The Graham Slee Era Gold V and Elevator EXP Phono Preamplifiers

 

Page 2

Following Graham Slee’s advice, I did not use a line conditioner: an Eichmann AC extender strip with a DNM solid-core AC cord handled the 2 AC lines from the 2 power supplies. I placed the 2 PSU-1’s on a round hardwood slab and isolated them from the floor with Stillpoints. Similarly, I placed the 2 phono units on another hardwood slab and used the Stillpoints or the Ganymede VCS to isolate the slab from the equipment rack shelf. Isolation proved critical to maximize performance, releasing a transparency that was lacking with casual positioning. As a charter member of The Society for Placing Things on Other Things, these results were not new.

Thankfully, musical results with the Era Gold V completely outweigh the tedium of the long break-in period and time spent on system optimization. The simplest way to describe the Era’s performance is that of superlative resolution and natural-sounding clarity. Its ease, speed, and time/phase coherence is immediately transparent to perception by its exceptional tracking of the transient envelope of notes. The initial transient attack, flowering, and decay of notes are as good as it gets. Its accurate tracking of the decay of notes deserves special comment and praise. Moreover, this ability applies to multiple instruments playing together at simultaneously different and varying volume levels. Except for live performance, I’ve never heard the simultaneous increase in volume of one instrument with the decreasing volume and decay of a quieter accompanying instrument rendered so well. Instruments playing new notes into the reverberant overhang of preceding notes are rendered in a way that previously I had also only experienced live. The piano is particularly strong at producing this effect. Not surprisingly, piano reproduction was first-rate, with both its percussive and lyrical nature equally replicated.

Complicated meshes of instruments and instrumental lines are clearly separated, allowing one to perceive the forest and the trees simultaneously. The depiction of the relative loudness of individual instruments playing together is particularly musically communicative. The connection between lead and accompanying instruments is completely transparent, resolving the meaning of accompaniment, whether it be response to the lead instrument’s call, harmonic contribution, elaboration, variation, or subvoce comment. The Era’s superb reproduction of individual instrumental timbre, musical architecture, group interaction, phrasing, punctuation, and larger musical thrust inspired me to a marathon Concerto concert: 10 different concerti from Vivaldi to Bartok were reproduced with such utter ease and such deep musical and sonic satisfaction that I could not help foolishly clapping at the end of each concerto. Virtuoso solo passages, particularly in slow movements and cadenzas, had me spellbound, unconsciously holding my breath until the tension in the music was released. Subtleties of phrasing, punctuation, slight shifts of tempo, rubato, and dynamic shading allowed deep understanding and immersion into the quality of the artistry of the performance. This intense level of involvement in the music and its meaning is what I search for and demand in audio components: the ERA V Gold is at the state-of-the-art in phono reproduction in allowing this fundamental demand to be met. It is spell-binding.

This ease and accuracy was duplicated with every genre of Classical Music. Solo sonatas, duos, trios, string quartets, chamber orchestra concerti, and full symphonic works were replicated with the same exceptional clarity, resolution and direct communication of the work’s aesthetic purport. Outstanding, simply outstanding.

Synchronistically, one of the reference phono cartridges used in the development of the Era is the legendary MusicMaker III from The Cartridge Man, Leonard Gregory. The MusicMaker III is an all-time classic of the cartridge art and its performance with the ERA V Gold revealed even more of its greatness. Listening to a ‘dedicated’ set-up with the Hadcock 242 tonearm and with The Isolator, and then with the Origin Live Silver 250 and Conqueror arms, the MusicMaker III’s performance with the Era ranks as some of my most musically exalted audio experiences. Performance with other musically adept cartridges led to similar deep aesthetic experiences. The Garrott Brothers Optim FGS, Rega Exact, Grado Signature TLZ-V and the sadly discontinued Shure V-15 V xMR, were all stellar performers, their ultimate quality limits set by the tonearm and turntable used. Less musically capable cartridges like the Blue Point Special, regular Blue Point and Denon DL 160, never sounded as good as they did with the ERA, but their technical limitations (predominantly their elliptical stylus tips) and fundamental music-making limitations were clearly audible. The Era doesn’t editorialize: it tells both what’s good and what’s bad about its ancillary partners. If a cartridge has good timing, musical flow, and punctuation it will let it through; if it doesn’t, you’ll know it. The Era doesn’t flatter, but then it doesn’t harp either.

Damaged used records won’t have their flaws glossed over; groove damage manifests as a “tick” rather than the “tock” of narrow bandwidth designs. Some of the more unrealistic and deranged studio engineering techniques used in Jazz and Rock recordings will be obvious; the music’s quality, however, will come through. (Example: Dave Brubeck’s Time Out places Brubeck’s piano to the far right in the stereo mix, though it is obvious through the Era that the ascending treble notes coming at you mean that he must have been either at the left or in the center in the studio.) The resolution, coherence and clarity that so well serve Classical Music also apply directly to great musicianship in any musical category. Extracting the music from crappy recordings is an art form itself and one I highly value.

