Grado Labs Gold3 And Opus3 Phono Cartridge
Recently Grado Labs revamped their phono cartridges line, upgrading entry-level Prestige series to fourth iteration (number 3 as in Black3, Gold3, etc., counting the first versions without number as the first generation), and upgrading and rearranging Reference and Statement series into two lines, new Timbre line (midrange wooden bodies cartridges) and top of the line Lineage series (Aeon3, Epoch3, and Statement3). Inside the Timbre line, there is now a new model, entry-level Opus3, made in both high and low output versions (4mV and 1mV), which also differs in being made of Maple, the first for Grado (and first-ever for cartridges), and somewhat lighter at 8 grams compared to 9-12 grams of the other wooden models.
What is especially interesting is the price, at $275 it is the most inexpensive wooden Grado yet, and very close to the $260 price of the new Gold3. With that in mind, I find it very interesting to compare the two cartridges, Gold3 as the latest best iteration of the long history of classic Grado removable styli cartridges, and (high output) Opus3 as a new member of the new Timbre series, positioned very close in price (as an introduction into the wood cartridges), with the sonic benefits of wooden body housing, but without the benefits of user-replaceable stylus.
The testing involved a lot of listening through a couple of months, with different turntables I am very familiar with, and trying a couple of different phono stages, most of them in the price range of what can be expected to be used with the cartridges. This was not a quick listen in a reviewer's reference system, and also an attempt was made to accurately access the timbral balance as much as possible, by comparing with a lot of other cartridges I know very well, using various phono stages. The current popularity of quite a few rather bright sounding cartridges could suggest tonal accuracy is not that valued these days, but it is still important I think, and also the hardest quality to pinpoint, considering the sometimes wild variations between phono stages, turntable mats, and other tweaks, and basic differences between various music system setups at home, especially speakers.
To cut down on suspense, both Gold3 and Opus3 are excellent cartridges and can perform very well in a variety of systems, from entry-level (Gold3 in particular), to the mid-range and even high-end ones with the proper setup (Opus3 in particular), where they perform way outside of their price range, especially in smooth, sophisticated musicality and tonal richness and just sounding "right", like live instruments and voices are supposed to sound like. That was always a strong Grado trait, but these new models also bring some more discipline, focus, and tighter control of the proceedings, better tracking and negligible IGD (inner groove distortion), this last parameter of course when properly set up and mounted in a reasonably decent quality tonearm (fortunately most budget / midrange turntables these days have pretty good tonearms).
The cartridges are similar in a way they possess classic Grado "house sound", but they are somewhat different in tonal balance and system matching properties (compatibility). Gold3 (pictured above) sounds like a Prestige series cartridge and will be familiar to all who have listened to the classic Grado cartridges of the past, but it is tighter controlled, better focused, and keeps composure in most difficult passages better than the previous iterations, the consequence of improved body resonance suppression and better coils shielding technology employed by Grado, as learned during the development of Reference 2 line and scaled down to the Prestige models. Bass range is firm, tuneful, and composed, midrange even balanced, and detailed, all instruments and voices are emerging from a wide, stable, and deep soundstage, with emphasis on inner detail resolution and naturalness at the same time. Vocals have good projection and sound very smooth and natural. Gold3 is an even better tracker then Gold2, despite bonded stylus there is no noticeable penalty in the tracking of transients.
Stylus tip inspection reveals a very neatly and nicely formed stylus (same as with Opus3). The cartridge confidently tracked all three bias adjust torture tracks on HFNRR Test Record, and only very slightly buzzed on last, +18 dB track, very impressive. A good stylus tip is also a requirement for smooth reproduction of sibilants, Gold3 is very good here (Opus3 excellent). Maybe some Audio-Technica AT-VM 740ML fans will still find an issue here or there, but for most practical purposes and not some crazy cut vinyl extremes, sibilants are not a problem. On tonal balance, when compared to Opus3, the mid and high treble range is slightly subdued, but not enough to be considered soft or dark sounding, it is still slightly more open then on Gold2 before it, and significantly more open when compared with Shure M97xE, and still more open when compared to Shure V15VxMR (but about the same balance as Shure M95ED).
The benefit is more compatibility with top-rated inexpensive budget phono stages, which are often pushed to the bright and energetic side to better compensate and hide their budget origins. Comparing the Gold3 to Ortofon Blue is interesting, Ortofon sounds quite brighter then Gold3, depending on the preamp it goes from just brighter to almost too bright (which is a shame, because in other areas Blue is pretty great, good in bass, spacious in the midrange, lots of detail, it might be it is designed for use on budget turntables in an out of the box setup, or to sound more like CD on an average vinyl system).
