Latest review by Mono and Stereo Senior Contributing Reviewer Ron Resnick (September 5, 2020). This time Ron takes a closer look at the GRADO LABS EPOCH3 cartridge with his usual passion, dedication, and detailed insights. 


Jonathan Grado, Vice President of Marketing at Grado Labs, of Brooklyn, New York, offered in November of 2019 to send to me the Lineage Series Epoch3, the new version of the Epoch moving iron cartridge, and the Grado Labs flagship cartridge. I replied that I would love to audition the new Epoch, but that my never-ending house (and thus also listening room) renovations still have not yet ended, and that therefore I have no system in which to insert the Epoch3.  

Surprisingly, Jonathan asked if I have an audiophile friend whose system I know well enough to employ to audition the Epoch3.  I replied that I live near a good friend whose system is analog only. That was good enough for Jonathan!


I heard the original version of the Epoch at a friend’s house in the Netherlands in 2018.  That Epoch rode on a Reed 5T linear-tracking tonearm mounted on a TechDAS Air Force III Premium turntable.  My friend at that time had three turntables and a total of six cartridge/tonearm combinations.  Out of all of the combinations the Epoch on the 5T was my favorite.  I believed (and my friend agreed) that the linear-tracking 5T was enabling the Epoch to achieve an airy, ethereal sound quality which, especially on vocals, appeared somehow to “free” the sound from the mechanical re-creation and the electronic amplification of the signal.  On that tonearm and in that system, which included a Pass Labs Xs phono stage, an Alieno line stage pre-amplifier, and an Alieno LTD 250 amplifier driving Cessaro Zeta horn loudspeakers, I loved the Epoch.   So I was excited to hear it again -- especially in its new incarnation.

The Reed 5T looks beautifully engineered and constructed, and I liked the way it sounded with the Epoch.  But the 5T’s articulating wand and laser-guided mechanism also looks quite complex.  While we were using the 5T a sunbeam shot through the blinds of my friend’s listening room at precisely the wrong angle and blinded the optical sensor on the 5T.  The cartridge rocketed off the record like a cat dipping its tail in hot water!  The Epoch was not damaged, but the experience was so unsettling to my friend that he sold the 5T shortly thereafter.

Every time I have heard a linear-tracking tonearm in any system I think I have had the impression of the high frequency “airiness” and delicacy that I heard from the Reed 5T.  However, I think the linear-tracking tonearms I have heard may be achieving this beguiling sonic quality at the expense of the solidity and slam in the low frequencies offered by the best pivoting tonearms.  Further comparative research between linear-tracking and pivoting tonearms is required to confirm these impressions.


During a follow-up call with John Grado, President and CEO of Grado Labs, and Jonathan’s father, John told me that the Epoch3 is only slightly different than the original Epoch, as the wood body, the motor, the cantilever and the stylus are the same.  John upgraded the wire in the cartridge and simplified the electrical connections inside the cartridge.  He believes these differences to be “significant.”  

Was there ever an Epoch2?  John wrote to me that after the release of the original Epoch, Grado "continued to work on quieting the signal path within the cartridge, we finished that and this was the Epoch2.”  Then Grado developed a process of aging thermally the wooden housing.  Adding this aging process to the signal path changes resulted in the Epoch3 designation.  The Epoch2 never went into production.   The retail price of the Epoch3 is US$12,000. 


The audio system of my friend, Jim Y, is somewhat eclectic:  no dCS Vivaldi stack with D’Agostino amps driving Magico speakers for him!  Jim is unapologetically vinyl only.

Jim uses Tannoy Westminster Royal - Gold Reference loudspeakers. This is a giant 300 pound box speaker with a dual concentric tweeter/15" woofer combination which is horn loaded. The speaker has a 99 dB/watt sensitivity specification. Each cabinet has dimensions of approximately 55" x 39" x 22.” 

Jim positioned on the top of each speaker a re-built vintage Dukane DUK10 plasma tweeter. These tweeters receive a high pass signal at 7.5kHz.

The turntable is a Denon DN308 which has been reconditioned by Peter Noerbaek, proprietor of PBN Audio, into the PBN-DN308 Groovemaster Vintage Direct Drive turntable.  The original DN308 was built though a  collaboration between Denon and the Nippon Broadcasting Corporation.  Peter hunts down the original commercial console mounted turntables and transforms them into his clients’ custom desires.  Peter retains key components of the original electronics and refurbishes the desirable vintage motor.

