Review by Wayne Donnelly
For a quarter-century, designer Tim de Paravicini has been winning acclaim for state-of-the-art recording and mastering equipment, and as the creative force behind the E.A.R. line of audiophile components. All of the Paravicini-designed equipment I have encountered previously has been tube-based. With the 312, however, he has turned his back on glowing glass. What we have here is totally solid-state, a modular architecture comprising integrated circuits, and with every input and output (except for the tape loop) transformer-coupled. This comprehensive transformer-coupling is an effective approach to achieve minimal hum and noise, and to ensure stable interfaces with virtually any component that might be connected to the 312. The cumulative cost of all those transformers no doubt accounts for a good part of the 312's $18,000 price tag.
The Quick Tour
The 312 is clearly intended to be a visual as well as a sonic statement. Its styling seems to me at once retro and futuristic. When I first pulled it out of the box, it looked to me that like something that Ming the Merciless would be scheming to wrest away from Flash Gordon. Its front fascia features sculpted "wing-like" extrusions on both sides, and is dominated by a large, brightly lit crescent-shaped gauge that occupies the upper middle area. This, it turns out, is not any kind of electrical meter. Rather, its pointer is mechanically linked to the volume control knob, and serves to indicate precisely the gain setting. That information did not prove particularly useful to me, but if knowing the exact gain value would float your boat, rest assured that you can read the gain gauge from your listening chair. In any case it has a nice feel, and it's way cooler-looking than those proliferating numerical digital read-outs. The rest of front panel has a source select knob, buttons for tape monitor and mute, the volume control and a power on button (jarringly orange-colored, for some reason). The 312 is billed as remote-controlled, but the remote was not implemented on my sample. Distributor Dan Meinwald assures me that any 312 sold without remote functionality will be retrofitted with it at no charge.
The cleanly organized back panel is well populated: RCA jacks for phono input, four line-level inputs, and three outputs; XLR jacks for three line-level inputs and three outputs. Together with the transformer-coupled circuitry, this generous connectivity suggests that the 312 is aimed particularly at audiophiles who use multiple sources and/or amplifiers -- even a tri-amplified setup, for instance, could be connected with no kludges.
Tim de Paravicini has designed a number of excellent phono stages, and the 312 incorporates an extremely quiet, pure Class A phono circuit. A button next to the phono input jacks selects the proper gain for either moving magnet or moving coil cartridge. For the latter, the cartridge output is routed through an internal step-up transformer. (What else?) The 312 phono stage got a good workout, and I I also made extensive comparisons with my Bybee-modified Thor TA-3000 and a Vendetta Research phono pre-amplifier updated to current spec by John Curl and Bybee-modified.
The 312 served as the heart of my main system for over four months, and was matched up with a variety of components. The moving coil cartridges (I did not try any moving magnet cartridges) used with my Basis 2800/Graham 2.2 analogue front end were the Cardas Heart, 47 Labs Miyabi and Koetsu Rosewood Signature. Digital sources were the Thor DC-1000 DAC and two inexpensive (< $200) Pioneer DVD players, modified by Andy Bartha and Dan Wright respectively to deliver superior CD reproduction. (A review of the modified Pioneers is in progress.) Amplifiers were the VTL MB-750 Reference and VTL Tiny Triode push-pull monoblocks, WAVAC EC-300B (see review) and Scott Frankland-modified Golden Tube single-ended triodes, and Andy Bartha's solid-state 50-watt Amanda monoblocs (see review). Speakers were Bybee-modified Eggleston Andras, Von Schweikert dB-100s (see review) and Meadowlark Blue Herons (see review). Various cords and cables from Nordost, Transparent, DH Labs, Townshend, Kimber, Discovery and Bybee saw service in many combinations.
