Grado Epoch 3

I have been shopping new cartridges for my Artisan Fidelity (henceforth AF)  NGS SE. My table started life as an AF NGS. I had Chris convert it to the four arm capable ~350lb variant now sitting on my stand. I currently have the table outfitted with two Kuzma 4 Points, an 11" and a 14". I am still awaiting the update of my third arm which is a Technics EPA 100 MK 2. The technics will hold the London Reference and is having the bearing replaced with lab grade saphires. The 14" 4 Point is awaiting delivery of the Ortofon MC Diamond which replaces my former MC Anna. I was really interested in the Epoch 3 based on my own intuition and the description of the motor. I was not terribly moTved by the reviews I've read. 

I spoke to Todd of Todd the Vinyl Junkie fame concerning the Grado line of transducers. Todd is very knowledgable and a real audio enthusiast. I have bought several far less costly items from Todd in times past so I was familiar with his company. Todd graciously offered to allow an audition of the Epoch 3 which he had on hand, but John Grado found out about this and arranged for me to get a new unit for audition. Talk about service!

This is my only experience with Grado Labs. The cartridge arrived in a short period of time, and I set it up on the 11" arm using Analog Majik 2, my SmarTractor and MY EARS. Initially it sounded very nice. It has a weight to it much like my former reel to reel. It was exciting and very impressive the first 26 hours but then it started sounding kind of boring to my ears. I changed the VTF from 1.8g to 1.65g and this was part of the problem. I should have been running it in at the upper limit of the specified tracking force range. I set it to 1.854g and let her go. 

The cartridge started to open-up and now showed more vigor and life, it was energetic but not as airy, or bright as some MC's I have heard. Once I hit 57 hours she was singing again and only got better up to about 67 hours. The highs were all there as I used my AMR CD 77.1 as a reference on certain pieces of music including vinyl, I had digitized to 24/96. The highs were there, just not the way my former MC Anna did highs. The Grado has a weightier center of gravity if you take my meaning. As the cartridge continued to run in between 67 and ~97 hours it waxed and waned from good too great to, "I don't like what I hear and I am walking out of my man cave and going to bed". I am now at 104 hours, and it sounds glorious. 

I used my DartZeel NHB-18NS and AMR PH 77 phonostages with the cartridge and it sounds fantastic with both units. I have settled on leaving it connected to the PH 77, the combination is really special. The Zeel sounds a little more romantic, which is counterintuitive as the AMR is tubes and Zeel is all SS.

I used the London Reference with the SW1X LPU III Balanced phonostage for comparative purposes. The LPU III Balanced is a wonderful full sounding end of road stage with 48dB of gain. Joe over the Lotus Group was kind enough to hook me up with the LPU III. It's a real shame this piece is not talked about more, it would put some pieces that magazine reviewers pump-up to a flat out shame.  It was perfect for the London. The LPU III does not have enough gain for the Epoch 3 therefore while I did listen to both cartridges on the 4 Point (love the 4 Point and its removable headshells) I optimized each cartridge with the stage that best fit its specifications. Both cartridges are super-fast and I mean fast!!! The Grado has a wider soundstage and is simply more luxurious. Don't you hate car analogies? Well TOO BAD, here's another one LOL. The Grado would be an AMG S65 while the London is Porsche GT3. Both fast and agile but they do it differently.

On piano the Grado is big and real sounding, the London is not quite as big but on some pieces the London has a transient speed with respect to hard percussive hammer strikes that no other cartridge I have heard can match. I have decided to keep my London.

The Epoch 3 It is one of my favorite pieces of gear and it makes music like very few other cartridges I have heard. The highs are all there, they just don't slap you in the face. It sounds ridiculously good on classic rock and jazz and even classical. I have read that it probably won’t be fully run in until about 150 hours so I still must see what more there may be to come. 

