The idea of moderation as a virtue is an ancient principle. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle established his Doctrine of Means, stating that “it is the nature of ethical virtues to be destroyed by deficiency as well as by excess . . . but they are preserved by moderation, or the mean.” As the philosopher goes on to explain, this idea of finding the mean—that sweet spot between not enough and too much—works for pretty much all virtues, notably temperance and bravery, “for a man who flees from and fears everything and never stands his ground becomes a coward, but he who fears nothing at all but proceeds against all dangers becomes rash.” In modern times, the stakes are certainly much lower for a phonograph cartridge like the Grado Sonata3—and thankfully, we won’t find ourselves tasked with evaluating it from an ethical standpoint. But as audiophiles, don’t we often find ourselves weighing the mean between excess and deficiency?
I’ll dispense with the pseudo-intellectual rambling now, but there is a point to all this. The Sonata3 ($600, all prices USD) follows Grado Labs’ long tradition of moving-iron cartridges. A moving-iron design is based on a different concept of operation than the more common moving-magnet or moving-coil designs. Rather than having a tiny magnet or coil of wire at the end of the cantilever, a moving-iron cartridge keeps both the magnets and the coils fixed, with a small piece of metal at the end of the cantilever held between them in the magnetic field. When the record’s groove moves the cantilever, the iron modulates the magnetic field, generating the music signal. This keeps the moving mass low, but a moving-iron cartridge can produce an output level similar to that of a moving-magnet cartridge. Manufacturers that make this type of phono cartridge are few and far between, but those that do—including Grado—profess their superiority over both moving-magnet and moving-coil types.
The Brooklyn-based company offers cartridges in both high- and low-output versions. For this review, I used a low-output cartridge, which I think best embodies the mean between moving-magnet and moving-coil designs. Whether the Sonata3 can be considered virtuous is still up for debate, but this cartridge is certainly an interesting one.
The Sonata3 is part of Grado’s Timbre line, and it sits pretty much smack in the middle of the company’s phono-cartridge lineup. Despite the Sonata3’s middle-of-the-road status, Grado clearly poured significant time and effort into crafting it. Before even laying eyes on it, I was confronted by the wooden box the Sonata3 is packaged in, which is secured with a polished clasp and inscribed with the company name. Pulling the Sonata3 out of the box revealed the cartridge’s attractive all-wood body, which is made of an Australian wood called Jarrah, a type of eucalyptus. I was told by the company’s chief operating officer, Rich Grado, that this material was chosen for its mass and specific density. Before assembly, the wood body undergoes a thermal aging process, which eliminates excess moisture and thus enhances its ability to damp resonances. But as Rich told me, “The most important reason was that when we listened, it sounded right.”
Grado pays just as much attention to the cartridge’s guts. The coils are made from ultra-high-purity long-crystal oxygen-free copper. A refined coil-winding method allows for the use of thicker wire for lower coil resistance and a two-step shielding process, which Grado claims reduces distortion and mechanical noise. Grado’s OTL (Optimized Transmission Line) cantilever design was adapted for use in the Sonata3, resulting in a 10% reduction in stylus-tip mass over the Prestige line of cartridges. At the business end of the cantilever is a Grado-designed nude elliptical diamond.
This leads me to the cartridge’s specifications, which is where things really get interesting. For the same $600 price tag, Grado offers both high- and low-output versions of the Sonata3. Comparable to a moving-magnet cartridge, the high-output type produces 4.0mV, while the low-output version does just 1.0mV. You may want to survey the most popular cartridges currently available to see how these stack up, but I’ll sum it up for you: the high-output Sonata3 fits nicely in the ranks of moving-magnet cartridges, while the low-output version has about double the output level and internal resistance of a typical moving-coil cartridge, though both specs are still much lower than any moving-magnet cartridge. Don’t worry about the inductance, in either case, because for both versions this spec is low enough that any capacitive load won’t affect the sound or operation. So, the low-output Sonata3 really falls between the two extremes most people are used to, and I think it’s far out (in every sense of the phrase) that Grado offers it. In fact, that’s precisely why I requested a low-output Sonata3—to find out why Grado makes and sells such an unconventional pickup.
