Equipment Reviews No. 3    October 2002

EAR Phono Box and Other Accessories


Tim De Paravicini’s EAR 834P MC/MM Phono Preamp
SRP: $1095, $1295 for deluxe chrome version

Specs:

Freq. Response: 10-50kHz, +0, -1 dB
Max. Output: 30v rms
THS: 0.3 %
MM phono sensitivity: 1.2 mV
MM phono S/N: 70 dB A-weighted
MC phono S/N: 70 dB A-weighted

Manufacturer:

EAR/Yoshino by Tim de Paravicini
South Cambs. UK
earyoshino@aol.com

U.S. Distr.:
Dan Meinwald
E.A.R. U.S.A.
1087 E. Ridgewood St.
Longg Beach, CA 90807
562-422-4747
www.ear-usa.com

I don’t really consider a phono stage to be an accessory, but next to other gear in my combination audio/home theater setup the simple small black box certainly looks like one. As I said a couple months ago, there’s certainly lots of these available today, covering a super-wide price range. Why even Radio Shack has one. In my move to new digs I jettisoned my beloved Counterpoint SA 5000 preamp which had a terrific phono stage built in, as was the fashion back then before digital hit big. I didn’t want to keep it just for the phono stage so I was in the market for a simple outboard preamp that didn’t cost $15 (as one of them does!). Jennifer Crock of Jena Labs recommended the EAR and she was right. I’m keeping it.

Besides the mix-and-match ability of the new separate phono boxes, it is possible to concentrate on just what’s required to optimize for the best sound from your analog phono cartridge and eliminate everything else. You can locate the box in a better place for the utmost freedom from hum and RFI interference. The Sunfire Signature III AV preamp has a moving magnet input but no moving coil. I wanted to stay with the Transfiguration Spirit MC cartridge I’ve been using in the SME V arm of my SOTA table, so that meant a separate phono preamp.

Tim de Paravicini, situated presently in the UK after much globe-hopping, has a long career in audio design and a huge reputation for being at the cutting edge of high end design both for audiophiles and professionals. He built and designed all of the valve mics, preamps, master recorder and A/D convertor used by Kavi Alexander for his acclaimed Water Lily audiophile label recordings. He’s been involved in every aspect of recording and reproduction, so he knows exactly how to deal with the easily-corrupted low signal levels coming from any phono cartridge. He designs both tube and solid state components, and in an effort to design the most musical sounding and reasonably-priced phono preamp he turned to building the 834P around three of the familiar 12AX7 (ECC83) tubes. Probably the most exclusive and effective components in the preamp are the transformers for the moving coil option. One of Tim’s specialties is designing and making his own special transformers - he doesn’t buy them from parts houses.

The basic box has RIAA equalization and no loading options, similar to the Linn reviewed her a couple months ago. Tim feels the additional circuitry causes more losses than any mismatch of impedance would. The output level is similar to that of a CD player. The unit is turned on by rotating the power switch clockwise, and there was no popping when turning it on or off, but it takes about 20 seconds to come on with a signal. The only other control is a push switch to select either MM or MC. The IEC power cable is detachable, to be replaced by a high end AC cable if one wishes. A binding post can be connected to ground the turntable. I found in my installation it made no difference hum-wise. There are surprisingly no vents in the solid black cover, but the tubes run at very low voltage and only get slightly warm. You may request an output attenuator (level control) to be installed in your unit - there is no extra charge (not available in the Deluxe version). Then one could attach it directly to a power amp.

The sound? Well, I no longer had my Counterpoint preamp for comparison, nor John Curl’s amazing Vendetta which I once had for an extended loan, but I had recently lived with the Linto for awhile, and being solid state it had an even more silent background. But I preferred the richer, more musical quality of the EAR - though that should not be interpreted as a “tubie” quality - because it isn’t at all. I’ve made a number of improvements to my analog turntable setup since my former home - probably the most effective was getting it out of the CWD cabinet shelf where it resided and giving it its own low, heavy open table with spikes into the floor and plenty of isolation between table and turntable. So the fact that my vinyl playback sounds the very best it ever has can’t be attributed solely to the EAR box, but it has to be a major part of the equation for sure.

