Products: GSP Audio Jazz Club and a revisit to the Gram Amp 1&2
Manufacturer: GSP Audio - UK
US Distributor: LP Gear
Gram Amp 1 $ 84.99 GBP $118.00 USD
Gram Amp 2 $ 119.00 GBP $ 154.00 USD
Jazz Club $ 499.95 GBP $ 995 USD
Gram Amp 1 and 2 are available from GSP Audio worldwide
In the States the Jazz Club is available from LP Gear
Reviewer: Scott Faller - TNT USA
Published: March, 2004
Well, if you guys haven't heard about the quality work that Graham Slee is doing by now, this should prove to be pretty informative for you (hopefully).
A few years ago Geoff decided to review the Gram Amp 1 and 2. Geoff fell in love with them. Consequently, as part of his ongoing ultra high end turntable reviews, he chose to use the Gram Amp 2 as his reference phono stage(s) for his in depth listening impressions. That alone should tell you the sonic quality of Graham's work.
Recently Michael Fremer (of Stereophile fame and fortune), went ga-ga over Graham's Era Gold phono stage. He compared it to phono stages costing well in excess of $3k. Just so happens, the Era Gold is only $760 here in the States. For those of you that aren't familiar with Stereophile, Michael Fremer is probably the US's pre-eminent writer on all things vinyl. He does a good job relating what he hears and is generally unbiased IMO.
Well, since Geoff and Michael both think that Graham makes killer phono stages, I guess the review is over…..seeya, bye.
Not to worry, I'm not reviewing the Era Gold (though the Jazz Club's circuitry is based upon the Era Gold's topology). The Jazz Club is a very different animal. Same species, but a distant cousin.
The Jazz Club is a phono stage that can not only handle our modern RIAA equalization curves but it can also handle equalization curves from across years going all the way back to the days of shellac's, transcriptions and 78's. About the only thing this thing can't EQ are those cylinder thingies, though I'd bet you could make them sound better if you could figure out how to use a modern cartridge on them.
The Jazz Club is compatible with moving magnet and high output moving coil cartridges that are rated at 47k ohms. Grahams recommended cartridge output is from 2mV to 10mV. Any cartridges below the 2mV output you will need to use his Elevator, a cartridge step up amp. The gain from the Jazz Club is 41.5 dB. As it is with all Grahams designs, the Jazz Club's gain stage is based on an opamp.
The Jazz Club comes standard with the PSU-1, Grahams upgraded power supply. The Gram Amp 1 and 2 come with a standard (yet beefy) wall wart. One thing I whole heartily recommend is upgrading to the PSU-1. Sure it's more money but sonically it makes a huge difference on the 1 and 2.
As I mentioned in the Title, Graham has made some pretty significant upgrades the previous versions of the Gram Amp 1 and Gram Amp 2. Here's a quick list straight from da man;
As you can tell, there's been good things cooking in Grahams kitchen of late. A couple of the things that jump out at me from the list are the increased power supply capacitance and the improved bass performance. Good news for you budgetphiles out there, the Gram Amp 1 now has better sounding caps.
I've been talking to Graham about his designs. I was curious why they sounded so good yet were so affordable. For some time now, Graham has been preaching “phase integrity”. I brought this up in my earlier review of the Slee Solo headphone amp but it still applies here. Graham has incorporated this same design characteristic into all of his products. So, what the heck is phase integrity anyway? I asked Graham if he could explain without giving away too much proprietary info and this was his explanation.
“Phase integrity is about how to preserve the original musical signal with near absolute faithfulness. A musical signal is a very complex waveform built up of several fundamental and harmonic frequencies which all interact with each other and produce an individual and unique musical performance whatever the type of music is.
We cannot hear outside the typical audible range of 30Hz to 15kHz, but we can hear the consequences of frequency extremes tailoring. It is because, when we roll off the response we introduce a phase difference. At high frequencies we are displacing the phase of the harmonics and at low frequencies we are displacing the phase of the fundamental.