I did hear some hard sibilance with the Grado and that concerned me quite a bit. The little pamphlet that comes the Epoch 3 states that the front of the cartridge should be 90 degrees with respect to the surface of the vinyl or 2 degrees down at the back (lower the tonearm). Analog Majik 2 also showed the best IM distortion number when it was lowered. Problem is, I found it lifeless and boring! I ended up with the front of cartridge 2 degrees forward (tonearm a bit higher). The sound was spectacular but then I started noticing some sibilance. Did I have to endure sibilance in order to get the life I wanted out of the cartridge. This was the dilemma.

I spoke to John who is just about one of the most unpretentious and nicest guys in audio you will ever run across, and he mentioned the cartridge should be 2 degrees forward before I ever told him that is where I had my unit. John is revisiting the pamphlet which may be old material from another model or a misprint. So then, what about the sibilance. I recalled that one of the biggest offending albums was my copy of Jennifer Warnes The Hunter. I played it again and there it was, slapping me right in the face, HARD! I then recalled that some years ago I'd digitized that piece with my 4 Point 11" running the Ortofon MC Anna on my NGS using the ADC built into the AMR PH77. These files are on my HDD and part of my Roon Library. I did this to quickly reference what a tonearm/cartridge/stage combination sounded like for comparative purposes. It was fortuitous that I had done so. I played the same MC Anna digitized piece back and bam, slapped in the face again by sibilance. Problematic vinyl was the culprit. 

One evening while I was listening, the system was sounding so real and fantastic, I found myself happy and upset at the same time. Happy because of how convincing this cartridge makes music sound real, upset because right then and there I knew I would be out $12K. 

The Grado Epoch 3 is one of the finest cartridges I have ever heard and I am glad it is resident in my system. 



My experience with the Epoch shows that one needs 60dB of gain and loading of 47k ohms.

Following up on my Epoch adventure :) 

So some months have passed by since I purchased the Epoch 3 and I now have 171 hours logged. I have noted a few things in that time. The Epoch 3 requires approximately 150 hours of run it before it really starts to exhibit its extraordinary capabilities. I think it still has more to give as it runs-in further. 

I typically like to break cartridges in by running them at or near the maximum recommended VTF for about 50 hours, then I start lowering the VTF as the suspension has been exercised. The VTF is now set to 1.657g. 

My initial plans were to keep the Epoch on the Kuzma 4 P 11” and add an Ortofon MC Diamond to the Kuzma 4P 14” arm. While I loved how the Epoch made the music come alive,  I felt I was missing that last smidgeon of air up top on delicate female vocals. I no longer feel that way. This thing is very airy and I would say at this point it is simply the best cartridge I’ve yet to experience. It is a masterpiece of engineering with outstanding musical ability. 

The Epoch surprised me as I have found myself contemplating the need to add another cartridge, other than a true mono. In the end I think I am still going to add either an Audio Technica AT-MC2022 or a Dava Ref to the 14” arm. Do I need either? Well, I don’t need any of these toys but I enjoy them very much. My table can handle 4 arms so I plan to add superlative cartridges that offer different perspectives. 

My AMR CD 77.1, modified with a Double Crown 1541, Jupiter Copper Foil caps bypassed with .01uf silver foil Duelunds and other serious mods has served me well and is one of the best digital front ends I have experienced. It has outperformed a number of analog rigs with well recorded digital material. I have found lately that it is impossible for me to listen to analog first. I either have an all digital session and it sounds glorious or I listen to digital first and it sounds glorious. There is NO going from the Kuzma/Epoch to digital!

I have a Grado Statement 3 Mono which should arrive Wednesday. I am looking forward to putting it through its paces. I only possess a small number of mono recordings but I want to increase that count as I have experienced some phenomenal mono records.

To wrap up, I have not one regret on purchasing this transducer, it is shockingly good! Best I have yet to own or hear.

Now what will the Epoch 4 sound like? :) I am kidding, I have heard nothing of an Epoch 4 :) Just being an audiophile!!!

@mijostyn: LOL Nice!!! I literally almost started thinking, hmm!
Don’t be an enabler :)

It would be interesting to me for someone as meticulous and well equipped as Audiofun to do a comparison between a gaggle of well regarded “affordable” cartridges and a gaggle of very expensive cartridges, let’s say costing more then $6K. I’m a cynic.