Solved: not Shure anymore? New shades of Grado? No – I’m back to Gold!

grado-gold-black2a-300x300Now I know what happened. Now that I am finally able to listen to a functioning Grado cart, I have understood. As soon as I started to be serious with vinyl records playback, I happened to buy a Grado cartridge. Then, many things happened and I had the chance to try out different cartridges, with different approaches to hifi music reproduction. I published some posts during this period attesting to my indecision about what I really liked to listen to. Now I have the clue to it: since a few days ago I just can’t stop spinning vinyl records. It was not happening since some time ago. And the reason why is clear to me now…

When I was younger, living in my parents’ apartment, I always had headphones handy so I could enjoy my hifi system without harassing my own parents and neighbors. When I purchased my first audiophile amplifier, I found myself with no headphones output. I was stuck with the one from the CD player or tape deck. Normal headphone impedance values were too high for the CD phones output to be satisfying. I made some research and I found out the lowest impedance audiophile “cans” on the market in the 90s. Why I am writing about this? Because they were the wonderful, delicious Grado Prestige SR200 I stupidly sold in the late 2000s.

Ever since I had been using those cans, I associated the name Grado to excellence in audiophile reproduction. When someone suggested some cartridge brands to pick my next one from, I selected Grado from the the list of names. I had the Prestige series headphones, so I went for the top Prestige Series cartridge and bought a Grado Prestige Gold. In 2005, I knew nothing about turntable setup. I was excited for having just moved over in our first house with my girlfriend (my wife today) and excited about listening to my new Grado on my Thorens TD-165 that I just screwed the cart on the shell with a knife, scraping all the gold colored sides. No alignment, no VTA adjustment, rough VTF setting and off I was. I had no clue that I had been gifted with a jewel from the Grado Labs, who mistakenly installed the wrong stylus in my new Gold cartridge: a Signature 8MZ-v stylus was there and I couldn’t possibly be aware of it. I absolutely ignored what it was. I played it with no respect for years, relocating family and hifi system in another two different houses. One day I clumsily slid the stylus protection on the Prestige Gold, only to hit the cantilever hard. I went on with a bent cantilever for a while, than I purchased a replacement. Knowing nothing about Signature series I just got a Gold1 replacement and was happy with it – I even thought I had upgraded my cartridge a bit! 😉

grado-gold-black2b-600x800Then I started to go serious and learned a lot of stuff about Thorens tables and how to correctly install and setup a cartridge – hence this website. Later I read about how many were upgrading their Grado Prestige cartridges with Signature 8MZ styli. So I finally bought one. I still did not know I had destroyed the first one I had. I developed a love about how the Grado Labs were born and made things. Finally I decided to buy a used Signature 8MX cartridge. The Signature fans on the forums described their different presentation compared to the Prestige: a more layered one, a larger and deeper landscape, while the Prestige was more up-front. The night I decided to try the 8MZ on my Signature body is still remembered for the tragic accident: I slid the precious 8MZ stylus out from my Grado Gold, it slipped off my fingers and fell on the floor. The cantilever was bent sideways. There was nothing I could do. I went on playing both the Gold0 and the 8MX carts with the Gold1 stylus. After a while I lost my job and had really different problems to cope with. Certainly, spending money on new styli was not under consideration. So I gradually lost pleasure in analog reproduction. Even buying a new record was a problem.

That’s when I found a nice Shure Me97HE for free in a turntable that was about to be tossed away. I had to buy a very cheap Nagaoka N97ED stylus for it, just elliptical, not hyperelliptical as it ought to be. But I instantly got captured by that sound anyway. I started to doubt my unconditioned love for the Grado house sound. At least I was able to keep on listening to vinyl records. Meanwhile, I read about the new Grado Prestige 2 series on forums. Some compared their performance to those of the Joe Grado Signature series. At the same time, Grado Signature replacement styli had raised their prices, making it even more impossible for me to think about buying one. But what if I went for a new Prestige 2 series? The low cost Black2 seemed to be far better than its predecessor, not so distant form the performance of the Gold2 at the top of the series. I’ll repeat it here: in the USA it costs just 75 dollars and it’s regarded as one of the best buys you can make at that price point. Almost unbeatable. Here in good old Europe it goes for at least 97 euros! It’s well over 100 dollars, so not a real bargain here. A forum member proposed that I tried the greatest bargain cartridge ever, the Audiotechnica AT95e. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and I bought his AT95HE, with the hyperelliptical stylus replacement to improve the performance exponentially. As soon as I put the cartridge on I was impressed! Never heard that detail before. I must say we had just moved to a new house and I had just upgraded my amplifier to a Naim Nait 5i. New listening room, new amplifier. Too much to compare to what I remember was the sound of my system with the Grados. Plus, the new room has a suspended floor and the low compliance Shure M97 was bouncing at every footstep. So I stuck with the AT and was even less shure anymore about what I really liked. The low compliance AT cart was a no brainer for my heavy Thorens TP16 tonearm. The upgrade styli were wonderful. Unlike Shure, Audiotechnica is still in the business and they have a wonderful support service. Then one of our cats jumped on the record while it was playing. I didn’t kill the cat, but later I noticed that maybe the HE cantilever was no longer straight. This prompted me to try the Shure back. I carefully set it up using a protractor and test records with the aid of a computer to check the output for correct alignment and bias. The Shure sounded damn good although it was “crippled” by the improper stylus. What could it do with a proper one from Jico or a NOS Shure?

