Analog Corner #297: van den Hul The Grail SE+ phono preamplifier & SAEC WE-4700 tonearm

The catastrophic February 6 fire at the factory where Apollo Masters produced LP-mastering lacquers—flat aluminum discs covered with nitrocellulose lacquer—will be old news by the time this column gets to you, but the repercussions of the loss will be ongoing for at least the next year and probably beyond.

Japanese firm MDC, the world's only remaining lacquer manufacturer, is a small company that before the fire had been operating at capacity and turning down customers. Fortunately, prominent mastering engineers Kevin Gray and Bernie Grundman had switched to MDC well before the fire, and their supply of lacquers will continue undiminished. (In particular, Gray's switch to MDC means that popular reissues like Blue Note's Tone Poet series will continue unaffected by the loss.) The immediate losers will be smaller indie labels and mastering engineers tied to Apollo.

In the late 1980s or early 1990s, I visited the Linden, New Jersey, facility of lacquer manufacturer Transco, whose operation was bought out by Apollo Masters in 2007. When those Transco production lines moved to Apollo's Banning, California, factory, I remember thinking, "What if there's an earthquake? No more lacquers." At the time of my Transco visit, not that many people cared about the dying vinyl industry. Even though the various lacquer formulations are highly flammable, both Transco and Apollo had been manufacturing for more than half a century without incident. What caused the conflagration is not yet known or has not yet been disclosed.

What's certain is that when the current lacquer stash has been used up, all that will be left is direct metal mastering, which forgoes lacquers, and whatever MDC can produce for its existing customers. How this will affect vinyl's growing popularity remains to be seen.

van den Hul The Grail SE+ phono preamplifier
van den Hul's The Grail SE+ ($28,900) is a "super deluxe" upgraded version of the $7950 The Grail phono preamp reviewed in the August 2018 Stereophile. (There is also a non-plus SE version, which is $2900 cheaper than the SE+, footnote 1.) Like the original Grail, the SE+ features a current-source moving-coil phono cartridge preamplifier designed to maximize the capabilities of low-output, low-internal-impedance MC cartridges. This once-esoteric circuit type has now become more commonplace (and has received considerable coverage in these pages, especially during the past 12 issues). As with the original Grail, this one features capacitor-free, L-R (inductor-resistor) RIAA filters.

Packaged in a similar-looking but much larger (19" × 4" × 13") and heavier (43lb), wood-cheeked chassis, The Grail SE+ is said to feature more sophisticated circuitry and lower-tolerance (ie, better) parts. As in the original Grail, circuit traces are of gold, and the boards are mounted in a manner said to enhance immunity to microphonics. The SE+ offers two MC inputs, one of which has both single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) jacks, and a single-ended MM input.

In place of the original Grail's dual-channel outboard power supply, the SE features a pair of fairly large supplies housed in two substantial aluminum chassis, each connecting to the main chassis via a multipin umbilical; the SE+ version, reviewed here, features two 100W power supplies rather than the standard SE's 40W supplies. (I wasn't able to compare the basic Grail SE with the optional SE+ version.)

An internal DIP-switch bank allows MC gain to be adjusted to 56, 64, 70, or 73dB. Subtracting 23dB from those values provides available MM gain. As with all current-amplification MC phono preamplifiers, The Grail's circuitry automatically matches its impedance to an MC cartridge's input impedance, so there are no loading requirements. MM users who wish to add capacitance to the unit's 50pF (plus cable capacitance) will have to break out the soldering iron. The instructions offer photos and complete instructions.

Setup and use
The heavy Grail SE+ should be lowered straight down into place and not pushed or dragged into position, because the feet bottoms feature glued-in elastomer ring inserts that, when horizontally stressed, deform and break free.

The back panel is very busy, with 12 jacks, two umbilical connectors, and a pair of toggle switches (one for MM/MC and the other for choosing which of the two MC inputs is active) placed in close proximity to one another, though the side-by-side dual-mono configuration means that some turntable cables might not provide sufficient "spread" for their plugs to reach the widely separated input jacks. Before installing, put a strip of blue tape across the back of the chassis cover and, before plopping down the Grail, label the jack positions. You don't want to have to swivel it around to see what's what.

If you use the single-ended inputs, you must use the single-ended outputs. I ran The Grail SE+ single-ended until installing the SAEC arm, which allowed use of a DIN-to-XLR balanced cable, and then I ran The Grail SE+ both balanced and single-ended. Once you've matched gain to your cartridge and system, all there is to do with The Grail SE is push the front-panel button to turn it on or off. If you have two MC-cartridge–fitted arms connected, you'll reach behind, find the toggle switch, and throw it to select between them. If you have a third arm fitted with an MM cartridge, you'll throw the other toggle switch.