The turntable sits on a steel plate with a gorgeous custom walnut platform and sides. The turntable and the table top both sit on a pneumatic auto-leveling Vibraplane system in a heavy steel structure modified by Peter for this purpose. This PBN turntable is amazing sonically, and gorgeous aesthetically.

An Origin Live 12” Enterprise MK3C tonearm and a Groovemaster II tonearm with aluminum arm-wand are mounted on the DN308.  Our mutual friend, Jeff Tyo, kindly handled cartridge mounting and alignment duties.  He mounted the Grado on the Groovemaster II.

Jim uses an Audio Research Reference Phono 2SE phono stage.  A continuously variable gain phono stage is essential to enable the Epoch3 to sing.  The line stage pre-amplifier is the Audio Research Reference 3.  Allnic Audio M-2500 mono-block amplifiers fitted with KT-150s producing 100 watts per channel in pentode mode were used for this comparison.

I think the sound from Jim’s system overall is very organic and natural and coherent. There is smooth detail without anything being emphasized or etched. Bass is strong but not overblown. The system is very dynamic.  I think the organic-ness and the coherence of the Tannoys derive from the single dual concentric driver in a gigantic cabinet horn loaded for high sensitivity, combined with a slightly warm frequency balance.

Many people would make the mistake of driving these 99dB sensitive speakers with 10 or 20 watts of power. I think Jim is very smart to drive them with 100 watts, insuring effortlessness on dynamic peaks.


The Epoch3’s output is 1.0mV at 5 cm/s (45 rpm).  Per Grado’s recommendation Jim set the phono stage’s impedance to 47,000 ohms, and selected 74dB of gain.  Jeff set the VTF at about 1.8 grams, in the range of the Grado recommendation of 1.5 to 1.9 grams.

The challenger in this cage match, installed on the Origin Live, is the van den Hul Colibri XGW.  (This is the only name on the wood vdH cartridge box.  Is this “Colibri XGW” different from the “Colibri XGW Signature Stradivarius”?  With A.J. van den Hul’s byzantine model nomenclature, only he knows for sure.)  The output of the Colibri is 0.3mV.  Jim set the loading at 500 ohms.  The retail price of the Colibri XGW is US$9,000.

I anticipate and appreciate the criticism that we did not audition both cartridges on both tonearms.  So this review necessarily is weaker than if we had mounted the Grado on the Original Live and the vdH on the Groovemaster II, and repeated all of the comparisons with the test tracks.   However, in Jeff Tyo’s system, playing a subset of these same test tracks, I did compare directly this exact Epoch3 cartridge to a different Colibri XGW.on an Acoustic Signature Ascona turntable using an SME 3012R tonearm.  The preliminary impressions I developed in that less lengthy but direct A/B comparison with all components held constant except for the cartridges (Jeff repeatedly swapped and re-aligned the cartridges on the same tonearm on the same turntable) were consistent with the impressions developed using Jim’s system and reported herein.  The essential sonic characters of each cartridge, and the differences between them, were discernible across both audio systems.


  • “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley, Grace (Columbia)
  • “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac (MFSL)
  • “Send in the Clowns" by Bill Henderson, Live at the Times (Jazz Planet Records/Classic Records)
  • ”I've Got the Music in Me" by Thelma Houston, I've Got the Music in Me (Sheffield Lab 2)
  • “Great Gate of Kiev" of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” The Power of the Orchestra, Rene Leibowitz, RPO (Chesky RC30)
  • “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed, Transformer (Speakers Corner)
  • "First We Take Manhattan,” "Bird on a Wire" and “Famous Blue Raincoat” by Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat (Rock the House Records/Classic Records)


The single most striking sonic characteristic of the Epoch3 is the way music swells up in waves from the low frequencies.  The cartridge’s tonal center of gravity is low -- anchored below the midrange -- in the bass and the lower midrange frequencies.  Each musical salvo seems to be launched from the low frequencies, and however high the instrumental or vocal content of a track ascends, it falls back into the richness and power of the lower frequencies after the peak is exhausted.  Drums and bass guitars sound especially thrilling.  The Epoch is epic on classic rock, and we played a lot of rock and pop songs for fun after the serious listening was concluded.  

I describe the tonal balance of the Colibri as neutral.  Neutral is not the slightly warm tonal balance I subjectively prefer.  The center of gravity of the frequency balance of the Colibri is above the midrange.  Are my impressions of tonally neutral, and balanced tonally above the midrange, inconsistent?  I am not sure. 

