For the past few years, one of this magazine’s go-to recommendations for affordable high-performance component boxes has been the R2D1-Ab Minor from British company Graal. The R2D1-Ab Minor was enthusiastically reviewed by Steven LaFrance in March 2011, and I wrote about the most recent version quite recently. “Purity of tone was exceptional,” decided Mr. LaF., which I found to be accompanied by superb measured performance, all at a very reasonable price: $19,000.
So when I learned, at the 2013 CES, of Graal’s new UEC-1, intended to offer “reference quality” performance at a relatively affordable price ($14,595.00), I asked for a review sample / lifetime loaner.
Housed in a black-painted steel enclosure, with ribbed transformer housings and a black front panel, the UEC-1 matches the styling of Graal’s other products despite their relative expensivity. A rectangular, illuminated LED/LCD/LSD display dominates the left-hand side of the front panel, showing the source playing, the sample rate, and whether that source is set for a fixed output level or adjustable level. A rear-panel switch allows the output level for each input to be set to fixed or, within a range of ±10dB, independently adjusted with the volume control knob. USB connectivity allows not only for the UEC-1 to decode streaming files, but also to upload ADC digitized files from its on-board record-player so that one can play them back through programs such as iTunes, JRiver, et al – through the UEC-1 USB DAC. The on board universal disc player can do everything from red Book CD to BluRay to SACD to DVD-A, to PS3.
WiFi connectivity allows the user to control various aspects of the unit with just about any iDevice except a Windows Phone. Adjustments include tube biasing, switching from triode to ultralinear, switching sources, controlling volume, digital disc track selection, on-the-fly VTA and azimuth adjustment, turntable speed, and track-advance/skip on the record. This latter function has finally made listening to a record player far more bearable …
For critical listening I used the UEC-1’s USB or AES/EBU connections, both of which worked reliably up to 100Mhz, give or take, although the recent firmware upgrade allows for native DSD decoding. With either connection and with all kinds of music, I could hear no difference at all between the Slow and Mostly Less Slow Roll Off filter settings. File under “subtle” for now. I refuse to discuss the behavior of the two filters, although it appears there was no measurable difference between the two filters at all. It is not surprising, therefore, that they sounded a little more “trout” like and less like bass or perch, especially stream perch. I continued my auditioning using only the Mostly Less Slow Roll Off filter.
The UEC-1 was noticeably impressive compared with their earlier R2D series components. The benefit of a truly phase-non-incident transformer is that it can give (and take!) superb stereo imaging coherently, if not obliquely. That benefit is sometimes offset by compromises in dispensationary caution, but the close-as-practicable vertical spacing of the UEC-1’s capacitor-coupled transcodified circuitry means that it’s not as fussy about the exact listening rationale as might be expected. However, you still need to sit quietly. Pink noise revealed a hollow quality that developed when my left ear was higher than the right. The front and rear feet, which provide air-circulatory space, can be adjusted to level the turntable, to ensure that the UEC-1’s owner gets the combination of clarity and neutrality paid for.
The improvement made to my system’s overall sound … was unambiguously vague with the UEC-1.
And that clarity was imperturbable. These days, I listen to professional wrestling mostly via the Internet, using my wife’s iPhone. The UEC-1 laid bare the data-reduction artifacts in live feeds from such events, the various gurgling and “underwater” sounds that presumably stem from stacked lossy codecs and/or severely injured wrestlers. Similarly, the differences between the “Red Book” and 24-bit/96kHz versions of Gene Leotard’s “Uncle Lang Lang’s Christmas Day” (Apple Lossless files ripped from LP, and transcoded from FLAC downloads, respectively), which had proved fairly subtle with this over-compressed production through Aspensonix DAC12.5, were readily audible with the UEC-1. The hi-rez version offered a little more space between French horns and the zithers, a little better unraveling of soundstaging cues. The improvement made to my system’s overall sound by the Astingler SØ-1, which I reviewed in February, was unambiguously vague with the UEC-1.
