Van den Hul Grail SE Phonostage

Unabashed Sonic Horsepower

Equipment report
Van den Hul Grail SE Phonostage

Something similar happened on a Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissue of KC and the Sunshine Band. For my money, there are few songs that pack as much of a punch as “Get Down Tonight.” This tune, so redolent of the disco-70s, may not have gotten me to do a little dance, but it definitely is a hoot to listen to on a revealing system. The Grail helped reveal the gobsmacking sizzle of this album. The rhythm section had propulsive power, and voices were never congested or murky. Instead, the Grail helped lay down the law.

Another album that I like to use as kind of a test record—a polar opposite of the aforementioned one—is The Soulful Moods of Gene Ammons, which originally appeared on Prestige’s Moodsville label. Here we are luxuriating in a romantic mood, but never in a mawkishly sentimental one. Two standout numbers are “Two Different Worlds” and “But Beautiful.” These are breathy, plangent pieces, at least as performed by Ammons, and the Grail delivered a palpable sense of wistful longing as the decays lingered on into the ether. I always key in on the little things such as fingers manipulating the saxophone pads or intakes of breath. These might seem like extraneous details but they help clue you in to whether a piece of equipment is delivering a more precise rendition of the actual timbre of the saxophone or drums or piano. In this case, the superlatively low noise floor of the Grail hit a homerun. 

The bass control of the Grail was also excellent. Take the Pablo LP Count Basie: Kansas City 5. Basie’s spare piano work came through with taut precision, particularly in the nether regions. There was a sense of lapidary solidity to the sound, of deep and resonant piano notes that hovered in the air for a split second before the rest of the band joined in. On a more contemporary recording, Shelby Lynne’s album Just A Little Lovin’ on 45 rpm, the Grail convincingly reproduced the drums and upright and electric basses, providing a foundation that the Wilson WAMM subwoofers delivered with authority. The well-defined bass also helped to supply a rich sound that never turned overly voluptuous.

How did the Grail stack up against some of its pricier brethren? While it had tremendous dynamics, I never felt that it went as deep into the soundstage as the CH Precision ($89k with dual power supplies) did, which had the blackest soundstage I’ve ever experienced. Nor did it sound quite as ethereal as the Ypsilon VPS 100 phonostage ($26k). Among solid-state units, the Grail is distinguished by its sheer dynamic wallop and superbly low noise floor. It will help to goose just about any set of loudspeakers with its unabashed sonic horsepower. The bottom line is that the Grail brought its own set of attributes to the music—dynamic effervescence coupled with a smooth sound. Kudos to A.J. Van den Hul for not resting on his abundant laurels and striving to produce a top-drawer phonostage that exceeds his previous efforts.

Specs & Pricing

Inputs: Three unbalanced on RCA jacks, three balanced on XLR jacks (one mc, one mm, one switchable between mm and mc) 
Outputs: Unbalanced on RCA jacks, balanced on XLR
Gain: 33, 41, 47, 50dB (mm); 56, 64, 70, 73dB (mc)
Loading settings: 47k (mm); 40–400 ohms (mc)
Signal-to-noise ratio: >70dB
Dimensions: 475mm x 95mm x 335mm (not including power supply)
Weight: 43 lbs. 
Price: $25,995 (with dual outboard power supplies)

3 Sagebrook Drive
Bluffton, SC 29910
(386) 341-9103