As a result of these characteristics, there are a few setup considerations. The low-output Sonata3 requires 6 to 9dB less gain than a typical moving-coil cartridge, but it takes the standard 47k ohm loading of a moving-magnet pickup. Actually, Grado says anywhere between 10k and 47k ohms is acceptable, though I surmise load values well below 47k ohms may begin to attenuate the upper treble a bit. While this combination of requirements is atypical, many of the phono preamps and step-ups currently available for moving-coil use should be compatible with the low-output version of the Sonata3. I used it with an SU-7 step-up amplifier and an MP-7 phono preamplifier, both by Darlington Labs (a review of both devices is forthcoming). With this setup, I was able to dial in the requisite 47k ohm load and 58dB of gain.
Mounting the cartridge was also a bit quirky but ultimately just as easy. The large Jarrah body protrudes far out over the stylus, making it difficult to see the stylus. So, it’s hard to properly adjust the overhang. Also, the large mass of wood hanging much further from the tonearm pivot than usual meant that I had to wind the counterweight to the back of its adjustment range. It turned out to be about as easy to align as any other cartridge, but it’s possible, though unlikely, that some turntables may not have enough counterweight adjustment to work with the Sonata3.
The rest of the system was composed of a Micro Seiki DQ-3 turntable and MA-707 tonearm, a McIntosh Laboratory MA6850 integrated amp, and my DIY Amiga speakers. Amazon Basics 14-gauge AWG OFC speaker cables and Belden RCA cables were used to link everything together.
As soon as I’d mounted the cartridge, I cranked the volume and let the cartridge hover over the inner part of the platter with it spinning. Moving-iron cartridges have been known to hum due to the magnetic field created by the electric motor of direct-drive ’tables. But the Sonata3 passed with flying colors—almost no hum when the cartridge was positioned anywhere over the platter. Other turntables may perform differently, but I didn’t have any problems with hum or noise during my time with the Sonata3. Next, I allowed it to break in for several hours before listening critically. I noticed the break-in period was both short and mild—the cartridge sounded good straight out of the box, and it improved only slightly over the first five to ten hours. Based on my initial impressions, I started to characterize the sound of the Sonata3, and when the time came for some serious listening, I knew I had to hear how the Grado would handle Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (Harvest SMAS-11163). Why? Simply put, the classic ’70s album is as much a masterpiece of recording-studio technique as it is of musicianship, and the Sonata3’s main strength is its ability to put the listener in the control room. To elaborate, it projects a fairly flat soundstage, one that isn’t wider or much deeper than the speakers, and the imaging isn’t particularly well defined, either. But the Sonata3 just nails the tonality and inner detailing contained within the recording. Listening to it, I got the feeling that the music I was hearing in my living room closely reflected the way the recording engineer had tuned it to sound at the studio.
Although it’s an odd track, I really like “On the Run” for its sonic textures and detailed production. Throughout the recording, sounds of panting and footsteps are heard as a figure “runs” from one edge of the soundstage to the other. As mentioned, there wasn’t much depth to speak of while listening with the Sonata3, but I noticed the footsteps sounded more real and far less “clomp-y” than I’m used to. They stood out distinctly against sweeping synth arpeggios and the sounds of interstellar vehicles blasting by, revealing several other strengths of the Sonata3. This cartridge has a great ability for tonality and detail retrieval, but also excels in terms of dynamics, attack, and decay.
More conventional tracks like “Time” crystallized these traits further, showcasing the Grado’s tonal capabilities on Roger Waters’s voice. Vocal clarity was very good, with a realistic timbre, and over the entire audioband, I’d characterize the Sonata3 as being “warm, but vibrant.” This was especially true through the upper midrange, where a lot of the clarity and life of a recording live. Fans of Grado’s headphones should enjoy the Sonata3’s commitment to clarity, separation, and tonal color. Another way of putting it (I’m exaggerating a bit here to make the point) is that the Sonata3 is a bit like your favorite vintage speakers. Think of some ’70s JBLs or Tannoys that don’t quite have the imaging capability or neutrality of a pair from the 21st century, but are just as enjoyable with your favorite old recordings. I don’t mean to paint the Sonata3 as a particularly colored cartridge, I just mean that it prioritizes tonality and musicality over surgical precision in creating the illusion of a soundstage.
