Acoustic Sounds

van den Hul

van den Hul The Grail SX

van den Hul The Grail SX phono preamplifier
By: Michael Fremer

March 3rd, 2024

A Holy Upgraded The Grail SX

an updated circuit and a more convenient operating system

Many Grails ago, in 2009, van den Hul introduced its original "The Grail" transimpedance-based MC/MM phono preamplifier. I reviewed it in 2018 when it cost $7950. Yes, it’s pretentious to name anything, but especially an audio product, “The Grail” but at least it wasn’t called “The Holy Grail” and it wasn’t packed in a cup and didn’t promise mystical healing powers. But it surely did deliver the promised outstanding sonic performance and it's still in production, now costing $8995..

That original “The Grail”, featuring gracefully sculpted wooden side “cheeks” and a white “pebbly finished” aluminum main chassis plus “basic black” outboard power supply, offers a single-ended current amplification-based MC input and a single-ended voltage based MM input as well as capacitor-free inductor-resistor based RIAA filtration among a host of useful circuit attributes.

A seriously upgraded version, The Grail SE+ ($23,995), which I reviewed in 2020, included dual mono circuitry, improved power supplies, and added a choice of balanced XLR or single-ended RCA in one of its two current-based MC inputs and balanced-only in the second MC input plus a single-ended moving magnet voltage amplification-based input. van den Hul also sells a “The Grail SE” ($19,995) dual-mono version and “The Grail SB” ($16,995) fully balanced edition.

When I first reviewed “The Grail” I assumed that it was not designed by Mr. A.J. van den Hul, who to the best of my knowledge is not an electrical engineer. That proved correct when I heard from German engineer Jürgen Ultee who told me in an email that he was the “hired hand” designer of The Grail as well as of many other products badged with familiar brand names, though for obvious reasons he would not name them.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this arrangement for van den Hul or for any other company that contracts with Mr. Ultee or any other similarly situated "for hire" designer. Having reviewed three The Grail iterations designed by Mr. Ultee, clearly he is a seriously talented man!

Introduced last August (2023) the new van den Hul The Grail SX is a sleeker-looking all metal chassis, satin aluminum finished design featuring a single umbilical connected external power supply and no wooden side “cheeks”. It costs $28,995 or $5000 more than The Grail SE+.

The Grail SX

The new Grail SX features a "redesigned" circuit board, which van den Hul claims significantly improves sound quality, providing enhanced sound staging and "airiness". The new board also provides for "mixed-mode operation" meaning when using a balanced XLR input the signal is available at both balanced XLR and single-ended outputs and both can be simultaneously used. The same is true of the single-ended inputs, for which both the single-ended and balanced outputs are available and can both be simultaneously used.

Here’s The Grail SX feature list found in the useful PDF manual:

Feature list:

  1. a specific designed Phonograph preamplifier section, unique in the world

  2. balanced design for inputs and outputs

  3. inputs: three Phonograph inputs, two balanced for MC cartridges, one for MM (unbalanced)

  4. Phonograph RIAA - equalization with coils only, no sound impairing capacitors in filters

  5. special printed circuit board material with gold conducting paths

  6. special equipment foot made of selected wood avoids mechanical energy storage

  7. low noise moving coil input stage, less annoying noise even with low-output cartridges

  8. automatic adapting MC input stage for moving coil cartridges, no matching resistors needed

  9. possibility to compensate phonograph cartridge sensivity (level adjustment)

  10. strictly separated amplifier sections and circuit layout deliver a very natural soundstage

  11. power supply with Gyrators for each amplifier stage delivers very high noise cancellation

  12. the external power supply works with 120V and 240V mains voltage (reversible inside)

Though it doesn't specifically say so, The Grail SX's MC inputs, as with previous "The Grails", feature current source, not voltage-based amplification circuitry, designed to maximize the capabilities of low-output, low-internal-impedance MC cartridges. Once-esoteric, this feature is no longer "unique in the world", though it's possible the instructions refer to something else.

van den Hul claims the circuit is appropriate for low output MC cartridges with internal impedances ranging from 10 to 400 ohms. As with the original Grail, this one features capacitor-free, L-R (inductor-resistor) RIAA filters.

