A Signature Story (remembering a man I never met)

My two and a half readers should know I am fond of Grado cartridges for reasons that go beyond the inherent value and performance. Soon after I started spinning vinyl records again, I wanted a cartridge my Thorens turntable deserved. I asked for advice on TNT-Audio and among the various brand names among which I was solicited to search there was Grado. I already had amazing Grado headphones. The Italian name also kind of attracted me, so I went for the top of the Prestige line, the first edition of the Gold cartridge. Many years later I learned it was loaded with an 8MZ-v stylus. It must have been a mistake at Grado Labs while assembling the very specimen that would find its way to my address. Much, much later I discovered the 8MZ was considered a noticeable upgrade for Prestige cartridges. For years, I ran that cartridge with no realization about this. I didn’t even know how important was to correctly setup a floating chassis turntable like the Thorens. I finally consumed the stylus I though was just a Gold 0 and replaced with a then new Gold1 stylus. That’s when I discovered the Audiokarma forum.

My old Grado Prestige Gold 0 holding a broken 8MZ-v stylus it came with due to a mistake at the Labs in 2005.

I had to ask a technician to replace the stylus for me. That was the extent of my ignorance at the time. Replacing a Grado stylus is no rocket science, it’s just plug and play. The way the technician dismissed my Thorens TD-165 as a deck deserving nothing special, prompted me to do some research. I found out the exact contrary, so I started to learn. People at Audiokarma helped me from all over the world. I eventually became almost an expert in setting up Thorens turntables and I also upgraded to a TD-160. It was around the time that I stumbled upon some threads about the 8MZ stylus outperforming the Prestige styli. I had read a lot about the Shure V15 performances and wanted to try one. I found a V15-III and bought an Ed Saunders stylus for it. I found it sounding too thin (I’m sure I was not able to correctly set it up then). I went on AK’s forum and read abut a member upgrading his Grado with an 8MZ stylus, following the advice of a certain Marc Morin. The AK member who discovered the 8MZ stylus was originally a stalwart Shure user, with his V15-V and Jico/SAS stylus. He went to great lengths to describe how he now loved the Grado combo even more. Completely oblivious about the fact my first Grado cartridge was just like that, already equipped with an 8MZ stylus, I pulled the trigger on an 8MZ. When it arrived home I was stunned by its sound! I didn’t have any clue because when I first bought the Prestige Gold0 with the 8MZ included, I had no idea how to setup a suspended turntable, I just plugged it in and played. I couldn’t retrieve all the nuances that cartridge would have provided.

I started to read everything i could on the 8MZ and the Grado Signature series on Audiokarma and learned how the resident expert was Marc Morin. I interacted with him online and he advised I tried a Signature body myself, stating that it was not necessarily better than a Prestige, but it has a different, more layered presentation that he preferred. I ended up buying my Signature 8MX from him. I was thrilled to try the 8MZ in it. Too thrilled maybe, because when I removed the 8MZ stylus from the Gold body, I dropped it and the cantilever was bent. I was distraught, since I could not afford buying a new one. I went back to AK for help and Marc Morin showed up offering to give it a try. I sent the stylus over and he straightened the cantilever. He found it had lost some output, maybe due to some damage to the generator ring. He sent it over to Grado’s in New York but they couldn’t do anything about it. He sent me the stylus back with no charges, saying it had a lower output but maybe still sounded musical. I tried it a lot, but it could not manage some sibilants, plus some lower range was also weaker than I remembered.

It was a hard time for me. I had recently lost my job at an age it is not easy to start again, especially in my country. I was scared and worried. Music was my only true relief. I went back to playing guitar in a rock band and tried to buy and resell some Thorens turntables after having performed my tunings. I did just a few, since in a matter of months the prices of those decks skyrocketed. I could not spend any money on a new 8MZ stylus, too. So I had to go along with the Gold1 stylus in both the Gold0 and 8MX bodies. Marc offered to look for a good-to-go stylus for me as soon as he stumbled upon one.

