Graham Slee Era Gold V Elevator EXP Review : HiFi News Nov 2004

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Nov 2004

by Andrew Harrison

 

Graham Slee MKV / Elevator EXP

Hi-Fi News

Awards 2005

 

Best Phono Stage

 

for the Era Gold MK V and Elevator EXP

Graham Slee - Hi-Fi News Award 2004

HiFi News Awards 2004 for Graham Slee

Hi-Fi News

Awards 2004

 

Best Phono Stage

 

for the Era Gold MK V and Elevator EXP

Most people recognise that hi-fi products need a certain amount of running-in when new, and then subsequent warming-up before each use, in order to hear the very best performance available. But if there was ever an inquiry held to study how essential this process can be, these boxes from GSP Audio could be called forth as the star witness.

The story actually starts at the very end of last year. After a conversation with Graham Slee about audio design philosophy, with reference to his select range of phono amplifiers, I was looking forward to trying one of these phono amps that have acquired something of a cult following. Like many bits of British hi-fi before them, they have a 'music first' school of design - that is, the interesting things happen inside with the electronics, rather than outside with fancy casework. This will immediately turn off a percentage of the audience who take pride in the gilding of their audio lilies.

 

Conventional wisdom in audio electronics says we can hear as high as 20kHz, on a good day with a following wind; so quality hi-fi should reproduce harmonics this high, but not much higher. Any more bandwidth just invites more noise and distortion into the system. Consequently most hifi is designed this way (although more people are recognising that it might be an idea to give a flat response at least as high as 100kHz; for example, to help ward off phase distortion at the top end of the traditional passband). Phono stages in particular tend to have their bandwidth curtailed, often from both directions, as low-cut filters are introduced to remove infrasonic signal from warped records and rumbling turntable bearings, while a high-cut filter helps reduce the chance of picking up Radio Luxembourg as a byproduct of the huge magnification of quiet pick-up signals.

As you may have guessed from this preamble, Graham Slee doesn't agree with such traditions.

 

It's all about slew rates and phase accuracy. To accurately reproduce an impulsive signal, one that appears very quickly and disappears as fast, you need a very wide bandwidth channel. And at the low end, keeping warp filters out also encourages accurate phase. So where most phono amps restrict gain after, say, 40kHz, the Era Gold and Elevator EXP take pride in an operational bandwith up into the megahertz.

 

The Era Gold is a moving-magnet stage, able to take the raw output of an m-m cartridge and raise it to line-level with the necessary equalisation. There are no controls or adjustments to make, as it offers just the standard 47k ohm input for a fixed-coil pick-up. Gain is 41.5dB, meaning it should work fine with any cartridge in the usual range of output levels, as high as lOmV. It takes its power from a generous 12W external transformer, which plugs into the back of the Era from a long bellwire-like lead.

 

For moving-coil cartridges, extra gain is needed along with a sympathetic lower input impedance. This is available by adding a step-up unit, the Elevator EXP. This serves the same function as a high-grade step-up transformer, but using solid-state electronics to achieve its goal rather than inductive windings.

The sound of the original combination of Era Gold/Elevator EXP, after several months of steady use, was characterised by a very even, consistent tonal balance, full of timbral colour, and shimmering with pure sweet treble that seemingly had no bound. There was little exaggeration in the bass, just low extension, rich but quick. High frequency details were this combination's strength, being intricately rendered with uncommon ephemerality - that is, quick to appear and then decay, but not without a tenacious command of reverb tails as room acoustic details faded to zero. Strummed acoustic guitar could show the thwack and zing of transient impact, while ride and hi-hat cymbals insisted that when it comes to jazz and rock rhythm 'n' timing, we should be paying attention to more than just the basslines.

Left-to-right spread was deliciously wide, giving the impression of full dual-mono architecture, even if LP replay is acknowledged to have a crosstalk figure of about 30dB, often much lower.

Well-recorded rock drums and their display in believable reality was certainly one aspect to benefit from the use of this phono amp combo. On another level, the quietness from the GSP effect was alarming. That's the quietness of intrinsic background hiss, quietness of groove noise, and the subjectively low overall impact of record noise. Clicks and pops were relegated to inconsequence when they appeared.

