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The Graham Slee Audio Project’s Gram Amp 2 Special Edition Phono Preamp
A Budget Phono Stage You Can Live With

 

May 2007

 



                    



The art of system building has always been a delicate balancing act without any iron-clad rules to guide one. Various rules of thumb proffered in the past, such as portioning one’s budget into percentages for individual components, have proven ill-founded and ineffective largely because the price of a component is not a reliable arbiter of a component’s musical competence and ultimate signal resolution. This is especially true in the US High End, where there is overt pressure for designers and manufacturers to artificially raise prices to guarantee sales. About the only system building tenet that remains unassailable is that any system’s ultimate capabilities rest on the balance of the resolution of each component: an unbalanced system will be limited by the resolution of its weakest link. The difficulty is identifying the weakest link in any given system.

This difficulty is particularly true in building a high-quality LP front end, where one has a large variety of choices concerning isolation devices, type of motor drive, platter material and platter/LP interfaces, tonearms, cartridges, tonearm wiring, phono stages, and interconnects. Listen to a well-balanced and well-integrated LP front end and you know it immediately. The music flows with an artistic, timbral and rhythmic integrity – a musical intensity - that no CD player can approach. Listen to one that is flawed and it is often fiendishly difficult to trace down the culprit. Although a well-sorted LP front-end implies cooperation by equals, the old Linn recommendation of a hierarchy starting at the top with turntable, then arm, and then cartridge, still holds some sway. From a contemporary point of view, and incorporating the recent dazzling advances in LP playback technology, however, a clearer paradigm emerges. One can call it “prior-archy”: the performance limits of a given stage are set by the resolution of the prior part in the chain. In this new prioriarchy, the first stage is the isolation device, followed by the type of motor used, then the platter bearing, then the record mat, followed by stylus type, cartridge/arm interface, arm, and finally phono stage.

Attaching a dollar amount (always a difficult task) to these uncompromised items one finds $300-1400 for state-of-the art isolation devices, $400 for DC motor drive, circa $1600 for turntable, $125 for platter mat, $700 for tonearm, $150 for cartridge/arm isolation, and $100–400 for a line-contact stylus-equipped phono cartridges. One can, of course, spend more for each item in the chain, but the pay-off depends on the prior item in the chain meriting it. Spending less in general means dealing with compromises, making a highly neutral phono stage more crucial in ascertaining the nature and limitations of those compromises.

All of which brings us to our main focus here – the phono stage, and in particular the Graham Slee Gram Amp 2 Special Edition. The 2 S/E retails for $400. The UK-based Graham Slee Audio Projects firm has arrived tsunami-like on the phono stage scene in recent years, setting new standards for high resolution, neutrality, and compelling musical communication. I have reviewed three of Slee’s more expensive phono stages – the $1026.94 Elevator EXP moving-coil pre-preamplifier, the $924.90 ERA V Gold, and the $1240 Gold Reflex – and found them all to be of Most Wanted Component Award quality. All three have entered my permanent reference system. They have been some of the happiest finds in the LP world of the past few years: ultra-performance at very reasonable prices.

Graham Slee’s phono products are all based on wide-bandwidth design philosophy. Stripped to its essence, wide bandwidth design states that in order to reproduce frequency “x” without compromise, the circuit must be designed to respond to 10 times x. Since the philosophy has been incorporated in designs since the 1960’s by the great Stewart Hegeman, and is Electrical Engineering 101 as far as esotericism goes, one wonders what the Bozos who set the truncated bandwidth CD standard in the early 80’s were thinking. Oh, yes: “Screw high fidelity! Let’s make 100 billion dollars!”

The 2 S/E is designed for high-output phono cartridges, its input sensitivity being 2mV. Considering the number of excellent high-output cartridges available with moving magnet, moving iron, variable reluctance, and moving-coil signal-generating systems, loss of low-output moving-coil preamplification is not a big limitation. The 2S/E is physically tiny; its AC transformer a large wall wart (wall tumor?) One can upgrade performance by adding Slee’s optional $250 PSU-1 transformer that comes standard with his more expensive phono stages. Warning is given about using un-shielded interconnects and phono leads. Mine were shielded so I had no problem. Burn-in required both leaving the unit on (there is no power switch) and actually playing LPs through the phono stage, not a particularly onerous task. The 2S/E complies with the European Union’s RoHS lead-free directive: it’s small, affordable, high-resolution, and environmentally green.

