Analog Corner #297: van den Hul The Grail SE+ phono preamplifier & SAEC WE-4700 tonearm Page 2

Through the CH Precision, strings arrayed across the stage well behind the guitar were sweet and well defined, with supple (not edgy) attack, generous sustain (though not as generous as through the Ypsilon), and satisfying, long decay trails that helped recreate the Air Studios space. The bass lines defined by the bigger strings pulsed cleanly. The Grail SE+'s rendering was somewhat leaner, which meant the bass-line pulses were not quite as insistent. I repeated this comparison with the CH's X1 auxiliary power supply turned off, which made the prices and overall excellent sonic performance of these two units roughly comparable if not identical ($31,000 for the CH P1, $28,900 for The Grail SE+).

van den Hul Conclusion
The Grail SE+ is a quiet, timbrally neutral, transparent, get-out-of-the-way-and-let-the-music-through phono preamp. It produces effortless, wide dynamic swings and seemingly full, flat frequency response, and it would score well on any checklist you might put together, unless you like tubey, super-rich sound. The SE+ sounds similar to the standard Grail, but with greater dynamic capabilities, bottom-end grip and extension, and transient refinement. Plus, it sounds stiffer and faster in the mids, where the original Grail was somewhat soft, if pleasantly so. If you want color, or bloom, best to get it from the cartridge.

I claimed in my original review that AJ van den Hul did not design The Grail; the previous van den Hul importer strenuously claimed otherwise in his manufacturer's response. After reading the review of the original Grail, in which I called whoever created The Grail a "designing genius," German designer Jürgen Ultee emailed to say, "I can confirm that I'm the electronics designer of the amp you've reviewed, every single design part (except housing design and surface colors) is from my person. I'm a professional electronic designer." Of course, Mr. Ultee designed this piece as well.

The CH P1 and The Grail SE+ sound more similar than dissimilar, meaning that if you like one, you'll probably like the other—I obviously like both—but they are very different products. The Grail SE+ combines a sophisticated circuit with a rudimentary operating system of rear-mounted toggle switches and an internally mounted DIP-switch bank. It's a high-rent circuit (and sound) in kind of a low-rent though well-constructed package. The CH is a far more sophisticated and physically attractive product, with a unique, well-thought-out front-panel–based, menu-driven operating system, a display screen, and a series of useful options including a plug-in card with various EQ curves and a setup wizard that shows you frequency response vs loading for its voltage-based input.

That said, for most users of either (or any) phono preamp, once you've adjusted your settings for a particular cartridge, you're not likely to need to change them often. Still, the CH's substantial, vibration-controlled, stackable, attractively finished chassis is in another league.

While both Grails sound really fine—super quiet and musically sophisticated—the original $9350 Grail, which comes sonically close to the CH (minus the X1), is a much better value than either the CH Precision or the Grail SE+, because it puts the money into the sound rather than into CH-caliber attractive packaging and convenience features, or the Grail SE+'s additional input and somewhat more sophisticated sonics.

Once you're approaching $30,000, you're entitled to both great sound and an attractive package. The Grail SE+ is about performance and wastes little on convenience features or slick packaging.

If the opportunity arises to hear The Grail or The Grail Plus or SE+ (or, of course, the CH Precision): Go for it. All four set high performance bars for solid-state phono preamplification.

SAEC WE-4700 double knife-edge–bearing tonearm
Back in the day, SAEC's double knife-edge–bearing tonearms were considered luxurious eye candy. They were also widely regarded as superbly machined, sensibly designed, and sonically satisfying (although knife-edge bearings attract both enthusiasts and detractors).

520ac.saec

When the Döhmann Helix One Mk2, with its two removable armboards, was scheduled for review, I figured it would be a good time to try the new SAEC WE-4700 I'd seen on display the past few years at the High End show in Munich. SAEC seems to be manufacturing the arms in cooperation with a new manufacturing company (footnote 2).

The arm is not currently distributed in the US, but this is a column, not a formal review, so we get to break some rules. I was able to get the SAEC arm through DS Audio's Tetsuaki Aoyagi. I was unable to get a properly drilled Helix One armboard in time for the Döhmann review in last month's Stereophile, but I managed to fit the WE-4700 on the Continuum Caliburn's rear mount (where the Kuzma 4Point tonearm usually sits).

