Review: Grado Prestige Black Cartridge
Everybody likes Grado’s SR60 headphones which, at less than $70, are a tremendous bargain. I’ve often heard it said by high-end Grado headphone purchasers that, if they’d known how good the SR60 was, they’d never have sprung for the more exotic models. But for some reason, you rarely hear about the lowly Grado Prestige Black, part of the company’s entry-level line Prestige line. It’s not as sexy as the company’s wood-bodied cartridges, but then again, the SR60s aren’t nearly as sexy as the wood-and-leather RS1 cans. Could the Black be the SR60 of cartridges? I wanted to find out.
Every step up through the Prestige line of cartridges yields minor (but significant) improvements in detail and frequency extension. There are three tiers: Black and Green, Blue and Red, and Silver and Gold. It’s the same cartridge at each tier; samples that test slightly better than others wear the higher designation. For instance, a great-performing Black becomes a Green and costs $20 extra. If you could care less about a slight, possibly inaudible, improvement, then go for the cheaper of the two.
MY FIRST GRADO
The Grado Green was my first high-end cartridge. I might not have rediscovered my record collection without it. I bought it with a brand-new Denon DP-47F turntable, still in production and selling well at $650 per copy. At the time, I didn’t think highly of the Green, but it definitely whet my appetite for high-quality LP playback. As I tried different cartridges (the Audio-Technica 440ML and OC7, Benz Micro MC20E2 and others), I found it was the table I was dissatisfied with, not the Grado. By then, I’d sold it.
Then, two years ago, I bought an old Yamaha belt-drive for a friend. The Grado Black seemed like a natural choice to replace the worn Audio-Technica that was fitted. I was surprised by how good the rig sounded, though not enough to un-mount my carefully setup Denon DL-160 and try it on my Rega P2.
Fast forward to the present. Circumstances (space limitations, for one) have forced me to reconsider my system. I’ve stored away my Rotel separates while I shop for an integrated amp. In their place stands a Sony ES receiver with a built-in MM phono stage that can’t fully realize the Denon’s potential. So I thought, why not swap it out for a higher-output cartridge that would make more reasonable demands on the Sony?
In the $50 price range, there are some surprisingly good choices. The Goldring Elan, at about $70, sounded better than expected on my old Music Hall MMF-2.1, though a bit stiff and grainy. However, with its low-grade conical stylus, the Goldring is a much less attractive proposition when purchased separately. The Audio-Technica CN5625AL, at an absurdly low $30, is another well-regarded choice, as is the $60 Sumiko Oyster -- both, lamentably, also fitted with conical styli.
Given the choice, I prefer the improved tracing and detail retrieval of an elliptical tip (or, better yet, a microline or Van den Hul). The Stanton 500E MkII Cartridge, Audio-Technica 70L and Ortofon OM3E all fit the bill and come in around $50. (J&R Music sells the Ortofon OM10 for $50 -- a steal, considering it normally sells for around $100. The OM10 is a good cartridge at $100, but for $50, it’s an astronomical value. Someday I may buy another one.) Still, I chose the Grado Black out of sheer curiosity.
BACK IN BLACK
The Grado Black is packaged simply, as are all cartridges in the Prestige line: just a small cardboard box containing the cartridge, stylus guard and stylus removal tool protected by a thin plastic tube. The entire package, including the minimalist instructions, reminds me of my experience with the Rega cartridge line -- encouraging, because you know your money is going to sound and not fancy jewelry boxes.
Mounting the Black on my Rega RB250 tonearm was a little harder than I’d anticipated. My last two cartridges were the Rega Elys, with a three-point mounting system that does 95% of the work for you, and the square-sided Denon DL-160, which was also a piece of cake to align.
Making the job more difficult was the substandard mounting hardware. I should’ve known better and reached for some hex nuts instead. The Grado’s tiny hardware sunk into my headshell’s slots, making them hard to grasp and tighten with pliers, so I wound up scratching my headshell a bit. (Tip: try automotive touch-up paint to fill in tiny scratches. I used some black paint that came with my car, applied it with a toothpick, removed the excess with liquid paint leveler, and finally, while still tacky from the leveler, dabbed it with a cotton cloth to remove any shine. The result was a matte finish that semi-matched the RB250’s powder-coat.)
I was surprised to note that the Black didn’t poke out from under the RB250. In fact, I obtained proper alignment with the entire cartridge body under the headshell. (Here’s a tip for Rega owners: start with the supplied single-point protractor supplied with your turntable. It’s great for roughing-in the overhang. Then, fine-tune with the two-point protractor of your choice, or the DB Systems protractor, or the Mobile Fidelity Geo-Disc, all of which are great.)
I set the tracking weight at the recommended 1.5 grams, and confirmed excellent trackability at that setting with the Hi-Fi News & Record Review test record. Channel separation could be better, but that’s about my only complaint as far as the Grado’s technical performance is concerned.
If you’ve followed the Grado cartridge saga, you know all about the dreaded hum that supposedly accompanies their use with Rega, AR and certain other tables. Some owners find it unbearable, others say it’s a myth.
It is not a myth. There is a low-level hum as you move the toneram toward the center of the record. But, in all fairness, even Rega cartridges hum. My Rega Elys, in fact, picked up some noticeable hum near the end of a record as well, though not as much as the Grado. And both cartridges are susceptible to interference from nearby power supplies and AC circuitry, so don’t blame your table’s motor completely until you’ve moved some other components around first.
Can you live with the hum? At the lower volume levels I typically listen at, I found the hum factor to be negligible, if not nearly inaudible. At higher volumes (with the volume knob past the 12 o’clock position), the hum was intrusive. My advice: buy from an authorized dealer who will let you return it if the hum is more apparent in your system.
