Grado Laboratories offers three families of phono cartridges: the Prestige, Reference, and Statement series, in ascending order of performance. I reviewed the top Prestige model, the Prestige Gold ($180), in Issue 172 and found it offered terrific performance for the money with only a few minor, easy-to-listen-through sonic drawbacks. The experience piqued my curiosity and left me wondering what higher-end Grado models are like. To find out, I decided to try the next model up the line: namely, the $350 Reference Platinum 1. But before we discuss that cartridge’s sound, let me supply some background.
All Grado cartridges are moving-iron designs that use a “flux-bridger” generator system. The low-cost Prestige models feature metal-shielded plastic bodies with user-replaceable styli, while the upscale References incorporate numerous performance-oriented enhancements. First, Reference cartridges feature hand-made mahogany bodies with tapped mounting holes in their top surfaces. Next, Reference stylus/generator-modules are permanently installed—a change that allows “a redesigned one-piece magnetic circuit and a reduction of chassis resonances.” Finally, Reference stylus/cantilever assemblies have 10% lower tip mass than Prestige models for improved tracking and reduced distortion. On paper, Reference models promise better sound than their Prestige counterparts and in practice they deliver in spades.
From the moment I installed the Platinum it served up markedly more refined sound than the Prestige Gold had, and in almost every way. Most notably, the Platinum provides an across-the-board increase in resolution that enables it to compete on a nearly even footing with moving-coil cartridges roughly three times its price. Where the Prestige Gold offers potent bass marred by a narrow band of lower midbass emphasis, the Platinum’s bass is tighter, more neutrally voiced, and much more authoritative. Finally, the Platinum offers significantly better tracking capabilities, remaining sweet and smooth except when provoked by severely bright-sounding or over-modulated passages.
One recording that shows the Platinum’s positive qualities is Ralph Towner’s Solstice [ECM], featuring Towner on guitar, Jan Garbarek on sax, Eberhard Weber on bass, and Jon Christensen on drums. Some pundits say ECM LPs have a characteristically dry, bright sound, but the Grado proves that discs like Solstice have richer and more soulful qualities, too. For example, where many cartridges make Garbarek’s sax sound painfully austere, the Grado instead turns this “austerity” into a plaintive and almost-human vocal quality that is heartbreakingly beautiful. Similarly, where many cartridges impart a thin, steely sound when reproducing Weber’s upright electric bass, the Grado (quite realistically) demonstrates that the instrument has a clear yet surprisingly deep, full-bodied voice. My point is that Platinum seems to have a design brief that reads, “When in doubt, put musicality first.”
Here’s the bottom line: Grado’s Reference Platinum isn’t a “state-of-the-art” cartridge (it could use more openness, detail, and high-frequency “air”), but it exhibits more top-tier performance attributes and delivers greater musical enjoyment per dollar than any other $300 cartridge I’ve heard. As my wife said after hearing the Grado, “When you can get this close to greatness for $300, it almost seems crazy to spend thousands more chasing incremental improvements.” Food for thought, don’t you think?