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Gryphon Diablo 300

201007_ear890_transThe phrase "a man for all seasons" comes from an assessment by Robert Whittington of his friend Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), Chancellor of England, author of Utopia, and perhaps the most famous hardhead in history. Whittington said, "More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons."  

Appointed to the highest position of juridical authority in England, More, because of conscience, refused to sanction King Henry VIII’s plan to divorce his first wife, the aging Catherine of Aragon, who in 24 years of marriage had borne him a single daughter and no sons, so that Henry could marry Anne Boleyn, the sister of his former mistress and, presumably, as fertile as she was fetching. More would not change his mind despite the counsel of his peers; like him, they were churchmen, but unlike him, they valued life over principle, and urged More to bow to political pressure, both popular and kingly. But More remained steadfast, held out for principle, and, in the end, Henry VIII had him beheaded. British writer Robert Bolt heroicized More in his 1960 play A Man for All Seasons, and the phrase entered popular American speech after the release of the film version in 1966, which won that year’s Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Costumes. So when we use the phrase to compliment an individual’s well-rounded qualities, or adapt it to praise a product’s myriad capabilities, do we forget the expression’s origin in describing a man of principle?

Tim de Paravicini doesn’t, I think -- he’s stuck to his principles for decades. He hatched them as a pre-teen hobbyist in his native South Africa, honed them as a member of the famed Luxman engineering team in Japan (where his immediate supervisor was Atasushi Miura, who later founded Air Tight), and perfected them as chief engineer and owner of Esoteric Audio Research, Ltd., in the UK. De Paravicini is, indeed, a man for all seasons: principled about circuit design and design improvement, not compromising according to trend, or bowing to popular pressure or the influence of a sovereign. Not only that, his EAR 890 stereo amplifier, during my time with it, performed capably with three different preamplifiers and phono stages, consistently producing a lovely sound that was dynamic, timbrally rich, and, more often than not, satisfying in terms of bass and slam. Could it be an amp for all seasons? 

Description and operation  

EAR USA shipped the EAR 890 ($7595) double-boxed -- the outer carton was so big my arms wouldn’t wrap around it, though the amp itself is only 16"W x 7"H x 16"L. Essentially, the EAR 890 is a thick, 60-pound square as dense as a dark star, with one black tube cage on each side, and chrome-plated almost everywhere else: the two output transformers behind the cages, the power-supply transformer amidships at the front, and the brass faceplate bearing the E.A.R., EAR 890, and dP logos. The Power pushbutton -- a backlit bit of orange plastic in the faceplate’s lower right corner -- is about the only thing visible that isn’t chromed or black. 

The EAR 890 outputs 70Wpc in stereo mode or 140Wpc in bridged mode (i.e., when used as one of a pair of monoblocks). Each channel uses a 6AQ8 dual-triode tube as a differential pair, working with a 12AX7 dual-triode. The 890’s input impedance is a fairly common 47k ohms, indicating good compatibility with a range of preamps. The EAR 890 was originally designed to use four KT90 output tubes per channel in parallel push-pull, but my review sample came equipped with four SED Winged "C" 6550Cs per side. I’d heard the 890 with the EH KT90s and thought it sounded more incisive and extended. With the 6550Cs, the sound was perhaps smoother and slightly softer, with a touch more bloom. But regardless of type of output tube, the auto-biasing 890 runs in uncompromised class-A -- it got so hot that I had to lay a cloth across the front transformer cap to protect the underside of my bare arm when I reached for the volume pots on the rear panel. 

Yes, there are two independent volume controls on the rear, one for each channel; it’s possible to use the EAR 890 without a preamp, and also to adjust the channel balance. Those volume pots caused me some trouble. Often, after changing preamps and/or interconnects -- which I did frequently, before settling on the configuration I liked best -- I found I’d inadvertently rotated the pots slightly and thrown off the channel balance. This was vexing, but I got over it once I realized how useful the controls were for trimming one channel down to improve the balance when playing mono LPs. 

At the rear, on a shallow horizontal shelf behind the two output transformers, are the two sets of binding posts, and taps for 4, 8, and 16 ohms. Each set of posts is accompanied by a pair of toggle switches for selecting the RCA or XLR inputs. I used the 8-ohm taps and RCA inputs exclusively. 

I quite liked that the speaker taps were vertical and upward-facing, rather than the usual horizontal, rear-facing orientation. This permitted the straight horizontal insertion of my speaker cables’ spades, which decreased the stress on the very friable tellurium-copper spades and on the cables themselves, and required little or no cable drape. However, those who use banana-terminated cables might find this feature eccentric and bothersome. 

