Never promise to lend me a fine piece of audio equipment, because I won’t let it lie. Van den Hul didn’t get a moments peace while I waited for their Grail SB phono preamplifier with a matching cartridge. It turned up in a big suitcase that was much heavier than expected. Inside I found the amp only, made from heavy steel and painted a creamy white colour, not even the power supply. The casing is so strong and thick that it will easily withstand an earthquake. The Van den Hul is not the prettiest phono stage on the continent, however, as my wife always says: “you find real beauty often on the inside”.
The Grail SB
The Grail SB is a fine piece of kit, its sole purpose is to amplify the low voltage coming from MM or MC phono cartridges to line level whilst taking care of the RIAA equalisation as well as possible. The ‘normal’ Grail is single ended only, this SB version has RCA and XLR inputs and outputs. A note should be made immediately, balanced input means balanced output, crossing over from RCA to balanced or XLR to unbalanced is not possible. Inputs are doubled to allow MM next to MC on either RCA or XLR and of course the output is RCA next to XLR. An earth terminal and input switch are provided, the only other connection is for the power supply. On the front one pushbutton with a red light switches the battery powered Grail SB from charge to play. It comes in either a white or black paint finish with wood panels on the side. The power supply is housed in a standard black industrial case with an aluminium faceplate.
The fully balanced circuit inside The Grail SB gets it power from a set of batteries housed in the main unit, you cannot play directly from the mains. With a full 12 hour charge it will play for seven hours continuously. There is no need to warm up the unit, but it takes about 100 hours run-in time from scratch to reach optimum performance. The most distinctive part of The Grail SB is the RIAA correction circuit that uses coils instead of resistors and capacitors, and the number of capacitors in the signal path is minimised. The printed circuit board is suspended in the enclosure for isolation and the PCB tracks are gold plated. Four DIP switches make it possible to alter the gain for MM cartridges to 33, 41 or 50dB while low output MC cartridges can be amplified by 56, 64 or 73dB. Loading for MM is 47kOhm and 50pF, for MC The Grail SB has active loading dependent on the cartridge impedance and that impedance can vary between 40 and 400 Ohm. One oddity is that if you choose a high gain value for MM, this goes for MC as well. Separate switches for MM and MC are not provided. When you want another impedance or capacitance you have to solder resistors or capacitors into RCA or XLR connectors and use these in parallel next to the input used. For instance, if you use the XLR MC input, use the MC RCA for impedance alterations. All these restrictions mean The Grail SB is in practice only suitable for one cartridge at a time, but at the same time it will deal with this one cartridge in the best way possible. Output impedance is 330 Ohm on RCA and 660 Ohm on XLR. Signal to noise ratio is over 77dB for the highest gain.
The Crimson XG-W
This cartridge, supplied with The Grail SB but not part of the deal, is a handmade moving coil model that's positioned between Van Den Hul’s The Canary and The Condor. The body is made from wood (W=wood) but a polycarbonate body is available on request. Note the relatively high output of 0.65mV, the use of gold (G=gold) for the crossed coils (X=cross) and a samarium-cobalt magnet. Van den Hul can always customise designs on request, for instance alternative materials for the coils or parallel instead of crossed coil former. The cartridge supplied for review varied from the norm with an even higher output of 0.8mV and a recommended 1.35 – 1.5 gram down force. The system weight in combination with the static compliance corresponds to tone arms with an effective mass between 10 and 16 grams. Standard service with Van den Hul is a health check after 200 hours of playing time to make sure specifications are met.
To make sure that The Grail SB and The Crimson get a decent airing I use my PMC fact.12 loudspeakers at the end of Crystal Cable Speak Reference loudspeaker cables with bi-wire splitters. Between the mid and tweeter terminals I use some handmade, cost effective jumpers from the Dutch company Simply Audio. My Audia Flight 50 class A power amp is connected with Yter XLR cables to an Audia Strumento No.1 preamp. A Dutch dealer once suggested I terminate my VdH D-501 Silver Hybrid phono cable with XLR connectors and use the cartridge in the SME 5009 tone arm in balanced configuration. This improved the S/N ratio when used with MC transformers and I can now make full use of The Grail SB, first in combination with my own Transfiguration Axia moving coil and later with The Crimson. The arm is mounted on a Transrotor Super Seven turntable with Transrotor power supply. Between The Grail SB and my Strumento a VdH D-102 Mk III Hybrid XLR interlink is used, a cable that has proved many times that a decent interlink does not need to be overly expensive. Kemp Elektroniks filters take care of the mains power and equipment is placed on a Quadraspire rack. With all this exceptional analogue equipment available I leave my digital sources aside.
