When I was young there were “pen pals,” remember? People wrote to each other without perhaps ever meeting, and they were usually foreigners with whom we practiced a language other than our own. Maybe it was the school that put you in touch. Actually at that time I never did, I didn’t have pen pals of my own. Today with internet forums it’s all different but certainly it’s easier to meet people with similar interests with whom you interface only textually and maybe even end up meeting one day. That’s how a few years ago I made friends with an Italian-American from New York whom I met on a famous high-fidelity forum.
It was a rather dark time for me; I had recently lost my job and broken a prized Grado 8MZ stylus of mine that I had successfully used on my old first-generation Grado Prestige Gold. I had been so favorably impressed with it that I had even purchased an ’86 Grado Signature 8MX cartridge to try it out on a cartridge for which it was designed. But in taking it out of the Gold, I dropped it. My clumsiness, at least with Grado styluses, was then repeated when I removed the old Gold1 stylus I had been forced to return to using: crushed between my fingers on extraction.
One who has recently lost his job cannot afford such distractions but let me think that perhaps the state of stress I was under contributed to my lack of attention during rather delicate operations. However, I certainly could not afford to buy back a Grado stylus, much less an 8MZ! I rescued a Shure cartridge from a turntable they were about to throw away and acquired a replacement stylus for a few euros so that I could still listen to a few records now and then (amazed at the beautiful sound that came out of it but more on that later).
In exchanging ideas about the benefits of an 8MZ stylus in Grado’s Prestige series I recounted my vicissitudes and a guy, whom we will call “Joe P” from New York (his last name was Italian), contacted me privately saying that he was a hifi dealer and would try to send me a cartridge as a gift to keep me going until better times. Surprised by the extreme kindness I tried to refuse by begging him not to worry about this but he insisted saying that among Italians we must help each other. He wanted to send me an Audiotechnica AT95e, the most popular low-priced cartridge with excellent performance for that level. The new Audiotechnica AT-VM series had recently come out, replacing the old ATs. Although new cost only 40-50 euros, I appreciated the gesture enormously, especially from a stranger. Eventually he told me that he could add for only $60 an LP Gear ATN95HE stylus with a hyperelliptical needle that would elevate the performance of the simple AT95 to incredible levels. The LP Gear stylus cost twice as much to buy from the website. When the cartridge arrived I immediately tested it with the HE stylus. It passed any test on my test records unscathed. But perhaps I was not used to that rich response in high frequencies. I also read that the Audiotechnicas were considered by many to be rather cold and detailed. In short, I missed the Grado with the 8MZ stylus….
And speaking of Grado it turns out that Joe knew John Grado personally. His father was a friend of Joe Grado, the founder of the small Brooklyn company that invented the Moving Coil and Moving Iron cartridges (as all Grado cartridges are today). Often Joe Grado and Saul Marantz would visit P’s house in New York. Joe (P) told me that when I could afford it he would ask John Grado to build a “special” 8MZ, with the naked tip like the early versions. John Grado would do it for him practically for free, in friendship, and for me he would do it at a ridiculous price. He had even gone so far as to tell me that if I came back to New York one day (I have relatives who emigrated there that make me think of the Grado family so much, and in NY I got engaged and then married) he would be happy to meet me in person and introduce me to John Grado so I could visit the legendary Labs! In short, I had a lot to dream about thanks to my new pen pal!
In the meantime, however, what tickled me was the old Shure that I had ” salvaged” from a broken turntable. It was an Me97HE, the so-called Encore series with which Shure was reissuing in the 1990s the great hits of the past at very affordable prices by producing them in its new factories in Mexico. My “salvaged” cartridge was a replica of the legendary M97HE Era IV (1978-82): a real beast, slightly inferior (but not even that much) to the legendary V15 IV, considered by many to be the best cartridge ever! That is why the sound it produced impressed me so much, despite the fact that I had bought a very inexpensive Nagaoka elliptical stylus for it! Upon investigating, however, I discovered that the Encore in my possession was by electrical measures more similar to the newest and last Shure produced, the M97xE, than to the venerable M97HE. Shure had introduced simplifications in the internal circuitry reducing the response in the high frequencies criticized by some for the supposed coldness of reproduction.
Meanwhile I had resumed work and had thus sent a hundred dollars to Joe to order the 8MZ from Grado Labs. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, things were going slowly. Joe meanwhile had had twins by his young second wife, they were born on the very same day as my son but ten years later! He insisted to me that the hyperelliptical Audiotechnica-LpGear combo he had undersold me was as good as a $500 cartridge and would surely be superior to a Grado Prestige without an 8MZ. Plus he anticipated that the new Prestige 3 series was coming out that would outclass the current one. Notwithstanding that the 8MZ stylus, which had also been revamped, would remain the best upgrade even for the Prestige 3 series. I don’t know why, but at the time I liked the Shure Encore with the Nagaoka stylus better than the AT, albeit the stylus is elliptical rather than hyperelliptical. What could it possibly have accomplished with the appropriate stylus? In fact, the shape of the Encore cartridge was not perfectly compatible with that of the stylus for the original series, so it did not fit perfectly.