A fundamental and a harmonic (not necessarily related) join together to produce summing and cancellation which therefore means a new frequency is formed. To understand this take the analogy of being in a traffic jam, stood next to a bus or lorry. Your car engine seems to make an odd sound. What you are hearing is the sound of your engine and the other vehicles engine beating together to form a new sound.
If the phase of the music you are playing is altered in any way, even outside the audible range, new frequencies will be introduced which can fall in the audible range, but these are not faithful to the original. By making sure the phase is not displaced far and beyond our hearing range this phenomena can be avoided resulting in greater clarity.”
Well, I can't attest to the design theory but I can attest to the quality of sound these three phono stages deliver. It's not just my opinion, I've drug these little pre's around to several people's listening rooms to give them a listen. Each time, they are wholly impressed with the performance of these affordable phono pre's.
|Gram Amp 1||Gram Amp 2||Jazz Club|
|Phono connectors||Gold plated||Gold plated||Gold plated|
|Input sensitivity||2 to 8 mV (ref. 1kHz)||2 to 8 mV (ref. 1kHz)||2 to 10 mV (ref. 1kHz)|
|Maximum input||35mV rms at 1kHz||35mV rms at 1kHz||45 mV rms at 1kHz|
|Input impedance||47k and 100pF||47k and 100pF||47k and 100pF|
|Output will drive||1.6k Ohms||1.6k Ohms||600 Ohms|
|Output||250mV for 3mV input||250mV for 3mV input||472mV for 4mV input|
|Gain||38.5dB at 1kHz||38.5dB at 1kHz||41.5 dB at 1kHz|
|Headroom||21dB ref 3mV input||21dB ref 3mV input||21dB ref 4mV input|
|Signal to noise||-77dB (CCIR)||-77dB (CCIR)||-68 dB (CCIR)|
|Distortion||Less than 0.03%||Less than 0.03%||Less than 0.02%|
|Frequency response||20Hz-150kHz (-3dB)||20Hz-150kHz (-3dB)||5Hz – 2.7MHz (-3dB)|
|Equalization Accuracy||Within 0.5dB||Within 0.5dB||Within 0.5dB|
|Channel balance||Within 0.2 dB||Within 0.2 dB||Within 0.2 dB|
|Channel separation||64 dB||64 dB||64 dB|
|Size (approx.)||W120 x H71 x D71 (mm)||W120 x H71 x D71 (mm)||W110 x H50 x D180|
If you guys are hard core record collectors like I am, no doubt at some point you are going to want to get into 78's or transcriptors. Over the years I've been buying 78's that caught my eye. I'd usually find these at flea markets, antique shops or garage sales. I don't think I've paid more than $1 each for any of them I've bought. I've found some pretty cool ones too. On a couple of recent scrounging sprees I picked up some Blind Boy Fuller, Cab Calloway, Frank Sinatra (The Voice), The King Cole Trio (before Nat headlined as a singer he was one hell of a pianist) and last but not least, a rendition of Hoagie Carmichaels, A Huggin and a Chalkin.
Now, my turntable for playing 78's isn't great but it doesn't sound half bad either. I'm using a Dual 1229 with the United Audio wood base and a Shure V-15. The Shure was damned tricky to get set up but it sounds just fine after I tweaked a few things (see below). Remember, it's 78's we're talking about here. Even EQ'd properly, they don't sound like modern vinyl. The recording process that far back was pretty flawed (though they did get amplification spot on with SET's).
Now, I don't want you to think that the additional EQ settings are only for 78's because they aren't. Loads of early 33's used different EQ settings. In fact, it wasn't until the late 1950's that the record manufacturers standardized on the current RIAA standards for vinyl. And honestly, I truly believe that some vinyl mastering engineers didn't pay much attention to the standards even though the 80's (and sometimes beyond).
This brings me to a very specific point about spinning vinyl. Ever notice how some records (primarily those from the 80's) sound like crap when you spin them? They can sound brutally thin, really dull and lifeless or even horribly bright and forward. This is exactly where the Jazz Club comes in damned handy. A quick flip of a switch or turn of the knob and you now have just taken a poor mastering job and made it listenable. No longer are your crappy recordings left to gather dust and propagate mold colonies. You can now pull them out and give them a spin again.
