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Grado Timbre Series, Opus3

Grado Opus3 Cartridge

The Opus3 cartridge is the entry-level offering in Grado’s new Timbre Series. Timbre, which replaces Statement and Reference models in one fell swoop, represents a broad reshuffling of Grado cartridges in an effort to close the gap between its entry-level and mid-range lines—in Grado’s words, to create “an even tighter ecosystem of cartridges.” Since the Opus3 debuted, the Timbre family has expanded and now includes the Platinum3 at $400 and the Master3 at $1000.

With a list price of $275, Opus3 incorporates techniques and engineering from Grado’s higher-end models and, in a first for Grado, features a maple wood housing in a newly formulated shape. The decision to use maple was a direct outgrowth of Grado’s experience working with this wood in its Heritage and Statement Series headphones. Maple is known to be a fine tone wood for musical instruments, and Grado says that “through a variation of thermal aging processes, the [maple] housing gains the ability to better dampen and control resonant frequencies.”

The Opus3 is a moving-iron design—a close cousin to the moving magnet. It sports newly developed coil-winding techniques and a new two-step shielding process—innovations that make for a cleaner signal path and reduced mechanical noise. The Opus3 uses an aluminum cantilever, hand-tipped with a diamond stylus. It comes in both high- and low-output versions, 4mV and 1mV respectively, and also in a mono iteration. John Grado says “the high-output cartridges have 6000 turns of wire on the bobbins while the low outputs have 380 turns. The length of wire in the high outputs is 125 feet compared to 7 feet in the low outputs. Because we have fewer turns on the low outputs, we can use a much larger size wire, close to 16 times the diameter. So, the signal has a shorter distance to travel (7 feet from 125 feet), and the signal can flow more easily due to the larger wire. We feel this adds some speed to the signal and gives tighter detail at the extremities of the frequency range.” For this evaluation I opted for the low-output version. Recommended tracking force is between 1.6 and 1.9 grams. 

Don’t be put off by the wide, boxy dimensions of the Opus3’s maple housing. Though it seems to dwarf the entire cartridge assembly, the Opus3 still only weighs in at 8 grams, consistent with the weight of the Sumiko Palo Santos Celebration at 8.3 grams and the Clearaudio Charisma V2 at 9 grams, both of which I had on hand.

In performance, dropping the Opus3 in the groove was a little like going home again to a pre-digital age. I could hear its sonic kinship, its comfort-food continuity, with past Grado cartridges (and headphones) that have come my way over the years. The Opus3 produced a level of midrange tonal realism and unvarnished musicality that should assure long-standing Grado enthusiasts that they haven’t been left out in the cold. In fact, “cold” was the last thing that came to mind during this evaluation. In its warmer overall signature and rich midrange, this was classic Grado. There were still notes of dark chocolate in its voicing, a complex, bittersweetness that favors highly resonant wooden instruments like cello and acoustic bass and winds like clarinet, oboe, and bassoon. 

Clearly, Grado has stayed on message with the Opus3. But this cartridge isn’t living in the past, either. In my view Opus3 represents a “next-gen” Grado, imparting greater transient attack, low-level detail, speed, and extension at the frequency extremes. Solo piano was a prime beneficiary, exhibiting rich weighty overtones and excellent note-to-note articulation on Debussy’s Claire Du Lune [Catena]. The cartridge was very well balanced tonally, with the midrange carrying the load, as it should. But no particular octave sounded lifted or subdued. The Opus3’s character remained neutral, without leaning in a passively recessive or overly forward direction. Observed trackability was also excellent. The cartridge glided through the most challenging grooves like a slot car, with little suggestion of dynamic compression or transient distortion. 

