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Grado The Reference.

Manufacturer: Grado Laboratories, 4614 7th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 718/435-5340

Price: $1,200

Source: Manufacturer loan

Reviewer: Karl A. Lozier

What's going on here: The $ensible Sound reviewing a phonograph cartridge retailing for more than a thousand dollars? Is the world coming to an end? No, but many products, particularly top-of-the-line ones, are getting more expensive, in case you haven't noticed.

Pretend you are the justly proud owner of a company that makes phono pickup cartridges. You and your design engineer discuss various ideas and ways to make your best model even better. You want to make an honest effort to give real music lovers the best or most nearly realistic sound possible from their highly valued record collections. What a noble goal! You probably will not get mentioned in most history books even if you succeed, so you better make a little profit or you and your company will become history. You search out new exotic materials for your newly designed cantilever; you discover a very promising one meeting your design specifications. For convenience sake we'll give this material Randy Readon's all-purpose name for any such new material, "Unobtainium." Fortunately the price is not terribly out of reason if you buy a thousand pounds of it at a time!

Repeat this scenario for the new type of magnet you need, the special wire that you need for miniature coils, the exotic damping material, the specially shaped and polished diamond tips, etc., etc. After you've collected all these super-quality items, someone has to put these unfamiliar materials together to make a couple of prototypes. Then you and some other trusted ears listen and listen and listen and modify and tweak and listen and listen ad infinitum. Remember to count time as an expense. Got the general idea? Just how much are you forced to charge for this new limited production model?

Well, you and John Grado are not alone! The 1997/1998 Audio Equipment Directory listed approximately 50 different phono pickup models priced from $995 to $7,000! I highly rated both the $300 Grado Reference Platinum and Shure V15 VxMR in Issue 67 and consider both to be very $ensible buys, with that famous law of diminishing returns rapidly being applied beyond that price point.

However, critical reasoning would conclude that some models at two to 20 times their price, would be audibly superior in some respects if not overall. An unfortunate aside is the fact that with only a very few exceptions, these more expensive top-of-the-line models have very low output voltage and will not work properly with most affordable preamps and probably not with any receivers. A separate transformer or step-up device is often needed, adding to the total cost.

Enough background info -- on to the device being reviewed. As you might expect from its name, The Reference is the top model in Grado's Reference series. It looks identical to the previously reviewed (Issue 67) Reference Platinum model, although The Reference costs four times as much. Both have wood bodies, nonreplaceable styli, super-easy mounting, very high output voltage, and no color coding of the output pins. Differences between these two models include a more exotic (narrower profile) stylus shape for The Reference, which can improve tracking, tracing (detail retrieval), and distortion levels. Additionally (subtractionally?), The Reference has lower moving mass, which can reap much the same benefits as improved stylus shape does. Probably this is why the area around the stylus and its mounting looked leaner and cleaner. The cantilever is different in that it is actually more complex in construction, torsionally more rigid, and nonresonant. It is also claimed that quality control for The Reference is extremely tight. However, as the last rewrite of this review was being finished, Kenneth Starr was still too busy to check this out and we'll simply accept the claim as being accurate.

Associated Equipment: Audio Research SP-8 MK 11 preamplifier with Musical Concepts Modifications, BEL 1001 MK 111 monoblock power amplifiers, VPI MK 11+ turntable, SME model IV tonearm with viscous damping, Genesis V speakers, Cardas Golden Cross and Kimber Hero interconnects, Cardas Golden Cross and custom silver speaker wires, Isobar Ultra Model #6 power protector.

Let's Listen: Remembering the suggestion that perhaps these new designs just might need a distinctly longer break-in period than usual for Grado, I started out listening quietly and casually. That didn't last for too long -- I was being drawn into the music! For the most part I simply was not into my critical comparative mode. There certainly was nothing wrong with the sound reaching my ears: I mean like nothing whatsoever wrong! If there had been a break-in period, it was relatively subtle, and did not exceed four to five hours. I had been doing comparisons of some new interconnects and had been spending a great deal of time finalizing the adjustments for my new speaker system, the superb Genesis V. It has four separate adjustments for the woofer section alone, a tweaker's delight and ultimately a music lover's also. In actuality, the aforementioned adjustments for the Genesis V are subwoofer adjustments and then some. Each cabinet contains four metal-coned bass drivers with the cleanest, detailed and most extended bass response ever. I set the low end to roll off below 18 Hz (yes, there is a low end rolloff adjustment as well as for upper end of the subwoofer drivers) and the result is flat response in my room to just below 20 Hz. That's better than any separate subwoofer I've heard! With those items pretty much out of the way, it was a pleasant feeling to just sit back and listen and listen with no other purpose at hand. Eventually I got into my reviewer's mode, but it was tougher to do than usual; that should give you a hint of what's to come.

The first group of records I pulled out featured vocalists, two of each gender. I think that group totaled about four records. They were Cat Stevens's Teaser and Firecat (British Island ILPS #19154), another of Gordon Lightfoot's gems, Summertime Dream (Warner/Reprise #MS 2246)(I particularly enjoy the title song and the ballad "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"), Jennifer Warnes's Famous Blue Raincoat (Cypress #661 111-1), and Judy Collins's Judith (Elektra #7E-1032). All these recordings sounded better than I've ever heard in my home. Tonally, there was only a little change from Grado's cheaper Platinum model and an additional touch or two more from the new top Shure model, which has been voiced to sound closer to "Grado sound" than any of the old Shures were.

