Product: Graham Slee Projects Era Gold MM phonostage
Manufacturer: GSP - Graham Slee Projects - UK
Approximate price: UKP325, EU470
Reviewer: Werner Ogiers
Reviewed: December, 2001
After his positive experiences with the cheaper Gram phonostages, Geoff asked me for my opinion on the company's top of the bill MM RIAA amp, the Era Gold, which he had had at home for a while. Respecting Geoff's ears and his ways with analogue gear I was happy to oblige: Clocking in at UKP325 the Era costs well over three times the price of the Gram Amp 2, and so expectations were high. Little did I know of the odyssey that would follow this little preamp's arrival... Actually, what arrived at my place is not quite what you can buy now. Read why ...
The first Era came in the same glossy black "project" box as the cheaper Gram Amps. In it I found a tiny breadboard PCB, hardwired, with a minimum of components. It all looked cheap; cheaper that its UKP325 asking price. The RCA connectors were of top quality, though, and not often seen on devices of this price.
Slee's website mentions "a classic design, forgotten in the mists of time", and "low-memory effect" circuitry, optimised for speed and transparency, apparently in an attempt to mimick top tube preamplifiers. Well, the circuit is a bit old-fashioned, in an unusual sense. A total of one (1) dual opamp, fed from a unipolar power supply, and hence necessarily with input as well as output coupling capacitors. RIAA correction is of course all-in-one-go in the feedback loop, made with Evox film-and-foil polypropylene capacitors. In my religion the capacitive coupling, especially of the fragile input signal, is a bad thing. But on the other hand, it buys you for once an operational amplifier truly referenced to ground: something impossible to achieve with the usual bipolar (+ and -) voltage supplies used with opamps. A somewhat interesting and audacious design then! Also a somewhat unfinished design...
As befits moving magnet preamplifiers, input impedance is a standard 47kOhms in parallel with 100pF, and gain is 125, or 42dB. The external power supply delivers DC and is the 'big' Graham Slee PSU1 which is also available as an upgrade for the cheaper Gram 1 and 2 phono amps, and which comes with the Solo headphone amp Dejan reviewed so favourably.
Slipping this first Era into my system I did not like what I heard: a flat mono-ish soundstage, married to a lean and indistinct bass. Admittedly, transparency and treble were fine, but this all the more underpinned a split personality in this component: mid and treble were to bass what Jekyll was to Hide. Or was it the other way around?
In my most diplomatic tones I passed this on ducked away in my trenches. Graham, bless him, simply replied, "Oh well, let's make it better then".
THAT, my dear people, is how hifi manufacturers should react to reviews!
What followed was an endless time of Graham sending update after update, and taking input from "Cartridge man" Len Gregory and from me for the tuning of this device.
As the final product did not even resemble the first Era anymore, one could say that all of this was justified. For starters, there's now a better, higher-value housing for the preamp. Then there is a real PCB, and many components, especially capacitors, have been upgraded to Elna Stargets.
The price? Still the same UKP325, despite an undoubtly higher production cost.
The new newer newest Era surprised indeed by sounding quite unlike the MkI incarnation. Gone was the tendency to mono-ing everything, its breadth now virtually matching that of my other preamp, its depth coming to within 90% or so. Tonality was much improved, too, with not a trace of that seam, that blatant change in character that previously spoiled my broth.
Playing host to another opamp-based phonostage of similar cost, the Dino, it is unavoidable, and wise, to make some comparisons. And so the alternative entertained with a bold and full sound, its powerful bass having a beguiling bloom. The Era sounded a bit lighter and slimmer. It offered less mass and substance, but perhaps got a tighter low end through this. Tonally it was a mite less colourful, more pastel-hued, say (but without turning to grey), but its mid/treble region was somewhat more transparent, filigree, and cleaner. The latter can probably be attributed to the Era's single-stage nature (which restricts it to lower gains and hence MM-only use), while the Dino is a two-stage preamp, accommodating MM and MCs of all output levels.
As said, the new Era's imaging came rather close to the competition, but still, it wasn't entirely there: I have my turntable near to the right speaker, and cueing records with the other preamps in-circuit (be they commercial units or my own FET preamp design) often lets me hear both the right and the left speaker from that position. Not so with the Era, where only the right one remained audible.
While the above results were obtained with folk, rock and pop albums, the very same manifested itself with classical. An even-handed, slightly lightweight, but sweet and controlled tonality, with rather plenty of finesse and refinement, playing on a scale somewhat smaller than Dino, but perhaps more nimble because of that. At the end of a particular Gershwin recording comes a huge cymbal crash. Well, some preamps leave no doubt about that.With the Era the impact was considerably lessened, but what was going on in and around the instrument was better detailed. So dynamically the Era was left behind a bit. But then, this is to be expected, as the Era is a moving magnet-only preamp, for this test driven by the comparatively low 1.6mV output from a Scheu moving coil cartridge.
Concluding, then. The initial Era design, with its cheesy housing and all, I found mediocre in sound and too high in price. The latest incarnation smartly redressed these sins (and got a smart new dress itself), offering an elegant sound quality with a very transparent, slightly polite character, not unlike the similar offerings of LFD and Mistral (this meant as a compliment). Against it can be put a lack of versatility, being MM-only. Its direct competitors like the Black Cube, the Dino and the Mistral all offer MM/MC compatibility, and even the cheaper Trigon Vanguard does so (and admirably!).
However, team the Era Gold up with a big fat Grado, Len Gregory's Music Maker II, or a Goldring 1042 and you're there. If you really want to go MC you can always add Slee's aptly-named Elevator headamp, or a nice Amplimo or Sowther transformer.
Leaving it with this would do the Era-concept injustice, though: Slee also has a version with switchable equalization, the Jazz Club, catering for standard RIAA, older LPs, and several cutting curves from the 78rpm era. At a slightly higher cost, this one seems to be an excellent choice for record collectors.
In this particular price segment of phono preamps the competition is rather fierce (who would have tought that, back in 1990!), but the Era Gold can take them on. If you stick to really "loud" cartridges...
© Copyright 2001 Werner Ogiers for TNT Audio Magazine (http://www.tnt-audio.com)