The Graham Slee Revelation Phono-Stage and Elevator EXP Moving-Coil Head Amplifier
In recent years, Graham Slee has garnered an excellent and well-deserved reputation for his standalone phonostages. Diminutive solid-state units, their feet are placed firmly on the commercial path first blazed by the Iso, but possess a strong individual identity and an ethos that’s all their own. Indeed, Graham first started work on phono to line stages for professional/mastering applications as early as 1982, although the first domestic products appeared some ten years ago. Not surprisingly, the circuits are based on high-speed ICs and components specifically selected to minimize propagation delay and phase error.
Originally presented in the simplest of black painted casework, with “beyond basic” graphics, recent production has benefited from a dramatic improvement in aesthetic quality, the review samples arriving in still simple but beautifully executed silver chassis work, with neat and clearly legible screen printing for the controls – very necessary as we shall see. The aesthetic sensibilities even extend to the external, plastic moulded PSU 1 supplies that power both units, which are noticeably nicer than your average wall-warts. Flying in the face of fashion, Graham is a great believer in the intrinsic superiority of moving-magnet cartridges, believing that fundamental flaws in the electrical and mechanical characteristics of the moving-coil present huge obstacles to overcome – obstacles avoided by moving-magnet designs. It’s a philosophy that informs the structure of the Graham Slee range, which concentrates on moving-magnet compatible stages with the extra gain required by moving-coils offered instead as a standalone option. So, the Revelation reviewed here is a moving-magnet only phono-stage, providing a fairly standard 42dB of gain (enough to handle any cartridge with an output in excess of 2mV) and the necessary phono-equalization for correct vinyl replay. Now, whilst the company does produce RIAA only designs, one of the things that makes the Revelation (and also the Jazz Club model based on the Era Gold) so interesting is that it offers switchable EQ curves of the type we demonstrated at shows in both Denver and Manchester. It also offers an optional mono switch, although this is on the back panel. But most importantly of all, it offers this versatility at a price that actually fits the public pocket.
To use the Revelation with a lowoutput moving-coil you’ll need to add the Elevator EXP head-amp to the package, a straight 22.5dB gain-stage that also provides seven discrete resistive loading settings via its two front-panel toggle switches. That’s enough gain to deal with all but the lowest output cartridges, and with the current trend towards healthier outputs you should have no noise or level issues at all. The combination costs £740 for the Revelation and a further £510 for the Elevator EXP (plus the cost of decent, shielded interconnects to join them together).
Clearly, the Revelation and Elevator combination can be considered as part of a primary phono-replay chain, a role which their performance more than justifies. But it also offers an interesting and cost effective alternative for those who already own an exotic RIAA-only phono-stage but want the capability to adjust EQ where necessary, probably in association with a second arm and/or a mono cartridge. I used the Graham Slee units both as a pair and individually, the Revelation with the Music Maker cartridge and the elevator to feed the MM inputs of the Herron. It was an interesting experience to be able to isolate the contribution of the separate stages in this way, and there’s no doubt that whilst they work as standalone items, the Elevator gives its best results feeding the Revelation. Into the Herron it sounded slightly veiled and grainy, characteristics that disappeared (or at least became far less apparent) when using its own, matching MM stage. Whilst this might well reflect the superior transparency of the Herron overall, as well as the elimination of a pair of interconnects and the connections that go with them, it also stands testimony to Mr Slee’s ability to match the performance of his units and extract the maximum performance at a given price (rather than building in capability that isn’t exploited). Undoubtedly impressive in isolation, the whole in this instance is definitely greater than the sum of the parts – unless you are going to run a moving-magnet, but that’s another story.
Used together, the Revelation/Elevator combination (hereafter referred to as the Rev/El) delivers a sound that is impressive for its solidity, presence and sense of musical flow. It never tips over into solid-state leanness in search of the sort of etched resolution that can be initially impressive but ultimately frustrating. Instead it treads a fine line between transparency and warmth, getting the weight and harmonics of acoustic instruments just so, whilst delivering a satisfying sense of instrumental spread. No, it doesn’t match the quivering expectancy of the Herron, its sense of an overarching acoustic. Nor does it match the solidity and stability, the rooted authority of the Groove Plus SRX. But then it doesn’t approach them in price either – and it’s got an ace up its sleeve in the shape of its switchable EQ. Running the Rev/El as a straight RIAA stage and optimizing the front-end loading, the performance is more than impressive for the price. But as soon as you start using the EQ facilities on the MM stage, the musical delivery steps up several levels – to the extent that with certain records it starts to challenge the musical virtues (as opposed to the sonic qualities) of the more expensive units here. The Previn/LSO Rachmaninov 2nd Symphony, a 1972 EMI recording is a good example of this. A wonderfully lyrical reading, this is an early pressing of an otherwise unremarkable record you might easily pick up in a charity shop/thrift store, or at a bottom dollar price from a specialist secondhand dealer. Played via the RIAA only Groove and Herron stages it’s a nice but rather run-of-the-mill outing, a shade stilted and constrained. It sounds much the same via the Rev/El when it’s set to RIAA EQ. But switch it to the preferred setting for EMI recordings and the transformation is astonishing. Suddenly it becomes sumptuously fluid and powerful, graceful and sweeping; suddenly it has you wanting to conduct the orchestra, a sure sign that it has taken on a new level of musical involvement but also that there’s a natural weight and momentum at work. Previn becomes a commanding, directing presence – exactly as he should be – full of poise, his tempi drawing the music into life. Sure, the the stereo picture still lacks the acoustic space of the Herron, the absolute dynamic range of the Groove, but I know which one I’d rather listen to – and which is the more musically rewarding with this disc.