Maybe, just maybe there is an 'analogue revival' underway and the arrival of one of the biggest bargains in vinyl playback history isn't a fluke. On top of the latest edition of the Michell Gyro Dec and power supply, a new (affordable) Grado Signature cartridge, the latest version of Lyra's Lydian moving-coil, the MC Kinnie RO3 head-amp from Switzerland and Mobile Fidelity's return to vinyl LP manufacture, E.A.R. has launched a phono amp for the impoverished. And not only is it ludicrously inexpensive, it's also all-valve. Best news of all? If you're one of those die-hards operating a vinyl-only system, it's available with a volume control, to serve as a one-input pre-amp. But that's jumping the gun.
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Called the E.A.R. 834P, this device is as basic as it gets. Tim de Paravicini said the secret to good design is not using the most expensive parts for a given goal, but to achieve it with the most cost-effective parts. In other words, the 834P is wholly utilitarian and to hell with the aesthetics and designer-name bits. What it does, too, is contrast nicely with E.A.R.'s top-of-the-line, ultra-luxo Yoshino, showing the extent of Tim's versatility.
The 834P is, quite literally, a black box. Measuring 95mm tall including the feet, 124mm wide and 275mm deep including knobs and socketry, the 834P is small enough to reside next to an existing pre-amp without the sacrifice of much additional shelf space. To relieve the blackness of the front panel, there's a rotary on-off control and -- if so ordered -- a rotary volume control, along with legends in gold paint. The back contains a fuse holder, IEC mains input, a multi-way earthing post, gold-plated sockets for phono in/out and a press button for m-c or mm cartridges.
Inside, it's tidy but not bursting with bits; this is a basic design conceived with an eye to cost and simplicity. Three ECC83s make up the valve complement, the unregulated power supply features a small but good quality toroidal transformer, and the components reside on a main PCB. Output is line level, the mm input is a standard 47k ohm and the mc setting is spec'd at a nominal 5-50 ohm impedance, adding a useful 20dB of gain. In the interests of quietness, m-c gain is via transformers rather than active step-up devices.
Most important is the price. If you want to feed this into an existing line input, you can save on the cost of the volume control and leave the hi-fi shop a meagre £290 poorer. But for £310, you get the volume control as well. The review sample was supplied with volume control so I could try it directly into power amps; I therefore cannot comment on whether or not there's a sonic difference between the with-or-without versions. Suffice to say, the 834P sounded best when not encumbered by a second pre-amp in the circuit, so I used it straight into a number of single-ended power amps as well as into the GRAAF, Krell KRC and Linn Kairn pre-amps. One other thing: it's worth the extra £20 for the volume-control option (even if you have no intention of directly driving a power amp) because it's handy for matching playback levels between phono and other source inputs.Read more about the 834P tube amp on Page 2.