This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

The best way to describe the sound of this revised Sonata is via similarities and contrasts. It is without doubt a proud member of the Grado family with a lush and slightly warm sound and glorious midrange tones. What from a mid-level Grado cartridge I was less used to hearing were such a refined and extended treble as well as detailed instrumental textures and overall midrange transparency. Something new was clearly happening here. Soundstaging and imaging remained of the highest-quality Grado tradition but I was expecting a little more in the cartridge's ability to portray macro dynamics. Like its predecessor, this pickup clearly belongs in the tone and flow camp, not the jump and startle family though I will admit that the Sonata 1 sounds a little nimbler than its predecessor. Still, it lags behind the best I have heard and even behind the half-priced Denon DL103 for that matter.

For readers intimately familiar with the Sonata, the previous paragraph should be enough to give an initial idea of what the upgraded cartridge sounds like. For those desiring more details, follow me through a few additional observations. The cartridge I received from TTVJ had about 40 hours on it but took another 20 to 30 to fully settle in, this mostly noticeable on dynamics. As already pointed out, macrodynamics are not the Sonata's forté but prior to full break-in, the cartridge is actually a little lethargic. This thankfully wasn't lasting to progressively became more outgoing as time passed.

Compared to the Denon DL103, the Grado's transients and attacks are a little rounded over and dulled to contribute to the overall feeling of comfort the Sonata exudes. On ZZ-Top's Tres Hombres, I have grown accustomed to faster attacks and jumpier rhythms but on the other hand, I've never heard those guitars sound so rich and saturated as with the Sonata 1 - not distorted, just dense and gutsy. One of the more amusing comparisons was on the Beach Boys' Endless Summer.

The Capitol re-edition on 180g vinyl is gorgeous but the Denon and Grado revealed two completely different sides of the music. With the Grado, the pace slowed down and the music oozed California surfer mojo. I don't know what they were smoking but I swear I could smell it all the way into my living room. Switching to the DL103, I heard a slightly tenser version that was more metallic and nasal yet sounded a lot more familiar for a reason I only grasped later. Then I finally realized how it was the same sound I used to hear out of an old juke box as a kid. Which one was more real - the dazed, groovy view of the Grado or the tinnier 60's version of the Denon? No idea. I liked 'em both for very different reasons.

Similar differences emerged while I dutifully worked my way through my collection of rock classics. Whether U2's 18 Singles or R.E.M. No.5's Document, the DL103 always gave a more open, jolted rendition of the music, the Grado a slightly denser view but with instrumental and vocal textures completely beyond the Denon's reach. Which presentation to prefer is really a matter of taste but because of that tonal density and the ever so slightly soft transients, I would recommend the Grado with phono stages leaning towards fast and neutral rather than euphonic and tubey. Don't assume that the Grado won't get along with tubed preamps. It actually got along far better with the relatively neutral and detailed tubed phono stage in my McIntosh MA2275 than with the solid-state Clearaudio Nano. The Nano has the same gestalt as the Grado without the latter's refinement and resolution. This pairing clearly added up to too much warmth and fuzz and a hump in the upper bass that colored the whole musical range. It just wasn't a good match. I therefore did most of my listening with my McIntosh integrated, the only notable exception being with the John Blue JB4 speakers where the upper bass boost turned out to be beneficial in compensating for the speakers' anemic bottom end.

So far I have only written about Rock where no clear winner emerged, with each cartridge showing clear strengths and some relative weaknesses. Switching to classical music, the conclusion was a lot more obvious. This new Grado Sonata 1 is an absolute delight with very little to criticize. One of its most endearing traits is without doubt its talent with human voices. Unlike the aforementioned JB4 which only loved female vocals, the Sonata works its magic on all ranges without prejudice. Its newly found treble refinement allows sopranos to sound sweet and agile, mezzos and altos richly hued and fully grounded yet with air and extension when called for. Male voices aren't forgotten either, with tenors and baritones being just as gently and richly treated as their female counterparts.

To be able to provide those very intense voices has always been the trademark of Grado cartridges. What I heard for the first time at this price though was a greater level of fine details as well as a small but meaningful gain in transparency and refinement. I could hear this in the grain of a voice or in the texture of strings in a fashion I typically associate with more expensive cartridges. Never was it more obvious than in the Verve recording of Ella and Louis which found itself imbued with presence and intimacy as never before.

