Despite presenting an image straight out of central casting - think Universal films ca. 1932, Gothic towers, Bunsen burners, bubbling Erlenmeyer flasks - EAR's Tim de Paravicini does have, to use street patois, 'his shit together.' Whatever his eccentricities, and they are legion, he consistently produces some of the finest-sounding equipment on the planet.
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Reliability? Not an issue: I can only recall one minor problem occurring after having used in excess of a dozen or more of his products over the years, and even that involved a prototype. User satisfaction? Let's just say that the EAR 834P phono stage has been all but super-glued to the rack holding my reference system. Value for money? This is something I wanted to get off my chest, because the EAR 912 is not a budget product, but a candidate for World's Best Preamplifier. Even so, we're talking £4950, not $49,500.
Tim has no qualms about using valves or transistors - he's always been open-minded despite having a reputation based on glassware - but he's opted for the former in the 912. It's a fully-featured unit 'designed to cater both for the vinyl lover and the modern multi-source line-level system.' That means it's loaded with facilities, and it's as flexible as any two-channel system owner could hope for in a sector increasingly known more for minimalism.
Whenever Tim launches a fresh model, he - like George Lucas and his need for new technology to attach to each Star Wars episode - tends to emphasise something specific to differentiate the model from either its predecessors or its rivals. This time, the dominant feature is the extensive use of transformer coupling. Transformers are one of Tim's specialties, so he's designed all-new ones for the 912. Of particular interest is the moving-coil phono input, which could turn out to be the 912's major selling point.
In the 912, the m-c stage is transformer-coupled with four different taps to provide a wide range of impedance matching: 40, 12, 6 and 3 ohms. Tim said that it's a lineal descendant of the G88, but it's evolved far enough along as to require a different set of standards. What we have here is an m-c step stage so quiet, yet so wide in its dynamic range that you might consider it one of the most successful juggling acts in recent (analogue) history. Not that Tim hasn't made active phono stages nearly as quiet as transformers before, or, conversely, transformer stages with as much kick as pure amplifiers, but this one is something special. To put it another way, it's gonna sell a whole lot of Denon DL103s to those who stretched their budgets to a 912 but had little left over for a new cartridge. (Hell, Tim should do a deal with Denon to pack one in with the preamp, they work so well together.)
Let's not ignore the m-m section. Although fixed at 47k ohm, and thus without the variable settings of the dearer standalone EAR phono amps, it welcomed the input of both the mono and stereo Deccas and the (astounding!) Shure V15 V MR. The LPs ranged from the glorious 1950s mono and stereo of certain RCAs and Capitols, to Richard Thompson's latest, and the variety of surface conditions uncovered a delightful phenomenon: the EAR 912 places any tracing noise below the music. You have to strain to hear it, even on Solomon Kessler's worn-out Mickey Katz LPs. I played with enough other cartridges - a couple of Grados, the Lyra Dorian (mono), the Transfiguration Temper V and the Blue Angel Mantis - to exercise both phono stages, and although I would have liked some way of fine-tuning the Deccas, I couldn't, with hand on heart, find a single reason to whinge about the 912's handling of LP sources.
To achieve compatibility 'with practically any cartridge ever made,' Tim also used his unique valve circuit with its proprietary RIAA equalisation network, 'which gives excellent stability, high headroom, low noise and low distortion and which (like all the circuits in the 912) is single-ended and therefore runs in pure Class A. Moving magnet cartridges connect to the input valve directly, while moving coil types make use of a step-up transformer which provides optimum matching over a range of input impedances.'
But let's not presume that the phono section is this preamplifier's sole raison d'etre. A glance at the photos tells you it has a professional look to it, as its name suggests, and not just because of the metering. Once you get past the chassis itself - 5¼ in high, 10½in deep and 19in wide for rack mounting, and built to withstand more abuse than would be the domestic norm - you notice that aesthetics are firmly of the form-following-function school. No, that's not a euphemism for 'ugliness': I adore the looks for their sheer no-nonsense muscularity, from the handles to the lab-look rotaries. The metering is provided to give a visual indication of signal level, not just to add something for audiophiles to dribble over when the lights are dimmed. EAR feels it is useful when setting up a system, Tim adding that, 'It also gives some interesting information about the dynamic range of commercial recordings!'
There are plenty of controls with which to play. At the far left are what constitutes the phono section controls, three knobs providing, from the top, m-c impedance setting, the choice of moving coil or moving magnet stage, and Phono 1 or 2; you can hook up two turntables and access mm or m-c from either. Across the bottom, left to right, are: the much appreciated mono/stereo press button; a gain matching rotary that provides settings of 0db, -6dB and -12dB; a rotary mute switch; a rotary tape monitor selector; an on/off button that lights in the now-traditional EAR orange. Above it is the rotary volume control; to its left, toward the meters, is a rotary that selects either of two balanced inputs and line inputs marked CD, aux 1 and 2, and phono. Selection of the latter is used in conjunction with the rotary to the far left that chooses phono 1 or 2.
Tim provided the 912 with a motorised potentiometer, so remote setting of playback level is available with a supplied commander fashioned from a slim block of metal, with a tiny button on one side. At the time of writing, Tim is working on a solution that will render the 912's volume control functional with a wide range of remotes, especially the 'system' remotes now supplied with so many receivers and CD players.
At the back are the decidedly beefy connectors to feed the balanced line level and single-ended line, phono inputs, and tape monitor; all outputs are also coupled through transformers. At the main output, the phono and XLR stages are even fed from individual transformer windings, 'ensuring freedom from hum loops in systems which employ both balanced and unbalanced connections.' The 912 is fitted with two sets of balanced (XLR) and two sets of single-ended (RCA) outputs, so one could, if so driven, hook it up to four stereo systems.
Tim has described his the 912's circuits as having been 'designed from the start to be transformer coupled, (so) they make full use of the possibilities afforded by transformers. Separate windings for drive and feedback allow very elegant, high performance circuit blocks to be realised, with carefully optimised headroom and noise at all stages. The attenuation switch which follows the phono stage operates by selecting winding taps, avoiding the problem of variable source impedance that arises when resistors are used to provide signal attenuation.'
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All inputs, whether balanced or unbalanced, are selected by relays, addressing Tim's desire to keep the signal paths as short as possible, to avoid potential problems due to long internal wiring runs. The main output circuit is based on a gain block 'somewhat similar to that used in the phono stage, but of course with lower gain and flat frequency response. The primary of the output transformer is in the anode circuit of the output valve, while two secondaries feed the outputs, one to the unbalanced output sockets and one to the balanced outputs.' Incidentally, this all-tube design uses five PCC88s, which are rugged and easy to find.