Gram Amp 2 SE Phono Pre-Amplifier
You're kidding, right?
Review by Neil Walker
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When my friend called me after he had returned from the hospital and asked me if I wanted his old jazz vinyl, I almost wept. I got off the phone and said, "I think Marc is done for. He's giving me his old jazz records and the last time I talked to him he said he had just had his cancerous thyroid removed."
I called him back the next day and told him I would be over for the records that morning. Deftly, I asked how the operation had gone. "Oh, fine. The thyroid was not cancerous after all, it just looked suspicious."
"So, you're not giving away your treasures in preparation for the end?"
"What?" he laughed. "No, I just know you love jazz, I never listen to them anymore and I hate seeing them go to waste."
My now larcenous and greedy little heart skipped a beat and I said, "Be right over - I thought you were about to die. Umm, so why are you giving these away?"
"I told you - I never listen to them and they smell musty from being in the basement for the last 20 years."
Well, musty they were, but in superb condition. A pristine copy of Brubeck's Time
Out. A related album, Paul Desmond's Take Ten. Bessie Smith, Charlie Byrd, Oscar
Brown . . . .
So why is this important? Easy. The first time I played Take Ten and Time Out was also the first time I was giving the Gram Amp 2 SE phono pre-amplifier a critical listen.
Thank You, My Friend.
And Now, For The Gram Amp 2 SE
But before the listening test, and setting aside my friend's mortality and generosity for a moment, let me introduce the Gram Amp 2 SE, a startling little machine. In the price versus quality sweepstakes, it is a winner in every way that counts: musicality, definition, preservation of instrumental and human voice timbre, speed, fullness of sound and, finally, price. It even gives a sense of accuracy to what
Gramophone reviewer Andrew Everard calls "vacuous 'ting and bang' audiophile recordings." Price? This unit, made in England by Graham Slee Projects is
$219.95 plus shipping.
The performance measurements that the manufacturer provides suggest that this is a capable bit of electronic gear, but give no indication of the musical magic of which it is capable. Gram Slee Projects says that it handles any input from 2mV to 9mV
and outputs 240mV to 1080mV for these inputs. As a result, low output cartridges are not a great match with this
pre-amplifier. However, the output is noticeably higher than it is for the Gram Amp 2, the Gram Amp 1 and the NAD PP1, another low-priced phono stage suited to high output cartridges. In fact, with a low output cartridge and a good amplifier, the 2 SE still performs more than adequately.
Therefore I Must, Perforce, Attach
It To This Jack...
Before arriving at the point where I could begin listening with notebook and pencil in hand, I had to set up the Gram Amp 2 SE. Made of shiny black plastic, like its two junior partners, the Gram Amp 1 and the Gram Amp 2, and identical in size, it is distinguished by the words Special Edition and Gram Amp 2. At six and a quarter inches long by three and an eighth inches wide by two and an eighth inches high, it is not going to crowd your equipment racks, and would probably fit beside the player or amplifier on most shelves - unless of course, you are able to buy another table and shelf and conical mounts to assist it.
The back of this bantam-weight device is obviously quite full with the power supply cord entry, the earthing terminal, and four RCA jacks. As none of these is labeled, you have to deduce which cables go where. The directions are not to attach the phono cables to the top terminals and not to attach the amplifier supply cables to the bottom terminals. Given this confusing explanation and the sternness of the warning about the dire consequences of attaching the wrong cables to the terminals, one is best not to do the attaching while enjoying a beery afternoon of opera or while showing off your latest Radiohead album to dinner guests. So far, my cartridge, amplifier and the pre-amp are not smoking or throwing off sparks, so I guess that I have mastered the Gram Amp hookup.
Did I Say Little?
My favorite sport immediately became "Spot the CD" (yes, I need to get a life) as I flipped from the most recent
CD version (20-bits! From the master tapes! Near CD-quality!) of Dave Brubeck's Time Out [Columbia/Legacy CK 65122] to the record [Columbia CS8192]. How did I tell the difference? The 35 year old LP, played through the Gram 2 SE phono
pre-amplifier sounded better - richer, fuller, more detailed. Same with Miles Davis's
Kind of Blue record [Columbia PC8163] and CD [Columbia/Legacy CK 64935].
But everyone knows that a decent phonograph will sound better than an equivalent
CD system. So what does this prove about the Gram Amp 2SE? Not much, really - it was just one of the many ways in which it displayed its exceptional quality.
Try out any of your favorite records on this amp. Every time I approached with a new attempt to find weaknesses, it took everything in stride and set expectations for the next trial. For example, on the Brubeck Quartet's "Time Out," the drumming and cymbals were vivid - they came across as live, without any hint of stressed out
hi-fi or slow takeoff and landing. This amp is fast, but will never leave you with the feeling that you are listening to sound effects in place of live percussion.
