Grado Labs Aeon Phono Cartridge

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Two years ago I reviewed the Grado Labs Statement v2 Cartridge ($3500), at that time the highest priced Grado cartridge—the top of their Statement Series. Reviewed using my VPI Industries Prime Turntable, I was so impressed, it has remained as my reference since—it further pulled me into vinyl. After that review, I concluded that besides speakers (which are in general large and heavy), phono cartridges (always tiny and light) are examples of a component that can significantly change the sound quality of an audio system in a way that is immediately noticeable. 

The $6,000 Grado Labs Aeon Phono Cartridge debuted this year. The Aeon and its sibling, Epoch ($12,000), are two products in a new, higher-end ‘Lineage Series’. The Epoch, which was the first released, and with a very hefty price tag, has been highly praised. Grado Labs now promotes both these cartridges as their flagship models. On the Grado website it is stated that the Epoch and Aeon feature a unique system that has the lowest effective moving mass of any cartridge.

The Aeon is half the price of the Epoch, but is almost the same in design and construction. A bargain by comparison? Given that I just completed a review of the exceptional new VPI Industries HW-40 Direct Drive Turntable using the Statement v2 it seemed natural to try out the Aeon on the same turntable. After all, the Statement v2 clearly enjoyed the HW-40 Gimbal Tonearm, and with that experience fresh in my mind, I could easily evaluate the Aeon. That is what I report on here.

Very special thanks to John Chen (National Sales Director of Grado Labs) for meeting me at VPI Industries with the Aeon cartridge in hand. We were graciously received by VPI President Mat Weisfeld (with his charming wife Jane), and perfectionist Michael Bettinger (Director of Electrical Engineering) who not only set up the Aeon on the HW-40, but played records on it for a while and performed other testing to ensure all was well before I headed home.

What is different about the Lineage Series?

As with all Grado Labs cartridges, the Aeon is a moving iron (MI), not moving magnet (MM), nor moving coil (MC)—even though renowned Joe Grado, the company’s founder, was the originator of the stereo moving coil cartridge.

The use of a wooden housing for Grado cartridges started in 1996 with their Reference Series; its main purpose is to control resonance. Their practice of finding and using special wood is fundamental to the uniqueness of Grado’s higher end carts and plays a serious role in sound quality. After all, as Chen explained to me, wood plays a fundamental role in the acoustics of stringed instruments such as violins, woodwind instruments such as oboes and even the bodies of electric guitars; extensive experimenting with sound quality by trying different kinds of wood is part of what John Grado does (President and CEO since 1990, nephew of Joe Grado). And let us not forget Grado’s use of wood in their world class headphones.

In the Statement v2, Australian Jarrah wood (Eucalyptus marginata) is used, but in the Aeon and the Epoch, the rarer and more expensive Cocobolo wood (Dalbergia retusa) is used [...also used in the very finest modern wooden flutes and piccolos—Ed]. It has a higher density in particular. As such, the Aeon is 2 gm heavier than the Statement v2. (A quick calculation I did gives Cocobolo about a 35% higher density than Australian Jarrah, and I found a video showing that Cocobolo can sink in water). But it is not just density that counts: According to Chen, ‘There are other woods that have similar density specs, but they don’t sound as good as the Cocobolo.’ I must add that the Cocobolo is absolutely gorgeous on the Aeon; darker and more elegant looking to me than the Jarrah; I would love to have a desk top made of that!

Other serious changes in the Lineage Series differentiating it from the the Statement Series include a sapphire cantilever, a specially designed diamond stylus, and 24k gold coil (there are 4 coils). And last but not least, final assembly of each hand-made Aeon (and Epoch) is performed by John Grado.

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Specifications

• Output=1mV@5CMV
• Controlled frequency response = 6 Hz - 72 KHz

• Channel separation: avg. 47dB - 6 Hz - 72 KHz

• Loading: 47,000 ohms
• Inductance: 30 mH
• Resistance: 91 ohms
• Non-sensitive to capacitive load
• Chasis mass: 12 grams
• Tracking force: 1.5 - 1.9 grams

My use

Depending on your tonearm, the relatively large wooden housing of Grado carts, with their cantilevers way in the back, and when mounted properly, can have quite an overhang; the VPI’s 12” Gimbal JMW-12-Fatboy yields such an example; no worries.

