LCR RIAA shoot-out
Copyright 2017 © Troels Gravesen

EAR 912      Van den Hul Grail    Valab LCR-1

The three phono stages below all feature the use of coils for riaa correction, something that previously only was available in seriously expensive phono stages. The EAR-912 is around 10,000 EUR, Grail in the range of 6,000 EUR and now the Valab LCR-1 at, hold on, 700 USD!
Read here about the basic principles of riaa equalisation:

Now, can we really get the benefit of this exclusive feature at what is considered by many people a reasonable investment in vinyl playback?
For the time being I have both the 912 and vdh Grail in stock and I was fortunate to have a client lending me the Valab, thus a shootout was inevitable.

The system used for this can be found here:
Maglev turntable, Moerch DP6/DP8 Presicion, van den Hul Colibri and Canary cartridges
EAR-912 pre-amplifier, line-stage/phono stage
SAC GlowMaster KT88 PP, fully balanced power amp
ATS-4-HE speakers
The Grail and Valab was connected to the 912 line stage via pure silver cables.
Obviously the line stage of the EAR-912 was used for all phono stages. Cartridge was vdh Colibri and a wide range of classical, jazz and rock/pop vinyls were played. Having of two identical Colibri cartridges and a double tone-arm set-up on my turntable, I was actually able to make A-B testing. Only thing I missed was an input selector on my remote, but we can't always have it all.


EAR 912 and van den Hul The Grail phono stages

Valab LCR-1 phono stage



Above some of the recordings used in the test. Swedish BIS' excellent recordings and pressings. A near mint and early Pawnshop pressing bought on eBay for a horrific amount of money. The I'm Confessin' track - one of my favorites. A fresh pressing of the Köln concert (Keith Jarrett) and the Boesendorfer piano. Opus 3, Testrecord #4. Here we have a recording where no smart producer wants to add his fingerprint to the performance of the artists. No added reverb or fancy mixing killing the music. This compilation is simply great on all parametres for testing anything from the needle and down the chain. Latest addition is Diana Krall's excellent recording Turn Up The Quiet. Not sure what happened in the Los Angeles studio, but this is one hell of a recording.

I'm not a pro reviewer as some may have noticed from my writings about the gear I use and come across. What has become standard these days (like Stereophile) is a reviewer going through a range of recordings I've never even heard of and most likely never will hear, and pointing out specific sonic features with regard to whatever gear under test is doing well, great or even mind-blowing. And reviewers are really good finding excuses for gear not performing less than excellent, like price, size, etc. Critical reviewers will soon be out of business. Critique usually has to read between the lines.

The Grail and 912 phono stages are no less than top notch products and I know them both well from extensive use and from comparison to other products.
Going from the Grail to the 912 can be read here: The Grail was plugged into the 912 line input, thus the 912 line stage was common for both phono stages.

As I won't go through all the records and comment on individual performances from the various phono stages, this will be short. First of all, the 912 and Grail phono stages are surprisingly similar in performance. One step-up + tubes + transformer-coupled, the other pure solid state. I'm simply not able to point out any - even minor - difference in performance from these two phono-stages when run through the 912 line-stage.
Swapping between the Valab and 912 and Valab and Grail leaves the same sonic differences. The Valab leaves a slightly less expansive and slightly darker presentation, slightly less forward. The Valab input was tried with 200, 500 and 1000 Ohm load. Same result. The input shorting capacitor in the Valab was removed. Same impression. Both cartridges were used. Same impression.
Hmm... With regard to noise and other basic features, the Valab has no short-comings compared to the two others. It works flawlessly. With regard to soundstage depth and width, it does as well as the Grail and 912. It sounds smooth and in full control, just doesn't have the extra expansive/forward/? quality of the two others. I was about to write dynamic, but this really isn't the case. It certainly doesn't lack dynamics, only doesn't open up as fully as Grail and 912.
Remember we're talking minor differences here. As I wrote to my client lending me the Valab: If we walk into our room and turn on the stereo with the Valab, we're unlikely to discover we miss anything at all. That's how good it is.
Having two very different phono stages like the Grail and 912 doing the same thing, is a very strong card for being right - and others, well, less right, but feel sure we're into the area of taste. I believe the Valab sonic signature to be the result of topology and choice of components. Measuring the frequency response of the Grail and Valab with my CLIO and Hagerman anti-riaa circuit didn't suggest any difference at all. Both ruler flat. I'm no expert in electronic circuits and I have no idea of possible reasons for the sonic signature of the Valab. According to specs, there should be no caps in the signal path, thus few options for tweaking. But still, the Valab is doing better than anything else I've heard before the 912 and Grail. Highly recommended! For the money a total steal.

Had a response from a buyer of the mkII version, claiming the mkII inferior to the mkI:

"In short, mark 2 does not meet high level audio standards on a level of the mark 1. From the pictures at your website I even would call the version in your review a mark 0 as the friend's mark 1 is already different. Now the builder/seller has come with a different name to the market with a mark 3 where I can see even further reduced capacitors in the supply, from 4 to 2.
Is it possible to prevent other people to run into a very dissatisfying buy?

Valab images

Click image to view large

 At the bottom of the phono stage you have four dip switches setting load and gain.
For my Colibri cartridge I used 1k and 69 dB gain adjusting the output level to match the 912 by the VU meters.
200 Ohms made the Colibri sound slightly dark.
Getting 1k load I used a phonosplitter and shunted the 47k level with a 1k resistors.
500 Ohms was also tried and made little difference, if any, to 1k load.