I have always been convinced that the strongest reason to use only Moving Magnet cartridges was the possibility to replace the stylus. It is really a convenient thing, especially if you decide to upgrade your cartridge when the needle stone has worn out; many producers allow to install a higher spec stylus as replacement, so you can improve your cartridge’s performance with time. But sometimes even MMs can benefit from a retipping instead of buying a replacement. Why? Well, maybe the available replacements are not as good as the original stylus used to be. Sometimes the replacements are no longer available. Therefore, as Moving Coil cartridge users know well, you can turn to a capable stylus retipping and repair service to keep you cartridge alive, virtually forever.
I faced this problem myself after I succeeded in breaking 3 (three) Grado styli in rapid succession. I am a member of some Internet forums (Audiokarma, Vinylengine, etc.) and one day I read a comment about a renown member, Marc Morin, expert and fan of Grado cartridges from whom I also bought a Grado Signature 8MX body I am very fond of. He had tested a Gold0 stylus grip that a retipper had upgraded with his own cantilever and diamond stone. Marc really liked the result on his own 8MX body. I was so impressed that I wrote the retipper for help. I had two damaged Grado 8MZ styli and maybe he would have been able to make a good one from them. Well, it turned out that the suspensions of both styli were gone, but from the email exchange between us I have learned a lot and maybe it is worth spreading the knowledge on istillplayvinyl!
The name is Joseph Long, a nice guy from Hartford, Connecticut, USA. He is known by his nickname “needlestein” on the web. If you want to have your stylus retipped or cantilever replaced, I strongly suggest you write Joe an email!
Being myself a Grado appreciator for several reasons, I asked him why he likes Grado cartridges and his opinion on Audiotechnica and Shure, since they are the brands I am using today:
Hey Joe, what do you like about Grado cartridges?
“I actually do like Grado cartridges for several reasons. I was not really a fan of the Prestige series once, before the Prestige2 line, which I LOVE. I am just sorry some of their current production is no longer high quality as it used to be: I had a customer send me a Reference Platinum from the 1970s and it had a beautiful nude diamond elliptical on it. The ones today are just bonded elliptical but they sound good with my nude elliptical! Boy do they sound good–better than many other brands.
I also really like the low output Statement Series. If you put my tapered titanium cantilever and nude .2 x .7 elliptical on any Grado woody, you won’t believe your ears that it’s not a $5,000 cartridge. I don’t know why they replaced a beautiful nude stone with a cheaper bonded, just like they do with the 8MZ. I figure they will have their reasons. In fact, the Prestige2 line doesn’t actually seem to suffer much with the bonded elliptical stylus, however. I haven’t tried a nude or titanium cantilever with one of those yet. Voicing can shift with a line contact stylus, too, with Grado, which may be why Grado doesn’t offer many.
I have a Grado Gold P Mount with a good cantilever. The diamond popped out. This is an older one with a dark sound. I may put a nude Vital line contact into the original cantilever or a Fritz Gyger FGII to see if it actually can open it up at all. It might! I just put a nude elliptical on a hardened tapered aluminum cantilever last night on an old Grado F-1+ and gave it a listen last night. AWESOME!”
I have recently acquired a cheap Audiotechnica AT95e and an ATN95HE stylus replacement and I am quite impressed by the performance at that price point. Any ideas?
“AT are great cartridges. I love Audio-Technica: they provide great products and unbelievable prices as only a large concern dedicated to the marketplace can do. Their high end cartridges are as good or better than any low output high end boutique cartridge builder and often better. No one has a gold-plated boron cantilever so impossibly narrow and tapered like what one finds on the $300 ATOC9ML/II, for example, and with a MicroLine stylus to boot. You can’t get a cantilever that good on a $10,000 cartridge. No one else has it. Many of them sound very well balanced and truly excellent. They have great customer service and a trade-in program that keeps most AT owners from ever knocking on my door. 😉
I do recommend them!
And for people who have old Audio-Technica cartridges that are no longer supported with irreplaceable and no longer produced gold plated beryllium, I can install nude line contact or elliptical diamonds on them. Examples are the AT32E. AT33E and AT33ML etc and moving magnet cartridges also with gold plated beryllium cantilevers and ceramic bodies such as the ML180, ML170 and ML160 OCC, etc.”
Well, that’s great news for all Audio-technica’s fans out there! What about Shure? I recently came to like their sound very much, probably due to their supposedly flat response, and you happen to offer some interesting services on some of them… –>
“I like Shure a lot, too, but for personal tastes, I don’t find them dynamic enough for me. This was a common observation in the 1970s and 1980s, even at Shure’s uncontested dominance of the domestic market. Everyone wanted a V15 as it was the symbol of the discriminating taste. And they do sound amazingly clear, smooth, relaxed and high end. Those who like smooth LOVE Shure. Those who like the greatest technical achievements (beryllium foil cantilever, anyone?) gravitate to Shure. Shure, like AT, made these technological marvels available for a rather affordable price, especially for the day and even more so when compared to today’s prices.
But I don’t think they are dynamic enough for me, and I am a huge fan of Stanton and Pickering, which are also smooth, but they also shake your booty. The lower end Shure, however, like the SC35C and the M35X also shake booty and so I can do with those in pinch. But they aren’t much to look at and they don’t have elliptical tips unless I install them myself. ;-)”
Can you tell us something about the system you use for your listening and tests?
“Well, my system is not very expensive. In fact, I can only remember sometimes what my amp is. It’s a Yaqin MC5881A totally stock. Sounds great. Speakers are very cheap BIC Acoustech HT-64, but they sound excellent with their horn tweeters. Pretty much they’re Klipsch knock offs that actually get better reviews than the Klipsch they emulate. I’ve also got a BIC 12” woofer that gets used only once in a while to flesh out cartridges that lack bass. Most of the time it is switched OFF. My little speakers produce plenty of bass in my house.