I enumerate all of that equipment to make the point that the 312 performed impeccably with any combination of source components, amplifiers and speakers. No hum, no noise, no indication of any sonic degradation attributable to impedance mismatches or other interface problems. The owner's manual recommends against aftermarket power cords, asserting that they can cause inaccuracies in tonality. Well, they didn't scare me. I heard no serious tonal deviations with any of the power cords tried -- listed here in ascending order of preference -- but there were certainly audible differences. The Transparent Reference cord was slightly dark on top and harmonically on the lean side, and yielded a comparatively narrower soundscape. The Discovery was harmonically a bit richer and slightly more relaxed-sounding. The Bybee Quantum Charger cord -- unfortunately, no longer being made -- seemed to me an ideal match -- it delivered more inner detail, the broadest soundscape and best dynamics. All of the above, however, sounded better than a 14-gauge standard Belden cord. Experimentation would seem to be the best approach. Let's face it -- nobody who springs for an $18K preamp is going to skimp on big-bucks wire to go with it.
I could go nuts trying to describe the various combinations of components and wires that I tried during the review period. I was impressed, though, that any substitution of one wire for another caused a slight change to the overall system sound. The same thing happened with the various components. Moreover, differences were apparent in spatial as well as timbral results. Each amplifier substitution, for example, yielded variations in soundscape width and depth, image solidity and placement stability. From all this I conclude that the 312 is an extraordinarily neutral-sounding component. In its near-spooky quietness on digital or analogue sources and its ability to reflect system changes without imposing its own sonic signature, the 312 could be a superb tool for the financially advantaged reviewer.
The system most in use while reviewing the 312 included the 47 Labs Miyabi, the Thor DAC with the Bartha-modified Pioneer as transport, the WAVAC EC-300B SET amplifier and the Von Schweikert dB-100 loudspeakers. The following listening notes essentially reflect that system.
Orchestral music is my favorite genre, most of the time anyway. One of the best CDs for evaluating system performance is the Oue/Minnesota disc of Leonard Bernstein's music from Candide, etc. [Reference Recordings RR-87CD]. In the Candide Overture, the 312 seems to do justice to the daunting bass drum strikes, which vibrate my gut and rattle the double-glazed windows of my listening room -- something that had not previously occurred. Especially startling is the resolution of the string choirs. Their sound is rich and creamy, but within that lush texture I can clearly distinguish individual instrumental lines.
The songs on Richard Thompson's Mock Tudor [Capitol CD, CDP 7243 4 98860 2 5] range from intimate to hell-bent rock 'n roll. Like most of Thompson's recordings, this one has complex, multi-layered textures, and his voice is not always prominently mixed. The 312 is unfazed by such challenges, producing a remarkably "see-through" sound that lets me hear Thompson's complicated, literate lyrics quite clearly, even through his very English accent. And on Sinead O'Connor's heart-rending "The Foggy Dew" [The Chieftains: Long Black Veil, RCA 09026-6270], the voice resolution is startling, almost as if there is a special microphone dedicated to catching the smallest resonance of her vocal cords.
The single-sided 45 RPM Classic Records reissue of the Reiner/Chicago Pines & Fountains of Rome poses a formidable challenge to any system. In Pines, the interplay of woodwinds, the authoritative, burnished brass, the perfect string ensemble -- everything is arranged almost three-dimensionally across the soundscape. The low strings in "Catacombs" have wonderfully precise pitch. "The Appian Way," everyone's favorite demo track, is overwhelming -- and I've heard it dozens of times on great equipment.
Listening to Patricia Barber's Nightclub [Premonition/Blue Note 90749], I seem to detect nuances of phrasing in her her throaty vocals. The piano sound is harmonically complete from initial transient to decay, and the spatial relationship of Barber to her combo is rendered precisely. The experience of this LP makes the very good CD sound flat.
