GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published April 15, 2002

 

Jolida JD 302B Integrated Amplifier

Even though we're now 50 years into the age of the transistor, vacuum-tube technology is still alive and well in the world of audio. While this surprises many people when they first learn about it, there are many good reasons for the survival of the tube in audio -- tubes are amazingly linear amplification devices and tube circuits tend to be uncomplicated (elegant in engineering-speak).

But if you have only shopped for audio in the large box merchants, you probably have never seen a contemporary tube audio product. They tend to be made by small companies, which sell their products through specialty audio stores. Since many of these companies essentially make their products in limited quantities by hand, tube products have acquired the reputation of being expensive -- and many are. But recently, several companies have made a point of designing high-quality tube gear that can be made affordably through the introduction of efficient manufacturing techniques and the use of off-shore manufacturing facilities.

Jolida, for example, manufactures its products primarily in China, but reserves final, critical assembly for its US facility. As a result, their 50Wpc integrated amplifier, the JD 302B, retails for $950. When you consider that the JD 302B is virtually hand-made and is packed with expensive, high-quality parts, that's a good price -- but it is higher than many other 50Wpc integrated amplifiers. Does the use of tubes justify the added expense?

But first . . .

Before we go there, you probably need to determine if tubes are for you. There are reasons the transistor dominates the market, after all, and one of the biggest is convenience. Unlike transistors, tubes wear out -- which means you'll need to change them from time to time. This isn't hard. It's about as complicated as changing a light bulb. But, if you're a set-it-and-forget-it audiophile, you may not feel comfortable knowing you will one day have to change your tubes.

So, if tube products are less convenient to use and cost more, why do people still want to use them? It's all in the sound. Many audiophiles feel that tubes offer sonic benefits that transistor-based products simply can't match. In all fairness, many other audiophiles feel that tube designs sound the way they do because they introduce additional noise and distortion to their circuits. This is one of those chocolate/vanilla controversies -- the only way to determine whether or not you prefer tube or transistor sound is to listen and decide for yourself.

Super model

The first thing you'll notice about the JD 302B is the tubes. On top of its low chassis are two rows of glowing glass tubes -- four tall EL-34 output tubes, which deliver power to the speakers, and a shorter row of four tubes, which control them. The second noteworthy detail is that the Jolida is heavy. It weighs nearly 40 pounds. It delivers 50Wpc and has four line-level inputs, a balance control, and a tube bias (adjustment) control. On the rear panel it has knurled-metal binding posts and gold-plated RCA jacks. It does not have remote control or a recording loop.

The JD 302B's construction quality is superb and it looks exotic. You won't find many solid-state components near this price that look remotely like it. It utilizes a high-quality volume control (an ALPS potentiometer) and custom-wound transformers, which can be adjusted for either 4- or 8-ohm speaker loading. Tubes are a little more finicky that way, so it’s important to know what the impedance of your speakers are and make the right selection.

The sound of music

The Jolida sounds even more powerful than it looks on paper. Its 50Wpc output makes it compatible with a wide range of speakers. Products such as the Axiom M3Ti SE and the NHT SB1, as well as other GoodSound! favorites, will make a good match as long as the room is not too large and ear-splitting volumes are avoided.

Of course there’s more to music enjoyment than ultimate loudness and the JD 302B integrated amplifier soothes the listener with its smooth, balanced approach to the reproduction of music. This is particularly noteworthy in the Jolida's presentation of massed strings in orchestral recordings. The amplifier gives massed string a warmth and ease that allows the amp to get out of the way and let the music through.

Tube gear has the reputation for delivering bass that is less than state of the art. It generally goes deep enough, but often it’s not as tight as that produced by the best solid-state amplifiers. The Jolida JD 302B is true to form in this regard. The bass is a little less defined than it could be, but not obtrusively so. In fact, some listeners who own over-damped speakers may actually enjoy the Jolida's added bass bloom. But don’t take that to mean that the Jolida turns well-recorded bass passages to sonic mush. Where it falls short, it only misses by a hair -- and the sound is truly enjoyable. When mated with appropriate speakers the bass is robust and full.

"Gia" from James Taylor’s Hourglass CD [Columbia CK67912] with its traveling bass drum presents a pretty telling test for any amplifier. The Jolida softens the sound of the drum, making it a tad over-ripe. Where the drum should strike like a thunderbolt, it’s a little billowy here -- a not altogether unpleasant presentation, just not quite accurate. But skip to "Ananas" for a punchy bass rhythm driven by the electric bass -- and skip along it does! With no softening and no overhang, the bass is very well behaved.

For bass performance I sometimes like to go to GRP's Live In Session [GRP-D-9532]; this is a very present-sounding recording, captured during a live-in-the-studio concert for a small audience. "Oasis" features some close-miked drums that exude power, authority, and speed. With the Jolida they do. Deep and powerful, the bass drum and tom-toms are wonderfully tight and weighted and, though the sound is frenzied at times, the Jolida never allowed the bass to lag behind the midrange or high frequencies. It maintained a real sense of well-timed cohesiveness.

Mid- and upper-bass performance is very good and well behaved too. Where sloppiness in this area can have a disastrous effect on other parts of the spectrum (it can overlay the midrange causing obscured detail), the Jolida does a very respectable job of controlling these frequencies.

Moving up through the midrange, the Jolida gets even better. I was continually struck by the clarity and purity of the JD 302B's midrange. It's marked by amazingly low levels of coloration and surprisingly high levels of detail. Some gear can sound opaque, dark, and closed-in, but the Jolida sounds quite the opposite. The sound is remarkably open and transparent, allowing you to hear through the music to its emotional core.

Female vocals, such as Dianne Schuur’s "Reverend Lee" from the same GRP disc, are vibrant and transparent. Her voice is just about as open and immediate as it gets. There’s nothing between you and her.

Or for a horse of another color, try Patricia Barber’s Companion CD [Blue Note/Promotion 7243 5 22963 2 3]. She's the polar opposite to Schuur. Her voice is richer, warmer, darker, and harmonically more complex, and the Jolida keeps perfect stride, clearly revealing the differences between the two singers' voices.

And then there is that expansive soundstaging, which is spacious and completely free of the speakers -- another area most affordable audio gear hardly ever gets right, but the Jolida does wonderfully.

High-frequency performance is where most similarly priced gear doesn’t stand a chance against the Jolida. I’ve heard many comparably priced solid-state components that possess a hard-and-spitty top end, with a decided lack of air and extension. There are exceptions, of course, but I can’t point to a single piece that combines an acceptable treble with the Jolida’s midrange purity. You generally get one or the other; the Jolida gives you both and that's what helps to make it so special.

Try Larry Carlton’s "Whatever Happens" from Alone/But Never Alone [MCAD5689 SAN-443] for steely guitar work, married to percussion featuring, front and center, the high-hat. Less-than-stellar high-frequency performance will turn the high-hat to an ear-piercing white noise that will curtail a listening session prematurely. The Jolida preserves the appropriate tonal colors and keeps them from becoming too brittle, allowing you to listen all day.

Conclusion

You certainly can find amplifiers that outperform the Jolida JD 302B in one way or another, but finding a component that is clearly superior to it across the board will cost you plenty. If you're thinking about trying tubes, I highly recommend that you give the Jolida a whirl, even if you have a substantially larger budget. You might be amazed at just how far a $1000 budget can take you on the road to nirvana.

Price of equipment reviewed


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