The primary strengths of the Opus3 were its timbral “rightness” and verdant naturalism. For example, during Ricki Lee Jones’ cover of “I Won’t Grow Up” on Pop Pop—a simple track with guitar, bass, and male vocal backup—there’s was a near-holographic presence that defined images-in-space with unsettling realism. The acoustic bassline was particularly compelling in its complex mix of pitch, resonance, and decay. Turning to Diana Krall’s superb Live In Paris album [Verve/ORG], the Opus3 seized the goose-bump electricity of the moment in a way no sub-$300 cartridge has a right to. Krall’s cover of the classic “Fly Me to the Moon” was enthralling in the way it captured the weight and clarity of the piano’s heavy chords and single note lines. Image separation between musicians left plenty of elbow room for me to take in the atmosphere and ambience of the Parisian venue. During “A Case of You,” individual images were nicely outlined but not laser-etched. In particular, the Opus3 didn’t portray vocals with the fragility of cut-crystal, as some upward-tilting moving coils do. Other listeners may differ, but for me this interpretation was more convincing and musically involving. I’m suspicious of hearing what I perceive as minute details given marquee status, when they should emerge more appropriately as a part of a homogenous, organic whole, rather than separated out from the rest of the music. 

For the most part, the Opus3 rarely struck a wrong note. However, over extended listening and measured against my own pricier references, a couple of very minor quibbles emerged. With the Grado there could, at times, be a hint of treble dryness and peakiness. The soundstage could have been a smidge more immersive and dimensional. Dynamic energy seemed tamped down ever so slightly, and the leading edges of percussion, a brushed snare or rimshot for examples, didn’t leap from the grooves with the same transient alacrity and sparkling enthusiasm that they have with the Clearaudio Charisma. These cues just seemed a bit more relaxed, which, I’ll admit, would be considered a reasonable trade-off in many circles. 

During the course of this review I lost track of the number of times I mumbled, “Are you kidding me? $275?” But there it is. When the Opus3 settles in the groove and a rush of music pours forth, there’s an overriding sense that everything is right with the analog world. From a company known for exceptional performance and value, the Grado Opus3 resets the bar. Pure and simple, a celebration of LP playback. 

Specs & Pricing

Body: Maple wood
Cantilever: Aluminum with elliptical diamond stylus
Output: High, 4.0mV@5cm/sec (45); low, 1.0mV@5cm/sec (45)
Input load: 10k–47k ohms
Weight: 8 grams
Tracking Force: 1.6–1.9 grams
Price: $275

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Neil Gader

By Neil Gader

My love of music largely predates my enthusiasm for audio. I grew up Los Angeles in a house where music was constantly playing on the stereo (Altecs, if you’re interested). It ranged from my mom listening to hit Broadway musicals to my sister’s early Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Beatles, and Stones LPs, and dad’s constant companions, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. With the British Invasion, I immediately picked up a guitar and took piano lessons and have been playing ever since. Following graduation from UCLA I became a writing member of the Lehman Engel’s BMI Musical Theater Workshops in New York–working in advertising to pay the bills. I’ve co-written bunches of songs, some published, some recorded. In 1995 I co-produced an award-winning short fiction movie that did well on the international film-festival circuit. I was introduced to Harry Pearson in the early 70s by a mutual friend. At that time Harry was still working full-time for Long Island’s Newsday even as he was writing Issue 1 of TAS during his off hours. We struck up a decades-long friendship that ultimately turned into a writing gig that has proved both stimulating and rewarding. In terms of music reproduction, I find myself listening more than ever for the “little” things. Low-level resolving power, dynamic gradients, shadings, timbral color and contrasts. Listening to a lot of vocals and solo piano has always helped me recalibrate and nail down what I’m hearing. Tonal neutrality and presence are important to me but small deviations are not disqualifying. But I am quite sensitive to treble over-reach, and find dry, hyper-detailed systems intriguing but inauthentic compared with the concert-going experience. For me, true musicality conveys the cozy warmth of a room with a fireplace not the icy cold of an igloo. Currently I split my time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Studio City, California with my wife Judi Dickerson, an acting, voice, and dialect coach, along with border collies Ivy and Alfie.

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