Grommes PHI-26 Single Ended EL-84 amplifier

Grommes Precision Electronics of Chicago is a name that was once famous in consumer hifi. This sleeper brand actually made some of the finest amps of the “Golden Years” in hifi. Named a best buy by Life magazine in 1955, Grommes already had a following by the time it released its 1958 flagship, the 60 watt per channel 260A that was probably their one greatest hit. Designed by the legendary Al Hart, the 260A offered superb build quality and a good reputation for sound. But Grommes also had a strong standing in the DIY kit building community, with the “Little Jewel” and “Little Genie” 10 watt amplifier kits (complete with full color manuals) that were the first builds of many a future electrical engineer. This is a company that pioneered hifi as we know it today, and yet it is now largely out of the mainstream and probably unknown by most. The main reason for which is that by the 1970’s, as their competition folded to Japanese brands like Onkyo and Sansui, Grommes began to focus more and more on pro audio, and their consumer hifi products became less and less of their business, eventually ceasing production altogether. Grommes stayed true to their roots, and never made a piece of crap that they had to apologize for.

That said, here we have a truly wonderful and innovative little Grommes amplifier circa 2003, when Grommes once again entered the hifi marketplace with a reinvented 260A and a new product, a single ended EL-84 based amp called the PHI-26 (Pre amp/Headphone amp/Integrated amp). Largely designed by Alan Kimmel, the PHI-26 uses Mr. Kimmel’s famous Mu Stage for about 30 db of distortion free preamp gain. This cool little amp uses EL-84 output tubes, two 6U8A and a 6N1P (or 6CG7, or 6922) for about 1.8 watts of Triode or 6 watts of Pentode single ended sound. Its an amazing little package; this is a speaker amplifier, a headphone amplifier and a high gain preamp all in one, but for the purposes of my comments here I have used this only as a power amplifier driving speakers.

Sound wise this is a wonderful amplifier. It does everything right, not missing a beat. The sound is clean and clear, but also richly layered and dynamic, all while retaining some romance and glow…in short this is everything a single ended EL-84 amplifier should be and it is among the best that I have heard. Of course I have to compare it to the Decware, as well as the RH84, and have to say that the Grommes does not disappoint. In memory comparison, I would say the Grommes is the equal of the RH84 but is a slightly different flavor of sauce, and shares much of the Decware sound, with perhaps a little less “romantic” image and space. I don't currently own a Decware amp to do a back and forth comparison, but using the same driver tube (the stunningly good Siemens e188cc) I do think the Decware gets the nod for euphoric energy, if only slightly. Think Cardamom versus Cinnamon. But the tone and overall sound of the Grommes is right there with the best. And the Decware does not power headphones, nor does it act as a 30 db preamp. The Grommes PHI-26 is a pretty unique piece of gear. If you and I were to sit down together, crack a bottle of Bordeaux, and listen to the Grommes and the Decware back to back the differences would be readily apparent, and we would like them both.

With probably far less than 100 units out there in the wild, this amp is a rare bird for a factory product, but it is certainly worth your time if you can find one. The Grommes PHI-26 is an EL-84 amplifier (and headphone amp, and preamp) that could be the very definition of single ended pentode sound. And its built like a tank, exuding a sense of superb industrial quality that is rarely seen anywhere. It feels like what Jeff Korneff would have made if he had done a smaller single ended pentode amplifier. Grommes did this one right! Super highly recommended.

A low profile view of the Grommes PHI-26. This is 1.8 (or 6) watts of superb quality single ended EL-84.

The dial next to the EL-84 power tubes controls the Triode/Pentode output. Triode is about 1.8 watts and Pentode puts out a whopping 6 watts per channel. Triode sounds a bit more euphoric and Pentode has a little more drive but sounds a bit veiled after getting used to the sweetness of the Triode output.

I wish the speaker connectors were a bit better but these do work fine of course. The switch is a ground lift, a very nice (and somewhat rare) feature that thankfully I’ve not needed. The top rca jacks are the inputs here, and the lower rca jacks are the out for when this is being used as a preamplifier.

Telefunken are the way to go with vintage EL-84, in my opinion. Always my first choice. If you are going to spend money and upgrade your EL-84 these are the tubes, while they last. That said, with some of the excellent new Russian tubes you are 95% there. What you'll gain with the vintage Telefunken is perhaps some bit of perceptible soundstage and a bit of tonality. If these factors are not of priority to you, or if you are not a close listener, don’t waste your time or money and just be happy.

The volume control is one of my favorite things about this little amp. Its very sensitive, in that it has a broad range. Unlike so many volume pots I’ve had, this one runs through the whole band, not just 6 to 9. Full output for me seems to be about 3 o'clock on the dial, so there is a lot of choice in volume between 6 and 3. Smooth action (I hate stepped attenuators) and a pleasure to dial in. It’s like dialing in my Scott 350B FM tuner, very smooth and sensitive response. Its hard to describe but I like it! Bravo Grommes.

Compact and solid, this is a really great sounding and supremely well built single ended amplifier. For many, this could be the last stop on the single ended train, and you wouldn't be missing much.