However, a number of other differences of greater importance were occurring concomitantly. There was definitely a very real sense of ease and smoothness occurring, a lack of audible strain. At the same there was more overall detail being revealed, as if it had been previously veiled. Overall dynamics were relatively little changed, but the so-called microdynamics were noticeably improved, resulting in my being able to hear more separate instruments, even in background accompaniments. Yes, I could call the overall sound more nearly real or natural. Going back to the cheaper pickups made these differences even more readily apparent. The price increase for this improvement is a factor of four. Was the performance increase that great? Of course not; even less than double, but always there and readily noticeable. Using a Sony or Technics receiver for example, or an inexpensive turntable setup, obscures most of this improvement. Tone controls, used with our $ensible Standard pick-ups, simply are no help in trying to match the beautifully musical sounds flowing from The Reference by Grado. Only you can decide if it's worth the large price differential. But there is no doubt, if the rest of your equipment is up to par, the resultant sound quality rises to a higher level than available from our recommended $250 to $300 selections. Do not borrow one from your local dealer to try at home, unless you're prepared to shell out the money for it. You're likely to find out, as I did, that it's downright addictive. Luckily, it's good for you and the music.

Next I pulled out my favorite small-combo jazz album, Oscar Peterson and Trio's We Get Requests (Verve #V6-8606). Results here were similar to those from the vocal recordings I mentioned, and then some, with this particularly well recorded LP. There was even greater improvement in the mid and low bass. How good can it get? I don't ever recall hearing bassist Ray Brown sound so good on any system! The bass response was more extended and detailed than ever. While typing away on the last revision (I hope!) of this article I went in and started this album spinning again. "Wow," simply "wow," was my studied reaction. Remember, until very recently I was pretty much buried, listening for small and sometimes absent differences between a number of interconnects. At the same time I was really snowed under tweaking the many adjustments on the Genesis speakers. In other words, I had been so busy listening to the trees that I did not hear the forest.

The amount of unforced detail on this album is almost staggering when played back at a so-called realistic level using The Reference by Grado. Of course, using a superbly revealing speaker such as the Genesis V lets all that improvement come through. While sounding smoother and cleaner than ever in the upper octaves, the overall effect was to move my listening seat closer to the performers. The percussive bell-like notes of Peterson's piano were clearer and more nearly real than ever, thanks to the Grado and the unsurpassed upper two to three octaves' performance of the Genesis' ribbon/ planar tweeters. What a great pairing they make when reproducing a really well-recorded LP. Can any CD reproduction currently available equal this? I doubt it, but am not absolutely certain. I am hoping to find out before long, when the new generation 24-bit CD players become available and one of them is inserted into my system. Then I can be certain.

Listening to "typical" classical albums, the ones played because the music is loved, not because of the sound quality, also resulted in a very smooth, sweet and detailed overall character. Additionally, there was a sense of a subtle overall warmth if not neutrality. Faults in the recordings were very clearly revealed, but fortunately never exaggerated. All this was illustrated in my old favorites, such as Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops' Light Classics (RCA #LSC-2547). Playing one of the truly great classical albums, as exemplified by Kabalesky's The Comedians (Classic's RCA #2398), is stunning in the sensation of being in a large auditorium, surrounded by beautiful music and feeling the power, presence, and impact of a large orchestra.

I am compelled to mention the bass range reproduced by The Reference. In my experience and recollections, it is simply without equal! Most other pickups seem to have a mid-bass bloat by comparison, possibly because they do not extend fully into the bottom octave. Neither do most recordings really extend to the depths of the octave below 40 or 50 Hertz. Do remember the old audio truism, that really good or very extended clean bass response demands a quality tonearm. With such an arm, the Grado delivers bass response with unparalleled shadings of detail and with an excellent woofer/subwoofer, visceral impact at the same time. I rechecked the preceding statement by putting on an almost forgotten audio spectacular LP, the soundtrack of Giorgio Moroder's Cat People (Backstreet/MCA #BSR-6107). Oh boy, I've got to listen to more of my old albums: "spectacular" is almost an understatement! The bass never quits, has all sorts of pitch variations, and impact that bothered my stomach and literally rattled some pictures on the wall behind my speakers. Luckily my floor is carpet-covered concrete and my walls are reinforced heavy plaster. Although it would track nearly all albums at 1.5 grams or less, as I changed back and forth with the Grado Platinum and Shure models, I at times just felt more comfortable with The Reference at around 1.7 to 1.8 grams tracking force. As is my usual practice, I used a rather small amount of viscous damping with my SME Mark IV tonearm and tried no other arms.

The Reference by Grado offers unequalled bass reproduction when used with an appropriate tonearm, a subtly rich and highly detailed midrange, and a smooth and sweet high end unsurpassed by any phono cartridge ever mounted in my turntable setup. Value, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder, but let me state here and now that The Reference by Grado is now "The Reference" for KAL. It may be too expensive to qualify as a $ensible buy, but so far it is the best phono cartridge I've ever heard. -- KAL
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Author:Lozier, Karl A.
Publication:Sensible Sound
Article Type:Product/Service Evaluation
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Words:2147
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