Phono Preamplifiers from Pro-Ject, Tom Evans and Graham Slee
(An AIG Online Exclusive)
Ah, the first time. Life is full of first times, a precious few standing out above the rest. Our first experiences of life’s pleasures, great and small, carve themselves indelibly into our consciousness. Being such personal and subjective experiences, the passage of time has a way of buffing and polishing these events into gleaming, inviolable milestones, which, after a sufficient number of years, may not bear much resemblance to what actually happened. They become our own little myths, and, like it or not, the benchmarks by which we judge subsequent experiences. Inevitably, deep in the brain of any audiophile, is a little folder dedicated to firsts associated with reproduced music. The first record or CD you bought for yourself, the first time you heard a system that made your jaw drop, the first time you listened to your own system into the wee small hours, etc. etc. You get the idea.
And how, you may well ask, does this bring us to the more prosaic topic of phono preamplifiers? Well, I have my own little myth associated with these devices. When I bought my first turntable (a well worn Rega 2) I just happened to first listen to it through the more than slightly disproportionately priced Linn Linto phono stage with a good moving coil cartridge (an Audio Technica OC9). It sounded ravishingly, addictively, mythically good. Or, at least, that’s how I remember it now. Did it sound better than Duke Ellington’s Blues In Orbit playing through the Tom Evans Microgroove that I’m listening to right now? Impossible to say; different room, different system, different turntable (same cartridge, mind you). The quality and pedigree of the Linto notwithstanding, it should sound better, because everything else in my system does. Nevertheless, I’m still chasing my own mental image of that sound, mythical as it may be. It’s an ideal, a benchmark. And the ongoing search for that sound is what led me to review the three highly regarded phono preamps herein.
Graham Slee Era Gold Mk V ($1099 CAN)
(Essential Audio Corporation - Tel/Fax : +1 905 728 0320 - http://www.gspaudio.co.uk/)
Of the two eponymous British phono preamps on review here the Graham Slee Era Gold Mk 5 is the prettier little box, a simple, silver-faced brick with no lights or controls whatsoever. On its rear you’ll find gold-plated RCA inputs and outputs, a grounding post, and an input for the 24 volt outboard power supply (a power supply which is not only hand made, but certified by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) - a very unusual and expensive proposition for a small manufacturer like Graham Slee). The lack of power switch is no omission, as the Era Gold is meant to be powered constantly. Graham Slee has a history of building the phono boards for mixing consoles used at the BBC, and the Era Gold is built to the same type of professional spec. In fact, not only does it take weeks to fully burn in, the Era Gold will punish you for turning it off, since it takes at least a couple of days to really start to sing once powered up from cold. Kurt Martens, the Canadian distributor, actually keeps his demo units powered up in his car using an inverter while he’s on the road. Now that’s dedication!
With 41.5 dB of gain the Era Gold is suitable only for moving magnet and high output moving coil cartridges that can pump out between two and ten millivolts. You fancy guys with your low output moving coils will need to add Graham Slee’s Elevator EXP step-up transformer ($1199 CAN) to get enough gain for the Era Gold. Another notable technical consideration with the Graham Slee is that it eschews low pass or high pass filtering of any kind, making for a truly wide bandwidth design. The Slee will give you everything your cartridge can crank out from 5 Hz to 2.3 Mhz. If your system has significant bass response below 20hz you’ll want to be careful about acoustic feedback with your turntable.
Wide Bandwidth, big smiles
The Era Gold certainly did sound like a wide bandwidth design, that’s for sure. The results with my Clearuadio Aurum Beta S (an MM cartridge with an output of 3.5 mV) were outstanding. Bottom end performance was truly top notch, the best I’ve heard from any phono stage and cartridge combination. The sheer depth, solidity and control on bass guitars and big drums was often jaw-dropping. Thankfully, the information the Slee was able to dig out of the bottom octaves was never unwelcome, the control such that the sound never became bloated, fat, sloppy or excessive. This solid foundation gave music through the Era Gold not only great power and authority, but positively infectious and propulsive rhythmic drive. Well recorded drums could be thrilling. Tortoise’s bass and drum heavy 1998 masterpiece TNT , for example, was extremely well served by the Slee and once I started pulling out reggae discs it was hard to stop. An inevitable corollary of this rhythmic aplomb was that dynamics and slam were also first rate. If you like it big, bold, fast and loud, and have a pile of records to match, this is a piece of kit you’re likely to enjoy a lot.
For all its bass prowess the Era Gold sacrificed precious little at the other end of the spectrum. It’s probably the least “spitty” phono stage I’ve ever heard. Its top end is characterized by extremely well controlled sibilance and low groove noise, often the bane of inexpensive cartridge/phono stage combinations. The result is a treble that sounds smooth and refined. I wouldn’t say it was sweet, but very detailed, smooth and grain free.
The Era Gold’s midrange presentation was a textbook example of the gap that remains between CD and LP playback. The Slee’s midrange was tonally delicious, full-bodied and finely textured. Compared with the grey and muted sonic hues of CD, music through the Era Gold was as analog should be: vibrantly colorful, velvety smooth, and very detailed. Brass had visceral bite, strings had silky sheen, vocals were present and neutral, and soundstages bloomed large and deep, spreading well outside the speakers. In short, more like the real thing. Imaging was good, but not a standout feature. What was more impressive was how well the Era Gold separated individual sonic elements in complex passages, remaining coherent and un-congested in a way my Rotel RQ-970BX just couldn’t match.
So yes, I loved the sound of the Era Gold and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone except die hard low-output moving coil users (and even they might find great joy with an Era Gold plus the Elevator EXP). Did it live up to my own personal analog myth? Almost. As musical, visceral, and involving as it was, I couldn’t help wonder if a high end, low output moving coil and a high gain phono stage to match wouldn’t produce a sound with a little more refinement and delicacy.
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