I had the tracking force set to 1.8 grams just as the Statement v2 had been. The required range of phono stage settings for the Aeon is identical to that of the Statement v2, so I had no need to change anything given I was using the same reference equipment in addition to the VPI Industries HW-40 Direct Drive Turntable: Pass Labs XP-17 Phono Stage, PS Audio BHK Signature Preamplifier, Audio by Van Alstine DVA SET 600 Mono Block Amplifiers and Alta Audio Celesta FRM-2 loudspeakers. I used 56db gain, and 10K impedance loading. I also experimented moving the loading up to 47K, but in the end preferred the 10K setting as I did with the Statement v2. It is important to understand that Grado carts (MI) have a lower output (1 mV) than an MM cart, thus requiring a higher gain (56db–63db) than a typical MM. They also require a much higher impedance loading (10K–47K) than does MC; you must be sure to have an appropriate phono stage that offers such settings. You can ignore the capacitance loading settings since all Grado carts are insensitive to that. 47K impedance loading will be fine with most systems so if you have a MM setting that has a high enough gain, you are in business without further ado. A final bit of advice: don’t cut corners on a phono stage; at $6000 the Aeon deserves respect.

Sound

I mainly compared the sound quality of the Aeon with the Statement v2. The Aeon had already been burned in for about 25 hours when I began the evaluation; another 25 hours or so was recommended. That took some time, but what was immediate was an increase of elegance, finesse and refinement in the sound. The lack of surface noise was even more pronounced than on the Statement v2; quite a wonder. Essentially any kind of groove distortion seems gone; how is this even possible one might ask—is the needle magically floating right above the grooves while somehow reading into them?

After more burn in, depth and meat came in; I particularly found acoustic stringed instruments stellar sounding—from violin down; so convincing in timbre. They had lovely natural textures with great clarity—is this the Cocobolo wood performing its duties? The bass was rich, controlled and deep; the Aeon brings out some of the best from my reference speakers. A perfect example illustrating all of this is de Falla, The Three Cornered Hat, Ansermet, L’orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Decca SXL 2296, UK. Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet (1883–1969) had, I discovered, a most fascinating background. He was educated as a mathematician and became a Professor of mathematics, all the while immersed in musical training, ultimately letting his musical side take over. Some have speculated that his mathematics background is partly responsible for the very close attention and care he paid to recording quality. A magnificent recording from 1961, the Aeon made it sound as grand and rustic as I think was intended.

Even electronic music amazed me on the Aeon: I was blown away by Kraftwork, Autobahn, Parlophone Records, Ltd (2009). Sure, I have heard this many times on various setups and with different carts, but the Aeon performed magic. In addition to that opening passage of an automobile revving up the engine, doors closing, and horn tooting making you really feel that a car is next to you, right after that I could hear peripheral sounds of the musicians (purposely breathing into a microphone, for example), all on an enormous 3D soundstage. I would argue that Side A of this album alone will convince anyone the Aeon is no trivial upgrade.

In my review of the Statement v2, I had commented very favorably about the sound quality (and performance) of the 45RPM Supercut of Joseph Haydn, Symphony No. 101 in D major, Robin Ticciati, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Linn Records (2015). I had written, ‘The Statement v2 brought out considerably more depth and nuance in the stringed instruments, better dynamics, and such quiets. I had better take really fine care of this LP’.

Unfortunately, I did not take really fine care of the LP; I got distracted while cleaning it one day and ruined it. But I acquired a new one several months ago. It was was well worth it. Now I know why the symphony was named ‘The Clock’; listening to the Andante movement one could visualize the so-called Flotenhur (‘flute clock’), described on the LP’s insert as ‘a large-scale equivalent of a music box’. Yes, it tick-tocked; but it also rocked. Another wow for the Aeon. Also evident was how the Aeon better integrates the highs, the mids and the bass.

Summary

Grado Labs certainly shows its chops with the Aeon, and it does so with a price tag half of that of the Epoch while continuing to prove that moving iron cartridges can easily compete at the top with moving coils.

Chen informed me that some of the rubber used in the Grado cartridges is aged for 2-3 years before use. Well, that makes sense to me by thinking about great family estate-bottled wine making: A family owned business passing on, by tradition, decades of experience, skill and knowledge to the next generation; experimenting with wood (casks for wine), and other materials. I think the Grado Labs Lineage Series Aeon is an example of a turntable cartridge replicating in sound what the finest of wines can deliver in taste. Very highly recommended.

Further information: Grado Labs