Jul 132012
 
Were this website devoted to performance cars, you might think I was about to describe my experiences of the TVR ‘Chimera’ sports saloon. Sadly no – nor is it a website concerned with classical Greek tales, where you might think I had been cohabiting with that mythical creature: a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail.

This is of course an audio magazine and the ‘chimera’ I speak of is the Grace F-14/BR/MR cartridge fitted with a Grace RS-9E stylus (strictly speaking then it is not a chimera but a hybrid).

Now you might be asking – why not review the F-14 cartridge complete with its own stylus: a boron (tube) cantilever fitted with a micro-ridge tip? Or review the Grace F-9E cartridge. Why mix them up? Well the answer is because I clumsily snapped the brittle boron cantilever of the stylus that was fitted to the F-14 (!) and the only replacement to hand was that for the Grace F-9E. The stylus assembly of the F-9E is not quite as refined as that for the F-14, nor is the F-9 body as refined as the F-14. In other words, the F-14 body fitted with the F-9E stylus ought to be a better performer than the F-9E alone. Well that’s the theory, and as circumstance dictated, was all that could be tried.

Had Grace still been going, I might have thought about obtaining a replacement stylus for the F-14. But they have been out of business for a long time now.

There is a dearth of information on the Grace F-14, and I have absolutely no idea of its specification. It is thought the Grace F14 was a very late development of the F-9 and produced just before Grace stopped manufacture. The F14 was probably only sold in Japan with very limited overseas sales. The sample I have is one of a small number imported into the UK by Russ Andrews to see how it would sell. Apparently there was little interest shown, so they were sold off at a reduced price.

There is however some information available for the Grace F9E [1]:

Output into 47KΩ (at 5cm/s (?)): 3.5mV
Response: 10Hz – 45kHz
Mass: 6g
Suggested VTF: 1.2g
Compliance (dynamic): 12cu
Balance: < 1dB
Separation: > 28dB
Stylus: 0.2 x 0.8 mil elliptical
Cantilever: “low mass alloy”.
Coil resistance: 1700Ω

And this all we have to be going on with.


Grace F-14 fitted with the RS-9E stylus. (The cantilever shroud of the F-14 stylus is a bright ‘dayglow’ orange, rather than the lurid green of the RS-9E.)

Installation

Ideally, I would have liked to have used one of the excellent Grace pickup arms with this cartridge, say the model 714 or the 940. Unfortunately Grace arms are rare in the UK, save for the rather uninspiring model 707, imported into the UK by Linn Products for use with the Supex 900 cartridge. (Incidentally, there is a quite a bit of apocryphal/anecdotal speculation concerning Supex, Grace, the Sugano brothers and the Linn ‘Asak’ moving-coil cartridge – but this is not the place for such promulgation.)

In the absence of the availability of a Grace arm I decided to use an SME 3009/S2 arm. The SME may not be the ‘last word’ in tone arms and has come in for a fair bit of criticism, but it remains one of the most versatile arms available and is still a competent performer. The arm was fitted to one of my dependable Thorens 124/II turntables, sitting in an open-style plinth of my own design.

The total mass of the cartridge complete with S2 headshell, cartridge leads and (slightly overlong) fixings amounts to 13.1g. The dynamic compliance is stated to be 12cu. Unlike UK cartridge manufacturers who tend to quote the static compliance, Japanese manufacturers and those in the US tend to quote values measured at 100Hz. Ideally we need the value at around 10Hz, and this is usually 1.5 to 2.0 times the quoted value at 100Hz. Using an effective mass for the SME 3009/II arm (without headshell) of 6.5g [2], we calculate a low frequency resonance for the complete arm and cartridge assembly laying in the range 7.3 to 8.5Hz. This is at the lower limit of the desirable range of 8 – 12Hz, and as such the assembly could be subject to disturbance by footfalls. In general I use light damping as provided by the SME FD200 damping dashpot, fitted with the smallest paddle, and can report no problems were encountered with the Grace/SME combination with the recommended tracking force of 1.2g. In general the use of the damper raises the low frequency resonance by about 1.5Hz as well as lowering the Q value.

VTA was set by arranging the arm tube to be exactly parallel with the record surface and the VTF was set at the recommended 1.2g, with the anti-skating bias set at 1.25g.

I’m not normally a user of test records, especially those records that offer high modulation ‘torture’ tracks. However out of curiosity I fished out a rather elderly copy of the Shure “An Audio Obstacle Course” (Shure TTR-101, 1971) and played the notorious ‘Orchestral Bells’ track. I’m pleased to say it tracked the level-4-track with ease and without any sign of break-up or distortion. The same applied to the drum and cymbal tracks. The only sign of break-up occurred with the level-3 and level-4 bass drum tracks; however I believe the slight ‘crackling’ heard was due to damage of these tracks, having been played in the past by lesser cartridges. Increasing the VTF up to 1.5g did not help so I returned to the recommended 1.2g. I am satisfied the arm and cartridge were set up to their best advantage.

