A Lighter Shade of Grado

gradogold-300x225The highly appreciated and sometimes controversial Grado Prestige series phono cartridges are known for their color names: they are labeled Black, Red, Green, Blue, Gold, etc., according to a selection process based on measured parameters and listening tests. I have always loved Grado products, the way they sound, the way they are made. I am impressed by how at Grado Labs they keep producing headphones and cartridges by hand in today’s world. But now I am undecided on what cartridge to choose for my turntable. Whenever I am undecided on what to do with some of my Hifi equipment, I find it useful to write down my ideas. Hopefully, this could be also useful to other Hifi enthusiast like me, still playing vinyl records today.

gold0-8mz-v-450x350My turntable has functioned for years with a pumped-up Prestige Gold 0 cartridge with an 8MZ-v stylus. I happened to buy Grado’s top Prestige cartridge in the mid 2000s because I already had their Prestige SR200 headphones, which I loved. As I wrote elsewhere in this website, I broke the Gold0’s stylus (which I didn’t know to be a wonderful 8MZ installed by mistake on the specimen I happened to buy!), so I purchased just a Gold1 stylus replacement, eventually – and unknowingly – downgrading the original bundle I had. Ironically, only later I learned about the trick of installing an 8MZ replacement in order to greatly improve the performances of the cartridge. Still oblivious of the fact I had already owned and broken one, I decided to buy the Signature replacement, and I was really happy about the performance burst (which this time I was able to appreciate). 😉

The 8MZ-v stylus (center) mounted on my Gold0 cart was rather strange: the opening’s rim is black instead of metallic and larger; the base is brass, unlike the other two (Gold2 on the left, my damaged 8MZ on the right)

I was so impressed (note I didn’t know how to properly setup a Thorens deck when I bought the spiced-up Prestige Gold) that I also bought a used Signature 8MX from Marc Morin, the Grado expert in the Audiokarma forum. But when I swapped the 8MZ stylus from the Gold to the 8MX, I dropped it and another damage was done. Marc kindly offered to have a look at it and managed to straighten the bent cantilever. But the signal was too low. Through Audiokarma I met another Grado appreciator, Joseph Long, capable retipper, who tried to repair my original 8MZ-v but he could only verify that the suspensions were heavily damaged – both my Signature styli were beyond repair. So I was left with a Prestige Gold 0 body and a Signature 8MX body with no styli to use with them (or an 8MZ with reduced output and impaired channel separation).

shure me97heMost of this happened after I had lost my job so I was unable to invest money on Hifi stuff. I had managed to still play vinyl records because someone showed me a cheap and old turntable before throwing it in the trash. It was out of order but I noticed a Shure Me97HE Encore cartridge with a broken stylus. It measured all right at the tester so I bought a 28-euro used Nagaoka N97ED stylus replacement (elliptical stone, not hyperelliptical): regardless of the lesser shape of the stone, I was stunned by the way it sounded.

audio-technica-at95heAnother Audiokarma member, Joe Piermatteo of Island Audio at Las Vegas, Hifi and Grado dealer who personally knows John Grado, offered his help and sent me an Audiotechnica AT95e plus a HE replacement stylus at an incredible price (he says fellow Italians stick together ;-)). Of course the AT is a great cartridge and I was really impressed by the refined presentation it sported with its hyperelliptical stylus – one my Shure Me97 should also have had in order to compete fairly.

Therefore, as of today, my turntable has 4, maybe 5 options:

  • a very good Audiotechnica AT95HE that works very well with my medium-heavy Thorens tonearm.
  • A Shure Me97HE, the made-in-Mexico replica of the 80s of the top Shure cartridge of the late 70s, that would deserve a proper hyperelliptical stylus;
  • a Joe Grado Signature 8MX of the 80s that would deserve an 8MZ stylus or even a costlier MCZ;
  • a Grado Prestige Gold 0 that could be revived by installing a cheap but high-specs Black 2 stylus.
  • Enter the new Grado Prestige 2 series: one of them would probably be the best Grado choice.

The most recent Prestige series from Grado is said to perform so well with respect to the preceding Prestige 1 series to be comparable to the venerable Signature series. On paper, the new Prestige series has a better separation (30 dB) than both the Signature and the former Prestiges (25 dB). The Prestige Gold 2’s stylus is reportedly really similar to the current 8MZ, having a bonded elliptical diamond as well, instead of the nude hyperelliptical diamond of the original 8MZ.

Let’s say I could live happily with the AT95HE and possibly upgrade to the new, even more remarkable ATV series in the future. And the Shure sounds terribly good right now, even with the downgrade stylus! But I love Grado products and I’d like to have my 8MX to be back to work. But this would be the most expensive option I have and it would probably give me less separation than a Prestige 2 cartridge or a Prestige 2 stylus in my old Gold 0 body. So what now? Chances are I could put a simple Black2 stylus into my old Gold0 body and get away with just 50 dollars… Or for a few more I could buy a whole Black2 cartridge.

Let’s summarize Grado’s classification.

Basically they have 3 levels: Black/Green,  Blue/Red, Silver/Gold – the cheapest option is the Grado Black2. The Black2 cartridges that show the closest accuracy of specification parameters are labeled as Green2; they both have a 3-piece cantilever;
the middle option are the Blue2 and Red2 cartridges, and they have a 4-piece cantilever; the Red2 sports the closest to spec measurements and are said to be the sweet spot of the series;
at the top we have the Silver2 and the Gold2, which are selected from the best performing Silvers.

grado-prestige-black-2Therefore, Blacks and Greens are identical, they have the same specifications, it is just that the Greens meet those specification better than the Blacks. I figure you need a very good Hifi system in order to hear the difference. Some people declare to be able to detect the difference between the Black2 and the Gold2, and we are talking of bottom vs top cartridges. I doubt I could possibly tell the difference between a Black2 and a Red2 with my system and experience. Remember that the Prestige 2 performance is reportedly very similar to the Signatures…

As of what I know now, if you guys want a Grado cartridge, by all means go for a new Prestige Black2! Guys like Joe Long can bring it to excellence when the time of replacing the stylus will come. Still, although just bonded elliptical today, the 150-dollar 8MZ replacement stylus is still a good upgrade – if you need a nude hyperelliptical, here comes Joe Long again. If you like the old Grado cartridges there are plenty of options available in the used market, starting from the 1980s Signature series, with the 8MR at the top (you need the 8MZ or MCZ styli as replacements, the Prestige 2 do not work!). Maybe those were times when vinyl records were the only medium and cartridges were made in a better way. Maybe even at Grado the QC was better than today.

Even older cartridges are wonderful: the F-1+ and G-1+ from the late 70s (replaced today by the Silver and Gold, respectively, but not that cheaply made). The F-1+ is still sold NOS online (by the way, it’s Joe Long’s all-time favorite). Prestige styli are compatible with them and you might really get away with just a Black2 stylus replacement. Eventually this is what I’ve done: I bought a Black2 stylus for my Gold0 body. I am confident a whole Black2 is superior to an old Gold0; hopefully, most of the good stuff is in the new styli. I must say I am really happy about the results. Great upgrade at a ridiculous price.

Anyway, cartridge bodies are virtually eternal. For the styli, there’s always Joe to call for help…