The coil-based, capacitor-free RIAA filter

The Grail SE+'s dual chassis outboard power supplies are replaced here by a single one; the SE+'s internally mounted DIPswitches allowing settings for 56, 64, 70 and 73dBs of gain, have been replaced with a dual switch (one per channel), that gives you the choice of 52, 60 and 66.5dBs of MC gain (20dB less into the MM input). Those handy with a soldering iron can change the MM input's impedance from the standard 47kOhms or add capacitive loading if need be.

Setting Up and Operating The Grail SX

I connected The Grail SX to my preamp using its balanced outputs and used both its single-ended and balanced MC inputs. The default gain setting is 60dB and that proved more than sufficient for the lowest output moving coil cartridges I used with it.

A clean back panel makes connecting everything easy unless your tonearm connecting cables are of the "narrow Y" variety like the set below, in which case they will not be useable due to the back panel's dual mono layout that places the left and right channel inputs a good distance apart.

Three buttons on the front panel control everything. The center button turns the unit on and off. The button to the right selects MM or MC, while the one to the left selects MC1 or MC2. Simple! And since there are no loading options, The Grail SX is essentially "plug and play". The only caution: mute your preamp before switching between inputs or you might experience a loud "pop".

Compare that to my description of using SE+ : "The back panel is very busy, with 12 jacks, two umbilical connectors, and a pair of toggle switches (one for MM/MC and the other for choosing which of the two MC inputs is active) placed in close proximity to one another...If you have two MC-cartridge–fitted arms connected, you'll reach behind, find the toggle switch, and throw it to select between them. If you have a third arm fitted with an MM cartridge, you'll throw the other toggle switch. If you use the single-ended inputs, you must use the single-ended outputs." In other words, big operating system upgrade!

The Sound: Black as Night, Black as Coal

How can I compare the previously reviewed SE+ with the new SX? I cannot. It was much easier to compare the original single-ended The Grail with the far more ambitious, costly and fully balanced SE+. While it wasn't fair comparing the original The Grail to the far more costly CH Precision P1/X1 combo, that did highlight The Grail's lesser dynamic "slam" and its looser less extended lower octaves and its comparative overall lax musical grip.

The SE+ produced obviously greater macrodynamic slam that rivaled that of the P1/X1 combo and its bottom octaves were bold, deep and well-defined. The SE+'s midrange clarity and "see into the stage" transparency was likewise more similar to that of the CH Precision and its ability to cleanly delineate instruments in three-dimensional space without adding unnatural edge definition.

At this point based on my experience with them, I think that low output, low internal impedance cartridge enthusiasts need to at least experience a trans-impedance phono preamplifier in their own systems even if it's one of the least costly. All of them, regardless of price, produce background quiet that only the best voltage-based phono preamps manage. There's another attractive quality all that I've heard also share, and that's a surprisingly sophisticated delivery of high frequency transients—never edgy and overly defined or "antiseptic" as many voltage based ones produce, nor soft and ill-defined as lesser tube-based phono preamps produce.

On the other hand, unlike with voltage-based phono preamps where you can change loading and sometimes affect top end balance, with transimpedance-based phono preamps you are stuck for better of worse with what you get. What I've gotten from all of them regardless of price is an almost tube-like "just right" transient liquidity and overall transparency. The better ones do it better and The Grail SX is up there with the better ones.

Macro-dynamic performance here is powerful, and effortless and image three-dimensionality and sound staging both leave little to be desired. Right now I'm playing a gatefold copy of Basie Jam #2 (Pablo 2310-786) recorded May 6th, 1976 at RCA studios, Los Angeles. These are fun, mid-size band jam sessions featuring great players: Basie, Louis Bellson and John Heard rhythm section plusBenny Carter, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Clark Terry, Al Grey and Joe Pass. Can't go wrong with that group, though they are all past their youthful prime.

