesn’t extend the highs enough and lacks some detail and articulation in the micro-dynamics. This Grado sounds interesting. How do you think it compares to these other cartridges I have and do you think either the Ref or Statement would mate well with a Moon LP3 phono amp?


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