The WE-4700's packaging is '70s-era lavish and deluxe in every way; more important, what's inside is gleaming and exquisitely turned out in the manner of the best Japanese machining excellence. The goal, according to the instructions, was to surpass the sonic and mechanical performance of the WE-407/23 manufactured by the original SAEC in the 1980s. Go online and you can find used ones for around $2000 or less. The new one hasn't yet been priced for the US, but Aki-San figures $13,000 to $14,500.

Machined of aluminum, the new arm is claimed to feature greater rigidity and machining accuracy and thus produce improved tracing ability and more precise sound.

The arm pillar is a substantial threaded cylinder, 30mm in diameter, that clamps to the armboard opening using a large, massive chrome-plated nut tightened from below, similar to Rega's old system—though here, VTA/SRA is adjustable using a large collet in which the pillar rides. Tighten an above-board round nut by hand just so and you can smoothly move the arm up and down; tightening that nut any further locks the arm in place—a much better and more sophisticated method than a side-mounted grub screw.

The J-shaped arm terminates at the front in a standard headshell collet. A DIN jack located at the arm's bottom, within the threaded pillar, requires a straight DIN plug-terminated tonearm cable (not supplied).

A weight that slides on a rod perpendicular to the bearing block and tonearm tube sets the knife-edge bearing's lateral balance, with the distance from the block determined by the cartridge's weight, per the instruction manual. Other than that adjustment, the arm sets up in standard fashion, including antiskating using a string-and-weight mechanism, though here it can be set with greater precision than on most arms for reasons I won't get into due to space limitations. The arm can accommodate cartridges weighing between 13 and 35gm.

The WE-4700's published specs include an overall length of "max 315mm"; an effective length of 221mm; overhang of 12mm; tracking error of 0 "at innermost groove of record"; and an offset angle of 18°. If those specs seem odd to you, then you are not alone.

In fact, the supplied arm-mounting template has a pivot-to-spindle (P2S) distance of 221mm, so these specs are like the ones Technics supplied for the SL-1000R turntable/tonearm that I reviewed a few years ago. I guess in Japan P2S is called the "effective length," while in the rest of the world the effective length would be the P2S plus overhang. Here, 221mm plus 12mm equals 233mm, which is nowhere near 315mm—though again, that's listed as the "max" length, whatever that means.

As for the "0 tracking error at the innermost groove of record" spec, I translate that as meaning that, if you follow SAEC's instructions and set to 53mm the distance from where the headshell fits into the arm collet to the stylus tip, you achieve Stevenson alignment, which prioritizes having the lowest possible error at the inner groove. Precisely measuring that is guesswork at best, and I'm not a Stevenson enthusiast (other than Adlai, which shows my age). So instead I used the Wallytractor's 232mm effective length arc and followed the Löfgren A arc, which put the inner 0 tracking error point at 62mm and the outer one at 118mm. (The Stevenson's outer one is further in, at 114mm.)

So set, the stylus followed the engraved arc precisely, and at the two null points, the cantilever was tangential to the grooves. Perhaps I just lucked out, because while the SAEC headshell allows setting overhang, it offers little zenith-angle adjustment.

SAEC Sound
I set up the original, familiar Lyra Atlas SL on the arm and spent a week or so enjoying sound that was precise, timbrally neutral (though somewhat cool), nonmechanical, and effortless. The bottom end was well-extended and free of overhang or exaggeration, the mids were a bit lean, though impressively transparent and airy, and the top—especially vocal sibilants—was delivered precisely, thanks to outstanding tracking at the cartridge's recommended 1.72gm VTF.

The multiple breaks in the signal path (one in the headshell, one in the collet, and one in the DIN jack and plug) are not ideal, but for those who prefer easy headshell and cartridge swaps over purist minimalism, you get that here. With SME exiting the stand- alone tonearm market, the SAEC WE-4700 is—with Graham's Elite unipivot, which features a pair of signal breaks—an attractive alternative. If it does get an American distributor, I'll be sure to get another WE-4700 and produce a more detailed sonic report. For now, I'll just say it was as much fun to listen to as it was to set up, use, and stare at.


