I bought this Joe Grado Signature 8MX used in 2016 from the USA from the excellent Marc Morin, whom I met on the Audiokarma forum and who had given me many useful tips in the past. In 2014, always inspired by the advice of the same Forum, I bought a very good 8MZ stylus for the Grado Prestige Gold cartridge I was using then. At the moment the 8MX is the “official” cartridge. I am very fond of the Grado brand for a number of reasons. In 2005, I thought that my then Thorens TD 165 could deserve at least one better cartridge than the Goldring Elan I had. I asked Lucio Cadeddu, editor-in-chief of the online magazine TNT-Audio, for help with the upgrade and he advised me, among other things, to look in the Grado catalogue. The lower part of the catalogue is the Prestige series, which then contained the Black, Silver and Gold models. The Gold comes from the selection of the Silver production, which in turn comes from the selection of the Black. Higher up are the Reference and Statement series cartridges. I went to the Prestige series with the top cartridge: the Prestige Gold. Today we are at the Black 3 series — Gold 3, much improved in performance since then!
The Grado family has been making headphones and turntable cartridges by hand in their Brooklyn workshops since 1953, when the company was founded by Joseph Grado (1925-2015), son of a Sicilian immigrant. A good opera singer, Joe (left in the picture on the side) also had an ear that became legendary. He soon left ordinary school to join the watchmaking school (a subject he also taught – he was one of only two master watchmakers in the USA at the time), contrary to the dreams of his father who saw him and his other children in the family business, a food chain in Brooklyn. Instead, Joe, a lover of high fidelity and stereophony, was introduced to the audio world by none other than the legendary Saul Marantz. Joe began making headphones in the family home, in the kitchen, and then transformed his father’s grocery store into what are now known around the world as Grado Labs.
Joe was the inventor of moving coil cartridges (MC), an alternative technology to the usual moving magnet (MM) technology that went on for a very long time. Years later he preferred to deviate from that idea by bringing the merits of the MCs into his moving magnet line. Grado cartridges today are all moving iron (MI), a derivation of moving magnet technology. The stylus use a transmission line configuration, a special vibrating mass configuration and the flux-bridger system, all designed by Grado himself. Typically, Grado heads maintain a low inductance factor despite the resistance and output voltage remaining unchanged.
The Gold, like all Grados today, is a moving magnet (or, to be precise, moving-iron). The Prestige series today has the Black3 and Green3 as its economic base (the Green are selected from the Black), in the middle there are the Red3 and Blue3 (same selection mode), while at the top we have the Silver3 and Gold3, which is therefore the one that comes from the tightest selection among the Prestige. But I’ve read very well about the entry-level Black3, really considerable reviews. In 2005, with only €120 I bought a Prestige Gold at the time, and the music changed already! Even so the Cambridge Audio CD-6 CD player didn’t keep up. Both its respectable Oppo 980H successor, and the current Cambridge D500SE, were beaten by the old Thorens TD-160, which plays it (indeed) well. What I didn’t know then was that the Prestige Gold they sold me at the time actually contained a prestigious 8MZ stylus. I didn’t know anything about it then, so in 2010 I replaced the worn out stylus with the Gold1, getting sort of a middle ground between the old Gold and the more modern Gold1, at least as far as the stylus is concerned. Then I consciously upgraded it this time with an 8MZ stylus and got a considerable performance boost, which I certainly didn’t appreciate the first time as I knew nothing about cartridge alignment and floating chassis turntable setup. Later I decided to use the Signature 8MX body with the same stylus designed specifically for the 8M series, signed by the late Joe Grado.
Today the Grado Laboratories are run by Joe’s nephew, John (son of a brother) and continue to hand-assemble cartridges and headphones. Since the days when Uncle Joe started having difficulties with the drop in vinyl sales while the CD was raging, Grado’s nephew John has been doing just fine. The great thing is that John is not interested in growing out of proportion, becoming a multinational company and earning as much money as he could and live as a rich man. No, he knows he’s earning as well as he could to live in peace. So he has time for what’s important, to be with his family. It may be his Italian origins, but I’m very sympathetic to that…
The Grado Prestige Gold has served about 10 years on my two Thorens; at one time it occurred to me that maybe I could look for a higher performance cartridge. The idea was to stay in the MM field as their performance doesn’t make the MCs regret it, they have their problems like low output and more – especially the inability to change the stylus once worn! So I was thinking of cartridges like the Goldring G1042 or the Ortofon 2M Blue. Then I found a piece of history: the Shure V15, namely the III LM version, the one that came with the German Dual turntables as standard. I had read a great deal about the V15, a design dating back to the 60s but no longer in production since the early 2000s. There are very good replacement styli for the V15 III, both very expensive and cheap though not bad. However, I stumbled into a faulty Ed Saunders stylus and I lost my appetite.
