Analog Corner #32

(Originally published in Stereophile, March 12th, 1998)

I don't know whether it was Mrs. Nachman or Mr. Nachman, but back in the late '80s 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 birds 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'd 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. It arrived around the same time as the $1200 van den Hul MC-10 Special (a recent update of the MC-10) and the $995 Goldring Excel VX, so I figured a three-way shootout made sense.

Understand: There are many other worthwhile cartridges in this price range, and some below it—like the Lyra Lydian and the Benz Glider—but it's impossible to listen to them all. Here's a rundown on three very fine ones: two low-output moving-coils, and one high-output moving-iron design.

Great expectations
It's fun writing about and listening to $3000+ cartridges. (Hopefully it's fun reading about them, because they're often written about.) But how many audiophiles can afford them? Not many. Even $1000 for a phono cartridge is a pretty stiff tariff for most of us, but it's do-able if you start saving now. At this price point you're entitled to some of the positive attributes of "first growth" cartridges, and none of the gnarlies you unfortunately get with most "budget" models. In other words, for a grand, you can get most of the way there.

Of course, where "there" is is also subject to dispute. At the very least, you should be able to get a cartridge that is full-bandwidth and free of gross frequency-response aberrations. The sonic presentation should be almost free of grain, offer believable instrumental textures—like drum skins instead of cardboard—and present voices and instruments in three dimensions.

So should you choose to listen to Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (RCA/Classic LSO-6006), you should hear the guy singing from a head and body, and not as a two-dimensional cardboard cutout. As he walks about the stage, you should hear him clearly moving fore and aft as well as side to side. His sibilants shouldn't spit, and the timbre and texture of his voice should remain consistent throughout its dynamic range. And the audience should be arrayed behind him (yes, this is one of the "defects and distortions" of two-channel audio), suggesting both the depth of the floor section and the height and $wU-shape of the Carnegie Hall tiers. The orchestral groupings on the stage should also be easily "seen" in 3D, and when the music gets complicated the sonic organization shouldn't unravel, nor should the instruments congeal.

I know, you can hear all of these things with your Sumiko Blue Point. And to a surprisingly fulfilling degree you can—that's one of the great things about analog that 16-bit digital can't do at any price, in my experience. You can—until you hear them reproduced by something like the Cardas Heart, Transfiguration Temper, Benz Ruby, Koetsu Urushi, Parnassus D.C., or any of the other Class A models. The illusion that the event is actually happening before you is literally dumped into your lap—you don't have to work to believe.

This is not to say that by spending more you're guaranteed to get more, but usually that's the case, even if, above $1000, the law of diminishing returns starts to flatten things out. But believe me, when you're in the presence of the finest cartridges, your ears will know it!

Madness to the method
I mounted each cartridge to a Graham ceramic armwand and auditioned it in the Graham 2.0 tonearm fitted to a Simon Yorke turntable (currently under review), which sat on a Vibraplane active isolation base. The Simon Yorke comes with its own arm and is meant to be sold as an arm/'table combo, but I didn't want to add to the variables. Plus, you can't beat the quick-change armwands, so I had the Graham mounted on a spare Simon Yorke armboard.

I had three phono sections at my disposal: the Audio Research PH3, the Pass Labs Aleph Ono, and the one built into the Ayre K-3 preamp (the last two also under review). I used all three, and guess what? Each sounded different. I could change the sound by slightly increasing or decreasing stylus pressure (VTF, or Vertical Tracking Force), or changing VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle), or changing the resistive loading (on MC cartridges). I could change the sound by changing phono interconnects or by changing the AC cords on the phono sections. Or by using different kinds of support feet.

In the middle of the review process, the Zoethecus equipment rack showed up for review. That changed the sound. Then there's barometric pressure, humidity, and temperature. And, of course, break-in. Each cartridge was given 40 hours of use before I listened seriously. Then, I played each in succession for a side of a record before doing any comparisons. And, of course, the MCs were demagnetized.

So how do you separate the sound of the associated components and/or the setup adjustments from the cartridges under review? Not easily! When I read reviews that purport to describe the sound of a product in no uncertain terms, and then on the next page the same reviewer talks about the "sound" of a new AC cable, I get crazy! It may make for more exciting copy, but the truth is, statements about a product's general tendencies and character are far more accurate than absolutes—unless you own the reviewer's system. This is especially true of cartridges.

Despite the many subtle changes I was able to make to each cartridge's sound by manipulating the variables, each exhibited a fundamental character that shone through. That's what I'm most interested in communicating to you.