The Epoch3 suggests to me that I (and likely many audiophiles) have learned to steel our ears against the edginess produced by our music reproduction electronics which rides like a sideband on the music.  The Epoch3 manifests no edginess, no glare, no brightness.

Moving coil cartridges sometimes seem like the sonic equivalent of turning up the sharpness control on a television set.  Things may look clearer or cleaner,  but you don’t actually see more information or detail than you did before.   

I have a sensitivity to emphasized sibilance; it is a total sonic turn-off for me.  Exaggerated sibilance for me is a red flag that something in the system is doing something I don’t like.  My dislike of a cartridge is directly proportional to how much exaggerated sibilance I hear from it.  The Epoch3 manifests no exaggerated sibilance.

From the Epoch3 I did not hear what I consider to be the artificial accentuation of detail or an unnaturally sharp leading edge -- which my ears find offensive.  I also did not hear any diminution in detail, or any sanding down of presence range frequencies or of higher frequencies.  

But which is correct, or “accurate”?  Is the absence of that accentuated detail -- that emphasized leading edge -- a feature or a flaw?

For me personally, it is a feature. To help you triangulate on my sonic preferences, I have never enjoyed, in any system, the Lyra Atlas cartridge.  (I have enjoyed in two friends’ elaborate systems the Etna SL, which to me sounds like a different animal than the Lyra “house” sound.)

Listening to the Epoch3 is like turning down the sharpness control, but without forfeiting any information or detail.  The Epoch3 accomplishes this by seemingly reducing the surface noise we hear on vinyl playback.  To make up a number I would say the surface noise is one-quarter of the surface noise we hear from moving coil cartridges.

The Epoch3’s entire presentation seems less frenetic, less stressed and quieter -- and thus, to me, more natural.  The noise level of the mechanical forces of vinyl playback appear to be reduced.  The sound evidences fewer of the electronic artifacts of sound reproduction which impede my suspension of disbelief.  I was enjoying the absence of a layer of sonic brightness painted upon voices and instruments by typically higher levels of moving coil high frequency energy.  The reduced surface noise and non-emphasis of electronic artifacts makes playback by the Epoch3 one level more like a natural musical event and less like an extremely high-fidelity electronic re-creation of a recording.  This cartridge makes me want to unlearn my acquiescence to the slightly fatiguing quality and high frequency emphasis of many moving coil cartridges.  

In the beginning of “Hallelujah” Jeff Buckley whacks the neck of his electric guitar to produce a powerful “twang” sound that pierces the soundstage.  Sometimes this twang sounds a little bit brittle and harsh; sometimes it sounds slightly softened and suppressed. With the Epoch3 this twang jumps out with most of the presence, power and detail of a live instrument, but with the sound of a burnished glow rather than of the silver spark I hear from the Colibri.

The audience clapping at the beginning and at the end of Bill Henderson’s “Send in the Clowns” sounded on the Epoch3 more like real, fleshy, human palms slapping together than I recall ever hearing before.  On the Colibri the clapping was slightly less natural -- like plastic spatulas being slapped together rather than human palms (but this analogy exaggerates the sonic difference).

My main musical genre interest is vocals, and I like very much the way the Epoch3 made my favorite singers sound. I flat out loved the midrange of the Epoch3.  Voices sounded unusually natural.

Thelma Houston’s “I’ve Got the Music in Me” is a stunningly transparent and dynamic Doug Sax direct-to-disc recording.  It is “hot” sounding.  Thelma’s voice slices right through the soundstage with the sharpness of the Japanese sword Kevin Costner used to cut in half Whitney Houston’s scarf in The Bodyguard.   The more neutral/treble balanced Colibri adds a bit of edginess to Thelma’s voice, and makes her voice pop out of the mix more sharply and noticeably than does the Epoch3.

Each of us has played our favorite songs dozens, if not hundreds, of times.  We have heard our favorite tracks on many different audio systems over many years.  Each of us holds in our head a memory of what a favorite track sounds like.  This memory is a sonic average or composite of all of the times we have heard that track reproduced.  We have in our heads a reference as to what we think a particular track sounds like in some objective sense, separate from how its playback sounds in any particular instance on any particular stereo.

I have heard “Send in the Clowns” many dozens of times.  I think I “know” what that recording sounds like, divorced from any particular stereo system.  The Colibri reproduced exactly what I think that song sounds like.  On the Epoch3 I heard a “chestiness” in Bill’s voice that I do not recall ever hearing before.  Intellectually, I feel the Colibri’s rendition is more “correct.”  (Jim played “Send in the Clowns” with me blind, with my virus mask over my eyes.  I did not know which play was with which cartridge/tonearm combination.  I correctly identified which cartridge was which, mainly on the basis of this “chestiness.”)

