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Gramophone Dreams #2

• 1947: General Electric introduces a variable-reluctance phono cartridge with a 0.3mil sapphire stylus and 11mV output.

• 1948: Brook Electronics Inc. (Elizabeth, New Jersey) introduces the 12A audio amplifier and 12A3 preamplifier, beginning the era of high-fidelity audio separates.

Since hi-fi's postwar beginnings, hundreds of high-quality audio inventions for the home have thrilled and satisfied music lovers worldwide. But inevitably, no more than a few score companies, and maybe a dozen or so engineer-designers, have defined audio's most creative and enduring achievements.

Brooklyn's own Grado Labs, founded by Joe Grado in 1953, is surely one of these defining companies. And without any doubt, Joe and his nephew John (who currently owns and operates Grado Labs, footnote 1) are among audio's most iconic (and iconoclastic) artigiani e ingegneri.

I bought my first Grado cartridges in the 1970s, for something like $15 each. I remember buying several at once, to give to friends as presents. I still have a handful of cardboard Grado packing tubes tossing about in my old-cartridge box. I've owned a bunch of Grados and heard a lot more, but I continue to struggle to identify the so-called "Grado sound" that other reviewers often write about. For me, they all played music, more or less enjoyably, and without distracting sonic problems.

One reason I bought so many Grado cartridges is that they tracked pretty well and played every genre of music, especially classical, with joie de vivre—and at a very reasonable price. Another was that they had more boogie than all the (better-tracking) Shure cartridges I bought. Various Grados were my daily drivers until the London Deccas, the Supexes, and the Koetsu Rosewood Signatures introduced me to the world of drug-like musical highs. Like the rest of the audio world, I got caught up in the exotic realms of low-output moving-coil cartridges. It's only now, with my reduced income and a renewed interest in record collecting, that I'm returning home for a fresh look at the hand-made, high-output, moving-iron Grados.

More dreaming
As I mentioned in the first installment of "Gramophone Dreams" (October 2014, p.49), in 2003 I sold all of my vinyl, and began collecting and exploring music only in digital formats—until last year, when I found some very nice LPs on a stoop near my building, which instantly reinstated all of my connoisseur-collector-hoarder dreams. I borrowed a turntable, bought an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, and began to slowly, deliberately create a new collection of LPs. With my now-limited funds, I couldn't buy expensive reissues or high-priced collectibles, and instead began hitting the thrift stores and $1 record bins. I've been buying only records that fit the following criteria:

• The music must be something that I don't already know or understand.

• The jackets must be aesthetically pleasing, a joy to touch and handle, and in fresh, unmolested condition.

• The vinyl must be shiny and scratch-free.

• The labels should be attractive and show very few spindle marks: those little, whitish lines squiggling out from the spindle hole that indicate how often the record has been played.

• Most important, they should cost less than $10 each.

To satisfy all of these requirements, I've had to buy mainly classical, folk, and world music—and mostly in mono pressings. Currently, I have about 300 discs, 200 of them in mono, and about 100 that rotate at 45 or 78rpm.

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As I get deeper into black-disc connoisseurship, I'm more and more attracted to the gestalt of listening in mono. It seems very grounded and centered. Stereo tends to confuse or annoy me. It seems unstable and tenuous—too often, spatial effects compete with the music for my attention. (These feelings about stereo do not apply to live two-channel recordings made with a minimum of artfully placed microphones.) In contrast, my continuing experiences with mono are showing me that mono has a sumo-wrestler effect: very strong, unmovable, and part of a long, nonfrivolous tradition.

So far, other than my Shure 44 cartridge that I modified for mono operation, I've used only the expensive and wondrous Miyajima Spirit ($700) and Miyabi Mono ($2800). They were so exciting that it became an urgent necessity that I find a connoisseur-quality mono cartridge that actually fit my budget.

Because of my good past experiences with Grado cartridges, I called John Grado and asked to borrow a review sample, just to see how much pleasure I could get from a humble monaural (footnote 2) model. Grado's website reveals that any of their wooden-body cartridges can be ordered in mono, but they also offer two mono Prestige models with polycarbonate bodies: the Prestige MC+ ($90) and the Prestige ME+ ($150). I chose the ME+ with its upgraded generator system, 0.2 by 0.7mm elliptical stylus, and four-piece, cantilever.

The ME+ is not, like so many mono cartridges out there, a stock stereo model bridged for mono, but a true mono design. "In our stereo cartridges," John Grado explains, "the coils are mounted in an X configuration, with each line of the X representing a signal, one for the left and one for the right channel. In our mono cartridge, the coils are mounted in an = configuration, so they pick up only the lateral signal." The ME+ outputs 5mV into a 47k ohm load, and tracks best between 1.5 and 2gm.

Andrés Segovia
The first record I played with the freshly mounted Grado ME+ was An Andrés Segovia Recital (1952 LP, Decca DL 9633). The Grado not only had believable tone character with this LP; it had extremely well-proportioned and lively dynamic expression. Yeah, of course, it sounded a bit tight, a little hard and overdamped—it had zero hours on it. But while listening to this self-taught, "perfect" guitarist, I kept thinking, Wow, this is too good to be true—this sounds really so "all there" and full and complete.

