Grado Gold2 Turntable Phono Cartridge
Grado Gold2 is a cartridge with excellent timbral and frequency balance, and well balanced overall, sounds calm and well controlled, but at the same time it follows very well the dynamic and rhythm changes in music material, and all that without adding any (unnecessary) emphasis of high frequency content with the goal of creating more "openness" in sound.
Grado Labs, established in 1953, is one of the oldest turntable cartridge manufacturers still in business (Shure exited the cartridge market last year), and definitely the most charismatic one, with its distinguished history, unique approach to MI (Moving Iron) technology (Grado Flux-Bridge) and persistent avoidance of fashionable trends on the market. This includes the MC cartridges, which, paradoxically, Grado Labs founder Joseph Grado himself invented and patented, and brought to market in 1962, but soon stopped developing because they did not show to be an optimal solution at the time.
Grado Gold2 is the latest edition of the best model in the Prestige line, the standard Grado line whose plastic body looks essentially unchanged since about 1968, aside from changes in color and lettering, and shortening of the cartridge body at the beginning of the 1980's to accommodate the P-mount versions. Most of the changes in Grado cartridges throughout that time happened inside, but still all present Grado styluses will fit any of the older Grado cartridges since the basic shape was established at the beginning of 1970's.
Gold2, as the top model of the Prestige line, is definitely the most important one in the market context, in the price range where there is fierce competition, and where most cartridges already reach the sound quality level which can satisfy most audiophiles willing to stay at the reasonable and relatively affordable level of expense for their sound system. This is also the best Grado cartridge with a user replaceable stylus, wood bodied Reference and Statement series have firmly attached stylus assemblies, in the interest of better vibration control, tighter manufacturing tolerances, and consequently better sound, although in principle they are still Moving Iron cartridges.
That Grado Gold2 is a very good cartridge became clear to me even before the test, when I mounted it on the turntable of a very demanding perfectionist client (Creed Taylor, the founder of CTI records, the producer who recorded many legendary jazz musicians for his label, and with recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder directly created the distinct sound quality as captured on the albums), and witnessed his reaction to the sound Gold2 was reproducing from his CTI albums. He was so delighted with the natural and musical sound, with plenty of fine details (a hallmark of Grado cartridges, and the primary reason I recommended Grado in his case), that he stood up, waved his hand and said "This is like Rudy is here, in studio control room with me". Seeing how the cartridge improved the sound of his system, I said to myself, maybe it is time to review it....
The review Gold2 came fresh in the box, not broken in. Usually Grado Labs breaks in the review cartridges for 72 hours, but to simplify and speed things up, I offered to break it in. I was also curious about the amount of change in sound after the break-in is finished. The procedure was done with the Hi-Fi News And Record Review test LP, with some of the endless grooves present between most tracks on the record (Grado Labs is breaking in Reference and Statement cartridges, before shipping, the same way, only John Grado carves the endless groove himself with the knife, at the end of the record, the slight jolting action at the changeover exercises the stylus suspension just the right amount).
I used the same record for the fine adjustment of tracking force and anti-skating, the optimum result was achieved at 1.75 gram of tracking force (verified with Shure SFG-2 gauge), and moderate anti-skating level (about one third of the tone arm lateral skating counterweight adjustment). With these settings, the cartridge passed flawlessly the tracking tests at the beginning, middle and end of the record (300 Hz, L+R, +15 dB), and also bias (anti-skating) test at +12, +14, and +16 dB. It even passed the torture track, the +18 dB bias track, with very slight, negligible distress, and clean 300 Hz sine wave tone reproduced. The difference after breaking in of the cartridge mostly applied to tracking performance.
Gold2 sounds pretty good straight from the start, but tracking performance reaches optimal (and very high) level after the break in. Next, I checked the vertical resonant frequency of the tonearm/cartridge combination on the test turntable. It was at around 11 Hz (desired value is anywhere between 8 to 15Hz), in practice this means less problems while listening to the slightly wavy and poorly pressed, bumpy records, and indeed during the test there were no instances of stylus jumping out of the groove because of resonance, or wow and flutter in sound because the frequency of bumps on the records coincides with the resonant frequency of tonearm/cartridge combination.
Since this is the parameter which changes depending on the turntable and tonearm in use, and stories about "underdamped" Grado cartridges are known to surface from time to time, I mounted the Grado2 in a couple of more turntables, with various tonearm mass, even the cheap ones, and there was never a problem with this Gold2. This seems to be a very compatible cartridge, which will work well with most tonearms, with the exception of some turntables with AC motors, where it is possible some hum will be audible when the cartridge gets close to the motor at the end of the record. Grado cartridges are more susceptible to induced electromagnetic fields because of the "Flux-Bridge" principle which uses four coils instead of just two like regular MM or MI cartridges, although Grado now applies special metal particle paint on top of the coils inside the cartridge body, to mitigate the problem without using the, in their view, sound spoiling classic shielding methods.
