The Entry Level #7 Page 2

JoLida FX 10 integrated amplifier
With its heat-resistant glass enclosure in place, the adorable JoLida FX 10 ($450; available in black, silver, or blue) measures just 8" W by 7" D by 7" H and weighs a hefty 12 lbs. On removing the amp from its sturdy packaging, I was impressed by its solid feel and fine build quality. This is an extremely huggable amplifier.

Claimed to deliver a modest 10Wpc into 8 ohms, the auto-biasing FX 10 uses two matched pairs of Electro-Harmonix EL84 output tubes and two 12AX7 input tubes, all secured for travel by a block of Styrofoam. To remove the foam and prepare the FX 10 for play, simply turn the amp on its side and unscrew its four aluminum feet. Next, pull the feet out from the bottom of the amp to release the glass enclosure from the amp's chassis. Smart and simple. After setting aside the glass enclosure, I gently lifted the foam block from the tubes and found that each tube was already secure in its socket. I returned the glass enclosure to the chassis, screwed the feet back in, attached the included AC cord to its rear-panel inlet, and placed the FX 10 on the top shelf of my PolyCrystal equipment rack. This is an amplifier that wants to be displayed.

On the FX 10's rear panel are a rocker switch, the AC input, inputs for CD and Aux, and smartly arranged gold-plated output terminals for speaker loads of 8 and 4 ohms. On the front, from left to right, are a small Standby button and blue LED, a remote sensor, a tastefully discreet gold logo, a cute volume knob, three small input buttons, and a convenient 1/8" jack for connecting an iPod. Press the rear-panel rocker switch and the FX 10's front-panel LED glows bright red, signaling that the amp is in Standby mode; press the Standby button and the tubes are suddenly illuminated from below by stunning blue LEDs, and the front-panel LED blinks slowly 10 times before steadily glowing the same pretty blue—a little opening ceremony that was always seductive and impressive. The FX 10 functioned flawlessly while in my system, and I loved every minute of using it and looking at it.

I used a Rega P1 record player with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, an NAD PP 3 USB. phono preamp, and cheap RadioShack cables. At the start, with the PSB Alpha B1 speakers connected to the JoLida's 8 ohm taps, the FX 10 made music—always a good sign—but while its midrange clarity was respectable, the amp sounded restricted and lean, lacking body and tonal color. After a side of John Fahey's Old Fashioned Love (LP, Takoma 6511), the amp seemed to open up a bit, offering a wider soundstage, slightly more weight, and more fully developed tonal color—but I wanted still more. Switching to the 4 ohm taps seemed to deliver a better top-to-bottom balance with slightly more body and color, resulting in a better grip on the music, but did little for soundstage depth. The Klipsch Synergy B-20 speakers added a dose of vibrancy and certainty to the JoLida's lean sound, and performed best from the amp's 8 ohm taps. I stuck with this more synergistic pairing and listened to some music.

Fahey's beautiful "Marilyn," with its intertwining guitars, phase effects, and moments of insistent high-frequency ringing, will challenge most affordable components; the track's most ravishing, emotionally compelling movements can sound utterly careless and annoying if a component can't distinguish between guitar tones and feedback. Unable to fully separate Woodrow Mann's ruddy tone from Fahey's more burnished sound, the JoLida FX 10 struggled to make sense of the composition, and while I could see where the music was supposed to go, my emotions weren't swayed. Mann's guitar seemed somewhat lost in the background, while the brighter ring of Fahey's steel-string guitar was brought to the fore. Listening to the album's title track, however, I sensed that the JoLida had a fine way with cymbals and horns, allowing the latter to bloom effortlessly into my listening room, the former to sizzle gently into darkness—surprisingly, the tubed JoLida seemed quieter than any of the solid-state integrated amps I've recently used, including the Cambridge Audio Azur 340A, NAD C 316BEE, and my own Exposure 2010S.

Hoping I'd discovered the JoLida's strong suit, I cued up "Lonely Woman," from Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come (LP, Atlantic SD 1317). Percussion was quick and purposeful; horns were clearly delineated and capable of sounding appropriately sexy, languorous, and brawny; and detail retrieval was impressive. The sound was just as good when I switched back to the Cambridge Audio Azur 340A, but with added weight and rhythmic certainty. Finally, I thought back to the 2008 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where I met JoLida's president, Michael Allen, and enjoyed my first experience with an early version of the FX 10. Allen seemed especially proud of the amp's ability to play hard rock at loud levels; he turned up the volume on a Linkin Park track and the amp filled the room with clean sound. With this in mind, I reached for Earthly Delights (LP, Load 126) by Lightning Bolt, a vicious noise-rock duo from Providence, Rhode Island, and turned the FX 10's volume knob to 3pm.

"Sound Guardians" is a heavily distorted, dense arrangement of loud guitars and raging drums. Played through the Klipsch Synergy B-20 speakers and JoLida FX 10, there wasn't much of what could be called nuance or inner detail, but there was music: Violent, relentless cymbal bursts bled from the speakers, distorted power chords were produced with shape and meaning, and blistering leads sent me into a fit of air-guitar theatrics. The JoLida-Klipsch combo could certainly rock. The music nearly matched the brute force and impact of what we'd heard the night before at Lucky 7, but was so much more satisfying. However, this was not the rich, romantic sound so often associated with tubes; it was something far more literal and direct.

I asked JoLida's Michael Allen to tell me more about what had gone into the design of the FX 10. "We were trying to hit a number of objectives," he said: "low cost, small size, and decent sound. I think the most difficult part of the project was the small size. Low cost had its own challenges as well, in terms of selecting parts that were quality and met specification. In addition, since the unit had to be a lock-and-load, we put in [tube] auto-bias, which we do not particularly like since it reduces power and increases distortion."

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