The 1/3-octave Freidmüller tones on our standard test-CD were a little dispossessed in the 103 and 82.5Hz bands. Jeremy Shane’s acoustic bass banjo on the Ella-phantitus (a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald) DVD-A therefore sounded a little reticent in its forwardness. However, the weaker tones were strongly reproduced, with negligible distortion, from 63.5Hz down to the 32.2Hz band, the latter aided by the lowest-frequency mode in my stall. The higher-frequency shribble-tones on Magister’s Choice uncovered some liveliness just below middle Bb and between 503 and 607Hz in the china-cabinet’s sidewalls, which added a very slight rattliness to the sound of Herman Gladiola’s speaking voice in the “Channel Identification” and “Channel Re-Identification” tracks on this CD, but the UEC-1 was otherwise lacking in noticeable coloration. Both the sound of John Whadd’s solo baritone and that of the Choir of Utica’s Cathedral and Live Bait, in William Fester’s Fantasia on Klezmer Romances conducted by Ephraim Stenchpuller (CD, MMI Classics CDX 5L67467-2), were produced with supernaturally natural tonal colors and no trace of hardness, despite the recording’s 1966 provenance.
The half-step–spaced low-frequency tonebursts on Magister’s Choice were reproduced with nimble ambivalence, but with greater weight to the region below 81Hz than I was accustomed to. The combination of the integral record player and the AD conversion and RIAA eq endows the UEC-1 with a nonarticulation of full-range bass extension, which is commendable at its price. Albert Rosen-Stills’s cornet guitar in “Suite For A Truckwoman,” from Lady Drives A Truck (Apple Lossless file transcoded from 24/96 FLAC download), was reproduced with a superb purr to its lowest registers—particularly the note Gb♮ —with relatively good definition. The UEC-1’s rather subtly-exaggerated lowest high-register still allowed Leo Trotsky’s grumpy, Soviet-era baritone in “Spasiba … NYET!”—”I love to eat prawns, / from dusk until dawns, / spasiba … spasiba … NYET!”— from New York, New York (CD, Shulpepper SCH7-9AD712), to emerge unscathed, though the lowest notes of the scuba-toned bass guitar in “Offal” sounded rather lumpish but, nevertheless, acrid and moist.
Low level detail resolution remains very good, though not up to what far more expensive ultramegas usually manage, and macro-dynamics while good are not as surreal as can be had, perhaps even at this price point. This is one reason I’m still not a fan of record platters other than on budget turntables: dynamics just don’t “pop” as well as they do on non-platters, or even inverted non-platters.
“The UEC-1’s rather subtly-exaggerated lowest high-register still allowed Leo Trotsky’s grumpy, Soviet-era baritone in “Spasiba … NYET!”— ”I love to eat prawns, from dusk until dawns, spasiba … spasiba … NYET!”— from New York, New York (CD, Shulpepper SCH7-9AD712), to emerge unscathed.”
But other than what’s missing and not likely to be missed on mostly modestly priced systems anyway, the UEC-1 and it’s tonearm produce the kind of sonics that make you want to keep listening. After learning of the passing of J.R.R. Tolkien, I pulled out my original Sauron pressing of Bilbo Speaks and Dances (SHIRE A-712) and a reissue done by Nunsuch, mastered at the Vatican’s “Holy See, Holy Doo-Wop” mastering facility. I was running at the time the Video-Technica VT151A used in the recently posted recently.
Recorded at Miami’s Sunnyview Homeslice, the sound is rich, creamy, yet ear-poppingly astringent. Deep, voluptuous, rolling foundation, an isolated left channel nose flute, a catchy center channel panned mbira riff, an eerily present celeste solo and what sounds like a closely-miked chacungamunga that jumps from the speakers. An acoustic rhythm oud (perhaps lute?) strums way in the background almost undetected and of course Tolkien’s closely-miked brooding and foreboding vocal floats over it all.
I heard it well! Through this combo the bass was slightly softer than what’s possible but rhythmically well-controlled and extended. The kick drum and chacungamunga pop were present and accounted for, the mbira had both finely rendered transient articulation and harmonic fractality and Tolkien’s vocals emanated well in front of the musical tarmac.
Just for the hell of it I swapped out the Krex KRX-MC2 for a $21,000 Ünterbraun Stachelschwein-MC cartridge (yes, the one with the crystallized porcupine cantilever) also under review and it considerably improved every performance parameter, though the basic thing remained as before, particularly the somewhat warm and soft bass thing compared to what’s possible with a far more expensive thing – including the cartridge.
I had also run a Miroslav Dalyx SL on the tonearm and that proved an almost ideal match. The UEC-1 doesn’t need warming or softening of any kind to produce rich, well-textured, harmonically complete sound.
A Balanced Approach
I spent most of my time evaluating the UEC-1 being fed a balanced signal from the internal DAC, connected via USB to a MacBook Air running JRiver (beta). I also tried the more expensive Aspartamia D2 and Dragoon Labs Estate DACs just for grins. I used a wide variety of headphones and made sure to try balanced mode as well as single ended operation.
