So, you have a turntable and are enjoying the unique sound that turntables can provide. But you wonder: can you improve it? The easiest way to improve a turntable’s sound is to upgrade its phono cartridge. Phono cartridges are available at a wide range of price points, from less than a hundred dollars through to many thousands of dollars. For this review I’ve selected a cartridge from the Grado range, one that’s priced just about right for an upgrade to the entry level cartridges which come as standard on quite a few turntables.
So, let’s dive into the Grado Prestige 3 Series Blue3 Cartridge.
- Moving iron phono cartridge
- Four coils, twin magnet, ultra-high purity copper coil
- Hand built in Brooklyn, New York
- Elliptical diamond-tipped stylus on brass bushing
- Recommended tracking force: 1.6 to 1.9 grams (manual); 1.5 grams (website)
- 20µm/mN compliance
- 10 to 55,000 hertz frequency response
- Average 25dB channel separation from 10 to 30,000 hertz (manual); 30dB @ 1kHz (website)
- 8 mV @ 5 cm/sec (manual); 5.0 mV @ 5 cm/sec @ 1kHz (website)
- Inductance 50mH (manual); 45mH (website)
- Resistance 660O (manual); 475O (website)
- Body dimensions: 9.1mm wide, 16.3mm tall, 24.5mm deep; 28.4mm deep including pins; 17.7mm top to stylus tip
- Weight 6 grams (manual); 5.5 grams (website); 5.6 grams weight (actual, without hardware), 6.6 grams (actual, with hardware)
- The Grado Prestige Blue3 delivers an engaging, detailed sound at an excellent price. There are, in theory, tracking limitations with extreme levels of bass, but they weren’t at all apparent in any actual music content. I’d jump at this one to move beyond any entry-level cartridge.
- Price: $269
- Replacement stylus: $150
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division here
More about the Grado Prestige 3 Series Blue3 Cartridge
As I write, the Grado Prestige Series cartridges range in price from a little above $100 to a little below $400. The most recent range is 3 Series, but the first and second series are also available. They are all similarly styled, and are available in both standard mount and P-Mount versions. The styluses are user-replaceable and those from all models are physically compatible with all others, but the specific styluses for each model should be used because they’ve been optimised for those cartridges.
While I have better turntables to hand (eg. the Avid HIFI Ingenium Plug&Play), I decided to fit the Blue3 to an Audio-Technica AT-120XBT-USB turntable. Why? Because this is the class of turntable for which this cartridge is an ideal upgrade. The AT comes with a nicely competent, non-entry-level AT-VM95E cartridge. Some rather well-known brands fit this cartridge to their own mid-priced turntables. For example, the AT-VM95E is pre-fitted to several Thorens models. It retails separately for around $120. So the Blue3 essentially costs a bit more than twice as much as the AT-VM95E.
The Grado Prestige Blue3 comes in a plain cardboard box with a plastic tool to assist with stylus removal and replacement, a sheet of paper with some instructions and two screws and nuts for mounting. I prefer cartridges which have threaded mounting holes so all you have to do is screw in bolts from the top, through the head shell into the cartridge. Fitting cartridges to tonearms is a fiddly process and holding nuts at the right angle while bolts are inserted into them through head shell and cartridge is just that much more difficult. I’d note that the rather cheaper AT-VM95E that I was replacing and the more expensive Grado Timbre Series Opus3 cartridge I recently reviewed indeed had this convenience. Still, the turntable had a removable head shell, and I had a spare, so it was relatively easy to install. Even so, I found it better to install the bolts upwards rather than downwards. I’d have had to spend a lot more time on it had there not been a removeable head shell.
And I shouldn’t really whinge about that, because that really is a job you only do once with a cartridge. Once a cartridge is installed, it’ll be there for years if it’s any good.
Ideally you would calculate the resonant frequency of the cartridge and tonearm combination to ensure that they are compatible. Too low a resonant frequency and there can be potential problems with keeping the stylus in place on warped records. Too high, and it can emphasise bearing and engine noise. To calculate resonant frequency you need to know the effective mass of the tonearm and the compliance (ie. a measure of the springiness of the stylus assembly) of the cartridge. I couldn’t calculate that because the effective mass of the turntable’s tonearm isn’t provided. That said, Audio-Technica kind of knows about turntable stuff, so we can presume the AT-VM95E works well in that arm. And that cartridge has a rated compliance of 17µm/mN, which is considered a moderate compliance. The Blue3 is specified at 20µm/mN which is also moderate, so it all ought to work well.
And as we’ll see, it did.
