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EAR 324 Phono Stage Reviewed

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Partial though I am to Tim de Paravicini's down'n'dirty 834P phono stage, the paucity of features limits its usefulness as a reviewer's reference. Despite the simplicity, this budget valve phono stage - I reviewed it some years ago at £399 - has never left my system, and it's been a dependable fall-back for all of those line-level-only pre-amps and integrateds that have taken over since the dawn of CD. But the 834P is a workhorse with only a choice of moving magnet or moving coil cartridge, with no adjustment save for gain. And so it was high time I sought out a more flexible device.

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Eschewing the new generation of megabucks phono pre-amps (though I am soon to review the Manley Steelhead), I was quite taken with the notion of an all-singing, all-dancing EAR-Yoshino, even if it meant going solid-state. Then again, I've never had as much of a problem with solid-state phono stages as with solid-state pre-amps. EAR-Yoshino's EAR 324 looked like just the ticket, especially as it was bursting with adjustments - a must if you're a chronic cartridge changer or habitual tweaker, and whether a reviewer or not.

So full is the 324's 12.7x4in front panel that you're forgiven for mistaking the unit for a full-function pre-amp; as it's also a foot deep counting the knobs and rear panel fittings, and it weighs 11lb, the mistake is understandable. There's a lot of metal here, including a brushed front plate 3/8in thick, all-metal knobs and no-compromise fittings at the back. The weight is also attributable to the high components count, overkill power supply and superior-quality switches. While there are certain crude details that prevent this for being mistaken for, say, something made by Nagra ('impeadance' isn't the way I'd spell it), those who like their hardware 'substantial' will love it even before they switch it on.

Tim derived the EAR 324 from the phono section of the Paravicini 312 Control Centre preamplifier, launched in 2000; that product was notable for being the first all-transistor EAR/Yoshino model. It employed extensive use of transformer coupling and Tim's personal take on solid-state circuitry, and it was also noteworthy for NOT being a hair-shirt, minimalist design - hence the inspiration for the 324.

As Tim states, 'The 324 borrows extensively from the circuits used within the 312, but is a more specialised product intended to offer the ultimate in quality and versatility, and exclusively for the vinyl enthusiast. Its sole task is to amplify the millivolt-level signal from a phono cartridge to line level, so that it can be treated the same way as the signal from a CD player, tuner or tape recorder.'

Tim, whose own versatility includes world-renowned expertise in such diverse specialty fields as hot-rodding mixing desks and LP cutting heads, the restoration and tweaking of valve tape recorders and piloting small aircraft, notes unashamedly that, 'The unique requirements of phono amplification - very small signal levels, plus the RIAA equalisation required, plus the desirability of loading the cartridge correctly - make designing an amplifier for the task one of the most demanding jobs in electronics.' But Tim loves vinyl as much as he adores open-reel tape, so he rose to the challenge.

In conceiving the 324 as a phono pre-amp 'with no compromises', he identified 'three particular factors [that] contribute to the performance of this amplifier.' The first is the use of very high quality input transformers for moving-coil cartridges, as found in the 312 and the EAR MC3 step-up. These allow for optimum loading and the best noise performance with high quality MC cartridges. The second? Tim wanted a 'unique' RIAA equalisation circuit to provide better stability and freedom from transient overload, in addition to the obvious: accurate frequency response. Tim claims +/-0.3dB for the 324. Lastly, and it's here that the 324 yanked my leash, is a wide range of user-adjustable settings on the front panel allows matching to be optimised with ease.

As expected of EAR-Yoshino designs, the 324 employs low noise, wide bandwidth, low distortion discrete circuitry, all operating in pure Class-A. Tim specified high quality output transformers for superior cable-driving ability and insurance that no quality is lost through the entire amplifier's circuit path; I only ran 5ft pairs - single-ended and balanced - so I'm not in any position to comment on whether or not these allow the sort of runs needed by those who have their turntables near their main listening positions...and yards away from the pre-amp.

Tim pointed out that, 'Unusually for a solid-state preamplifier, the 324 does not employ a regulated power supply. Conventional regulators are not without their own problems, and the design of the 324's circuits is such that they are unaffected by small variations in the precise ¬voltage of the supply. High frequency variations are efficiently smoothed out by the multi-stage passive filtering.' Moreover, the input to the power supply from the rectifier bridge is via an inductor, another of Tim's specialties, preferred because of the benefits it brings in terms of low ripple, low peak current through the diodes. This improves reliability while reducing the likelihood of mechanical transformer noise: low electrical noise coupled back on to the mains supply is a further benefit, and the circuit also enjoys a degree of regulation.

Before I actually received the review sample, I had been engaged in hypothetical discussions with Tim about choosing settings for phono stages, a decision-making process fraught with peril. The reason was that I was one of the 'beta' testers for the forthcoming, de Paravicini-designed Quad valve phono stage (which - alas - precludes me from reviewing it). When I and a cluster of other beta testers were asked by Quad what seemed to be the best adjustment selection, the 324's array came to mind immediately. Although it wasn't entirely feasible to load up the Quad - price, valve topology and other considerations play a part - it did, however, indicate that the 324 is about as accommodating as it gets.

Read more about the EAR 324 on Page 2.
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