Footnote 2: SAEC, Exported by DS Exports 4-50-40.Kamitsuruma-Honcho, Minamiku, Sagamihara Kanagawa, 252-0318, Japan Web: saec-com.co.jp. Not currently imported to America.
ARTICLE CONTENTS

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.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Not all linestages are built equal!!!

Not intended to fight. Either you listen "bulshit" music or your ears need tune-up big big bigtime.

Wait until you own 1.000+ vinyl like me before you start to challenge my comment here !!!

Listening is believing

Jack L

Glotz's picture

To reduce this $30k preamp to your unheard claims is equal farce.

On top of it, your comments are not above... At all.

You assume that all active linestages are adding something. Not true.

I have a very high-performance system AND another high-performing passive preamp for 20 years. The Benchmark HPA4 destroys the Belles passive, largely due to lossy behavior.

I own well over 3000 LP's and thousands of digital albums.

The LA4/HPA4 is in the class A for Stereophile's RC for a reason. Utterly transparent. (Most certainly more transparent than a cheap piece of Schiit.) As transparent as a run of cable... See the review. I also own Schiit products and they are solid for the money...

But better than a $30k preamp? Yah?... No.

Jim Austin's picture

Let's be respectful. This comment is aimed at all relevant people in this thread.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Glotz's picture

NT

Jack L's picture

....Not true." quoted Glitz.

Hi

COOL it! Here Stereophile is a civil venue. So please shut up yr stink "piss off' bad mouth !

Substantiate yr claim above: "Not true" in technical/engineering terms. I want from you given my electrical/electronic engineering background+ over 2-decade experience in the power engineering industries.

So you ASSUME higher price should give you better sound you want. Right?

FYI, I've auditioned enough expensive audio gears, e.g. USED125,000 Audio Note Japan 'Kegon', a silver loaded 17W+17W single-ended Class A all triode tube stereo power amp, USD125,000 Audio Note Japan record player, with its tonearm specially designed by SME. etc etc.

I listed the above 2 items as they both sounded pretty musical for such astronomical prices. IMO, their sound did not justify their pricing.

You asked what volume attenuators I used in my linestages. So you ASSUME again pricey volume stepped volume controls SHOULD give you good sound. My question: can yr ears tell the difference?????

IMO, Volume controls with stepped resistors or tapped transformer are a pain to use. That's my experience: only continuous contact can deliver SEAMLESS volume adjustment given my audio rig is so revealing that my ears can detect the micro sound level change.
How? Passive linestage does the trick.

Lofty pricing does NOT warrant better sound. YOU need better ears my friend.

Jack L

PS: you might run a music record store stocking million LPS & CDs. So what, how much time you spend in enjoying them???

Glotz's picture

Perhaps you didn't read he was addressing it you as well.

You addressed nothing of what I said, and again acted out with ad hominem attacks. Pretty cowardly.

Jack L's picture

Hi

You started attacking George's thread first & then mine.

You only see your own self & nobody else in this audio world.

As Jim said it right to YOU, take a break to cool it.

Jack L

Glotz's picture

He was referring to both of us... Read it again if you have to... All in the thread.

And you lie about me attacking you first.

You attacked me for a post to George, not you.

George can defend himself. (If he wants to insult VDH, I can respond in tow. I own VDH and Schiit. I think VDH has nothing to worry about. Never has over the past 50 years either.)

You wrote two posts that were rude and you deserve every bit of my tone.

Jim Austin's picture

It doesn't matter who started it--everyone, just be respectful. I'm sure you all know what that means.

I did write that my message applied to everyone in the thread that it applied to. I wasn't singling out anyone. What I'm saying is, we're accountable for our own actions, not those of other people, so that's where courtesy starts.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Jack L's picture

Fully agreed. Thanks.

Let's keep Stereophile a civil chat venue.

Jack L

Jack L's picture

.......more transparently than an active to give anyway." quoted George.

Hi

Bingo !!

What can be more high fidelity to the original music signal than an
a straight line transmission - passive linestage !!!!

For decades since day one, I as a die-hard DIYer of audio electronics, design/build PASSIVE only linestages to me & other pure music lovers.

