But am I even capable of appreciating the differences between various phono cartridges?

Here I go again. I had already written an article about the same excitement, on the wave of enthusiasm after the purchase of a new Grado Prestige Blue 3. I was delighted to be back listening to records with a Grado cartridge, not least because I love their philosophy of doing business and their history; their cartridges are still hand-assembled in a Brooklyn workshop using 50-70s instruments and watchmaker’s tools. The reality is that I came to resell the Blue 3 because, sadly, I just didn’t like the sound of it. Did I set it up wrong? But my Shure M97HE sounds great. Had something changed in my taste? Was my memory of a nice Grado sound linked to the use of the prestigious 8MZ stylus that I then stupidly damaged? Or am I unable to discern?

When I bought a Grado Prestige Gold back in 2005 (without noticing that it already had a very good 8MZ-v stylus mounted on it by mistake) I really wasn’t able to align a cartridge properly. I did a bang-up job and enjoyed the vastly improved sound in spite of everything. I had no idea of the existence of the 8MZ replacement styli still produced by Grado for the Signature 8 series from the 80s. This is not officially acknowledged by Grado, but there are myriad discussions on enthusiast forums about how an 8MZ replacement considerably increases the performance of a regular Prestige body. Steve Grado himself, I believe a brother of John, the current CEO, has apparently commented that the best replacement for any Prestige stylus is the 8MZ. There is also an even more refined and expensive MCZ replacement stylus that requires a lower resistive load than the usual 47 kohm (just over 10 kohm). I ruined the 8MZ-v stylus of my Gold 0 by incorrectly inserting the protector (ironically), obscenely deflecting the poor cantilever. I replaced it with a Gold1, still unaware of the size of the stylus I had ruined, unsuspectingly downgrading my cartridge. Some time later I came across those forums and wanted to try an 8MZ. I bought it, at the time, for 130e including shipping, and I still remember how my jaw dropped the first time I listened to it (I had even become able to align a cartridge properly). Fabulous sound!

And if I had known how to align cartridges before, I would have already had that soud in the beginning. I felt like trying a Signature 8 cartridge and took a chance on an 8MX. In transferring the 8MZ stylus from the Gold to the Signature 8 I dropped it and damaged it too! So to this day I still don’t know how my 8MX sounds with a suitable stylus!

The point was that I could no longer afford an 8MZ stylus. It had gone from $100 to $150, so it would have been more than $200e for me. I just couldn’t. Besides, I had come into a bargain with a very good Shure M97HE Era IV that runs great and is one of the best cartridges ever despite its age. I wasn’t in a position to spend on high fidelity. I love the Shure but the idea of going back to a Grado on my Thorens TD-160 always tickled me. I tried to get the 8MZ repaired by a well known US refurbisher but he told me that the suspension had gone in both my 8MZ-v and 8MZ stubs. He had already installed two worthy cantilevers but the older one just didn’t work and the other one sounds a bit shrill and has also lost output volume. Occasionally I try to listen to it on the 8MX but it just doesn’t fit.

My ‘new’ Grado F-1+, a 70s cartridge for my 70s Thorens

With the release of the Prestige 3 series in 2020, it seemed that John Grado wanted to return a little towards the characteristics of the old Signature series, which are still so popular today. The Signature series made for a deeper, more layered presentation, with the listener well away from the musicians; the modern Prestiges tended instead to project the soundstage onto the listener, aiming for a more impactful impact, following somewhat the fashion of the moment, placing the listener in the front row, so to speak. It seems that the Prestige 3 had gone back a bit towards the approach of the past and had considerably improved the construction of the bodies and especially the cantilevers. On the advice of the aforementioned restorer I picked up a banal Black2 stylus for 40e to ‘spin’ the old Gold0 on. But it sounded ‘dark’ – I couldn’t understand it. Maybe the stylus needed breaking in. I had it working for quite a while but if I put the Shure back on the difference was obvious. There was also the possibility that it was a Black3 stylus, as the first ones came out right around that time in boxes still marked Black2. Yet I didn’t like it…

I tried to put the Black2 stylus on the 8MX as well, but nothing much, it was even worse. And as I put it back on the Gold0 I managed to bend that stylus too! So I ended up with only the 8MZ malfunctioning. What should I do? Buy a new one for +200e or spend a bit less on a new cartridge? I opted for the latter and bought a Prestige Blue3. According to John Grado the ‘sweet spot’ of the series is the Red3, same cantilever as the Silver3 and Gold3. The Blue3 also has the same cantilever but the Red3 meets the specifications better. I decided it was a negligible difference for me and got the Blue3, the cheaper one but with the advanced cantilever like its superiors. Result? Same dark sound. There was no way even with the break-in. But was it me? Have I lost sensitivity in the high acoustic spectrum with age? Maybe, but the Shure was clearly superior. I resold the Blue3, a little saddened because my affection for Grado was not enough to make me turn a blind eye (or ear?) to the inferior performance compared to the Shure M97HE, albeit a noble cartridge but with a slightly less …familiar history.

Grado F-1+ cartridge

A few days ago I came across an advertisement for a Grado even older than my Signature 8MX: an F-1+ sold at a price I could afford. How will it sound? The reviews were great. It is the counterpart of the current Silver3 but it is known that Grado made cartridges of superior quality in the 70s. The F-1+ is even available new today. The Signature are also considered superior to the current Prestige. And maybe I had a hint of that with the disappointing test of the Blue3. So again the dilemma: do I spend money on the 8MZ stylus or get an old-fashioned Grado? The bare diamond cantilever of the F-1+ made me lean towards the old cartridge. For 80e including shipping it arrived at my doorstep, I immediately mounted it even knowing that the standard load of 47 kohm is not ideal for it. Yet I turned up the volume and listened to music! I haven’t made any comparisons with the Shure yet, but I didn’t feel the need to change cartridge, just the need to change record to listen to more music, finally with a sound that I remember made me hear the singers’ voices as if they were there, I could even invite them to dinner…