If you expect bright, exaggerated high frequency response from the Era V Gold, you will be disappointed. The top end sounds like the best of British Classical Music monitor speakers: sweet, transiently controlled, non-metallic, and almost self-effacingly neutral. The purpose of wide bandwidth design, after all, is not to titillate or torture porpoises but to aid naturalness and resolution in the frequency bands where the music happens. Indeed, brightness and spotlit high frequencies are more often a side effect of poor top-end extension, poor transient control (and its resultant smearing of resolution) along with phase, transient, and intermodulation distortions. Midrange was so convincing that I find nothing to comment about; the presence band was neither exaggerated nor recessed. Lyric intelligibility was first-rate. It is likely, however, that the bass reproduction of the 2 phono sections will be the most controversial.

Graham Slee feels that the bass reproduction of most phono preamplifiers is falsely fat, loose and transiently slurred. Both the Era’s and the Elevator’s bass is tight, controlled, and in-focus, sounding more like a woofer whose alignment is critically damped rather than the boom and smear of under-damped designs. The lack of subsonic filters, which Slee considers essential to maintain correct phase response to 50 Hz, means that reflex-loaded woofers’ lack of damping below their in-box resonance will allow cone excursions should low bass perturbations emerge from the turntable. Since the vast majority of contemporary speakers use bass reflex loading, special care should be taken regarding turntable isolation and tonearm/cartridge ability to track record warps. Users of sealed-box acoustic-suspension speakers need not concern themselves. Freed from sub-resonance woofer excursions and the phase anomalies of port radiation, these designs will reveal more clearly the tautness and phase coherency of the Slee designs.

Perceived bass response with LP is a complex combination of factors and the Slee duo lean towards being faithful messengers rather than flattering courtiers. Depending on the associated gear, particularly speakers and phono cartridge, the bass can sound slightly reduced in level and lacking some punch and authority. Artificial bass compression and the bass cut-off at 50 Hz on older US records will be apparent, perhaps to an unwelcome degree. It’s perhaps unfair to blame the messenger here: careful system matching, particularly cartridge choice, can obviate the effect. Still, the resonance of cellos and double basses grounding to the recording venue’s floor through their instruments’ spikes was absent in all my auditions. Bass-driven Rock music can sound slightly curtailed in thrust and the resolution of expressive bass playing can seem slightly less nuanced.

The Elevator EXP, while sounding identical to its moving magnet comrade, proved slightly easier to integrate into a system largely because, like a sonic chameleon, it took on the sonic aspects of the moving magnet phono to which it was connected. Some thought should be taken when mating the Elevator to the Era, as the duo’s lack of flattery can expose bass-light cartridges as bass-shy. The slightly self-effacing quality of the top treble of the two can serve to bring the rising high-end of many moving coils closer to a more natural perspective, especially since the Slees’ speed, resolution and lack of distortion will eliminate the metallic sheen so commonly audible with moving coil designs. The duo’ s neutrality will not however flatter the cartridge’s overall tonal color signature; moving coil cartridges all too often cast a blue, silver, grey or white pall over the natural tonal colors of instruments. Fortunately there is a movement away from the ‘lean, sheen, and mean’ school of moving coil sonics of the past towards a richer, more natural (dare I say it? moving magnet) sonic perspective in current moving coil designs. Needless to say, fuller-bodied and more natural-sounding cartridges like the Garrott-modified Ortofon SPU trumped cartridges like the Dynavector Karat and Talisman Boron.

Stereophonic effects were purely a function of the recording, the phono cartridge and the loudspeaker’s abilities. I personally find acoustic orchestral music the only dependable and meaningful reference to rate stereo performance; the vagaries of multi-mono, pan-potted studio constructions bear no relationship to live reality and judgements based on them are fraught with error. At their best, the Slees, with my di-pole electrostatic Sound Lab Dynastat reference speakers, produced a front row perspective with width greater than depth and the soundstage extending beyond the speakers and sidewalls of the room. With the excellent new Rega R1 mini-monitors ($495 a pair: review in progress) the soundstage took on the 3-dimensional imaging hallucination that is the mini-monitor forte. Soundstage focus remained clear from the lowest bass to the highest treble.

Compared to the nine other phono sections I had available, the Graham Slee Era and Elevator matched them in timing, rhythm, and in laying bare the fundamental structures and meaning of music. The duo proved superior in offering a higher overall degree of clarity and resolution. The musical significance of this was most obviously manifested in classical music where the organic and holistic qualities of excellent high-output cartridges like the MusicMaker III cast deeply affecting spells. The Era Gold V and MusicMaker III combination was so holistic and integrated that one can easily discredit the claim of moving coils as being somehow “better.”

The music-making abilities of the Elevator EXP with moving coil cartridges was no less revelatory: I have never heard moving coils sound as good, and given the contemporary move in moving coil design toward more natural tonality, the Elevator opens up a genre of design for investigation that I have consistently found in the past to be both sonically and musically unconvincing.

The Era Mk V Gold and Elevator EXP are definite contenders for reference-quality performance. Their purist thoroughbred nature demands careful system matching to realize their potential, limiting perhaps universal application, but richly rewarding those willing to devote the effort.

 

Paul Szabady

                                               ______________


Address:
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
Elex Atelier
2227 Double Tree Av.
Henderson, NV 89052
USA
Tel: 702-631-7558
Fax: 702-974-0220
Email: elex@elexatelier.com
Website: http://www.elexatelier.com/phonopreamp.htm