May 2010

EAR 868 Preamplifier

I’d heard the EAR 868 preamplifier on a number of occasions over the last few years, in demonstrations at Consumer Electronics Shows and Rocky Mountain Audio Fests, and had struck up a bantering relationship with Dan Meinwald of EAR USA, the American importer. Meinwald is as informed an audiophile and as discerning a music-lover as one could meet, his knowledge extending from classical to calypso, Hawaiian 78s to bebop. His demos, always pleasurable and often thrilling, were consistently among my "Best in Show." I’d long wanted to try EAR electronics in my own system, so, when editor Jeff Fritz recently asked what components I’d like to review, I immediately proposed both the EAR 868 preamp and EAR 890 stereo amplifier (review to come). Meinwald agreed.


The EAR 868 is a transformer-coupled linestage and phono preamplifier ($5295 USD linestage only, $6995 with phono stage) that employs two pairs of the somewhat unusual 7DJ8 tube (PCC88) instead of the ubiquitous 6DJ8 (which can be directly substituted). According to the 868’s page on the website of Audio Revelation, a longtime EAR dealer in Carlsbad, California, the linestage gain is 17dB, the phono gain a variable 50-80dB, and the output impedance a relatively low 600 ohms. The 868 doesn’t invert phase. Also, rather than using another set of tubes for a third gain stage in the phono section with its attendant risk of noise, EAR’s legendary designer, Tim de Paravicini, chose to handle that with custom-designed step-up transformers, with selectable primaries of 10/1, 20/1, and 30/1. The settings are determined by a DIP switch inside the chassis, toward the rear: As you change the gain, the internal impedances also change, to 50, 125, and 500 ohms, respectively. For cartridge loading, however, the default resistive impedances are the standard 47k ohms for moving-magnet cartridges and 40 ohms for moving-coils. All of these features have been trickled down from the flagship EAR 912 preamp, which has essentially the same circuits but even more features, for the most discerning of analog freaks.

The rear panel has both balanced and unbalanced outputs and inputs -- de Paravicini has accommodated the trend toward balanced connection while sticking to his single-ended guns. A pair of balanced line inputs for a balanced source component (CD player or DAC) complements four pairs of unbalanced line inputs (labeled CD, Tuner, AV, and Aux) and a tape loop. At the far right of the rear panel is a single pair of phono inputs, next to it a phono ground connection, and between these a pushbutton for selecting MM or MC mode. Two pairs of balanced line outputs permit balanced biamping, while two other pairs of unbalanced outputs allow the same for single-ended. The 868 is not fully balanced, therefore, but a conventional unbalanced design in which input and output transformers interface with XLR cables to reject common-mode interference. The IEC socket is at the far left of the rear panel, below it the popout fuse-case, and below that a second grounding post.

Measuring 15"W x 5"H x 12"D, the 868 weighs only about 22 pounds, though it’s as sturdily built as the rest of the EAR line. It has a slightly oversized and very attractive chrome faceplate with smoothly beveled edges, a steel cover over a steel chassis, and knobs plated in chrome (my review sample) or gold that felt very chunky to the touch when turned. From left to right, these knobs handle source selection, Tape Out and Mon In, Volume, and Power On/Off. The source selector has settings for Phono, CD, Tuner, AV, Aux, and XLR. Whenever I switched it on or off, the 868 made a soft, mechanical tunk.

Setup and operation

The manual provided by EAR USA was a three-page .pdf file containing minimal information: the usual warnings, but nothing about loading options for the phono stage, the interior DIP switch, or the like. I laughed at its brevity and near uselessness; evidently, EAR expects buyers to be savvy enough not to want to be lectured to.

In any case, setup was completely intuitive; my components are mainly single-ended, though I briefly tried XLR connections between the 868 and a pair of Electrocompaniet AW220 balanced monoblocks, and EAR’s own 890 stereo amplifier. Otherwise I stuck to my usual gear throughout the review period, connecting the 868 to my Cary CD 303/300 CD player, two tonearms (alternately), and deHavilland KE50A monoblocks via RCA connections. The 868 drove four different sets of amps, both tubed and solid-state, without a hiccup.