I always enjoy Segovia, but rarely completely. Usually, his playing is a little too neat and well formed for my taste. I'm certain that these very qualities are what allowed him to lift the guitar out of the dance hall and into the concert hall, but I'd gladly trade a few dropped notes for a little drunkenness and poetry. The most lyrical and poetic piece on this album is Asturias (Leyenda), from Albéniz's Suite Española, transcribed for guitar by Segovia. Through the Grado ME+ the famous gentleness of the master guitarist from Linares became pure poetry. The beauty of solo instruments like the piano, harp, and guitar is that they showcase the artist's touch, which in turn connects the listener with the performer's inner spark. Right out of the box, the Grado ME+ was showing me an aspect of Segovia I had previously not recognized.

I'd just finished using the Miyajima Spirit Monoand a Miyabi Mono so I wasn't feeling sorry for myself at all. In fact, somewhere around the 10th record, when the ME+ was just starting to relax and get a bit more colorful, I thought, If this were the only cartridge I could ever have, I wouldn't be getting all poor-pitiful-me or anything.

The Beatles
The biggest differences between listening to mono recordings with a good mono cartridge rather than stereo pickup are twofold: authenticity and pleasure. Neither is measurable, but each is easily recognized. The best dose of authenticity you can get is to listen to some classics from your youth (remember that music you listened to from the back seat of your car?). I no longer have my near-mint Parlophone pressings of the Beatles' albums, but I did find a pretty beat Canada-only compilation called Twist and Shout (Canadian Capitol 6054), and every song—especially "Love Me Do" and "Twist and Shout"—were more punchy and more accurate in tone than I can ever remember them sounding. This record was so deeply scratched and hazed that I would have been afraid to play it with the expensive Miyabi (what if it tore out the stylus?). But with the sturdy Grado and its user-replaceable stylus ($90), I didn't worry at all. Despite this record's war-torn condition, surface noise was suppressed to the point where I could easily enjoy the tunes and ignore what noise remained.

La Musique de Georges Bizet
When I really want to know how good an audio component is, I just play a full-scale opera or theatrical production recording. If it's got men, women, and children singing in French, spoken passages, whispering, people crying, women screaming, a harmonium being played offstage, marching bands, and live firecrackers—it's a genuine test record! If it comes in a rag-paper box with glassine inner sleeves, archival liners, thick vinyl, and a thicker libretto or script, it might be a work of art. And if it looks new and costs $2, your hands should shake while you're holding it. My 1955 copy of Alphonse Daudet's play L'Arlésienne, with a studio chorus and orchestra conducted by Albert Wolff performing Georges Bizet's incidental music, is exactly that kind of dumbfounding example of what most folks today overlook in collectible recordings.

For the listener to fully grasp the depth and Arcadian charm of Daudet's play, it must be performed in an easy, open, visually articulate way—you want to see as well as hear the players on stage. Forget bass and treble; think: bucolic charm; searching, difficult music; and clamoring voices spread across a noisy, drum-like wooden stage. Imagine yourself listening while holding the script and translating French into English.

When Frédéri climbed to the top of the silkworm house and then plunged to his death—fulfilling the forebodings of Balthazar, the shepherd-sorcerer who warned him that "one can die of love"—I discovered exactly how much affection I needed to give the ME+. The Grado made this recording a pleasure to get lost in. As a youth, I spent a romance-filled August in Arles, and listening to the French actress Mary Marquet with the Grado took me right back to that little walled city and its amphitheater, café tables, and sun-drenched cobblestones. I'd hoped for a bit more MGM Technicolor and a maybe some more microdetail, but the Grado's boldly cinematic sound triggered all the aesthetic emotion I required. Never once was I too distracted by the sound to forget the fragrant scents of Provence.

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My Daily Drive
If I were a flush dude, I would have a dedicated mono system with a Miyajima Zero Mono ($1995) or a Miyabi Mono ($2800) (see the reviews by Michael Fremer and Art Dudley, respectively published in the March 2013 and December 2008 issues). But currently I live on slices of air and gulps of spit, and therefore need something more modest for my humble shepherd's shack—and it looks as if the monaural Grado ME+ is perfect for the job. This $150 mono cartridge won't get me many props from trophy-turntable, invidious-comparison audiophiles, but until I can afford better . . .

I'm gonna buy this overachieving Grado. I'm gonna put it on a Technics SL1200 turntable, and I'm gonna have my very own daily-driver–type, dedicated mono system! You might just want to copy this plan of mine.



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

Footnote 2: The word monaural is derived from the Greek for "one-eared." So while its usage can be justified when applied to recordings and phono cartridges, for everything else we prefer the term monophonic, or just plain mono, meaning "one channel."—Ed.

COMMENTS
Al from Hudson Avenue's picture

I love 78s. You don't know what blood-chilling means until you hear a 78rpm disc of Elvis singing Heartbreak Hotel. Put that in the context of American society in 1956 and you can understand perfectly why everyone went nuts.

bblilikoi's picture

Loved this article on listening to mono via a humble, yet thrilling Grado cartridge. It's what listening is about, after all.... Enjoyment, getting sensitized to something in music one hadn't heard or appreciated before.... Bravo Reichert! Bravo Grado!

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