For vinyl playback, almost all of my listening is done using a moving-coil cartridge, and my Mark Levinson ML26 preamp and ML25 phonostage are set up for MC designs. Not wishing to have to delve inside these units to reset the sensitivity and impedance appropriate to a fixed-coil design (that is, a sensitivity of ~ 3mV with a load impedance of 47kΩ, 180pF), I used either an elderly Hafler DH101 preamp or a Quad 44 preamp (with standard MM card set to 3mV sensitivity) as a phonostage, with the output taken from the ‘tape’ socket to the ‘line’ input of the Levinson 26 preamp. Now it has to be admitted from the outset, that neither of these preamps have the same performance level as that of the Levinson, and are surpassed by many more recent designs. My justification for using them is that they are roughly contemporary with the Grace designs, and that in their day both received good reviews.

No additional capacitance was used; including arm leads, the total capacitance presented to the cartridge was 360pF (Hafler) or 340pF (Quad).

Audition

Having completed the installation I then set down to audition this somewhat unique cartridge/stylus combination. All listening was done using a tracking force of 1.2g. At no time did I feel the need to increase this, though some users may find and additional 0.1 or 0.2g to be beneficial.

The first record up was Leo Kottke’s ‘6 and 12 String Guitar’ (Sonnet SNTF 629, 1972)


I played this to assess the upper mid and treble resolution and clarity. The 12-string guitar is a good test for this. The ‘attack’ of the strings was very good with the guitar having correct ‘body’.

Having enjoyed the Kottke I kept with the solo (and slide) guitar and next up was John Fahey’s ‘The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death’. (Transatlantic TRA 173, 1968)


This is one of my favourites, a superb recording of Fahey playing guitar and banjo. Fahey employs some unusual tuning and is a virtuoso guitarist. Again the attack, sustain and decay of the strings were correct, so too with the sound of the banjo ‘skin’. Many of the tracks on this recording have a nice ‘swing’ to the playing and this came across well.

This was then followed by Joan Baez’s ‘5’ (Fontana STFL 6043)


I chose this for Joan’s version of the Aria from Villa-Lobos’s ‘Bachianas Brasileiras No 5’. Baez has a beautiful clear voice with perfect pitch. There are some very high notes sung on this piece – a tough test for the tracking ability of any cartridge. The Grace passed with flying colours.

Staying with the Fontana label (and indeed with the Baez family – in this case Joan Baez’s sister Mimi), I then played Richard and Mimi Fariña’s ‘Celebration for a Grey Day’. (Fontana TFL 6060, 1965)


Richard Fariña’s dulcimer and autoharp playing is a good and subtle test of resolution, and here the Grace combination did well.

Next played was Judy Collins Whales and Nightingales. (Elektra EKS-75010)
Another favourite of mine, this record has a wealth of low-level detail, which the Grace was able to reveal.

It was time now for some studio rock, courtesy of Dave Gilmour (EMI SHVL 917), Santana’s Abraxas (CBS 489543) and The Rolling Stones with Let It Bleed.


This, the first solo offering from Dave Gilmour, is a particular favourite of mine. Well presented by the Grace and offering a reasonable soundstage, I found the cymbals had less shimmer than they should, and do when tracked by other cartridges. Otherwise the drum kit had good focus and attack.

To cross check the apparent lack of treble ‘shimmer’, I next played Abraxas by Santana.


Always a favourite of mine, I love the way the tracks segue into one another. But the reason I chose it was for the chimes on the first track ‘Singing Winds’. Here the chimes sounded right with correct decay. There is a wealth of subtle low-level detail on this record that was revealed by the Grace.

Let it Bleed (Decca 6835 105) is, in my opinion, one of The Rolling Stone’s finest recordings.


Played for no reason except that I like it. Generally well reproduced, the Grace did show up ‘end of side’ distortion on cymbals; the high hat sounded rough. Other cartridges I have used coped better here.

Also played because it’s a dammed good album is Joan Armatrading’s Joan Armatrading. (A&M SP 3228)


No problems here, apart from an occasional sibilance that was ruthlessly revealed by Grace, in an ungraceful way. (Sorry pun intended)

Another good record to test out a cartridge is Ravi Shankar Improvisations (Liberty LBS 83076E)


With a wealth of quartertone notes, music composed for the sitar is always a good test for tonal subtlety. This, along with rapid finger drumming on the tabla, makes for a good test of transient attack and tonal resolution, and the Grace did well.

An interesting record is Ry Cooder’s Bop Till You Drop. (Warner K56691)


Cooder’s first venture into digital recording, this record is very much a “curates egg”. As far as sound staging is concerned it is a disaster, displaying no depth or solidity to the musicians: they seem to pop in and out rather like the targets in shooting gallery, or like the price flags on an old fashioned cash register. It does however have focus – but no depth. Nonetheless this recording does have a wealth of detail with a driving bass line, as exemplified by the first track ‘Little Sister’ and the Grace brought this out.

It was now time to listen to some jazz. The first record played was Keith Jarrett with
Jan Gabarek My Song (ECM 1115)


The recording of this four-piece jazz ensemble is usually very good as regards sound staging. However, whilst the positioning was reasonably precise, there was a lack of focus to the performers: the space or air around them was lacking. This is not a fault I have noticed when playing this record with other cartridges.

