as reviewed by Adam Goldfine
It began at the suggestion of John Ulrick, president of Spectron Audio, while I was reviewing his Musician III Mk2 monoblock amplifiers. "To really hear what they are capable of, put a tube in front of them," John said. Given that the combination of the Spectron amps and the YG Acoustics Anat Reference II Studio loudspeakers was already creating some of the most convincing and emotionally engaging sound I had ever heard in my or any other listening room, I had to hear what John meant. And so began my quest for a suitable tube preamp.
There are a handful of companies in the high end audio industry that stand out from the rest as a result of their longevity in the business, the quality of their products or the value of their offerings. An even smaller number stand out in all three categories and Esoteric Audio Research (E.A.R.). is one of those few. Their 912 preamp is extremely well regarded (and well reviewed) but the somewhat more affordable 868 seemed to aspire to the same lofty performance goals and to be getting somewhat less attention.
According to E.A.R. the 868 preamp features essentially the same circuitry and sound of the 912, minus the meters and some extra functionality. It is available as a line stage only or with an onboard phono preamp with circuitry that is said to be identical to the standalone E.A.R. 88PB. It offers balanced and single ended inputs and outputs, a tape loop, remote volume control via motorized potentiometer and a built in step up transformer for moving coil cartridges and offers several load and gain options.
The rather sparse user manual doesn't provide any information on how to set the transformers or even make any mention of their existence let alone how to adjust the gain or cartridge loading. I can only surmise that either expertise on the part of the end user or dealer assistance is assumed by E.A.R. Still, a proper manual would be nice.
The rear panel houses one pair of balanced line level inputs along with four pairs of single ended inputs and a tape loop. A single set of phono inputs sits next to a ground connector and a pushbutton selector for MM or MC (which engages or disengages the step up transformers). Two pairs of balanced and two pairs of single ended outputs permit bi-amping which proved useful in my set up.
Though the E.A.R. website calls the 868 a "fully balanced, transformer-coupled design" it is not in fact fully balanced. Input and output transformers convert the single ended circuit to balanced connectors and do reject common-mode interference, but it does not contain true balanced circuitry. Two pairs of PCC88 tubes, one pair for the line stage and one pair for the phono stage, provide gain.
The fit and finish of the piece is top notch starting with a very thick chrome faceplate that exudes quality and evokes a timeless character consistent with its creator's design philosophy. It says classic before you even plug it in. The chrome plated selector knob makes a distinct clunk as you switch between sources and a subdued thump can be heard through the speakers if your amp(s) are turned on prior to engaging the 868's on switch.
The system in which I auditioned the 868 included the Spectron Musician III Mk2 mono blocks mentioned above, a pair of YG Acoustics Anat Reference II Studio loudspeakers, a Music Hall MMF 7 turntable and arm with a Benz Micro Ace H cartridge and several digital sources including E.A.R.'s own and quite excellent Acute CD Player, the Esoteric SA – 50 SACD/CD Player and the Wadia 581. Thank you very much to Gary Hjerpe of Esoteric Audio (the AZ dealer) for the loan of the Esoteric and Wadia players while mine was being upgraded. Balanced connections were made using Vacuum State Electronics' silver wire cables between source and preamp and preamp and amplifier. The speakers were bi-amped employing the single ended outputs from the 868 to the onboard sub amp in YG's bass modules.
Well aware of E.A.R.'s reputation both in the professional and audiophile worlds and having heard numerous excellent demonstrations at shows, I had high expectations for the 868. Simply put, I was not disappointed. It was noticeably more transparent than my one third the price Primare Pre30 and though I would characterize both pieces as neutral, the all tube 868 had a richness and sense of body that gave music life and texture without coloring the sound. The sound was clean and had the immediacy and roundness of tone of tubes without the euphonic warmth that some tube pre-amps can impart.
Dynamically the 868 had an effortless quality that, coupled with the Spectron amps and the YG Acoustics loudspeakers really seemed to let the music cut loose. Orchestral bass drum hits were explosive, micro dynamics were finely nuanced. The combination was remarkable for its lack of character and its ability to just let go of the notes.
Avant-garde jazz saxophonist Peter Epstein has quickly become one of my favorite modern jazz artists. Through the 868 his "April 1st" Staring at the Sun (CD, M.A. Recordings M041A) was tonally slightly warmer than through the Pre30 but again I wouldn't characterize it as warm or tubey. It was rich, but never overly so; more chocolate mousse than hot fudge. Music had a greater sense of realism, more body and texture but never became thick or congealed sounding, even at high volumes. Blacker backgrounds and seemingly unrestrained dynamic contrasts created a more convincing illusion that music was being played in the room, not being electronically reproduced.
As an aside, this is an album that took a few listens to warm up to. In fact I was pretty iffy on it at first which experience has shown can be a good sign. It took a few plays to fully grasp the subtle interplay between musicians, their musical conversation so intuitive and seemingly free form that at times it seemed like it was on the verge of coming completely unglued. But the thread, the logic, would always emerge to hold it together.
The brilliant composition and virtuoso playing on this album conspire to create something unique, something that pushes the envelope of musical convention yet remains accessible. There are no big melodic hooks here; fine sonic shades and nuances paint a subtle musical picture; you won't find yourself rocking out to this in your car. The recording quality is exceptional and probably sounds good on most systems, but much of what's going on is so subtle, it takes a top notch system to really get the full picture. Sonically it's among the best recordings I own.
