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Positive Feedback ISSUE 6
e.a.r./yoshino 324 solid-state phono preamplifier
as reviewed by Greg Weaver and Robert H. Levi
If you were one of the fortunate few who made the annual pilgrimage to this year's Mecca for our industry, the CES in Las Vegas, and had the privilege of witnessing the remarkable system in room 2251 at the Alexis Park, you know what spurred me to ask Dan Meinwald for the opportunity for a closer listen to the brand new 324 solid-state phono preamp. If not, let me give you just a little taste
I was standing in front of building 25 of the Alexis Park waiting for a colleague to join me when I heard a Flamingo dancer go into his routine in the room at the top of the stairs. Well, as I climbed the stairs and finally entered the room, I discovered that it was a magical system creating those sounds, and not a gifted Spanish dancer. The room had unintentionally passed the LIAR test"Listening In Another Room." Do you realize what a good thing that is?
The sound in the room was so real and vigorous that it physically startled Dan Meinwald, who was just entering from another adjoining room during a brief pause in the recorded performance. He literally had a "Fight or Flight" start when the dancer resumed his ferocious stomping and stamping on an obviously wooden dance floor. Man, what didn't this system do right?
The table was the ($18,000) air bearing Townshend Rock Reference Master with a $3000 Helius Omega tonearm fitted with a van den Hul Colibri. This arm features a completely new bearing layout, allowing energy to pass from the arm tube directly to the armboard for dissipation. Arm damping is achieved via a paddle (mounted at the front tip of the headshell) that traces through a fluid filled, retractable trough. This entire paddle trough is pivoted, and swings in over the record after it is placed on the spindle!
The phono section was Tim de Paravicini's new solid-state $3600 E.A.R. 324 Deluxe that was developed from the work done creating the transformer-coupled E.A.R. 312 preamp. Amplification was via the $35,000 pair of simply extraordinary-looking and shockingly resolute Paravicini (E.A.R.) M100's, 100 watt, single-ended solid-state monoblocks, also new from the mind and hand of Timmy deP.
Finally, the Martin Design Coltrane loudspeaker coupled the rich and authoritative current to the air. These $40,000 transducers featured a 1 piece, carbon fiber fabricated cabinet, a diamond tweeter and ceramic mids and woofers from Accuton. Suffice it to say that this system was one of the most dynamic and effortless sounding I've had the pleasure to listen to. With a price that approaches that of a home here in the mid-West, such equipment may be unobtainable to mostnevertheless, it serves as a perfect example of what the goals of our chosen hobby should be.
Alexis Park 2251 at this years CES, featuring all solid-state electronics from E.A.R. designer Tim de Paravicini. (Photograph by Greg Weaver; image processing by David W. Robinson)
The 324 is based upon the foundations laid by the Paravicini 312 Control Center, the first all solid-state preamp from E.A.R./Yoshino introduced in 2000. Combining extensive transformer coupling, Tim's innovative brand of circuit design and offering remarkable flexibility, the 312 was a hit. The 324 is a logical extension of that work. With a single purposethat of taking the very small signal levels generated by a phono cartridge (in the milli-volts range) and amplifying it to a voltage that will appear to a line stage no different than any source signalthe 324 goes about a task that is not as easy as it sounds.
Very high quality input transformers, the same ones used in the 312 Control Center and MC3 step-up amplifier, as well as the critical output transformers, are designed by and built to Tim's own rigid specifications. Transformer execution is an area where he feels you either do it right, or you don't. He works rigorously to be sure his are right.
The unit is of single-ended (pure class-A) design, has a unique RIAA equalization circuit said to offer great stability and freedom from transient overload, and offers wide bandwidth and linear frequency response. One unusual feature of the design is the choice not to use a regulated power supply. Tim feels that regulated power supplies have their own inherent problems, and instead uses multi-stage filtering to smooth out high frequency variations, as well as inductors feeding the rectifier bridge to obtain lower ripple, lower peak current through the bridge (for increased reliability, lower likelihood of mechanical transformer noise and lower noise) and a higher degree of regulation.
The model number of this device was arrived at in a fashion that I admire, and one that has long since gone the way of the 8-Track in this industry. Beginning back in 1977 with the release of the E.A.R. 509, Tim developed the convention of using factors like the part type, number and quantity employed in the design to generate the model number. The 509 was so christened because it was based on a single PL509 tube. The 834 uses 8 EL34s. So the 324 earns its designation by using only 3 transistors (per channel) in a 2-channel configuration with 4 outputs. While Tim admits that this is mostly abstract, I find it somewhat admirable that that he is sticking with his principles.