Back to the tracking performance, the next test was an old, but immaculately pressed and well thought-out test record, the Shure Obstacle Course Era III (from the time of the V15 III). Here again Grado Gold2 passed all tests, from level 1 to level 5 (although not a Shure cartridge, as Shure detractors at the time claimed the record was designed in a way that only Shure carts could pass it). The tests consisted of "musical bells" (very strong fundamentals and harmonics in high frequencies, on level 5 the stylus speed exceeds crazy 25 cm/sec at 10 kHz), then sibilants test (Mais Que Nada by Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66), both tests Gold2 reproduced cleanly all the way to level 5, even the sometimes difficult test for Grado cartridges, the sibilants.
The next test was the violin test (very loud recording, torture test for midrange). Gold2 played level 5 without shrillness or distortion, and at the end the concert bass drum; at level 5 (+15 dB) the bass drum was reproduced cleanly, without harmonic overtones and crackling produced by the stylus in distress. I can say the Gold2 demonstrated excellent tracking, easily on the level of Shure V15 VxMR, one of the best tracking cartridges, which was on hand for comparison.
The listening test, using various music albums, showed the Gold2 to be a cartridge with excellent timbral and frequency balance, and well balanced overall, sounds calm and well controlled, but at the same time it follows very well the dynamic and rhythm changes in music material, and all that without adding any (unnecessary) emphasis of high frequency content with the goal of creating more "openness" in sound. The bass is tight and well defined, with good extension to the lowest registers, the midrange reproduction is very detailed and it is easy to follow individual instruments or sounds in complex and dense recordings. The high frequency range is subtle, clear and unimposing, almost reserved until some sudden cymbal or percussion sound jumps out of the mix and surprises, making itself heard like on live performances.
Vocals sound mostly flawless, and soundstage is very slightly pulled back, with good display of both width and depth in the sound picture. The cartridge is generally neutrally balanced, and there maybe lays its only lacking, it is not following the recent high end audio trend of "brighter is better", some will find it too reserved in treble region, without enough "sparkle", but in the context of its price, I think this is a wise decision by Grado Labs. In direct comparison with Gold1, there seems to be a slightly less bass, with better definition, but difference is not great.
The biggest difference is subtly better control of high frequencies, which are better focused, and midrange is also slightly better focused and more clearly defined in space. The sound character is now generally closer to the Reference and Statement series, there are signs of that unforced, sophisticated and subtle clarity and naturalness, the qualities so dear to the owners of wood bodied Grado cartridges. How much of that difference to the Gold1 will be heard depends on the resolution of the rest of the system. On the first sight the difference is not great, but most listeners will notice the improvements in tracking, which is most apparent on sibilant control and more precision in high frequencies. This is still the house "Grado sound", but improved by the experience of the manufacturer in further developing the wood bodied cartridges, with improvements in coil winding techniques, and better control of resonance dissipation, being now applied to Prestige series bodies.
Next, I mounted the Gold2 stylus on some of the cartridges from my collection of top quality Grados dating from 1974 to today (F-1+, G-1+, Signature TLZ, Signature 8MX, Prestige Reference prototype), and my suspicion that Gold2 stylus is responsible for a lot of the improvement from Gold1 was confirmed. It is a great stylus, especially good for damping and not emphasizing the vinyl surface noise and pops and clicks. According to John Grado, the goal of the stylus profile is not to sink to the bottom of the groove and trace the dirt (sometimes achieved by the exotic stylus profiles), but stay on the surface of the groove where all the musical signal is. Is mounting the Gold2 stylus on Gold1 turning that cartridge into Gold2? Not really, Gold2 is still better, but some of the difference is less, especially in high frequencies.
I also tried the opposite, I mounted the best Prestige style stylus you can buy (XTZ, $450), which Grado still makes available for the owners of old Joe Grado Signature cartridges, on the Gold2. It is a special "twin tip", or "super-ellipsoid" stylus, and sound from Gold2 qualitatively jumped on higher level, bigger soundstage, more open and detailed treble, more attractive, but at the same time some of the balance and compatibility was lost, this would work only in good systems with high resolution, and which are not too brightly balanced to start with. But, this test proves the Gold2 is well made cartridge, which can be easily compared to the best classic Grado cartridges from the 1970's and 1980's, and which were then much more expensive then Gold2 is today.
At the end, who is the best audience for Grado Gold2? First and foremost, the music lovers who like natural sound reproduction, and who know what the instruments and voices sound like in real life, and who would like to have something similar in their sound system. This is the characteristic well known in first place to the most listeners who would pick a Grado cartridge, but Gold2's addition to the quality mix is even better tracking and more cohesion and precision to the sound (for the Prestige series), with even more compatibility with the systems of all price ranges.
LPs Used During Review
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