On the rear panel proper, tidier for the absence of binding posts, are two XLR inputs, two RCA inputs, the volume controls, an IEC inlet, and a pop-open fuse container. The input jacks are bunched toward the middle, so you can easily reach them to change ICs without having to pull the amp out of your rack. 

At first I’d contemplated replacing the EAR 890’s output tubes. But after discussing this with Dan Meinwald of EAR USA and learning how complicated this is -- it entails unscrewing the cages from above and unbolting them from below while somehow securing the circuit boards (the bolts go through them, too), all while the amp is resting on its side -- I decided this wasn’t something anyone with only two hands could do. 

One of the 890’s annoying quirks is that its rubberized feet are relatively short, and don’t raise the amp quite enough to keep it from squashing my fingers when I placed it on the rack. The low chassis clearance could create another problem in installation or removal; even when only slightly tipped, the amp’s front or rear undercarriage could easily scrape the edges of your shelf or stand. 

The five-page owner’s manual straightforwardly explains unpacking the EAR 890 and hooking it up to speaker cables and interconnects, its XLR and RCA inputs, bridge-mode operation, biamping, and general maintenance. Also included are a spec sheet and a useful schematic of the circuit. 

System 

My system consists of a Cary CD 303/300 CD player; a TW-Acustic Raven Two turntable with Tri-Planar Ultimate Mk.VII tonearm and Zyx Airy 3 moving-coil cartridge (0.24mV output); an Ortofon RS-309D 12" tonearm with Ortofon SPU GM Mono Mark II cartridge (3mV); a Herron VTPH-2 phono stage; a deHavilland Mercury 3 line stage; EAR 868 and VAC Renaissance Mk.III preamplifiers (both in for review); deHavilland KE50A monoblocks (40W, class-A); a solid-state Aragon 8008-ST stereo amp (200Wpc); and Von Schweikert VR5 HSE loudspeakers (91dB/6 ohms). For this review, I used Cardas Clear, Auditorium 23, and Verbatim interconnects (all RCA), and Verbatim speaker cables with jumpers. 

Balanced Power Technology’s Clean Power Center passive line conditioner fed the phono stage and preamps, and the Cary CD player went straight into the wall with a Fusion Audio Predator power cord. The power amps were plugged into an Isoclean 104 II power strip with Cardas Golden Reference AC cords, the strip itself plugged into the wall with another Golden Reference. Other power cords were Thor Red, Fusion Audio Impulse, and Harmonix XDC Studio Master. I have two dedicated 15A lines, both with Oyaide R1 duplex outlets. I used PS Audio Critical Link fuses in the Cary player and the deHavilland preamp and mono amps. 

My equipment rack is a five-shelf Box Furniture stand made of lightly finished sapele. I used no further isolation other than the various components’ stock feet. 

My listening room is treated with sound panels from Acoustic Sciences Corporation; bookshelves line the right wall, shelves of LPs the left. My study/listening room is fairly small: 15’L x 12’W x 8.5’H. I listened both in the nearfield, and on a couch about 9’ away from the plane described by the speakers’ baffles. 

Although the 890 sounded fine with each of the preamps mentioned, I mainly listened to it driven by my reference deHavilland Mercury 3 line stage. For vinyl, I used the three phono stages equally: the standalone Herron, and the ones built into the VAC and EAR preamps. The deHavilland Mercury 3, used as both a line stage and in combination with the Herron VTPH-2 phono stage, had a finesse and airiness with vocal music that I loved, while the EAR 868 had robustness, a dense saturation of tone, and lots of drive. The VAC Renaissance Mk.III sounded more open than the EAR 868, though not quite as robust, and with a bit more finesse and definition at the frequency extremes. 

Listening 

Right from the start, the EAR 890 proved capable of a terrific punch and midrange articulation that made it able to handle complex and dynamic music. Debussy’s La Mer, as performed by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (CD, Deutsche Grammophon 477 7161), can be difficult for many systems -- it’s full of sweet, lyric passages, as well as others that demand instant shifts from delicacy to full orchestral bombast within a few notes. The first movement, De l’aube à midi sur la mer, contains a number of balletic swerves and musical pirouettes, then a passage featuring harp, strings, mordant horns, and a lyrical clarinet, giving way to a violin solo with lushness and sensitivity. Later come small string crescendos, like splashes against a shorebreak, that quickly ramp up to large, imperious orchestral tuttis that are forceful, foreboding, and dark. The EAR 890 handled all of these without a hitch, producing a soundstage that spread between the speakers and had a pleasing depth as well. 