After some time Joe pulled an interesting find out of the hat: 2 NOS (new old stock) Shure M97HE styluses. He had tried them and they were great (impressive bass) and would exceed the performance of the AT95HE he had sold me the year before thinking of “converting” me to Audiotechnica. I could get them for $75 plus shipping. I sent a hundred again and in the meantime managed to find an original M97 Era IV body sold for a similar price with a Shure-branded N97eX stylus attached. I couldn’t wait to hear how the original M97HE could perform on my Thorens TD-160! I was also curious how it would compare with my 8MX equipped with a “naked” 8MZ stylus! Meanwhile I managed to sell the perfectly compatible Encore + xE stylus combo to an enthusiast in China who was absolutely delighted with it.
Then came the bad news: Joe had to be hospitalized urgently for a relapse of an unspecified lung disease that had already forced him during full pandemic times. He was going to send me the Shure styluses as soon as he returned and ask John Grado to proceed with the 8MZ for me. I do not know what exactly he got but it was not Covid, as he had told me previously. After a month or so, worried, I tried to write him but got a reply from his wife saying Joe was pretty sick. I never got a response to any of the e-mails I wrote again. His activity on the forum had also stopped since then. On the net I can’t find any news, he had no social profiles or even a site for his hifi dealer business. Of course I thought the worst had happened. The hope was that he was in recovery therapy and could not write. But since it has been a couple of years now, I’m afraid there is nothing more to conclude that Joe has passed. I know, some might think it was simply a scam, the friendship story with John Grado, the money received and the disappearance soon after, without being able to send me the styluses already paid for. Yes, it would make sense but it is not compatible with all the emails written out of pure hifi passion, to send me pictures of their children, etc., for a year and more. For what? For $200? No, I don’t think so even though someone implied it. I made my last attempt by writing to Grado Labs. They replied that John Grado says he has not seen Joe for quite some time. It is very sad to think of the two 1-year-old twins left without a father, never having known him.
I thought about this again a few days ago. I had decided to invest in Grado’s new Prestige 3 series, not on the old Signature 8MX. So instead of the 8MZ stylus I opted for the new Prestige Blue 3. Upon first listening I said to myself, “Finally! Grado! What music! Then I thought of doing a comparison with the M97+Nagaoka ED. I was hurt. A whole different kind of sound. I tried running the Grado a few hours, fine tuning it. Nothing. Outclassed by the old Shure! And without the stylus it deserves! Why? The reasons may be several. Including also a change in my tastes, perhaps triggered by resuming playing electric guitar in a band, exposing myself to the actual sounds of the instruments every week. There is also the possibility that my own ears have lost some “frequency response” on the highs with the exaggerated volumes sometimes reached in the rehearsal room! 😉 Maybe now I appreciate the extension on the treble of Shure and Audiotechnica more.
But I think the real reason is really that at the beginning I had no terms of comparison, I had a very good Grado and I only knew that one. Accidents along the way led me to discover more. The thing that strikes me most about the Shure sound is how realistic the instruments sound! Grado has a sound of its own, velvety in the mids, full-bodied in the lows, and not very punchy in the highs. Maybe with the 8MZ stylus this is not the case. But the Prestige 3 disappointed me. At that point I thought back to what Joe was telling me about the Audiotechnica. I tried to listen to his AT95HE again, and I was dumbfounded! Joe was right! It is fantastic! The detail, the breath, the presence of instrument and vocals is outstanding! And it is an old discontinued Audiotechnica although greatly enhanced by a hyperelliptical needle. So I took to inquiring about the new Audiotechnica AT-VM95s. Joe was telling me that the “sweet spot” of the series is considered the AT-VM95ML, with a specially cut stylus, the Micro Line. On the net they speak very highly of it but on the usual forum they tell me that anyway an AT-VM95 will never reach the fullness of sound of a Shure M97, despite the 45-year difference! At the moment I can’t decide which of the two sounds better, but again, my Shure M97 is not at the top of its configuration. Shure N97HE styluses cost quite a lot, both the original Shure and Jico replacements, the highest priced (the Tonar version is also great and costs much less). But I found an ad for a particular M97HE cartridge (which I can’t fit on my turntable) complete with original stylus in good condition. The price is significantly lower to that of a single original stylus. I couldn’t miss it. I will finally be able to experience the legendary sound of an original M97HE. The offer Joe had made me was incredible, and I was beside myself in anticipation of being able to listen with my own ears. Unfortunately, tragic events prevented it and I myself, having now paid 200 dollars down the drain, could certainly not afford any more hifi expenses for quite a while. But come the time, I was fortunate enough to make a nice score that will be refinanced by the sale of the Prestige Blue 3. It’s practically new. Someday I will want to try the 8MZ stylus on the Grado Signature 8MX. It won’t be like what Joe was going to get me and maybe I’ll love the Shure sound more…we’ll see…meanwhile, the fact is poor Joe was right….