Meanwhile, I found a Shure Me97HE cartridge in a broken turntable someone gave me for free. I ditched the turntable and kept the cartridge body. I tried to sell it but then I found a cheap used Nagaoka ED stylus for it and bought it. I was amazed by the sound I got out of it! On AK the new Prestige 2 series were praised a lot and I wrote Marc to understand about his feelings on a Prestige 2 vs Signature comparison. He told me he had no time to deal with this stuff since he was battling cancer. It was so sad to read it. I had no idea. I can write about this since everything is public on AK. Time passed and an AK member started to update the forum members about Marc’s conditions, that seemed to get better as he was battling against the illness with courage. Marc also started contributing again on the forum. His knowledge about Grado cartridges was immense and we all benefited a lot from his sharing.

My old Grado Prestige Gold back to work with a Black2 stylus

I published some lines about my discovering that my first Grado cart had already an 8MZ stylus installed by mistake and about my doubts in spending money on a new 8MZ stylus vs a new Prestige 2 body. That was when another kind person from AK privately wrote to me offering to help. I had no really good styli to work with my Grado and Shure bodies. He offered to send me an Audiotechnica AT95e for free. But time passed and he forgot. So he found another AT95 body and a HE stylus for it at an incredible friendly price. The cart was amazing, still I was not used to the preponderant top end. The bundle retrieved fine information out of the groove, but I mas missing something. Yet, the guy and me started to develop a distant friendship, since we never met in person but kept on writing to each other about personal lives. His Italian origins maybe have something to do with it. By the way, he happens to be a family friend of the Grados; his father and Joe Grado visited each other’s home.

In the same thread I read Marc making a lot of compliments on a new cantilever installed by a retipper about a Grado Gold0 stylus grip that performed amazingly on an 8MX body. I contacted the guy, who also offered to help me with my broken 8MZ styli. There was nothing he could do since the suspensions were cooked in both. So he returned both the styli and my money. He advised I tried a cheap Grado Black 2 on my Gold 0 body since he had been testing good performances out of his Black 2 body and its stylus in older Prestiges. I did it and I really enjoyed it. The low end is rich but the top end is missing something. Anyway, this was another chance for me to appreciate another good guy I met in the world of turntables. I published an interview with him in this pages, as way to thank him somehow…

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)

Meantime I had found another job, I had moved to another city and I started to live a bit better, before the Covid crashed on us. Italy was the first western country to be hit. And hit hard. It was the surprise effect. We were top news all around the world, with an incredible number of deaths everyday. The only guy from abroad who thought about writing to me to make sure I was all right in this mess was the one who sold me the AT95 (well, besides a German friend of mine)! I was moved by the gesture. Then Covid stroke hard in the US, especially in my beloved New York area, where the guy lives and my wife and I have fond memories of (we started our relationship there and were married there – we also travelled there with our son when he was just 7 months old; 10 years have passed and we had never been able to afford to come back). So it was my turn to be worried and I wrote the guy. He was pleasantly surprised that someone from the other side of the planet would write while people nearby seemed not to care. So he thought about sending me an 8MZ stylus he didn’t use, again at a very inviting price. As he waited the chance to be able to ship it, he though about sending me the new, most recent version of the 8MZ instead, but with a nude tip, especially made for him by John Grado. I was without words…

A few days after, I learned about Marc Morin’s passing. Such a sad news that ruined my day. I had never met the guy, we exchanged some email when he tried to help with my broken 8MZ stylus. I read his inspiring comments on AK, where he will be terribly missed. I’m sure he was a good guy and he must have been a great loss to family and friends, too.

It has been strange learning about Marc’s passing a few days after my enthusiasm about the special 8MZ coming my way soon. I have a Grado 8MX Signature cart that has been in Marc’s hands. Grado keeps making 8MZ stylus replacement intended for the Signature series. I will receive a special 8MZ cartridge as a kind gesture from a new friend I met through Audiokarma; I will run it on a special 8MX I received from Marc Morin, whom I also knew from Audiokarma. It will be my way to remember a man I never met.

It all made a strange sense to me and also made me wish I wrote something about it…