Also remarkable was how the EAR 890 rendered pure string sound, whether of a solo violin or of an orchestral violin section. Playing Maxim Vengerov’s recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the London Symphony (CD, EMI Classics 3 36403 2), I heard a rich and satisfying orchestral thrum that signified the EAR’s authority over a kind of music that can easily reduce some electronic gear to incoherence. At the beginning of the first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, Vengerov’s violin sounded sweet and lyric, the woodwinds beautifully organic in tone, and the full orchestra sounded loveliest and most impressive in the difficult but heart-swelling crescendos. The first violins then introduce the theme, which requires an amp to demonstrate delicacy, precision, and clarity -- all of which the EAR 890 did. The cadenza -- Vengerov performs his own -- then demands even more refinement, and the 890 distinctly rendered the myriad timbres of his sound. I heard how Vengerov’s aggressive bowing of the low strings near the bridge glided over to the suppler high strings, the sound then filling with a natural sweetness. The 890 demonstrated superb microdynamics and an ability to render the minute tonal distinctions of Vengerov’s performance, capturing a sort of "brushstroke" effect: how a violinist shapes a note with bowing and vibrato to accentuate a fat attack that then gives way to painting in a sweet midrange, then trails off in a somewhat drier, lingering decay. The 890 followed with uncanny accuracy the changing tremolos and pitches of Vengerov’s playing -- it was the best I’ve ever heard this recording sound. 

I was consistently impressed with the EAR 890’s articulate midrange. Paquito d’Rivera’s Brazilian Dreams (CD, MCG Jazz 1010) brings together a mellow septet/octet and four singers, the New York Voices, who blend in a recording remarkable for its liveliness and pure, rich tones. Listening to "Manha de Carnival/Gentle Rain," I heard a chorus of tenor sax, trumpet, and trombone in which each instrument was clear and distinct, and yet together in terms of timing and harmonic tapestry. The fanfares and bursts were spot on, d’Rivera’s burnished alto sax sounding appropriately out front. Jay Ashby’s trombone solo was softly explosive, while d’Rivera’s clarinet gave the tune its uppermost register of pleasingly pure and piercing reed notes. Claudio Roditi’s trumpet, too, was just a shade forward of the horn section; I could hear it distinctly harmonizing with the alto sax in one musical line as the tenor sax and trombone together made up another line. The ease with which I could hear and make these distinctions in these somewhat complex passages attested to the EAR’s nimbleness and refinement. 

The EAR 890 was presented a different kind of midrange tapestry by The Clerks’ Group singing Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Seleument (CD, Gaudeamus CD GAU 168). In this recording of Renaissance polyphony, the group’s nine voices create the original, pre-Phil Spector "wall of sound." The piece proceeds via many stops and starts in the four vocal lines (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), which are sometimes distinct and at other times blended -- it’s an intricate challenge to an amp’s sonic dexterity and tonal palette. The EAR was completely up to it, and was particularly impressive in the crescendos, providing adequate definition, maintaining tonal saturation throughout, and portraying the voices as those of nine individual singers, all while reproducing a rich complex of harmonics, a fine soundstage of good depth, and precise imaging of the choir spread out between the speakers. 

Schooled by its notable way of rendering Vengerov’s violin, I began listening more closely to what the EAR 890 was doing with midrange transients. I found it superior in sustaining a note through a longer bloom and decay than I’d heard before with my reference amps, the otherwise lovely and fulsome deHavilland KE50A monoblocks. I noticed this particularly with the Modern Jazz Quartet’s At Music Inn, Vol.2 (CD, Atlantic Jazz 1299-2). In "Yardbird Suite," Milt Jackson’s vibes had a crystalline, bell-like ring that was soft on the attack, then swelled into a rich, reverberant blush of harmonics that hung in the air in noticeably sustained notes that then fell away slowly, back into the music’s flow. This exquisite quality was also evident with Ingrid Fliter’s piano on her disc of solo works by Chopin (CD, EMI Classics 5 14899 2). There is a Mozartean lyricism of melody in the first movement, Allegro maestoso, of Piano Sonata 3, that Fliter well captures. The sweet notes of her sweeping arpeggios and delicate trills lingered momentarily in the air, as they might in a live performance. There was also the satisfying sense of the bass notes pulsing as an undercurrent -- intermittent, enveloping, then lapping within the chordal playing in an inconstant ebb and flow. The EAR 890 increased the sensuality of the music and my appreciation for it.

