Product: KAB Electro-Acoustics EQS MKII Phono Preamp
Manufacturer: KAB Electro-Acoustics - USA
Price: $845 USD plus shipping
Reviewer: Nels Ferré
Reviewed: April 2001
Over a year ago, I reviewed Kevin Barrett's KAB Electro Acoustics PH-1 phono preamp. An adequate performer, if nothing stellar, I was pleasantly surprised at what could be offered for such a reasonable price. At the time, Kevin had told me that he was hard at work on a "high end audiophile" phono section. I closed that review by saying that I would like the opportunity to test the new model upon its completion.
A year later, there was a message on my answering machine. The new unit, dubbed the Souvenir EQS MKII was complete. Would I still be interested? Was he kidding? I, of course, returned the call, and a few weeks later, the EQS MKII arrived on my doorstep.
To the left of the gain knob, there's a "Mono Mix" knob. This allows the user to select between groove walls on a mono recording to find the wall with the least wear. This knob is also used in conjunction with the mono/stereo switch, as well as the lateral/vertical switch.
This is one of my favorite features of the EQS MKII. Normally, when listening to vinyl, the stylus is reading both vertical and lateral information from the grooves. Pressing the switch to vertical while listening to stereo recordings cancels the lateral information from the cartridge. This results in the ability to hear exactly how much "ambient" information exists on the recording. For me, this was pretty much a "gee whiz" feature, not really useful. However, used in conjunction with the mono/stereo switch, it becomes quite useful, indeed. Put on a mono recording, select mono on the EQS MKII, press the lateral/vertical button to vertical, and you should hear nothing. This is a good thing. Test records call this a "null". If the azimuth alignment on your cartridge is off a bit, the "Mono Mix" knob can be used to achieve an electrical null. The knob itself is very sensitive and fine tuning the azimuth is a breeze. If the knob must be moved far off of center (more than 1/8", say) then the cartridge should be realigned on the arm, before any fine-tuning with the EQS MKII.
Additionally, on the front panel there is a button marked "Loop 2", which will replace the high level input on your preamp or receiver that the EQS MKII uses. It can also be used as a true loop, like a tape monitor loop, to connect an impulse noise (click and pop) reduction unit, for example. There is also a switchable subsonic filter, which hinges at 30 Hz.
Capacitance and resistance is fully adjustable as well (offering continuous tuning from 20 - 180pF and 100 Ohm to 100kOhm in 12 steps), to achieve a favorable interface with most any cartridge or cabling. As the factory doesn't specify capacitance on the standard cabling on my Rega RB-250 arm, I set the adjustment for approximately 70 pf, as recommended by Kevin Barrett, and left it there for the duration of testing. All of the cartridges I used specified loading of 47K ohms, so that's where I set that adjustment, only twisting the knob once to verify proper operation.
The rear panel sports inputs for two turntables, a hefty knurled grounding post, the aforementioned "Loop 2" connections, and two pairs of outputs, one of which bypasses all of the circuits, except the resistance and capacitance sections. Gain from this output pair is set at 40 dB. The remaining output pair is the output from all of the stages in the EQS MKII. I used this output for most testing, preferring the extra flexibility that this output affords. I did use the other output connected directly to my cassette deck to make some cassettes for a family member, and I can tell you, these were the cleanest copies I have ever made, including those made on much more expensive decks that I have owned in the past. All RCA jacks are gold plated Teflon.
Connection to wall current is via a generic "wall wart". I have been advised, however, that the power supply actually produces 28 volts DC, even though it is labeled 24 volts. Apparently, the extra 4 volts positively affects the sound quality.
Every Souvenir EQS MKII is hand built and tested before shipment. Fit and finish are quite good. All internal parts are of the highest quality, using Wima capacitors and the like. The output stage sports a dual mono single ended class A (non-switching) circuit.
Once the break in period is complete, this black box really performs. Its strong suit is macro dynamics. The sound is big and very dynamic, bordering on punchy. I found this especially pleasing with rock and pop music. This is not to say that the EQS MKII ignores the nuances in music, far from it, however, it does have a sound that grabs the listener and sucks them into the music. It demands to be heard. Bass notes are plump but very well defined. Take, for example the experience I had while listening to Pink Floyd's "The Wall" (Columbia PC2 36183) with the Rega Elys. At the beginning of "Another Brick in the Wall Part 3", there are a couple of huge bass drum whacks. Through the EQS MKII, they were a big and very tight. Through the phono section of the Van Alstine, by comparison, there was actually a THWACK...thud. Not tight at all, that Van Alstine phono stage. Rock music had more drive with the EQS MKII, and, to me, that's a lot of what makes rock music what it is: its pounding rhythmic urgency.
