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.

Your post was very long and I admit I didn't read every word, but when the problem first occurred, why didn't you just switch the cartridges on the tonearms?
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 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?
I'll stick will my Hana EL, easy to set up and sounds fantastic, @ only $475. I could buy  3 of these for the price of both of those. There comes a point of diminishing returns as well as funds. I'd rather spend money on acquiring more records honestly. 
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.