Getting a new EAR...
I was rather excited when, in early January, the email from Dan came asking if I'd like to audition the 324 at home. As exhilarating as the thought of doing the review had been, the addition of the phono stage to my system was even more so.
Not overwhelming in size, the 12.7" wide, by 10.5" deep, 4" tall unit weighs in at some 11 pounds and is feature leaden, to say the least. With two sets of single-ended inputs, and both a single-ended and balance output, toggle switch selectable, the unit allows for the use of two tables without the need to change cables every time you wish to switch between them. Input one allows for either MM or MC cartridge use, while input two is labeled MM only. Between those two inputs is a two position switch (marked high and low) to allow input gain selection. An IEC socket completes the back panel.
The front of the unit offers versatility galore. Starting on the left side, the first control, a round knob, allows for selection of 40, 15 or 4 ohm loading on input one. Next, nearer the bottom of the face, is a small recessed push-button to select between the two inputs. This is followed by two more round knobs, vertically aligned, for the control of the MM input. The upper knob allows selection of 20, 100, 220, 330 or 470 Pico Farads of capacitive loading while the lower permits selecting 100 K, 47 K, 33 K, 22 K or 16 K of impedance. In the center of the thick, brushed aluminum front panel is a gain control offering 0, -6 or 12 dB of attenuation from 54 dB. In the same vertical alignment as the input selector are the next two push buttons, the first allows for phase inversion (0 or 180 degrees) and the second chooses stereo or mono. Finally, at the right side and centered, is the rotating on/off switch with a blue pilot lamp immediately below.
This combination of ease of selection and wide choice of loading is a dream for the LP enthusiast. Though many phono stages allow for loading manipulation via an internal or rear mounted DIP switch, few in this price range offer such degree of control from the front panel. The settings are flexible enough to allow you to create near perfection with any cartridge or cable combination (not to mention the flexibility as a tone control for overly bright recordings, etc.), and the ability to properly phase your Shaded Dogs or Living Presence recordings without having to reverse your speaker cables (not the simplest of tasks with a eight conductor bi-wire configuration) demonstrates a serious commitment to the vinyl format. This is no surprise from veteran designer Tim de Paravicini.
This degree of tuning is essential in today's world of analog. Moving coil cartridges are fairly immune to capacitive loading and most exhibit a rising high frequency response due to undampened resonances generated in the audible spectrum of frequencies. While this typical trait may seem to offer more space and subjective air over a cartridge that is more properly dampened, it is not accurate' and is quite annoying with recordings that may lean toward the bright side to begin with. Using a higher impedance with MC's diverts some of the cartridge output back into the cart itself, electronically damping it and making it seem less bright yet causing loss of image stability, focus and depth.
Most MM cart manufacturers recommend an impedance of 47 K ohms, but that can both exaggerate imaging and soundstage size as well as artificially bloat the bottom three octaves or so. Overly loading down a moving magnet cartridge squanders the signal output, which manifests as a deflation of the sonic envelop and dynamics and can affect the signal to noise ratio capability of the vinyl front endnot something one would choose to do voluntarily, eh? Lowering the impedance often maximizes power transfer, yielding a more truthful version of the cartridges actual voice.
Though taking the specified capacitance of a cartridge and adding in the interconnect capacitance to equal the manufacturers suggested value is a good starting point, don't quit there. My experiences with MM carts have led me to find that somewhere between 200-500 pF of capacitance offers up the best combination of energy, space and detail with timber and dynamics, with lower values adding richness and warmth. Typically, using a lower capacitance will sound somewhat louder while increasing the capacitance in parallel with the cart output can offer wider soundstaging, reduce image stability, control and even depth. Like most everything else in life, cartridge matching is not a "one size fits all" proposition, and the E.A.R./Yoshino 324 gives you a more than fair chance at getting it right.
During my listening, I employed a host of MC cartridges, including a van den Hul remanufactured Denon DL103D, a Monster Cable Sigma Genesis 2000 and a Sumiko Blue Point Special. While these all were very good matches with the 324D, I found that the degree of control and ultimate synergy offered by the Clearaudio Virtuoso Mk II, a moving magnet design, to be simply captivating, and therefore, the majority of my listening was done with it in place. I settled on settings of 220 pF and 33 K. I also used 6 dB attenuation from the front panel switch, as that most closely matched the output from my digital front end.
