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Equipment Review
March 1998

Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III Linestage and VZN-80 Mk III Amplifier

by Marc Mickelson

Is there another high-tech industry like high-end audio? I can’t think of any other group of manufacturers so dominated by small companies, some of which are run completely out of people’s homes. Everyone who follows the sometimes-crazy audiophile avocation knows who the big companies are, but for every one of the biggies, there are dozens of "smallies"—companies with limited product lines and perhaps a handful of employees making equipment that rivals and even betters that of the industry giants. Joule Electra is such a company. Run by the husband-and-wife team of Jud and Marianne Barber, Joule Electra has been making products that can legitimately be called original, even among the large faction of high-end manufacturers whose designs employ vacuum tubes.

What makes Joule Electra products so special? First, the use of the Mu-follower circuit runs like a thread through all of Joule Electra’s designs, from amplifier to preamplifier to outboard phonostage. Each uses this 40-year-old circuit topology to achieve its particular sonic criteria. In addition, Joule Electra amplifiers are output-transformerless designs, which are not unique but are rather rare—even missing completely among the products that Audio Research and conrad-johnson produce. Furthermore, Jud Barber knows his tubes and uses only the best ones he can find, which happen to be of the NOS variety. While other manufacturers shy away from NOS tubes because of their limited availability, Barber stockpiles the tubes he likes so that he’ll have enough for his equipment. Smart.

Esoteric designs and parts, however, do not necessarily translate into better-sounding products, or every manufacturer would be following the same formula. The two Joule Electra products that I’ve been living with, the LA-100 Mk III linestage and VZN-80 Mk III amplifier, do sound very impressive by themselves, but when they’re used together, they really make me think that Jud Barber is onto something big himself.

Both Systems Go

I used the LA-100 Mk III and VZN-80 Mk III in my two systems and thus with a wide variety of ancillary components. In the more budget-minded system, the Joule Electra linestage and amp made music with a pair of Merlin TSM speakers, which sat atop sand-filled Osiris Audionics Osiris speaker stands. The source component was a CAL DX-2 CD player, and all cables were from DH Labs. In the reference system, the Joule Electra gear was used along with a pair of ProAc Response Four speakers, with a Timbre TT-1 DAC and Wadia 20 transport providing the digital signal. Cables were the JPS Labs Superconductors and Superconductor 2s, the Audio Magic Tubed Interconnect, and a Marigo Apparition Reference Series 3A coaxial digital cable. Power cords were from JPS Labs and Audio Power Industries. For comparison, I also had on hand Lamm M1.1, Clayton M-70 and Mesa Baron amplifiers, along with CAT SL-1 Signature and Lamm L1 linestages. The linestages and DAC were plugged straight into the wall, while the amps, transport, and Tubed Interconnect were all plugged into a Marigo RMX Reference AC Distribution Center, which provides only minimal filtering via its captive RMX Reference Ultra power cord.

Linestage Lineup

The LA-100 Mk III is reasonably straightforward to use. It has four knobs and a single push-button switch on its front panel, and these control all modes of operation. About the trickiest part of using the LA-100 Mk III is controlling the volume, which is done via a pair of pots that move in unison when the leftmost one is turned. If you need to change the channel balance, you simply turn one of the controls while you hold the other stationary, thus increasing or decreasing the volume in one channel. This allows very precise control of the balance, something that I found especially useful as I worked my way through my CD collection, discovering along the way that some of my favorites needed just a hint of adjustment.

The LA-100 Mk III uses six tubes: a single 5751 and 6350, and pairs of OA2 and 6EM7 tubes. Jud Barber estimates that a set of tubes should last at least five years, a very generous amount of time. Replacement sets currently cost $120, $20 per tested and graded tube. The LA-100 Mk III includes four sets of single-ended inputs and two sets of single-ended outputs. It has an IEC receptacle that’s ready for your favorite add-on power cord (in my case, an API Power Link). Perhaps because the circuit board of the LA-100 Mk III is isolated via Joule Electra’s proprietary Tri-flex suspension system, I found that a trio of Black Diamond Racing cones had no effect on LA-100 Mk III’s sound.

While in use, the LA-100 Mk III was nothing short of mechanically perfect—no component-matching hiccups or coughs to deal with. I was initially worried that I’d only be able to use the LA-100 Mk III along with its mate because the linestage has exceptionally low output voltage, a mere 8dB. This proved to be more scare than reality, as the LA-100 Mk III worked superbly with all of the amps I had around at the time.

What struck me immediately about the LA-100 Mk III’s sound was something I’m not used to noticing about a tube linestage—its bass, which was deep and weighty. I immediately pulled out the Neville Brothers’ Family Groove (A&M 75021 5384 2) to further test the Joule Electra linestage’s bass. The punchy bass line on "Day to Day Thing" was, uh, punchy, and with "Red Barchetta" playing, from the remastered version of Rush’s Moving Pictures (Mercury 314 535 631-2), the effect was the same: plenty o’ whomp. The LA-100 Mk III has a more prominent midbass than, say, the Lamm L1, and this is partly attributable for the perceived power of its low end. But I certainly wouldn’t call the LA-100 Mk III’s bass tubey—it doesn’t get noticeably diffuse and lose impact as it extends. Instead, it kicks, and I had a lot of fun gettin’ down while I had the LA-100 Mk III in use.

