just maybe there is an ‘analogue revival’
underway, and the arrival of one of the biggest bargains
in vinyl playback history isn’t a fluke. On top
of the latest edition of the Michell GyroDec and power
supply, a new (affordable) Grado Signature cartridge,
the latest version of Lyra’s Lydian moving-coil,
the MC Kinnie R03 head-amp from Switzerland and Mobile
Fidelity’s return to vinyl LP manufacture, Esoteric
Audio Research has launched a phono amp for the impoverished.
And not only is it ludicrously inexpensive, it’s
also all-valve. Best news of all? If you’re one
of those die-hards operating a vinyl-only system, it’s
available with a volume control, to serve as a one-input
pre-amp. But that’s jumping the gun.
the EAR 834P, this device is as basic as it gets- Tim
de Paravicini has said that the secret to good design
is not using the most expensive parts for a given goal,
but to achieve it with the most cost-effective parts.
In other words, the 834P is wholly utilitarian and to
hell with the aesthetics and designer-name bits. What
it does, too, is contrast nicely with EAR’s top-of-the-line,
ultra-luxo Yoshino, showing the extent of Tim’s
834P is, quite literally, a black box. Measuring 95mm
tall including the feet, 124mm wide and 275mm deep including
knobs and socketry, the 834P is small enough to reside
next to an existing pre-amp without the sacrifice of
much additional shelf space. To relieve the blackness
of the front panel, there’s a rotary on-off control
and, if so ordered, a rotary volume control, along with
legends in gold paint. The back contains a fuse holder,
IEC mains input, a multi-way earthing post, gold-plated
sockets for phono in/out and a press button for m-c
or m-m cartridges.
it’s tidy but not bursting with bits; this is
a basic design conceived with an eye to cost and simplicity.
Three ECC83s make up the valve complement, the unregulated
power supply features a small but good-quality toroidal
transformer, and the components reside on a main PCB.
Output is line level, the m-m input is a standard 47k-ohm
and the m-c setting is spec’d at a nominal 5-50ohm
impedance, adding a useful 2OdB of gain. In the interests
of quietness, m-c gain is via transformers.
important is the price. If you want to feed this into
an existing line input, you can save on the cost of
the volume and leave the hi-fi shop a meager 290 poorer.
But for 310, you get the volume control as well. My
review sample was supplied with volume control so I
could try it directly into the power amps; I therefore
cannot comment on whether or not there’s a sonic
difference between the with-or-without versions. Suffice
to say, the 834P sounded better when not encumbered
by a second pre-amp in the circuit, so I used it straight
into a number of single-ended power amps as well as
into the GRAAF, Krell KRC and Linn Kairn pre-amps. One
other thing: it’s worth the extra 30 for the volume-control
option (even if you have no intention of directly driving
a power amp) because it’s handy for matching playback
levels between phono and other source inputs.
the EAR in m-c mode would just about handle the signal
from the low-output Transfiguration cartridge, I found
it better to stick with medium output types. Denons
and Lyras in particular worked very well with it. Depending
on your own cartridge and the gain characteristics of
your pre-amp or integrated, you might prefer to leave
the EAR on m-m setting, the 47k-ohm input being a shade
quieter and more open. (This, for younger readers, is
the kind of stuff we used to write about all the time,
when controversy meant "Should I or should I not
use a step-up with my m-c cartridge?" Which led,
of course, to a whole generation of cartridge designers
producing m-cs which worked straight into m-m inputs.)
how did it sound? In a word: Wonderful. As with all
tube bargains - budget Crofts, some kits, vintage stuff
- there’s a certain price to pay in absolute detail
and background silence. The 834P, though, swings so
fluidly and has such wide dynamics that you just don’t
notice the barely audible background hash. Hell, most
surface whoosh is so much louder than the 834P’s
own noise that the LP will mask it.
distinguishes the 834P from solid-state phono stages
is the sense of openness, scale and three-dimensionality.
While it’s easy to better the retrieval of detail
- this is no Gryphon, no MC Kinnie - it’s hard
to match the warmth and the ‘analogueness’
of the 834P. It’s a great soundstager, a strong
defender of the analogue argument and (for those who
cherish this one aspect of playback above others) the
source of some of the sweetest bass I’ve heard
in years. As for vocals, all I can do is s-i-g-h-h-h.
[E-h-h-h? – Ed.]
you know what else this gem does? It answers an old
prayer of mine, filling in perfectly for the late, lamented
Moscode Superlt all-tube phono amp, right down to the
pocket money price tag. But be prepared to wait for
an 834P. I reckon demand could outstrip supply once
the word is out.