Audio-Technica AT95E is also brighter sounding, but in a nice way, it has a certain charming sound which goes well until some slight harshness in highly modulated passages with more treble output gives it away. Compared to some classic Grados, I feel Gold3 is better than the Signature 8MX, which is somewhat darker in balance and very full in mid-bass, more energetic then Signature XTZ (but which has a totally unique, subtle, super spacious sound unlike anything else), and close in quality to very transparent sounding silver coiled Grado G-1+ (which is in itself close clone of $1000 Signature IV from 1980, but with a different stylus).
There was also a G-2+, a fuller-sounding alternative to G-1+ (on a freak note, G-2+ itself sounds almost identical to Opus3, quite a fun coincidence). G-1+ and G-2+ (with their original styluses) are more detailed, but inserting the best Prestige type stylus available (XTZ) on Gold3 transforms it into almost the same quality, which means electromechanically Gold3 body can be compared with the best (and much more expensive at the time) of the classic Grado era cartridges of the late 1970's and early 1980's. So, the Gold3 will be a nice upgrade to any budget turntable with a stock AT95E, AT-VM95E, or Ortofon Red cartridge, or a change from upfront, CD-like presentation of Ortofon Blue to a more relaxed treble presentation without sacrificing details. It is balanced to be open enough for budget systems, but also detailed enough even for use in better systems where inner detail resolution, coherence, and inherent musicality will pay dividends in sounding better as the system gets better. It will sound fine with most phono preamps, even the bright sounding ones.
Coming to the Opus3 after Gold3, there is a change in sound, it would be familiar to those who have heard the wooden-bodied Grado cartridge. There is a distinctive quality of sound (details, instruments, voices, and ambiance) emanating from a very quiet and dark background, and all spread around very naturally and with great definition in a spacious, big soundstage, but in a very unaggressive, unassuming way. There is simply no other cartridge maker producing a similar effect (and I've been to many a Hi-Fi show throughout the years).
The Opus3 is somewhat different from other wooden Grado bodies in a way that the effect is less velvety in nature, it seems slightly more open and fleshed out in upper midrange and treble, like a new generation of sorts. Because of this open quality in upper midrange in particular, Opus3 is more sensitive and revealing of the phono preamp it will be used with, compared with Gold3, and overall as well. The results of a mismatch, though, are not too serious, even with the bright preamp Opus3 is still musical in its overall presentation, but it does not give its best.
This presented itself immediately when I was looking for the best preamp to use. With MoFi SuperPhono, which sounded very good with Gold3, Opus3 sounded a little too present in the upper midrange and tipped up in high treble (a characteristic of MoFi). While that lift was complementing the Gold3 nicely, making it more open and analytical, with Opus it was slightly distracting. Plugging in Cambridge Audio Azur 540P preamp instead eliminated the upper tinge of MoFi, but also lost spaciousness and great definition the MoFi brings, the sound turned more to a dry, mechanical side, slight hardness and punch this preamp brings might be appropriate for some darker sounding budget cartridges, but not for very open and clean Opus3.
Next up was Music Hall PA1.2, a nice dynamic sounding preamp, which gave some flesh, muscle, and tone to Opus3, no problems with balance, but not the last word in soundstage definition and transparency. The Opus3 is clearly capable of more (like shown with MoFi, except for the balance). Grado PH-1 is the preamp designed by Grado years ago, and not very available anymore, but is a good match.
With it, Opus3 produced a nice, sublimely musical midrange and open, relaxed, natural soundstage. Only in the bass and high treble, there is a slightly reserved quality with this preamp, but you will need a good system to hear it. The last attempt was the sophisticated phono stage of a vintage (recapped) Sansui AU-717 integrated amp, and I liked this combination the best. This preamp has a quiet, dark transparency quality which serves most cartridges well (even with Ortofon Blue the bright edge is significantly toned down here), and with Opus3 all the good qualities came out. The soundstage obtained most precision and depth, and although on first note the upper high frequencies might seem a little subdued after other preamps when you dig in there is plenty of detail, and differences between various vinyl pressings and recordings are more evident, indicating more neutrality. The bass in particular gained in quality and definition, the Opus3 sounding like a very high-quality cartridge.
The best example of the Opus3 competence was the Dire Straits "Love over Gold" album, made at the end of the analog era, and when Mark Knopfler was getting visibly frustrated with (to him) the limited dynamic range that was possible to achieve on a vinyl pressing at that time. With all the orchestrations, thunderous drumming, and synthetically created ambiance this is the album where the maximum possible dynamic range was somehow squeezed on a record, with no decibel spared up or down the range. And as such, the ultimate test for the turntable/cartridge/preamp combination, and Opus3 aced it.
