Two Moving Magnets and a Moving Iron

Grado Prestige Black2 and Audio-Technica VM540ML and VM760SLC

Equipment report
Audio-Technica VM540ML,
Audio-Technica VM760SLC,
Grado Laboratories Prestige Black2
Two Moving Magnets and a Moving Iron

The A-Ts brought out all the Bernstein Carmen’s wonderfully exciting life and vitality, and with the full measure of the highs restored the brashness was back too, yet also the brilliance, air, and ambience that help make this performance so spectacular. One of my notes reads, “Really nice brass fanfare against the male chorus with plenty of atmosphere.” Nor is there any deficiency in weight and power (indeed, the bottom is probably a tad better defined). The soundstage is as wide as it should be, and the rendition of depth unexaggerated.

Both A-T models came close to essentially perfect neutrality save only the one tonal anomaly I hinted at with that “and then some”: a rising top end. After I had completed almost all the listening, I asked Audio-Technica if response graphs were available, and a company spokesperson graciously supplied them. (My request for graphs from Grado was denied.) I was unsurprised by what they showed: both pickups were impressively flat to 5kHz, then began a gradual, virtually identical rise to 10–11kHz of 4–5dB before more or less flattening out to 15kHz, after which there is a sharp slope downward. I don’t know why Audio-Technica didn’t iron this anomaly out, especially inasmuch as the company once manufactured the ATML-170, not only an REG reference but a pickup Hirsch-Houck Labs reported as yielding “one of the flattest frequency responses we have seen” at +/-0.5dB 40Hz–20kHz (!). (Subjective reviewers often questioned the validity of Julian Hirsch’s measurements but rarely their accuracy.)

With vocalists it’s fascinating to compare the effects of this rise to the Grado’s prominence from the midrange on down. Using visual metaphors, the Grado makes vocalists sound fleshier, as if they had put on several pounds; the A-Ts make them sound as if they’ve shed those pounds. The Grado enhances Frank’s baritone and Ella’s alto, the A-Ts render them essentially as they are. To my ears, there’s no question the A-Ts are the more accurate. On violins, all three pickups are very smooth, but the Grado deprives violins of some of their natural brilliance and sheen while the A-Ts mildly accentuate those very qualities yet in a way that’s not only not unpleasant but in some respects rather appealing, as if you were to move from, say, mid-hall to the first few rows (I was in fact reminded of an occasion when I heard the violinist Andrew Manze give a recital before a small audience in a large living room where I was sitting about five feet from the soloist).

I was also surprised that I never found the A-Ts’ rise in the least obnoxious during the evaluations, nothing even close to nasty, harsh, or edgy. I believe there are two reasons for this. One is that the rise is so smooth and gradual that in many systems it might go unnoticed as such. The other is that both pairs of my reference loudspeakers, Harbeth’s Monitor 40.2 and Quad’s 2805, are balanced to suggest some of the upper-two-octaves’ roll-offs that naturally occur in all concert venues, so no doubt some happy synergies are almost certainly taking effect here. Moreover, a fortuitous aspect to the A-Ts’ particular response anomaly is that consumers in the market for pickups this relatively inexpensive will probably already have preamps and integrated amps that are also at the moderate to low end of the price scale—in other words, precisely those electronics that actually have tone controls. A judicious cut, say, to eleven-o’-clock, from any competently designed treble-control is all you need to bring the A-Ts’ top end to flat. In fact, I employed a similar cut using the 10kHz control on my McIntosh C52’s built-in equalizer to entirely salutary effect.

Are there any differences between these two A-Ts worth noting? Most apparently in the tracking: both are excellent trackers, superior to the Grado, the 760 better still with my most difficult LPs, like the Kings College Christmas festival, where the most treacherous high-flying passages with the boys are more cleanly negotiated than with the other two pickups (though the 540 is superior to the Grado). And really concentrated critical listening suggests a difficult-to-define impression of greater authority in favor of the 760. For instance, it reproduced the Bernstein Carmen with slightly bolder swaths of color and swaggering rhythms, a tad more authentic ring to the triangles, fractionally more air and atmosphere around the whole soundstage, and a more open and expansive dynamic range. At the other end of the scale, play something like Jacintha’s luminous “Autumn Leaves” or her almost tragic rendering of “The Days of Wine and Roses” and the 760 disarms criticism by how beautifully it renders her exquisite phrasings and inflections, the depth of feeling she finds in the lyrics, all with just that little extra trace of nuance, refinement, and delicacy in the textures and the details.

I said I’d evaluate all these pickups without regard for pricing and I have. Yet taking price into consideration, I’d have to call both the 760 and the 540 real giant-slayers: spend little, get lots, and I mean lots, in return.

Despite whatever incidental criticisms I’ve made of these three pickups and despite the manifest colorations of the Grado, I was frankly astonished by the performance of which they are capable, and my astonishment is most emphatically not to my credit. Like far too many audiophiles and audio critics of my generation, I climbed aboard the moving-coil train decades ago and rarely looked any direction but straight ahead. My bad. While none of these pickups is going to displace the Windfeld as my reference, the Audio-Technica VM760SLC now easily joins it as an alternative due its remarkable flatness from the bottom all the way through the lower highs and its extraordinary composure with demanding sources. Meanwhile, this assignment has been truly ear-opening. With our editor’s permission, I hope to build upon it by investigating more models from other manufacturers. However they get there and despite the often-enormous differences in pricing, it’s obvious that moving-magnet and moving-iron pickups can bring listeners as close as their moving-coil competitors to the absolute sound of music.

Specs & Pricing

Grado Prestige Black2:
Type: Moving iron; elliptical
Recommended tracking: 1.5 gram
Output: 5mV
Price: $75

Audio-Technica VM540ML:
Type: Moving magnet; microline
Capacitance loading: 100-200pF
Recommended tracking: 1.8-2.2 gram
Output: 4mV
Price: $249

Audio-Technica VM760SLC:
Type: Moving magnet; line contact
Capacitance loading: 100-200pF
Recommended tracking: 1.8-2.2 gram
Output: 4mV
Price: $649

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