Gradoís SONATA Phono Cartridge and Other Blessings
Jim Merod
5 February 2001


For standard-mount tonearms only.

Specifications: Output: 4.5 mV @ 5.0 CMV (45 degrees).
Input load: 47k ohm. Inductance: 45 mH DC.
Resistance: 475 ohm.
Weight: 6.0 g. Non-sensitive to capacitance loading.

Features: Moving magnet type phono cartridge
with mahogany body, OTL cantilever technology,
and nude elliptical diamond stylus.

Address: Grado Laboratories
4614 Seventh Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11220
Phone: 718.435.5340
Fax: 718.633.6941

The first cast of dice always predicts oneís luck, and luck is what you need, most of it good (or better), if you wander among the craps tables in Las Vegas.

For those of us about to launch our new millennium in the desert, out where hustling is a world-class art, best to batten down the patio furniture, secure small dogs and children. One doesnít find much jazz to hear, Las Vegas being a rock & roll sort of place. If Iím lucky, Iíll find Don Menzaís band installed at least one night somewhere on the Strip. In the interim, craps notwithstanding, Iíll think aloud here about the year now closing.

First, for The Stereo Times, itís been a year of growth, collegial cheer, and expanding recognition. One or two have groused that Mike Silverton is too clear as a writer. If your prose isnít as sharp as Rabelais or as packed with forceful inquiry, youíd better duck. Iíll stay dry near the swampland out by Mark Twainís grand auntís farm, that haven of summer retreats where the small boy, wielding his first rifle, never hits the barnís broad side but, without looking, bags his grandma every time.

A few have suggested that The Stereo Times might review more high-priced gear, the sort that costs as much as a modest house in, say, Bayonne, New Jersey. Others tell us that zeroing in on affordable gear of various sorts gives them a better look at how to upgrade home theater systems without going broke.

What Iíve appreciated about the past year at The Stereo Times is the fact that quality gear has been the object of our search. Some of it, such as the Ortho Spectrum Analog Reconstructor, came flying through the door with enormous counter-intuitive energy. I was utterly skeptical when editor and man-about-town Clement Perry sent a unit to me for consideration. My comments on the slow erosion of skepticism are there for all to see. I stand by my thoughts there as, also, by my continued (in fact deepening) admiration for the Acoustic Zen line of cables, a discovery that marked the departing year with considerable good luck. Robert Leeís cable designs not only improved my playback and mastering rigs; they enhanced my recording work as well. Acoustic Zen cables (analog, digital, speaker and power cables, as well as the extraordinary custom-made microphone cables) have earned my sincere respect.

Iíve deferred one piece of gear that Iíve meant to discuss to this late moment. John Grado sent me the remarkable Sonata phono cartridge for a long listen. The difficulty of scheduling its proper set-up in my Linn LP-12 rig delayed the audition. I rely upon ace-analog guru Dan Musquiz (who recently joined Jeffís Sound Values in San Diego) to install, calibrate, balance, and check any new cartridge. Dan Musquiz has the patience of the Dalai Lama, some of his wisdom, and a keen eye and ear for all things analog.

Since analog sound establishes the standard by which my recording and reviewing work proceeds, the proper set up of the Grado Sonata is crucial. My analog front end includes a modified Audio Research PH-1 phono preamp. All cables are Acoustic Zen feeding a modified McCormack Headphone Drive (as a gain stage). The new McCormack DNA-125 amplifier drives Apogee Stage speakers via Acoustic Zen Satori bi-wire speaker cables. A Richard Grayís power conditioner watches over the delivery of energy to the system.

Since I use the wonderful Grado Reference Series headphones as one of my main mastering tools, Iíve long been accustomed to the "Grado Sound." Even as one listens to a raw dump from an unmastered, on-location recording, these warm-hearted beasts suggest the spectrum of musical possibilities awaiting oneís mastering work. That is so because (a) the Grado íphones are extremely clean, while (b) imparting just that touch of wood warmth (for want of a more analytical term) that I love.

We often speak of "air" as a component of good recordings. We crave the sense that recordings are other than compressed, blurred, smudged, or any way deflected from the illusion of real musicians and instruments captured in real space. We care deeply about musical palpability. At times these satisfactions this may be the end result of several illusions carefully cobbled together from astute recording choices and intelligent mastering work. However, illusory or raw-and-real, such experiences offer one of the highest audio pleasures I know of. Just as significant as a sense of air and space in the final reaches of musical enchantment, that quality of wood from a pianoís sound board, a violin, cello or contrabass for me gives recordings that sense of reality and soul-satisfying pleasure. Grado headphones (along with the sweet little Grado headphone preamp) deliver this "sense of wood" in spades. No headphones Iím aware of -- and believe me when I say Iím a headphone junky -- render the sound of wood instruments as well as Grado íphones. Along with remarkable transparency, this quality comprises Gradoís essential strength.

There is a family resemblance in sum between Gradoís reference headphones and the Sonata cartridge. I attribute that to the generous warmth and exquisitely delicate inner detail the Sonataís mahogany body delivers. This moving-magnet dragon-slayer uses a proprietary four-piece OTL [optimized transmission line] cantilever technology. The result, among other virtues, is reduced mass. Grado estimates a ten-percent reduction of mass from its splendid "Prestige" cartridges. Such lightness at the tip contributes to the Sonataís extraordinary three-dimensionality.