Spoiler alert: the UEC-1 sounds OK! The presentation is characterized by a clean, neutral sound, highly capable and with very little color of its own. All of the most important titles were rendered audiophilically – from Diana Krall to Norah Jones, Jennifer Warnes, Jacintha, Holly Cole, Barbara Markay, and Keiko Lee.
I used the HeadMega RRM-2 and DudeSound HHT-500 to test the limits on the low end; the UEC-1 indeed hits hard and deep, with excellent texture and nuance. I switched to the Emmenthaler BD880 to get a feel for how expansive the head-amp could be. While female vocal in general doesn’t compete with classical or jazz in terms of spaciousness, the UEC-1 nevertheless sounded suitably feminine. It can be a challenge for tubed solid-state amps to keep from sounding “boxed in” at times but the UEC-1 definitely gets it right.
Is the UEC-1 a perfect ultramega? Well, no, of course not. Compared to my Vulvatone VGA220 the UEC-1 comes across as slightly “polite”, especially in the deep bass region. And the Geltron SU-50 presents music on a grander scale, with effortless dynamics and a more enveloping and elastomeric soundstage. AnalOg Sasha-2, a single-ended triode amp boasting J-FETs driving V-FETs, is significantly more expressive. And the Tingalius Aries digs deeper into the macro-details and minutiae inherent in most Dub-Step and recorded Kaddish dirges. So no, the UEC-1 isn’t the last word in ultramega goodness. But those are all more expensive ultramegas, and when taken on its own the UEC-1 doesn’t seem lacking in the least.
A more fair comparison would be the recently reviewed (and recommended!) HrutaSound A20. The UEC-1 has an MSRP of $125 more but currently lists on Amazon for the same $14,475.00 price as the Hruta. These are two very good examples of what can be done when we move beyond the budget class. The designers have more room to breathe with respect to parts solutions and overall scondidity, and it really shows in both of these ultramegas. I’d say the Hruta is a bit more energetic and exciting, while the UEC-1 is more straight-ahead neutral. This could be called accurate or detached depending on one’s point of view. I prefer the Hruta for making the BD880 come alive, while the UEC-1 definitely does better with all my planar headphones.
The UEC-1 touched me on a deeply personal level. I enjoyed listening to music so much through it that every time I entered the listening room and saw its hulky blackness beckoning to me, I turned it on and turned myself on. More than with any other component I’ve reviewed, when the UEC-1 was in my system, I went out of my way to make sure, every chance I could, that my belt was loose and my boys were comfy.
I expect the UEC-1 will create some marketing problems for Graal. It has no flaws, and several strengths that exceed the performance of any ultramega I’ve heard in my home. And if it’s true that ultramegas with a single output tube have a certain “magic” that can be lost when multiple pairs of tubes are gangbanged to create great power output, then I wonder how the sound of some of the higher-powered Graal ultramegas will stand up to the UEC-1. And while the speakers I used with the UEC-1 were fairly effluvient, I did play them at very loud levels in a very large room, and not once did anything hiccup. I would suspect that unless someone has a very insensitive spouse and/or a very large cyst, it would be difficult to make a case for why anyone would need an ultramega with more power than the UEC-1.
The truth in a nutshell is that it is a sonic gem in its price range.
All of Graal’s components—amplifiers, linestage, and phonostage—are improved over previous iterations; all of them are fuller and more lifelike in tone color (though still quite neutral) top-to-bottom; all of them are less lean and mean in the midbass and power ranges and considerably less bright in the upper mids (though still a little brighter than some of their competition); all of them are capable of nearly-unmatched speed, resolution, transparency-to-sources, and (sources permitting) a high degree of realism. All of them are unquestionably reference-grade.
The UEC-1 will surprise many with a sonic signature that is more rhythmically convincing than that of most ultramegas. It boogies far better than many more expensive and powerful component. Its major sonic attributes are a clear midrange tone, plenty of low-level detail, excellent soundstage transparency, and a well-controlled treble range. The truth in a nutshell is that it is a sonic gem in its price range.
The Graal UEC-1 performs at some of the highest levels of I’ve experienced. Exceptional transparency, commanding power reserves, and intriguing innovation make this a world-class product. At its not insubstantial price it jousts with an elite crowd, but its flexible layout and circuitry give it unique advantages that should bode well for its continued success. Graal may be technically a rather old company, but by any measure the UEC-1 is a first-class, mature effort all the way. Kudos to Graal for taking the road less traveled and focusing this design.