EAR 324 phono preamplifier Page 2
The EAR 324 is so flexible, with so many choices of inputs and settings, and with provisions for accommodating so many different phono cartridges, that any reviewer could easily blow 3000 words just describing its sound in every reasonable combination. Instead, I'll start by giving you a general sense of what the 324 sounded like in my system.
First and foremost, it had what I think of as an organic, as distinct from artificial, presentation. Its ability to let the music flow in an unmechanical way, and to let the sound breathe in and out naturally, was at least the equal of the best I've heard in my home. The 324 was tight in that it played notes and rhythms correctly, without sloppiness or ambiguity of pitch and tempo—but it didn't have that (forgive me) tight-assed sound that characterizes so much expensive playback gear, and which tells me, in an instant, that I'm hearing an electromechanical fake and not real people playing music.
Those strengths were especially clear with a beautiful recording of Purcell songs by the Deller Consort (French Harmonia Mundi HM 247). The sounds of the instruments on "My song shall be alway" had solidity and presence—but, again, without seeming too tight or rigid, musically. Listening closer, I heard the EAR do a better job than my own combination of Tamura transformer and Fi preamplifier at keeping the violins—and, ultimately, the choral voices—separate and distinct from the bass-and-organ continuo. The latter had what I thought was the right amount of heft and weight, yet the other parts were free to shine and move about, without sounding stony or thick. And the colors of the instruments were lovely and convincing, too: no solid-state "graying-out" of timbres.
Yes, though it may sound simplistic or wrongheaded to say so, the 324 never sounded to me like a solid-state amplifier. My own trannies and tubes were no better at portraying true instrumental colors—as with the very distinctive and realistically recorded brass instruments on Knappertsbusch's studio recording of Prelude to Wagner's Parsifal (Westminster/Speakers Corner WST-17032)—and the EAR had a consistently, pleasingly great sense of flow and ease on LP after LP. That it ran cool and could be left powered up indefinitely was, as they say, icing. Or gravy. Or something.
The EAR also played music with a better sense of scale than my reference. Take that great live recording of Procol Harum with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (the British LP, Chrysalis CHR 1004, more than the comparatively thin-sounding US release on A&M): The space from which the orchestra plays seemed larger, in addition to which the orchestral drums and all the smaller drums in Barrie Wilson's kit took on a much bigger sound, with more impact and drama. Even the sound of applause seemed to come from a larger chunk of space.
While it isn't uncommon—and may not even be objectionable, depending on the system and the listener—for an otherwise good component to have some sonic signature, the EAR 324 simply didn't. It sounded neither brighter nor darker than what I expected, with no surplus of smoothness or grain, and no little timbral hiccups that I could hear in my system. If one were to take the parlor-trick approach to judging a piece of playback gear—trying to prove what we can or cannot hear in a blind test—I'm reasonably confident I could identify the sounds of certain other favorite products: transformers, preamps, and what have you. But not this one: I sincerely doubt if I could identify the EAR 324 in use, other than to say that it makes music quite well.
Comparisons are tempting nonetheless—one of the most tempting involved the highly regarded Linn Linto ($1600), which has long been the finest solid-state phono preamp of my experience. So I jogged my memory with a borrowed Linto (serial number 833669), noting, among other things, the Scottish preamp's unsurprisingly accurate pitches and apparently uncolored sound. And, mother of pearl, was it ever quiet. The EAR was just as quiet in my system, and just as musical—yet it rewarded even casual listening with a notably better flow and naturalness than the Linn. The EAR was, simply, more organic.
Working in the other direction—back toward my reference setup—I'm not sure that comparing a given trannie-plus-active phono device to different types and combinations of those same things, gathered from different suppliers and assembled in different combinations, would be anything but dubious. And so it went.
For example, I tend to mate low-output MCs with the lowest-impedance primaries possible when using a step-up transformer: The Tubaphon TU3 prefers the Tamura transformer's 3 ohm primary over its 40 ohm choice, and it prefers my Audio Note AN-S2's Low setting over its High (precise specs are not given). Yet with the EAR 324, things weren't so pat. Some slight ringing signaled a mismatch between the TU3 and the EAR's 4 ohm setting, which was audible on tenor Peter Pears' singing in the Britten Nocturne (Decca/Speakers Corner SXL-2189). Playing that cartridge into either the 15 ohm or 40 ohm primaries eliminated the distortion, if indeed that's what it was, and did a better job of preserving very subtle high-frequency contributions to the sound—the natural sibilance of Pears' very precise delivery, the realistic sound of the skin of Denis Byth's kettledrum, and so forth.
But I wondered: Was this a function of the relationship between the cartridge's coil impedance and the impedances of the various primaries, or was it something else? I've imagined an active gain stage would be difficult to overload with a well-chosen step-up transformer, since a comparatively high voltage on the transformer's primary—and its concomitantly relatively high impedance—will produce lower gain on the secondary, proportionally. But I don't really know for sure. Perhaps what I'm hearing is simply the different "sounds" of different primaries. (But please don't tell me they "break in," and that the one I use least often will always sound worse than the others...)