Listening with the Grado Prestige 3 Series Blue3 cartridge
- The aforementioned Audio-Technica AT-120XBT-USB turntable
- Simaudio Moon 110LP V2 phono preamplifier
- Schiit Audio Freya S preamplifier (review of the Schiit Audio Freya S)
- Schiit Audio Vidar power amplifier (review of the Schiit Vidar)
- Dynaudio Contour 20i stand mount loudspeakers (review of the Dynaudio Contour 20i)
So, cartridge properly installed, it was time to spin that good old vinyl. Or, in this instance, some rather new vinyl of an old recording. This was the second time I’d put a recently purchased 180 gram vinyl version of Outlandos d’Amour, The Police’s debut album, under a stylus. Oh, what a lot of fun this was. The delivery was magnificently tight and coherent, essential for this music. On “Roxanne” of course, the distinctive tone of the drums shone through with complete transparency, while the stereo image was nicely stable and very precise.
But it was when we got to the next track, “Hole In My Life”, that the attack of this cartridge became clear. Stewart Copeland’s drumming was obviously and totally uncompressed. Again, the whole reproduction system seemed to completely disappear, letting the music pipe through from another time and place into my listening space. Even the complex, recessed drum patterns towards the end of this track were sharp and clear, presented cleanly for inspection.
Grado is not known for especially strong bass in its headphones, so I paid attention to bass with the Blue3 cartridge. It seemed to me that the bass performance on The Police’s work was as strong as required for accurate delivery of what’s on the record.
Also nice, on the last track of Side 1, the cartridge held things together well despite the increased tracking angle error and the slower linear speed of groove under vinyl.
Moving on to some 39-year-old, but still very nice, vinyl, I clamped onto the AT turntable Weather Report’s second self-titled album from 1982. This one I bought new and it’s a CBS Half-Speed Mastered Extended Range Recording. The kick drum was delivered to perfection with just the right level of muted thump, no distortion evident. Meanwhile the turbo-charged bass lines on “Dara Factor One” gave lie to the claim that bass is a weakness in analogue delivery. Oh, no doubt it had been mixed to mono as was the norm for laying down bass on vinyl, but with the Blue3 its power and control was superb. Wayne Shorter’s saxophone was delivered with unimpeachable texture, while the extensive percussion – tambourines and of course cymbals, were solidly placed in their right positions on the sound stage.
Of course, it was a Scandinavian label that back in the 1970s undertook to release Edvard Grieg’s entire piano catalog. I only have Volume 12, BIS LP-115, with the A minor Piano Concerto on one side and the Opus 35 Norwegian Dances played on solo piano on the other. Eva Knardahl does a great job on the second side, delivering giant tones from a Bösendorfer 275, 92-key, nine-foot grand piano. This was recorded to analogue tape at 15ips, sans Dolby. The recording level was clearly high since the tape hiss, while evident, isn’t at an objectionably high level. I find it interesting that as late as late 1970s a quality label was at least sometimes spurning Dolby (although it was used on the orchestral side).
The Blue3 delivered this piano with all the excitement and dynamic range contained in the recording. It provided a tremendous sense of presence and even in the complex rolling chords towards the end of the allegro moderato alla marcia, a complete coherence was retained allowing each note to be picked out by ear. The final track of the side could be challenging, but again the Blue3 had no difficulties with the quite high modulation levels on the tighter bend towards the centre of the disk.
For one final check, I span up my old LP An Audio Obstacle Course – The Shure Trackability Test Record, which was released around the time of the Shure V15 Type II Improved cartridge. I use the blank section to set up the anti-skating but also check the performance on two tracks. If there’s a weakness with the Grado Prestige Blue3, it’s here. The first track I checked was “Orchestral Bells”, which repeats a solo musical phrase on said bells four times, at a higher modulation level each time. According to the record notes, the stylus velocity can reach 25cm/second at 10,000 hertz. The Blue3 handled this with clean grace.
The second track was the bass drum. This was just one strike at increasing levels. All was fine until the final, high-modulation strike. In this the cartridge produced a clear click in the sound, denoting significant mistracking. I played it twice to be sure, then put the record on a Rega Planar 3 turntable, currently sporting a Goldring 1042 cartridge, and played it there. No such click on the Rega. I should note that the 1042 costs about four times as much as the Blue3. And, of course, that this test album was produced by Shure to prove a point about one thing only, the great ability of its cartridges to maintain their styluses securely in extremely troublesome grooves. That was a goal that Shure seemingly pursued at all costs. Throughout a great deal of listening of a lot of music, much of which containing strong bass drums, no mistracking was at all apparent.
However, if you do have a treasured copy of the 1970s Telarc 1812 Overture, this may not be the ideal cartridge for the playback task.
The Grado Prestige 3 Series Blue3 cartridge delivered a marked boost in performance over the standard AT cartridge in the AT turntable. I suspect it may do even better in some of those Thorens models mentioned earlier. Is it three times better, given the price differential? Of course not. Things don’t work like that in high fidelity audio, nor indeed just about anywhere else. What it does do is provide a solid insight into the contents of your vinyl collection that is engaging, detailed, and surprisingly transparent. And does that quite affordably.