EAR 324 phono preamplifier Page 3

Permutations & Combinations
Rather than waxing all techno-philosophical, I decided to tackle something knowable: How would the different cartridges in my collection fare with the EAR 324, and what combinations of settings would work best for each? Here's what I've learned so far:

Tubaphon TU3: As suggested, this one sounded best driving either the 15 ohm or 40 ohm primaries. The Tubaphon is somewhat warmish—not as warm as an old Supex or Koetsu, mind, just slightly and pleasantly thick—and the EAR preserved that characteristic, while still honoring the timing and pitch specifics of the notes. This combo also had a great bottom end, as heard on the Bax tone poem November Woods (Lyrita SRCS.37): The center-stage kettledrum had more weight and impact here than when I used the same cartridge with my reference gear. (By the way, this is pretty nice music, even if it's a bit obvious and traveloguey in spots.)

Helikon Mono: This cartridge sounded best with the 4 or 15 ohm primaries—the latter getting the nod on most pop records, especially ones that are cut a little too hot. The Helikon sounded immediate, colorful, and super-dynamic through the EAR 324. Toscanini's late recording of the "Good Friday Spell," from Wagner's Parsifal (RCA LM-6020), was especially fine, with a great room sound and very present, if unavoidably colored, strings and woodwinds. Notwithstanding the fine sense of breathing and flow, the EAR's tight musicality fit the deliberateness of Toscanini's performance well.

Linn Adikt: This MM cartridge sounded best at an impedance setting of 22k ohms (47k was too relentless and sibilant for my tastes), with a capacitance of 100pF. Even at its best, it was never the most substantial- or colorful-sounding thing—but then, it isn't terribly meaty with my reference gear, either. In any event, the Adikt played music well, with the bonus that it shrugged off surface noise better than most other cartridges in its price range. (A mildly off-topic note: For some reason, the Adikt doesn't have the same stylus-to-mounting-bolt distance as Linn's MC cartridges, making it a less than optimal choice for use with the non-adjustable Naim Aro tonearm—which is designed around "the Linn standard" in that regard.)

Miyabi 47: Wow. Together with the EAR 324, this already dynamic cartridge made some of the most immediate and downright thrilling music I've enjoyed at home. It worked best with the 4 ohm primaries, but with the gain knocked down a full 12dB: For whatever reason, it liked that part of the Fi's volume range best of all. Other combinations had more color and slightly gooshier, more liquid textures—whether or not you like that sort of thing—but nothing was more dramatic.

Linn Akiva: I've saved what I consider the best for last. Unsurprisingly, this recent review sample sounded great driving Linn's own Linto preamp: superb all-around performance that would please Flat-Earthers and high-end salon jockeys alike, with faultless pitch and tempo performance and at least decent color and texture—plus groove noise that was as low as I've ever heard.

But imagine my surprise when the Linn cartridge and EAR trannies and preamp did a lip-lock from which they have yet to emerge. The bass was nothing short of awesome in its combination of depth, power, pitch, and speed (try virtually any cut on Leonard Cohen's New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Columbia 33167), and stereo imaging and scale were superb: The great Solti-Culshaw recording of Wagner's Die Walk;dure (London/King Records KIJC-9180) was so spatially convincing it had me grinning like a fool. Tracking was good, too (after I'd run it in for a week, before which it was itchy on those loud, loud voices). Buying a $2995 phono cartridge and a $3595 phono preamplifier in the same year may seem dizzying to people, like me, of average means, but based on this combination's performance in my system, no record lover could call it a mistake.

If the EAR 324 has a shortcoming, it might be the price. Of course, there's nothing cheap about it: The 324 is well-designed and superbly engineered, and its musical performance speaks for itself. Especially if you want this kind of flexibility—this exact combination of features—then $3595 is the not-unreasonable asking price.

If the 324 has another shortcoming, it might be that its features don't happen to suit every enthusiast who might be interested in such a thing. There are probably record collectors out there who would appreciate the 324's performance, but who would also insist on such additional features as switchable EQ curves for various LP types, or perhaps more than one pair of MC inputs. Again, this is not unreasonable.

But there's no point in reviewing what the 324 isn't. Take it for what it is—a serious and downright scary assault on the state of the art of phono amplification. Recommended with great enthusiasm and no small amount of envy.

1087 East Ridgewood Street
Long Beach, CA 90807
(562) 422-4747