This cartridge provides entry-level opportunity with stunning sound for the budding audio enthusiast
Looking for something slightly different to add to my review list, I asked Simon Highet at NZ Audio if I could get my hands on a selection of entry-level Grado cartridges in order to ascertain if there was much difference between the models. I also wanted to find out if real analogue music could be made for comparatively little money.
I started off with the Prestige Black, which retails for $129. I don’t have a seriously high end hi-fi system but it did cost a pretty penny (at least in my terms), so sticking just over a hundred bucks of cartridge way out on front of it could probably be considered backwards, although any Linn devotee would say it’s actually ass-backwards, which is as bad as things get. I could have easily got my hands on an entry level deck but this would be a serious test of the Black’s abilities.
The Grado Black sits at the very bottom of the extensive Grado cartridge range, followed by the Green, Blue, Red, Silver and Gold. The Green is basically a Black but conforms to the highest specifications of that model. In other words, Greens are selected from the top fifteen percent of Black cartridges produced. The same goes for the Blue/Red or Silver/Gold versions and all these models are based on the same cartridge system – Grado’s moving iron principle
Effectively, the moving iron type cartridge has a tiny piece of iron suspended on a cantilever in the magnetic gap between four magnets. This theoretically allows for low playback distortion, while the layout of the cartridge and the components are optimised to control resonance. Interestingly, all Grado cartridges, including the humble Black, are hand made in the USA… if that’s the kind of thing that gets your attention.
Compared to something like the jewel-like and far more expensive Dynavector DV20X-L that normally resides on the end of my TT’s tone arm, the Grado Black is pretty basic both in terms of looks and packaging, but that’s not really a consideration at the price. Once the Black is removed from its little plastic cylinder, it’s straight forward enough to mount, as long as you’re happy playing with fiddly nuts and bolts, because the Black isn’t drilled and threaded to accept hex head screws. A small piece of plastic with a dot of Blu-tack on the end to hold the nut in place while you thread the bolts makes the process easy, especially on the Well Tempered tone arm, which doesn’t allow for any cartridge alignment at all – you just tighten the screws, hook up the cables, set the tracking force and you’re good to go.
With a hefty 5mV output, the Black will be happy feeding into any phono stage capable of dealing with a high output moving magnet cartridge – I initially ran it mounted on the Simplex ($2999) into the built-in MM phono-stage on a Myryad Z142 integrated amplifier ($1399) feeding my Theophany M5 Series 2 loudspeakers ($7000) and was more than happy with what I was hearing despite the cartridge being way out of its fiscal depth.
The album I mentioned in the Myryad review is my much loved German pressing of Steely Dan’s Gaucho, which is remarkably quiet, free of surface noise and boasts an almost tangible sense of clarity and enhanced overall detail. The sound from the Grado-fed system was warm but not overwhelmingly so. Basically, I found the Black was capable of generating real musicality, the energetic kind I like that has me tapping my feet to the beat while nodding along in time: not just background music, and certainly no mere facsimile of the recording. Dynamics were excellent (and not just at the price), and the detail levels were also impressive, highlighting the almost transparent quality of the vinyl and the recording. Putting my Dynavector P75 MkII phono stage into the loop opened up the sound of the Grado substantially and also allowed me to make reasonably quick switches from the Grado to the DV20X-L so I could compare the sound of the two cartridges.
As expected, the DV20X-l offered more of everything, especially at the high end, but I didn’t persist for too long in this comparison because it only served to confirm the obvious. Placing the Black back onto the Well Tempered tone arm confirmed something less intuitive – a humble cartridge can play at a level far in excess of what you’d expect. Even with my StereoKnight/Sachem pre/power combo back in the system, the Black proved an entertaining listen and I was happy to just sit back and enjoy the sound, without getting hung up on what I might have been missing out on. The Black coped as easily with the hard rock of Kings of Leon or Wild Beasts as it did with the subtle vocals of Townes Van Zandt. The top end is admittedly slightly rolled off but I’d rather have that than a harsh treble, especially when considering the type of gear that the Black will almost certainly be partnered with. There are no issues whatsoever with the mids and bottom end – the overall sound can be characterised as smooth, yet vigorous and even powerful when called for.
Mounted on a entry level deck, the Black would do a fine job, which makes it a great option to replace an aging budget cartridge or for those looking for a really well priced yet capable cartridge that offers a different sound to many of the cartridges found on the cheaper decks. A small jump in the pricing structure gets you to the more upmarket models I had on hand but I ran out of time to review them before I left NZ for a while, so they’ve been passed on to Gary Pearce for a good listen. At the price, Grado’s Black represents amazing value for money and it gets a very high recommendation from this reviewer. ASHLEY KRAMER