From deep bass, lightning-fast rim shots, soaring guitar riffs, gobs of ambiance from quiet parts to loud, and tight grip and control in most highly modulated climaxes, it was sometimes hard to believe this sound wall is coming from a vinyl pressing. Also, it helps that Opus3 passed the tracking of +18 dB torture track on HFNRR Test Record with no audible distress, the first cartridge I have ever heard to do that.
For some more comparison, I pulled Shure V15 III with the spherical stylus, my reference for flat frequency response cartridge. In overall balance Opus3 was slightly stronger in the broad midrange, Shure sounds like it has a touch more high treble, but overall presentations are very different and not quite comparable, and it is like comparing "Shure sound" to "Grado sound". But it did show me that Opus3 is well balanced and neutral, maybe very slightly on the warm side in bass and lower midrange.
It is also apparent the V15 III is still competitive in sound, it is not overtly outclassed by the Opus, it just sounds slightly less smoothly involving, but equally detailed and punchy, unlike V15 VxMR which is not on the same level, and it sounds interesting in its own way, but is less detailed and sounds slightly flat and lifeless compared to Opus3. The other thing to note is that slight tonal balance differences between comparable cartridges can be changed by using different turntable mats, and especially preamps, almost like tone controls. By using Margules mat instead of the Music Hall mat, I can make Opus3 sounding more open then Shure V15 III with the Gerald cork/rubber mat, for example. Putting a thick cork/rubber mat under Opus3 makes it sound fuller in bass and touch more dynamic, but slightly less transparent. Switching the preamps makes even more difference, and can make it seem like we are reviewing preamps instead of cartridges.
For more contemporary comparison, the Opus3 closest market competitor, Ortofon Blue, sounds fresh, punchy in bass, well defined and lively, but in direct comparison somewhat strident in the treble, more mechanical and less finely transparent in instrument separation and soundstage definition.
Encouraged by the Opus3 performance, I decided to try it on a more upscale turntable, Rega P6, and compare it with the Rega Ania MC cartridge as supplied with the turntable, through the Rega Fono MC preamp. The whole Rega setup sounded engaging and lively, but significantly tipped up and frenetic within the entire treble region, with the somewhat lean bass balance not helping the matters and making me always aware of the emphasis on the upper part of the spectrum. Front soundstage was very wide, but not much depth. I can very well understand how this can be very attractive for the speed/detail crowd, but well balanced it is certainly not.
Totally confused, I installed Opus3 on Rega P6, and through the Grado PH-1 preamp the turntable was now totally transformed into a supremely musical and balanced performer, very enjoyable to listen to, and begging to pull out and try more different albums. There was still plenty of fine high-frequency detail in sound, but presented in a more subtle, organic way, and with more bass underpinnings. Front soundstage also gained some depth and precision, especially after switching to Sansui AU-717 phono stage. At any rate, Opus3 is a great cartridge and I see no limit in using it in a much more upscale system then its price might suggest.
As a last test, although not quite appropriate, I compared Opus3 with the Grado Statement2, and the difference was less than I expected, despite more than 10 times the difference in price. The Statement2 is clearly a fuller, deeper, and more velvety and more layered cartridge, with less surface noise picked up from the vinyl, but the sound character is overall very similar, with Opus3 sounding somewhat lighter in balance and superficially more open, while Statement2 is little darker and with more inner detail, better microdynamics and bigger, wider soundstage. But still, is Opus3 an overachiever? A quick call and question to John Grado later, he said the whole Timbre3 series is very significantly improved compared to the Reference2 series, so Statement3 is also that much improved over the Statement2. Consequently, the qualitative difference between Opus3 and Statement2 is reduced, compared to the difference from Opus3 to the new Statement3 (and others). Sounds good.
So, here we are, two Grado cartridges very close in price, but different in features and presentation. Gold3 is the way of the classic Grado, very important to users who would like to be able to replace styli themselves, easier to set up (smaller and lighter), and more universal and compatible with various, budget or not, phono preamps. It comes in a traditional neat Grado box, and the peace of mind that stylus mishaps are not as hard as on a cartridge that has to go out for re-tipping (and be without it until done).
It sounds as good as or better than most any vintage Grado, or the immediate price competition. Very safe and competent. Opus3 is the new entry level member of the Timbre series, wooden bodied and with non-replaceable styli (but re-tipping is reasonable at $180, you essentially get sent a new cartridge), but with potential for ultimately better sound quality level achieved when properly set up and matched with higher quality equipment. In a way, for a sound quality achievable with it, Opus3 is a bargain of the year. It even comes in a dedicated luxurious little wooden box, neatly preparing you for the gem packed inside.
"In a way, for a sound quality achievable with it, Opus3 is
a bargain of the year."
