October 2000JoLida JD-302B Integrated Amplifier
by John Potis
I guarantee that a conversation with Michael Allen, president of JoLida, will be a refreshing one. When was the last time you talked to the president of an audio company who didnt go on and on about how his company makes the best products on the planet? Or one who admitted that he's not in competition with the established leaders in the industry for making the best product you can buy? What would you say when he admitted that even if he was in competition with the likes of Conrad-Johnson, he probably couldnt build a product as good anyway? If you are like me, you would probably think that you were in the company of a man suffering from no delusions of grandeur and one who pretty much tells it like it is -- even if in the end he sells himself (and his company) a bit short.
And what would you say when he told you, only half joking, that his company's design philosophy is "Dont scare the straights"? Well, if you are aware that the majority of the equipment-buying public out there is not made up of rabid audiophiles, you will still understand that these people want to buy the best-sounding gear that they can afford and then forget about the equipment and get on with the music. And if you've heard the stories of companies trying to push the envelope in amplifier design only to put out a product that proves to be unstable and problematic, you would have an idea about what it is that scares the bejeezus out of "the straights." Michael Allen wants you to know that JoLida's design philosophy boils down to a desire to put out conservatively designed products that perform better than the mass-market solid-state gear and will do so in a trouble-free way -- for years. Thus, JoLida's target customers are those who are looking to buy something better than the solid-state receivers they can find at the corner electronics hut but dont have the desire to take out a second mortgage to do so. And hopefully they want to experience some of the magic that comes with tube gear.
Fall in for inspection
The first time I saw a JoLida product in my local high-end store, I was intrigued by what the company was trying to do. But I was a little underwhelmed by what I saw in the way of build quality. An unimpressive painted gray finish on the front and rather flimsy binding posts in the rear left me in doubt about that which I couldn't see. If nothing else, JoLida has moved to beef up their first impression. The newer JoLida line sports the sharp look of brushed aluminum or, as in the case of the JD-302B under review, the rich look of gold that belies its modest asking price. Gone are the flimsy plastic binding posts still found on more costly gear from other companies. Find in their stead knurled gold-plated five-way posts. You even get a sharp matte-black transformer cover trimmed in gold finish, a very nice touch. All in all, the JD-302B is an inspiringly classy-looking piece, if you ask me, and one that seems impressively put together and much more solid than the price would suggest. JoLida wants you to know that in order to hold down the price of the JD-302B, much of the units assembly is completed in China (at a substantial savings in labor), but final and crucial assembly is completed stateside.
Of course, people dont buy tube gear for the chassis; its the lure of the luminescent orbs that they seek. Sitting in all their glory are two matched pairs of 6CA7/EL34 output tubes, two 12AT7 power drive tubes, and two 12AX7 tubes for the preamplifier section. Ill make no comment about the tube compliment because (A) Ive not spent the time comparing all the different tubes available, and (B) its not hard to look around and find excellent-sounding products using a multitude of different tubes, which says to me that as important as tube selection is the implementation.
JoLida specs the JD-302B as having an output of 50Wpc at 8 ohms, 25Hz to 70kHz, and a frequency response at 1 watt into 8 ohms of 8Hz to 130kHz +/-1dB. They also specify a maximum power output of 75Wpc at 8 ohms and 1kHz. Input impedance is 100k ohms, and input sensitivity is 500mV at 1kHz and 8 ohms for 50Wpc output. Noise and hum are said to be 85dB below rated output. Dimensions are 17" wide by 15" deep by 7.5" high. Weight is a hefty 39 pounds. Interestingly, the non-remote-controlled JD-302B sports four line-level inputs, one of which is labeled Tape, but the unit does not provide a tape-monitor loop or record outputs.
The source used in the review was exclusively JoLidas own JD-603A tube CD player. After using it in a number systems over the past months, Im more than comfortable with the quality of this CD player. Amplifiers were Odyssey Audios Stratos and Conrad-Johnsons MV100. Preamps were Conrad-Johnsons PV12A and the Classé Model 5. Speakers included Ohm Walsh 4 and 300 Mk II, Silverlines Sonatina and SR17, WalkAllen Taos, Tyler Acoustics Taylo Reference Monitor, and the Reimer McCullough. Speaker cables and interconnects were Barracudas from Custom House.
