all these years of elephantine valve designs that take
up inordinate space in the living room, there’s
a new trend developing. It’s the integrated valve
amplifier and Tim de Paravicini’s Esoteric Audio
Research company is the latest to combine power and
preamp into a single, more domestically friendly package.
that the EAR 834 is reduced to the size of the fifties
Pye Mozart we look at this month; the numbers refer
to the eight EL34s that populate the top of the chassis.
(Well, they should, but our sample was supplied with
6L6s.) With that array, you still need a certain amount
of square footage. All the same, the 834 doesn't occupy
much more space than my Gyrodec. It's also user-friendly.
This valve amplifier, according to Tim, doesn't need
any complicated fiddling with re-biasing and it has
just two controls on the shiny brass faceplate.
always with EAR products, these controls have a luscious
feel. The selector knob for the six inputs clicks smoothly
round and the volume knob turns as though it has a traction
engine's flywheel behind it. This sort of thing exudes
quality and has the customer feeling his money is well-spent
on a product of rare quality.
always a quirk to Paravicini designs. This time it’s
the grilles which cover the bottles. The shape of the
black metal grilles which protect the valves, Tim says,
is based on the roof of King's Cross station. It's certainly
more interesting than the square hampster cage that
covers the hotter parts of many valve amps. I'd have
gone for the Quai d'Orsay, myself, but at least we’re
lucky it wasn’t Richard Rogers' Beaubourg or Lloyds
building that caught his eye when he was thinking about
valve covers for the 834.
grilles are normally fixed; a good thing, because while
eight valves don't run hot enough for the central heating
to be turned off, the 834 isn't exactly a refrigerator.
It needs a fair amount of space for convection above
and around it. There’s a small degree of hum from
the mains transformer, which also makes it advisable
for the amplifier to be sited well away from the listening
a recognisable ‘house-style’ to the EAR
sound. It’s characterised by a very fine sense
of detail. Especially in the mid-range and treble -
which is why you’ll find EAR power amplifiers
credited in the small print on the back page of a CD
insert as being used by producers and engineers for
mastering. As an example, on Paul Simon’s Graceland,
listen for a triangle very quietly pinging away far
back on the right. Bet you didn’t know it was
there, with all the backing vocals, guitars and the
drumming around it. Hear a guitar chord stop dead with
a twang, instead of wobbling indeterminately away into
background mush. Listen for a drum firmly and heavily
thumped - and then a fraction of a second of dead, deep,
almost anechoic silence.
are some of the trademarks of EAR, along with a forward
presentation that has instrumentalists and vocalists
stepping out onto the carpet, well in front of the speakers.
They make for a sound that is as tight as a guy-rope
and as fast as closing a coal-mine
instruments fare particularly well. I was listening
to Mary Black when I suddenly realised, deep into the
performance, that I was hearing a rather better quality
of piano than I thought was there. It was broader and
fuller - and reached very deep. That wasn’t only
in the notes, either, but in terms of physical scale.
Where we approach a ‘studio’ presentation
again - one I like, but might be too severe for some
– is that the 834 focuses as much on a vocalist’s
microphone as her physical presence. Hearing a near-disembodied
head in front of speakers on some close-miked vocal
recordings is disconcerting, but the truthfulness of
it can’t be denied.
a Comfort Blanket
at this point that a warning note creeps in. If you
want a tear-jerking enhanced over-emotional experience
in your living room, then this EAR integrated is going
to look you in the eye rather coolly and your hanky
will stay dry. We’re not in the business here
of equating valve sound with a warm comfort blanket.
On female vocals like Mary Black’s, there is something
of a cut-glass edge at times where other amplifiers
of the valve persuasion will soften it with jeweller's
was intriguing that friends more used to solid-state
revelled in the clarity and the image precision, while
others with more experience of valves were somewhat
taken aback by it. One of the former - who leaves my
listening room at speed at the first sign of distortion
– loved it, one of the latter found it too concentrated
to live with. Another, used to a gentler top and bottom
end, sat back admiring and said the EAR was a valve
amplifier for Naim lovers.
some ways that’s overstating the case, but the
EAR 834 is certainly powerful, precise, detailed and
vivid. In common with other Paravicini designs, it has
a very tight grip on every kind of music and won’t
let go. Even down in the bass, it thunders away; the
sharpness of definition just a trifle looser than the
extremely muscular solid-state variety, but far tighter
and tauter than other valve rivals. It’s beautifully
made, too, with that thick gleaming fascia exciting
unequivocal admiration. There’s only one snag;
much as it looks as though it will deal with those nasty
panel-speaker loads that dip down to nearly no ohms
at all, it’s strictly for 8 ohm impedance loudspeakers.
friends put it on their shopping list, so I suspect
will many others.