Comparing the 2 S/E to its more expensive stable mates, the ERA V Gold and Reflex, revealed a strong family resemblance, the 2S/E possessing the same kind of speed, wide frequency response, neutrality, and clarity that are Graham Slee trademarks. While the 2 S/E, not surprisingly, couldn’t match the two in ultimate resolution, transparency, and ultra-fine detail, it was also clear that it wasn’t that far behind. The better the items in the priorarchy, the more obvious the differences were.

I ran the 2 S/E with 6 different turntables and cartridges, running the gamut of price and sophistication. It was able to depict their individual characters, reveal the differences in VTA/SRA settings, and clearly differentiated between elliptical and line-contact styli. The 2 S/E’s rock-solid bass response and detailed top-end will not complicate budget turntables’ typical weaknesses in those areas. It was only as I ascended in turntable (and speaker) resolution, and in comparison to the Slee Era V Gold and Reflex, that the 2 S/E’s limitations were revealed. These lay predominantly at the frequency extremes and involved a slight slurring and slight lack of focus in instrumental outlines. It could not track the transient envelope of each note quite as well. Yes, there is a reason to own one of Slee’s more expensive preamps.

In the context of its price point of $400, however, the 2 S/E sets new standards. I can’t think of any other phono stage anywhere near its price that can match the 2 S/E’s clear, taut, and dynamic bass response, nor approach its high frequency clarity and resolution. Two of the advantages of wide bandwidth design are speed and phase coherence. Sonically these advantages translate into superb depiction of the transient envelopes of each note, tying the transient and harmonic structure to the instrument and keeping it clearly differentiated from the other instruments playing. Timbres and tonal colors of instruments are well rendered and distinct, the positions of the instruments in the sound-field and its ambience clearly depicted. Record damage – the pops and ticks of uncared-for or worn LPs – are controlled and damped, mere ripples on the road. Significantly, the 2 S/E was able to perform with this degree of excellence in even the most humble of the systems I used: Connoisseur BD2A turntable with LP Gear’s Audio Technica AT95E cartridge feeding the line-level of a 1972 Marantz 1060 integrated amp, and driving $289 per pair Celestion 3 loudspeakers.

Most importantly, the 2 S/E’s greatest strength is how well it integrates its excellent sonic performance into musically communicative patterns. It is with the demands of music that the 2 S/E really shines: it articulates rhythms, tempi, phrasing, parsing, punctuation, and accents exceptionally well, leading to clear comprehension of the devices of musical argument and expression. It is as faithful to James Brown as it is to J.S. Bach.

The 2 S/E’s musical acuity is of high practical value in building an LP front-end: one can immediately tell if items in the priorarchy are truly making music or merely making sound. Similarly, its high resolution and neutrality make it highly unlikely that it will be the weakest link in budget-limited front-ends. Its affordable price liberates funds to other crucial areas of the priorarchy, where the pay-off is bigger in final performance.

For those building a budget system or upgrading an existing built-in phono stage, the Graham Slee 2 S/E is a new reference. Its combination of superb wideband sonic performance and exemplary musical communication sets the standard for budget phono stages. Highly recommended.

Paul Szabady

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Specifications
Solid-State high-output moving coil and moving magnet phono preamplifier.

Price: $399.00.

Manufacturer
Graham Slee Projects
1 Monks Way, Monk Bretton,
South Yorkshire, United Kingdom
S71 2JD.
Telephone: 0(044)1226 244908
Email: info@gspaudio.co.uk
Website: http://www.gspaudio.co.uk/index.htm

US Distributor
Starbrandz Networks
2227 Double Tree Ave.
Henderson, NV 89052
702.631.7558 Tel
702.974.0220 Fax
Website: www.starbrandz.com
Email: info@starbrandz.com



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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