The voice of an EAR...
Getting a handle on the voice of the 324 was difficult; it honestly didn't seem to have one of its own. This device seemed to sacrifice its own identity at the pleasure of being able to bare the soul of the music flowing through it.
One of the first characteristics to stand out was the unit's ability to recreate silence. With a rated signal to noise ratio of 68 dB, in part due to the quality of the transformers used, this achievement contributes to its ability to portray micro-dynamic shadings, to effectively lower the overall noise floor and to offer a very high degree of resolve to events occurring near that floorall very desirable and equally hard to achieve with a phono preamplifier.
The 324's ability to convey macro-dynamic impact is more startling than CD, given the proper recording. Just for grins, try out the cut "Boardwalk" from the Ricki Lee Jones' Girl At Her Volcano (Warner Bros. 23805-1B) or the entirety of side four of Roger Waters Amused to Death (Sony/Columbia 468761 0). Scale is never confused or vague. Slam is portrayed with detail and definition. Goosebump city!
One of this device's ultimate strengths, to my ears at least, is its aptitude to readily unravel complex orchestrations while keeping the scale, location and timbre in near flawless relationship. This strength is much appreciated with material as diverse as Prokofiev's Scythian Suite (Mercury SR-90006) to Marillion's Misplaced Childhood (EMI ST-12431), and is unnerving at times.
Besides digging deeply, the 324 Deluxe is velvety smooth in the bass and sub bass departments, an area where so many phono stages falter. It is vibrantly liquid and rich in both its ability to recreate bass pitch definition and their individual textures. Try side three of Roger Waters Amused to Death or the Living Presence or Shaded Dog pressing of Saint Saens 3rd Symphony (Mercury SR90012/RCA LSC-2341) for an example of just how real and accomplished this phono stage can be in this arena. The degree of coherence that this attribute adds to both the believability and the accessibility of recordings must be heard to be appreciated.
With the lower through upper mids, it offers both an undeniable sense of realism and a richness to human and instrumental voices that allow them to be recreated with an undeniable truthfulness. This harmonic texture is rendered in its full complexity, yet, due to that regenerated intricacy, it is more real, so ultimately more easily recognizable. You are granted a stark and breathtaking look at the nuance of the performance, which in turn offers a higher, much more sophisticated degree of emotional communication. This is one of the most alluring characters of the 324.
The tonal region from the upper mids through its highest reaches is remarkable. Its combined clarity and articulation there are simply exquisite. Yet it is the timbral reconstruction of this region that is most enchanting. The effortlessness with which it portrays these regions is seductively refreshing. Cymbal "flavor" and the upper harmonics of piano and strings are simply as accurate as I can recall them in the real world. No doubt is left as to whether the drummer is using Paiste, Sabian, or Zildjian cymbals, and you can just as easily distinguish the spaciousness and decay that so readily differentiate a grand piano from a baby grand or upright.
Another ability it seems to master is that of the sense of scale. One is never left questioning the space of the recording venue or the instrument, or their spatial interrelationship. Space is recreated well beyond the limits of physical speaker placement, occasionally outside my left and right wall with the proper recording. And talk about image lock and focus! High marks here too.
What all this means is that the 324 imparts a remarkably chameleon-like quality to the system into which it is inserted. To tell the truth, I can only listen to audiophile recordings so long. To me, the real test is how a piece of gear works with everyday recordings, the ones that bring us the most musical enjoyment, have the greatest individual emotional meaning and communicate to our beingand are usually not on anyone's Super-Disc list. For me, that means the American blues, as far back as the 1930's Delta, the music of the late 1960's and mid to late 1970's and classical, especially large orchestral material and the works of Beethoven. With the exception of some of the latter, most of this music would not be considered to be particularly well engineered, yet, for me, it is the most evocative and engaging.
With Rock N' Roll classics, very few of which were known for their engineering prowess, I was repeatedly given new insights into those performances and the recording techniques utilized. Take the 1981 Rush masterpiece, Moving Pictures (Mercury SRM-1-4013). When listening to standards like "Red Barchetta," "Limelight" and "Witch Hunt," songs I have played literally hundreds of times since the album's release, the new vibrancy and purity rendered up by the E.A.R. 324, most notable with the bronzy timbre of cymbals and the individual skin signature of each drum, sent me eagerly scouring through my "classics" from the 1970's and 80's.