The Grail SE+ sonics
I used the Ortofon MC Anna Diamond, which has an output of 0.2mV, the Lyra Atlas Lambda SL, which has an output of 0.25mV, and the Grado Epoch moving-iron cartridge, which has an output of 1.0mV; I also used the Ortofon MC A Mono (0.2mV). The biggest benefit for a reviewer of a current-sensing phono preamplifier is that it immunizes you from such criticism as "You didn't like that cartridge because you loaded it wrong."

Without having the regular Grail on hand, I couldn't compare it directly to the SE+, but referring to my earlier Grail review indicated that, among other improvements, the larger, more robust power supply gave The Grail SE+ greater dynamic "slam" and drive and a tighter, more robust bottom end, which is one area where the standard Grail fell short compared to the combo of CH Precision P1 phono preamp and X1 power supply.

What I once thought was the original Grail's somewhat more "liquid" midrange, which in some systems "might translate into a bit too soft and warm," was perhaps power-supply–related softness, because the SE+ was considerably "faster": stiffer and better controlled in the midrange and closer to the CH Precision's precise-yet-generous mids and its ability to cleanly delineate instruments in three-dimensional space without adding unnatural edge definition.

520ac.monk

On Mobile Fidelity's must-have Ultradisc One-Step pressing, on two 45rpm LPs, of Monk's Dream by the Thelonious Monk Quartet (UD1S-211), the group resembles a rock band more than a jazz combo. The crack and sizzle of Frankie Dunlop's snare and cymbals and the "whomp" he put into the kickdrum, as well as the pleasingly hard edge to Charlie Rouse's tenor sax, were equally well expressed by both the van den Hul and CH Precision phono preamps. But through The Grail SE+, the overall picture was somewhat leaner and more clinical, and the bit of fast-decay reverb behind the sax was not as clearly delineated. The only quality you might want more of from both preamps is additional body, reedy texture, and weight from Rouse's sax, and the generous harmonic structure of Monk's piano—all provided by yet another phono preamp, the tubed Ypsilon VPS-100. But you can't have everything: The Ypsilon's bottom end misses some of the solid-state designs' bottom-end grip, slam, and extension.

520ac.bina

On Chasing the Dragon's Binaural Baroque, featuring the Locrian Ensemble of London (VALDC005), recorded binaurally and direct-to-disc at Air Studios, the CH Precision produced a somewhat wider, more vividly drawn, and, especially, deeper stage than did The Grail SE+, with Morgan Szymanski's guitar in Vivaldi's "Guitar Concerto" appearing more holographically between and in front of the speakers, but both presented the picture against a dead-quiet backdrop, and without a direct comparison by the potential buyer, either would more than satisfy those drawn to this kind of clean, solid state (but not solid-state-y–sounding) presentation.


Footnote 1: van den Hul BV, Oude Apeldoornseweg 6g 8171 LV Vaassen, The Netherlands. Tel: 31 578 569 950. Web: vandenhul.com. US distributor: AudioShield Audio Distribution. Web: myaudioshield.com.
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COMMENTS
Ortofan's picture

... Ikeda IT-345 CR-1 tonearm?

https://www.islabs.co.jp/it345cr1.html

It is available in the US:
https://www.thecableco.com/it-345cr1-tonearm.html

georgehifi's picture

Wow, that's a great price. Really? for a phono stage.
Lucky it's 75db gain so you don't have to buy a $KKKKK preamp to go with it.
With 40ohms output impedance a $49 Schiit Sys passive pre will suffice, and give you all that $29K more transparently than an active will give anyway.

Cheers George

Glotz's picture

Yeah, that Schiit value line is really... valuable.

Bullschiit! I own the Modius and it is complete underperformer, even for $200. That passive pre should fall just under the VdH!

The KKK sells preamps now?!? Terrible.

dial's picture

You didn't use a VDH cartridge or cable, this says all ; the CHP1 is from another world.
To Ortofan, the Ikeda at 6900 $ is a very old product now, the SAEC is a new design if not concept. Both use removable headshell as this is much more practical (to me, the Jelco is the best one in his price range and perhaps you must pay ten times more to have better).

Glotz's picture

I own a Jelco '750 and while it's a great tonearm, I did replace the headshell with an Oyaide carbon fiber one. I liked the arm then, and now.

Were your thoughts on the headshell or the arm itself? Please elaborate a bit and thank you!

dial's picture

Problems with tonearms appear in the 50's, what's a good one, which one's bad ? I was a long time member of several hifi-audio groups in the past and despite a great amount of blind tests with a lot of carts/turntables complete (EMT were the norm)/tonearms/cheap versus high end and so on, this remains unanswered. Jelco is a good value but not as practical as some older designs.
Well for your headshell, but now price 've dramatically increased, I could recommend the Acoustical Systems Arché reviewed here.

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