A lengthy review period was in part reaction to running modifications to the design, which necessitated another trial of the revised Elevator and Era. New cases and PCBs alone can rewrite a product's sound, let alone a change of circuit or components. Thus started another period of running-in of the new electronics.

Unsurprisingly, the new Era Gold/Elevator EXP sounded akin to the first sample. Initial differences centred on a drier, less flowing character of the later boxes, with a loss of the sublime liquid treble quality that was previously so inviting to the ear. This was replaced with a more 'transistory' treble, especially on cymbals; and sibilants could be accentuated on female voice. Where the first sample had stood out as something quite magical, the new version was more on a par with rivals around the same price.

 

A few weeks of continual use later (with thanks to Keith Martin at Audiophile Candy for loaning an inverse-RIAA equaliser, indispensable for running-in phono stages), and the replacement Era/Elevator were slowly catching up with the first samples. Now if was evident that the latest versions do have a tighter bass quality with perhaps more perceived LF depth and impact, where the previous generation could border on the 'fruity' at times. With its more accurate bass, steadily improving open treble, and increasingly holographic soundstaging, the current GSP Era Gold and Elevator EXP are still settling daily, and drawing closer to the addictive, valve-like purity of the earlier samples.

With the GSP Audio Era Gold V and Elevator EXP confirmed once again as something special, it should be remembered that these are more 'enthusiast' products than, say, a Linn Linto. Where the Linto can be dropped in anywhere and relied upon for its quiet, fuss-free operation (not to mention, superb sound quality!), the GSP units need a more tender loving care to behave correctly.

 

Two external transformers must be carefully sited - I found some experimentation here on different surfaces could improve performance - and their cables carefully dressed, preferably observing 90• angles when crossing other wires. Tweaking input impedance is essential, with best sound from an Ortofon Kontrapunkt A found at either 30 or 100 ohm. System wiring, and local mains, must be clean and free of noise, to help keep pick-up and RF demodulation at bay.

 

Finally, there's the issue of run-in and warm-up as these units need to be left on continuously - and used regularly!

With those practical points in mind, the GSP Audio Era Gold/Elevator EXP pair rates as one of the finest moving-coil phono stages I've used and earns a hearty approval for record junkies who want to hear more of what's really in the vinyl groove.

 

- Andrew Harrison

 

 

 

Hi-FiNews verdict:


Two-box moving-coil phono stage for the enthusiast, one box for m-m, the other as an electronic step-up. Sound is stunningly fast and open, with vinyl noises largely ignored thanks to wideband circuitry.

 

Gain without pain:

 

For moving-coil cartridges, the gain of each unit (41.5dB Era/22.5d8 Elevator; maker's figures) can be combined for a total of 64dB. This is a healthy amount suitable for low-output m-c cartridges, ie, <200pV output. The Elevator EXP is a flat response gain stage, with an advertised bandwidth from DC to 5MHz (-3dB). Input impedance is adjustable for resistance in seven steps of 23, 30, 100, 840, 1 k, 5.1k and 47k ohm. Input capacitance is now fixed at t00pF (earlier model was adjustable in three steps).

The Era Gold is an RIAA-style head amp suitable for moving magnet cartridges of 2-10mV output. It has no high-pass filter as found in some stages (eg, IEC curve), and like the Elevator it advertises a very wide response, 5Hz to 2.7MHz, with an equalisation curve plateu at 50kHz. Input impedance is fixed at 47k ohm and 100pF.

These units are unusual in their minimalism. The Era only uses one op-amp per channel, an Analog Devices AD 817AN wideband chip suitable for RF use, while the Elevator uses a total of one AD 823AN and two AD 8291N.


High-grade capacitors include Starget and Elna electrolytics and smaller tantalum types. Each stage gets 24V DC from its own outboard transformer/rectifier unit, with further voltage regulation provided by a 1A-rated 7818CD device in each unit.

 

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Graham Slee Era Gold V Elevator EXP Review : HiFi News Nov 2004

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