I'm listening to "Doggin' Around": Joe Pass hanging in 3D to the right of the left speaker, Clark Terry on the other side and Bellson way back stage center. It's silly how "in the room" Terry is, doing a long, deft circuitous solo with Basie laying low behind him and Heard dealing nimble bass notes. Everyone's having fun jamming, they're all and it's as close to being there as it gets. Images are filled in and not at all skeletal, transients are well-defined and not edgy, instrumental harmonics are rich and believable and when Bellson does a solo towards the end of the track the hits stay where they are in the confined space in which he's been placed to avoid leakage—and you can clearly hear that too.

Completely shifting gears, moving on to chamber music, I played a few sides of an 8 LP ERC mono box set of Mozart Sonatas for Piano and Violin performed by the Lili Kraus and Willi Boskovsky recorded some time in the 1950s for the French label Les Discophiles Francais (Boskovsky was also the Concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1939-1971 and sort of a Guy Lombardo sophisticate who conducted New Year's Eve concerts with the orchestra, mostly playing Strauss waltzes, released on British Decca).

The delicacy of the violin and piano recording is a test of both The Grail SX's timbral accuracy and its presentation of microdynamics. Here was the main area where the $76.000 CH P10 was clearly better but at quite a cost. While The Grail SX pleasingly delivered both piano and violin textures and timbres, the CH produced greater "see through" transparency, more vibrant string textures and a more convincing piano sound, with attack delicacy, much improved sustain and decay.

Microdynamic deficiency for whatever reason or reasons is the only overall criticism I can offer about The Grail SX's sonic performance. It "gives up the ghost" at the bottom of the dynamic scale. It's something you don't hear as much as you sense as a "delicacy loss" and it's not related to the noise floor so don't ask me what it is, or that unless you listen to the CH P10 or another phono preamp at that performance and price level you're going to hear it. But going between The Grail and the P10 makes it obvious.

It was easy to hear on the reissue of Yusef Lateef's Eastern Sounds (previously reissued as a "Small Batch" one-step and now as a less costly OJC CR00615). On the opener, "Plum Blossom", there's a percussive tapping produced by an unidentified instrument. The attack and sustain of tap sound produced by the two different preamps made clear the microdynamic difference and now I'll stop going on about it because it's only an issue if the rest of your front end and system resolves everything.

Otherwise, The Grail SX is one of those rare and most attractive "gets out of the way and lets your transducer of choice do its thing" phono preamplifier. If you want yours to add a "touch of warmth" or "a bit of sparkle", The Grail SX might not be for you. it's as neutral an arbiter of timber, texture and transient attack as you're going to hear from a MC phono preamplifier. Its rhythmic authority produces the desired toe taps. When I plugged various cartridges into the very fine phono input of my darTzeel NHB-18NS preamplifier, the overall sound got somewhat more supple and soft and some might prefer that to The Grail SX. On some records I did as well. It's a very good "built in" phono preamp but for rhythmic drive, and tightly sprung drive, The Grail SX was the clear winner.


$29,995 is a lot to pay for a phono preamplifier. The Grail SX give you a lot: three inputs—two single-ended and balanced trans-impedance MC inputs and one single-ended voltage gain-based MM input. It doesn't include a subsonic filter or a "mono" switch so despite the cost it's very "basic", but the sonic performance is "get out of the way" neutral timbrally and it features controlled, full bottom end slam that if your cartridge and the rest of your system can deliver it, bass performance you'll fully appreciate with every record you play that you expect good things from on bottom.

The Grail SX never sounds thin, or antiseptic or "clinical". We've all heard those and the usual "work around" is a warm-ish cartridge. I never felt the need to insert one of those though I have a few. Still, if you are a tube person, The Grail SX might not be what you're looking for unless you are thinking about what a great solid state phono preamp might bring to your system. If you mostly listen to rock or jazz, you'll really appreciate what The Grail SX will deliver. But it does an equally credible job on classical music. Enough for the "warmth" folks? Perhaps.

The Grail will bring to the picture quiet, black backgrounds, rhythmic organization, macrodynamic "slam" and solidity, sophisticated textural performance, solid, three-dimensional imaging, generously wide and deep sound staging and very little if any of a sonic personality of its own. That's what most of us are looking for. Or at least we say we are. If you can find a way to audition The Grail SX at home and you're comfortable at the price, give it a listen!


