Sunday, October 17, 2010

Grado Prestige Series - In Praise of the Little Blue Rock God

Up until three days ago I had never heard a Grado cartridge, but I knew of their reputation. Check out any of the audio forums on the internet and you are bound to find a thread that is highly critical of Grado's Prestige series. They are cartridges that seem to split the audio community right down the middle. Fifty percent love them, fifty per cent hate them. Those that hate them complain of poor tracking, poor mid range response, lack of detail and next to no sound staging. Those that love them simply say they know how to handle a song, and play beautiful music.

Now with a reputation like that I just had to hear one. I decide to go for the Prestige Blue1. It's a cut above the Black/Green entry level and at US$110 was affordable.

There were two things that stood out about the specifications for the Blue1. Firstly, for a cartridge at this price it has an excellent frequency range: 10Hz - 55kHz. Secondly, it has a relatively high compliance compared to most other cartridges around these days. For example, on a relative scale a Denon DL103 has a compliance of 5, a Denon DL110 a compliance of 10, and the Grado Blue1 a compliance of 20. As a rule of thumb, what this means is that the Denon DL103 is more suited to a heavier tonearm and the Grado Blue1 more suited to a lighter tonearm. Getting the compliance match correct is one of the most important things to ensure that you get the best performance out of a cartridge.

With this in mind I decided to bypass my main Rega system, and mount the Blue 1 on my refurbished Dual 1219 idler wheel drive. This is one of the best turntables that Dual ever made and was the best choice for two reasons. The first being that the Duals have what are regarded as lightweight tonearms which seemed a perfect match for the Grado specs. The second, given that some people had reported tracking issues, was that it is very easy to correctly mount and align a cartridge in these old Duals. Really, as long as you can detect a parallel line with the naked eye when screwing the cartridge in, nothing more fiddly is required.

In terms of the rest of the system, the Dual 1219 runs into the fairly basic NAD PP2, then into the rather dynamic REDGUM Sonofa, which I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, then into Fostex 165K folded horns with Fostex super tweeters (FT17H.

Albums used for assessment were:

Are We A Warrior - Ijahman Levi
Uprising - Bob Marley
Sade - Lovers Rock
Led Zeppelin 4
Led Zeppelin 3
The Beatles For Sale
Let It Bleed - Rolling Stones
Through the Past Darkly - Rolling Stones
One on One - Bob James and Earl Klugh
Two of a Kind - Bob James and Earl Klugh
Feel the Warm - Cleo Laine
Strangers in the Night - Frank Sinatra

I approached the assessment with a pessimistic frame of mind. I was prepared to be disappointed. I hadn't listen to a moving magnet style cartridge in nearly two years and the last one that I wasted my money on (the soulless Audio Technica 440MLa with its squashed frequency range and CD-like dynamics) drove me firmly into the moving coil camp.

I was prepared to be disappointed, but right from the start I found myself pleasantly surprised. The Marley record was the first one and it was immediately obvious that the Blue1's stated frequency range was no exaggeration on the part of Grado. The bass came through solid and articulate - one of the best bass responses I have ever heard - and it was balanced extremely well at the higher end. Those higher frequencies just kept rising up before they disappeared. Yeah, but maybe the mid-range was a little ordinary. Still this was only the first side of one LP; the cartridge had hardly even warmed up, let alone burned in.

Cut to 10 hours of playing later, over a couple of days, and the cartridge is performing like a champion. It is excellent at rock and reggae, just superb. It seems to get into the music and capture the bass and rhythm section and then work its way up into the rest of the frequency range positioning all the instruments and vocals exactly where they should be. For the first time ever I heard a spaciousness around Jagger's vocals on Through the Past Darkly; heard what a great rhythm combination Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were back in their early days; realised that Led Zeppelin 3 does in fact rock big time and Stairway to Heaven is an incredibly dynamic song and not the overblown piece of rubbish that I had always imagined it to be. The really big surprise was the Stones' Let It Bleed. I had long regarded this as one of their records full of good songs that was let down by a lousy recording. It came alive beneath the deft touch of the Grado Blue1. Jaggers vocals were clear and articulate, and there was sound stage in abundance. Again every instrument just seemed to be perfectly positioned and balanced. And on all these records there were dynamics firing all over the place. Soft passages were truly soft, loud passages were loud, and every now and then you would hear a piece of music rising out of the background to sit front and centre stage.

Okay, by now I was truly impressed and I decided to give it something harder. Out came the Bob James and Earl Klugh records. These records have been in the household for 20 years courtesy of my wife, and I have used them to test every single upgrade or change to my system I have made. To their own detriment they are quite unforgiving. On an ordinary system or a poor cartridge they sound toned-down and mellow, just one step away from elevator music. With a good system and a decent cartridge they burst right open and deliver wonderfully detailed jazz fusion that has terrific bass and a delicate and dynamic high end. For example, they sound spectacular on the Denon DL304, a $600 cartridge, carried by a Michell Tecnoarm on a Rega with an offboard PSU.

So I was sure that Bob and Earl were gonna get this upstart cartridge. They didn't. The Grado Blue1 got every inch of their two records perfectly, and was even a bit more revealing at the bass end than other cartridges I have heard.

Could nothing stop this guy? I am perversely pleased to say that Frank and Cleo came gunning for the Little Blue God and shot him down. The Sinatra and Laine records differ from the others in that both recordings are totally subservient to the presentation of the vocals. The music is, by and large, in the mid-range and has no other purpose than to give the singer a musical landscape upon which to demonstrate the talent of their voice and the interpretation of the songs. On a quality moving coil cartridge the nuances of their voices are clearly and fully captured. They may not actually be in the room (an old cliche) but they are certainly close by. The Blue1 just couldn't capture the nuances in the same way. I am tempted to say, that in the absence of a solid bass line to grab hold of, the cartridge may have been just a little confused. It wasn't bad, but its performance was just nowhere near as good as it had been with rock and reggae.

The Little Blue God excels at rock and reggae, and for the superb performance it delivers, it is impossible to argue with its price. Now I just need to get my hands on a Grado Gold.

I am pretty certain that the superior performance I got with the Blue1 compared to others comes down to the fact that I had a perfect tonearm match for it, and with the Dual headshell I was easily able to get the correct alignment. There was not a single tracking error on any of the records I used in this assessment.

One last word might be said about the legendary Grado hum. Comments about a hum from the cartridge, especially when matched with Regas, usually feature in most major criticisms of the Grado Prestige Series. Did I get a hum with the Dual 1219. Yep, the hum was obvious, but this was no great surprise as the Dual 1219 hums with most cartridges I have tried it with. The reason for this I have found is because it is internally earthed, and does not have an earth wire running back to the phono amp. In another Dual (1209) I decoupled the internal earthing and solder in a wire to run back to the phono amp. All hum problems were solved. I found out only recently that standard Rega arms are also internally earthed and I suspect this is why the Prestige Series hums with the Regas. There are instructions on the internet for how to externally earth a Rega tonearm.

No comments:

Post a Comment