Context for the review of the JoLida integrated is a little difficult to find. An integrated amp retailing for $950 isnt too hard to find, but one using tubes? Just about impossible. And if you want to break the JD-302B into its parts, a tube preamplifier and a tube power amplifier, it gets even more difficult. I dont know of any $500 tube preamplifiers, and I cant think of any $500 tube power amplifiers either. So the JoLida JD-302B was going to have to go head to head with what I had in the house -- systems priced four and five times its price. No doubt about it, the JD-302B was going to have an uphill battle. Or was it?
It is a generally held axiom that, watt for watt, tube gear sounds more powerful than transistor. This is probably because of the way tube equipment overloads. Rather than the hard-distorted "clip" of transistors, tubes have a much more graceful and less deleterious effect on the sound when driven beyond their means. However, its also generally accepted that a tube amp will not deliver the current required to grab the bull by the horns and deliver powerful, punchy and robust bass performance with a large floorstanding speaker.
Rarely did I feel restricted by the JD-302Bs modest power output, but the unit had more than it could handle when I tried it on the Ohm Walsh 300 Mk IIs and Walsh 4s. With the speakers connected to the amps 4-ohm taps, the amp did a remarkable job controlling the speakers woofers, so bass was acceptably robust and controlled. However, with both speakers, both micro- and macrodynamic swings were curtailed. Not only was ultimate loudness restrained, but also transients lost some of their delineation, and the sound became a little bland. Even the Silverline Sonatinas sounded a tad bit slow, a little less "solid" than with the solid-state amps I have around the house. Imaging, too, was disappointing. For example, listening to Pink Floyds A Momentary Lapse of Reason [CK 40599] and switching amplifiers proved just how transparent the Sonatinas are and how greatly influenced their performance is by the electronics used. "Learning to Fly," though gracefully reproduced via the JoLida integrated, took on a very different sound once I substituted the Classé 5 preamp and CJ MV100 into the system. While the JoLida integrated had produced fairly good punch, the new electronics resolved the bass lines in a more musical and tuneful way. Flim and the BBs Tricycle [DMP Gold-9000] showed off the slowness I mentioned when it came to reproducing the artificial nature of the music and its almost supernatural transients and overly crisp percussion. The transients just dont snap like those of the Classé 5/Odyssey Audio Stratos combo. On the other hand, only in direct comparison did the JD-302B really suffer. It was not so slow or ill defined that it made listening unenjoyable. But the piano on the opening cut of Tricycle didnt have the same ring that the CJ amp gave it -- the latter being a more tonally accurate and honest rendition.
On the other hand, with the Sonatinas, acoustic music such as Larry Carltons Alone But Never Alone [MCA MCAD5689 SAN443] demonstrated excellent tonal balance and color. But here Carltons guitar sometimes seemed larger than life, a not altogether unpleasant thing. But when I swapped out the JoLida integrated and inserted the Classé/CJ combo, the image became more solid and stable, making that of the JoLida sound more ethereal by comparison.
Before I lose you here, let me tell you that what I eventually found was that with the right choice of speakers, the JoLida integrated came dangerously close to the performance of my own gear, and the Ohms and the Sonatinas just proved to be poor choices. I cant say that these speakers outclassed the JoLida, and I wont say that the JoLida JD-302B deserves only speakers of its socioeconomic ilk (i.e., budget speakers). No, not at all. As a matter of fact, when presented with a slew of other very fine speakers the JoLida integrated surprised me with its musical prowess. When things clicked, it actually sounded much like my Conrad-Johnson PV12A/MV100 combo. The two systems had a very similar tonal balance and similar imaging and soundstaging properties. There were times when, deeply immersed into a listening session, the JD-302B allowed me to confuse which system I was actually listening to! If you are looking for a tube amplifier that is going to impart a stereotypical tubelike (read "euphonic") signature on everything, the JoLida is not your amp. What the makers of the best tube and solid-stage gear probably dont want you to know is that their best respective products have become remarkably similar. No longer does the best tube gear sound soft and euphonic anymore than the best solid-state gear sounds hard and bright. In fact, my Conrad-Johnson electronics sound less classically tubelike than my Classé gear. Where the Classé is decidedly sweet and a little dark, the JoLida JD-302B and the CJ combo sounds lively and, by direct comparison, a little bright.
