Analog Corner #268: Grado Lineage Epoch phono cartridges

Brooklyn-based Grado Labs has been in business for 64 years, manufacturing moving-iron phono cartridges, headphones, and, for a while, even a unipivot tonearm with a wooden armwand, as well as the sophisticated, S-shaped Signature Laboratory Standard arm.

The company's founder, Joseph Grado, who well deserves the appellation "legendary," died in 2015, at the age of 90. He began as a watch builder at Tiffany & Company, and started making phono cartridges in 1953, as the hi-fi boom took off. He retired in 1990 and sold Grado Labs—still located in the same Brooklyn building where he'd begun in 1953—to his nephew John Grado Jr., who by then had put in more than a decade at Uncle Joe's company, pretty much running it after Joe had returned to what he liked best: inventing things.

At the time, Grado Labs manufactured some 10,000 cartridges annually. It's not as if Joe's new invention—three models of costly, handmade headphones—was an attempt to diversify because the cartridge business was bad. Joe also invented the highly regarded, limited-edition Grado HMP-1 omnidirectional microphone, a favorite of veteran recording engineer Peter McGrath, who is currently director of sales for Wilson Audio Specialties.

The headphones, hand-built by Joe and John, were an immediate success among audiophiles and recording professionals. Grado Labs' move into headphones has proved prescient, given the subsequent boom in that market, and with the vinyl resurgence, Grado today is poised for continued growth in both arenas, even as John Grado reaches retirement age (though it's doubtful he'll retire any time soon).

There are more Grados in the pipeline. Recently, it was announced that John's sons, Jonathan and Matthew, have joined the company (footnote 1).

The Core Business Expands
Grado Labs' cartridge line recently expanded from three series to four: the familiar, low-cost Prestige models ($75–$260); the midline Reference 2s ($350–$1500); the former flagship series, the Statement 2s ($350–$3500); and their new Lineage family of cost-no-object models, which currently has one member: the Epoch ($12,000).

All are moving-iron designs of varying outputs that use a range of materials for coils and cantilevers, as well as various stylus profiles and construction techniques. Over the years, all have had major interior design overhauls, while their exteriors look generally unchanged. Except for the Prestige models, all have bodies of wood.

In my March 1999 column, I wrote that Grado's Reference cartridge was "among the finest cartridges I've ever heard at any price." But since then, even as Grado and others continued refining their moving-iron (MI) lines, designers of moving-coil (MC) cartridges upped their game and, more important, so did designers of phono preamplifiers. I've since been hooked on MCs, though there are poor, mediocre, and excellent examples of every method used to turn the motions of a stylus into electricity.

With the Lineage series, Grado is clearly aiming to put itself back at the top in terms of sound, technology, and, unfortunately, price. The Epoch costs $12,000. The Aeon, to be released in early 2018, will cost $6000. The Aeon was actually designed first, but having heard the results, John Grado decided to take it to the limit and launch the Epoch first.

These new cartridges make use of Grado's patented Flux-Bridger generator system and other technologies that, Grado claims, are taken to new levels of sophistication in materials and construction in the Lineages. In the Flux-Bridger, four fixed coils are associated with a fixed magnet and multiple pole pieces that create four magnetic gaps bridged by a single lightweight iron element attached to the innermost end of the cantilever. As the stylus moves the cantilever, the element moves between opposed magnetic flux gaps, creating an increase in flux in one gap and a decrease in the opposite gap. The change in flux generates voltages in the coils.

Grado says that the four magnetic gaps create an efficient and perfectly balanced generator, and that, thanks to more efficient magnets and other developments, its coils now require fewer turns of wire to produce a given output voltage than do other systems. The result is lower overall mass and electrical inductance, which makes phono-cable capacitance far less of a problem than in typical moving-magnet designs.


