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Both preamps are hand-built by Graham, all internal components hand-selected and tested. The word is that he purchases only the tightest tolerance opamps, resistors and caps, tests them and then discards 75%. While I have not met or spoken to Graham Slee, he strikes me as an old-world artisan whose vocabulary doesn't include the concept of good enough. Designed to maintain what he calls phase integrity, Slee's phono stages feature high-speed, wide-bandwidth circuits. This runs counter to most competitors' designs. Many include bandwidth filtering to reduce noise but Graham is convinced that any kind of filtering, high or low pass, is detrimental to accurate music reproduction. Why would you want to remove information retrieved from your records? Slee believes phono stages should extract as much information as possible. If one wants to filter or alter this information, then it should be done downstream from his products.

Both preamps feature a minimalist approach with circuitry neatly mounted on a circuit board and enclosed in attractive aluminum boxes. Fit and finish is superb with no nits to pick. Connections for both preamps include a quartet of gold-plated RCA signal jacks, a grounding binding post and an inlet for the included wall-wart power supply. However, the Era Gold V is shipped with Slee's PSU-1 power supply, otherwise available separately for $425. Unlike the stock wall warts, Slee himself designed and hand-built the PSU-1 and spent a considerable sum to gain CSA approval, somewhat of a rarity in High-End audio.

During the first month I had this equipment, I used it in as many variations as possible to obtain some sense of what it was capable of. It became quickly obvious that here was an excellent example of that all too rare maxim - that spending more money can sometimes get you more. During the last two months, I used the 2 Xperience/MP-30 combo exclusively with the Speed Box SE and Era Gold V as my analog front end. I played a wide assortment of LPs including Keith Richards Talk Is Cheap [Virgin VL 2554], Dolly Varden's Forgiven Now [Undertow/Diverse DIV 003], a nearly untouched Book-of-the-Month-Club box set of Benny Goodman [BOTMR 60-5770] scored for a tenner at a used record shop, Beecham's La Boheme [Seraphim SIB-6099], Otis Redding Sings Soul [Atlantic SD 33284] and the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique [Grand Royal GR065]. In fact, I played my entire LP collection. I was in vinyl heaven.

The 2 Xperience offered a modest but clearly audible improvement over the less expensive 1 Xpression I flipped over last year. While I still consider it an excellent entry-level product into the world of analog, the 2 Xperience will deliver a quieter, darker sonic backdrop with a greater dynamic range, particularly in the bottom end. The 2 Xperience essentially offers a more stable platform for music to emerge from.

The Nagaoka MP-30 impressed me with its greater resolution of low-level information and its sweet and silky top end. It simply extracted far more musical information from the grooves of my LPs than my AT95E, which is still a great budget piece but does not have anywhere near as wide a frequency response as the MP-30. I could clearly hear more of the deep, rich, woody resonance and string sound of Janos Starker's cello in Bach's Cello Suites [Mercury/Speakers Corner SR3-9016]. I also heard more of the recorded acoustic and greater spatial definition. While I did not have a small arsenal of similarly priced cartridges on hand to compare with, I was so impressed with the MP-30 that it may find a new home on my 1 Xpression. The MP-30 is a thoroughly involving cartridge and worth every penny of its CDN$399 price.

In my 1 Xpression review, I was surprised by the effect the Speed Box electronic speed controller and was definitely curious to hear what the five-times as expensive Speed Box SE would do. With the 1 Xpression and 2 Xperience, I observed a similar greater focus and delineation of detail. I noted less background hash and sibilance, particularly noticeable on vocals. There was greater slam and pitch definition as well. Bass notes were fuller and tighter than without the Speed Box SE. In comparison with the $129 standard Speed Box, the SE version took the performance up another level. I'm not sure it was over four times as good as the cheaper Speed Box but it certainly delivered more. Let me put it this way: if I had the budget for an Era Gold V and the 2 Xperience, I would not hesitate to spring for the Speed Box SE. Once you hear what this thing does, you will want one.

Experimenting with Graham Slee's phono preamps was no less rewarding. The Gram Amp 2 SE offers exceptionally good value with its clean, detailed, dynamic and completely grain-free presentation. What struck me most with the Gram Amp 2 SE and the Era Gold V was the uncanny reduction of surface noise, ticks and pops. One would think a wide bandwidth design would increase surface noise. Au contraire. While there was less surface noise, I also noted a far lower noise floor altogether, particularly via the Era Gold V. I could hear all sorts of previously obscured subtle musical nuances. I'm not sure why but the effect was clearly audible and definitely worthwhile in my opinion. Also of interest, the Gram Amp 2 SE and the similarly priced Pro-Ject Tube Box could not have sounded more different. I do not believe one was necessarily better than the other. They simply offered a different set of strengths that may or may not be to your liking.

The Gram Amp 2 SE struck me as more transparent, leaner and quicker. The Tube Box imparted a warmer, harmonically richer presentation, albeit one slightly noisier. Take your pick. For the price, I could live happily with either. However, neither quite compared to the truly stunning Era Gold V. This piece just pulled more off my records than either of the less expensive preamps. The rich tonal colors that emerged from my speakers were truly addictive. The Era Gold reminded me of that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door of her black-and-white filmed farmhouse to the wonderful brilliant colors and vibrant spaces of Oz.

I heard greater bandwidth, pitch definition, more accurate timbre, quieter backgrounds with dramatically reduced low-level noise and a more open and dimensional soundstage. Instruments and voices were fuller, richer, more natural and thus more believable. There was less of sense of a mechanical or electrical process than with either of the cheaper phono stages. Frankly, this includes just about every digital playback component I have heard. Call it a hunch but I suspect if I owned a more resolved system, I would have noted an even greater performance delta.

I was impressed with all of today's components and could find little if anything to criticize. All offered excellent value and performance. I enthusiastically recommend any of these fine products to prospective music lovers looking for countless hours of vinyl-induced musical bliss. Sure, the Gram Amp 2 SE could not compete with its big brother - however, it is only $579 and if that is all you can spend, you will not be disappointed. Having said that, I would save my pennies for the Era Gold V and call it a day.
Pro-Ject website
Graham Slee website
Canadian distributor e-mail