The only limitation of the Sonata 1 with classical music was again due to the slightly rounded attacks. Those gave Carmignola's interpretation of Vivaldi's Four Seasons a slightly more restrained flavor than I find truly desirable but if you think that his Pietro Guarneri is less refined than Biondi's Stradivarius, you need to hear the Guarneri through this cartridge. It is capable of infinite levels and nuances that I had not noticed through the DL103.

Advancing to large orchestral pieces, the Sonata leans slightly towards more romantic interpretations where big massed strings are deep and powerful, lush yet textured and extended. The very pleasant surprise with this new generation of Sonatas was how much better flutes and clarinets sounded, once again emphasizing how this improvement resides in the treble's quality. With that type of sonority you can easily see how the Grado was just a perfect choice for Giulini's interpretation of Dvorak's Seventh with the London Philharmonic Orchestra; or for Murray Perahia's first recording of Mozart's 21st Piano Concerto with the English Chamber Orchestra, a long-time favorite of mine. The finesse, nuance and the elegance the Sonata 1 is capable of served Perahia's elusive touch on the ivory beautifully where his ephemeral sound can escape cartridges with lesser transparency and microdynamic abilities. The Sonata passed the test with flying colors.

I also rediscovered with great pleasure Klemperer's recording of Mendelssohn's 3rd 'Scotch' Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra. I have a love/hate relationship with Klemperer whom I at times find heavy and pompous. Yet the Sonata made his work on orchestral colors so obvious that it was impossible not to be seduced all over again. This speaks again to the Sonata's primary focus on tonal hues and musical flow rather than ultimate dynamics and extreme yet artificial resolution.

Although I have insisted on tonal richness and density as well as slightly reserved dynamics, it is important not to picture the Sonata 1 as being excessively warm or slow which would miss the boat entirely. I was simply teasing out distinctions versus the Denon DL103 as a well-known entity to many audiophiles. The Sonata 1 leans towards a denser and richer sound but its extended and sweet treble as well as controlled bass prevent it from excess. While on bass reproduction, the Sonata does have a gentle emphasis in the upper bass, hence my advice regarding ancillaries. It will be easy to generate excess by adding up too many components of the warm and musical persuasion. This could result in a blurred midrange which is absolutely not in the nature of the Grado.

Another point to keep in mind I did not mention yet is that the Sonata 1 is very sensitive to setup. Its sonic character can be tweaked significantly by adjusting VTA and to a lesser extent, tracking force. This Grado is probably the most sensitive cartridge I have tried when it comes to VTA adjustment. It is relatively easy to add some air on top or weight down low by raising or lowering the arm by a millimeter or two. I also found that alignment is far more critical on the Sonata than the Denon. The DL103 seems to tolerate slight imperfections in cartridge alignment whereas the Sonata will reveal those imperfections at the first opportunity. All this to say that the more care you take setting up the Sonata, the more she'll reward you. That's obviously not a surprise but a clear sign that with this cart, one has crossed into high-end territory. As such, the device will make more demands on you but also provide greater rewards.

That's the new Sonata 1 in a nutshell - 80% legacy, 20% refinement in treble and midrange transparency and tonal hues to die for. John Grado, it would seem, has managed one of the most difficult challenges of upgrading something that wasn't broken. He maintains a strong lineage to the previous generation while refining and improving areas that matter most. If you've never been seduced by the Grado aesthetics, the new Sonata 1 probably won't be enough to change your mind. But if you are looking forward to upgrading from the Prestige Series or want a new cartridge that exemplifies the richness and sweetness of analog playback, be assured that one of the most worthy contenders just got better still. And that's no small feat.

Quality of packing: Beautiful wooden box; nice and effective stylus cover.
Reusability of packing: Should last a lifetime if treated respectfully.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Easy.
Condition of component received: Flawless.
Website comments: None at this time as new model is just being released. Very complete for older models.
Human interactions: Always courteous.
Pricing: A very refined cartridge at this price.
Application conditions: A gorgeous sounding cartridge with intense tones but capable of delivering the most subtle midrange tonal hues. It will seduce all lovers of classical and vocal music without a doubt. A slight reserve on macrodynamics may not make it as automatically suitable for Rock music.
Final comments & suggestions: Partner with a phono stage that is neutral and endowed with good PRaT; avoid tubey or overtly euphonic phono stages or those with a significant upper bass boost as all these traits would blur the pristine midrange of the Reference Sonata 1.
Grado Labs website
Vinyl Junkie website