I switched things up and played Every Open Eye by the Scottish indietronica trio Chvrches (Glassnote/Goodbye Records GLS-0186-01). Here my experience was much the same as it had been on the previous tracks in that the music all seemed to emanate from a flat plane about one foot behind the speakers, but with confident and incisive clarity, separation, and punch. Lauren Mayberry’s vocals came across with a sense of truth, and though the soundstage didn’t have a real sense of depth, the spatial cues of the synthesizers and percussion on “Leave a Trace” were preserved by the Grado. The all-important bass was adequately powerful and punchy, though not quite rib-rattling. On “Clearest Blue,” I felt once again that the moving-iron cartridge offered insight into the decisions made during the process of recording, mixing, and mastering. Of course, there’s no way to know how it’s supposed to sound, but I certainly felt I wasn’t missing any of the detail or nuance in the recording. If anything, it came across as almost a little too clean. That’s a pretty tough criticism to level at a needle dragging through a microscopic groove on a plastic disc, though, isn’t it?
Many may find the high-output Sonata3 more compatible with their gear, and it costs the same as the low-output version. I won’t speculate on the sonic differences, though I wouldn’t expect them to be major—the moving-iron design mostly ensures that the moving mass and the geometry of the moving parts are more or less fixed. And customers who are interested in the Grado Timbre lineup but want to save a few bucks might consider the Platinum3 ($400), which mainly differs from the Sonata3 in that it has a bonded stylus instead of the Sonata3’s nude one.
I compared the Sonata3 against the Sumiko Blue Point No. 3 Low Output moving-coil cartridge. With an MSRP of $499 and a stated output of 0.5mV, it falls into about the same class as the low-output Sonata3. With Dark Side, I noticed the Sumiko displayed greater depth and dimensionality, but scored a bit lower in terms of timbre. Those footsteps on “On the Run” sounded a bit airier and more ethereal, but also a bit more like a horse trotting than a person running, and they were a touch less immediate. As for vocals and midrangey instruments like guitars, saxophones, and pianos, the Japanese moving-coil cartridge had a bit more depth and roundness, but lacked the Grado’s upper-midrange vibrancy and incisiveness. The bass between the two was well matched, with the Sumiko’s having just a bit more bloom. Neither was better or worse in this regard, just different.
At $199 and with a higher output, the Audio-Technica AT-VM95SA isn’t exactly an apt comparison, but it is representative of a good moving-magnet cartridge, and is regarded as punching above its price class. Comparatively, the Audio-Technica isn’t far off the Blue Point No. 3 Low Output—it’s a bit flatter tonally and not quite as refined, which is to be expected. Thus, the Grado has much more in the way of color but a flatter, more forward presentation. Overall, it’s better in just about every way aside from soundstage width and depth.
As a final point of comparison, I’ll mention that there are a number of other quality moving-iron cartridges out there. The Nagaoka MP-300 is an excellent example (prices seem to vary, but it could be found for as low as $630.97 at the time of writing). I didn’t have one on hand to compare to the Grado Sonata3, but Nagaoka is a well-reputed brand, and one that our own Thom Moon liked when he reviewed the entry-level MP-110H several years ago. So the MP-300 is another well-made competitor to the Sonata3, albeit not quite as easy on the eyes.
Would Aristotle consider the low-output Grado Sonata3 cartridge virtuous? His head might be spinning at the mere wonder of our ability to record and reproduce sound with such faithfulness to the original. That said, the low-output version of the Sonata3 has certainly found the electromechanical mean between moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges, if not the sonic mean. Like other Grado products, the Sonata3 has a distinct sonic character and a few analog lovers out there may absolutely hate it. But I think most will love its treatment of tonality and separation. The Sonata3 isn’t quite a perfect cartridge, but considering its sound, its look, and the care Grado’s put into its production, it’s a solid deal. The bottom line is that the Sonata3 is worth comparing against the many options in its price class, whether you’re considering a moving-magnet or a moving-coil cartridge. And the fact you can choose the output level most appropriate to your existing equipment? That kind of versatility is a virtue that even the philosophers among us have probably never imagined.
. . . Matt Bonaccio
- Speakers: DIY Paul Carmody Amiga speakers, built from Parts Express kit.
- Integrated amplifier: McIntosh Laboratory MA6850.
- Turntable: Micro Seiki DQ-3; Micro Seiki MA-707 tonearm.
- Phono cartridge: Audio-Technica AT95 with AT-VMN95SH Shibata stylus; Sumiko Blue Point No. 3 Low Output.
- Analog interconnects: Shielded quad-conductor Belden cables with Switchcraft connectors.
Grado Labs Sonata3 Low-Output Phono Cartridge
Warranty: One year from purchase, parts and labor.
Grado Labs, Inc.
4614 7th Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11220
Phone: +1 718 435 5341
4614 7th Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11220
Phone: +1 718 556 6450