EAR / Yoshino 868 Tube Preamplifier With
One of the best I have heard!
Review By Ron Nagle
The company that would evolve and come to be known as
EAR/Yoshino was founded by Tim De Paravicini, one of the preeminent audio
designers/engineers of our time. Tim is a legendary designer whose genius has
been put to good use not only in the home audio market, but also within recoding
studios! Tim's designs are not 'fave of the day' items mind you; they easily
withstand the test of time. Just because the 868 preamplifier may be considered old by some,
as it has been in serial manufacture for three years, that most certainly does not
make it obsolete by any measure! A truly great piece of equipment should
last a lifetime. Tim resides in the company of such notables as
Nelson Pass, John Curl and Sid Smith. Reading a profile of Tim De Paravicini as
a designer/consultant you realize there is no aspect of audio electronics he
hasn't influenced. Mr. De Paravicini founded the EAR/ Yoshino company in 1977.
The production of EAR components originates across the pond in Huntingdon
My EAR 868
The left front panel has the source select knob
labeled PH, CD, Tuner, AV, Aux, XLR. The center panel knob is labeled Tape: Mon
(monitor) IN (input). On the right is a larger Volume Control knob. And
the last, farther right, is a back lighted two position power on/off knob. Just
below that is the receiver for the remote control. The remote control is a
plastic remote made in Italy; it provides only two functions, up and down
volume. The 868 measures 15" x 5" x 12" (WxHxD) and weights 22 lbs. My review
sample, serial number 021113, has
a bright mirror finished face plate and four matching chromed knobs. Adding to
the preamplifier's versatility the rear panel has both balanced gold plated XLR
inputs and outputs and unbalanced RCA input and output. On the left side next to
the IEC power cord socket are two pairs of RCA connections designated as the
right and left channel preamp output. On the right next to those unbalanced RCA
jacks are an additional two pairs of balanced XLR sockets. With the two pairs of
RCA and/or XLR output connections you might use the 868 to drive two separate
Just to the right there are five additional unbalanced RCA
pairs labeled, Tape Out, Monitor Input, Aux, AV, Tuner, and CD. And as you can
see there is a provision for a tape loop. Just under the four sets of RCA inputs
there is a pair of balanced right and left line level input XLR sockets. This is
for a balanced line source component, possibly an outboard DAC? On the far right
side there is an additional pair of RCA Phono input jacks along with a cartridge
grounding post and a push button MM/MC select switch.
the literature that is supplied with this preamplifier is basic and very brief.
It is comprised of four pages and amounts to not much more than a common sense
way to install the device in your system. According to EAR, the $7595 model 868
has essentially the same circuitry and sound as its big brother, the
Professional 912 preamplifier. The difference is that the 868 lacks some of the
flexibility and features like the D'Arsonval meters of the Pro 912. The
preamplifier is a transformer coupled input and output device and that it
contains four tubes. The tube compliment includes the PCC88/7DJ8, which is an
equivalent to the more common United States spec 6922 miniature dual triodes.
Two of the PCC88 tubes are used within the line stage and two more are in the
phono amplifier stage. We are told the phono stage is exactly the same as the
circuit used in the separate standalone $4995 EAR 88PB. Thus for a mere $2600
extra you get far more versatility.
The phono section is comprised of two
amplification stages but eschews adding a third stage of amplification instead
opting to use a step up transformer. The transformers are adjustable with three
primaries that provide amplification ratios of 10/1, 20/1 and 30/1. For a
moving-magnet cartridge the default resistive load is 47 kOhms. The phono
transformer step up ratios/gain can be selected with jumpers located inside the
chassis near the back panel. For the moving-coil cartridge the default resistive
loading is listed at 40 Ohms. However as you adjust the gain you also change the
internal impedance i.e. 50, 125, and 500 Ohms. Obviously with a little trial and
error proper cartridge loading should get you in the sonic ballpark.
Component burn in and pre conditioning before the
audition was emphasized by the distributor, EAR U.S.A. Consequently, when I
received the amplifier it had nearly one hundred hours on it. That is not
unusual for a hollow state component and during my listening sessions it sounded
better after it was on for approximately 20 minutes. Most of the time the EAR
868 fed the input of my workhorse 320 Watt Sanders ESL transistor amplifier.
Anecdotally, it takes an unusually long 20 seconds for the sound to gradually
fade away after you turn off the preamplifier power.
Initially I warmed things up playing my Sangean HDT-1 Digital
tuner. That is before listening to my Marantz 8400 universal CD player.
Everything sounded quite accurate and normal, as there was very little audible
component character to describe. With all line sources, the sound is moderately
warm just as a very modern tube amplifier should
sound. About a week into my auditioning something difficult to describe caught
my attention. Like a light bulb turning on, I became aware of a subtle quality
contained in the music. For lack of a proper familiar audiophile phrase, the
music became more "relatable". It seemed I could relate to it better on an
emotional level and the performers sounded more lifelike. A big part of this was
the conceptualization of a dimensional sound stage inhabited by people separate
but still acting in concert. The phrasing was real and the music conveyed a
sense of warm life. These qualities are often spoken about but still they are
very elusive and difficult to capture. But after all isn't that the raison
d'être for a hollow state amplifier.