The EQS MKII handles jazz and classical music with ease as well. I really enjoy Dixieland Jazz, and one of the best albums of this genre I have heard to date is Red Nichols' "Live At Marineland" (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1093.) It is a real swinging album, with excellent imaging and soundstaging. I'm not ashamed to admit that when the EQS MKII was in the system, I actually danced around the listening room when this (and many other albums) was on the turntable. It literally moved me.
It was also very easy to hear the differences when making a cartridge (or turntable) change. I started with the Rega Bias, which had been on my Planar 2 for over a year. I then upgraded to a Rega Elys, may it rest in peace. During the short time I had the Elys (way too short), I enjoyed an improvement in bass response, smoothness, and transparency. Then I wiped out the cantilever. I had ODR (One Dead Rega.)
While waiting for a replacement from Rega's U.S. importer, I mounted a cartridge that I hadn't used in over a year, the Grado Prestige Silver. My previous setup really hadn't given me an idea of what the Grado sounded like. Maybe it was doing me a favor. No, I'm not referring to the "Grado Hum", although I had that too, due to the lack of shielding in the cartridge, combined with the lack of a shielded motor in the Planar 2. The big problem was the Grado has a huge hump in the mid and upper bass, combined with a distinct, severe roll off in the treble. Actually, it sounded so bad with the Grado, that the "Grado Hum" didn't even bother me. It was probably the worst sound I have ever heard from any analog setup. To the favor of the EQS MKII, it let me hear exactly what was going on, even if I hated it.
The postman soon delivered a Dynavector DV-10X4 MKII high output moving coil cartridge. Setup with the EQS MKII was a snap. After balancing and aligning the cartridge in the arm, I checked the azimuth using the mono mix/mono/vertical sequence, set the gain for 46 dB, and was up and running. I won't be spoiling the Dynavector review by telling you that it was a totally different experience than that of the Grado.
What about the Euro Lab RB-1/RB-250/Dynavector setup in combination with the EQS MKII? I am reminded of a Frank Zappa tune here, titled "Wowie Zowie!"
Overall, the EQS MKII is voiced a bit on the warm side, in fact, if I were listening blind I would have guessed "tubes." When I used the EQS MK II with the Jolida JD-502B tubed integrated amp, I felt the sound to be too warm; I far preferred it with the Van Alstine preamp used as a line stage, along with my Harman/Kardon solid state power amp.
As far as detail goes, micro dynamics, if you will, the EQS MK II is a good performer here as well, in context. I found it very easy to get into the music and really hear a complex guitar riff, for example. Or really get into the texture of a female vocal, or the phrasing of a verse. What I didn't hear (and really don't want to) is the kind of "someone rustled a paper in the third row" kind of detail. Just as that would be distracting to the enjoyment of the music at a live concert, so it would be in my listening room.
The review reveals the affect of flexible gain control in a very quiet phono stage. When you have the ability to optimize the complete gain of your system, the sound will be much more dynamic. The initial impact of this configuration is the perception of more bass. I experienced this when I fist auditioned the design and it drove me bonkers for about a month just as it did Nels. Then, all of a sudden it seems, everything sounded right, very right indeed.
No doubt some of this can be attributed to burn-in. One of the benefits of polar stable designs such as the MKII is that it is in a constant state of burn-in. All components and signal paths are subject to a stabilizing bias potential. The audible affect is obvious. In case anyone was worried, the output relays are not in the signal path, they actually short circuit the outputs for about 15 seconds. During this period, the output capacitors are fully stabilized. Then they open and are totally out of the signal path.
And it's not that the 24V power pack is mislabeled, it would produce 24 VDC if the load current were 400 mA. But the load current is only 120mA so the voltage lifts up to about 28V. This gives added compliance to the first regulator stage- a good thing. The DC that gets to the active stages is very, very clean.
Some circuit highlights I would like to point out are
Last thing, there is a model EQS MK12 which is identical to the MK2 but sports 12 EQ curves spanning the history of recording. Price on the MK12 is $945.00
Thank you for taking the time to review the Souvenir EQS MK2.
© Copyright 2001 Nels Ferré - https://www.tnt-audio.com
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