One of my favorite records for checking out vocal and acoustic guitar texture is Philadelphia Jerry Ricks's album,
Empty Bottle Blues [Radioton, SLPM 37062]. With the 2 SE, the guitar was very convincing, with lots of steel-string presence. The immanence of Ricks himself came with the 2 SE's reproduction of Ricks's whiskey-and-smoke steeped voice. This singer was alive. On the title track, the 2 SE preserved the pain, the almost feral sound of the singer's emotions.
The same went for Elvis Presley singing "Fever" on Elvis Is Back [RCA Victor LSP 02231 re-issued by DCC as LPZ-2037]. The imaging on this track is uncanny, with Elvis, when all is in phase, standing in the middle, right in front of the speakers. The sound is also something special - Elvis, acoustic bass and percussion. Accustomed as I was to the luminous clarity of the Audiomat Phono 1, the Gram 2 SE had tough competition. But this amp has a lot of clarity and resolution, too. However, these qualities are not as pronounced, being covered by what some might call a fuller sound. Was I hearing only the lack of definition in a less expensive amplifier? Possibly, but the genius of the Gram Amp is that, despite its lower cost it still offers the kind of resonance, texture, detail and ambience you expect from a much more expensive piece of gear.
On record after record, the little 2 SE proved itself. Given an orchestral classic such as Rimsky Korsakov's
Scheherezade played by the London Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Monteux [RCA Victor LSC-2208], it really shone. With good imaging and lots of air around the instruments, the 2 SE caught the wide dynamics of this record faithfully. It takes you from one thrilling climax to the next with both energy and subtlety. Sound confusing? Okay, let's say that it provides the magic of the quieter harp and violin solos as well as the thunder of the full orchestra playing fortissimo.
The SE 2 succeeds with the subtleties and contrasts of singer Jacintha's tribute to saxophonist Ben Webster,
Here's to Ben [Groove Note GRV1001-1]. The saxophone is grabby and quick. You can hear the bass viol's woody timbre. And then the 2 SE revealed Jacintha's soulful qualities; she is more than just another
close-mic'ed audiophile darling whose breathiness is supposed to show off the great midrange of my new cables.
Where this kind of ability also shows up is on Jewel's second album, Spirit. [Atlantic 82950-1] Despite the mawkish sentiments she expresses and even though I swear that she says
"drownded" in the song, "Deep Water," I still like a lot about this album, especially the sweetness and vulnerability of her voice. What the 2 SE does is take the intimacy and vulnerability which marks her voice on the
CD and turns it into a physical presence. You realize that the CD never quite achieves this quality once you hear the vinyl through a good pre-amp, such as the 2 SE: my reference Audiomat achieves this and, for a quarter of the price, the 2 SE does, too. Not quite as well, but
noticeably more than does the CD.
Now My Record Player Really Works!
This product is an easy recommend. It works very well, and it does so beyond what you might expect at the price. If you have a low output cartridge, it is not a perfect match, but can be quite adequate depending on your amplifier. For medium and high output cartridges, it is superb.
My recommendation is that you put the bucks into your table and arm, buy the Gram Amp 2 SE or one of its even less expensive siblings, the Gram Amp 1 and the Gram Amp 2, and later, it you need to, get into a phono pre-amplifier in the $1,000 and up class. Meanwhile you have a great foundation in your analogue department and a phono pre-amplifier
that is musical, detailed, and a great buy. Not only that, you are supporting the kind of single-minded dedication to quality at a reasonable price which the designer and builder, Graham
appears to bring to all he does.
Input Range: 2 to 9 mV rms
Output Range: 240 to 1080 mV rms depending on input signal
Maximum input level: 45mV (ref: 1kHz)
Input Impedance Resistive: 47k ohms
Input Impedance Capacitive: 110pF
Output noise: (CCIR Q-Pk 22Hz-22kHz) -73dB
(IEC ''A'' Wtd.) -84dB
Reproduction Characteristic RIAA: within 0.5dB
Frequency Response: 10Hz to 150kHz (-3dB)
Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise (measured at -80Hz, 1kHz, 5.6kHz and
16kHz): +4dB output <0.03% (typically <0.01% at 1kHz)
Channel Balance: 0.25dB
Channel Separation: 64dB
Warranty: One year parts and labor
Graham Slee Projects
1 Monks Way, Monk Bretton
Barnsley, S71 2JD
Voice/Fax: +44 (0) 1226 244908
North American Distributor:
P.O. Box 3186
Andover, MA 01810