Grado Sonata Phono Cartridge

      Date posted: April 15, 1997

Grado Sonata
Sugg. Retail: $650.00
Distributor: Audio Group
54 Sunshine, Dollard des Ormeaux,
Que. H9B 1G6
Phone/FAX (514) 683-9814

(Reprinted from the Spring 1997 Audio Ideas Guide)

     There don’t seem to be too many players in the phono cartridge game any more: Audio-Technica, Ortofon (no longer distributed in Canada), Linn, Shure, sort of with a recycled V-15 V, and who else? Well, Grado has gone public by announcing not one, but three ranges of new models, truly anachronistically ambitious for such a small company.

     The Prestige and Signature series are lower priced, while the Reference group gets us into high end territory with its quartet of models, the Sonata being the third from the top in price. Here’s how the company describes these cartridges.

     ”The Reference series of wooden cartridges are a fixed coil design, hand-crafted at our labs from a specially selected species of mahogany. An intricate procedure of curing is done between production steps to achieve optimal sonic quality. Unlike the Prestige series, the Reference series generator/stylus module is not replaceable allowing a redesigned one piece magnetic circuit and a reduction of chassis resonances.”

     ”The Platinum and Sonata models use a modified four piece OTL cantilever technology achieving a 10% tip mass reduction over the Prestige series and ultra-high purity long crystal (UHPLC) oxygen-free copper wire in the coils. The Platinum model uses Grado’s specially designed elliptical diamond mounted on a brass bushing, and the Sonata model uses Grado’s specially designed nude elliptical diamond.”

     The basic cartridge motor design is called the Flux-Bridger Generator System, reminding one of the Flux Capacitor in Back To The Future. It “uses four separate magnetic gaps that the miniature element of the cantilever bridges. The miniature element moves between the opposing flux gaps creating an increase in flux in one gap while reducing it in the other. The four separate magnetic gaps create a highly efficient and perfectly balanced system. This design requires fewer coil turns than conventional designs.”

     Also known as a “moving iron” cartridge, this design has been refined by Joe Grado (inventor of the moving coil) for high output, low moving mass, and inherent accuracy in transferring the 3-dimensional teeter-totter movement of the stylus at one end and the small bit of iron at the other into an electrical signal analagous to the squiggles of the record groove.

     Getting back to the descriptions quoted a couple of paragraphs back, I’m struck by nephew (not mine, but Joe’s) John Grado’s intriguing turns of phrase, to whit, the use of “OTL” to describe the cantilever design; since OTL usually stands for Output TransformerLess, he is saying the cantilever has no transformers at the end (ie, coils); clever. I also wonder why he didn’t go all the way acronomically with the “ultra-high purity long crystal oxygen free copper wire” and put (UHPLCOFCW) in brackets. If it were a Japanese product they’d put the letters on the side of the cartridge if they had room. Ah, but enough of this racist fear-mongering. Sonata Frequency Response

     As can be seen, the Sonata is a pretty little thing, and even the stylus guard (at bottom foreground) is wood, with small gold pins that fit tightly into holes that keep it on the cartridge body. John doesn’t reveal from whence the mahogany comes, but let’s hope a tree grows in Brooklyn where the cartridges are made, and that no rain forests have died so we can play records. How many cartridge bodies could you make from a single mahogany tree? How much wood can a woodchuck chuck? If a tree falls in the forest….sorry.

     As I look out the window at the trees (mostly pine up here in hoserland), I think I feel just a twinge of spring fever this morning. Bear with me. The bear went over the mountain…

     Thinking about installing the Sonata in a tonearm brings back sanity, if not the steady hand of yore. And why can’t I clearly see those little pins, and get the wires onto them on the first try? Bifocals? Are you kidding?

     I did manage to accurately set the Sonata up in my SAEC ceramic headshell, which is very heavy and rigid, and liked the cartridge’s 6-gram weight; you can’t install a pickup with a sintered aluminum or otherwise heavy case into this headshell without ending up with a paperweight that might counter-attack, but won’t counter-balance in the arm.