Record after record was unlocked and released with both a power and a "truth" I had never experienced from these old treasures. Consistently, even with these admittedly "non-audiophile" recordings, I was treated to moremore of everything. Deeper silence, deeper and more meticulous bass, sharper focus, a more illuminated view into the soundstage, unwavering imaging, more body to instrumental voices of all kinds, an overwhelming sense of truthfulness of timbre, tactile heft to macrodynamic events, enhanced resolve of microdynamic shadings and a sheer brilliance and openness to the uppermost registers. From Bartok to Jeff Beck or Heifetz to Howlin' Wolf, this device simple got me into the grooves with more authority, emotion and truth than any other in recent memory.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears Syndrome
For me, many tube phono stages take too large an editorial license with critical midrange, as well as seeming to relinquish fidelity at both frequency extremes. By the same token, many of solid-state design tend to compress the spaciousness and impart a grain and glare to the critical upper registers. Well, with the 324, I felt a bit like Goldilocks must have. While some solid-state stages were too analytical and etched, and some tube stages were too lush and editorial, this one was juuuuuust right!
In today's analog market, turntables have had a remarkable resurgence measured from superb value per dollar tables like the MMF series from Music Hall (starting at $200) escalating to the cost-no-object units like the V.Y.G.E.R. Indian Signature ($36,000) and the Rockport Sirius ($74,000). Just as remarkable is the availability of really good phono stages, ranging from units like the superbly overachieving Channel Islands Audio VPP-1 ($300) to the statement pieces like the Boulder 2008 ($29,000). While the E.A.R. 324's list price of $3600 can't be considered cheap, this combination of knock-out sonics, versatility, and ease of adjustment makes the Yoshino/E.A.R. 324 a real standout. I found it to be somewhat more engaging in the mids, authoritative in the neither regions and somewhat quieter than the Pass XONO's in my experiencewhich, until the 324 arrived, held the lead for solid-state phono preamps in my experience. The E.A.R. 324 phono preamp therefore comes with my highest recommendation. Tim, once again, nice job! Greg Weaver
Calling all audiophiles who continue to enjoy vinyl playbackthe state of the art has been advanced through the efforts of well-known audio designer Tim de Paravicini. His new phono stage, the E.A.R. 324, is an LP time machine that transports you to the moment of the recording session like no other I've heard.
The E.A.R. 324 is a beautiful, amazingly compact one-box design, with chrome faceplate and attractive control knobs. It is truly flexible, even dauntingly so, with twelve control combinations available for MC cartridges and an astounding seventy-five for MM cartridges, allowing it to be tailored to make any cartridge you own sing for you. The MM and MC control switches, a power switch, and phase, mono/stereo, and source buttons complete the well-thought-out front panel. On the rear panel are separate RCA inputs for MM and MC cartridges, balanced and single-ended outputs, a ground post, and a button that switches the MC input transformers in and out. I had the benefit of having Dan Meinwald, E.A.R.'s U.S. distributor, available to help me choose the best cartridge settings, but only two settings worked really well, and it was not difficult to pick them.
The 324 is unique in its topology, in that it has transformer inputs (for MC cartridges) and outputs. I do not know of any other solid state phono stage that is designed like this, but remember, Tim de Paravicini is a master with transformers, not to mention one of the greatest modifiers of analog tape decks in the world. The input transformer has three settings, as does the output transformer, each resulting in different gain levels. My Benz Ruby 2H is a medium-gain design, with .8mV output. I used the lowest gain setting on the input transformer and the lowest setting on the output transformer for evaluation. This utilized the fewest transformer windings, and sounded best to me. Choosing the correct settings is analogous to locking in the VTA of a cartridgeonce you choose the right setting, you will know it.
The listening chain included the Benz Ruby 2 H mounted in a VPI JMW-9 arm on a Scout turntable with SDS controller, which fed the E.A.R. through Kimber Tak AG phono cables. The E.A.R. was hooked up in balanced mode with Kimber Select cables to a Pass X1 preamp set on low gain. The preamp was connected to Pass X600 monoblocks via Kimber Select interconnects. The speakers were the Avalon Eidolons plus a REL Stadium 3 subwoofer with crossover set at 27Hz. Speaker cables were Kimber Select Silver. The front-end components were plugged into a Tice Powerblock, utilizing Tara Decade/RSC, Kimber Palladian, and Tiff 10-gauge power cords. The E.A.R. was fully broken in, but I warmed it up with twenty-four hours of Cardas and Denon break-in tones before evaluating.