grado-gold-black2c-600x800In the meantime, I had decided to try the path of cartridge retipping for my Grado 8MZ and contacted Joseph Long, who is a fan of moving iron carts and is known for doing a great job on Grado styli. He offered to put one of his cantilevers on the best of my two 8MZs grips. But he measured very bad separation on both: the suspensions were fried because of age, pollution, who knows… maybe just for the blows they suffered. He suggested I went for a Black2 stylus replacement, the cheaper way to revive my Gold0 body, not the 8MX, though. He had been comparing Black2 and Gold2 carts and it was difficult to him to tell the difference. The Black2 stylus performed really well on any Prestige body, featuring great separation figures, too. Joe returned my 8MZ styli and I was able to get one Black2 stylus at a reasonably low price. I couldn’t wait to try them all.

As soon as I listened to the new Black2 stylus on my old Gold0 body I was really surprised. Dull, compressed, bloated bass, dark sounding, recessed middle and high frequencies. But of course it needed a burning in-period. As I played it distractedly in order to warm her up, I read about some guy using WD40 on cartridge suspensions. Creeping? Maybe, but my 8MZ styli were gone anyway, weren’t they? So I put a drop on the suspensions of both and waited a few hours. I ran one 8MZ on the Grado0 and ….I loved it! It was not perfect, but it was better than I remembered: I didn’t get any pleasure in playing it before. It was more open than the Black2 during burn-in. There was space among the instruments, more controlled bass and refined highs! I remembered why I liked it so much! Still there were some sibilants issues and maybe the output was too low. But not as bad as I remembered. So the WD40 had some effect! Or I like to believe it. So I started to compare the new Black2 and the Signature combo. I love them both, but I must say as the Black2 was opening up, I appreciated its deep bass more and more: none of the other carts I have can do that. And my TDL Studio 0.5 transmission line loudspeakers make me appreciate it, as they’re capable of going as low as 30 Hz.

Therefore I am maybe back to Gold! I have fond memories of my first audiophile cartridge, so I am happy to have resurrected it thanks to a new Black2 stylus. The way this combo compares to the 8MX/8MZ make me think a brand new Prestige cart would really be a killer. Signature specs are lower than the modern Prestige specs. Many say the Prestige 2 performance is now very close to the Signature. Besides, I am compelled when I listen to the 8MX. I know channel separation is lower, frequency response is narrower, but somehow I like what I hear. I’ll have to switch carts more often while the Black2 burns-in and opens up. The fact that my 8MZ stylus is damaged makes me think how good it is and maybe a new one could still be a good upgrade. But the Prestige 2 has definitely better separation, over 30 dB versus 20, an indicator of good cart construction. Maybe one day I’ll get a new 8MZ stylus, just to keep my nice Signature cart running…

The fact I cannot stop to put vinyl records on means something, doesn’t it? It tells me I really love the Grado house sound. When I could not play them this did not happen. The middle frequencies of a Grado cart are unbeatable at their respective prices. They say the 8MZ stylus would bring the rest of the spectrum up to spec. But they also say the new Prestige are pretty much like that already.

Therefore, if I was not Shure anymore about it, if I considered other brands it was because I could not directly compare them to Grado. And I was not even able to compare by memory. Now that I have playable Grados at home, I’m really enjoying their luscious, rich, deep, all-round, pleasurable sound. I also defined the Shure sound down-to-the-earth, no-frills, close to reality and I appreciated that. But the wow factor is there with Grado. It is also true that my Shure is undermined by a lesser stylus than it deserves, and maybe the Audiotechnica suffered a slight damage, and the new ATV series might be incredible. But my Grados are also not up to specs, a damaged 8MZ stylus on the 8MX and just a Black2 on an old Prestige body. How would a Shure M97HE Era IV, a modern ATV95HE, a Grado Gold2, and a 8MZ combo compare? I don’t know… but I’m “shure” I am back to Gold now…