The "manual" recommends 60 seconds of warmup for the EAR 868 to reach operating temperature -- a relatively fast start for a tube preamp. I found it took 30-40 minutes to reach its fullness of sound and best resolution.

As I mentioned, much of the 868 has been trickled down from EAR’s flagship 912 preamp. But while all of the 912’s functions are controllable by switches on the front panel, with each function clearly marked, the flexibility of the 868 was an arcanum to be discovered by your curious reviewer. It makes operation simple and straightforward for the unfussy, but conceals a range of choice for tweakers. For example: Though the default loading for MCs is 40 ohms, if you open the 868, near the step-up transformers you’ll find a nifty DIP switch of yellow plastic that selects from the primaries of the output transformers to produce the three different gain settings, and which also simultaneously adjusts the MC loading to 4, 12, or 40 ohms. After playing around with each of the settings, taking notes, and trying to hear differences, I wound up preferring the default 40-ohm setting for MC and its corresponding 10:1 gain for the transformer. Simple.

Although the 868 usually comes with a remote control that operates the Alps pot of the preamp, my review sample didn’t, and I could never get the distributor to send me one. I assume, though, that if you buy an 868, you get a remote -- presumably a very simple device. I never really missed it.

I did end up wishing for a second set of phono inputs, though. Near the end of the review period I installed a second tonearm on my TW-Acustic turntable, and wished for the convenience of having both arms simultaneously connected, so I could easily switch between the MM and MC inputs -- in my rig, from mono to stereo cartridges -- and thus have it all.


My system consists of: a Cary Audio Design CD 303/300 CD player; a TW-Acustic Raven Two turntable; a Tri-Planar Ultimate Mk.VII tonearm with a Zyx Airy 3 (0.24mV) MC cartridge; an Ortofon RS 309-D tonearm with Ortofon SPU Mono GM Mk.II (3.0mV) cartridge; a Herron VTPH-2 phono stage; a deHavilland Mercury 3 linestage; deHavilland KE 50A, Herron M-1, and (briefly) Electrocompaniet AW220 monoblocks; a VAC PA-80/80 stereo amplifier; and Von Schweikert Audio VR5 HSE loudspeakers (91dB/6 ohms) on plinths of 5/8"-thick MDF. For this review, I used Cardas Golden Cross, Cardas Golden Reference, and Auditorium 23 interconnects (RCA); Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval XLR interconnects; and Verbatim speaker cables.

I use Balanced Power Technology’s Clean Power Center passive line conditioner for the phono stage and preamps. The Cary CD player goes 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 15A dedicated lines, both with Oyaide R1 duplex outlets. I used PS Audio Critical Link fuses in the Cary and deHavilland components.

My equipment sits on a five-shelf Box Furniture rack made of lightly finished sapele. Except for Harmonic Resolution Systems Nimbus footers and couplers between the pairs of Herron and Electrocompaniet monoblocks when stacked and in use, I use no further isolation other than the stock feet on all components.

My listening room is treated with sound panels from Acoustic Sciences Corporation; bookshelves line the right wall, shelves of LPs the left. Also my study, the room is fairly small (15’L x 12’W x 8.5’H); I listen in the nearfield, as well as when sitting on a couch about 9’ from the plane described by the front baffles of the speakers. The Von Schweikert speakers were toed in about 3", the tweeter axes firing slightly to the outside of my ears when I sat in my standard listening position.