A Tale Of Two Personalities
The EAR 868 line stage is a revelation and easily one
of the best I have heard! Now lets go vinyl. Thinking my Shure V15 Type V-MR
would represent a typical Moving Magnet cartridge, I went with it. It is spec'ed
at three milliVolts output and requires a 47 kOhm load, that should make it a
perfect match for the EAR 868 Moving Magnet phono stage. Incidentally, am not a
big fan of this cartridge, competent yes, but slightly boring, it is all of
that. I cleaned and spun a vinyl two dollar flea market purchase of: Sting, The
Dream Of The Blue Turtles [A&M SP-3750 ] I know this to be a good
recording, I already had the CD. Side one, first song, If
You Love Somebody Set Them Free. The first few notes got me to sit up
in my chair. Wow, never knew a Shure V-15 could do what my ears told me it was
doing. Dynamic speed swinging dynamic contrasts deep wide soundstage echoing
reverberation along with the separation of backing vocals. It had drive, pace,
and excitement. You could clearly hear the metal disks shimmering sound of the
tambourine. Like a starving man looking at a picture of a Big Mac I
grabbed another black disk. This was a vinyl version of my long time CD
reference Basia Time and Tide. But this time it was Time
And Tide the vinyl version [Epic Stereo – FE 40767-1].
Again the first cut on side one, Promises,
where the opening line is 'promises, we forget about our promises'. This was no aberration; once again the excitement is there
with driving pace and articulate speed. You can hear the details and power in
the bass lines that is not complete on the CD. As a matter of fact it was
necessary to dial down the separate bass amplifier that is built into my Onix
Rocket Strata Mini four way speakers. After listening to these albums I began to
wonder what after all these years could explain a Shure V15 coming alive like
this. This is a cartridge and a system that I know very well. Logically the only
component that was different was driving force of the EAR 868 preamplifier.
Naturally I expect better performance from my moving coil
cartridges in direct comparison with one of my moving magnet cartridges. Once
again, like the Shure V15 V-MR, I tried to select a relatively inexpensive
cartridge that would be almost universal among vinyl loving audiophiles. This
has to be the $225 Denon DL103. We must remember this is a moving coil cartridge
made for the Japanese Broadcasting Company 50 years ago. Its numbers are legion
and is still being manufactured today within Japan.
Some of the DL 103 specifications are relevant to this
Cartridge type: Moving-coil, Output voltage: 0.39mV
Channel separation: >25dB (1kHz), Frequency response: 20Hz-45kHz
Impedance: 40 ohms ±20% (1kHz) , Load resistance: 100 ohms or higher
Stylus profile: Conical
After following the pains in cartridge alignment and setup, I
cued the Denon 103 on Sting's song "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free". This
same track, as played using the Shure V15 V-MR, didn't sound quite as good.
Something very unexpected was
messing with the sound. It is not that the Denon 103 wasn't performing properly.
It was just that there was less detail as compared to the Shure V15 V-MR. An
e-mail to Dan Meinwald, the EAR USA distributor, affirmed that I had the correct
Denon 103 resistive loading set with the phono printed circuit board jumpers set
at 40. The Denon 103 just did not have the transient speed and dynamic contrasts
of the V15. In addition, what had been an expansive and deep center stage had
moved slightly closer. Thinking the set up must be at fault, I tried readjusting
the vertical tracking angle. Alas, raising and lowering the arm position did not
seem to have much effect. During this adjustment process the reason became
obvious. The Denon cartridge basically has a round stylus profile. It is
referred to as a Modified Conical stylus. It simply cannot extract the very same
fine details of the hyper critical Shure V15 V-MR (Micro Ridge) stylus.
At this point I needed a third opinion. The truth and nothing
but the truth comes in the form of a not so typical Haniwa HCTR 01 MC cartridge.
The Haniwa Audio System HCTR 01 is a low impedance moving coil I reviewed
for Enjoy the Music.com in
June 2012. This $5000 MC was designed by Dr. Tetsuo Kubo and has a bare minimum
of wire turns in an attempt to minimize cartridge inductance and its detrimental
phase shifting effects. Without getting too technical, its input impedance is
only 0.8 Ohms and inductance is 1.3 micro henrys with an output voltage of 0.35
mV. After shifting the loading jumpers, the loading options chosen during this
review was set at 12. There is one other pertinent fact; the HCTR 01 uses a
critical profile line contact stylus.
The Verdict Is In
The EAR 868 line stage is capable of sound
reproduction nearing the state of the art. It is the phono stage that
undoubtedly sets the unit as 'state-of-the-art'.
