One day – and just for a laugh – we plugged it into the line inputs of an SP11. It didn’t just better the phono performance of the “best pre-amp in the world” – it crushed it. From that day on, the SP11 was a dead man walking as, suddenly, it became okay to question its status. The Matisse, the Pink Triangle Pip, the Sanhen SP1.5, the DNM Series 3 Twin and a bunch of other pre-amps quickly established their own superiority. But it was the diminutive and affordable Iso that set the rock rolling, starting the resulting avalanche – an avalanche that quickly spread to other product categories and soon swept away more than a few ‘landmark’ high-end companies. Suddenly, it was also all right to be small, affordable and built into a plastic box. The rest, as they say, is history, but there’s a delicious irony to the fact that one of the last great phono-stages to grace the Sea Cliff system was none other than the Iso’s later, greater, bigger brother, Tom Evans’ The Groove.
The original Iso may have passed into history, but it still serves as a prototype and scene-setter for Tom Evans’ current product range. Indeed, at first glance the TEAD MicroGroove X phono-stage could be mistaken for the Michell product. The acrylic casework with its curved leading and trailing edges is almost identical, as is the external plug-top power supply. Look inside and you’ll see a multi-layer circuit board (quite the revolution back in 1989), carefully selected op-amps and a total absence of point-to-point wiring. You’ll also notice the absence of ‘audiophile’ components and a generally low-mass approach to component selection – both carry overs from the original thinking. Less obvious are the guiding principles behind the circuitry. Like most audio designers, Tom Evans has his own particular hot buttons. They started with time and phase coherence combined with overall resolution: they in turn led to an obsession with noise – or rather, its elimination – and the development of the proprietary Lithos regulator. Evolutionary improvements mean that Lithos is now available in various iterations, with different current capacities for different applications, but the latest release carries a 7.5 designation, which suggests just how far the basic (yet already impressive) design has come. Of course, TEAD are far from alone in taking a long, hard look at ultra-quiet power supplies, but sharing the technological or theoretical ground with the likes of CH Precision, Wadax, Naim Audio and others, is no bad thing – especially at these prices. These super-quiet regulators literally litter the TEAD designs, from the MicroGroove X and X Plus to the flagship MasterGroove SR, from the Vibe line-stage to the Linear A stereo and B mono power amps.
Sandwiched in between you’ll find The Groove Plus SRX phono-stage alongside and sharing the casework and footprint of the line-stage. Together, they offer a hair-shirt solution to phono and CD replay, devoid of all but the essentials. Together they represent the sweet-spot in the TEAD range, when it comes to price versus performance. Together they deliver astonishing musical insight and enjoyment at their relatively modest price. Which is exactly what Tom Evans’ products have always represented- and why I’m reviewing first The Groove and then, in short order, The Vibe… (I’ll also be reviewing the Linear B power amps in full, as well as the TEAD amplification chain as a whole, so don’t be surprised to see them put in an appearance here, too.)