Technically, any digital/analogue programme sources, e.g. CD, DAC, phonostages, tape deck etc, deliver over 2Vrms output voltage which is adequate to drive any power amps to their rated max output power.
Any linestage with gain is therefore deemed redundant !!

Acitve linestages, whatever pricetags, generate undue harmonic & phase distortion to the music signals.So why pay our hard-earned money to buy distoritions to ruin the music ??????

Be a smart audio consumer, pals. Use your ears to listen to the music instead of sales pitches of the audio salespersons whose job is to get yr money !!!!!!

FYI, my home-brew phono-preamp (as shown in my signature logo up here) is a one-single triode stage active stage with passive RIAA EQ & one single triode linestage, with a bypass switchange to override the entire active linestage. I find the music sound so much better in bypassing the entire active linestage.

So much more OPEN, more detailed, deeper soundstaging & precise imaging. More spatial environment to make it sound closer to live performances. I mean it considering I own & love to play music from my 1,000+ vinyl collection DAILY in my off-work hours.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Glotz's picture

everyone is less than you and your 'talents'.

All gain stages are not created equal, and proper gain is the key, especially after owning a solid passive preamp for 20 years. There a problems with any system-match and to reduce it down to "all active gain stages are bad" is absolute bullshit.

We don't need your assertions to state your homebrew, DIY passive/active is better than everyone else's... It isn't. The passive stage may very well be better than you active stage, but that isn't saying much. Against what??

What comparisons do you offer?? Against a $30k VDH phono preamp?? Yeah, No. Have you heard the VDH?? Ah, no again.

Moreover, your theory about any active line-stage mucking up sound more than a passive is super-dated and has been a subject of debate for 40 plus years. (In theory, you think it's true, and that's good enough for you.)

What of your volume attenuator?? What of the rest of the switches in the signal path, cable runs for a passive connection, parts quality or even the match between your passive preamp and your amp.... Input and Output impedance mismatches can happen and do.

You concur with one salesman (George) and then you decry some other unknown hypothetical salesperson??

Lastly, you are selling your stuff here, and you, like a complete hypocritical WHORE are telling everyone else not to listen to salespeople? Done.

You don't like others buying gear you don't approve of?

Jim Austin's picture

Like a lot of people, I came around to active preamplifiers via sonic experimentation and experience. I only learned later that they make sense.

Scroll down to the section headed THE FULLY PASSIVE MYTH and read from there.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Jack L's picture

Hi

(Jim, please do not get involved further as you don't want to, Thanks)

I would consider the above statement when addressed to ME, is like selling ice to the Eskimos who know ice better than whoever else.

How about "THE FULLY ACTIVE MYTH" for linestages ???

Musical sound is so personal & subjective just like food, heavily seasoned or plain as it is, depending on the eater's preference.

Active linestages add DYNAMIC distortions to the music signal to which many may find more "pleasant" to listen just like eating food with heavy seasoning! Sorry not my cup of tea.

But for people like Yours Truly who go for pure music without undue harmonic & phase distortions, "fully passive" is not myth at all.

I admire Benchmark's obsession over eliminating distortions & noise in using op-amp chips & 'perfect' volume attenuators. Yes, it has apparently achieved its signature slogan: "The Measure of Excellence" on static bench measurement, e.g. straight-lined frequency response with 10Hz@ -0.005dB & 20KHz@-0.001dB & THD+noise -115dB/116dB for LA4 line preamp.

To me, such "measure of excellence" data are a bunch of numbers to impress the potential buyers. Like it or not, static bench measurement todate, however "excellent", can NEVER tell us how excellent it would sound in reproducing music signals.

I have strong reservation for any audio amp using bipolar junction devices, e.g transistors, FETs because of the junction capacitance/reactance.

The signal transfer curves of all these devices bend off by a 'kink' or 'knee', making it NON-LINEAR, limiting signal swing amplitude before clipping. That's explain why a soldstate audio amp sound unpleasant when overloaded.

An op-amp is built up of many such bipolar junction devices with tons of loop feedback to reduce distortion & noise. Yes, they will measure excellent THD & noise numbers using static bench test signals. But for does an audio amp measured low low THD & noise level warrant better sound than one with higher THD & noise level ???