In combination with the Haniwa HCTR01, it raises the level of
performance beyond any other phono stage that I have ever heard. To my ears
within the system, the Shure V15 did indeed extract more dynamic life out of
vinyl records. I was able to hear deeper into the subtle details of the recorded
music. Let us refer again to that cut by Sting "If You Love Somebody Set Then
Free". Within the orchestral
arrangement, it was easy to groove to the sound of a tambourine as it drive the
tempo forward. The Haniwa HCTR01 not only conveys the startling transient impact
on the tambourine, I could better delineate the sound of the tambourine's
individual metal disks hitting each other. The explanation must lie in EAR's
very ingenious combination of a tube phono stage that send the signal to a third
stage of amplification and two dedicated moving coil step up transformers. EAR's
868 moving coil transformers provide dead quite amplification plus serve as the
resistive load seen by the cartridge. The Ear 868 works beautifully.
During the EAR 868 evaluation I made a few
observations. The first is about system interconnects. The sound changed
slightly switching between coaxial and balanced wiring to the power amplifier.
My balanced generic microphone cable produced a slightly softer warmer but
larger and deeper soundstage. The coaxial wiring was via a Nordost Red Dawn used
as my reference. This provided more dynamic contrast. I realize that I'm
describing the characteristics of my interconnect cables and of course anyone
who chooses to purchase this unit should conduct cable optimization. I used the
868 preamplifier to feed the digital power supply of the Rogue Sphinx integrated
amplifier. The result: a little uneven response, the bass was more prominent
than my reference, but still displayed the wonderful dynamic energy.
Additionally the EAR 868 was employed feeding the tube powered amplifier portion
of my PrimaLuna Prologue 2 Integrated amplifier. Result a little less dynamic
contrasts. Ultimately I preferred my transistor reference, the Sanders ESL power
amplifier, which proved to be the best match.
Next: Placing silicon damping rings on all four tubes had
little effect on the sound. Also, Soft Sorbethane feet under the chassis did
nothing to alter the sound. Additionally, my VPI Magic Bricks had no effect on
the sound. Conclusion: This seems to be one solidly made preamplifier.
Many recordings passed through my system both Black
Disc and Compact Disc. Indeed the sound quality of the EAR / Yoshino 868 always conformed to GIGO
(Garbage In Garbage Out). The CD sound quality proved to be better than my
reference system. The CD sources used were more consistent in that it did not
vary as much as the quality of the vinyl sources. To minimize one possible
variable, I based my assessment on one very good vinyl recording. This reviewing
thing has a definite down side, and that is I will be parting with the EAR / Yoshino 868
tube preamplifier with phonostage that perhaps represents the state-of-the-art
not just for today, but for a long time to come.
As always enjoy the music and from yours truly, Semper Hi-Fi
Speakers: Onix Rocket Strata Mini four-way
speakers and Aurum Cantus Leisure 2 SE two-way monitors on 24" stands,
separate tweeters Mark and Daniel Omni Harmonizers
Reference Amplifiers: Prima Luna Prologue 2, Roger Sanders ESL
Power Amplifier, Rogue Sphinx Integrated Amplifier
Analog Source: SOTA Sapphire Turntable, SOTA flywheel power
supply, Grado Signature tone arm. Cartridges, Shure V15 V-MR, Denon DL 103,
Analog Tools: Cartalign Research protractor, Musical
Roksan Digital stylus balance, Digital Laser Tachometer,
Analogue Productions Ultimate Test LP.
Digital Source: Marantz CD player DV8400, Music Hall DAC 24.3
D/A Converter, Sangean HDT-1 AM FM Digital tuner.
Speaker Cables: Kimber 12 TC
Monster Reference 2 pairs, 1 meter and 1.5 meters
Nordost Red Dawn, 1 meter
Audio Research Litzlink 2 pairs, 1.5 meter
Chord Silver Siren, 1 meter
Audiobhan 0.5-meter digital
Power Cords, By Kaplan Cables
Gray 20 Ampere Isolation Transformer, APC S15 Power Control Center.
Type: Vacuum tube stereo preamplifier with MM/MC phonostage
Tube Compliment: One ECC82 and four ECC83
Inputs: One phono and five line level unbalanced via gold-plated RCA
Outputs: Two sets balanced XLR, two sets balanced RCA and one tape monitor
SNR: 90dB (1V out reference)
Phono Section Noise: -80dB (IHF)
Input Impedance: Phono 47 kOhms MC input, 40 Ohms standard
Maximum Output: 5V into 600 Ohms (Both balanced and unbalanced)
Dimensions: 15" x 5" x 12" (WxHxD)
Weight: 22 lbs.
Serial Number: 021113
Price: $5795 as standard, $7595 with phonostage
EAR / Yoshino USA
1087 East Ridgewood Street
Long Beach, CA 90807
Voice: (562) 422-4747