I see all of you guy's out there thinking, “Hey he's using that thing like an tone control. It's going to destroy the soundstage or smear an instruments presentation. String him up, quick!” Well…....so damned what. Who cares (other than you). I just want to listen to all of the music I've collected over the years, not just the good recordings.
Honestly, the Jazz Club has far less an effect than a full blown EQ or a set of tone controls. The Jazz Club (by nature) only changes the equalization turnover frequencies rather than boosting a specific (or group) of frequencies. Within that turnover range the music signal stays phase correct so there isn't any phasing weirdness that can happen with an EQ or tone control (phase correctness, if there is such a thing that recording engineers actually pay attention to, is a conversation in and of itself).
In the vinyl stamping process, the further down the Mother you get (by that I mean the more copies you make), the frequency extremes and details tend to suffer. Even though you may have a really good recording, if your piece of vinyl was stamped by a worn out Mother, it's going to sound really dull. We've all got these pieces of vinyl in our collection. Now with the Jazz Club, I can brighten up (or dull down in some cases) the recording to a point where it sounds OK.
OK, so now you know just how flexible the Jazz Club can be. Lets talk about how the three phono stages sound. I've tried to pick some tried and true vinyl to use for my simple tests. For sound staging I've picked Pink Floyd's Momentary Lapse of Reason. For imaging, bass reproduction and treble I'm using Depeche Modes Exciter and Violator. For the critical midrange I've chosen Sade's Promise and Karrin Allysin's Ballads. For shear dynamics (and awe factor) I'm using Count Basie's Chairman of the Board from Classic Records.
All three phono stages will benefit from the PS1 power supply. Also, keep in mind I've been living with Graham's best phono stage (the Jazz Club) in my system for a number of months. This is going to make it really difficult to stay non-biased, believe me.
The first piece of vinyl I plopped on my Systemdek was Sade. The first thing I'm struck with is a very relaxed and even handed presentation of the music. By relaxed I don't mean rolled at the frequency extremes. What I'm talking about here is a very unpretentious presentation to the music. Graham hasn't compromised the quality of the sound by trying to make something jump out at you to get your attention. He hasn't ramped the bass or treble region up to try and make the music shine.
The bass is quite firm and very well defined. On the opposite end of the musical scale the treble is treated with finesse. Listening to one of the finest recordings ever released on vinyl (IMO) Count Basie's Chairman of the Board, the shimmer of the cymbals it very light and dainty. No hint of overproduction at all. Very nice touch. The vocal regions are very nice also. No hints at all of a thinning upper mid-bass. All of the chestyness you expect to hear from a singers voice is there as it should be.
The soundstage extends behind my Medallions a solid five or six feet with no signs of any imaging problems. All of the little ticky things on Violator and Exciter stay rock solid and are placed just left and right of dead center. Flipping on Pink Floyd, the soundstage reaches about two feet or so beyond the outside of the speakers.
The overall clarity and dynamics of the Gram Amp 1 are pretty darned good considering it's entry level price point. Granted they aren't on par with the Gram Amp 2 and fall well short of the Jazz Club but when you compare them to say a Creek, the Gram Amp 1 far outperforms it in every aspect.
For those on a tight budget, or maybe you are just getting into vinyl, this would be a very nice starter piece.
As I switched from the Gram Amp 1 to the Gram Amp 2 the very first thing that jumps out at me is the increased amount of clarity. It's pretty significant. I now have loads more “air” around the instruments. The all critical PRAT (pace rhythm and timing) has just gotten better too. The dynamics have significantly improved also.
The definition across the musical scales is extremely good. As I listen to Count Basie again, I'm starting to hear things like the Eddie Jone's fingers as it plucks on the upright bass, breath's between blown notes from the Count's brass section, the little details we all love to hear.
If I had to sum up the difference between the Gram Amp 1 and 2, I'd have to say it was detail and dynamics. The Gram Amp 2 is a definitely a big league contender. There's no way after listening to the Gram Amp 2 that I'd come close to considering this a budget piece of gear even though it's priced that way. This thing sounds way too good for a piece costing just $154 USD. So good, that I'm sending Graham some more from my ever dwindling audio budget.
