The Great Cartridge Shootout
So earlier this year, I purchased two cartridges: An Audio Technica VM760 SLC and a Grado Reference Sonata 2 for $650 and $600, respectively. My turntable has two tonearms, so why not? At least I would have a backup. The VM 760 has a typical looking cartridge body while the Grado is a square wooden block style. Read on, it’s humorous read, and it gets better as Murphy moved in.
It was time for new cartridges, my previous cartridge stash of Grado’s ran out, so it was time. Believe it or not, I purchased several Grado Cartridges back when Joe Grado still ran the company and CD’s were clearly going to obsolete LP’s. Not wanting to go 100% down the digital path back then, I bought (or grossly horded, depending on your viewpoint) several of my favorite Grado cartridges and it was only this year that the last one reached retirement age.
If you have ever set up a cartridge on a tonearm, you will see the humor in this: I always feel like aligning a cartridge is something like measuring with a fine quality digital micrometer, marking with a super sharp pencil, then marking it again with a fat piece of chalk so you can see the mark, finally stepping back 10 feet, and flinging an ax, hoping to cut on the line. The VM760 is easy to set up, but the Grado with the big wooden body, made the task difficult, as the stylus is buried and well hidden.
So, with the shelter in place in full swing, and all the LP’s cleaned, organized on their shelves, two brand new cartridges in house, I thought it might be fun to figure out which arm/cartridge would sound superior. I was curious about the wooden body as well. Well, what I found out, had less to do with sound quality and way more about mechanics.
I mounted the VM760 on the Carbon Fiber CF-1 tonearm, and oldie that has served me well over the years. I mounted the Grado on my Grado arm (another reason for me to single handedly fund Joe Grado’s retirement back in the day). So far so good, things are looking good and sounding great. Frankly, I am sure Joe Grado would be quite proud of the sound of this new cartridge. It is clearly superior to the original Grados I had.
My CJ preamp has only one phono input, so I had to plug and unplug cables, truly annoying. A couple of days later, I made a small, gold plated DPDT switch box, that switched the signals from the cartridges to the preamp. Once I got the basic sound down, I figured could go back to switching cables for the final comparison.
After a few albums, I put on an older Jazz LP, a mono one that was made back in the late 50’s but the electronics was all vacuum tubes, as solid state was just starting to take hold. It sounded great on the VM 760 but the Grado wouldn’t play it
At first, I thought I had the most horrible cartridge tonearm mismatch, as the cartridge was jumping vertically off the record. A Grado cartridge and a Grado tonearm mismatch? Nope; turns out the old LP has two mild warps and the back side of the wooden body, being square, hit the warp and bounced it off the record. The other warp, which was not as pronounced, didn’t hit the back of the cartridge and the stylus would track it perfectly. The VM760 with its raised rear portion of the body, didn’t have this problem. Okay, with respect to warps, one for VM, zero for Grado.
A few albums later, my wife joined me, and we later came to a very tentative conclusion that the Grado was smoother and very musical, while the VM was less smooth but less smooth in a very musical way. It is hard to describe. About fifty albums later, I am thinking, no worries, there is all day tomorrow to solve this question.
The next day, Murphy dropped his first nuke, this one on the Grado. With morning coffee in hand, I started out with the Grado playing a Sheffield direct to disk. Absolute horrible, ghastly sound, tinny, bassless, scratchy, gosh my old worn out Grado was far better than this. The VM 760 was great; the Grado Sonata, well, did it die? Did the warp jumping kill it?
I called Music Direct, where I purchased the cartridges, and they were most helpful and most responsive. I packaged the Grado, shipped it back to them, where they tested it. A few weeks later, I got an email telling me they found nothing wrong with it and the Grado takes another cross-country trip back to California.
I remount the Grado, again doing the micrometer, pencil, chalk, and flinging an ax to the best of my ability. Put on an album - same problem. Tonearm? Maybe. Cartridge? Maybe. Panic stricken? Absolutely.
I go back to Music Direct, purchase another cartridge, this time a Ortofon 2M Blue MM. I need to determine if the tonearm or cartridge is squirrelly. I remove the Grado, mount the Ortofon. Again, doing the dance: micrometer, pencil, chalk, and flinging an ax to the best of my ability. I put on an album - same problem. Tonearm? Yep.
Okay, completely disassemble the tonearm and tonearm mount. Package it up and ship it to a tonearm repair guy in New Jersey that was recommended by Grado. In the meantime, I now have two cartridges for the Grado tonearm but only one headshell. The VM760 is singing like Davies Symphony Hall, so I am not about to touch that! I found another Grado headshell on eBay, it’s only $1100. Don’t get me wrong, the Grado is a nice headshell but not $1100 nice. I find some aftermarket ones on eBay and I buy a wooden ebony one and an aluminum one for $60. A good deal to be sure.
