EAR 834P phono preamplifier
review at www.stereophile.com
folks, vinyl is not dead. And even though my
colleague Mikey Fremer is beginning to sound
like a broken record, the little guy is right:
when it comes to the sound on offer, CD still
doesn't come close. There are more turntables,
phono cartridges, and tonearms on the market
today than ever before. Moreover, with companies
like Classic Records, Analogue Productions,
and Mosaic offering a steady stream of ultra-high-quality
reissues, there seems to be an increasing supply
of quality vinyl at reasonable prices.
of the big problems analog fans face today is
in the preamp department. Because most of today's
most popular high-end preamplifiers are sold
as line-stage only, vinylphiles must seek out
separate phono stages. And there aren't a large
number of stand-alone phono stages available,
and fewer still at affordable prices.
hEARd it first at HI-FI '96!
I came upon the Esoteric Audio Research 834P
phono stage quite by accident, at HI-FI '96
in New York. I was hanging out at the Alón
room, listening to the Phalanx/Poseidon flagship
speakers, unwinding after a long day. Although
I've gone on record to a nauseating extent about
my love affair with Alón speakers, and
own pairs of Alón V Mk.IIs and Petites
(What can I say? Designer Carl Marchisotto and
I have similar listening biases), I'd never
really warmed to the sound of the Phalanx the
three times I'd heard it at Consumer Electronics
this time, at the Waldorf, the sound was exquisite—the
best I've ever heard from an Alón design.
I voted Marchisotto's room as tied for first
place for Best Sound at the Show (after the
first day, that is, when there were some cable
break-in anomalies). Maybe it was the great
room. Maybe it was the fact that it was the
first time the designer had used the Audio Research
Reference electronics and the VPI TNT/JMW Memorial
arm/Clearaudio Insider cartridge. All in all,
Marchisotto was twirling black discs on a system
that retailed for close to $125,000.
most visitors to this room did not realize,
however, was that between the Insider and the
ARC Reference One preamplifier was EAR's 834P
phono stage. This tiny box, sporting no more
than an on-off switch and a volume knob, was
lost in the shuffle amid all that oversized,
state-of-the-art and cost-no-object gear. My
"Best Sound at Show" was being produced
using a phono preamplifier retailing for just
had to get this little wonder in my reference
system to put up against my reference Vendetta
Research SP-2C phono stage.
simple, down-to-EARth design
The 834P's diminutive box epitomizes designer
Tim de Paravacini's "simple is better"
design: three ECC83 tubes, a toroidal transformer,
and a tiny circuit board are all ya get. The
front panel sports an on-off switch and a volume
knob. (In a phono-only system, a separate preamp
is therefore unnecessary.) The user can toggle
between a standard 47k ohm moving-magnet input
and a moving-coil input that uses internal step-up
transformers, one for each channel.
let's hEAR that rear wall!
The performance of the EAR 834P phono stage
combined the strengths, weaknesses, and colorations
of classic high-end tube gear. As one would
expect, the EAR thus excelled at re-creating
the inner detail of good recordings, and was
adept at extracting the delicacy, the subtle
nuances of well-recorded unamplified instruments.
Along with inner detail came agile reproduction
of transients, but without a trace of hardness.
EAR's greatest strength was its ability to reproduce
perfectly placed holographic images with body
and life on a wide, deep soundstage. This may
be the phono stage for lovers of well-recorded
classical works. On Cantate Domino (Proprius
7762) the layered vocals and French horns against
the rear of the soundstage were arresting. And
the EAR lit up the rear wall and provided a
detailed perspective of the recording space
unlike any phono stage I've heard. If hall sound
and ambience are important to you, you must
audition this phono stage.
834P's tonal balance was replete with a number
of classic "tubey" colorations that
many of today's valve designers have been able
to abandon. The amplifier's overall dark perspective
reflected very laid-back extreme high frequencies
and an overly round midbass. There was a slightly
euphonic liquid presentation throughout the
midrange and upper highs as well.
the EAR's mixed bag of characteristics interests
you will depend on your own listening biases,
musical tastes, and the recordings themselves.
On the Classic Records reissue of Richard Strauss's
Till Eulenspiegel (RCA/Classic LSP-2077), the
EAR presented the sweetest string tones from
the string bass through the violins. The detail
and ambience surrounding midrange instruments
were rather seductive, although the overall
perspective of the orchestra was dark. Similarly,
the silky strings on the reissue of Paul Desmond's
Desmond Blue (RCA/Classic LSP-2438) seemed to
have an extra dash of maple syrup.
dEARth of bass or dynamics here
Whether the midbass thickness was bothersome
to me seemed to vary dramatically from recording
to recording. The EAR presented a fat muddiness
to the string basses, which seemed to lag behind
the higher strings in the third movement of
Pierre Monteux's rendition of Tchaikovsky's
Symphony 4 (RCA/Classic LSP-2369). This thickness
seemed to be isolated in a very narrow frequency
analog rock extravaganzas in which the bombastic
bass information is lower in frequency—such
as Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop (Epic EK 44313),
Human League's "Don't You Want Me"
(on Virgin 8466-12), or Grandmaster Flash's
"The Message" (on Sugar Hill SH-584)—the
bass performance was as tight as could be. Both
rock and classical aficionados should be impressed
by this unit's wide dynamic capabilities.
phono stage definitely bears the Tim de Paravacini
sonic signature. Last year I was able to briefly
audition Tim's EAR 509 power amplifier in my
system; its strengths and weaknesses, colorations
and textures seemed to parallel that of the
834 to a P!
de P doth not fEAR a shootout with the mighty
But how does this phono stage compare to the
FET-based Vendetta, my reference of nearly a
decade? Well, I wish the Vendetta could reproduce
the holographic body of images and room sound
that the EAR can (maybe you really do need tubes
for that), and the EAR does not share the Vendetta's
single coloration: the highlighting of instruments
in the lower high-frequency range. But the Vendetta's
high- and low-level dynamic performance equals
that of the EAR, and, at the end of the day,
I cannot live without the Vendetta's superior
clarity, overall lack of coloration, and lack
of low-level noise. Nope, I'll keep my Vendetta,
again, if the Vendetta were available today
(it hasn't been for a number of years), it would
likely retail for three to four times the price
of the EAR. Finally, if I'd never heard the
Vendetta, I would probably have purchased the
EAR to be my reference.
up—finally, serious tube gear for low
The EAR 834P is a remarkable piece of work:
a reference-quality phono preamplifier that
would feel at home in a system of any price.
At its ..... sticker price it's downright obscene.
If you treasure analog as I do, particularly
if you're a fan of well-recorded classical works,
you should treat yourself to an audition of