New pre-amps from Tim de Paravicini never fail to cause a tube-lovin' pulse to race a bit faster. Tim is, after all, one of the planet's valve heroes, and his products never bore nor disappoint. Of late, he's added a level of professionalism so out of character with the mad-as-a-hatter Tim of yore that you have to wonder what the hell's come over him. Maturity? Responsibility? I mean: the brochures are slick, the web site trick, supply of goods quick, the faceplates thick. That's not to say Tim can no longer step into the role of mad scientist should, say, Hammer ever recommence film production, but now you must distance EAR from the valve lunatic fringe. And it's all down to the changes wrought by the Yoshino concept.
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Tim launched this high-end division back in '92 with a brace of amps (the XXXA and XXXB) designed, initially, to prove that he could make a solid-state and a valve amp and you'd have a hard time telling the two apart. While XXXA and XXXB proved to be design statements rather than serious commercial ventures, they did mark a whole new approach in terms of presentation, which Tim immediately allowed to trickle down to affordable products (while keeping the big classics like the '549 in production). And since then, we've been treated to the marvellous 834P phono pre-amp, the wild V20 amp, some luscious integrated amps and more. The new EAR 864 full-function pre-amp uses the basic 834P circuit for its phono stage (see sidebar); it's to Tim's credit that the most humble post-XXX product rather than the over-the-top stuff inspired the family. Other 834P derivatives include the 834L line level pre-amp and a deluxe chromed version, both of which also share their DNA with the 864.
Tim designed the EAR 864 pre-amp to satisfy both audiophiles and pros, studio business being an ever-increasing part of EAR's activity. (Just read some Water Lily liner notes for a testimonial.) Instead of concerning himself with cost-based concerns, as with the original 834P, Tim allowed himself to create something a bit luxurious while not inviting accusations of avarice. I should therefore let you know that this beauty sells for only £1445; you're not gonna believe what Tim has packed in to elevate this pre-amp to high-end status..
Most important, and a key in making it suitable for the pros, are balanced outputs and one balanced input, all via XLR and all coupled through high quality transformers. I'm not sure which manufacturer can lay claim to offering the least expensive, all-balanced/all-tube pre-amp on the market today, but this undercuts GRAAF and Audio Research by substantial sums. So, if you're one of those with a hankering to sample balanced vs single-ended AND you want to do it with tubes AND you want to stay south of £1500, look no further.
In a nutshell, balanced operation (beyond the very real ability to accommodate long cable runs) strikes this listener as a sure-fire method of improving dynamic contrasts, slam and overall control and coherence, as well as offering quieter, virtually noise-free operation. Balanced operation has been a key feature of upscale components for years, so justifying it in 2000 isn't necessary. What's so striking about 864 is that it makes balanced operation accessible at a low price point.
In addition to balanced input and outputs, the 864 accepts five single-ended-via-phono line inputs and the aforementioned phono stage, plus a proper tape monitoring circuit. To control all of this, across the front are rotary input selector, tape selector, volume and power on/off, the latter accompanied by a bright yellow lamp. All input and output sockets are gold plated, as are the pins on the XLR outputs, and the unit sports two earthing posts - one near the phono inputs, the other by the mains.
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