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The Graham Slee Era Gold V and Elevator EXP Phono Preamplifiers

 

October 2005

                   

 

                

 

 

 

A report from other quarter reveals that sales of new LPs surpass those of SACD and DVD-A combined. Add used LP sales to that total and it becomes clear that the 20-year long attempt to consign the analog LP to gaslight obsolescence has failed. Continued improvement of tonearms, phono cartridges, turntables and phono stages, along with truly effective isolation devices, has allowed the LP to maintain its pre-eminence as the standard by which music playback is to be judged. My recent casual (and ongoing) survey of contemporary developments in CD and SACD performance left me impressed with the gains made sonically from even a few years ago, but even the best of these fall short of the simple and intense musical involvement available from the humblest of my LP playback systems. Since the physical frailties of the vinyl medium and the perfectionism required to correctly align and set-up an LP playback system are so at odds with the push-button sloth of the digital media, the only compensation of playing LP’s is their musical merit.

Over the years I have acquired four turntables for use in my “reference system.” While this may seem to be a symptom of terminal pack-rat syndrome and/or Adrian Monk-Felix Unger obsession, it allows me, in addition to two other listening rooms, and a variety of other electronics, speakers and cables, to get a reliable cross-section of performance at various plateaus of resolution when reviewing audio components. I’ll have to be honest though: when not listening in the critical dissecting mode (a large part of which is consciously focusing on differences rather than virtues held in common,) the musical performance of these four turntables is so artistically convincing that I would be happy with any one of them should I no longer review audio products. In addition to the phono sections built into various full-feature preamps, I also use three outboard phono stages that are fairly representative of choices in the marketplace. The all-tube EAR 834P from the hands of Tim de Paravicini, the solid-state Tango from the German turntable firm Acoustic Signature, and Musical Surroundings’ battery-powered, all discrete, Class A Phonomenon are reasonably priced, at $600 to $1200, and thus, from the often perverse pricing pathology of The High End, are budget products.

My experiences with the typical High End "Flavor of the Month” phono sections over the years have left me musically unmoved: hyper-real presentations that tell you everything about the minutiae of the recording except what the music means strike me as a waste of time and money. Unlike most audiophiles and reviewers, I don’t assume High End pricing ensures higher musical performance. In fact 25 years of experience have taught me to assume the opposite: that High End pre-occupation with extra-musical sonic minutiae generally results in overall musical lameness. Fatuously expensive products have to show me that they can get the basics of music right before forcing me to be aware of the length of the guitarist’s fingernails.

The Era Gold V moving-magnet phono preamplifier and the Elevator EXP moving-coil preamplifier are priced at $925 and $1025 respectively, and are at the top of UK manufacturer GLP Audio’s (Graham Slee Projects) product line. Designer Graham Slee is a strong advocate of wide bandwidth designs, so much so that he appears almost as a voice crying in the wilderness. Considering that wide bandwidth design as a design fait accompli is more than 45 years old (the late, great Stewart Hegeman was its most effective champion in the USA) and is essentially Electrical Engineering 101 as far as esotericism goes, Slee’s seeming proselytism is more a reflection of the state of the audio industry than a reflection of any fanaticism on his part. After all, the CD hype assured us that the narrow-bandwidth CD standard, which struggled to just barely respond to 20 kHz, was “perfect.” Digital audio engineers, crazed by the success of even narrower bandwidth compression schemes so popular with the file-sharing Internet generation, are frantically struggling to throw away as much of the music signal as possible. Odd how simple common sense and basic engineering principles can appear radical in times when simple fidelity is an increasingly alien concept.

Both the Era Gold V and the Elevator EXP are flat from 5 Hz to 250 kHz. Overall response extends from D.C to 500,000 Hz. There are no sub-sonic filters used; nor does either unit invert phase. Since many US LP albums were cut-off at 50 Hz to allow tracking on cheesy turntables with equally cheesy cartridges, and since most loudspeakers barely respond to 8 kHz in-room at one’s ears, why bother designing for such extended response? Human hearing, after all, is commonly assumed to only span from 20 to 20 kHz, fades in treble sensitivity with age, and is extremely likely to become damaged simply by living in our techno-industrial society. Is wide bandwidth design an extravagance for audiophiles trying to please their pet bats?

Theory and experience say otherwise. A basic electrical engineering maxim states that if you want to reproduce frequency X correctly, you have to design a circuit that will do at least 10X. Imagine the typical mesomorphic weightlifter lifting a 50 lb. weight. It will appear to him as light and easy as paper, while it will cow and bend an anorexic supermodel whose own weight barely doubles it. Those unfortunate enough to remember the old air-cooled VW Bug without rosy nostalgia will recall that while it could cruise at highway speed limits, accelerating from 45 mph to the limit was excrutiating to the point of fear. Forget about passing anyone. So a simple conceptualization of the benefits of wide bandwidth design can be understood as speed and ease. If the device can reproduce 250,000 vibration cycles per second, doing 20,000 cycles will be a piece of cake. And the critical bands where the majority of the music takes place will be like ice cream on the cake, with chocolate syrup too.