Playing the same records with the Thor and Vendetta phono preamps running through unbalanced line inputs on the 312, there are some clear differences. The tubed Thor, not surprisingly, seems to produce even richer harmonics than the 312's stage, especially in the CSO strings and on Barber's piano. On the other hand, some of the microdetail retrieved by the 312 -- e.g., chair squeaks, page turns, clear differentiation of contrabassoon and cellos playing together -- were more submerged. The Thor did present a slightly deeper, more dimensional soundscape.
The Vendetta is every bit the equal of the 312 in detail resolution, and remarkably similar in spatial dimensionality and image stability. With the Vendetta (and the Thor too, come to think of it), however, the front of the soundscape seems to start at the plane of the speakers. The 312 stage is a bit more forward, but not unpleasantly so. What surprises me is the Vendetta's low-frequency dynamics. The 312 phono stage, impressive as it is, does not match the Vendetta's sheer "slam," the transient impact. Also, if the 312 can be described as a "clear window" to the sound, switching to the Vendetta is like opening the window -- so involving is the immediacy of the listening experience.
Is It Love?
For me, not quite -- although I certainly respect the 312's smooth excellence in all phases of its operation, and I'd like to stay good friends. This thing does everything well -- better, in fact than almost any pre-amplifier I have heard. I suppose the best way to describe my conclusions is to trot out my left/right-brain metaphor. The 312 tilts slightly, I think, towards left-brain virtues. Its tonal neutrality and octave-to-octave coherence are things to treasure. But my right brain, the part of me that wants music above all to bring pleasure and emotion, still holds out a little. Could I live with the 312? Hell yes -- but not for $18K.
Listening to the Vendetta phono preamp evoked for me the memory of my time with the CTC Blowtorch, a limited-production, made-to-order $15K pre-amplifier with circuitry designed by John Curl. I reviewed the Blowtorch for Ultimate Audio magazine some time back, and my review was pretty much an unmitigated rave. It was simply the best pre-amplifier I have ever heard, and I would have bought one if I had the wherewithal at the time. It had all of the virtues I admire in the 312, but was more dynamic and engaging. It literally would not let me go -- for a while, my listening sessions were getting so long that I started getting sleep-deprived. That was love.
But the right customer for the 312 is out there. He (a she is very unlikely, I think -- and no, I'm not a sexist) will be someone with an elaborate system who will appreciate the stability and connectivity, as well as the pristine sound, of the 312. He will dig the look -- which I don't, really -- and will likely take pleasure in checking out that gain gauge. And of course he'll be able and willing to shell out 18 large. This same customer may also want to check out the Paravicini single-ended "Class A" 100-watt monoblocks -- about $35K, I believe -- designed with the 312. I have not had a chance to listen to those amplifiers except briefly at CES, but there could well be some special synergy in this pre-amplifier/amplifier combination. You guys know who you are.
About the Numbers
Before turning to the numerical ratings, I went back and looked at my ratings for the Von Schweikert dB-100 review. That was the first time I had used this kind of rating system, and in my enthusiasm for the superb performance of the speakers, I think I went a little overboard. Not that my ratings would change much now -- perhaps dropping three to six points in a few categories, but the following ratings reflect my growing experience with the number system and perhaps a slightly more level head. Remember, the 312 spent a lot of time with the dB-100s and the WAVAC EC-300B, and in a real sense the rating of any of these relates closely to the others.
Type: Solid-state pre-amplifier with built-in MM/MC phono stage.
Inputs: Eight line inputs plus tape monitor circuit Transformer coupled. Balanced and unbalanced operation.
Phonostage: "Class-A" with MC step stage said to be equal in performance to the Yoshino MC3 transformer. RIAA accuracy accurate to +/-0.3dB
Frequency Response (at 1V output): 3Hz to 40kHz (-2dB).
Gain: Maximum line stage gain of 20dB
Signal To Noise (Phono): 68dB
Dimensions: 12" x 17" x 6" (DxWxH)
Weight: 35 lbs.
Warranty: Three years
E.A.R./ Yoshino Ltd.
United States Distributor: