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Grado Labs Lineage Series: The Flagship Grado Epoch3 Phono Cartridge

02-17-2020 | By Robert H. Levi | Issue 107

We live in exciting times for phono reproduction, a new golden age for LPs from manufacture to playback. The key lesson learned since the production of full-range stereo LP recordings in 1958, some taped in stereo as early as 1954 and released in 1958, is this:  the weakest part of the chain is playback in the home. Thanks to advances in cartridge production in every way, superior turntables, better isolation materials, extraordinary tonearms, improved phono stages, and incredible ultrasonic record cleaning machines, many LPs over 60 years old sound fantastic, often superior to their best reissues.

Grado Labs has a distinct advantage over nearly all companies producing cartridges today. Not a johnny-come-lately that has to constantly learn from their mistakes, Grado brings a half-century of continuous successful cartridge production to the game, flowing from one brilliant entrepreneur and uncle handing the baton seamlessly off to a second entrepreneur and nephew. You only need one hand to count the number of companies in the world with a track record, are family-based, and are cherished, like Grado Labs. You need only a few fingers to count the geniuses able to design and assemble products that compete with the Epoch3, as well. 

I have had four months to evaluate the Epoch3. It sits in a 12-inch EAT Forte S carbon fiber tonearm on the EAT Forte S Turntable. It is connected via Cardas Clear Beyond XL special order phono cable to the E.A.R. 912 Preamplifier's MM/MI input at 47kohms. For those interested, the Epoch3's specifications can be found HERE.

Also here with me and available for comparison are the Arias Mammoth Gold MC Cartridge, the Stein Aventurin Modified Benz LPS MC Cartridge, and the London Reference MI Cartridge. Though 50 hours break-in is recommended, I found 150 hours to be more like it for full performance. Tracking was ultimately set at 1.8 grams for the best results. Anti-skate is recommended, and is necessary for center image accuracy.

The Epoch3's Performance

Image courtesy of Grado Labs

I loved the original Epoch. It exuded a relaxed natural beauty, palpable images, a very dark background, and gigantic soundstage. Bass was otherworldly and highly detailed. It had no obvious flaws. It was the first MI cartridge I ever heard which yielded the kind of superfine definition of a top MC.

Then came the Epoch3.

The Epoch3, ice cold, and not broken in, revealed more definition than the year-old Epoch. After full break-in, I had to play my other cartridges first, because once the Epoch3 was engaged, you could not go back. I place the Epoch3 at 30-40% better overall than the original model. This is a leap forward in improvement and a miracle at no increase in price. In fact, for a limited time, Grado will rebuild your original Grado Epoch to an Epoch3 for NO CHARGE. Contact Grado direct for details.

Image courtesy of Grado Labs

I am going to declare that the Grado Epoch3 is not only the best MM/MI cartridge in the world in my book, but the best overall phono cartridge period. Are there some MC cartridges that have the definition of the Epoch3 at any price? Close, but I maintain that a big slice of what you are hearing are those exotic transformers or expensive complicated amplification circuits to boost an infinitesimal MC signal to useful high level. 

MM/MI has always been superior texturally and always quieter, but has eluded manufacturers' abilities to produce maximum definition. Not anymore. The brilliant genius John Grado has done it. Get out the Dom Perignon and pop the cork!

I recently heard a tape demonstration on the latest Wilson Speakers and rushed home to hear the exact LP reissue on my system with the Epoch3. Even with all the variables, it was obvious that the LP had more fine definition and nuance, was better imaged in real space and was actually quieter than the $450 tape edition. This I had never heard before.

The Epoch3 is a champ from top to bottom. The highs are smooth, slightly sweet, and extremely detailed on my diamond tweeters. The mids sing with a sense of unsurpassed realism. Nothing is squeezed out; all just flows effortlessly from the speakers. The bass is down to the center of the earth and beautifully communicated. Layers of definition abound, with zero overhang. The envelope of sound is enormous, with a soundstage that claws at my sheetrock sidewalls. Depth perspective is without interruption and black as night. Images float clearly in the void with no trail or halo of haze around them. 

The Epoch3 is as fast as lightning. It is certainly as fast as any MC. Plus, the Epoch3 reduces surface noise due to its unique proprietary stylus shape. The original had this, too.

Finally, the Epoch3 will not mis-track. My toughest Mercury LPs and unique lacquers recorded to the max in the inner grooves proved to be no problem. I even tried to get it to mis-track by lowering the tracking—nothing. It sounds best, however, at 1.8 grams in my tonearm. Any arm with medium mass medium compliance will do the trick.


Image courtesy of Grado Labs

Grado Labs Lineage Series:  The Flagship Grado Epoch3 Phono Cartridge is the king of the hill. It is unsurpassed for realistic imaging in real space. It will not mistrack. It has no discernible colorations, hum, noise, or mechanical flaws. It is tonearm agnostic, easy to install, and works perfectly into a 47kohm load. No step-up device is needed. The Epoch3 will bring the musical performance into your listening space, if your system is up to the task. Superior in most ways to the original, it is, in my opinion, the best cartridge in the world.

Expensive, but worth getting a loan. I tip my hat to the awesome John Grado for the Epoch3. Live long and prosper!

Epoch3 Phono Cartridge

Retail: $12,000

Grado Labs

4614 7th Avenue

Brooklyn, NY  11220




All photographs by Bob Levi, unless otherwise noted.