Review: Grado Grado Reference Phono Cartridge Cartridge

Category: Analog

I listen to a wide variety of music because of my exposure to music as a musician for the past 33 years.I have also played in our local symphony The Skagit Symphony for the past 15 years as the Principal Bass Trombone Player.
Thus I have a perspective of live music that I may be able to shed light on that other reviewers may have overlooked.
To evaluate the sound of this cartridge I used the following different types of LP's as my reference.
Muddy Waters Folk Singer 200 Grams Classic Records QUIEX Super Vinyl Profile
Casino Royale Soundtrack LP Classic Records 200 Grams
An American Tail ,Movie Soundtrack
Linda Ronstant Round Midnight, With Nelson Riddle 3 Box Set
Massenet Le Cid-Ballet Music Scenes Pittoresques
The Last Sleep of the Virgin,City of Birmingham,Symphony Orchestra,Louis Fremaux
My listening priorities for my sound system is honest accurate tymbral reproduction of musical instruments.Does the instrument sound real and life like?Are the harmonic structure of the instrument left in tact?.Do you heard the wood body of a violin,or viola?Can you hear the end of phrasing of notes or cords,even when the orchestra is playing PP,or PPP? Can you hear a chord real soft stop and start in time precisely together?When a brass instrument plays can you hear the release of air.With that air you should be able to detect the sound cues of the hall the instrument was playing in clearly and cleanly.
I suppose the worst offense to me in the music reproduction is a false tipped up top end.Live music in a concert hall does not sound like that at all.You have an open very transparent sound,but initially may sound dull to an audiophile not attending live symphony concerts.
All instruments are exposed in all their harmonic glory for all to hear.Many moving coil cartridges have a high freq. rise between 5 to 10k to give the illusion of fast open top end,but that kind of rise leads to listening fatigue in the long run.
The Grado Reference that I purchased on the Audiogon is used with a reported 200 hours usage.Thus it is well broken in.I have only had the cartridge in my system for less then a week,and had it replaced by my Grado Silver Prestidge Phono Cartridge.
So what did I think of the performance of the Grado Reference Reference High Output Cartridge?
In a word SIMPLY STUNNING.I guess that was 2 words.
The Grado Reference literally supercharged my front end system.It was the biggest sound quality jump I had ever witnessed.With the Grado Silver I had a small 3D sond stage,with modest bass response,and nice mid band reproduction,and nice top end,but missing the acoustic air of the concert hall.
The Grado Reference does everything I require with an accurate reproduction of a real musical instrument in a real live recorded space.
I will explain bottom end octave first.This cartridge is so easy for me to lock in proper VTA.I tune VTA for proper recreation of the lowest octaves first.With the Grado Reference a fast bass note line 8th note run or 16th note run is easily followed up and down the scale.I have never heard a cartridge do this before.Notes normally get smeared and cannot be tracked accurately.The notes get blurred and ill defined ,But not with this Grado.I also heard and felt this bass slam when the bass drum takes over in between the pulses followed by the decay of the drum in its natural reverberant field.WOW, and I thought I needed a subwoofer.
My Martin Logan's Quest Z's have a response down to 28 HZ ,
and beleive me I heard it and felt it many times when I was playing the above listed LP's.
My front end had pace,slam,pulsating bass beats up and down real fast.I had a wide grin on my face when I listened to a bass trombone answer back in a 8th note run from the Frech Horn section from The Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
For the very first time I actually thought the bass trombone player was in the living room with me.The Grado created magic in this frequency range.It has the ability to recreate the proper harmonic structure of the overtones in the lower instruments in the symphony.Bravo Mr. Chapis a job well done indeed.
The trombone had its proper weight.It SOUNDED LIKE A BASS
TROMBONE not like a Tenor Trombone.String Basses could be heard and felt.Also string harmonics were smooth and natural,not hard or tipped up.This is an incredible milestone in phono cartridge reproduction.
The Midband Reproduction is in a class by itself.You can hear a singers voice so clearly.But its more then just the voice.You can hear the breath control,and warmth and power of the voice,as well as the end of phrasing of the voice.
Male and female reproduction are just stunning and breathtaking.Its like being in the control room with the sound engineer on a live mic. feed.
I was able to hear the backup singers behind Linda Ronstant
phrase the ending of their cords perfectly.They kept 3 part harmony structures way down to PP and PPP WITH PERFECT PITCH.Normally this gets masked with any other cartridges I've heard in the past.
The top end of this cartridge is magical as well.It is not tipped up at all.You can listen to Linda Ronstadt really sing her soul out on Funny Valentine at FFF without any strain to the front end at all.This is a first too me.
You can hear the air around her voice after the loud cord,
and the acoustic envelope is so perfectly preserved after the note is stopped.Bravo,Bravo!!
What this does to the sound stage is simply staggering.
You have this huge wrap around sound field that is fully enveloping.The sound stage extends way past the plane of the Martin Logans,way past the back of the speakers.The walls of my 12' by 32' listening room simply disappear.
The image is locked tight,and spred wide.The center stage is deep.All instruments are easy to pick up and follow in the sound stage.Even when the orchestra is at full volume you can follow the triangle,kettle drum and bass trombone parts effortlessly.For me this is a first.
The last time I heard this type of sound stage wrap around was when I was at a audiophile friends house several years ago and he had a Koetsu Rosewood Signature Phono Cartridge
on his front end.
I hear no weak points to this cartridge at all.I am simply amazed by its honest portrayal of the harmonic integrity of the orchestra instruments.Its reproduction is lifelike and real.
Is its $1,200.00 asking price to much for admission ?.NO
If you can buy it used would you?.I would in a hurry,and I did,and will never regret it in all my Audiophile life.
Now it has me wondering just how good is the Statement cartridge? I asked this question on a post in the Audiogon.
Should I sell this one now? I think I'm getting that Audiophile bug again!
For now I am very happy indeed with this FIND,and when it comes time to get a retip will I shell out $1,650.00 to upgrade too a Statement.YOU BETTER BELEIVE IT.

