The Grail, van den Hul phono stage
Copyright 2013-16 © Troels Gravesen 

 

Good fortune gave the opportunity to audition the van den Hul Grail phono stage. Having enjoyed my 6C45pi phono stage for a long time - and being very satisfied with its performance - a new phono stage has simply not been on my mind at all. In fact, I didn't think I would find anything that despite any possible (minor) improvement in performance would change my mind and make an investment in the magnitude this Grail thing requires. The Grail is around 7-8 times the building cost of my 6C45pi phono amp. Serious money!

A friend of mine recently bought The Grail and I brought my Karajan box set of Peer-Gynt-Suiten 1 & 2 to hear what it could do and immediately realised the level of transparency and ease of reproducing e.g. massed strings. Pitch black background and every single note clearly carved in space. A few more vinyls including the usual woodwinds and other acoustic instruments pretty much got me shook up. How about getting a revitalised record collection by "just" changing the phono stage? My friend handed me the Grail and I went home for an audition on my own system.

It took a little time getting used to the "sound" of the Grail because it kind of hasn't got a sound. A similar situation to getting the diamond tweeters where I had to revise my references for treble reproduction.
The Grail more directly links the phono cartridge to the speaker membranes as though there was nothing in between. Well, there certainly are the line stage and power amp, but I'm now uncertain of their contribution as the Grail just changes my focus. Does my 6C45pi phono stage in fact cover for a little emphasised top end of the Jungson amp? I installed my 6C33 SET power amps and there may be some truth to this. Do I have to dig into another round of interconnects? Possibly not. Is my cartridge properly aligned? I think so, but better give another check. Is my line stage up to the task? I seriously think so.
As can be seen, any significant rise in performance will force you to take a closer look at all other parts of the chain.  
I picked out records I hadn't heard for a long time and heard details I'd missed before. Apart from details and added spaciousness the most striking thing is the apparent naturalness of instruments and vocals. I'm writing "apparent" because I don't know how things would sound in case I had an even better line stage and power amp - in case there are any, which there most likely are.

My reference system (2017) is this: Maglev turntable + Moerch DP8 tonearm + Colibri/Canary cartridges, vdh The Grail phono stage, 6N6P balanced line stage, Hypex digi amp for bass and SAC Glowmaster KT88 for mid/tweeter of ATS4. All signal cables are made from 0.4 mm single core silver in teflon, terminated with Eichmann plugs. Speaker cables are silver plated copper in PTFE.

After some time I re-installed my 6C45pi phono stage and heard some of the same records again. In the bass and treble there wasn't any noticeable difference and I really don't like to pin out the treble because it's so closely linked to the upper mid and if we think the mid is good it may well be because the treble is extraordinarily good too, but with the Grail the midrange stood out in an exceptional way with more air and spaciousness around instruments and vocalists, a naturalness that we can only appreciate once we've heard it and realise the level of colouration we may have gotten used to.
With the Grail back in the system Jazz at the Pawnshop now has the same spaciousness and depth as my 24 bit file. I guess a 45 rpm Pawnshop would leave 24 bit in serious trouble but unfortunately this is not available (to my knowledge).
Only minor reservation was with my Jungson power amp delivering a slightly emphasised upper treble but changing to SAC Glowmaster KT88 this proved to be a Jungson related issue. With the Glowmaster the treble is smooth and silky although I hate these expressions. My ScanSpeak beryllium domes have never sounded better - and more right. Smooth when music is smooth and rough when music is rough. There's nothing "silky" about a violin.
Bottom line: Does it really get any better than what the Colibri and Grail can dig out of the grooves? For sure different, but better?


Above the power supply for the Grail. For 6,630 troubled EUROs I expect just a little better build quality and not an e.g. grey plastic wire bushing of the same sort I can find in house installations. I know this is totally irrelevant but for this kind of money I expect just a little above standard casing.
The battery solution delivers claimed 16 hours of sonic pleasure. After the batteries run dry it automatically switches to the power supply. During re-charging of the batteries the LED on the front is green and in use turns reddish/orange. Why not the other way around? Who uses green for "no action"*
At the vdh website we can read that everything has been done to eliminate capacitors in the signal path - " - as far as possible". What does this mean? Are there caps in the signal path or are there not? If there are in fact capacitors directly in the signal path I suspect there are room for improvements as what I see in the box is mostly electrolytics and Vima PPs. I know that some may argue that the servo circuits (including capacitor(s)?) are part of the signal chain, but operating at DC level most likely do not impair sonics at all. Feel confident we customers can handle the truth and not be prejudiced against any type of circuitry as long as the product delivers what we're after.

*The newest batches appear to have taken care of this with an on-off switch at the front and now also with wooden side panels. Nice touch that increase physical appearance and feel-good factor.

Conclusion

This Grail phono stage appears to be a product where everything has been put into the sonic performance and I guess it's also a constructor's (Jürgen Ultee's) personal statement to what solid state circuitry can do when done right. Nine out of ten stars as there must be room for improvements in any rating - and indeed there is a more expensive version (fully balanced) of this almost - Holy - Grail.
All Grail details you can find here at the vdh website including several reviews giving more in-depth info on the development of the Grail. Only thing to ad here is this: I'm buying one. I need this holographic midrange in the development of speaker systems. It's embarrassing to blame drivers for lack of performance and to find out your front end is the bottleneck.
The Grail is a significant improvement over my current phono stage, but considering the cost some people might find they could live with less. We pay dearly for these small increments of sound improvements.
Together with the vdh Colibri or Canary cartridges I think I can forget - for a very long time - about any up-grades. Next on the agenda is a DP8/12" Moerch tonearm to provide a better match to the vdh cartridges where the Jelko is a bit too heavy for these cartridges (Done, read here: http://www.troelsgravesen.dk/My-Turntables.htm)


My Grail came second hand from the UK (without battery power supply)* at half price due to favourable exchange rates. Except for a bit of inevitable dust it has no sign of wear whatsoever. Absolutely mint condition. The non-battery version miss an on-off switch at the amplifier box. I'll have to install one. This has been taken care of in recent version I can see from the photos at vdh website.
Comparing the two is tough! In the end I guess it's a matter of noise floor and regardless of version, we have a more than competent power regulation. Hmm... honestly can't tell.

* A battery upgrade kit is available should I find this to significantly improve performance.

 

A friend of mine was getting rid of all his LPs (!) and in the 6" stack I had was a Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill recording.
This is a 1955 mono recording and sounds like the signal from the microphone(s) were taken directly to the cutting head with no processing in between.
Despite the obvious shortcomings of the recording, this LP has an unbelievable presence and you-are-there feeling and the Grail certainly helps getting as close as possible.

Measurements

Measuring the Grail with the CLIO system is dead boring. This phono stage is flat like a pancake from 10Hz to 80kHz. To the left via MM inputs. You can't see the difference between left and right channel. To the right via MC inputs. Blue is phase for both graphs.
I use the Hagerman anti-riaa circuit board for all measurements. CLIO was set at -6.4 dBV output to make 500 mV output at 1 kHz with the Hagerman set to 40 dB for MM measurements and 60 dB for KC measurements. The CLIO was set 192 kHz sampling rate giving a frequency span up to 80 kHz.
I guess we should pay notice to the minimal phase shift. My former transformer/tubed RIAA certainly does not look like this, although not bad at all.

 

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Couldn't ask for anything more than the Grail for this turntable.