EAR 890 power amplifier Page 2

Considering the Purcell music associated with the funeral of Queen Mary (I balk at a more specific title than that if only to avoid the ire of those who rightly observe that we don't know for sure what was performed on that miserable day in 1695), the recording I most enjoy is the one made by John Eliot Gardiner in the late 1970s (LP, Erato STU 70911). At the end of this recording of the March, the percussionist plays a roll on a kettledrum tuned to C, the sound of which is then left to fade naturally (ie, it isn't damped by the player). Bad amps—even enjoyable bad amps—èt this all wrong, refusing to let go of the sound and making mush of it in the process. Good amps give you a natural decay that dies away cleanly, letting you hear how the sound of a kettledrum at stage left can both splash off the assortment of brass instruments at stage right and induce them to resonate sympathetically. By this standard, the EAR 890 proved itself a very good amp indeed.

And that was just the sound; musically, the 890 made for a draining experience—but in the best possible way. The second sentence in the funeral service, "In the midst of life we are in death," was uncommonly moving through this amp: The complex and often modern-sounding intervals carried by the four sections of the choir, in a continuous dynamic exchange with the organ, came through cleanly and clearly, leading me to wonder if the 890 produced much less than average in the way of both intermodulation and gross harmonic additives.

While on the subject of good English music, I recommend an impressive recording of John Tavener's recent Ikon of Eros, for vocal soloists, solo violin, orchestra, and choir (CD, Reference Recordings RR-102CD). Throughout the work, violinist Jorja Fleezanis plays an almost continuous violin obbligato, which she does with remarkable consistency and sweetness of tone—and which the combination of EAR 890 amplifier and Quad ESL-989 speakers played with both convincing flow and lack of coloration. In fact, the only departure from utter timbral neutrality I thought I heard through this amp was an occasional excess of richness in the upper bass—which I noticed, for instance, in the plucked cello notes of the famous second movement of Borodin's String Quartet 2 (LP, Decca SXL 6036, in a fine Speakers Corner reissue). But the effect was so very slight that, taken in the context of the Quads' own slight tendency toward excess down there, and the possibilities that room reactions might produce the same thing, I hesitate to even mention it.

I don't mean to give short shrift to the 890's considerable output power, which is, after all, among its grandest raisons d'être. All I can say—which is considerable, I suppose—is that I never once heard the 890 get into any kind of trouble, even with the Quads in the largest of my listening rooms. This was as true of heldentenors as of Mott the Hoople.

Based on my experiences with other, earlier EAR amplifiers, I expected the 890 to excel at stereo imaging—and wasn't in the least disappointed. Using a string quartet recording to describe a home music system's imaging capabilities has become a bit of a cliché, so I'm a little embarrassed to still be thinking of that Borodin LP; in my defense, however, while I can't think of a single stereo recording that really suggests the spatial qualities I hear in a live concert setting, of any type of music and from any seat, good chamber-music recordings such as the above-mentioned probably come the closest. And, yes, the EAR 890 reproduced the sense of depth and performer placement that I presume is a part of the original recording with both uncanny precision and the same sense of "rightness" with which it approached the music itself. (I could also point to how well it separated the voice sections on that Purcell LP, even going so far as to suggest some curve to the choir's risers...)

Previous EAR experiences might also have led me to expect less than the best from the 890 in terms of rhythm and pacing; it's been a few years since I heard it, but I remember the similarly beautiful-sounding 534 being somewhat less than jaunty with upbeat music. For whatever reason—improved damping? the essential sonic differences between EL34 and KT90 tubes?—I heard no such troubles here. In fact, when I used the EAR-Quad combination to listen to such songs as "Don't Kill" and "A Little Concerned, That's All," from the great album Tough Love by Hamell on Trial (Righteous Babe RBR033-D), I had just as much fun as with our "party" rig (Naim amps driving Lowther horns—wheee!).

And the opening bars of Martin Sieghart's altogether superior Schmidt Fourth (CD, Chesky CD143) had a rhythmic insistence I don't get even with Lowthers (although perhaps that's because so much of it takes place in the bass registers). And when the tempo picked up very slightly, some 12 minutes later—just before the transition to the second movement and its solo cello line—the EAR-Quad combination got the idea across effectively. All in all, there was nothing soggy or slow in the way Tim de P's amp played rhythmically demanding music.

Finally, while most of my listening was done with my usual unbalanced interconnects (my own homemade solid-core silver), a sense of duty compelled me to try the 890 in balanced mode, too. (This despite the fact that Tim de Paravicini told me he believes "There are no sonic benefits that are peculiar to balanced [operation] that can't be accomplished with unbalanced." He went on to suggest that the 890 offers the choice simply to accommodate customers from a pro background, who are more comfortable working in a low-impedance connection context.) In particular, I tried a balanced cable set from DNM (see this month's "Listening"), which is at least somewhat similar in construction and intent, if you will, to my reference.

Was there a difference? Actually, yes: While I heard no distinctions one way or the other in terms of flow or timbre or pitch or drama, I did in fact hear what I took to be a better, bigger sense of scale with the balanced cables. Sorry, Tim.

Back to where I started
As much as anyone else, I enjoy audio products whose strengths are plain and upfront and obvious—that is, as long as those strengths are the sorts of things that I care to hear. (Also as much as anyone else, I find it all too easy to fall into the trap of congratulating myself for hearing any difference at all, then buying whatever seems "freshest." Self-control is as hard to come by at my house as at yours.) I hear obvious products all the time, and I've even reviewed a few for Stereophile.

But as often as that happens, I tend not to covet such products. The extra few notes of bass, the heightened sense of presence, the scary-quiet groove...they're all nice, but after enjoying the luxury of having them in my home for 90 days out of my life, I can still do without them over the course of the days that remain.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the EAR 890 was that, with the exception of the Quads that I used it to drive, this was the first new audio product in a very long time that I caught myself scheming to buy.

Then again, look what we're talking about here. A $5000 amp. Mama.

I have an idea. The EAR 890's only significant flaw is in its engraved top plate, which is screwed to the top of that enameled chassis, and on which are inscribed the words "Technology at it's best!" For one thing, the exclamation point is unnecessary, and its removal would lend the statement more in the way of, you'll pardon the expression, quiet power—which I imagine would appeal to Mr. de P in any event. Second, and more critical, is the inappropriate use of an apostrophe, denoting a contraction where there is none—a common mistake, and one that I saw many of my fellow teachers make with impunity when I taught sixth grade. (I think they should have got the hot lead themselves. But it is—or should I say it's—a sadly common thing nonetheless.) So I hereby offer my services as an English major to Tim de Paravicini, and I would gladly forgo monetary pay in favor of...oh, I don't know, perhaps some sort of barter arrangement. I will wait to see what he offers in return. I'm not holding my breath.

An expensive amp, then, but one whose only apparent flaw is grammatical. I suppose it's possible that the EAR 890, whose designer suggests that he could make an amplifier of precisely identical performance using transistors instead of tubes, sounds as good as it does because of its ability to step out of the way of good-sounding recordings. But if that's so, I can't help thinking it steps out of the way more gracefully than most.

1087 East Ridgewood Street
Long Beach, CA 90807
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