While the lower-cost Grados have a telescoping, multi-alloy cantilever whose hollow and solid sections are bonded together, then coated with a damping material, the Epoch's cantilever is made of solid sapphire—a first for Grado. A sapphire cantilever isn't necessarily costly: Ortofon's Quintet S cartridge has one, and costs only $999. Grado gets its sapphire cantilevers from a "standard supplier," then individually heat-treats each one and coats it with a special damping material.

The Epoch's diamond stylus, which Grado says is "specially" made for them, looks similar in shape to the variable-radius, line-contact styli of the flagship models from Audio-Technica, Dynavector, and Lyra, with one easy-to-spot difference: While the styli in all of those cartridges are attached to a mounting plate that is then attached to the cantilever, Grado's stylus is affixed directly to the cantilever—there's no plate, which must slightly reduce the mass. It looked neatly and symmetrically done, without the gob of glue sometimes seen.

As in other MI cartridges, the Epoch's generator doesn't require the cantilever to teeter-totter on an elastomer pivot, with the stylus at one end and the generating element at the other. Instead, the cantilever terminates in a fixed axial pivot that supports the entire cantilever.

The ultra-light moving element is attached to the end of the cantilever at the axial pivot, and so its relatively smaller movement than seen in a cantilever with a teeter-totter pivot is theoretically more immediate, and arguably more linear and precise, than the movements of coils or magnets—which, in a typical system, are a greater distance from the pivot point and thus move farther. Anyway, that's according to Grado. We all know of many great-sounding teeter-totter cartridges.

Each Epoch and Aeon is hand-built by John Grado using coil-winding techniques passed down from Uncle Joe. Each of the four coils is wound, Grado says, of "the finest properly sized and annealed 24-karat solid gold wire, which is the ultimate conductor for the transmission of the music from your record." All parts of the Epoch's magnetic circuit are "Swiss screw machined or molded metal, which have tolerances on the order of the best Swiss-made watches."

Nothing in the Epoch, John Grado assured me, is an off-the-shelf part. The magnet is formed and shaped to Grado's specifications, with all magnetization done in-house. The front and rear metal poles in the magnetic circuit are molded from powdered metal, while the 16 other parts in the circuit are manufactured on "Swiss screw machines and heat treated."

Grado buys raw rubber to make the grommets used in the Epoch's suspensions. First they cure the rubber for more than two years, then mold it into thin sheets, from which they punch out grommets of the desired size.

Grado claims that the Epoch and Aeon "feature a unique system that has the lowest effective moving mass of any cartridge." The new generator system is housed in an unusually large body of cocobolo wood, the body's shape and weight also contributing to the sound quality, per Grado. Cocobolo is a superhard wood from tropical Central America, so dense that it doesn't float. Grado carefully damps the body with four different materials, and a good thing too—when struck sharply, a cut block of cocobolo will produce a clear musical tone, which is why it's sometimes used instead of the usual grenadilla, or African blackwood, to make oboes, clarinets, and bagpipes.

How to install a $12,000 cartridge...
Very carefully!

I first installed the Epoch in the Reed 3P tonearm (footnote 2). It proved an outstanding match. The combination's vertical and horizontal resonant frequencies were about 8Hz. I used the CH Precision P1 phono preamplifier in MM/MC mode (footnote 3), and, using its test record and setup wizard, 47k ohms provided a ruler-flat response. (A 47k ohm loading is more of a "convenience" default setting for a MM phono preamp than necessarily the correct setting for every MM or MI cartridge.) The P1's setup wizard suggested 65dB as an optimized gain.

Footnote 1: Grado Labs, 4614 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11220. Tel: (718) 435-5340. Web:

Footnote 2: See my review in the November 2017 "Analog Corner."

Footnote 3: See "Analog Corner," April and June 2017.


Glotz's picture

Heard a lengthy demo in the SOTA room and was mightily impressed. MF said it best, so I won't posit an opinion.

I love the fact they positioned themselves very well with multiple upgrade paths for current owners and yet have also furthered their new offerings as well.

And I really like their partnership with Phoenix Engineering a few years back- smart moves to help SOTA customers get to the next level.