My review sample arrived already well run in, so there was no waiting for its sound to arrive in full. The sonic signature of each of the four amps I used with the EAR 868 -- two tubed, two solid-state -- came through. Though I mainly listened to my references, the deHavilland KE50A tubed monoblocks (40Wpc, class-A), there was no question that the more powerful Electrocompaniet AW220 solid-state monoblocks (220W) and VAC PA-80/80 tubed stereo amp (80Wpc) wielded more authority over the upper bass. The Herron M-1 solid-state monoblocks (120W) were wonderfully nuanced, resolving, and more transparent with renaissance choral music. Finally, the EAR 890 stereo amp (70Wpc) performed with nearly as much fullness from top to bottom as did the deHavilland monos, yet without quite the same level of authority and punch overall. Most of my listening, though, was with my splendid deHavilland KE50As; the impressions that follow come from my sessions with them.

I began my listening with mainly rock and jazz on CD and LP, and concluded it with jazz from the 1950s and ’60s on monaural vinyl. With each kind of music, the EAR 868 performed wonderfully, adding drive to the system as well as increasing tonal density.

On Miles Davis’s classic ’Round About Midnight (stereo LP, Columbia CS 8649), the instrumental tones on the title track were as textured and palpable as I’ve ever heard, particularly Davis’s muted trumpet in his solos -- never had I heard it sound so fat and yet so spacious. Tonal colors were mournful and wistful, and the rapid, triple-tongued 16th notes in one of his runs was followed by an expansive, long-held note that fluttered, ribboned, and shimmered before it was let go. Davis’s timbres were strong, fulsome, brassy, and blatty, and I could feel the pressure behind his mute. Coltrane’s filthy tenor solo positively swaggered in, and got speedy only in small splashes, post-bop and still cool in its phrasing. Throughout, the rhythm section was exceptionally tight: Red Garland’s comping, cool, minimal, and clean; Philly Joe Jones’s soft brushwork on the snare; and deft, resonant, pulses from bassist Paul Chambers. And the final duet of Davis and Coltrane was suspenseful, harmonically sweetly resolved, and plentiful in overtones. Davis’s closing arpeggio, accompanied by Coltrane’s fluttering tenor, was a lovely, sensually distinct contrast in timbres -- Davis’s not-quite-piercing Star-muted trumpet against Coltrane’s dexterously articulated tenor played softly under it. This showed that the system was capable of producing microdynamic detail, tonal range, acuity of timing, and midrange resolution.

The 868 also gave the acoustic piano a fine tonal weight, buttery richness in the mids, and articulate timing throughout the instrument’s dynamic range. I played Ivan Moravec’s recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto 4, with Martin Turnovsky conducting the Vienna Musikverein (LP, Classical Society Classic Record Library SRL 1194). In the first movement, Allegro moderato, the piano was clear, clean, richly harmonic, and dense in tone, with authoritative bass notes. There were exquisite pianissimo trills, precise and rapid runs across the keyboard. I heard great depth of the instrument in terms of soundstaging, with the orchestra recessed behind piano, which was presented in lovely definition in contrast to the more generally presented orchestra.

Yet in terms of evaluating dynamics and tonal colors, I could think of no better artist than Rickie Lee Jones, whose recordings are resplendent in nuanced dynamics and precise in distinguishable instrumental timbres. I listened to Girl at Her Volcano (10" LP, Warner Bros. 23805-1B) several times, and focused on "Under the Boardwalk." The old-time, doo-wah boogie of this track had me bouncing in my seat. There was a fabulous tapestry of musical textures and colorations: kick drum and bass in unison, tasty percolations of congas, Jones’s harmonizing with a male co-lead, a marimba dance of xylophone, a calypso-style acoustic guitar, great stickwork on chattering hi-hat and sizzling snare, and thock-thock strokes on the rim of the floor tom. When Jones sings "O, there’s a FI-I-IRE / Under the care-ROW-sell . . . Ooo-ooo, you know . . ." her three long-held notes seemed to me the vocal equivalent of a surfer skating up and down the inner face of a curling wave three times before the kick-out. And Jones sings so high in her range here, her timbre almost thin and without vibrato, that it could have sounded piercing -- but for the EAR 868’s tonal color and harmonic richness. The music was so captivating that my four-year-old daughter ran in from the living room to announce, "Once in a why-yall, you know, Papa, we like this kind of jazzy music!" Because, mainly, I play classical music -- about 80% of the time, in fact.

