Tom Evans Microgroove ($1200 CAN)
Finally we come to the second product named after its designer, and the most visually unassuming of the bunch. Like most Tom Evans gear the Microgroove is housed in an enclosure of shiny black plastic, Tom’s belief being that non-metallic enclosures do a better job of resisting electro-magnetic interference. The Microgroove looks a little cheap and homemade, but, then again, so does The Groove, Tom’s highly praised and expensive (1900 pounds sterling) top of the line phono preamp. The Microgroove, by the way, is based on the same circuit topology as its venerated big brother. Like the Graham Slee it’s happiest when left on (there’s no power switch) and it’s a very wide bandwidth design, working from DC through 80 Khz.
Eschewing flexibility for the best possible performance, each Tom Evans phono stage is configured at the factory for the cartridge to be used with it. My review sample was setup for a low output moving coil of .2 millivolts and impedance of 100 ohms (the Microgroove can accommodate anything from .1mV and up, the loading settings changed for US $175 in the U.S.). Even though it’s rated at .4 mV my Audio Technica OC9 proved to be a good match. At first it seemed there might be too much gain, the Microgroove putting out easily as strong a signal as my digital front end, and I thought I might be in danger of overloading it. Dozens of records later, after hearing nothing but great sound, that fear was completely allayed. I never heard any evidence that the OC9 was giving the Microgroove too much juice.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the sound of the Microgroove is the detail it can convey. Acoustic guitar recordings were especially revealing, the inner detail laying bare every little thing Leo Kottke, Ry Cooder, or Michael Hedges was up to with those six or twelve strings. An essential ingredient to this kind of success with acoustic guitar is speed, and the Microgroove had this in spades. Microdynamics were also a strong suit, and one of the areas where moving coil cartridges can really shine. With its quickness, delicacy and sensitivity to tiny changes in the signal, the Microgroove/OC9 combination reminded me most of my mythical time with the Linn Linto years ago. This, like the Linn, is a phono section very light on its feet, but not, alas, as vanishingly quiet as the Linn.
With a fundamentally different cartridge and so much more gain than the Era Gold, comparisons between the Evans and the Slee become less meaningful, but I’ll make a few anyway so we have a point of reference and since they’re definitely in the same class. Perhaps it’s inevitable with all that top end detail and extra gain, but the Microgroove wasn’t as quiet as the Era Gold, a little more groove noise and hiss coming along for the ride. It didn’t spit, however, although it was a hair more sibilant on records with hot treble. In terms of dynamics, large and small, the Microgroove had the edge. It didn’t have quite the bottom end control and finesse of the Era Gold, but it could do drums with the best of them and sounded thrilling on one of my favourite LPs, Duke’s Big Four (A Duke Ellington small band recording with Louis Belson on Drums, on the Pablo label). Duke’s piano was no less impressive: tonally rich and tuneful, with startling realism.
The Microgroove’s mids were characterized by openness, clarity and authority. The delicacy and refinement of the top end was also carried through in the midrange. Perhaps it’s the nature of using a low output moving coil, but the detail and openness of the Audio Technica OC9 with a good phono stage is striking, and the sound was definitely striking with the Tom Evans; big, bold, powerful, and upfront when called upon, and then goose bump inducingly quick and refined during quiet passages, communicating the subtlest details with compelling immediacy. It was also unfailingly musical and involving. Going back to my Rotel RQ 970BX added layers of haze, dulled the top end significantly, and just made music sound like a fake plastic imitation of the real thing. Combine all these attributes with bass almost as good as that of the Era Gold, similar skill at unraveling individual instruments in complex passages, and just consistently clean and punchy sound, and you’ve got a truly excellent phono preamp.
Choosing among the three will be as much a matter of priorities and existing equipment as anything else. The Pro-Ject is the easy winner on price, packing a lot of value into a phono preamp costing well under $1000. For those looking for fantastic bass performance, amazing immunity to spitting and groove noise, and are already owners of a high output cartridge they really enjoy, the Era Gold becomes a very easy recommendation. For those smitten by a great low output moving coil cartridge who are looking for a phono section perfectly matched to it, which can wring all the detail, subtlety and finesse from those tiny coils and still be thrillingly big, bold and powerful, the Microgroove is a must audition.
Related Reviews:Pro-Ject Tube Box Phono Preamp
Graham Slee Era Gold V Phono Preamp
Firestone Audio Korora MC/MM Phono Preamp
Bain’s Blog, June 2010, The Jazz Loft
The AIG FM Tuner Project: Hitachi FT-4000
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