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.
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.

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