Along with whatever the hell I felt like playing at any given time, I used the following LPs during my strict comparative listening sessions: The Kinks' Arthur (Pye NSPL 18317), the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Heifetz, Reiner, and the CSO (RCA Living Stereo LSC-2129), Sinatra's Swingin' Session!!! (Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-141), Davey Spillane's Atlantic Bridge (Cooking Vinyl 009), Pictures at an Exhibition with Reiner/CSO (RCA Living Stereo/Classic LSC-2201), Art Pepper + Eleven (Contemporary S7568, and Analogue Productions' APJ 017 180gm reissue), The Very Best of Roy Orbison (Monument SLP 18045), The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison (DCC Compact Classics LPZ (2) 2024), Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (RCA Living Stereo/Classic LSO-6006), Star Wars/Close Encounters of the Third Kind with Mehta/LAPO (Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-008/King Super Analogue KIJC 9199), Joni Mitchell's Blue (Reprise MS 2038) and Court and Spark (DCC Compact Classics LPZ-2044), Love is the Thing (DCC Compact Classics LPZ-2029), Muddy Waters' Folk Singer (Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-201), and finally, Mel Tormé and Friends at Marty's (Finesse W2X37484).

Goldring Excel VX: $995
A moderately high-output low-output moving-coil cartridge, the $995 Excel is rated at 0.5mV at 5cm/s into a 100 ohm load—about double the rating of the lowest low-output MCs. The UK-made Excel is a thin, tall, attractive-looking cartridge with aluminum side body mounts sandwiching a composite material that houses the motor assembly. The mass is a medium 8.5gm. Tapped flanges make mounting easy, and the clean body design helps make overhang, azimuth, and VTA adjustments relatively straightforward. The aluminum-alloy cantilever is fitted with a "Vital" hyper-elliptical (0.008mm by 0.040mm) stylus. The coil assembly is silver wire over a soft iron former.

I immediately liked the Excel's warm, relaxed, yet detailed sound. It did an outstanding job of capturing the acoustic envelope—the spatial context surrounding instruments and voices on live recordings. On the Mel Tormé album I got the sense of the intimate club "room" size just behind the vocal. The same with the Belafonte, in which the larger space was clearly suggested first by the way the voice affects the large volume of air, and then by the later reverberant cues. On DCC's superb new Court and Spark (beats the Nautilus half-speed), the cartridge easily captured the restricted space of an isolation booth behind Mitchell's voice—something budget cartridges miss.

A cartridge's tonal balance affects every performance parameter, and in the case of the Excel, its subtly warm lower midrange proved beneficial in creating a deep, expansive soundstage that wasn't afraid to project round, three-dimensional images well in front of the speakers. On the Art Pepper disc (highly recommended!), Pepper's alto sax appeared boldly forward, center stage, well in front of the supporting band. The cartridge's slightly warm demeanor didn't sink Pepper's light, crisp alto sound (he also plays tenor and clarinet on the album), or slow down his boppy rhythmic thrust.

The Excel's other strongest suit was capturing the textures of voices and instruments, particularly cymbals and other percussives: the "crash" got just the right amount of emphasis. Too much and cymbals get edgy and grainy, too little and you get that "airbrake shusshing" sound you hear on many digital "audiophile" recordings. I hate that! It's the aural equivalent of those cutesy bug-eyed Keene paintings.

The first record I played with the Excel before it was broken in was the Kinks album (an original British pressing), which I hadn't played in years. My sonic recollection of it was instantly shattered in one of those jaw-dropping epiphanies audiophiles love. What I'd remembered as a so-so flat-and-artificial studio job turned into a rich recording of a group playing live in a smallish space with lots of image-enriching microphone leakage, which helps create an exciting sense of three-dimensionality and "thereness." The gritty horn section on the opener, "Victoria," cut through as I'd never heard it, and the texture of Ray Davies' voice, his physical presence in front of me, took on a reality I'd never heard before. Yes, I was hooked on the Excel from the start. When it was all said and done, it did the Kinks album, and rock in general, the best of the three cartridges.

It was only after extensive listening, and by comparison to the other cartridges in this survey, that I could find the Excel's one major weakness: a slight overall top-to-bottom graininess, but one I could easily live with given the cartridge's other attributes. Despite the slight grainy overlay, the Excel's rendering of strings was reasonably smooth yet well textured. On the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the Excel did an outstanding job of capturing the instrument's upper register without harshness or etch, while delivering the rich woody body whole. When Heifetz dug in with his bow, I could feel the instrument shiver.

A good tracker at 1.7 grams, extremely dynamic, detailed yet rich, harmonically suave, rhythmically competent, airy and extended on top, taut yet warm on bottom, the Excel is a superb performer at any price, and a real bargain at $995. Best loaded to 100 ohms.