Mains power:120Volts or 240Volts, 50/60Hz

Power consumption:appr. 15 Watts

Temperature operating range:from 15deg. Celsius up to 35deg. Celsius room temperature. No condensation permitted

Use only in dry rooms

Max. undistorted output voltage (< 1%):15Vss for MM signal path, 8,5Vss for MC signal path

Output impedance:330 Ohms at RCA Cinch, 20 Ohms at balanced out

Input sensivity values:given for 250mV RMS resp. 0,707Vss output level on amplifier output

Signal to noise:> = 80dB(A) at lowest amplification factor

Input voltages at denoted input to achieve 250mV output level

MM input:

at amplification factor 32dB: 6,2 mV

at amplification factor 40dB: 2,5 mV

at amplification factor 46,5dB:1,2 mV

Input impedance: 47KOhm / 50pF

MC input:

at amplification factor* 52..56dB: 0,62 mV

at amplification factor* 60..64dB: 0,25 mV

at amplification factor* 66,5..70,5dB:0,12 mV

* = true amplification factor varies with source impedance of MC cartridge about appr. 4dB

Input impedance: autom. matching from appr. 10 Ohms up to 400 Ohms

Weight:13,5Kg (appr. 29,8lbs) without the ext. power supplies

Size (WxHxL, incl. feet):475 x 95 x 335mm


Manufacturer Information

van den Hul BV:

Oude Apeldoornseweg 6g 8171 LV Vaassen The Netherlands.

Tel: +31 578 569 950.


US distributor: AudioShield Audio Distribution.



  • 2024-03-03 09:02:48 PM

    Robin Ventura wrote:

    MF, excellent review as always. While due to all the changes, it is very challenging to compare the SE+ to the SX, if you were to consider Sonics alone, with no regard to price, aesthetics, features, convenience or availability, if you had to take one home to keep for your blues, classical sans jazz, which would you select? Bottom line?

    • 2024-03-03 09:04:06 PM

      Robin Ventura wrote:

      “AND Jazz”* ☺️

      • 2024-03-03 09:06:48 PM

        topround wrote:

        the p10!

        • 2024-03-03 09:08:52 PM

          Robin Ventura wrote:

          SE+ vs SX, goofball! 😎

  • 2024-03-04 08:15:14 AM

    Gary Saluti wrote:

    Would have been informative if you compared it to say the Channel D Lino C.

  • 2024-03-04 03:27:44 PM

    Jeff 'Glotz' Glotzer wrote:

    This review left nothing on the table. The coil use is seriously novel as is the lack of resistors where appropriate. Nice to see VDH still producing greatness. Any plans to review (more of) their cartridges in the future?

    • 2024-03-04 06:26:50 PM

      bwb wrote:

      This statement "Phonograph RIAA - equalization with coils only, no sound impairing capacitors in filters" is not exactly correct. It is correct except for "only" because it does use resistors. It is an RL network as opposed to most phono stages that use resistors and capacitors = RC networks. The lack of capacitors in the RIAA network is rather unique. Another LR unit is the EMIA unit. It is a tubed unit. Highly recommended BTW. . . you should give it a listen.. [EMIA phono LR] (

      • 2024-03-04 06:29:06 PM

        bwb wrote:

        trying to get the link to show up , second try ... EMIA phono LR

        • 2024-03-06 01:44:48 PM

          Jeff 'Glotz' Glotzer wrote:

          That is a spartan, but very well made unit! Intriguing.

  • 2024-03-06 07:13:45 PM

    Josquin des Prez wrote:

    Would love to try one of their phono-stages. I have a Naim Superline/SupercapDR but now I have two tonearms and am on the hunt for a phono-stage with at least two inputs. I will audition the Boulder 1108. My other option may just be to get another Naim Superline.

  • 2024-03-07 05:19:39 PM

    JACK L wrote:


    "Phonograph RIAA - equalization with coils only, no sound impairing capacitors in filters" qtd M Fremer

    From the above image of the pre-amp interior, there are quite a few coupling capacitors in the crucial signal path. If capacitors are soo "sound impairing" as not used in the RIAA EQ loop, so why coupling caps are used in the signal path ????

    Is it a "putting the cart before the horse" scenario ???

