Analog Corner #276: van den Hul The Grail phono preamplifier & Colibri Signature Stradivarius phono cartridge Page 2

I found that a VTF of 1.5gm gave me the smoothest reproduction of vocal sibilants. Even so, for some reason there was occasional smearing of sibilants that should have been clean. I double- and triple-checked every parameter, but the Colibri XGW Stradivarius Signature turned out to be extremely sensitive to VTF. A few tenths of a gram more force, and careful attention to setting the antiskating, smoothed out some slightly ragged sibilants I heard from a test pressing of an upcoming reissue of Joan Armatrading's third, eponymous album (A&M/Intervention IR-029).

My previous encounters with top-shelf vdH cartridges have led me to expect speed, detail, and spotlit highs from the brand. That wasn't quite what the Colibri XGW Stradivarius Signature first communicated, through either The Grail or the CH Precision P1/X1. (All of the following listening impressions were audible through both phono preamps.) Instead, the Colibri first produced a surprisingly lush, rich, relaxing midrange that was texturally similar to that of Lyra's Etna and Etna SL, though not as highly resolved or, especially, as transparent as Lyra's Atlas and Atlas SL.

The limited-edition boxed set of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic's cycle of Beethoven symphonies (10 LPs, Berlin Philharmonic BPHR160092) arrived just as I was leaving for Munich and High End 2018, and as soon as I got home I dug into it. Unlike the CD edition, which was recorded using multiple microphones, the vinyl edition was recorded using a dedicated stereo M/S pair. The lacquers were cut from the 24-bit master files. Buy the LPs, and you get the full-resolution files as a download. The packaging is as lavish as that of Rattle's recent Brahms direct-to-disc set.

As for Rattle's interpretations: I grew up with the early 1960s Berlin cycle conducted by Herbert von Karajan, which I have on vinyl and commercial 7.5ips tape. I find Rattle's overall style tidy, a model of tamped-down British understatement. Occasionally he bursts forth with the grandeur and swell of Karajan's stately performances, and I especially like how he handles the brass, but overall, these are relatively tame readings—especially when compared with Leonard Bernstein's cycle of live recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic made in 1977–79, and recently reissued (I haven't heard the reissue; I have the original).

Symphony 3 might be my favorite of the nine, and Bernstein's grand, dramatic take makes the hair on my neck stand up. Not so the Rattle. And despite the new set's minimal miking, the separation of instruments, and the string tonality and sheen in the Bernstein set were superior, as was the latter's overall soundstaging and image specificity. The Colibri's generously deep, wide soundstages (when the recording contained them) made these differences clearly audible.

The Colibri Stradivarius's lush, relaxed, well-textured midrange and its pleasing if not ultimate midrange transparency made for long evenings of pleasurable listening to classical and acoustic music, whether symphonic or chamber—or solo acoustic guitar. I greatly enjoyed more than a few original pressings of albums by John Renbourn and Bert Jansch from Transatlantic Records.

Mid- and high-frequency transients were fast and slightly spotlit, almost to the point where they ran in front of the rich midrange—but I heard that only occasionally, and with some recordings, especially those recorded live, it was beneficial in delineating the feel of space. The Colibri didn't sound too sharp and/or bright, just somewhat illuminated through a broad area comprising the upper midrange and lower treble, where it also had a smooth quality similar to that of Kuzma's KAR cartridges (footnote 5). The Grail's transparency and liquidity fired up my memory, but with far greater midrange grip and texture.

The Colibri's bottom end was more clean and fast than grippy and muscular. If your system can plumb the depths, you'll notice the vdH cartridge's inability to go deep or make the room shake. It sacrificed some bottom-end guts in exchange for low-frequency clarity and nimbleness, which would seem to make it a good candidate for high-performance, two-way speakers that don't go all the way down, but cheat a bit in the midbass to sound as if they do.

Macrodynamics were good if less than fully slamming, but microdynamics—low-level dynamic contrasts that give recorded music the semblance of reality—were among the cartridge's strongest suits. This was part of the Colibri's magic: a complete freedom from mechanical artifacts that many nights kept me up late, listening.

If I listened mostly to rock or hard jazz, the Colibri XGW Stradivarius Signature would not be my first choice of cartridge—especially for $11,995. For those kinds of music I'd opt for a Lyra Atlas SL ($12,995) or something less expensive, like the Ortofon A95 ($6499) or the Transfiguration Proteus ($6000), both of which deliver greater slam and visceral excitement, if not the same midrange sophistication.

If you listen mostly to classical music, you might find satisfaction with the van den Hul Colibri XGW Stradivarius Signature. But in one regard, its price bothers me: Today, more than a few cartridges are priced at or near $12,000—but why does a cartridge that last year cost $7995 in a lower-output version now cost $4000 more?

