Parasound Halo JC 3 phono preamplifier Brian Damkroger
Back in 2003, the Parasound Halo JC 1 monoblock power amplifier ($90000/pair) drew raves across the industry and set a new standard for design, construction quality, and performance at a reasonable price. In the February 2003 Stereophile, Michael Fremer noted that "if the Halo JC 1 committed any sonic errors, they were on the subtractive side and easily missed," and that he wasn't sure any amount of money would buy better performance or more listening pleasure. John Atkinson chimed in in his "Measurements" section, noting that the JC 1 "ranks up there with the best high-end heavyweights."
Next came the JC 2 line stage ($4000)another beautiful, well-designed, superbly built model. Sam Tellig spilled ink on the JC 2 in his December 2007 column: "The JC 2 . . . allows music to emerge intactwith body, bloom, and dynamics, with definition and detailfrom an utterly silent background." The ever-understated John Atkinson added, in his review in the March 2008 issue, that after auditioning the JC 2, all he could find to criticize was its remote control. He summed up his experience with the JC 2 in one word: "Awesome!!!"
Talk about bloodlines!
It would be pedigree enough to follow the Halo JC 1 and 2, but the JC 3 has a bloodline that extends back much further, to the dawn of the High End. In 1972, when Mark Levinson began to produce a line of ultimate home electronics, he turned to two brilliant young engineers: George Mayhew, for the ML-2 and ML-3 power amplifiers; and John Curl, for the JC-1 MC head-amp and JC-2 preamplifier. The resulting, stunning products set the audio world on its golden ear and legitimized, once and for all, the audiophile credentials of solid-state designs. Even today, nearly 40 years later, these four are among the most sought-after high-end products of all time.
The Mark Levinson JC-1 and JC-2 would have been more than enough to ensure John Curl's first-round induction into the High End's Hall of Fame, but they were only his first two strokes of lightning. In 1988, Vendetta Research introduced Curl's SCP-2 phono stage, an over-the-top, no-compromise design at the then unheard-of price of $1895, which had risen to $3000 by the time it went out of production, in 1992. Like the JC-1 and JC-2, the SCP-2 is revered and coveted to this day.
In his June 1988 review of the SCP-2, J. Gordon Holt noted that Curl had also "designed and built the electronics for Mobile Fidelity's SuperMaster and David Wilson's (of Wilson Audio) UltraMaster tape recorders, two of the three best analog recorders in the world. . . . Curl little comprehends the meaning of 'compromise.' His designs tend to be truly no-holds-barred, using the best components money can buy to produce the best sound and highest reliability the state of the art allows." From the curmudgeonly JGH, who himself abhorred compromise, this was high praise indeed.
No compromises for $2350?
As the Halo JC 1 monoblocks and Halo JC 2 line stage showed, Parasound has perfected the technique of executing John Curl's designs to a very high level without breaking the bankin high-end terms, at least. If not truly "no-compromise" designs, both the JC 1 and 2 are superb performers and astonishingly lavish in parts quality for their prices. Any compromises made in design or construction seem to have been cannily chosen to make little or no impact on the final products' sound.
The story of the Halo JC 3 is a little different. The original concept was for not a standalone model, but a small, separate circuit board nestled within the JC 2 line stage. This started the design effort down a path of tight constraints on size and cost, and resulted in Curl's not even considering using such things as discrete circuitsor even J-FETs, which can be expensive and hard to source in production quantities. This isn't to suggest that the JC 3 isn't a clever, even a brilliant design. It's just not, perhaps, the standalone phono stage that John Curl would have designed had that been his goal from the start.
The simplest way to describe the JC 3 is as a Vendetta SCP-2 executed with integrated rather than discrete circuits. The amplification section consists of two stages. The input stage is a linear-gain, low-noise IC, and no feedback is used. Also in the first stage, if you will, is the high-frequency portion of the RIAA equalization, which is done passively. According to Parasound's president, Richard Schram, "the passive EQ parts' values and quality are the same as in the original Vendetta [SCP-2]." The second stage consists of additional, symmetrical op-amps, with negative feedback surrounding them to accomplish the low-frequency portion of the RIAA equalization. FETs are used as constant-current sources to bias the op-amps in class-A; and, like the Vendetta SCP-2, the JC 3 is DC-coupled, using servos rather than coupling capacitors to eliminate any DC offset.
The JC 3 is a dual-mono design that starts with a power supply based on a huge R-core transformer, which is said to block AC noise better than a toroidal. Each channel's audio circuitry is completely separate and housed in its own internal chassis of extruded aluminum. The audio circuits are further isolated from the power supplies by thick partitions of mild steel within the massive aluminum chassisthe latter chosen because listening tests showed that aluminum sounded better than steel. FET followers are attached to each channel's circuit board to provide additional isolation from the power-supply voltage regulators.