Associated gear
VPI MK3 Turntable
Morch UP-4 Arm Red Dot,With Internal Silver Wire
Supplied Tonearm Cable that came with Morch
IC Cables special designed Cyro Treated
Solid Core Cooper Cables from Amp to Preamp
Preamp Conrad Johnson PV-5 with updated power supply
Power Amp ARC VT-60
Speakers Martin Logan Quest Z's
Speaker Cable Kimber 4PR
2eaf5e7e 7b61 41aa b1cf 20655b42609f76doublebass
Great review and commentary. Thanks. Although I've been a fan of the Grados for years, I have not listened to any of the recent models. My current cartridge is a Music Maker II (a modified grado) and my experience with it was very similar to yours w/the Reference.

BTW: The Skagit River is a favorite steelhead river (along with the Sauk) for me. Although the returns in recent years have been less than dismal, the two river are a flyfisher's dream.
Tank you for responding to my review.I haven't heard the Music Maker 2.I hear they have a Music Maker 3 as well.
I wonder what Grado they modify from.
I Just love this Grado Reference.
Take Care
Pardon the typo error. I didn't mean to be offensive and say tank you.Thank You very much for responding to my review.
I'm not sure if anyone has done a review side by side.I believe I saw a review in Stereophile on the Music Maker,and it was somewhat favorable,But nothing seemed to really stand out in the review.I was just so taken back at the big sound improvement in my system with the Grado Ref.I was told the 2.5K Grado Statement is far better then mine,But the output is so low that you need more of a modern phono stage with high gain too accomadate it.
Thanks for your reading of my review.
What is the model of the Grado cartridge you have? Currently Grado makes 4 different high output Reference Grado cartridges. Which one did you have?

Thank you so much in advance and thanks for the great review
I know this threat is terribly old, but I really appreciated reading Don's review. I just bought a Grado "The Reference" which is what I believe they called their Reference Reference at one time. I have a reasonably warm sounding system and completely agree with Don's assessment of what makes a convincing reproduction of sound. For me if the tonal balance is not correct, nothing else matters.

The cartridge I bought was a dealer demo with 50 hours on it. But after installing it, the top end is so tipped up and tinny compared to my older Grado Reference Sonata, that is ruins the realism of my entire system. I might expect this level of treble balance from some "hi-fi" moving coils, but am shocked that this is a Grado and sounds so little like a Grado. It does exactly what Don said his Grado did not do. I wonder if the cartridge I bought could be broken, or maybe it sat dormant for so long (not sure how old it is) that this affected its mechanics?

Thanks for any thoughts. Great review, Don!
Even record groove noise and pops and clicks are totally overbearing to hear. Voices have an edge that I expect from bad digital. Can this be right for a top-level Grado?
Hi Montaldo,
I happened to own 'The Reference' before I was able to get a NOS 'The Statement'. Mine was VPI version which gives 1mv out put. I have no problem with harshness at all with both of mine. I guess you just need to play it for 100-150 hours to let it opens up. Grado is one of the most musical cartridge I have owned and I prefer it over my Ven den Hul Frog.
Thanks for responding. I replaced my phone stage tubes, one of which had failed and I had inserted a spare, with nos mullards and it made a significant difference. The sound is much better but still more treble balance than I was accustomed to with the ref sonata. However, both the new "the ref" cartridge and the mullards may need more time to break in. I will try to be patient. Thanks again for the feedback.
Is it expected to hear more groove noise as one moves up the grading ladder? I hear much more groove noise now than with the ref sonata1.

Though it is old ,this is the best statement concerning carts on Audiogon .