Sorry, the answer is negative. Let me quote Daniel Cheever's Masters Thesis. In his audio engineering master thesis, he compared the sound of a single-ended class A triode tube power amp without loop feedback (5% THD), a Class AB push-pull pentode tube power amp, & a soldstate power amp with loop negative feedback (0.5% THD).

The audition verdict: the 5% tube power amp :"sound better than anything else."

This test result was later verified by Arthur C Ludwig Sr. (Silcom.com) using a triode tube power amp of another make using double blind tests.

So this proves music sounds better with audio amp of simpler design. What can be better than amp without any active devices to screw up the complex music signals comprising high order of harmonics???

So to many PURE music lovers, "THE FULL PASSIVE MYTH" is not a myth at all.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Jack L's picture

Hi

Our ears is a very excellent, if not the best, instrument compared to electronic counter measures. For example, ratio of highest to lowest frequency: 1,000:1, source location accuracy: W/I 5 degree, strongest-weakest signal radio: 32 trillion: 1

That said, our ears are not linear at all & produce audible harmonic , intermodulated & phase distortion.

A sound system's overall distortion is always dominated by the loudspeakers distortion: e.g. harmonic distortion 20-40Hz@80dB SPL=6%, @92dB=10%; 5-10KHZ@80dB=0.14% , @92dB SPL=0.44%.

My question: does an audio amp measured excellently 0.00006% THD (for Benchmark TA-4 linestage) help at all ????

Let's look at the music soundwaves travelling from the loudspeakers into our ears, perceived by our brain.

Let's assume: the loudspeaker is a single driver monopole sound source (which is actually not due to multi drivers built up the loudspeaker), the music soundwaves diffractions by the driver unit frame edge & the loudspeaker cabinet corners are not audibly noticeable (yet low frequencies always being noticeable).

Music soundwaves need a medium carrier to travel: atmospheric air. Yet the propagation of air is nonlinear, affected by the surrounding temperature & humidity.

Now the passage of soundwaves through our ears is very unlike travelling from the loudspeakers to the ear. It is substantially affected by our head related transfer function (HRTF). The incident soundwaves were manipulated by the reflection from the head & inside the ear canel!

The ridges of the outer ear (pinna) determine the direction of the sound source.

The middle ear is fairly linear 40-110dB SPL.

The inner hair cell (IHC) of the cocklea (innner ear) convert the soundwaves hitting the eardrum basilar membrane to nervous impules which are then transmitted to the brain via the auditory nerve (of 30,000 nerve fibres).

The outer hair cell (OHC) inside the cocklea is to protect the ear from damaged by too loud sound (up to 135dB) by reducing to around 50dB, the safe dynamic range of the ear. Research shows the OHC produce audible harmonic & intermodulation & phase distortion products.

So how is the frequency response of our ear? It is linear at all, like an audio amplifier ??Nope! Extremely nonlinear !

Unlike SPL (DB) which is the objective sound pressure independent of frequency, LOUDNESS (phon), the subjective sound pressure of our ears varies with the audio frequency spectrum.

The most sensitive spectrum of our ears: 2-5KHz@+2dB vs 20Hz@-78dB, least sensitive. 80dB difference! So to hear 20Hz the same loudness as 4kHz, 100x1 million times more power will be needed !!!!

This explains why active subwoofers are indispensable for any home sound system. For the same purpose, I've installed 3 active subs (L, R, L+R channels) for my home system since day one yeas back.

So do our ears need an audio amp built to provide 10Hz - 20KHz -0.003dB ??

Do we need to worry too much about absolute L & R channel sound level balance in deci dBs by building dual monoral channels & precision dual channel volume attenuators ???

I don't think so! Why? Because our ears are far far from being aurally balanced at all!

Determined by human head-related transfer function (HRTF), our L & R ears respond to audio frequencies differently. From the frequency domain chart (relative SPL response dB vs frequency with ear angles: 0 degree elevation & 25 degree azimuth), I am surprised to see the huge response difference between L & R ears:-

60Hz 400Hz 700Hz 1KHz 8KHz

Left ear: 89dB 86 62 81 89dB
Right ear: 92dB 95 63 87 97db

We can see excellence in measurement is too academic for the acoustical real world. Useful to impress potential customers for sure !

Jack L

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.

X