Type: Moving Iron (MI)
Stylus: Bonded Elliptical
I owned a budget Grado cartridge in my university system in the early 80s – while I don’t recall the model, it served me well. On reviving my vinyl interests, I wanted to try another Grado. On browsing eBay one day, I found a top-of-the-range Grado Prestige Gold that was used but at a very good price with only 100 hours on the clock. I have tried this cartridge on a number of turntables, but this review in mainly based on using it on my Technics SL1200 Mk5. Note that the review concerns the original Prestige Gold, rather than the latest Gold3.
Turntable: Technics SL1200 Mk5
Phono Pre-amp: Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL (with 250pF capacitance)
Amplifier: Yamaha A-S501
Speakers: Q Acoustics 3050
My original Grado was a budget model but an entertaining cartridge and I particularly remember its nice bass response. So, how does the more expensive Prestige Gold measure up?
Treble: There is a soft and delicate character to the high frequencies, but the treble is well extended and doesn’t sound rolled-off as with some cartridges. Detail is not explicitly presented but there is a gentleness and refinement to the treble that is easy on the ear. It is worth noting that treble detail is supposedly improved on the newer Gold2 and Gold3 versions.
Midrange: The mid-band is open with a fair amount of texture, body and presence. However, sibilant vocals can be troublesome (see Tracking).
Bass: The bass is forward, deep and punchy, giving this cartridge a full, weighty sound. Low-frequency delivery is reasonably tight but not the most agile I have experienced. The bass is also a little soft, although there is evidence of texture.
It will come as no surprise from the above that the Prestige Gold has a warm balance deriving from a prominent bass topped off with a soft and rather sweet treble. Dynamics are also fairly good, particularly in the bass department. The overall effect is a mellow, easy-listening sound – if the word lush can be applied to any cartridge, it can be applied to this one. And this is a cartridge that will moderate bright and harsh recordings. Many vinyl lovers will be in heaven with the sound of the Prestige Gold but some may deem it unfocused. Indeed, there are times with this cartridge when I feel the music warrants a crisper, snappier delivery – this is not cartridge for thrill-seekers who want a fast, exciting sound. The Prestige Gold is also fussy about its working environment but seems to blossom on lighter arms (see Compliance). There is additionally the issue of its unshielded design, which can lead to a faint hum on some turntables (see Hum). Certainly, the Prestige Gold is worthy of serious consideration for those who love a warm, easy-going sound, but special attention should be paid to the turntable that will accommodate it.
The recommended tracking-force for this cartridge is 1.5g, which is the setting that I have used for this review on the Technics SL1200. I have found tracking to be a bit of an issue with this cartridge. On purchasing the cartridge, I first used it on a Pioneer PL12D and noticed some mis-tracking, particularly on ‘hot’ pressings with sibilant vocals, when the smooth sound of the cartridge fell apart. Tracking could be improved slightly by increasing the tracking-force (and anti-skating) to 1.6 or 1.7g. However, my feeling is that this cartridge is happier on lighter tonearms, on which the tracking situation improves – on a decent pressing, the cartridge tracks without a hitch. I also believe that tracking is improved with the Gold2 and Gold3 versions of this cartridge.
The dynamic compliance of this cartridge is 20 cu (at 10Hz). This is on the borderline of medium-compliance and high-compliance, but I have classed it as a high-compliance cartridge above, as my feeling is that it works better on light tonearms. I initially used the cartridge on the Pioneer PL12D but the cartridge was installed in a solid Pioneer headshell which probably took the effective-mass of the tonearm beyond 20g into the upper realms of medium-mass. Here, the sound was quite heavy and tracking issues were evident. I have since used the cartridge on lighter arms, such as that of the Technics SL1200 with an effective-mass of 12g at the low end of medium-mass. My impression is that the cartridge sounds more open and dynamic on lighter arms, and tracking is better. I would therefore recommend this cartridge for low-mass arms, or at least at the light end of medium-mass.