As with the JC 1 and 2, the construction quality of the Halo JC 3 is first-rate. The stout, heavy chassis is beautifully finished, and the connectors are top-quality RCAs and XLRs from Vampire and Neutrik, respectively. This quality carries over to the circuitry, with a parts list that includes Vishay-Dale resistors and REL capacitors in all critical locations.
Setup & Listening
I installed the Halo JC 3 in my longtime reference system, where it traded off phono-preamplification duties with three Sutherland models: my PhD, the 20/20 I reviewed in the February 2011 Stereophile, and the newly arrived Phono Blocks (review forthcoming).
Operating the Halo JC 3 was simplicity itself, and it was absolutely bulletproof with respect to reliability. Rather than flipping DIP switches or changing cards to set the cartridge loading, the user is given three switch-selectable choices on the back panel: 100 or 47k ohms for moving-coil cartridges, each with 68dB of gain; and 47k ohms with 47dB for moving-magnets. I used 100 ohms for my Lyra Titan i and 47k ohms for my Grado Signature Referenceboth perfect matches. The JC 3 provides both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) outputs, but my Sutherland and Placette line stages have only unbalanced inputs. The other controls are a pushbutton for power (it glows a brighter blue when on) and one for mono, the latter changing from blue (stereo) to orange (mono).
One of the things that was so remarkable about the Vendetta SCP-2 phono stage was its complete and total silence in the absence of a signal. The Vendetta wasn't just quiet, or even really quietit was silent. And this at a time when many high-gain phono stages required one to shout over the hiss and tube rush. Most of today's electronics are pretty quiet, but even now, the JC 3 stands out by virtue of its total lack of any sort of background noise. Like the Vendetta, the JC 3 wasn't merely quiet, or even really, really quietit was silent, matching even the battery-powered Sutherland PhD in this regard.
Another notable characteristic of John Curl designs over the years, and one that turned up in spades in the Parasound Halo JC 1 monoblock and JC 2 line stage, has been an extraordinary clarity that carries with it a sense of openness and air. This was a strength of the Halo JC 3 as well. While listening to a recording of Dvorák's Piano Trio 3 in f, Op.65, by violinist David Oistrakh, cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitzky, and pianist Lev Oborin (LP, Monitor Collector's Series MCS 2071), I noted how clearly each instrument was rendered in three-dimensional space, and how open the spaces between instruments seemed to be. It was a combination, I think, of focused, tightly drawn images and a total lack of any sort of background grain or texture, and was definitely an aspect of the JC 3's sound that stood outin a good way.
The Parasound was a champ at re-creating, with no background grain or noise, the ambience of the original recording space. With live recordings, specific venues were distinct and very nicely portrayed. Symphony Hall in Chicago was itself, as were Carnegie Hall and San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. Small venues, whether a small jazz club or a corner coffeehouse, were equally well served. The wonderful open spaces between the images of the instruments were entirely coherent with one another, the space surrounding the orchestra or group, and even the spaces above and amid the members of the audience. In every case, the portrayal of the recorded acoustic was exquisitely detailed, though never overly or artificially so, and always nearly holographic in its solidity.
The JC 3 did a great job of reproducing fine-scale detail. All the little things we listen for in a recording were lovingly presented, be they bottles breaking offstage, or details of a pianist's fingers brushing and popping against the keys. The Dvorák piano trio was a great example of the latter. With the JC 3 I was much more aware of Oborin's playing, particularly the front end, so to speak: the details of his fingering, and of the hammers' initial impacts against the strings. If anything, the JC 3 ever so slightly overemphasized these sorts of details, and transient information in general, at the expense of instruments' bodies and harmonic structures. I jotted down that Oborin's piano was "all hands, keys, and hammers," and that I "wasn't as aware of the soundboard and the instrument's body" as I was with the Sutherland phono stages.
The Parasound's tonal balance also contributed to this detail-rich sound. Compared to the Sutherlands, or to my VTL or Mark Levinson power amps, the JC 3 had a slightly cool, polite tonal balance. It was quite extended at the very bottom, and taut and powerful across the low to midbass. In fact, its bottom end was so good that it tended to slightly overshadow the next region up, the "warmth" region, which spans the upper bass to the lower midrange. Transients in this range didn't seem quite as dynamic as those at the very bottom.
From the midrange through the uppermost treble, the JC 3 sounded completely neutral. Oborin's piano may have been all hands and keys, but it didn't sound at all hard or overemphasized. Notes rang true, and it sounded like a single, coherent instrument across its entire range. In a similar way, Oistrakh's violin was (from my notes) "head, shoulders, bow, and strings"but again, never hard or steely, no matter how strident or high the passage.
