For the love of Gold

hifi-grado_prestige_goldI have been thinking a lot about this. When I got myself back into analog audio, I recovered a Thorens TD-165 abandoned in a friend’s closet and equipped it with a Goldring Elan. When I first upgraded the cartridge I was advised to look in Grado’s catalogue.

I choose the top of the Prestige series, which in 2005 was the Gold. I developed a love for the brand, for how the Grado family works and feels about the business. I tried even something different but, for the love of Gold, I’m not “shure” I can go away from them…

I was happy with the sound I achieved on the Thorens TD-165 with a Grado Prestige Gold. I had no idea I had acquired the ultimate bundle: the cart came with the revered 8MZ-V stylus, designed for Signature cartridges but unoffically acclaimed as the best upgrade for Prestige bodies. Someone at the grado Labs must have installed it by mistake on a Gold body that eventually found its way to my home. Completely unaware of that, when the time came, I replaced the needle with a Gold1, which was the available choice in 2010. Some time later I came across comments on the internet about how good a Prestige series body would sound with an 8MZ stylus, which I bought, installed and was happy with it – a real lot, I must say. There were also comments about Signature bodies of the early 80s sounding very good still today; it was mainly a matter of different kind of presentations, they say: a more layered and laid back one for the oldies, a more upfront presentation for the new models. It would depend more on personal taste. Almost out of curiosity, I looked for a Signature body and found an 8MX one, though rumors had it an 8MR would have been even finer.

After a few months I finally found some time to install the 8MX on a spare headshell. Unfortunately, as I was removing the precious 8MZ stylus from my Prestige Gold 0 cart, it slipped off my fingers and ruinously fell on the floor… “Needless” to say, the (although slightly) bent catilever sounded thin and harsh with unbearable sybilants on the 8MX; the output level was also terribly low… A quick check on the net revealed that all that noise around the Signature replacement stylii soared their price to a good 50%. I had purchased the 8MZ for $100 a year earlier or so, now it jumped at $150 – not exactly a steal…

The sad reality of the market forced me to install my old Gold1 stylus on the 8MX body. Will I ever know how it would sound with an 8MZ stylus? Maybe, but for a while it has been far better with the Gold1 stylus replacement than with the broken 8MZ…

S_GRADO8MZSignature stylii replacements are only available here in good old Europe around €160-180! Reality also is that a brand new, top of the line, recently designed Grado Prestige Gold 2 cartridge is available for just under €200. And they say the new Prestige line is dangerously close to the old Joe Grado Signature performances. So Does it really make sense considering older and used cartridges that cost more than their modern, upgraded counterparts which replaced them on the market years ago?

One reason might be availability: if you still have and cherish a good old cart that is out of production, the Grado Labs in New York still provide stylus replacements – at a cost. They are glad you still like their old models and respectfully give you users the chance to keep highly-respected Signature models working. Actually, John’s Grado Labs are a different company than the one that was of the founder, Joseph Grado. But it’s a good thing Grado Labs still provide Joe Grado Signature 8 replacements. And now I also happen to be among the proud owners.

Another reason for this craving for the old, for this “one time things were done better”, might be the “vintage” fever of our times. We have modern technology that pushes us to replace our smartphones every year but we believe that old hifi equipment sounds better than the modern stuff. Old hifi equipment may be sold at outrageous prices. I bought my Thorens TD-160 for €150: it was a very good price, 100 less than the average – a real bargain. Now it’s even sold at 400 or 600 euros! Nonsense! Damn new and freshly-designed Grado Prestige Gold 2s can be found below €200. For a new 8MZ replacement stylus I should shed €170; if I wanted to go further, just to better mourn the loss of the dropped stylus, an MCZ stylus would have costed $230, shipment included – almost the same price of a brand new Gold2 cartridge, stylus included! Would that make sense?

At the time the Prestige series was at the number 1, I asked Grado their opinion about all this. In ten minutes from my enquiry, they recommended the Gold1 -rather obviously – officially declaring that they can’t predict the behavior of a Signature needle in a Prestige body it was not designed for.

I even found someone who was willing to relieve himself of a Grado Gold1 after a few hours of use – and for a mere €68, shipment included. What would you do? I should have sniffed the hoax and kept away. But I use(d) to trust people, especially since the smart guy called me and talked to me about being an audiophile and having listened to that turntable and that cartridge, and so on. A nice strategy. I’ve never received the Gold1. I was cheated. The very low price should have warned me…

So I decided to give a try to the 8MZ again, and see if someone was willing to help with the bent 8MZ stylus. I’ve shipped it to the USA where an expert and Grado enthusiast straightened the cantilever up. It appears the bent was not that bad and the needle tip, being made of diamond, was not damaged by the fall: not enough energy with such a small mass falling.

The thing is the output level is very low. The stylus seems to work fine but some damage must have been done… I sent the 8MZ to another technician in the States together with the one mistakenly installed by Grado in the Gold0, to see if it could be of any use in repairing the other one. Unfortunately he only discovered that the styli show very low separation due to the suspension damage in both styli. Nothing can be done.

In the meantime, I have been using a good Shure cartridge I luckily found on a trashed turntable. I was happy with how it sounded with a cheap elliptical replacement stylus and it could go even further with a hyperelliptical one it was designed for. Then I was offered a real bargain for an Audiotechnica AT95HE that outperformed the Shure. But I have no working Grado carts to compare them to: I have been so clumsy to break the Gold1 cantilever too. Still I am thinking: what about a Prestige 2 body? A Black 2 is already said to be a great bargain for $75 – a pity it translates to €97 here in Europe. For 30 more you step up to a Green 2; add some other 2-30 and you can get a Red 2, allegedly the sweet spot of the series. Around €200 the good old Gold 2 is there, waiting for me. But rumors have it that a new Prestige 2 stylus might upgrade to much higher performance even an old Prestige body (not a Signature one, though). For what a Black 2 costs, I will probably give it a try on my old Gold0. They say it would not be easy to distinguish such a bundle from a Black2 and even a Black to from a Gold2!

Unfortunately, if I had to revive my Signature cart I should buy a new 8MZ stylus for €180, and for the love of “Gold”, I’d really have to consider the most modern, up to date incarnation of the Grado Prestige series or… well a Frankengrado based on my old beloved Gold would not be a bad option…

 

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