Recently, some good friends and experienced audiophiles in my area all took on EAR, and I had the opportunity to listen to the 868 and 324. I also collected their opinion for this article.
For more on EAR, please refer to my EAR Overview, which itself is updated after this article is published.
912 I have had this as one of my references for a long time (see my EAR Overview). Currently, I use it as preamp for my Western Electric 124 and 133 (here). The versatility and rightness of this amp is never in doubt.
868 As reported before, my good friend Tony uses this. I know him quite well, yet I didn't know he was going to buy it and he didn't know I have the 912! Such are the whimsies of hifi friends!
This is largely a "stripped down" 912, with a more consumer look and higher WAF than the stark 912. And it got more reviews (soundstage and enjoythemusic), all great. Pertinent 868 vs 912:
- Line Section: Largely identical
- MC Loading: Internal 3-impedance "MC-3" vs 4-impedance "MC-4"
- Phono Connectivity: One vs Two
- Phono Tubes Used: 2x 7DJ8 (the reviews mentioned that the phono section of the 868 is circuit-wise "identical to the 88PB", but I have my doubts as the 88PB employs 4x 7DJ8, twice that of the 868) vs 3x 7DJ8 in the 912
- Meters: None in 868 (these are supremely useful in phono overload assessment)
- Phono Control Accessibility: Mostly Internal vs All Front-Panel
324 In contrast to the 912 and 868 (and 88PB), this is an interesting solid-state offering from EAR, and has withstood the test of time (more than a decade in production). It has received great reviews from the press (Stereophile, HomeTheaterReview, positive-feedback). Let me highlight its features vs the 868 and 912:
- Selectors: Like the 912, accessible from the front panel.
- Phono Connectivity: Like the 912, two; but different in that one is dedicated to MM and the other to MC.
- MC Input: As the tubed 868, the 324's MC input employs the 3-impedance "MC-3" input transformer.
- MM Input: Unlike the 868 and 912, the dedicated MM Input has a good choice of loading and capacitance, allowing one to fine-tune the MM (defeatable too in case it is used with an external SUT for another MC).
- 868 This is based on audition at Tony's as I never had this in my own setup. The sound was certainly at least as good as the deHavilland and ARC preamps he's had before. I lent Tony my 912; Tony says the 912 is just a bit better in every way. Also, he said the meters of the 912 are supremely useful when transcribing vinyls.
- 324 My friend Sang, whose loudspeaker placement change was featured in the last article (below), owned this for a while. I went to hear it and of course took along my 912. I must say this is a fine machine! Tonally, the 912 is a little sweeter, with a little more tube bloom, while the 324 just has a trace of its transistor origin (for this user who uses tubed phono as reference). Rhythmically, the 324 has a little more snap. Also, Tony is quite familiar with the 324 too and holds the same opinion. Recently, my friend Paul, who used to use the EAR 834P, has upgraded to a 324 after borrowing my 912. He reports that as a phonoamp the gain is not as high as the 912.
- My Thoughts You cannot go wrong with any of EAR's offerings. If you need a full function preamp, and are inclined towards trying different turntables, arms and cartridges, I personally would bite the bullet and get the ergonomically superior 912, likely the only preamp you'll ever need, but the average home user with only one turntable would be almost as well served by the 868. Whereas if you want to stay with your favorite preamp and just want a phonoamp, then the 324, at about half the price of the 912, is a viable alternative, especially if you lean towards snappier and uptempo material or are a MM die-hard. But if you are a MC person, I'd say the 912 is even more accomodating. Ultimately, 912 has it all.