My turntable is a Technics SL-1200 feeding a Rolls Bellari VP129 (the older model). It’s not the most noise free system in the world, particularly when running MC cartridges. For a step up I use a Stanton BA-26 head amp, which actually sounds as good or better than the SUTs I used to use–this came as a surprise. It really only won the spot because it had a convenient bypass switch. I had already given up on anything but SUTs. Glad I tried the BA-26.
For critical listening, the Bellari Rolls has a headphone jack and I use headphones. They really allow me to pick out the nuances. I don’t have anything expensive, but I wouldn’t spend less than $100 on some good cans. However, I defy my own advice, because I got these at a discounter for about $10. I can tell you the brand but I can’t remember it. They’re nothing special regarding brand, but I know a good set of cans when I hear them and these are great.”
Well, it is amazing, not a very expensive set but quite revealing, I gather…
Back to cartridges and styli, you seem to give much importance to the channels separation specifications in a cartridge. I know that high separation is regarded as a sign of good construction. How is this important in your opinion?
“How important is separation? It’s important for excellent stereo imaging. You can never get perfect separation with a record player cartridge because both channel vibrations travel up the single cantilever. But you can get pretty close.
The lowest spec I’ve seen for separation for a modern cartridge is 25dB, but most, even with a spec that low, test higher. I do believe that separation is something that gives the cartridge a real sense of space, headroom, presence, direction and imaging. Cartridges with lower separation sound more focused, with narrower everything. And, of course, with separation, the more you approach 0dB, the closer you get to a “mono” cartridge.
What is acceptable? No one knows. Few people have measurement tools and so they don’t really know what they are getting regarding channel separation performance. If everyone had an easy way to test channel balance and separation, P Mount would have been dead long ago because the best way to adjust for perfect balance and separation is cartridge azimuth. The only thing that might have saved P Mount was Grado, since the relationship between the stylus an the body pole pieces can be mildly manipulated, which allows for azimuth adjustment of sorts.
For me, when I get a stylus or cartridge that reads 30dB or above, the entire perception of sound changes to a much bigger, more detailed picture. Many expensive moving coil cartridges do not actually make it to 30dB, while many inexpensive moving magnet and moving iron cartridges do. And it is not the whole picture. I know of some high output moving coil cartridges that almost always measure at least 35dB but I still don’t prefer how they sound, though many many many people do. I am talking about extremely popular cartridges here that are unassailable as far as their sonic reputation stands. But there are some remarkable low cost moving coil cartridges that perform far and away better than expected whenever I retip them. These are real sleepers. The Denon DL-80 is one.
But I am an unabashed moving iron junkie. Moving iron is my favorite because it delivers the sound I like the best more often than not with few exceptions, and I have heard almost every cartridge there is to hear. My weakness is the Pickering XV-15 with just about any stylus you can think of. Great cartridge! Also, the Stanton 680/681. After that, the Stanton and Pickering low output moving coil cartridges like the 980/981 and Pickering XLZ series. Amazing!”
It is clear you like the new Prestige 2 cartridges from Grado. What about the much revered Joe Grado Signature series? Some say they do sound different from the previous Prestige series.
“I really really like the new Prestige 2 cartridges. But I really like the Signatures too. In fact, I just found a low output signature body with a broken MCZ stylus. I hope the stylus takes to being repaired.
Can’t go wrong within the new Prestige series, though. Really, in my opinion, the Gold 2 was only marginally better than the Black 2. They are very close to the Signature series now.”
It is widespread, at least on Internet forums, that a Signature replacement stylus can improve a Prestige cartridge. I did upgrade my old Gold0 body with an 8MZ myself with great results, at least that was my humble impression. What about now that we have the Prestige 2 series available?
“Actually, the 8MZ specs at only 25dB separation. 20 isn’t so bad, than compared to original. If it were me, I suppose, I’d go for the Grado Black 2 which is spec’d at 30dB. By the way, the new Prestige styli do not work in a Signature body. Separation figures are too low. Barely 10dB, but the Signature styli work in the Prestige bodies and also of course in the Signature bodies.”
Which is your favorite Grado Cartridge then, if I may ask?
“That is difficult to say. The F1+ sounds great and has excellent separation–much better than Signature Grados. They are my favorite, best sounding Grado, in my opinion, over all of them—best of the best, but an F3+ I recently retipped with the nude elliptical was just as good. Perhaps once retipped, the F3+ and the F1+ are the same but for body color.
However, the Grado Black 2 stylus also demonstrates extremely high separation figures even in higher and older Prestige bodies–on par with the F1+. Even if it doesn’t have the four piece cantilever of the higher Prestiges. I can’t be sure, but I do know that diamond angle is critical. When I retipped a Grado F-1+ recently, I could only get 27dB channel separation out of it. That’s good because spec is only 25dB. But when I adjusted SRA by bending the stylus angle a tiny bit, channel separation jumped to over 30dB. That made me very happy!
Grado stylus position seems to be absolutely critical. But the Signature styli like the 8MZ, MCZ, etc., are only spec’d to >25dB, which is much lower than current Grado Prestige 2. I have been able to successfully read 30dB from Grado Gold styli lately, by carefully positioning them in the cartridge, mainly by not pushing them in too hard. Of course, my testing is just the testing of one guy with just a few samples…”
Well, this is all very illuminating anyway! Thank you, Joe for your time availability. I appreciate that.
All images courtesy of Joseph Long