And how did that go? I’d say equally well. What came out when I played classical recordings, however, were the 868’s extraordinary drive and its ability to produce the drama of musical momentum. Mahler’s magnificent Symphony 2, "Resurrection," is a wonderful test for these audio qualities. I have several recordings of it, but the one that positively leapt from my speakers ("like springing panthers," my notes say) was by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Pierre Boulez (CD, Deutsche Grammophon B0006684-2). At the opening of the long first movement, Allegro maestoso, the violas play a quivering, hovering drone. Then the double basses rip across their strings, sounding both grave and insistent, carrying the first theme, scored as if for staccato horn fanfares rather than strings. In the first orchestral tutti, the sections come together to produce a magnitude of full-on slam that can test a system’s timing and resolution as well as its power.

The EAR 868 handled the sheer scale and majesty of this music, providing crisp fanfares with immediacy and sock, and timpani and bass-drum strokes that were distinct and speedy on impact and lavish in their decay. For this I gave the 868 an enthusiastic High Pass. Then come warm and subtle horn fanfares -- nuanced, brassy, and a test of microdynamics. Pass. Later in the movement, after the violins have maintained a high-pitched whine, insisting on tension, the score gives way to a slow, dirge-like march by the full orchestra. There are great tonal colors, complex textures of brass and strings. The music is by turns bombastic and delicate, pastoral and menacing. The 868 rendered it all with a fine ease and great splendor. I couldn’t have been happier with the 868’s nimbleness and dynamic range, its ability to convey both the sweet subtleties and harrowing complexities of this recording. Throughout, there was decent, normal soundstaging between the speakers, but where the 868 really excelled was in the attractive depth of that soundstage, which was particularly evident during the fanfares. From my notes: "No lack of heart, drive, power. Nothing wimpy, bleached, or sloppy." Then I underscored drive and momentum.


The deHavilland Mercury 3 linestage ($4495 with remote control) and Herron VTPH-2 phono stage ($3650) are my references, and in terms of total price ($8145) are fair to compare with the EAR 868 ($6995). Though the gains of the linestages differ somewhat -- 12dB for the Mercury 3, 17dB for the EAR 868 -- impedance-wise, the two have comparable output figures: 600 ohms for the EAR, 1k ohm for the Mercury, both fairly typical for tubed models. Granted, my reference components are separates and the EAR is a full-function preamp with output trannies in the phono stage, and it’s arguable whether superior performance can generally be said to result from either approach. What I heard, though, were interesting and distinct differences.

With CDs, the most dramatic differences were in tonality, resolution, and, for lack of a better term, transparency. As linestages, while the EAR 868 rendered a cappella choral voices with authoritative tonalities, the Mercury 3 generally made them sound more open, airy, and alive in space. The four-voice choir of The Clerk’s Group (Edward Wickham, dir.), performing the 15th-century Belgian composer Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Caput (CD, Gaudeamus GAU 186), sounded astonishingly rich yet forward through the EAR 868. Solo voices had an attractive density and weight, but during dynamic, full-choir passages, the overall effect could lack air and openness, the voices sounding a bit sealed off from their harmonic overtones, the performance lacking some ambience and spaciousness. The Mercury 3 linestage sounded more nuanced and full of finesse with these same passages, the voices more open on top, the soundstage vivid with depth, spatial cues, and hall ambience. The EAR’s imaging was also somewhat diffuse and its soundstage flat compared to the Mercury 3. But this is perhaps a question of preference rather than of relative quality. For some, the Mercury 3 might sound too thin or light.