- John Sunier

Ideal-Lume Pro Home Theater Bias Lighting Fixture
SRP” $164.95, Basic model: $54.95

CinemaQuest Inc.
3552 S. Monaco Parkway, #301
Denver, CO 80237
303-740-7278
www.cinemaquestinc.com

Back in the l980s SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and TV Engineers) published some guidelines as to eye comfort standards and color rendition standards when watching movies in the home or theater. One of the primary findings was that viewing TV in a pitch-dark room leads to eyestrain and fatigue. They suggested offsetting this with a small light behind the TV screen to bias the eyes just enough to prevent eyestrain from lengthy viewing. It was also found that the color temperature of the light was to be considered - just as the color temperature of the TV screen itself is important to consider. For the best reproduction of colors on film and TV both the screen and bulb color temperature should be around 6500 degrees Kelvin. This is much more bluish than ordinary light bulbs, so special bulbs are required.

The different models of the Ideal-Lume are designed especially to solve the need for a bias light. The Pro model that was furnished for review meets the most demanding performance criteria. So much so that it has been selected for use by George Lucas’ ILM, Joe Kane Productions, Widescreen Review magazine and other professionals. The fluorescent bulb is the most accurate 6500 Kelvins bulb available. It is made in Canada for GretagMacbeth and has the best Spectral Power Distribution of any light of this type.

The fixture is larger than the standard model due to requiring room for a heavy-duty electronic ballast. It also has a clear protective diffuser over the bulb area and a six foot grounded cord. The switch is flush on the top edge of the fixture and it mounts with two small brackets. The five-step drawing on mounting the brackets was clear enough but it still took some time and effort to figure out the unusual system, which is designed to mount the unit neatly, covering the brackets. I mounted it on the rear of my Pioneer RPTV flush with the top of the unit. Three different densities of neutral-density filter material are including in a plastic retaining tube. They dim light by 1, 2 and 3 stops respectively, and can be combined for other variations in dimming the light. I found the single 1-stop sheet was perfect for my situation. There are tests on the Video Essentials test DVD that allow for the best setting by f-stops, but I just did it by eye.

My situation is actually not optimal for use of this high-tech lamp, because first of all the back of my set is almost against the back wall, and secondly that wall is covered with a very colorful Rya rug hanging. The Ideal-Lume is designed for rooms with neutral grey, white or completely black walls behind the screen. With all-white walls all three layers of the filters might be required to bring the light to the proper low level. Any bright colors in the area are claimed to reflect off the screen or at least distract the eyes trying to watch the screen images. Even so, I found the more bluish light of the Ideal-Lume much more fitting for video viewing than my previous bias light had been. It was a simple picture frame lamp with a tubular incandescent bulb that was extremely yellow red in tone color. It made the red portions of the wall hanging look almost electric and was distracting to the images on the screen. I watched a very long black & white DVD with the Ideal-Lume and found it more relaxing than my previous bias light. Also, color videos seemed to have more vibrant and natural color with the light on. You may find that the basic model Ideal-Lume is good enough for your home theater; it is certainly a major step forward from an incandescent light that is entirely the wrong color temperature and probably too bright.

- John Sunier


Harmonic Technology Harmony Rainbow Multichannel Video Cable
SRP: $310 per 1 meter length
Harmonic Technology
13200 Kirham Way, Ste. 100
Poway, CA 92064
858-486-8386
www.harmonictech.com
Both of the multichannel preamps I have used since multichannel SACD and DVD-A came on the scene had only a single six-channel analog input, and some high end AV preamps don’t even yet have that. Since it doesn’t look like the multichannel FireWire flight is off the ground as yet, I figure I’ll be dealing with six analog channels for some time. I had to purchase three Radio Shack switch boxes to switch between my multichannel SACD and separate multichannel DVD-A players. I glued them together and connected the first one to my Sony player’s six analog out jacks using three pairs of very stiff Tara Labs interconnect cable. Even though the cables have collars that tighten down, they kept coming loose. Once one of the boxes came unglued from the other two and smashed against a wall. Then I had to dig up three more sort-of-matching interconnects to hook up the DVD-A player’s outputs. What a disaster!