In the manual for this cartridge, Grado claim that it is “Non-Sensitive to Capacitive Load”. This is undoubtedly because of its extremely low inductance (45mH) which puts the resonance frequency way beyond the audible range with typical capacitive loads. However, I convinced myself that the sound opens up slightly at higher capacitances and I use a setting of 250pF on my phono pre-amp, making a total load of ~375pF (after adding in 125pF cable capacitance).
Note that the above assumes a phono-cable capacitance of 125pF for the Technics SL1200 Mk5. This value may be higher (likely) or lower for other turntables. Typically, a value in the range 150-200pF is assumed.
The Grado Prestige cartridges are unshielded to electromagnetic emissions. As a result, these cartridges can pick up such emissions from the motor of the host turntable, yielding a low-pitch hum. The Grados hum with some turntables but not with others. The location of the motor relative to the path of the cartridge as it passes across the record surface is a factor. For example, on direct-drive turntables, the motor is centrally located beneath the platter and the cartridge gets close to the motor when tracking the inner grooves of the record, resulting in a hum of increasing magnitude as the record plays. Having said that, when using the Prestige Gold on my Technics SL1200 Mk5 direct-drive there is no hum, but when using it on my Rega Planar 3 belt-drive there is hum. There is actually a ‘grado hum’ spreadsheet available on the Internet in which people have recorded the hum experienced with Grados on different turntables. In my experience, the hum is faint and may be tolerable, depending on the user.
The Grado Prestige Gold reviewed here was superseded by the Gold1, Gold2 and now the Gold3. I know that the previous owner had replaced the stylus but confess that I do not know whether the replacement was a Gold or Gold1 stylus. I understand the Gold2 and Gold3 to be improvements over their predecessors, particularly with regard to treble clarity and tracking, but I wouldn’t expect them to be radically different. The Gold stylus (in all its editions) is apparently only a bonded elliptical – Grado describe it as “diamond tipped”. At this price level of circa £200, one would expect at least a nude elliptical, with some competitors (such as Audio Technica) even offering cartridges with more exotic styli at cheaper prices. Nevertheless, it’s the sound that counts and I’m sure some people would be happy to pay around £200 for the warm, smooth sound that this cartridge produces. Others, however, may consider the sound to be too nebulous for this kind of money. Before investing in the Gold (or one of its successors), it may be worth trying one of the cheaper models in the Prestige range to make sure the Grado cartridges are suited to your tastes and your turntable.
For a faster, more detailed and dynamic sound, Ortofon offer the 2M Blue with nude elliptical stylus at a similar price to the Prestige Gold. However, the sound balance of the 2M Blue is on the bright side of neutral, in marked contrast to that of the Prestige Gold. A better alternative to the Gold might be the Ortofon OM20 (but not Super OM20) which provides focus and dynamics with a touch of warmth.
In the same price bracket, the Denon DL-110 provides a viable alternative with a slightly lush balance but a crisper presentation than the Gold. But note that the DL-110 is a high-output Moving Coil (HOMC) cartridge and is best suited to medium-mass and high-mass tonearms.
The Audio Technica AT-VM95 range provides other alternatives for medium-mass and high-mass arms. I have experience of the basic AT-VM95E, which also has a full and weighty sound, and I understand that this sound is carried through to the higher models. The AT-VM95ML is significantly cheaper than the Prestige Gold and sports a nude MicroLine stylus which has superb tracking abilities, in contrast to the bonded elliptical of the Gold.
The Grado Prestige Gold is now available as the Prestige Gold3, which apparently offers improvements over the original Gold, particularly in terms of treble clarity and tracking (something I am not able to verify myself).
The Grado Prestige Gold has a special sound that will be highly appealing to some listeners. Its lush presentation with a forward bass and delicate treble certainly delivers ‘the warm sound of vinyl’. While some people may find the sound too soft, the silky tones of this cartridge will be just the ticket for others. However, it has possible drawbacks in terms tracking and hum, so care should be taken in matching this cartridge to a turntable – it is a cartridge that seems to favour light tonearms. Deploying this cartridge in a dull system may also be unwise. I would recommend the Prestige Gold (or one of its successors) to vinyl lovers who are seeking a certain kind of sound.