The JC 3's soundstage was nearly always superbhuge and open, with tightly focused, carefully drawn images. On rare occasions, however, images actually seemed too focusedor perhaps slightly too small. Oborin's piano in the Dvorák was an example: there were slight discontinuities between the piano, its immediate environment, and the overall soundstage. The ambience cues all suggested a large piano in a fairly large space, but the tonal balance of the piano and the actual size of its image suggested a smaller instrument. This situation didn't exist with recordings made in a single, natural space, but it popped up from time to time with multimiked studio recordings. Images would be exquisitely detailed and perfectly focused, but smaller and less reverberant than the ambience cues suggested.
While the JC 3 excelled at reproducing fine-scale details, such as scraping chairs or clarinet keys popping down onto the body, it didn't match the Sutherlands' handling of instruments' and voices' inner detail. Martin guitars sounded more like Martin guitars through the Sutherlands. Air moving through a clarinet, for example, or the blare of a trumpet, had a more complex inner structure with the Sutherlands. I'm not sure why the two types of detail differ, or why the JC 3 seemed to reproduce one better than the other, but they do, and it did.
Lest I get too wound up about minor differences in apparent instrument size and resolution of different types of detail: The Halo JC 3 did an outstanding job of re-creating a live performance in my listening room. I was listening, one evening, to The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Quartet LP, recorded at Miami's Airliner Lounge in September 1977. Through the JC 3, the performance was absolutely magical. Harold Danko's piano tinkled and danced perfectly, and Rufus Reid's bass was woody and bouncy, driving things along. Lewis's drumming was superb; when he brushed and rolled his cymbals, their hiss and shimmer filled the room like smoke, and the JC 3 absolutely nailed the feeling. Last but not least, Jones's cornet had exactly the kind of brassy boldness that the instrument has when heard liveany thoughts of "seams in the soundstage," "inner detail," or "reticent upper-bass regions" couldn't have been further from my mind.
The Halo JC 3 may not have turned in a true no-compromise performance, but it most definitely turned in a superb one. Another album that displayed all of its strengths was Chicago's II (LP, Columbia KGP 24). The bass guitar sounded deep and taut, actually seeming to gain strength the lower it wentand when it's echoed by a synthesizer on a couple of tracks, the two instruments were readily distinguishable, and the synth's weight and power were truly extraordinary. The reproduction of voices was pristine: each elementmouth, throat, chestwas distinct, and the recording space around the singer was clearly portrayed. The brasses were appropriately brassy, their timbres and images blooming nicely as the notes evolved. About the only area where the JC 3's pristine demeanor wasn't optimal was Danny Seraphine's drums; they sounded a little too polite, and lacked a bit of punch and drive. Still, it was a truly amazing performance, especially given the original design constraints and production realities of combining top-notch circuitry and over-the-top parts in a gorgeous box, all for $2350.
Compared with the Sutherland 20/20
Having reviewed the similarly priced Sutherland 20/20 ($2200) in the February 2011 issue, I thought it only natural to spend a few minutes comparing its performance with that of the Halo JC 3, and Chicago II provided an excellent vehicle. In a nutshell, the JC 3 sounded cleaner, cooler, and faster. Its low bass was tauter and more powerful, and images were smaller, more sharply bounded, and rendered with a finer level of detail. Spaces between images were also clearer and more open with the Parasound.
Conversely, the 20/20 was harmonically richer, tonally slightly warmer, more dynamic, and had a better sense of pace and drive. Instruments sounded more like themselves through the Sutherland, vs a bit too light and airy through the JC 3. As mentioned, the 20/20 did a better job with inner detail, or the tonal colors and textures within a single instrument or voice; the JC 3 got the nod in terms of fine-level spatial details and holographic ambience retrieval. The JC 3's portrayal was painted with a slightly finer brush; the 20/20's palette was richer and more vivid.
Ultimately, I preferred the Sutherland 20/20's richness to the Halo JC 3's detail and airy openness, but that's more about my tastes and musical preferences than any sort of quality assessment or value judgment. I could easily live with either model, and seriously doubt I'd find anything I liked more without spending a lot more money.
Compromise? What compromise?
Parasound's Halo JC 3 may have begun life as a plug-in board for the Halo JC 2 line stage, but it has evolved into a pretty damn fine phono stage, particularly given its construction quality and price. Unabashedly based on John Curl's original Vendetta Research phono stagea fine provenanceit sonically resembles the SCP-2 a great deal. Its incredible clarity and resolution of detail give it a wonderfully airy and pristine character. It's superb at both frequency extremes, and tonally it's as close to neutral as any component I've heard. It lacks the tonal richness of some components and, to some ears, live performances, but this shortfall is small. If your tastes run to purity, clarity, neutrality, and detail, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better phono stage for anywhere near $2350. Highly recommended!Brian Damkroger