To investigate this lack of focus, I played two more jazz records: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (CBS 62066, mastered and pressed by Nimbus) and Stanley Clarke’s School Days (CBS 31862)

The Miles Davis was fine with a wide and reasonable deep sound stage. It was easy to hear the piano in the centre with the bass behind and to the left of the piano. Drums were placed on the far left, John Coltrane’s tenor sax on the right, with Miles’s trumpet and the alto sax at the front. So good focus here, and Miles’s trumpet had the right ‘breathy’ quality when played softly.

School Days, did not fare quite so well, the focus was no better than on My Song. More instruments are used on School Days, especially keyboards and I found it difficult to locate them within the sound stage; spatially they were blurred. Otherwise I enjoyed this record: there was a good dance feeling to the track ‘The Dancer’.

David Sancious played many of the keyboards on School Days, so I next played The Bridge (Arista SPART 1162, mastered and pressed by Nimbus)


Here it is solo piano, beautifully played by Sancious with the Grace bringing out the best of this recording. No problems with focus here, one can clearly hear how the piano is orientated and miked. Wonderful!

Finally I turned to some classical music. First was the Grieg Piano Concerto. (Decca SXL 2173) This recording is the 1960 Decca recording with Clifford Curzon as soloist. This is a reference recording for me, though sadly it is not in as good a condition as I would like. Nonetheless, I find it emotionally powerful performance with the finale giving me ‘goose bumps’. So it did when played with the Grace, though perhaps not quite so emotionally powerful as when played by a Decca.

Second was the Vivaldi Four Seasons, the version by Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. (Decca Argo ZRG 654)


Although not using traditional instruments, this recording has a sprightly crispness to it, with the ambience of the venue well captured.

Finally I listened to some symphonic music – Mozart Symphony No 41 “Jupiter”. (Philips GL 5747) Not as weighty as the later Romantic composers, I chose this simply for the finale. Here there are at times four tunes being played simultaneously. A superb test for articulation and for lovers of ‘pace rhythm and timing’ – how many tunes can you follow? Well I must admit that I can only keep track of three out of the four, and the Grace did not improve on that score, but then it didn’t reduce it either.

Conclusion

On the face of it this rather unusual cartridge stylus combination ticked all the boxes and would satisfy many. A very good ‘all rounder’, it doesn’t have the speed and attack of a Decca (but then nothing does), nor is it so emotionally satisfying as the Decca, yet is tonally more accurate. It is not as smooth nor as sweet as the Ortofon, nor does it have the sheer aplomb of an EMT. It is in some ways similar to the Denon 103, though I would say the Denon has better bass.

There is ‘verve’ to the sound of this combination with a tonal balance that leans towards the treble, giving it a tendency to dryness. Some may prefer a slightly warmer balance

I would wholeheartedly recommend it were it not for two reasons: firstly anyone possessing an F-14 would use it with the correct stylus and secondly, I have to confess I didn’t find the combination engaged me with the music as well as some other cartridges I have heard and use.

I have encountered this lack of engagement before with a cartridge that on a technical level could not be faulted, yet another cartridge, whilst technically inferior and less ‘accurate’ has been a joy to hear. It is of course possible that the F-14 fitted with the correct boron cantilever would not have displayed the occasional shortcomings I criticised. It might have engaged me more – unfortunately I will never know.

For obvious reasons I will not score this item.

Other equipment used

Phonostages and preamp as described above: either a Hafler DH101 or a Quad 44 (used as phonostages) fed into a Mark Levinson ML26 preamp.

Power amplifier: lightly modified Quad 405/II

Speakers: Quad ESL (’57)

Interconnects: all of my own assembly. Necessary, since it involves a variety of different connectors: RCA phono, DIN, XLR and CAMAC.

Speaker cable: QED 79-strand cable.

References

[1] Acknowledgement must be made of the excellent “vinylengine” sitehttp://www.vinylengine.com/cartridge_database.php

[2] Again I must acknowledge the comprehensive “vinylengine” site:
http://www.vinylengine.com/tonearm_database.php

[The effective mass of any pick up arm depends on the position of the counterweight, and is usually quoted for conditions where the counterweight is at the mean of the counterbalance range and the tracking force is set to the mean of its range. With the Grace cartridge tracking at 1.2g, both of these conditions were roughly met.]

Addendum

The coil resistance of the F-14 was measured with the following results – left channel: 794 Ohm, right channel 834 Ohm. This is about half that for the F-9 as quoted above, suggesting fewer turns are used. The F-14 claims use of LC-OFC (linear crystal oxygen free copper) in the windings. I don’t know if Grace used the same in the F-9, but the lower resistance of the F-14 is one area where the design differs to that of the F-9.

With hindsight I think the bias applied to the Grace need only be about half that of the playing weight, say no more than 0.75g. I often find the bias applied by many arms to err on the high side.

__________________
Barry Hunt

© Text Copyright, Grace F14 photos 2012 Barry Hunt. Album sleeves Copyright belongs with their owners.

NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission.

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