Audio Research products are designed by someone I regard
as the Patron Saint of valve design - Tim de Paravicini.
Although - perhaps surprisingly - Tim has no inbuilt
prejudice against the transistor and has produced many
excellent solid state amps for others (e.g. Musical
Fidelity and John Shearne) for himself he designs valve
amps - and valve tuners, and valve stereo decoders,
and valve microphones and valve cutting amps - and anything
else to do with valves. He designed the renowned Lux
valve amplifiers, when he worked for the company in
many dedicated engineers with a rare and deep specialist
knowledge, Tim designs as much as possible himself.
This includes the difficult but crucial output transformers
of a valve amplifier, something at which he is an expert.
Tim's trannys are special; I measure them and know well
that they keep his valve amps a good nose ahead in the
field by providing more output at high and low frequencies.
Also, most feedback is taken from tappings on the primary
winding. This means the load does not affect feedback
behaviour, something that makes many valve amps sound
awful with electrostatic loudspeakers. The 834 can drive
electrostatics, being unaffected by difficult loads.
brings us to his new 834 integrated amplifier. The little
tranny stacks at the back might suggest all sorts of
limitations, like 20 watts output maximum, with plenty
of distortion. In fact, the 834 gives an easy 40 watts
per channel and 0.02% distortion (innocuous second harmonic),
when delivering one watt of output in the mid-band (I
kHz). This means it will deliver a dean, distortion
free sound at ordinary volumes.
amps do go a bit wonky at extremes of frequency and
power output. The 834 is no exception; at l0kHz distortion
rose to 0.4%, but mainly second harmonic, but with some
higher order components too. Although the distortion
is high, the type of distortion produced will not sound
use valve amps stay clean and sweet sounding if they
are not pushed too hard. Their innate smoothness and
openness has nothing to do with distortion, as some
would suggest. Mid-band overload produces progressively
more muddle and confusion, rather than the hard rasping
sound of a solid state amp. Treble overload is rarer,
due to the energy distribution of music, but when it
occurs even valve amps can rasp a little and the treble
will get 'dirty' sounding. Transistor amps sound nasty
immediately they overload; valve amps will take a lot
more stick before they start to sound nasty, appearing
to go louder.
the EAR 834 turns out 40 watts per channel into eight
ohms, but less into other impedances, since it caters
only for eight ohm loudspeakers (now 4R and 8R)
and valve amplifiers have to match their load for
best power transfer. Connect up a four ohm loudspeaker
and power will drop, unlike a solid state amp where
it will rise. This is a property of valve amps in general
I should point out, not just the EAR 834.
output available is enough to make a normal loudspeaker
go loud in any room of small-to-average size, but not
very loud. The 834 is more powerful than most rivals,
which commonly produce 15-30 watts. I find low output
valve amps frustrating in that they can sound superb
at moderate volume, yet resist being turned up, at least
with modern inefficient loudspeakers. The 834 is a little
less restricted in this sense, although on a watts/cost
basis, no valve amp is a bargain. including this one.
CD, tuner and tape inputs all run through the selector
switch straight to the volume control, as with most
modern amplifiers. Frequency response was wide enough
to complement CD, reaching right down to 5 Hz. The upper
limit was a sensible 35 kHz. With noise down at -92
dB and virtually no hum, the 834 is quiet, but this
is to be expected from Tim
a straightforward, well designed valve amplifier, built
like a tank, under-run to extend valve life and of very
sound basic design. It has an excellent specification
and offers usefully more power than many rivals. But
of course, valve amplifiers are all about sound quality,
something in which they vary widely. It has to be in
this area that final value judgements are made and Eric
describes his experiences in the main body of the review.