     Because of their design the Grado cartridges are all unfussy about loading, needing only the standard 47K, and putting out a healthy 4.5 mV. I set tracking pressure to a hair under 2 grams, in the upper part of the recommended range.

     After a week or so of warmup, during which the Sonata was most notable for the solidity of its bass and the power of its subsonic bass (woofer cones a-flutter, and sub shaking), the sound started to become very musical, at which point I did my tracking tests. On the Shure Era IV the difficulties were all in high frequency tracking, the Flute and Harp/Flute tests a little troublesome, the score 19 1/2 of a possible 25. On the Telarc Omnidisc the Sonata came acropper on the 1812 sequence, the cannons blasting it out of the groove on the third level. Everything else was pretty well handled, though, and the total score on both torture discs was 37 of a possible 45, very good performance.

     Measuring the frequency response with the Omnidiscs’s pink noise and ourAudio Control SA3050 1/3-octave analyzer revealed midrange dip of 2 or 3 dB between 3 and 8 kHz, and a rise above 12 kHz that peaked at about 17 kHz about 6 dB up. Most of us won’t hear the latter, but the midrange reticence gives the Grado a somewhat laid back quality, this underscored by its smooth but full bass. As I had noted in early listening, the Sonata has a somewhat mellow, and very analog sound character. By contrast, the Benz-Micro Glider (Smr 95), with its very linear midrange and slightly forward character, was much closer to what you’d hear from a CD of the same music. The Sonata is more laid back.

     However, speed and sweetness do play a role as well, this cartridge able to resolve detail well, and very nicely timbrally balanced on strings and brass. Mellow Miles on Kind of Blue is just one of the tests this Grado passed easily, with enough bite on Coltrane to complete the magic. Big orchestral music also sounded great, the wide soundstage and excellent depth very much contributing factors here. The Sonata fared well when compared to the drier, more astringent Shure V-15 Type V MR, bringing more life and dynamics to the music along with the warmth. If the Grado is laid back in the midrange, and thus the soundstage, the V just seems reticent overall, especially in dynamics, never quite thrusting the music out through the speakers, though offering an admirable clarity in a shallower soundstage.

     If the Sonata offers a more naturally vibrant presentation, it still doesn’t quite match the listen-in quality of our reference Ortofon MC-3000 II, nor would I expect it to at roughly a quarter the price. Maybe it’s the limitations of an elliptical stylus, which doesn’t get into the heart of the groove as well as the hyper-elliptical design of the Shure and the almost knife-edge contact surfaces of the Ortofon. A finer vertical contact surface translates into higher frequency response, and frequency response into transient speed and detail, which is one reason for digital’s limitations (and I’ll resist getting into the subject of digital-filter-synthesized square waves here). And the greater vertical extension of that fine contact area from groove top to bottom means lower noise, and often, cleaner and quieter play of LPs that are worn or have been damaged by lesser stylii.

     The Sonata’s elliptical contact surface translates into higher noise than some other cartridges, though this diminished somewhat as the diamond burnished and polished itself during the review period. I’d say it’s comparable to most other cartridges, but not in the same league in terms of minimizing groove ticks and swishes as the better MCs, including the 3000 II, and our Signet OC9 (Wtr 94). Another minor concern manifested itself, the tendency of the Sonata to pick up hum, as it played toward the centre of the record, and approached the turntable motor underneath. This is a function of the inductive method of transduction, and whether hum is also induced will depend on the type of motor used in the turntable, and its proximity; except right at the label area, it was largely well below other noise in the system, and could only be perceived on LPs with very quiet side ends, but is still a concern to be noted. Our Heybrook has an outboard power supply, but the motor itself is an AC type.

     In sum, I liked this new Grado a lot, and it’s certainly one of the classiest looking cartridges around, and with its threaded holes in the top of the mahogany body, one of the easier to install (Thank God!). For anyone wanting to spend up to $1000 on a cartridge, I recommend the Sonata highly.

     Oh, and about the woodchuck…I understand that if he manages a face cord, he officially becomes a woodCharles. And I’ve always thought that a fully loaded GMC Jimmy should be called a James, especially when it comes with leather and the burled plastic dash. Anything else you want to know?

Andrew Marshall

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