Now for Grahams flagship, the Jazz Club. If I had to pick a single word to describe the Jazz Club, it would be Elegant. I actually swiped that from Steve (one of my friends). But he hit the nail right on the head with that description.
Boy, and I thought there was a big difference between the Gram Amp and 2. The transformation of my phono stage with switching to the Jazz Club is like night and day. As the clarity improved between the previous two, the Jazz Club just blew past the pair of them at light speed.
The noise floor of the Jazz Club is extremely quiet. It's as if the music erupts from a totally black background in my system. The soundstage projected from the Jazz Club has become hugely panoramic. My ever faithful test track, Pink Floyds Signs of Life from Momentary Lapse of Reason, the water lapping against the shore line, is now clearly focused and resides a solid four feet outside of the speakers boundary leaving no hint at all that the sound is coming from the speaker. It's clean and extremely crisp sounding.
Flipping to Count Basie, the sounds absolutely leap out of the speakers. The Jazz Club shows just what it's made of. The dynamics of this fabulous recording are something to behold, especially with the right phono stage. The rhythmic snap of the music is spot on. This particular piece of vinyl has huge dynamic swings and if you aren't careful, you can easily lunch a set of drivers. The brass section can mow you down. That's the really cool thing about this piece of vinyl and a premium phono stage like the Jazz Club, it allows all of the true dynamics of a recording like this one to come through without a hint of strain or forcefulness.
Next I decided to give some Karrin Allyson and Sade a spin. The midrange and vocals of these two albums were silky smooth. Again, no traces of being forced in any manner. Absolutely effortless and elegant. Both of these albums have some wonderfully recorded highs. In the case of Ballads, the cymbals are crystal clear and show no hints at being etched or grainy. They are completely natural.
When it comes to bass, the concluding couple of notes of Depeche Modes Shine On from Exciter are just a killer to reproduce on a lesser phono stage. As I had the system cranked pretty hard, these ultra low bass notes had everything in my room shaking. I know that I'm producing some serious bass when the spot lighting mounted on my ceiling start vibrating.
The Jazz club is simply stunning and stands hand and shoulders above the Gram Amp 1 and 2, as well it should.
I'm not sure about the rest of you guy's but I'm into this for the music, nothing more, nothing less, just the music. I love all genres of music. Sure I have my fav's, but I can still listen to almost anything from any era. Vinyl is by far the least expensive way to enjoy music across the ages (at least where I live). You have to be dedicated though. By that I mean, you have to devote time to go out junkin' (as I call it). Saturdays and Sundays are the Vinyl Sabbaths. These are the days I go out and hit my favorite flea markets, junk shops, second hand stores and garage sales. If you don't, you can't expect to find any good stuff. Think about it, if I do this, there has to be a few dozen others like me in my city that are searching for the same things on a (semi) weekly basis. Enter you. You go out once a month (or less) then get discouraged because you can't find anything. Why? Because it's all been picked over by guys like me. This forces you guys to go to the local record shops and pay three to four times as much for vinyl as I (we, the dedicated ones) do. Dedication, it's the word of the day.
For someone like me, the Jazz Club is a natural progression to supplement my record collection. No longer is it a nicety, it's a necessity. Over the years I've been collecting 78's and records that I know I could never play on my Systemdek, full well knowing that one day I'd buy a phono stage that has EQ'ing that spans the years. The 78's I bought were generally in good shape. At most, they needed a good cleaning on my homebrewed recording cleaning machine that uses the KAB EV-1 and (of course) the Disc Doctor's record cleaning solution (the same fluid and brushes work on 78's).
I've focused on collecting early Blues and Jazz. In my eyes, Operas and Classical loose their impact when they are played on a 78 table. You just can't retrieve the detail that is present on more modern recordings. That detail and impact (for me) are what I enjoy about Classical. But that's just me, YMMV.
I've picked up some killer music over the years. Some of my fav's are the old King Cole Trio records on Columbia. The fidelity is much better than you might expect. Granted it isn't up to today's standards. It tends to be a bit rolled at the extremes (the top end more so than the lower end). I've collected a back breaking load of artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Boy Fuller, Frank Sinatra, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa and the list goes on and on. This is some really good music, (again) the main reason I'm into this.