The first record up to bat was the famous Blues in Orbit (Columbia CS 824, Classic Records 33 1/3 version). The sound of Ellington's 1959 band filled the room. It was relaxed, clear, and warmnot warm as in tan, but warm as in natural, acoustic, 1959 sound. As I pushed the volume louder and louder, the sound got bigger and bigger, but never harsh or strident. More and more music poured from the Avalons. How could this be a purely solid state design? Is this a breakthrough component? I heard no grain at all, just wonderful texture and definition consistent with reality. Oh, those saxes! And that piano! Holographic sound filled the listening room.
Next up was Virgil Fox, Vol. 1 (Crystal Clear Direct to Disk, CCS 7001), the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor. This recording yielded powerful mids and lows and a wonderful sense of space and air, full of gorgeous natural detail and a bonusthe E.A.R. appeared to suppress surface noise. With its ultra-black background, the E.A.R. seemed to enhance definition and imaging. My only quibble was a small reduction in deep bass. I heard low bass, but it did not pressurize the room the way the Pass X ONO does. It's a small flaw, and is possibly adjustable with an acoustic tweak or two. It did not bother me, though, as the rest of the sonic picture was so complete and real.
My favorite recording is from Sheffield Labs, The King James Version with Harry James and his orchestra. The E.A.R. made this classic audiophile LP sound as good as it gets. The balance was just right, and the imaging had that "you are there" accuracy. Very powerful dynamics on solo instruments added to the sonic realism. Flatulent trombones, smooth, textured trumpet, and a complete absence of grain greeted my ears. The acoustic bass was very fine, though not 100% as textured and alive as the mids and highs. Nevertheless, you could take trumpet lessons from Harry James by listening to this recording with the 324. It's that good.
Just recently, I acquired a sealed pressing of a treasured Mercury LP, Country Gardens, Percy Granger Favorites (Mercury SR 90219). The E.A.R. made the Benz sound like a precise laser beam instead of a diamond hammering away in a vinyl groove. This Mercury LP was recorded with uncompressed sound, and other phono stages I auditioned with this record were either slightly hi-fi and strident (the Pass) or too liquid (the ART). The sound of the E.A.R. was absolute musical perfection, with the best definition and truth, bold dynamics, and layered organic texturesyou get the idea. It was as if Percy's ghost had appeared over the E.A.R., gesturing to me. Is that perfection or what?
Linda Ronstadt's What's New (Asylum 60260) was revelatory. Ronstadt's voice was focused and natural. The dryness I've experienced on the strings with other phono stages vanished, and the horns were natural and alive, with a big studio sound. I felt like I was in the studio with the musicians. Mr. De Pavaracini is an alchemist. Now I know why I spent $3000 on a phono cartridge! I do not own an SACD that approaches this level of perfection, and this LP is only an average commercial recording.
"The Look of Love," with Dusty Springfield on Classic Records 45 rpm redux, was pure and sensual. The recording sounded alive and charming, and I played it twice, an audiophile no no. Springfield's voice floated between the speakers, with nary an artifact to report. The sax interlude was textured to a tee. I was transported to a small club with the best seat in the house. No wonder this cut is so revered by audiophiles!
A favorite of mine for many years is O Vilanella (L'Oiseau-Lyre SOL 334). In addition to great period instruments, this LP features a male quartet that can make or break a component aspiring to the musical truth. The recording sounded absolutely real through the lens of the E.A.R., with the quartet assembled in the room for my personal enjoyment. It was remarkable that this much unheard texture and musicality could suddenly emerge from an LP I've listened to for twenty-five years! This surely must be a breakthrough in LP playback amplification.
In conclusion, other solid state phono stages I've used sound more or less hi-fi when one pushes the volume upward or the music contains hard-to-track crescendos. Not the E.A.R. What I used to believe was mistracking isn't. I could not cause this audio jewel to lose its iron-fisted control and stability at any volume, and believe me I tried! Nor does it sound the slightest bit ripe or artificially warm, or exhibit any dulling of transient attack, as many tube phono stages do. The E.A.R. 324 phono stage gives you the musical truth, the whole musical truth, and nothing but the musical truth. This beautifully crafted and extraordinary phono stage is Class A all the way, and a bargain at $3595. It has my highest recommendation. Robert H. Levi
324 phono preamplifier