The Grail
I'm fairly certain that A.J. van den Hul himself didn't design The Grail. To my knowledge, that's not what he does. I assume someone else designed it to his specifications, or that it was at least a collaborative effort. But whoever was responsible for The Grail is a genius of phono preamplifier design, and a listener as well as a technician. This one is a real sleeper. It doesn't have the sophistication of features of the CH Precision P1 ($48,000 with X1 power supply), but sonically it competes with the P1/X1 at a little less than one-fifth the price ($9350), and throws in some liquid-midrange magic. Nor was it only with vdH's own Colibri XGW Stradivarius Signature cartridge that The Grail produced spectacular results, as I discovered when I ran a number of cartridges from other makers through it.

Like the CH P1, The Grail produced the "blackest" backgrounds, out of which sprang startlingly delicate yet believably solid three-dimensional images that were 100% free of unnatural etch, edge, or hyper-definition. In fact, in direct A/B comparisons with the CH P1/X1, The Grail sounded somewhat more liquid, though in some systems that might translate into a bit too soft and warm. In my system, either phono preamp would do, depending on the recording.

The Grail's transparency and liquidity fired up my memory. I pulled out such long-neglected LPs as Lightnin' Hopkins's In New York (Candid/Barnaby Z 30247), recorded November 15, 1960, at Nola Penthouse Studios. The Grail's rendering of it was slightly softer than the P1's, but that added a welcome depth that pushed Hopkins's voice back slightly on the stage, and gave it more texture and 3D believability.

I pulled out an original UK pressing of Jeff Beck's Truth, engineered by Ken Scott (Columbia SCX 6293). Wow! On that groundbreaking record (from which grew Led Zeppelin) The Grail dug deep, producing a fast, sizzling, yet liquid and transparent top end, naturally, and its combination of high resolution and background "blackness" rendered the subtle, ghostly echo Scott put way behind Rod Stewart's voice perhaps the best I've ever heard it.

If you're looking for an exceptionally fine-sounding, startlingly transparent, liquid yet gritty (when called for), super-quiet, high-resolution MC/MM phono preamplifier with enough gain to handle even the lowest-output cartridges, van den Hul's The Grail is a $9350 sleeper that you should definitely experience.

Double your treasure, double your fun?
Despite what audiophiles of modest means may think, I've met many in my world travels who not only can afford to drop $50,000 on a CH Precision combo of P1 phono preamp and X1 power supply, but have done just that. If you're one of them, maybe you can also swing a second set and run both sets as a stereo pair. $100,000 for a phono preamplifier? It's crazy, but it can be done, and sometimes is. I've met those guys, too!

CH Precision offered to lend me a second P1 with X1 so I could hear the results. To make it work, I had to remove one amplifier card from each signal-processing unit. You could use just one channel of each, but when a customer orders the four-box version, only one channel is supplied. CH says it sounds better that way. Reassembled, hooked up, and powered on, the modified units "know" what you've done: one then automatically submits to control by the other's settings.

If you read the review of the P1 and X1 in my April 2017 column, you'll know what you get with a single P1/X1, which is very special. Did I double my pleasure with two? The two P1/X1s didn't sound twice as good as one, but the four-box version was definitely even more dynamic, with even better bass control and slam, and a more relaxed and supple midrange. Overall, it produced bigger, more vivid sonic pictures against backgrounds that were even more quiet.

But even at an accommodation price, I'm not one of those who can afford a nearly $100,000 phono preamp. So back that second P1/X1 went to CH Precision.

Footnote 5: See the March and April 2018 "Analog Corner" columns.

partain's picture

I have no objection to religious or mythological iconography , but "grail" implies "ultimate" and this is just another disgustingly high-priced toy that will be superseded next week and only bought by those who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing .
Sooner or later , your advertisers are going to realize that usable , affordable equipment is what we readers need , and buy , a little analog porn is OK but ya'll have entirely lost it , lately .

Scintilla's picture

I just ponied up for a Channel D Lino C 3.0 with dual inputs. I could afford it and didn't think there was anything unreasonable about the price., particularly for a hand-made product that performs in the top class. To me it was a bargain. Perhaps you could spend less time projecting onto others online, and attempting to foment class-based arguments about the merit of optional products and more time just listening to your music. Nobody needs reviews either. If you are offended, don't read them.

Jack L's picture


Yup, audio reviews are for readers of all walks of life: from every Joe Blow to those rich & willing.

Just like dining, fast food burgers vs fine New York steaks depend on the diners.

Try not be sour grapes !

Jack L

NIkos Razis's picture

Back in the 80s it could be excusable for even a professor of physics to not understand digital signal processing if that was not his field. In 2021 it is inexcusable for any person professionally involved in audio to still not understand the basics of digital audio. Bit depth has nothing to do with resolution (in the sense of amount and granularity of detail capture or retrieval). It never had and it never will. It has to do with noise and thus with dynamic range. Neither does sampling rate, of course. So van den Hul’s comment about CD was neither informed nor prescient.