Grado Prestige Black2
Throughout the Seventies into the Eighties the go-to phono pickup for impecunious audiophiles was Grado’s FTE+1, which sold for the princely sum of $13. John Grado determined that adjusted for today’s economy this comes to $88, whereupon he knocked the price down to $75 so he could declare the Black2 an even greater bargain than its fondly recalled predecessor. The first thing I played was the old Jacqueline du Pré-Daniel Barenboim set of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas (EMI/Angel) and was glad of it. While I never heard du Pré live and the Gramophone says this recording doesn’t quite do justice to the fullness of her tone, it was certainly full, rich, warm, and vibrant as essayed by the Black2. This isn’t a state-of-the-art recording but its live-music vitality sometimes makes the more carefully coiffed studio products sound a bit synthetic, e.g., no attempt was made to separate the pair into opposite channels, so they’re clustered together in the middle as they were on stage. I so enjoyed what I was listening to that I went on to other cello recordings, then to singers, the cello being the instrument that most evokes the human voice.
Sinatra’s baritone sounded fabulous, as did Ella or Doris Day or Jacintha, and for good reason. Vocals all across the spectrum are where Grados traditionally shine: right in the midrange, the lower midrange, and the whole bottom end, so ample is their tone in this region. It should come as no surprise that orchestral recordings are likewise in this pickup’s wheelhouse. The second side of the Stokowski Rhapsodies album [RCA], with pieces by Liszt and Ionesco, begins with lower strings that are thrust forward, well defined, and very powerful, and so they sound. Moving on to even bigger stuff, my trusty Bernstein Carmen [DG, original pressing] brings colorful textures, solid images, and persuasive dynamic swings. The comings and goings of the children’s chorus are delineated with assurance in a generous soundstage. Missing, however, is the top-end brashness that is endemic to this recording, triangles losing some of their (slightly excessive) sparkle, cymbal clashes a little dim. Some might argue the Grado makes this recording sound more natural than the recording itself actually is: probably true, but still, I miss some of the atmospheric air and openness that I know are there. The music here is also complex texturally and often thickly scored, which the Black2 handles well, albeit without quite the inner clarity and delineation that I hear from my reference setup or the other two pickups under review.
Next up was Sheffield’s The Name Is Makowicz, with those lovely bells at the beginning. Here’s where the Black2’s top-end reticence becomes more problematic, losing the magical, shimmering clarity and definition that more neutral and extended pickups reveal. Still, the album as a whole was made for pleasurable listening, and when Phil Woods’ tenor sax comes in on cut two he’s almost aggressively present, as called for. The same is true of Sonny Rollins on the Way Out West LP [Acoustic Sounds]. Indeed, there’s almost nothing to complain about except that the whole top range of the upper percussion instruments lacks some of the metallic character they intrinsically have.
On Paul Simon’s Graceland [Sony Legacy audiophile edition], no surprise the Black2 acquitted itself superbly on Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s a capella appearance, but when it came to the hard-driving material elsewhere I was never as engaged as I’m used to being, nor did it retrieve all the artificial reverb added to the electronic percussion effects or keep the many strands and lines clear in cuts like “The Boy in the Bubble” and “You Can Call Me Al.” My regular readers will know that I take no end of pleasure in ribbing our British brethren for the way they go on about “toe-tapping paciness.” But they occasionally have a point: I would not recommend this Grado to anyone who listens mostly to hard rock or any other hard-driving material. It’s not a pickup anyone is likely to describe as “fast.”
Likewise, when it comes to resolution: I personally find it more than adequate for detail retrieval, but it’s unlikely to appeal to any fan of mc’s. For example, at normal to loud levels it misses some of the piano chords that bleed through Jacintha’s headphones during the vocal-only introduction to “Moon River” on Autumn Leaves [Groove Note] (though it brought more of them out when I raised the level much louder than normal). Does this matter? Here’s what my wife said when I asked her how many she had spotted: “None. I was listening to her.” (Ah, if only criticism this sensible could find its way into audio discourse, including my own!) I must add that missing bleed-throughs or no, the Grado set Jacintha’s voice into relief with a tactile presence that would shock those snobs who insist that only mc’s are capable of true transparency.
Except for my usual torture tests—e.g., the high trebles in Kings College Choir’s recording of A Festival of Lessons and Carols [Argo]—the Black2 is a fine tracker. This pickup is easy to recommend to anyone who listens mostly to vocal and instrumental music of a traditional kind whether classical, pop, jazz, or folk. If it were a lot more expensive, it has the kind of sound around which cults readily develop.
Audio-Technica’s VM line consists in five moving-magnet models of which the 540 is the middle, the 760 the flagship. I am treating them together because their sound is so similar that most of what I have to say about the one can be applied to the other without much qualification (though I’ll have more to say about their differences later on).
To all of you who doubt that when it comes to tonal balance the primary determinant of the sound of a phono system is the cartridge, I wish you could have been with me when I went from Grado’s Prestige Black2 to either of these two A-Ts. Suddenly the entire top end of the spectrum was back and then some. Those last three words are double-edged, but let that pass for a moment. Beginning with the du Pré-Barenboim Beethoven, it was instantly easier to hear what that Gramophone reviewer was talking about: coming right after the Grado, du Pré ’s cello sounded less rich, full, and projected yet surely truer to what was actually recorded. Without doubt this is because throughout the listening sessions the A-Ts’ top-to-bottom frequency response(s) struck me as more balanced, neutral, and even-handed, with little that really stuck out or called attention to itself. In direct comparison to the Grado, the two A-Ts are also airier and lighter on their feet, entirely predictable in view of the Black2’s prominence from the midrange on down.
There was also an improvement in resolution, the A-Ts catching every one of the piano chords behind Jacintha in “Moon River,” and in pretty much the same balance as I hear from the $4000 Ortofon Windfeld that is my reference, a pickup famous for its neutrality and resolution. And something else about the presentation of the voice: The way Groove Note mikes Jacintha, she is front and center always, unrealistically no doubt yet with tremendous presence, though not so much as from the Grado. With the A-Ts, her voice is still forward but in better balance with whatever instruments are accompanying her.
Switching to “Something’s Got to Give” (on the same album) brought a welcome rhythmic drive and involvement that were a big improvement over the Grado in these areas. The A-Ts were also remarkably unflappable on anything that was strong and driving, e.g., Ed Graham’s spectacular drum set on the M&K direct-to-disc Hot Stix—dynamic, powerful, with excellent definition, clarity, and control (it’s hard to imagine any Brit’s toes not tapping to the beat of these pickups). Owing to its bottom-end prominence, the Grado also handled this engagingly but without the A-Ts’ grab-you-by-the-lapels vigor. Ditto Graceland, which the A-Ts reproduced with great clarity, unobtrusive detail, and powerful dynamic range.