The Axia sessions
With my own familiar Axia cartridge in the tonearm I played one of my most valuable records, Into The Labyrinth by Dead Can Dance. The second track had hardly started when I stopped breathing. From the left percussion instruments were projected into the room, in the middle is an enormous drum, everywhere in the sound stage other percussion instruments appeared against a dark background. Voices were in front of me at the height of a real human, around me the stage formed a half circle. The separation between instruments and or voices is phenomenal, it has never been better as far as I can remember. Not in my room, not anywhere else. I’d have never believed these results would be possible with my own cartridge. A dear friend always asks me to sell this record to him, when he hears this, he will probably steal it on the spot. Sound splashes from the loudspeakers with a suppleness that I am unable to put into words, but it’s within an overwhelming stereo image with the lead singer stuck in the middle. Shocked with this result I got the next brilliant LP from the sleeve, The Weavers Reunion At Carnegie Hall 1963 concert. I played the complete B-side, starting with San Francisco Bay, through Guantanamera and Good Night Irene all the way to ‘Round The World. You want to know the number of microphones on the stage? Exactly three are used to record the six men and one woman formation. The audience applauds in front of the band, instead of behind them like most other phono preamplifiers reveal. I play this record a lot, so it is a bit damaged, but this is of no importance with The Grail SB. Background noise is lower than normal and this adds even more detail to voices and instruments in a perfect stereo image. Bass, guitar, banjo, they fight to get into the foreground for speed. A foot tapping on the stage brings out the deep resonance of the boards. When the public claps during If I Had A Hammer, shivers go down my spine and goose-bumps appear on my arms. Even better? Try ‘Round The World, it will drive you crazy, because it is tuneful, lifelike, pure and blindingly fast. It’s unbelievable that this kind of quality was recorded over 50 years ago with the equipment available in those days, a masterpiece indeed.
Next to these two superb recordings we go back to the more usual stuff, Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits. Bought at a flea market for one euro and made out of oil crises thin vinyl. Played over a hundred times, especially track one on side B: Ride Across The River. Again I could pile up the superlatives but I will stick to the facts and mention the stunning guitar, intense percussion, deep rumbling bass and in between the voice of Mark Knopfler. In a rare moment of transparency only the stereo image exists and every component in the system seems to have disappeared. It looks like I never realised the full potential of my speakers and amplifiers. The impact of the drums against the jungle sounds hits me in the stomach. The speed within the sound amazes me most, if you have the opportunity compare a fast amplifier with a steep rise time against a slow one, you will soon know exactly what I am talking about. Let no one fool you, digital front ends are not capable of sound quality like this. I have to admit that even though the record only cost me one Euro, The Grail, turntable, arm and cartridge would set you back over €20,000 in the Netherlands.
That’s enough busy music for a while, I lend my ear to the lovely voice of Stacey Kent and her easy listening LP called Dreamsville. Stacey has over the years become one of the favourites in my home due to her voice, the members of the band and the recording quality. Again she does not disappoint me in any way, in fact she seems to sing just for me and no one else. The sound is tantalizing and full of natural warmth. Never woolly, never overdriven, pure.
In the meantime I keep playing records and choose to say something about one of the first Tacet recordings called Tube Only, which contains the work of Corelli, Biber and Vivaldi on side A. This is a 180 gram LP, pressed in 1999 that has wide open transparency and is full of dynamics. The uplifting piece composed by Biber especially, is reproduced in a way that could only be bettered if the musicians were invited to play in the living room. It’s pure, never sharp and has definition that makes you salivate. No matter what music I play with the Transfiguration, results with The Grail SB never disappoint. Which makes me eager to install The Crimson cartridge to start the next phase in this review.