What I liked about the JoLida integrated is that it allowed the best attributes of each speaker I used to come shining through. Toward the end of the review period I received a pair of Silverline SR17 monitors. While Alan Yun of Silverline will tell you that the SR17 is very critical of what precedes it in the chain (and it is), the fact is that the speakers got along very well with the JoLida JD-302B -- much better than the Sonatinas did. In his review of the SR17, fellow Soundstage! writer Mike Masztal made a lot of the speakers ability to resolve recorded space, and he sure got that right. Ambience recovery was terrific with the Silverline/JoLida pair. The rim-shots on Supertramps "Its A Hard World" from Some Things Never Change [Oxygen/Silvercab 63245-90002-2] are followed with a reverberation that explodes from center stage and quickly spreads outward to the right and left, then quickly and smoothly decays to nothing. This is exactly what I heard. Bass lines were tight and punchy, and vocals, another forte of the SR17, were clean, delineated and natural with nary a hint of chestiness or other tonal aberration. Switching to the Tyler Acoustics Taylo Monitors revealed a hint of midrange coloration not present on the SR17s and the rim-shot didnt quite image in the same way -- the sound losing some of the dimensionality observed on the SR17s presentation. The reverb was restricted more to the sides where the SR17 presented it with greater height. Decay was not as resolved as with the SR17s either. The point here is that the resolving power of the JoLida JD-302B is on par with that of some very fine minimonitors and the integrated has no overriding character that it superimposes on the music.
Over both the Taylo Monitors and the SR17s, Roy Gaines rendition of "T-Bone Shuffle" from I Got The T-Bone Walker Blues [Groove Note GRV2002-2] exhibited acoustic bass lines that were resonant and detailed. Soundstaging was almost holographic. Though most of the musicians are lined up across the stage, the keyboards are clearly and realistically portrayed to the left rear. Gaines and his guitar are dead center and in the same plane. Horns, in the same plane as Gaines, are presented to the right of the stage. The drums are almost directly behind Gaines but just to the right on the stage, seemingly not as far back as the keyboards. The brushed snare on "Dreamgirl" sounded like a brushed snare instead of the white noise one may expect to observe from an amp in the price range of the JoLida. The tone of Gaines' guitar was presented in its entire splendor. I cant say for sure which guitar hes playing, but it was reproduced with enough clarity that I can pretty much assure you that its a hollow-body electric along the lines of a Gibson ES335. The tone was deep and rich and unmistakably Gibson.
Now in the mood for some ES335 magic, I cued up Larry Carltons "For Love Alone" from his 1980 recording Strikes Twice [MCAD-42246]. Unable to make a silk purse out of a sows ear, the JoLida JD-302B served up some of the worst recorded drums in my entire music collection. Fortunately, Carlton got the recording of the Gibson right, and I soon had shivers going up my spine. The recordings more diffuse presentation of the guitar absolutely filled the air, and I doubt Carlton has ever sounded better in my home. Without a doubt, with the right pair of speakers, the JoLida JD-302B sure gets the midrange right! And much more too.
Im glad I had the opportunity to bring a piece of JoLida equipment into my home. Every once in a while I need a reminder that price is not always indicative of quality. There is absolutely nothing about the JD-302B that would tip anybody off that its an integrated amplifier that retails for less than a kilobuck. Nothing. Build quality is very good, and I personally give the JD-320B high marks for aesthetics and style. Most importantly, once mated with complimentary and synergistic components and speakers the JoLida JD-302B is capable of making real music. It may not be the amp for all systems or all rooms, but what amp is? Accomplishing real music in the home is always a matter of bringing together carefully chosen and meticulously set up components.
Keeping in mind JoLidas stated design goals and considering the ridiculously low price tag, I would call the JD-302B an unqualified success. If there is any product of its type at or around its price class I dont know of it. More importantly, though, the performance transcends the modest price. The JD-302B is not just a good budget amplifier -- its a good amplifier period. People looking to spend twice the price should at least take a good listen to the JoLida JD-302B first. They may find differences, but then the question becomes about whether or not the differences are musically important enough to justify the additional expenditure. I know I could build a really nice system around the JoLida JD-302B, and so can you.
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