Presto, change-o! Now I have two of Harmonic Technology’s aptly titled (as you can see from the photo) Rainbow six-channel interconnect cables and everything is copesetic. The thick center portion of the cable (not seen in the illustration above) is about the same diameter and appearance as the individual Tara cables, making the six individual cables rather small, but I heard no degradation of the sonics. Harmonic uses high purity single-crystal wire for their cables, and their entire line has won praise for high quality and reasonable cost. The interconnects are now flexible enough that you won’t have any problem even with nearly weightless cheap plastic components like these $15 Shack switches. I can carry out A/B comparisons instantly of the few recordings that have been simultaneously released as both multichannel SACD and DVD-A and not risk having some of the connections give up on me in the process. You can assign any color coding you want to the six connections. It would be normal to begin with black for the left front and red for the right front, but the rest is up to you. Just write it down so you don’t get confused. By the way, these are dubbed Video cables, so it appears one can also be used for the single composite video and pair of audio connections for two TVs, or even for two TVs connected with component outputs.

- John Sunier

Daruma-3 II Ball Bearing Audio Insulators
SRP: $99 for set of 3

Final Laboratory
Aichi, Japan
www.finallab.com

North American Distributor:
Venus Hi-Fi
812-320-4004
http://www.venushifi.com
I’m not heavily into audio tweakdom, but when I have time and the interest to really test out a new product and find it does make a hearable and substantial improvement in my system (doesn’t mean it will in yours, of course) I’ll say so. The Darumas come from a Japanese company known for highly individual approaches to high end audio electronics and accessories. This is their bargain product and properly used can upgrade your system's sound considerably. They are one of at least three different steel bearing-type insulator/isolator units designed to be placed three at a time under components - starting with DVD players, CD players and turntables - to properly drain off internal vibration as well as to reduce external vibration being transmitted into the source. The idea is that players are mechanical systems in motion and they set off extensive though imperceptible vibrations when they are running. This creates a "vibration loop," which can subtly mask the musical performance as a whole. They are one-third the cost of the standard Aurios MIBs and differ among other things in having only a single ball bearing that sits in a slight depression in the bottom cup, whereas the Aurios have three ball bearings. It seems these bearings gadgets have become all the rage, and from my experience with the Darumas I see why. Clark Johnsen was busily inserting Aurios under various speakers at the last CES and all agreed the improvement was amazing. (Don’t even let me consider that with my already precariously balanced, highly-tweaked front speakers, plus two super-athletic Tonkinese cats!)

I have previously used several different cone approaches as well as Sorbathane pucks. My CWD cabinets are short of vertical space so use of giant cones such as Valid Points and their thick discs is out of the question under most of my components. (I do now have the massive MapleShade Heavy Footers screwed in under my SOTA turntable to excellent effect.) I was using the smaller Black Diamond Racing carbon fibre cones with good results. I also use MSB or Tekna Sonics isolation bases under most of my components, with either Sorbathane or another type of soft vibration feet (with a ball bearing in the center) under them. For years I have had a custom-built Sims Vibration Isolator wood platform on springs under my statement Aiwa Dolby-S cassette deck, doing much the same job as the Darumas. However, the wood itself is resonant and the entire assembly is two and one-half inches thick and fills the entire shelf area, whereas the Darumas are just a bit over one inch.

Replacing the Black Diamonds between the iso plates and my two Sony SACD players with the Darumas did make a slight though hearable improvement in clarity, transients and dynamics. It didn’t add any sort of steely timbre to the sound as some have experienced with bearings - especially with the Aurios (which I haven’t tried and which I see are being closed out now). I was also pleased to find that pushing the buttons on the front panel of the players didn’t disturb it enough to slide around and mis-align the bearings if you were careful not to push too hard. I hear that components are a bit more precarious on the Aurios. I haven’t finalized the vibration-control parameters of my system since I am still hooking up some of my peripheral gear, and just re-installed my patch bay. I plan to try some different weights on top of players as well as damping materials on those with really tinny cases. That could improve the Daruma results even more. I recently had trouble opening and closing the five-disc drawer on my Sony CE-775 SACD changer, and quickly discovered it was due to the weight of the sand-filled Little Foot on top! Anyway, I’d suggest picking up one set of the little Darumas to start with and doing some experimenting yourself. You may find you want to float not only your player but also your turntable and even your preamp and amps.

- John Sunier

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