The Crimson sessions
After a short intermezzo with Diana Krall, to make sure the cartridge is mounted correctly and adjusted as it should be, I notice that the distortion I heard before is coming off the record and is not part of the player. Because, when I listen to The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett, the contact between stylus and groove is exemplary, like it was on the test records I use to set stylus pressure and anti-skate bias. Every nuance comes forward from the grand piano, from the public and every now and then from Mr Jarrett when he tries to sing along or stamps on the stage. The weight in the performance together with the limitless dynamics impresses me most. Dynamics coming from an inky black background and exploding in the room. The tapping of the piano player with his foot keeps me wondering, how much better analogue replay can ever get? (try reel to reel, Ed) The way The Crimson tracks shows me how much the Dutch manufacturer Aalt-Jouk van den Hul knows about cartridges and stylus construction. There’s not a single moment of tracking failure or stress. With the weight in the performance I point to the powerful way the grand piano sounds, not only on Jarrett but with Krall it was the same. Inspired by piano playing the next step to Misty by Tsuyoshi Yamamoto is a small one. This record has been used to get amplifiers into clipping because of its dynamic range. The softest note is ever so subtle, slowly the bass comes in and even softer light percussion is on the right. Only the cymbals are lightly caressed to start with. My Transfiguration places these cymbals more upfront, more the way I like it I hasten to add. But The Crimson seems to like the piano more. Tracking stays exemplary even on the damaged grooves of this old Three Blind Mice LP. Turning to classical music I pick the most tender and romantic version of the Four Seasons that I am aware off. Alan Loveday plays the solo violin on an LP that was recorded back in 1970. This record is a masterpiece for showing how timeless music can be and how much a listener can be touched by music. The subtle details of the violin, the soft playing harpsichord and organ settle even against the complete orchestra in more powerful notes. Mostly the Summer part entertains me, flowers open before my eyes, while moments later men and animals fear thunderstorms, furious elements over the shimmering country. A palette full of sounds unfolds before my ears, making it easy to forget all about the technique and sit back to enjoy the music. The Crimson reaches beyond the capabilities of the Axia when it comes to playing the loudest against the softest passages is this music. Where the Axia gets rough or even a bit nasty The Crimson plays on the romantic side of the scale, it reminds me of the ladies Rubens once painted. Do not get confused, The Crimson never gets lost in boring romance, on the contrary the combination of subtleness and power makes it a real analogue wonder.
I have said it often to my friends, the moment the LP Et Ses Grandes Chansons by Juliette Gréco sounds good, the record player is working as it should. To put it succinctly, the combination of Transrotor/SME/VdH with The Grail SB forms a heaven made match in, like the one that once made me fall in love with Gréco’s voice. Every nuance is noticeable, more important though is that it seems that every word she sings is straight from the heart. Just as beautiful is Be Careful It’s My Heart. Holly Cole is oppressive in intensity, this is emotional transfer, pure, clean and not a trace of distortion or background noise is found. The up tempo track It’s Alright With Me rumbles after it and brings the listener back to reality with a slap. This busy music often gets me confused on lesser set ups, now the transparency leads me from note to note. Last but not least an old one from The Carpenters called Now & Then. On the track Sing a children’s choir sings along with Karen and Richard and the litmus test is to get every child in its own space. This is exactly what happens right in front of me. It is a great pity the lady died so young.
Look up what ‘The Grail’ means, it definitely covers what I think of this phono preamplifier. I would love to own one, with or without The Crimson, but the retail price makes that impossible. This is far away from vinyl on a budget. Is it not absurd to pay so much money for playing that old stuff we call LPs? Not even including the price of the record player, arm and cartridge. Well, in my humble opinion it is even more absurd to pay that amount of money for a digital source, because it will never get to this level. Still some of us buy stuff without blinking an eye and walk away with converters and media centres costing far over 10 or 20 grand. Because it’s a hobby, a love, a second life. So why not include the best analogue sound I ever got at home. Is there a need to comment further on The Grail SB or The Crimson XG-W? I believe I have said enough, it’s time to find yourself a dealer who’s capable of introducing you to extremely high end analogue. Be careful, once heard there is no way back. Either you have the budget or you will keep on dreaming.