But what about the EAR’s bass? What was it like with rock and blues? No problem. When I played Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (CD, Reprise 2282-2) and Eric Clapton’s From the Cradle (CD, Reprise 45735-2), the EAR 890 showed great bass responsiveness, extension, and timing. Furthermore, Young’s electric guitar in "Down by the River" sounded especially crisp and raw, and Billy Talbot’s Fender bass was tight and controlled. There wasn’t as much impact to the bass as with my solid-state Aragon 8008-ST amp (200Wpc, 8 ohms), but it was nonetheless respectable. Likewise with Clapton’s "Blues Before Sunrise": the bass was fulsome and grinding, the kick drum punchy and snare tight, all of it merging in the mix with Clapton’s raunchy growl, his slide-guitar solo providing screeching top notes. Again, the crash and thump of it all wasn’t as strong as with the Aragon, but no less did my feet tap and my head bob to the bluesy beat. I then trotted out a recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Orchestra (CD, Philips 289 468 035-2). A bass-drum stroke in the first section, Augurs of Spring, is as good a test for bass slam as I have. Via the 890, that stroke’s impact was big, full, and satisfying, if not quite as thrilling as with the deHavilland KE50A monoblocks. 

The EAR 890 reproduced LPs as if completely at home, demonstrating all the fullness and organicism of the medium, particularly in stereo; surprisingly, mono jazz LPs tended to sound "hot." By contrast, when I listened to Duke Ellington’s Ellington ’55 (Capitol SM11674), Miles Davis’s Miles Ahead (Columbia CL 1041), and Sarah Vaughan’s In the Land of Hi-Fi (Emarcy/Mercury MG-36058) through my reference system of Herron VTPH-2 phono stage and deHavilland’s Mercury 3 line stage and KE50A monoblocks, each recording sounded well balanced. Using the 890 with the built-in phono stage of the EAR 868 preamp, however, these same mono LPs sounded much better, if still a touch forward. 

Comparison and conclusion 

At $7250/pair, my reference deHavilland KE50A monoblocks are nearly the same price as the EAR 890 at $7595, and their 40k ohm input impedance is comparable to the EAR’s 50k ohms. In terms of output, however, at 40W, the KE50As have little more than half the EAR’s power, so it’s arguable whether the comparison is a straight one across the board. Still, the deHavillands sound fuller and more balanced throughout the audioband than did the EAR 890, which excelled in the midrange. When I listened to The Clerks’ Group’s Ockeghem CD, the KE50As were more subtle and nuanced, sounding more airy and spacious than the 890, with a bit more top-end sparkle. With the Gergiev/Kirov Rite of Spring, the KE50As also produced far more articulate slam, rendering that first big bass-drum stroke in the first section in three distinct stages: the sound of the mallet striking the skin, then the first resonant boom, and finally the rattling decay. But the EAR 890 surpassed the KE50As with a more articulate midrange, producing more color and separation in the microtones of instruments, as demonstrated by jazz and violin recordings. 

The EAR 890 is a fine and worthy product. Though its sound isn’t showy and doesn’t immediately call attention to itself with some striking yet eventually tiresome sonic characteristic, the more I listened, the more its general evenhandedness and superb midrange eventually worked on me an alluringly sensuous magic. I realized I was absolutely enjoying the music, swept along in both the thrill and the repose of its finer tones. And the 890 can handle all sorts of music, both complex and dense in textures, with complete aplomb, and sail through dynamically demanding passages with ease, always producing a pleasing saturation of tone. It has power and midrange subtlety, it’s physically attractive, and it has interesting features: dual volume controls, vertical-mount binding posts, RCA and XLR inputs, and it can be used as a stereo amp or as half of a pair of bridged monoblocks. Built with fine fit and finish in England, and a product of the duly deliberated engineering of electronics wizard Tim de Paravicini, the EAR 890 is indeed an amp for all seasons. 

. . . Garrett Hongo
garretth@soundstagenetwork.com  

EAR 890 Stereo Amplifier
Price: $7595 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

EAR USA
1087 E. Ridgewood Street
Long Beach, CA 90807

Phone: (562) 422-4747

E-mail: info@ear-usa.com
Website: www.ear-usa.com