An additional advantage of wide bandwidth is achieving phase coherence. If you want coherent phase, then the “to get X, design for 10X” maxim applies. From Graham Slee’s own specification, the Era V Gold and the Elevator are phase coherent from 50 Hz up to 25 kHz. One of the reasons Slee eschews subsonic filters is that they will screw up phase response in the bass and above.

Why does one want coherent phase? Simply substitute the word “time” for “phase.” Since music is an art formed on the fabric of time, any warping, folding, or wrinkling of the curtain of time will ruin both the sound and the meaning of music. We identify an instrument and locate its position by crucially timed sonic events; the most elementary demands of listening orientation demand correct phase response.

Auditioning and reviewing the Era V Gold and the Elevator was one of the more challenging reviewing experiences I’ve had. While a phono stage might seem a simple enough device to suss out, the permutations of playing it with various turntables arms, cartridges, interconnects and electronics can quickly immerse one into a Rashomon nightmare of slightly varying subjective impressions that can be maddeningly difficult to unravel. This has also been my experience with other excellent phono stages I’ve reviewed in the past. The Era Gold V and Elevator EXP raised the task to a new level of difficulty, partly because their overall excellence made isolating their contribution from a larger constellation of sound methodologically demanding, but also due to their very long burn-in time. The owner’s manual advises at least 3 weeks of playing before they reach optimum. Furthermore they require about a half-hour playing in each session to come into song. Designed to be left on permanently (there are no on/off switches,) disconnecting them for any length of time will require 72 hours after re-connection to regain normal operation.

Now, my unfortunate endowment is to have the patience of a puppy and the curiosity of a kitty. It was extremely frustrating waiting for the Slees to burn-in; it was equally impossible not to listen to them during the process. My patience was taxed to the breaking point on numerous occasions. “Are we there yet?” It took every ounce of methodological discipline to tough out the break-in process and to avoid making any conclusions on the performance of the units during this process. I’m no stranger to components requiring long break-in periods. It is one of the more tedious chores of audio reviewing and the audio retail trade. When I worked in retail audio, I often facetiously remarked that it would make more sense to charge a 20% premium on demo units, since they saved the impatient customer the grueling chore of breaking them in themselves. I know what my next reviewing tool will be: a cheesy fully automatic direct drive table with an infinite “Repeat” button. The Elevator burned-in at just short of 3 weeks; the Era Gold V took 4 weeks. It was 6 weeks before I began to be confident in the performance of the 2 GLP Audio products and began giving my perceptions credence. I have just one word of advice for those auditioning these products from new. Patience. Patience. Patience. And then more patience. OK, seven words.

For technical reasons, Graham Slee breaks phono reproduction down into separate devices for moving coil and moving magnet cartridges. This allows moving magnet devotees to buy a unit dedicated to their higher output cartridges. Why pay for moving coil amplification if you’re not going to use it? The Era Gold V offers 41.5 dB of gain. Moving coil owners can add the Elevator EXP to any moving magnet input phono section as well as to the Era. Both units feature a non-obtrusive silver-colored casing about the size of 3 packs of cigarettes. The Elevator features loading switches (offering 5 different values: 47,000, 5,100, 840, 100, 30, and 23 Ohms) on the front panel to match cartridge requirements. Gain is 22.5 dB. Each unit receives its power from its own dedicated remote PSU-I power supply; the Era can be purchased with a lower cost ‘wallwart’ PS and then upgraded by purchasing the PSU-1. Graham Slee advises not placing the PSU-1 on the same shelf as the phono section or the turntable. Graham Slee also recommends not connecting the power supply AC cords to any form of line conditioner. Interconnects should be low-capacitance types; GLP Audio’s website even offers instructions for a do-it-yourself interconnect.

Given its non-intimidating physical presence and non-terrifying price, the Era Gold V’s high-strung thoroughbred nature is somewhat of a surprise. Here is a true high-resolution purist device that will clearly reveal limitations in partnering gear; slight misadjustments in tonearm set-up will be obvious; LP condition, pressing quality and recording engineer competence are laid bare. While an elementary school teacher might remark, “Does not play well with others,” the truth is that the Era demands a peer group with commensurate abilities to its own. One wouldn’t place a Mozart-like child prodigy into a playgroup of musical dullards. The Era’s demands are simple: echoing Oscar Wilde’s quip, it is always satisfied with the best. Consequently there are huge musical and sonic rewards to be gained by the laborious matching of ancillaries to allow the Era to fully reveal its potential.

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The Graham Slee Era Gold V and Elevator EXP Phono Preamplifiers