Finally, I compared the Mercury 3 and Herron VTPH-2 combo with the EAR 868 while playing LPs. The gain figures for both phono stages show something interesting: The Herron is 43dB MM and 64dB MC, while the EAR has a claimed 50-80dB range, with modes unspecified. One might conjecture that the greatest difference here might be detectable in MC mode -- due to the 868's phono output having transformers and the Herron phono being active -- and my listening proved this out.

For me, U2’s The Joshua Tree (LP, Island A1-90581) is as serious as hard rock can get. This 1987 classic features Bono’s sensuous, agile baritone/tenor voice in heavy reverb, with big fireworks of crescendoing sound, moderato lyrical interludes, and The Edge’s virtuoso, chiming, sliding, sometimes screaming "infinite guitar" continually driving the tunes along. To make my comparison, I used the wonderfully arranged dynamics of "Bullet the Blue Sky."

Via the EAR 868 in MC mode and my Zyx Airy 3 cartridge mounted on the Tri-Planar arm, my system’s dynamic power, along with its pace, rhythm, and timing (PRaT), were nothing short of magnificent. A heavy, relentless, Led Zeppelin-like drumbeat begins "Bullet the Blue Sky," and my head was already bobbing by the time The Edge’s screaming power slide had finished the intro. The imaging was almost MBL Radialstrahler huge -- Bono’s voice and the background vocals sounded as if descending from a canopy above the speakers, like covering fire. Everything sounded up-front and tactile, an illusion by degrees, as if I were right there in the front rows of a concert venue, right on top of big stadium amps and inside the music. The effect was ecstasy -- I could hear The Edge’s dry fingers sliding adroitly across his resistive, wirewound strings, then his guitar fuzz into distortion and soaring feedback. His violent solo produced pressure like the sound of air whistling through the open doors of a low-flying Huey. The jet-engine-like guitar glissandos seemed to torque my listening room. I felt a little exhausted when the solo was over and the music had funneled down to Bono’s mournful warbling on hand-cupped harmonica as The Edge’s flat-picked guitar, its pickup’s volume knob dialed down to "1," trailed the tune away. Tomming drums come up at the close, and Bono wails and hums as if through a long, swart tunnel of post-cathartic existence. By contrast, my Mercury linestage and Herron phono stage, with the same tonearm and MC cartridge, could be said to have produced a U2 that was a quarter- to a half-hall away, and seemed a much more polite quartet of Irish lads -- still rockers, but more angelic than purifyingly purgatorial.

In terms of convenience and ease of use with a vinyl rig, I preferred the combination of the deHavilland Mercury 3 linestage and Herron phono; not only did the Herron’s two sets of inputs permit the simultaneous hookup of two tonearms and cartridges, they also made it easy to switch between them: All I had to do was flip the MM/MC switch on the Herron’s rear panel. Finally, sonically, the Mercury-plus-Herron’s tone on mono pop recordings such as Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable (LP, Capitol T357) was more open -- leaner, more contemporary-sounding -- while the 868’s sound was dense and eerily saturated on Cole’s baritone. Which you’ll prefer will depend on how you listen: primarily for rich tonalities? or primarily for air and openness of sound?


There was never a time when I found the EAR 868 wanting in any serious way. It is an outstanding linestage, and considering that only $1700 more will get you a phono stage as well, with variable gain and adjustable impedance settings via quality output transformers, it’s also an excellent value. Audiophiles looking for the very best in performance yet preferring an unfussy rig would do well to audition the EAR 868. What it does it does at a reference level.

The EAR 868 is yet another superb piece of engineering from Tim de Paravicini, and deserves serious consideration by anyone looking for a full-function preamp of stunning good looks that produces a big sound and an unforgettably rich tone with all kinds of music.

. . . Garrett Hongo

EAR 868 Preamplifier
Price: $5295 USD (linestage only); $6995 (with phono stage).
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

1087 E. Ridgewood Street
Long Beach, CA 90807
Phone: (562) 422- 4747