Randall Thompson's "Testament of Freedom", Reference Recordings' HDCD Sampler (CD, Reference Recordings RR-S3CD) sounded fleshed out and three dimensional through the 868. Individual voices were more distinct and the retrieval of ambiance cues so precise and detailed that there was an intoxicating sense of the recorded hall completely replacing the acoustics of my room. Instruments had a greater sense of air around them, and tonally seemed just a bit warmer and more lifelike. A slight patina of grain seemed to disappear and dynamically the 868 was beyond reproach.
This character, or rather lack of character, was consistent from recording to recording. In E.A.R.'s rooms at shows, music has always had an uncanny sense of ease and it was no different in my room. The 868 seemed to let music flow through it neither compressing nor exaggerating dynamic swings. Both the YG speakers and Spectron amps excelled at distinguishing the various tonal colors that make up any individual instrument's timbre and the 868 only served to enhance that quality letting each instrument's unique character shine through unfettered and unadulterated.
Mighty Sam McClain's voice on the exceptionally well recorded "Too Proud to Beg", BluesQuest (SACD, AudioQuest Music AQ-SACD1052) was eerily palpable and free of electronic artifacts and grain. The guitar was piercing when it was meant to be piercing and once again the recorded space overtook and replaced my listening room with each instrument located clearly within and distinct from that space. It was the kind of seamless illusion that kept me entertained and captivated through many hours of listening.
The phono stage adds $1800 to the 868 line stage only price and the circuitry is identical to E.A.R.'s own 88PB standalone phono preamp. For some time I had been thinking it was time to upgrade my vinyl rig, but I was shocked by how much difference the 868 made replacing my outboard Music Reference RM4 phono preamp. Considering the 88PB itself is $5595, including the phono stage with the 868 is a bargain.
When I first heard "Please Read the Letter" from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand (LP, Rounder Records 11661-9075-1) I thought producer T-Bone Burnett had lost his mind. It's so bass heavy and thick, bloated, lacking in detail and ambience, or so I thought. Through the 868 phono stage the album was completely transformed. Though it's still a very rich mix it makes a lot more sense, the dull thud of the bass drum became resolved, replaced with a sense of timbre and tone with everything else well sorted.
One of the things that has always bothered me about the mix on Steely Dan's "Josie" Aja (LP, ABC Records AA 1006) is how recessed Donald Fagen's voice sounds. Through the 868 he seemed more upfront and present. I wouldn't say it was forward in any way, the 868 just allowed his voice to be more distinct within the mix. Everything was a bit tighter and more focused, from the purr of the bass to the crack of the snare to the rich metallic overtones of the cymbals. There is a remarkable amount of detail and information on this record which was only enhanced by the seemingly greater contrast—which never seemed exaggerated—between loud and soft provided by the 868. Even though the ambience on this album was produced in the studio it created an enticing illusion of three dimensional instruments playing on a deep and vividly rendered soundstage.
Even on my well worn copy of the original ABC issue of the album, through the 868, the title track of Aja is incredibly engaging, easily drawing you into and unraveling it's richly interwoven musical lines. The opening piano was palpable and textured, and the sax, which typically sounds somewhat obscure, made more sense than ever. The sound was rich but once again not overly so, the transparency of the 868 allowing the music to flow unimpeded, palpable and present.
I have been a die hard Led Zeppelin fan since my mid teens, so it was with some disappointment that along with discovering high end audio, I also discovered how poor the sound quality was on many Zep albums. So I was surprised at the sonics of "Ten Years Gone" from Latter Days - The Best of Led Zeppelin Volume Two (LP, Atlantic 83278-1), originally released on Physical Graffiti. Through the 868, this piece, which contains 14 overdubbed guitar tracks for the harmony section, was remarkably well rendered. Robert Plant nearly had that you are there quality and John Paul Jones' bass produced the kind of deep, tight, articulate growl that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. I heard information I never knew existed on a track I have literally played at least 100 times. Led Zeppelin and high end sound, heaven!
Turning to "Teal for Two" from Shades of Dring (LP, Cambria Records C-1016), the saxophone was expressive and soulful. The piano sounded substantial, harmonically fleshed out, nearly carrying the weight and impact of the real thing. Over and over, I found myself just listening, forgetting to take notes, getting lost in the experience. It's clear the intent behind the 868 is to make music, or rather to be a conduit for music. The 868 allowed music to just happen, to connect with the listener emotionally in the way only the best gear can.
The 868 is an easy recommend. It performed flawlessly and to my great enjoyment in the context of a top flight system with some of the most resolving and musical gear on the planet. While its price is probably out of reach for most newcomers, it's not stratospheric either and the 868 will hold its own while the system is upgraded around it. The manual leaves a lot of room for improvement and there really is no explanation of how to set up the phono stage, but it's pretty simple to figure out and your dealer should be able to help you get it right.
As I mentioned earlier, every E.A.R. demonstration I have ever heard has had a relaxed, natural and musical quality to it, the kind of sound that draws you in and makes you relax and listen, not analyze, just listen. This is of course a testament to both the quality of the sound and the set up skill of US Distributor Dan Meinwald. The 868 was no different in my room. If you are looking for an exquisite sounding, full function preamp with single-ended and balanced connections, then put the 868 at the top of your audition list. Adam Goldfine
To the editor:
The 868 has one pair of balanced inputs by means of a transformer. The rejection ratio is better than 50dB for 50/60 Hz and their harmonics. The balanced outputs are also fully floating according to standard studio practices for 600-Ohm systems.
The tube circuitry is single-ended unbalanced in its operation. This does not mean that common mode noise is an issue. Only the unbalanced inputs via the phono inputs could possibly have potential problems with virulent RF. A transformer with electrostatic shields can have the primary floating as balanced input with the secondary having one side grounded.
Tim de Paravicini