    Also I can also see in the thread image, inverting Op-amps are used for the balanced I/Ps, why high quality balanced input transformers are NOT used instead, considering the hefty price tag of this pre-amp ?

    To pay some USD29,000 for a phonostage, the audio consumers could be pretty demanding !

    JACK L

    • 2024-03-07 07:46:46 PM

      bwb wrote:

      Having heard the SE version of the Grail extensively in my system, the Grail before that, and being an owner of an EMIA that is also LR, I can only surmise that this approach to RIAA is valid given the superb sound of all units. While your questions are interesting, it is a bit of a fool's errand to start picking apart electronic circuits given that they are always a sum of the design choices.

      In all cases, the true value is in how it sounds, not what it consists of. The most valuable phono stage should be the one that sounds the best, not which one has the most expensive parts. So yes, the audio consumer can and should be very demanding given the price, but the demand should be for great sound, not what is inside the box.

    • 2024-03-08 05:05:35 AM

      Zaphod wrote:

      I had know Idea what a Gyrator is myself, so I looked it up and skimmed over it. If you are not familiar with a gyrator, it may help answer your questions.

  • 2024-03-08 04:59:44 AM

    Zaphod wrote:

    I get so tired of the complaint of how much something cost. I am not an economist or expert in anything but even I know that everything cost money and yes it would be great if we all could afford what ever we want, but that is not how things work.

    There are so many factors that contribute to the cost of something… Cost of the offices, manufacturing building, health Insurance, liability insurance, benefits for employees, pay for employees, electric bills, taxes, developmental cost, lawyer cost, and I could go on and I still gave yet to build anything. Material Cost, supply chain cost, marketing cost, PR cost, cost to cover any losses, cost to develop Dealerships and other relationships, cost to go to shows, cost to deal with certain customers (you know who you are) and do not forget the mark-up cost because you have to make a profit. There are also cost if quality Control, cost for dealers to display product. All of these cost can vary in amount due to the quality used and the amount used or in which country they are in. Each cost is constantly going up, some way more than others.

    What people really need to wonder is, how can company X sell this sooo cheap, where are they cutting corners and are they even paying all the employees a true living wage?

    Again, I am no expert and I am also not a rich man (I only make 12K a year driving a school bus part-time) so do not nit pick my comment with superior thinking, what do I know.

    • 2024-03-09 02:02:13 PM

      JACK L wrote:


      "how can company X sell this sooo cheap, where are they cutting corners and are they even paying all the employees a true living wage?" qtd Zaphod

      There are soo many brandname audios are being built offshore, in countries of lower overhead, from CD/DAC, amps, loudspeakers, & accesories etc etec. That's how OEM-overshored audios can sell pretty affordable & sell in bulk to allow the brandnames to thrive bigtime.

      FYI, the basic DAC (24bit192KHz) of an unkown New York brandname is built offshore & I bought it from Amazon for an unbelievable dirt cheap price some 3 years ago. Surprisingly it still sings like a nightinggale working with my CD/DVD/streamer up to today!

      Yes, you may label as an audio cheapskate for a DAC, but being vinyl-tube advocate, why should I spend a fortune on any digital gear which only serves me as seondary programme source.

      Be a smart audio consumer as cheap audio can be of huge money value.

      JACK L

    • 2024-03-09 07:15:56 PM

      JACK L wrote:


      "I am no expert and I am also not a rich man (I only make 12K a year driving a school bus part-time)" qtd Zaphod

      Appreciated yr being so open up about your background.

      Let me tell you about myself that I already did here I think & in other audio journals as well. I've retired many years now from my decades' career in the electrical power engineering industries in the Northern America, e.g. VHV powerline transmission. I am now working as a part-timer in a major multi-national electrical store-chain, making a few hundred greenbacks per working day, keeping myself active & social rather than idling like a couch potato at home. I am making some EZ money from the money markets (stocks, funds & bonds) day in day out, managed by my darling wife for me. That said, I am a very practical man with strong sense of dollar-&-cent value.

