Monday, March 30, 2009

A visit with the Graham Slee Era Gold Mk V phono preamplifier

The rather unassuming looking Graham Slee Era Gold Mk V (now that is a mouthful) phono preamplifier is an IC based unit that goes for the rather princely sum of $999. Now that is really a pittance in audiophile money, but when you open the shipping box you expect something larger for something just shy of $1K. In my poverty-filled college days I've driven cars that cost less than this little box! Of course what you are paying for here is a hand-built and thoroughly tested unit. This is a level of quality control that many companies would never do.

Era Gold Mk V is meant to be used with MM or high output MC cartridges since it has no switchable gain. Gain is set at a fixed 41.5dB and with no power switch it is also meant to be left powered on at all times. There is only one set of stereo RCA inputs, a grounding lug, a DC input and of course a set of stereo RCA outputs. The power comes from an outboard PSU1 regulator and further regulation also occurs within the phono unit itself.

I bought the
Era Gold Mk V used via Audiogon to partner up with my newly bought VPI HW19 Mark III turntable and Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge. I have to admit I wasn't expecting much from the Slee - having pretty much resigned myself to using tubes in this crucial part of the signal chain. I'm no fan of ICs and thought this unit would just end up being a temporary stop before I bought a more expensive phono stage. To my ears op-amp based circuits normally sound hard and grainy and I've never heard a circuit using them that ended up sounding good.

So how does this little beast sound? In a few words, very neutral. Bass is shockingly deep compared to several of my previous tube preamplifiers. It also does not have any of the round euphonic bass I associate with tube gear - instead bass is taut with excellent definition. The treble is very controlled and non-spitty sounding. However the very last bit of air and sparkle seems to be missing compared to some of the better units I've heard. This is a minor quibble but still worth noting. The most important part - the midrange - seems to be extremely neutral without any major colorations or immediate problems. In comparison tube units have a bit more 'bloom' and 'color' but can also suffer from decreased resolution and transparency. With the Slee, detail is very good without being overdone. At no time does the recording ever sound zippy or forward unless it was mixed that way.

In conclusion the
Graham Slee Era Gold Mk V is a good partner with my Threshold gear. With my UREI loudspeakers I am given a full range, neutral and transparent sound. Even if I purchase another phono unit, the Slee will stay in the stables to provide a reference for future upgrades.