Just because I wasn’t going to mess with the CF-1 and the VM-760 doesn’t mean Murphy agreed with the decision. I noticed that the VM760 wasn’t quite square in the headshell. Not off a lot, just a tiny bit, enough to make me wonder. So, I remove the VM760, fiddle with it, decide it is not the cartridge. To answer the question unequivocally, I mount an old Denon 103d because it has the nice red vertical line up the center, telling you where the stylus is located. Sure enough, it is off kilter. I remount the VM 760, again doing the micrometer, pencil, chalk, and flinging an ax to the best of my ability. I fiddle with the headshell, realize that the headshell mount on the tonearm is off for some unknown reason. I disassemble everything, pack it up, and ship it to New Jersey. So now both tonearms are flying across the USA for a nice holiday in New Jersey, where they can converse with others of their own kind, discussing things that only tonearms can discuss. My phono system is silent. Nothing else to do, I turn on my Squeezebox and listen to a San Francisco Classical station. My daughter listens to Spotify.
A few weeks later, the tonearms are fixed, the holiday is over, and are now flying back across the country to California. They arrive intact but say nothing of their holiday discussions.
I mount the Grado on the Grado headshell, I mount the Ortofon on the ebony headshell. Yes, doing the dance of the micrometer, pencil, chalk, and flinging an ax to the best of my ability, this time twice since I now have two cartridges. I put on an album - same problem? No, a new problem, hum so loud the windows rattled. Tonearm? Yep.
Only this time, it is my bad. When Joe Grado wrote the instructions to install the arm, he didn’t mention that the tonearm cable should be installed in the base of the tonearm “before” you mount the tonearm to the plinth. In the instructions, he states to plug it in after everything is set up. Yes, you can do it later, but it is exceedingly difficult; you need to look upside down, down a dark, deep, black hole, and guess where the DIN pins are. The alignment notch for the DIN plug is not all that overt, so expect to struggle. Of course, my fat head is too big to look under the 75-pound turntable. With two expensive cartridges on it, two expensive arms, and a solid brass platter that is madly in love with gravity, I am not about to flip it upside down either. I snag a small mirror, fiddle with it for 15 minutes, give up, take the entire assembly apart just to plug in the tonearm cable.
Okay, tonearm cable is in. Back to the alignment dance. I remount the Grado, again doing the micrometer, pencil, chalk, and flinging an ax to the best of my ability. Put on an album - same problem. Tonearm? Yep.
Again, it is my bad. I didn’t balance the tonearm properly, so the tracking weight was squirrelly and the antiskate is best described as the square root of a negative number. By now the entire day has passed and it is time to open a good bottle of Merlot. Maybe three bottles.
The next morning, coffee in hand, I tackle the problem again. A new day and soon Ella Fitzgerald’s great voice is flowing from the Grado perfectly. A few albums of this and that, some Pink Floyd, some classical, Dave Brubeck, now it’s lunchtime and where was I going with all this? Oh, yeah, the cartridge shoot-out, I had forgotten, it had been so long.
I go back to the VM760 and again I do the alignment dance. I remount the VM760, again doing the micrometer, pencil, chalk, and flinging an ax to the best of my ability. Put on an album – tinny gross sound. Eventually I trace it to a broken tonearm wire in the headshell. I steal the wires from the aluminum headshell and bingo, music so good that it could make Arthur Fielder cry. Again, it sounds so good that I just start playing music, forgetting about the shoot-out.
I mean, it really sounds good. I put on Sheffield Lab’s Ride of The Valkyries; frankly, I have never heard this album sound this good. Literally, my jaw dropped. So, I play it on the Grado. Not quite the same but very musical and very satisfying. If I had to choose based on this one album, the VM760 wins. Maybe not by much, but I have heard both, and I am spoiled.
Now onto Harry James, some early jazz, Reference Recordings album of Professor Johnson’s early vacuum tube recordings, and I am having trouble deciding which cartridge I like better. Oh, yeah, the Ortofon 2M Blue, remember that? It is exceptionally good, tracks very well, does the warp thing without a hitch, but those extra Uncle Bens for these beautiful girls do buy you something. Whether it is worth saying goodbye to four Uncle Bens for one of them is a question only you can answer but I am in love and love is blind.
Fast forward several weeks, I find I listen to the VM760 a bit more than the Grado Sonata 2, which I understand has been replaced by the Sonata 3. Maybe the Grado is too smooth, given I have all CJ electronics, I don’t know. I do know I can live with either one very easily, though. It is clear to me that one cartridge sounds a bit better on some music than the other. Which is cartridge is better for what music is still a spinning question. I might be inclined to choose the Grado for Pink Floyd and rock while I might lean toward the VM760 for jazz and especially classical.
