EAR-Yoshino Stereo Preamp Reviewed

EAR-Yoshino Stereo Preamp Reviewed

What do you really need in a preamplifier? A few inputs, an output (or two) and a stepped volume control. Everything else is just garnish and as any die-hard audiophile knows, garnish can quickly ruin any good audiophile system. Well the folks over at EAR have the solution, the Yoshino Stereo Preamp, all of the performance you crave with none of the additives.

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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.

Additional Resources
Read more audiophile stereo preamp reviews from brands like Audio Research, Classé, Mark Levinson, Krell, Linn, Naim and dozens others.
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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.'

Read more on Page 2

EAR-834p-reviewed.gifAll 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.

Simply swapping between the McIntosh C2200 and the EAR 912 in my reference system, the latter slipped in like it was born to be there, immediately rendering me dumbfounded because of its quietness. Sorry, but Pavlovian conditioning forces me to assume that any preamp with a fistful of glassware will issue some layer of hiss that one learns to tolerate. Not so the 912: with the volume control cranked up and no signal fed in, it was ghostly in its silence. With music, the EAR exploited this characteristic by delivering some of the widest dynamic behaviour I can recall.

It's as if Tim wanted to prove that LP playback - condition of the LPs and stylus notwithstanding - could exhibit the one thing CD has always held over it beyond convenience. So haze- and noise-free was the LP playback that I even A/B'd some LPs with their better CD versions. This applied, too, to transients, which were as crisp as a Hee's wonton, no overhang, from bass to treble. You like setting up CD vs LP demos? This baby is the playground. Once the correct impedance is chosen, and you've trimmed the levels, you can swap between LP and CD to your heart's delight. And if you do this with care, you will learn why the analogue brigade deserves to be so insufferably smug.

Then again, we live in the real world, and CD is the dominant format. I was lucky enough to receive for review the Musical Fidelity kW 25 two-chassis CD player as I was auditioning the 912, and it's a fine example of state-of-the-art CD playback circa 2006. Suffice it to say, the innate qualities of the 912, beyond those exclusive to the phono stages, allowed the kW 25 to sing unhindered. This allowed me to pinpoint those very qualities common to all inputs (I used the Marantz CD12/DA12 to assess the balanced inputs), and I fed the McIntosh MC2102 from both the balanced and single-ended outputs. So let's get that out of the way first: balanced is better in every case, but the 912 is so soundly designed that the differences are less marked. To put it another way, if you already own a power amplifier without balanced inputs, the 912 is still worth having.

Beyond the sheer quietness of the 912, its 'personality' is one of authority: very clean, unbelievably detailed. You can imagine a producer using this in a studio as part of the monitoring system. Conversely, the 912 never sounds dry or lean, and there's enough warmth such that voices have the requisite textures and 'realism' - Classic Records' Porgy and Bess performed by Ray Charles and Cleo Laine, and Harry Belafonte's stab at the blues were prefect test discs for this. Better still, they were shortcuts toward understanding the 912's spatial presentation.

Many years ago, Dave Wilson (in his reviewing phase) provided overhead views of the room to convey the shape of the soundstage. Aaah, to have that luxury! I have to do it with words: Tim tuned in just the right amount of width, avoiding anything approaching the overtly, unnaturally panoramic, while providing greater depth than usual. The latter will make many preamps seem almost 2D in comparison, while the former addresses something that has been troubling me of late: the more movies I watch, the more I realise that I prefer 1.85:1 to 2.35:1 (as does Steven Spielberg...). This has nothing to do with 'black bars' above and below an image. More, it has to do with shops that stretch a 4:3 image to 'widescreen'. It's exaggeration, and that's always bad. And it applies to sounds as much as it does to visual images.

With the EAR 912, the soundstage snaps into place, and - aside from the cavernous depth - performers have the appropriate dimensions. Throw in a cartridge like the Denon DL103, known for its unharnessed soundstage width, play it through speakers such as Wilson's WATT Puppy System 7, and you have nigh-on-perfect presentation. The 912 simply takes over, doing what the name says: Professional Control Centre, with the emphasis on control.

Criticisms? Those seeking the overtly lush must look elsewhere. I suspect that Tim would rather swallow broken glass than dial in euphony for the hell of it. With this in mind, the 912 joins the very short list of equipment that could find a home in either a studio or a domestic system, without ever seeming like an interloper. And I haven't even touched on how much fun it is to use...

Yoshino Ltd
Coombe Grove Farm
Arrington Nr Royston SG8 0AL
Tel 01223 208877
FAX 01223 208761

Review System :
SME 10 turntable, Series V arm
SME 30/2 turntable, Series V arm
Musical Fidelity kW 25 and Marantz CD12/DA12 CD players
AudioValve Sunilda phono stage
McIntosh C2200 pre-amp
McIntosh MC2102 power amp
Rogers LS3/5a speakers and Wilson WATT Puppy System 7 speakers
Atlas Hyper interconnects
Transparent mains distribution block
Transparent Ultra balanced and single-ended cable
Transparent Reference speaker cables

Additional Resources
Read more audiophile stereo preamp reviews from brands like Audio Research, Classé, Mark Levinson, Krell, Linn, Naim and dozens others.
Follow AudiophileReview.com for blog posts and opinion on the world of audiophile preamps including passive preamps, solid state preamps, tube preamps and more.
Read Audiophile Power amp reviews here.

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