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 the wooden-bodied line, which features specially cured mahogany casings. According to John Grado (Joe 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 chassis 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 if 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 wasted—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 its overall portrayal of bass dynamics and pitch, were the best I've heard from any cartridge: solid, powerful, authoritative. 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 lower than with the Excel or my references. On the Belafonte album, when he asks the balconies to sing on "Matilda," I couldn't hear it coming from the heights. Like the Excel, 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 the 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. If you're looking for an original Blue (the only one to have), it's the mustard-colored label with "STEREO" along the bottom and "reprise records, a division of warner bros. records inc." below. Don't bother with later Warner Communications copies with the "W" logo on a brighter yellow label.

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.

van den Hul MC-10 Special: $1200
The MC-10 Special is a recent upgrade of the MC-10, the main difference being a magnet mod that ups the output and increases resolution. The upgrade is available to MC-10 owners as part of a $500 "re-tip." The MC-10 comes with the most elaborate packaging and documentation, including a custom frequency-response printout and the traditional wooden casket—er, box. According to the printout, the MC-10 Special is flat between 25Hz and 12.5kHz, with a 0.5dB drop at 20Hz and a 0.5dB rise between 16kHz and 20kHz.

Fitted with van den Hul's patented "Miter" tip (over a million sold) and a solid boron cantilever, the hand-built MC-10 Special is designed to track at between 1.35 and 1.5gm. I tracked it at the upper limit, loaded to 1000 ohms. vdH lists the load impedance at "100 ohms – 47k ohms (optimum 200 ohms, up)."

The MC-10 Special immediately distinguished itself from the other cartridges in one area: high-frequency purity and resolution. The MC-10 offered the purest, most refined, resolved high frequencies, absolutely and totally free of grain and grit. This purity cut both ways, however: It did the best job on the Tchaikovsky recording, turning in an absolutely stunning, heart-stopping rendition of Heifetz's violin, and even making the rather watery orchestral recording richer—but it made Kinks drummer Mick Avory sound way too polite, and the brothers Davies' guitars almost soothing!

After playing a few of the "required" discs, I was moved to pull out some Mercury Living Presences, both originals and Classic reissues. Of the three cartridges, the MC-10 Special is the one for strictly classical music listeners. It reproduced strings, brass, woodwinds, and the orchestra as an entity with a rich, refined liquidity and clarity usually reserved for the top-shelf cartridges. Coincidentally, when I later called importer George Stanwick for some info on the cartridge, he volunteered that Mercury producer Wilma Cozart had chosen another, more expensive van den Hul as the reference cartridge for the Classic Mercury reissues.

But for rock, blues, and even some acoustic jazz, I found the MC-10 Special a bit too smooth for my tastes. Muddy Waters sounded as if his voice had been bead-blasted smooth, and his acoustic guitar sounded too round. But then I put on Sinatra's Swingin' Session!!! and I was back in love: as with the Excel's pervasive though mild grain, the MC-10 Special's smoothness was subtly expressed. It should be preferable for many listeners, or not noticed at all without a direct cartridge comparison.

The other noticeable difference between the MC-10 Special and the other two cartridges occurred in the lower midbass, where the Special was extremely articulate and "fast," but somewhat lacking in punch and weight. Again, this is a "half-full/half-empty" debate—one could just as easily say that the other two cartridges were adding a bit of warmth to the truth—or it might be a system-dependent phenomenon. From where I sat, however, the MC-10 Special sounded slightly "forward" and on the lean side. Predictably, compared to the other two cartridges, this resulted in a slight diminution of both soundstage depth and the sense of the hall acoustic.

Which one?
I can't answer that for you. All three cartridges offer superb sound, though with different combinations of strengths and weaknesses depending on your musical and sonic tastes and associated equipment. At $995, the Goldring has to be the "best buy." The $1200 Grado is a superb tracker, has the best midrange, and enough output to light a small town—or at least enough to not require a head amp or an MC gain stage. The $1200 van den Hul is the "quickest," most refined-sounding of the three, and, from the upper mids on up, offers a purity the others don't quite achieve...but I wouldn't use it with budget electronics.

I'd have a tough time choosing one. But if I had to, given my need to hear the Clash's London Calling (British CBS Clash 3) on a regular basis, I'd probably go for the Goldring.

RoanPerthulian's picture

Later times wewould also find another innovation with these vintage items that some people is running after. - KSA Kosher

fstanke's picture

Hey Mikey,
I recently took possesion of a component that seemed good coming in the door, but now, every time I listen to the system the designation "grainy" goes through my mind. I am not sure if I am applying the term correctly. Is there a some reference to which I could refer for a good definition/description? Also, is there any good reference about what causes it, or maybe more importantly, how to combat it?