Now, I didn't go out and spend oodles of money on some nifty turntable and cartridge that does 78's. In my case on one of my adventures in junkin', I found an old Dual 1229 in a United Audio wood case, complete with the dust cover. OK, stop right there. There isn't anything wrong with a Dual table. Remember, I'm playing 78's here, not audiophile records. Anyway, I found this thing at the local second hand shop for five bucks. When I got it home I plugged it in to see if it worked. Sure enough it did. I ran though the speeds and checked the strobe for stability and everything checked out….cool. Next, I looked at the cartridge. Get this. Sitting on the end of the arm was a Shure V15. Next I flipped down the front of the United Audio case to find no less than three more cartridges clamped in (actually one was sliding around in the case). An Audio Technica, an Empire and another Shure. Granted none of them were the find of the V15 but who cares.
So all I needed to do was clean up the old Dual, do a bit of tweaking and all of a sudden I've got a decent 78 table. So I gave her a good cleaning and lube job. I cleaned the contacts on the headshell and gave them a shot of Caig Pro Gold an I was almost set. These old Dual arms (generally) suck, like a Hoover. They are low mass and resonate like a bitch with the wrong cartridge (a.k.a. Shure's). Also, the headshells get loose and wobble all over the place. Both of these we have to address before we can recommission this table.
The headshell is easy. Just take your miniature bubble level and set it on the platter. Note the position of the bubble. Check the table in two directions (side to side and front to back). Then take the level and set it on the headshell. Twist the headshell (providing it's loose like mine was) to get the bubbles in the same position as the platter. Next, Super Glue. Yep, that's right, Super Glue. Glue the crap of the head where it meets the arm tube. Is it calibrated and scientific? Yeah right. It works though. Remember, we're playing 78's, not good vinyl.
Next, the arm tube. This one's just about as goofy as the Super Glue thing but bare with me. Going back to what we used to do back in the 70's when Duals were considered really nice tables, go get some electrical tape. I know, it sounds weird, but it works. Best part, it's reversible, unlike some of the stuff I used to try on new tables back then. What we want to do is add some mass to the arm tube AND tame some of the resonant weirdness that goes on at certain transmitted frequencies on a record. So what do you do? Take the electrical tape (in your favorite color) and wrap the arm tube circumferentially (– around in circles). I leave about a 3mm of the previous wrap exposed. This ends up being a fairly thick, continuous wrap, the length of the arm tube. Believe it or not, it works. Might be ugly but who cares. This isn't going to be my main turntable and I've got a dust cover to hide it.
Now, if you want to go out and spend go-zillions of dollars on a nifty table just to play 78's, be my guest. Remember, these are just 78's and they are bandwidth limited. They ain't audiophile quality.
Well, when it comes to accuracy, I honestly don't have a clue. I can only trust that Graham Slee did his homework. I can tell you this. When I popped loads of different records, Grahams recommended settings sounded right. There was the occasional record that was worn and I changed the turnover rate to boost the treble a bit, but generally speaking, they were spot on.
There is something that you need to know. If you get into 78's, you need an adjustable speed control of some sort. In older 78's, the pitch can vary as much as 6% (so I'm told). I noticed some heavy pitch variations on some early Columbia recordings and others. I used my handy cardboard Dual speed gauge to set the reference 78 speed. After that I adjusted the speed by ear and timber of the instruments.
In the 20's and 30's records were all the rage. Tons were made and sold. In a era before television, when radio waves amplified by single ended triodes dominated households after evening supper, the shellac 78 (and record player) found it's way into tons of households worldwide. Remember, the MM/MC cartridge and phono amplification hadn't been invented yet. In turn many of these 78's from this era were played on record players like the Victrola.
So how does a 78 sound amplified through single ended triodes and single driver horns? Well, it really varies with the age and condition of the recording. There is a fair amount of surface noise as you might expect. Most of these old records got played on Victrola's with steel (or chromium) needles. Not the most conducive environment to preserve the old records.