During my extended audition, I was struck again and again by the discrete placement of images in the soundstage, as embodied in a vivid musical portrayal of, for instance, a brilliant European 180-gram vinyl pressing of the Miles Davis classic, Kind of Blue. I shrug when people insist that the compact disc Ďrevolutioní has improved their musical enjoyment. I have always understood the convenience of digital disc, yet rarely has any CD approached the eerie beauty and lifelike musical reincarnation of analog sound. In the case of this jazz masterpiece, while the re-mastered digital re-issue is marvelous, it does not replace the best vinyl pressings.

At just under $600, the Grado Sonata is a wonderful addition to a good turntable that lacks to some degree resolution, spatial dimensionality, and that mysterious but unmistakably seductive appeal that great analog playback offers.

Looking back at year 2000, I am mindful of the first signs of surround soundís emergence as a future partner on the recorded musical horizon. Seventy or so of us gathered in Las Vegasís Alexis Park in April, to attend Tomlinson Holmanís daylong seminar on surround sound recording techniques. Audio/home theatre reviewer extraordinary Robert Harley was among the attentive throng. Permit me to say that I did not intend to be the audienceís most vocal member. I know not a jot more than anyone else who sat at the

masterís feet that day. I have spent nearly two decades imagining what "true" surround sound might deliver since my ambition, as a live to two-track, on-location recording engineer, has been to approach the ideal in two-channel stereo by employing the fewest number of mics possible -- not to slight good luck, of course. Luck, in fact, plays a considerable role in live-recording work. The old adage tells us that the best equipment in the universe cannot approximate the sonic glory of an average pair of microphones well placed in a spectacular acoustic setting.

The topic of surround sound intrigues me. Its capture will continue to haunt my imagination. I intend to find out how well Maestro Holmanís tricks and sonic protocols succeed. My quarry will not be surround sound for cinema, as it has been for him, but a convincing you-are-there sonic reproduction on live recordings made with special bands in exciting venues. Done right, one imagines that the smell of beer and the feel of sawdust underfoot might emerge along with the elegant decay of back-wall transients. In this regard, Iíll preview a few pieces of equipment my "A Proís Point of View" pieces will cover early in 2001. The Presonus VXP mic-preamp is a fantastic box that provides a sonic punch and a real bang for the bucks. I will review a splendid Yamaha reverb unit too.

HHB has brought out a modestly priced but genuinely professional tube-based line-level signal processor, the Fat Man, that must be heard (and used) to fully believe. HHB has come a long way and their product line has shown not only intelligent diversity, but increasing emphasis on quality and sensible pricing.

Eric Blackmer at Earthworks, Ltd. has been crafting superior, relatively low cost microphones that stand toe to toe with anything on the market. Look for more about these remarkable Earthworks microphones. In addition, the truly state-of-the-art DPA 4003 omni-directional microphone have earned its way into this reviewerís heart. More to come on these awesome giant killers.

Three more teasers on gear that makes a recordist happy: I will report on a new tube-based direct box from Little Labs and on isolation devices from Vistek, Inc., the powerhouse Aurios Iso-bearings, designed by Craig Goff and distributed by Paul Wakeen at Media Access []. These are products that do everything they

claim to do, with style moreover. I will also look at how Quantegyís recordable audio discs stack up against Imationís bulk discs and reflect a bit about the issue of sonic differences among recordable media.

Last, I want to pay tribute here, at yearís end, to jazz journalist-pioneer, Marge Hofacre, whose longstanding Jazz News continues to set a high standard for integrity, thoroughness and genuine reportorial diversity, attributes The Stereo Times also strives for. The past year saw Jazz News relocate its publication from the West Coast, where the weather fine but the ladyís family isnít. Now that Marge Hofacre has located her quarterly dead smack in the center of the country, the territorial survey that Jazz Times makes four times a year is no less bi-coastal but a tad more centralized in perspective. We salute Ms. Hofacreís steadfast accomplishments and high standards, the strength and loyalty of her journalistic staff, and the rather amazing fact that, here today among so much glitter and advertising-driven swagger, a "purist" publication thrives. It is an honor for me to celebrate such positive energy.

Here at The Stereo Times one feels an emergence of collegiality any journal would be proud of. In an industry beset by the New, forever under pressure to upgrade and revise last yearís models, the work of reviewing still depends on each of us achieving a standard of sonic understanding -- of aesthetic truth -- that sustains critical attention for the long haul. If we can agree on the necessity of "subjective" comprehension, we must also recognize what scrupulous care must be taken in making of comparative frameworks. No one can achieve critical clarity over time who does not set benchmarks for sonic performance.

Such standards are elusive but possible. Perhaps some day a dispassionate but sincere engagement with this topic may emerge. My infatuation with dynamic force may amount to someoneís nightmare. Conversely, your desire for laid-back musical sweetness may approach my sense of sonic claustrophobia. The one certainty that I take from the year now coming to a close is the prevalence of the unpredictable in the world of music production and high-end sonic reproduction. The fact that the two are so far apart continues to amuse me, which I judge a better response (for my own comfort) than my former disbelief that the Big Corporate Music Industry continues to reject achievable sonic beauty in order to pander to the sodden non-musical standards of radio airplay. You did listen to Carlos Santanaís Grammy-winning album, didnít you? Quite literally, the music it portrays could not have been more compressed. The album is a model of lifelessness. It renders the term "dynamic range" into an oxymoron. So, hereís to life and to lifeís unpredictability. Even in the world of musicís vast and indescribable pleasures, the unpredictable, like the observation of Joseph Conradís suave narrator in Nostromo, is "like a light by which action may be seen when personality is gone."