One thing that is clear is I decided I probably won’t buy another wooden body cartridge. If the wood is the reason for the smoother sound, then it is a plus. But the fact is, the square body will never track a warp like a nonsquare cartridge body can and a few of my records have a bit of a warp. The sad part is, it appears the stylus will track the warp, it is the body that limits its warp ability.
Certainly, it’s food for thought.
I have thought about a record flattening device. However, I don't have enough albums with warps to justify $1000+. Besides the VM160 and the Ortofon 2M Blue tracks the few that have a warp without a hitch.
If I could rent one, that would be a lot more interesting and I would probably go in that direction.
@daveyf1 - Yes, if you go here, https://www.musicdirect.com/phono-cartridges/Grado-Statement-Sonata-3-MI-Phono-Cartridge, and look at the Grado Sonata cartridge body, you can see the back side of the body is cut square at the bottom behind the stylus. When a warp comes along, it hits this square part and it bumped the cartridge off the surface.
Now look at the VM760 here, https://www.musicdirect.com/phono-cartridges/Audio-Technica-VM760SLC-Dual-MM-Phono-Cartridge, if you look at the back of the cartridge, you can see it is at an angle to the record. In addition, the stylus sets lower, too. That combination allows the warp to pass under the cartridge so the stylus can track it.
The same is true of the Ortofon 2M Blue body, shown here: https://www.musicdirect.com/phono-cartridges/ortofon-2m-blue-mm-phono-cartridge
I've got a Grado Sonata 3, and I agree with you on the difficulty setting it up! It's a nightmare - you just can't see the needle due to the large, flat wood body. I never know for sure if I've got it as well aligned as other cartridges. Nevertheless, I love the sound of the Grado, so it's worth the trouble, at least for me.
I read stuff like this, and love that my Aurender/Yggdrasil/Tidal combo just works and sounds better than my records ever did. I’ve done my share of similar fiddling...one thing that was great about the high compliance cartridge + low mass tone arms of yore is that they tracked like champs. Anyone remember the ADC XLM?
Why didn’t you just spare us all the BS and self-inflicted delays? I didn’t care a whip about that. Same with the ax throwing. Who cares?
i have 11 pivot arm tables, 90 cartridges. I never go into the song and dance of the 10 minutes to align. Why would anyone?
I like humor. But not incessant hand ringing.
The short of it is you like the AT for some music, the Grado for other genres. That sure irons it out! Not!
Thanks for the merlot and wasting my time.
@daveyf @lewm Actually, the cartridge body does have an impact when the stylus is set so deep in the body and the body of the cartridge is just above the surface of the record. Yes, the cartridge was aligned properly, I may have made humor out of setting it up, but it was set correctly. Actually, one nice thing about the Grado arm is the set up. Do the steps in order and correctly and it is spot on every time. If you have ever owned a Sonata 2 cartridge and set it up, you will understand. BTW, a couple of old albums are so long out of print, trashing them is a mistake as they are not replaceable. As smres13 pointed out, '...it is a nightmare to set up...'
@mijostyn Actually, my turntable does have vacuum and it pretty much flattens out all records except those with more aggressive warps. I have thought about a record flattening unit but they are not cheap and I have so few albums that the Sonata won't track. But, the other two cartridges do track them, so I will just use those.
@Wolfe62 You need to get a sense of humor. No one forced you to read it, rather you opted to read it, and then complained about it. Bad show, chap.
@jallan Actually, a few years ago, my digital stuff sounded plain and 2D compared to the LP's, so I upgraded and transformation to new SOA digital and the sound was amazing. So, this year I upgraded the LP system and now, it sounds more musical than digital. Perhaps in a few years I will upgrade digital again and perhaps it will leapfrog digital. Trying to make blanket statements about digital is better, LPs are better, etc. is pointless since technology is constantly changing and our own tolerance of distortions change over time as well.
@jperry Thanks for the tip. That place is in San Francisco, not far from my office. I could bring the warped ones over and have them flattened, and for $10 a pop, that is a LOT less than buying a LP flattener. That's a good suggestion, thank-you!
With my big collection of albums, I think I would rather buy a ultrasonic cleaner, and give the Nitty Gritty to my grandson as opposed to having them clean each album.
@orpheus10 Yes, that is what I have, 1.5g. I can watch the stylus track warps, it is only the larger ones that hits the back of the cartridge body. If it doesn't strike the body, the cartridge will track the warp without a problem. Literally, I can watch this happen.
I'll check out the Platinum and Master cartridges. Thanks for the info.
