IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES. IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES. It was two completely different EQs competing for top honors in the mind, and studio, of EQ’s Lynn Fuston.
I spent several months, several hot and bothered months, with the Great River EQ-2NV solid state EQ and quite frankly there are many things about it that I have come to absolutely lovingly love. Tenderly. Gently. But then Doug Fearn sent me a pair of his VT-4 vacuum tube equalizers to try. I . . . I . . . tried to resist, but ended up discovering lots to love about them, too. And though I love them the same, these two units are both incredibly different. Excepting one thing: They both sound great. Let me share with you the story of this incredible love.
THE FIRST TIME EVER I SAW THE GREAT RIVER EQ-2NV
The Great River EQ-2NV is the 2-channel sibling of the enormously popular MP-2NV preamp. The kindred design goes beyond just design philosophy. Dan Kennedy (Great River designer) designed them to work hand in hand, with a TRS insert point on the EQ that allows using the input side of the MP (using the MPI setting) into the EQ and then the output section of either the EQ (with no transformer) or back through the output section of the MP for output gain and the output transformer. The two different outputs allow a broader range of sonic options. The EQ-2 draws its inspiration from the Neve 1083/1084 circuits (hence the NV suffix), just like the MP-2NV was inspired by the Neve 1073. The frequency selections are very nicely spaced and borrow numerical values from resistor values. (If you don’t know what that means, don’t admit it. Look it up.) Each channel features a six position hi-pass filter (ranging from 17 to 270Hz) and four bands with a host of frequency selections (HIGH and LOW have 7, LO-MID and HI-MID have 10), which cover overlapping frequencies. Each band offers 15dB of boost or cut, with shelving or peaking available on the HIGH and LOW and three different Q’s on the LO-MID and HI-MID. In addition to a master bypass for each channel, there are also OFF positions on each of the frequency select knobs, allowing each band to be bypassed individually. This is a nice feature, but it is difficult to quickly bypass an individual band because you have to sweep across the other frequency selections. The INPUT control offers a 28dB range of input settings, allowing for levels from –20 to +8. While I originally didn’t understand this feature, it comes in quite handy when dealing with very low or high level material. With a list price of $3,250, this EQ is a great “if I can only buy one” equalizer at a very reasonable price.
AND THEN: D. W. FEARN VT-4
When you first see the VT-4, you might think it is based on the Pultec EQP-1A, just like I did. With its imposing physical size, big knobs and tubes, it’s a common assumption. And in truth the sound is reminiscent of that desirable Pultec sound. But Doug Fearn told me it’s a “clean sheet of paper” design. It offers his personal vision of what an equalizer should do. The active circuitry is nothing like a Pultec, using Russian 6N1P tubes. It also uses four tubes instead of the Pultec’s two.
Now you likely know the Pultec name even if you’ve never heard one in person (and no, plug-in versions don’t count), and you will be forgiven for not understanding what all the fuss is about if you haven’t used one. For those who have, they understand why the vintage units command such enormous prices. The magic of a Pultec is a combination of the transformers, the tubes, the enormously broad frequency bands, and the inductor/capacitor (LC) frequency shaping circuits. I’ve never heard the Pultec magic from any tube EQ ever, even very expensive clones.
The VT-4 is no clone, but it does manage to capture the magic of a Pultec. I know because I’ve owned a pair of EQP-1A3s for 12 years now.
Is it the VT-4’s point-to-point wiring? Is it the Fearn spec’d custom-built Jensen inductors that it uses? Or the custom-made Jensen output transformer? Is it the big knobs? Is it the tubes?
I’d have to say that it is a combination of all the above (maybe not the big knobs), plus the fact that Doug Fearn just got it right. The frequency selections offer more options than a Pultec. Unlike the original EQP-1A, which only offers low boost and low cut at the same frequency, and high boost and high cut at different frequencies, the VT-4 has an extra mid band cut thrown in, which is very cool and opens up lots of sonic options. With limited frequency options (4 on the low cut, 5 on low boost, 6 on mid cut, 8 on high boost with variable Q and 4 on high cut) and in 2dB steps at that, you might think that the control limitations would prevent you from getting the sound you want. That wasn’t my experience. The sweet sound of this equalizer will let you dial in more EQ than you ever imagined possible. And if you close your eyes and just turrrrnnnn the knobs, you may find yourself adding 14dB at 8k, a boost that would be intolerable from most EQs. But with the VT-4, you may find yourself smiling bigger and bigger the more you . . . turn the knob. When you’re done, you’ll be shocked at what your eyes tell you (the settings) and delighted by what your ears tell you. You can add enormous amounts of EQ and it all sounds good. Just decide how much “good” you want. The bottom end gets big without getting muddy. The top end gets sparkly without getting harsh. What more could you want?
Well, you might want all this at a lower price point. If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative to a vintage Pultec, look somewhere else. At $4,400 list for the single channel VT-4, you’ll spend about the same as a vintage EQP-1A would cost. But with the vintage (old) unit, there will be repair issues and parts failure or replacement that you won’t encounter with the Fearn, plus the Fearn has more control than a Pultec. So, if you want the Pultec magic, but can’t find one or two (I hunted for eight years before I found my consecutive serial numbered pair), you can buy the Fearn and not have to worry about what you’re missing. I dropped the VT-4 off at an extremely well equipped studio complex in Nashville. They already have about 20 Pultecs in their three rooms. What did they think of the VT-4? They liked it enough to buy four of them.
What does that tell you?
You can never have enough great equalizers.
TORN BETWEEN TWO LOVERS
So how do these units match up? First, the similarities: Both are built like brick houses, with solid chassis and high quality parts. Both sound wonderful, offering delightful results on everything I passed through them. Both use LC circuits for tone shaping.
In contrast, the first thing you might notice is that two channels of the VT-4 will eat up six rack spaces, while the EQ-2 will only take one. The VT-4 is bright red with yellow ochre lettering, while the EQ-2 features white lettering on a black panel. Though the Fearn makes a more impressive showing in a rack, the markings are difficult to read under low light. The EQ-2 is far more legible in dim studio light. The VT-4 has only one light on the front, an incandescent power indicator, but the EQ-2 has 22 LEDs and no power indicator. The Fearn has huge bakelite knobs, which make gratifying chunk sounds when you turn them. The EQ-2 has small knobs (one of my few complaints) that allow it to fit all its features into a single rack space. The Fearn features more limited control settings, but has a wonderful sweet sound that will allow extreme settings without complaint. The EQ-2 has amazing amounts of control and will let you tame problems that the Fearn simply cannot fix, but it can get hard when pushed to extremes (like +15 at 15K!).
The Fearn features old-school build technique where the EQ-2 offers a blend of new technology with old, featuring digital-controlled analog circuitry. The Fearn lists at $4,400 per channel, or $8,800 for the stereo pair. The EQ-2 by comparison seems a steal at $3,250 list price for the stereo unit.
WITH THIS CHOICE I THEE WED
The Fearn. The EQ-2. So you’re in the market for a great EQ, one that you can love like I, who have loved them both, love them, and you want to know which you should choose? Which? Who? What?
Well, that’s easy: both.
They both offer amazing sounds and each does something the other will not. They make a great combination, allowing surgical precision from the EQ-2 and broad stroke sweetness from the VT-4. I would recommend these units to anyone. While the Great River is staying with me, however, I’m going to have to save up a while for the Fearns. But they’ll be a great complement to my Pultecs, or a great Pultec for someone who doesn’t have any yet. And they will likely be worth more in the future because, like the Pultecs, I don’t think we can ever have enough great EQs.