      To kill my off times at home, I've made myself a hobby audio handyman for many years now, in design/build/upgrade of audios, e.g. tube only phono-preamps, tube only powe amps, loudspeakers, & accessories, e.g. 99.99% pure silver interconnects & power cords, etc for my own use & for my audio friends. Aim to get best bang for the buck ! Not many audio vendors can grab my money as I believe I am know well enough this audio business, technically & musically (vinyl+tubes) !

      Hence my comment on the upgraded Grail SX per my above post, strictly on technical viewpoint. BTW, gyrators is not all angles when used in power supplies !

      JACK L

      • 2024-03-09 07:20:10 PM

        JACK L wrote:

        Correction: it should read "gyrators are not all angels when used in power supplies " Sorry, so often my fingers move faster than my brain.

        JACK L

        • 2024-03-09 09:03:33 PM

          Zaphod wrote:

          I had no clue what a Gyrator was so I had to look it up. I still could not tell you what it is, I just thought that maybe you to might be unfamiliar with this term, but given your back ground you likely already knew or at least had an idea. That was all.

          I am glad to hear that you have done well for yourself and you do seem to keep busy with all you listed that you do. Wives are great!

          I too Love Analogue and Tube Audio and Spinning Vinyl.

          • 2024-03-10 12:57:32 PM

            JACK L wrote:


            Glad you spin vinyl records like me ! For only some 7 years after I switched back from digital to vinyl from scrap, I've got a small collection of only 1,000+ stereo LPs., including about 50 digitally mastered/remastered LPs all on AAA formart. So I just put my digital stuff on the back burner. Randomly playing them strictly for convenience. Vinyl is my music way to go!

            YES, happy wife happy life. My wife love cooking organic nutritive food. I enjoy it !

            JACK L

  • 2024-03-11 02:26:47 PM

    mtemur wrote:

    I have the “320” German pressing of Basie Jam#2. I wonder how does it compare to the U.S. pressing cause any “320” I heard is the best.

    BTW being a “tube” person according to the reviewer I never heard warm sounding tube setup but I heard warm, lifeless, harsh, lean transistor setups. Not as often as tube setups but I also heard good, dynamic, lifelike transistor setups too. If you think tube sounds soft, warm you have a long way to go in this hobby.

  • 2024-03-11 02:45:20 PM

    mtemur wrote:

    Same “warm” expression is used for vinyl records too by many people. Just like tubes I can describe vinyl as dynamic, lively, close to real sounds of instruments but never warm. Sounds of instruments are never warm and never edgy when you listen live without any microphone but can be incredibly dynamic and lively. IMHO vinyl is closer to that sound compared to plastic sounding CD or streaming. Same situation tube vs transistor. I understand everyone can not appreciate sound of tubes let alone SET+high efficiency speakers as well as sound of vinyl records.

    • 2024-03-13 04:41:49 PM

      JACK L wrote:


      "I understand everyone can not appreciate sound of tubes let alone SET+high efficiency speakers as well as sound of vinyl records." qtd mtemur

      Sorry to tell you, you have not had the chance of listening really good SET amps yet.

      Take the example of the USD125,000 Audio Note Japan "Kegon" 17W+17W all-triode stereo SET power amp. I was so privileged to audition it so thoroughly, playing vinyl records, some 12 years ago. It's still embedded in my mind my reference amp ever ! So musical so live !

      I borrowed the idea of its skeleton topology & design/built a SET of 5W+5W power amp so 5 years ago. It sounds soo fast, transparent, detailed & so live, like the best transistor amps, yet with the musicality that no solidstate amp can ever touch, with vinyl records as source !!!!!

      Listening is believing

      JACK L

  • 2024-03-15 12:21:11 AM

    CCW wrote:

    I compared the Grail SX, to the SE+, to the ARC 10 phono, to the D’ag phono, and yes also dartZeel NHB-18NS MC built in single ended input stage. Yes, I am very fortunate, that like Michael, I have access to this level of gear (due to my job). Entire review forthcoming on a forum near you.

    With reference to Michael. It is indeed understandable hoe comparing two stages as different in space and architecture ss the SE+ and SX maybe a difficult task. Perhaps a fool’s errand. But I will do what (little) I can to lay down the differences between these my five) stages and why, for My Favorite Things (hint hint: the SX is the stage of choice).