I’ve been fond of the Grado brand ever since I got a wonderful SR-200 Prestige headphone. Even the Grado Gold has never let me down. I could have been looking for something higher in the Grado range. But their higher level cartridges do not have the interchangeable stylus. The interesting thing is that any cartridge body from the Prestige series can use a replacement usually dedicated to high end performance (and price) cartridges that are no longer in production today. The Signature 8MZ stylus I am using (bottom right) is sold today for $150 plus shipping. Word on the enthusiast forums is that this stylus can take a Prestige cartridge to levels that are close to Reference. I tried: I sold the Shure V15 III cartridge and its replacement stylus and had an 8MZ stylus shipped to me from the USA (I still didn’t know I had used one from the beginning). The typical Grado sound, soft but involving remained so, but perhaps even more refined?
This enticed me to try the Grado Signature 8MX from the 80’s offered to me at a good price in 2016. It seems that the difference with the current Prestige series is simply a more layered presentation in the Signature and a more listener-oriented presentation in the Prestige. As I mounted it on the Thorens shell the precious 8MZ stylus slipped out of my hands and fell to the ground bending the cantilever over! I was in no condition to buy another one. In my discouragement I wrote to Grado Labs that actually, as would also seem obvious, recommended me to use their Gold1, stating that they could neither predict nor endorse the use of different styli, not designed for that cartridge body. Marc Morin was kind enough to ask me to send him the stylus to see what he could do. Meanwhile I used both the Signature 8MX body from the 80’s and my old Prestige Gold with the Gold1 stylus that I had been using for 5 years. Miraculously, the generous Marc from Ohio managed to straighten the stylus, which tested on appropriate records showed to maintain performance, except for a noticeable drop in output level; I have to say that when the 8MZ stylus came home I didn’t notice a big difference but the level is low. Since some damage to the Gold1 stylus also occurred at the end of 2018 in the exact same mode (sigh!), I was forced to use the 8MX/8MZ pair and I have nothing to regret but the fact that I also damaged that stylus.
At the moment I also use a Shure Me97HE cartridge with a Nagaoka N97ED stylus, i.e. with an elliptical tip instead of the hyperelliptical tip with which the body was designed to work. I found it on a turntable they were about to throw away and kept it for a long time trying to sell it (the stylus was broken). Then I got some information and saw that it was the reissue (the little ‘e’ stands for Encore), ‘lightened’ and made in Mexico, of the venerable M97HE from the 70’s, long at the top of the Shure catalogue after the V15 series was discontinued. In short, the electrical values are identical to the M97xE, perhaps the same internal electronics. Performance was notoriously unappreciated for the less neutral response than in the past, when it was decidedly flat in the 20-20k Hz range. It seems it was not the case for the V15xMR and the last top cartridge Shure produced before retiring from the analogue audio market: the M97xE, which would be derived from my Me97. However, I was surprised by the sound of this cartridge with a simple elliptical stylus from the Nagaoka, bought used for only 28 euro.
I had sent what was left of the two Grado 8MZ styli to the USA to a technician who couldn’t do anything about it because of the damaged suspensions. So I will have to decide whether to keep the 8MX and equip it with an expensive 8MZ stylus or go for the new Grado Prestige 3 series. In the meantime I was offered a very good Audiotechnica AT95e but with a replacement HE stylus, i.e. hyper-elliptical, at a price I could not say no to. It sounds great, and it is better matched to the heavy Thorens tonearm (the Shure tends to jump more if you step heavily near the turntable). Would the AT95HE compare to the Shure when equipped with a serious Jico/SAS hyper-elliptical stylus or at least Vivid Line? What about the 8MX/8MZ or even 8MX/MCZ? That would be something to see. I read that M97HE and 8MR/MCZ are very similar.
I repeat, the excellent Grado Prestige 3 series, already at the minimum level of the Black3, promises great performance at a great price! Not to mention the Epos, the new Grado intermediate series with a wooden body. I would continue to use a Grado cartridge anyway, as I really like the very human approach of the Italian-American Grado family.
Interview to John Grado on head-fi.org