A Diamond In The Rough: The Goldring G800 Phono Cartridge

Out of all the twists and turns on the long and winding road to audio nirvana, as a vinyl enthusiast, my favorite little corner to explore is the world of phono cartridges – particularly that of overlooked vintage cartridges that may be forgotten and easy to find on the cheap. The Goldring G800 certainly qualifies, as it appears to be a largely forgettable phono cartridge by most accounts. It was a fairly popular cartridge in its day of approximately 1968, coming pre-installed on several turntable models, including the highly-coveted Goldring Lenco GL75, and the Garrard SP-25, which was memorably pictured on the cover of Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs. But it was regarded as an entry level option and seems to garner almost shockingly little interest today, even among us vintage audio psychopaths. However, I stumbled into three things that made me curious about it, wondering if we could have an overlooked gem on our hands. Let’s explore.

So what made me curious about the Goldring G800? I spend the occasional night pouring over (very) old issues of hi-fi publications, and was intrigued by a phono cartridge test I came across in the July 1969 issue of Stereo Review. With the trustworthy Julian Hirsch (one of my personal hi-fi heroes, if you will) leading the testing, the Goldring G800E (elliptical stylus) and G800SE (super ellipitical) were compared with many of the heavy-hitter phono cartridges of the day, and acquitted themselves rather well, with Hirsch writing, ‘Both cartridges had very smooth frequency response up to 20 kHz, with the G800E slightly flatter than the Super E above 10 kHz. The channel separation of both units was excellent. In fact, the Super E had the best separation of any of the cartridges tested in this group‘. Upon digging around, my interest was further piqued when I learned that it was the standard phono cartridge used by the BBC during the late 1960s. Lastly, I found this thread on a British hi-fi forum, The Art Of Sound, claiming that the humble Goldring G800 can more than hold its own against cartridges many times its price, with some even deeming it worthy of investing in a high quality modern stylus retip costing hundreds of dollars. This flew in sharp contrast to the limited mentions on other audio forums, which dismissed it as a muddy, dull and uninspiring disappointment. Well ok then, what the hell do we have here? Between the fervant, if rare, praise above, complete disinterest everywhere else and the sub-$50 range these cartridges regularly sell for, I had to find out for myself.

First, let’s look at why this cartridge came to be thought of as a forgettable, throwaway cartridge – as mentioned, they were popular as pre-installed options of turntables of the day, sometimes with advertising copy promoting an absurdly low price, like an extra $.01 on top of the turntable price. You might think, surely something with that financial value couldn’t offer any quality, especially in comparison to the higher-end phono cartridges sold independently in fancy wood display boxes, and plan to upgrade the cartridge at first opportunity, which, naturally, was also the recommendation of your eager stereo dealer. When pre-installed on turntables, the Goldring G800 was typically outfitted with a basic spherical stylus, tracking at 2g-4g, – a humble stylus compared to the low tracking sharp ellipticals that had recently come to dominate the market.

Of course, Goldring also produced those low tracking sharp ellipticals, with the G800SE (supposedly) tracking down below 1g. But being a British company, those advanced stylus replacement shapes weren’t nearly as readily available here in the U.S. as they were across the pond. When the upgrade itch struck, it was easier to simply buy a new, American-made cartridge than wait for your stereo dealer to custom order the advanced super elliptical replacement stylus. While British listeners and Stereo Review editors could enjoy the G800 outfitted with its premier stylus option, the overwhelming majority of U.S. home listeners merely heard it with the entry-level spherical stylus, which perhaps explains the lack of enthusiasm it seemed to garner stateside.

While Goldring remains one of the very few classic phono cartridge manufactureres still in business, and thankfully seems to doing very well, it’s been several decades since they offered replacement styli for the G800 cartridge. However, in transversing the weird, wild world of aftermarket styli, I managed to find a pair of G800SE new old stock styli, produced by god knows who, where or when, that seemed to offer the most potential for hearing the cartridge at its best, short of an expensive retip. Replacement styli are affordable and available, with LP Gear also selling an elliptical for $30. The original G800SE suggested tracking range is 0.5g-1.25g, a likely unrealistically optimistic figure when using an aftermarket stylus. Sure enough, this stylus took some experimenting, failing at the suggested top end of 1.25g, but dialing in nicely in the 1.75g-2g range. At the heavier tracking weight, it is an excellent tracker, even through warps, exceptionally quiet in the groove and displays not a hint of inner groove distortion or sibilence.

So how does it sound? Quite nice, surprisingly so, even with my cautiously optimistic expectations. The tones of vocals and acoustic instruments like piano and acoustic guitar are replicated with richness and warmth, and, as noted by Stereo Review, the channel separation is truly exceptional. At its best, the G800 reminds me of classic Empire cartridges with the ability to keep the vocal perfectly centered between a huge soundstage. Listening to tracks from Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisted and Blonde On Blonde on stereo, albums that I typically prefer on mono, was a fresh thrill, with Dylan’s ‘thin, wild mercury sound’ becoming immersive. It does have some flaws as well. Despite solidly wide spec’d frequency response, the highs don’t sparkle as they do with the best phono cartridges, sounding just a touch rolled off. Bass can’t match the deep power of the vintage Shure cartridges, but is solidly driving, with exceptionally accurate tone. It’s not a particularly dynamic-sounding cartridge, leading to a slightly muddy texture on couple of weaker quality recordings. But overall, it produces an extremely pleasant and warm midrange that creates a certain magic, especially with the human voice, acoustic instruments and percussion. It also seems to play up to recording quality, with the Grateful Dead’s Blues For Allah coming across in absolutely spellbinding fashion with its clarity and massive soundstage. It is worth noting that the G800SE has unusually low output, reported at just 2.2 mV by Stereo Review, which is line with my experience – expect to turn the volume up a notch if using an elliptical stylus; the spherical stylus provides a more typical output.

I can’t compare my experience to some of its most avid enthusiasts, because I haven’t invested the hundreds into exotic stylus retips that they have, and most certainly will not be doing so with my budget. So while I wouldn’t go as far to call it a lost giant killer of a cartridge, armed with an elliptical stylus, it delivers a bang for the buck that’s tough to top. My only other experience with Goldring is with the Goldring Elektra – a recently discontinued entry level phono cartridge that quite impressed me, if not quite as much as the Nagaoka MP-110 I recently reviewed. Personal taste may come into play – with the emphasis on the midrange, the G800 is a decidedly more vintage sonic flavor than the smooth, clean Elektra – but in my book, even more enjoyable.

LISTENING SETUP
Turntable: Garrard A70
Preamplifier: Harman Kardon Citation 11
Amplifier: Stromberg Carlson ASR-120
Speakers: KLH Model 17
Albums Used: Charles Lloyd – Montreaux 82 / McCoy Tyner – Reevaluations: The Impulse Years / Bob Dylan – Biograph / John Renbourn & Stefan Grossman – Under The Volcano / Grateful Dead – Fox Theatre St. Louis, MO 12/10/71 / My Morning Jacket – Live 2015 / Lou Reed – The Bells / Grateful Dead – Blues For Allah

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