But which version of Bill’s voice did I prefer?  I felt the Epoch3 afforded a greater suspension of disbelief than did the Colibri.  I felt more like I was sitting in the audience in a jazz club with the Epoch3.  

Interestingly I did not hear any less detail (such as Bill’s barely audible lip smacking) on the Epoch3 than I heard on the Colibri.  I was expecting to hear more detail on the Colibri, but I do not think I did. 

On “Landslide,” as on every test track in this review, I heard more presence range energy and more high frequency energy from the Colibri.  On the Epoch3 Stevie Nick’s voice was lusher and deeper.  Which voice sound is correct?  The Colibri rendition matches the composite reference I have in my head.  But the Epoch3 weaves a more emotionally involving experience.

Jennifer Warnes’ voice on “Famous Blue Raincoat” as reproduced by the Epoch3 sounded rich and resonant, but with no sense of the chestiness I heard from Bill.  Yet, again, the Colibri’s rendition matched more closely the reference of the sound of “Famous Blue Raincoat” I have stored my head.

Famous Blue Raincoat is a digitally recorded album.  On the three test tracks from that album I felt the cymbal crashes (which, to me, sound “digital” and not terribly realistic to begin with) were a bit more “splattery” or “spitty” on the Colibri.  The Epoch3 partially takes the digital out of Famous Blue Raincoat without sacrificing any detail or rolling off high frequency information.

“Great Gate of Kiev” demonstrated the large scale on which the Epoch3 reproduces symphony orchestra music.  At Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California, I never hear unnatural brightness. The sound is, except for blaring trumpets and the like, warm and full.  I had the sensation that the Epoch3 brought me closer to the rich tonal balance and unbridled instrumental power that I hear at Walt Disney Concert Hall than any other cartridge I’ve ever heard.  Beyond tonal balance and dynamic power, when the Epoch3 finished tracing “Great Gate of Kiev” I wanted to stand up and clap! 


Across tracks generally I feel that the Colibri is a bit more transparent than the Epoch3.  I think the Colibri separates instruments slightly better and untangles musical lines slightly better than the Epoch3.  I do not hear at Walt Disney Concert Hall clearly outlined instrumental sources, so this effect is not something I focus on when listening to audio systems.

Both cartridges are state-of-the-art.  If I am wearing my audiophile hat I would choose the Colibri.  But if I put on my musical enjoyment hat I would reach for the Epoch3.  If I want to evaluate electronic components in an A/B comparison I would use the Colibri.   If I want to have fun and relax and just listen to music I would use the Epoch3.

The van den Hul plays to the head, whereas the Grado plays to the soul.  I feel that the Colibri is intellectually correct, but that the Epoch3 is more emotionally involving and more “musical” (whatever we all mean by that term) because somehow it better transcends the electronic artifice of the stereo equipment.

Jim suggested to me that the Epoch3 makes you want to listen to your record collection all over again.  I agree with this.  With the Colibri you already know what your record collection sounds like.  (Your records never sounded as good before the Colibri, but you know conceptually what they sound like.)

For my future system, which is scheduled to be hatched all in one go late next year, I planned to have two tonearms:  an SME 3012R and a Bergmann Odin.  I presently own a ZYX UNIverse Premium SB2, which I am planning to put on the Odin.  I now want a van den Hul Grand Cru on the 3012R.  (I would select the Grand Cru over the Colibri XGW only because of the higher output (.7mV) of the Grand Cru, which would take a lot of pressure off of my Aesthetix Io Eclipse phono stage.)  

Now I also will have to get a third tonearm to accommodate an Epoch3.  I know I want the neutral and intellectually perfect presentation of a van den Hul cartridge.  But I cannot be happy in audio without the visceral emotional involvement and tonal naturalness of the Epoch3.  When I think of my favorite solo vocal with simple acoustic accompaniment songs, my favorite 1980s rock tracks, and my favorite classical symphony orchestra pieces, I know I will reach for the Epoch3.  If I want to play jazz or review pre-amplifiers or amplifiers the Colibri is the cartridge to cue up.

Thanks very much to John Grado for sending me his latest masterpiece, to Jeff Tyo for setting up the cartridges, and to Jim Y for providing the audition system and for doing a lot of patient disc-jockeying!

Ron Resnick

Mono and Stereo Senior Contributing Reviewer