Right out of the box, the Black was perfectly listenable. I might have been able to identify some initial stiffness or harshness with a higher resolution phono stage, but if you’re using a serious outboard phono section, chances are you’re not going to buy a $40 cartridge.
That may be a shame. I no longer had my Rega Elys for a direct A/B comparison, but I feel the Grado offers a much more involving (though less detailed) performance than the $225 Rega. Admittedly, I’m working from memory here, but I was very unsatisfied with Elys during the 200 or so hours I owned it. (See my review, also on Audiogon, for all the details. A number of follow-up posts from fellow ‘Goners agreed the Elys is somewhat of a dud.)
The Grado also surprised me with its excellent tracing ability, and also with its information retrieval capabilities. Its elliptical stylus seems to be finer than the Rega’s, judging by how deeply it dug into the grooves of less-than-perfect records. I keep a few LPs around with surface scratches that aren’t deep enough to affect the performance of finer-profile styli, but that a larger styli won’t read past. The Goldring Elan and Rega Elys picked up a lot of tics and pops on these; the Denon DL-160 and my old Audio-Technica 440ML, none at all. The Grado fell somewhere in the middle -- not bad for $40.
On Keith Jarrett’s “Spirits,” the Rega did a very nice job of revealing this highly-nuanced performance, though it got brittle during some of the higher frequencies. Peter Gabriel’s “So,” which I feel is a flawed recording, has noticeable sibilance, even on the recent remastered SACD. On the LP, some cartridges do a better job than others in smoothing this out. The Grado unfortunately accentuates it, with a staticky crackle that made the hair on my arms stand up. (The phono section on the Sony receiver, as well as its normal amplifier section, didn’t help matters.)
I bumped along to Joe Jackson’s “Night and Day,” mellowed out with Cat Stevens (“Greatest Hits” and “Teaser and the Firecat”) and rocked out to Jeff Beck (“Wired”). All the while, I never felt like I was listening to a $40 cartridge. There simply were no glaring faults: no excessive graininess, no overt sloppiness, little shrillness and a lack of harshness. There was some detail missing, to be sure. But the rhythm and pace of the music was always well preserved. You might say this cartridge has heart. It’s an overachiever whose sins are mostly of omission.
Dense arrangements resulted in a congested presentation, especially on dynamic orchestral works like “Carmina Burana.” (I tried a few recordings of this one.) That’s been the case with nearly every sub-$200 cartridge I’ve ever known, though. Transients weren’t as sharp as some might like, but the classical music lover will generally be well served by this cartridge. (And since classical LPs usually sell for giveaway prices, a guy with $200 for a used turntable and a Grado could really build a beautiful library for a fraction of the cost of CDs.)
Jazz sounded particularly sweet with the Black. The Grado did an admirable job -- and not just tonally. Ambience, the key to convincing reproduction of a live performance, was mostly all there on Wes Montgomery’s “Bumpin’” (the MFSL pressing) and “Full House” (an OJC reissue).
In addition, I could easily discern the differences between standard and audiophile pressings of certain recordings (the MFSL pressings of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Pink Floyd’s “DSOTM” in particular). A good tonearm -- even a modest one like my RB250 -- easily wrings maximum sound quality from the Grado Black. In the right system, it’ll be enough to convert casual listeners to discerning audiophiles.
I found the Grado’s compromised channel separation to be a slight hindrance, muddying the soundstage a bit and affecting the imaging slightly. That’s nitpicking, of course, as find the perfect channel separation of CDs to be a little too perfect -- it’s kind of creepy, actually.
Would I put the Grado Black on a $1000 turntable? Maybe. But as you ascend the hi-fi ladder, at some point the Grado will stop making the most of your system and start standing in its way.
The Grado Black is a deftly conceived cartridge that’s perfect for the systems with which it will likely be used. It exhibits full, plump bass that’s not particularly controlled, but not exactly wooly, either. Then midrange is sweet overall, and though the highs aren’t overly extended, that’s probably a good thing; I’d rather have them go missing than present and shrill. I, for one, didn’t miss the information that wasn’t there.
That may seem like faint praise, but when taken together, the Grado Black’s strengths make for a musical presentation that’s lively, involving and fun. It reminds me more of a moving coil than a moving magnet (actually, moving iron, but you can read all about that on Grado’s website). I had a great time listening to the Black; it will make a nice backup cartridge.
Even if you’re thinking about spending significantly more on a cartridge, it’s worth trying the Grado. In my opinion, it equals or exceeds the performance of the overpriced Rega Elys, especially when it comes to the fun factor. It also easily betters the more expensive Goldring Elan. As a bonus, it offers a taste of the liveliness and excitement one can expect with high-output moving coils like the Benz Micro MC20E2 and the Denon DL-160. The Grado Black is a smoothie, perfect for fleshing out a lean-sounding system and also for making the most of a less-than-ideal phono section. Were it not for the Black’s propensity to hum with certain tables, it would get my unconditional recommendation.
Rega P2 turntable with glass platter and None-Felt mat
Denon DL-160 moving coil cartridge
Rotel RC-980 preamplifier with MM/MC phono stage
Rotel RA-970 amplifier
Sony STR-GX6ES Stereo Receiver
Sony SCD-CE775 SACD player
ProAc Tablette 2000 loudspeakers
Paradigm speaker stands
Kimber 4PR speaker cables
Various Audioquest/VampireWire/Kimber/Monster interconnects
Monster Power HTS 2500 Power Center
Record Doctor II record cleaning machine/Disc Doctor record brushes
StudioTech HF series racks
Audioquest MC cartridge demagnetizer
Sub-$100 cartridges from Audio-Technica, Ortofon, Goldring, Sumiko and many others.