You should consider sending your cartridge to Grado Labs and have them confirm (or not) that the compliance of your sample is to spec. I think that your Grado’s compliance is too high; regardless of what Music Direct says. Notice Orpheus10’s comment. His Grado’s cantilever (suspension) “doesn’t even bend” when going over warps. A warp will approach the cartridge from behind due to the rotational direction of the spinning record. If the suspension is too compliant, as the stylus travels over the warp the cantilever will be pushed up and this will keep the bottom of the cartridge body from maintaining tangency with the record surface. The back of the cartridge will then not be able to clear the warp because by the time the highest spot on the warp reaches the back of the cartridge the cantilever has already flexed upward too much. As an experiment, try reducing the tracking force by 50% or so. Bet that while it may not track as intended, the back of the cartridge will clear the warp. My two cents and good luck.
Very nice cartridge the XTZ, chakster. Used it years ago. Should have kept it even though my pre at the time did not have enough gain. Having gone through just about every “Z” Grado at the time, I do remember that although their compliance specs were supposed to be the same, in practice they seemed to vary a bit. Perhaps the OP’s sample is not to spec. It happens.
spatialking, you should definitely call Grado, they're good people, and if you received a defective cartridge, I'm sure they'll replace it.
I received a brand new badly warped record that I didn't know was warped because I didn't play it for a long time, after which I decided was too long to request a refund.
My cartridge looked like it was riding a wagon down a bumpy trail as it rode over the record. The music was being recorded to a reel. When I played it back, the music was just fine, as if the record was flat. I think you should call Grado; your cartridge and mine should not be that much different.
Good story! I feel your pain - my Hana ML rides very close to the record so severely warped records can bottom out. I’ve mitigated this by buying a periphery weight ring - now the only time the ML bottoms is if there’s a severe step between the height of the periphery ring and the height of the lead-in groove. Once past the lead-in, I’ve yet to experience any cartridge-to-vinyl contact.
Or (as you’ve discovered) I can just use my AT-ART9XI and avoid the problem altogether. :)
Actually, I don't mind the hassle as long as the sound quality justifies the hassle. But, when it comes to convenience, CD's and especially streaming, beats everything by a margin measured in light years. :-)
You know, I just realized thinking about cartridge setup hassle -- I have had my TT and tonearms for a very, very long time and cartridges last a long time as well. But, I have gone through six CD players, a DVD player I used as a CD player using the SPDIF out, and four different streaming devices. They either died a sudden death, died a slow death, or were replaced because they sounded dead. I even had to rip one of them apart to get my CD out of it. Hmmmm....
Love this!: "I always feel like aligning a cartridge is something like measuring with a fine quality digital micrometer, marking with a super sharp pencil, then marking it again with a fat piece of chalk so you can see the mark, finally stepping back 10 feet, and flinging an ax, hoping to cut on the line"
Just starting on the vinyl journey with a Grado Platinum 3 cartridge on order that I will need to set up myself. I assume the experience will be as you describe above. Yes, I could go out and get a usb microscope to look at the height angle (or whatever it's called) on my tonearm. But whether I'm actually able to adjust the tonearm in the right place even if I know where I want to go?? not likely.
@spatialking Great storytelling and wry sense of humor :-) Long live CJ and Grado !
You might consider reading @whart and @antin on US cleaning and Bill’s excellent blog Vinyl Press
Careful with that axe !
My best to you in music
I'll check out the references, & thanks for the compliments, I appreciate it!
A short update on the Shootout - Some folks prefer the ADC, some prefer the Grado setup. They both have advantages over the other,
On a side note, I am getting ready to do it all over again, this time with four preamps, just to see which preamp works best with which cartridge. The preamps are Parasound, Conrad Johnson, Spatial Coherence TVA-2 (of which only 6 were made before the company folded), a new preamp design from well known audio company which has not yet been announced, and a little Schiit preamp. I'll post the results when I finish, probably in late January.
Very entertaining story , worse than any story I could tell but ,
I did use a Grado Sonata and Master for years and it is so true about setting them up because of the giant the wooden body , I had to have my outer clamping ring milled from a 45 degree angle to a flat surface so I could play the beginning of the first song . There were also rare times when the cartridge would just start to vibrate and jump tracks ! I don't blame the cartridge , I think it was tonearm incompatibility and my beginners naivety in setting up cartridges .
I now use a Soundsmith cartridge and am loving it . Maybe I've learned how to set up a cartridge properly or at least have I've gotten better at it .
Quick tonearm story , I sent it in for an Incognito wiring upgrade ( a fantastic upgrade ! ) and it came back it a broken off arm lift and a backwards magnet for the anti-skate .