Side Note 1
The position of Grado cartridge voltage generator (coils) in a "flux-bridger" configuration (four circular coils, fields facing forward in direction of the motor) makes them susceptible to picking up stray EMI fields from unshielded motors. New Grado cartridges now employ special paint based coil insulation, probably with metallic particles, to improve the sound through better shielding. It also might have a side benefit of reducing magnetic field susceptibility as well.
The other point is the relatively high compliance (specified as 20μm/mN, borderline medium/high value these days), and since Grado cantilever suspension is less damped than most (although much less so than in the past), some attention has to be paid to arm mass/resonance frequency relationship. In other words, the tonearm should have an effective mass (mass without cartridge) of no more than 22 grams or so (for Gold3), or 18 grams (Opus3), in order to keep the tonearm/cartridge system resonance frequency higher than at least 7 Hz (ideal range is 8 to 12 Hz). This is to avoid problems with tracking warped or unevenly pressed records; the frequency of warps can excite the cartridge/tonearm resonance and result in audible wow and flutter or even jumping out of the groove.
Most modern tonearms of budget/mid-priced tables will be in the range, but some vintage turntables (Japanese in 1970's and 1980's classic hi-fi era, or most regular 1960's decks) might have a higher mass tonearm, as well as some tonearms for high mass turntables designed for low compliance MC cartridges.
Grado cartridges, even when low output versions, are still Moving Iron principle cartridges, and the input loading should be standard 47 kOhm, so any MC preamp to be used needs to have the ability to be set at 47 kOhm. Standard 100 Ohm loading, or less, as used at MC inputs, will make the cartridge sound very dull, with much-attenuated treble.
Side Note 2
Installing the Grado Gold3 or Opus3 this way (removable headshell on Fluance is a great help!) still enabled the Grado virtues to come through, but less so then with the tweaks applied. Fixing the vibration insulation, changing the mat, headshell and other tweaks lifted the performance so much that it became apparent Fluance has a very decent tonearm, able to accommodate even the very high compliance Shure V15 III without any problem. It does not have a high mass tonearm, as (miss) specified by the manufacturer. With the improvements, the sound opened up and the Grado cartridges responded very nicely to it, while the original Ortofon Blue improved too, but it's slightly hot treble became a lot more exposed.
The Review System
The other step is to reduce cartridge/stylus induced vibration traveling through the tonearm to the plinth, and then reflecting back to the cartridge (on most reasonably, non-exotic priced turntables, massive ones deal with it differently). This is accomplished by placing small amounts of Sylomer between the headshell and the cartridge, and tuning the tension with the mounting screws until it sounds best. It works well with high and medium compliance cartridges, tracking improves. Freed from vibration, each cartridge gives its best, and they are more easily compared, because the vibration liberated turntables, if they have a decent low friction tonearm, and stable speed, sound more consistent with each other.
Rega P6 was used without insulation, it sounds best on its own, but it does benefit from some (1/16") Sylomer insulation between the cartridge and tonearm, it improves the stylus' handling of sibilants.
I also place weight calculated Sylomer blocks under the amplifiers, but not the speakers, it does not work with the speakers I use.
Sansui SR-4050 (belt drive), with Acos Lustre GST-1 tonearm and mahogany headshell (tonearm effective mass about 13 g)
Rega P6 with Neo Power supply and RB-330 arm (effective mass 11 g)
Fluance RT-84 (belt drive servo), changed to mahogany headshell, with Belkin PureAV cables instead of stock cable (real tonearm effective mass about 11 g, despite published specification 28 g, but I did use lighter headshell then original)
Music Hall, Margules, and Gerald cork/rubber mats, and custom made cork turntable mat
Record Doctor and Japanese Jarrah wood clamps sometimes used
Sansui Au-717 integrated, with Tara Labs Space & Time TFA Return cables (alternate setup)
"Live" Sound Test: Wharfedale E50, Sansui Au-X911DG, Kimber 4TC
Recordings Used During Review
Antonio Carlos Jobim: "Wave"
Beck & Sanborn: "Beck & Sanborn"
Roy Ayers Ubiquity: "A Tear to a Smile" and "Everybody Loves Sunshine"
Eric Gale: "Ginseng Woman" and "Let's Stay Together"
Joe Sample: "Spellbound"
George Benson & Earl Klugh: "Collaboration"
Al Di Meola: "Casino"
Chris Rea: "The Road to Hell"
Dire Straits: "Communique" and "Love Over Gold"
Sade: "Promise" and "Stronger Then Pride"
Steely Dan: "Aja" and "Gaucho"
Brian Ferry: "Taxi"
The Crusaders: "Street Life"
Weather Report: "Heavy Weather"
Yello: "Solid Pleasure"
The Godfathers: "Songs of Love and Hate"
Led Zeppelin: "Led Zeppelin 2"
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