On certain recordings, mainly latter issues, the bandwidth and recording quality was pretty darned good considering the mediums. The further back you go, the worse the quality of the sound. Now that's not an absolute, but it does sort of hold as a general truth. The bandwidths and quality of the recordings of the oldest records out there are pretty horrid. I put on one that was from the turn of the century and it was pretty rotten. You couldn't understand much of anything on it. I bought this one as more of a novelty anyway.
The records from the thirties seem to be the cleanest sounding. That's when you start to hear more modern styles of music. More of the names you would be familiar with like Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and loads of the music pioneers.
Of the ones I've mentioned, my favorites have been the King Cole Trio and Frank Sinatra. The sound quality on these recordings are actually really good. They come pretty darned close to today's standards. They don't sound quite as open or clean but they are relatively close. Close enough that you can easily get lost in the music and forget you are listening to a record that was cut the best part of 60 to 70 years ago. That's what this is really all about. Being transported to a different space and time.
The Jazz Club allows you and me to be transported back in time. Times that may not have been the best, remember in a short span of about 25 years we had two world wars and a depression, but these times were filled with things that helped all of the world get their minds off of their troubles. This was the golden age of music, much of which will never get transferred to CD's much less released to the general public. H. Duane Goldman (the Disc Doctor) tells me that the US is archiving much of this old music on 78's. They happen to be using his record cleaning system to scrub the collection prior to archiving it to hard disc. You and I will probably never get to hear any of it. We'll have to go out and make our own collections of 78's. We'll collect the music that each of us are interested in. That's what I've done. Most of the 78's I've collected I've paid about a buck each for. Not too bad considering the history involved and my love of music.
Well, I can't say that the Jazz Club is inexpensive at close to $1,000 but I can say that this thing just kills as a phono stage. It flat smoked my Korato tubed phono stage (and I loved my Korato). When you consider the pure flexibility of this unit, it soon becomes indispensable, literally. Sonically, this phono stage is impeccable. I personally feel it has few equals. Others might sound slightly different but I don't feel they are any better. To reiterate MF's comments, this phono stage is well on par with most costing four and five times it's cost.
- Believe it. -
This phono stage sounds so good it's almost scary considering it's price point. Granted, $1000 isn't exactly chump change but on the other hand, it falls right in line with several other medium priced phono stages like the EAR 834P, the Clear Audio Balance, the Coph Nia, and the Audio Note RIAA zero just to mention a few. One huge difference, the Jazz Club can handle EQing from across the years, the others can't.
To my knowledge, there are a very limited number of phono stages that could be considered audiophile quality that perform this type of EQing. In fact the only on I can think of is Kevin's unit at KAB Acoustics and it's almost half again more the cost of the Jazz Club.
Grahams entry line GramAmp1 and 2 are stunning in their own rights. The GramAmp1 for $118 USD is a steal. This phono stage sounds far better than it has the right to at this price point. If you are just getting into vinyl or maybe you want a better sounding phono stage than your integrated has, I'd look towards the Gram Amp 1. It's a great value.
Same goes for the GramAmp2. The 2 is (sonically) more on the lines of the Jazz Club. It is very refined, quiet, clean and dynamic. For the $154 USD, I can't see why one would look elsewhere. You really aren't going to find anything much (if at all) better at this price point. I personally feel the Gram Amp 2 is well on par with most any phono stage up to the $750 to $1000 price point.
I continue to be amazed at the affordable nature of Graham Slee's products. They are well made, if not a bit understated. But who needs all that glitz. As an “audiophile”, I'm more interested in how something sounds rather than the looks or the bells and whistles. One thing is for sure, Graham has the sound down. He knows what sounds right and has refined designs to extract the most music possible from a piece of vinyl. Graham continues to strive to make the best sounding products available at any price and it shows.
Are you in the market for a phono stage? Think one word, Slee.
I'd like to thank TNT-Audio reviewer Scott Faller for presenting these phono stages to the reader in a real and practical way - the way they are intended to be used, for the enjoyment of music. Not for special "Sunday best" records, but for the good old records, in all conditions, which we love to hear.
© Copyright 2004 Scott Faller - www.tnt-audio.com