The Joule Electra linestage also does right by the other extreme. Its treble is very clear, lending a welcome sheen to cymbals and a snap to transients, which are noticeably percussive. Keith Richards’ Main Offender turned out to be one of the most impressive demo discs with the LA-100 Mk III—a matter of strength complimenting strength. Main Offender has powerful bass and drums that have pop—the same sort of immediate attack they have in real life. On "Runnin’ Too Deep," the electric guitar enters in the left channel after about 40 seconds, and it has happened a few times that the first chord startles me with its speed and immediacy. This happened with the LA-100 Mk III. Although the treble of the LA-100 Mk III is not as exceeding natural and refined as that of the Lamm L1, it is notably free of grain, and this is a real achievement in my eyes (and ears) because the LA-100 Mk III costs less than half the price of the Lamm unit.

A more similar comrade in sound to the LA-100 Mk III is the CAT SL-1 Signature. The CAT that I had was essentially a Signature Mk II with NOS tubes, but to be fair, the new Mk III CAT is supposed to sound better and be much quieter due to a switch in line-stage tubes. Both the CAT and LA-100 Mk III have extended and lilting treble, but the CAT’s was slightly more airy and ethereal than that of the LA-100 Mk III, which has greater solidity and presence—cymbals, once again, displaying more of the sound of the stick hitting them. Both have a beautiful midrange that portrays voices with body and ample sweetness, the CAT’s being a bit more transparent. The CAT’s bass was not as powerful as that of the LA-100 Mk III, nor was it quite as defined.

Talk about your nits to pick! Once a piece of equipment reaches the level of performance offered by the Lamm L1, CAT SL-1 Signature, and Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III, personal preference plays a bigger role in determining the best unit than any obvious differences in sound, at least that’s what the reviewer in me says. The workin’ man in me (with apologies to SoundStager Dave Duvall, the original workin’ man) notices that the Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III, at $3295, costs far less than either the Lamm L1 ($6990) or CAT SL-1 Signature ($5500), making it the bargain of the group. And even the reviewer in me can’t argue with that.

Amp on Parade

The Joule Electra VZN-80 Mk III amplifier is strikingly beautiful, with its acrylic top plate and octet of 6C33C tubes. It’s also rather large, taking up two Bright Star Big Rock bases for the main unit alone. The amplifier comes with its own variac for dialing in the correct voltage for the tubes. Thus, turning the amp on is a simple matter of turning the knob on the variac up slowly to the designated point on the dial (86 volts, which is marked by a stick-on "bump" that prevents dialing in anything higher) and then waiting an hour or so for the tubes to stabilize. Of course, the variac allows precise control of the line voltage, so you won’t have to worry as much about slight fluctuations, which are commonplace, causing the tubes’ bias to drift. The VZN-80 Mk III is costly to retube: $40 for each 6C33C output tube and $20 for each small-signal tube. Luckily, the tubes should last a good long time, five years or more with proper adherence to the slow start-up sequence. The VZN-80 Mk III runs rather hot—it has eight big output tubes on top—and draws 500 watts of power. If you live in a cold-weather area, this may be the perfect amplifier and room heater for you.

In terms of sound, I was even more impressed with the VZN-80 Mk III amplifier than I was with the LA-100 Mk III linestage. It’s in the top two or three of tube-based designs that I’ve heard and does a few things that are rather rare for any amplifier. The sense of air and space that the VZN-80 Mk III portrays is dazzling. I first used the Joule Electra amp and linestage with a pair of Merlin TSM stand-mounted speakers, and I was delighted with the sound. More than with any other combination of electronics, the TSMs absolutely disappeared with the Joule Electra gear—but they left in their place a completely layered and populated soundstage. A non-audiophile who visited me heard the system and remarked, "I can really hear everything, but it sure doesn’t sound like it’s coming from those speakers." And he was right. The Joule Electra/Merlin combination had wowed another listener, this time outside a hi-fi show.

Perhaps along with the amount of elbow room the VZN-80 Mk III portrays is the amp’s wonderfully articulate and resolving midrange. Voices are more separate from the instruments around them and from the other voices. A good example of this is "Western Sky" from Freedy Johnston’s Never Home (Elektra 61920-2). The gently strummed guitars are distinctly up front, Johnston’s voice is centered and way back, and everything else is clearly in between. I know exactly what I was thinking as I sat in the dark and listened because I wrote only one phrase in my notes: "Gorgeous sound." And the uncongested nature of the midrange was noticeable on every recording, so the bad news for Freedy Johnston is that Never Home is nothing special (in terms of recording quality, that is).

When I put the VZN-80 Mk III on my reference ProAc Response Four speakers, I was even more impressed—and a bit baffled. The space and air were still there, but these were joined by an increased sense of speed and a compelling lack of grain, glare, or hardness. I’m sure these attributes were there with the Merlin TSMs too, but I just didn’t notice them, perhaps because I listen more often to my reference system and the ProAc Response Fours. I immediately pulled out Parker’s Mood (Verve 314 527 907-2), a collection of tunes played by "The Roy Hargrove/Christian McBride/Stephen Scott Trio" in tribute to Bird’s compositional and recording legacy. On "Marmaduke," Hargrove’s muted trumpet entered in a flash—I half expected to see atoms crackling in the air—and then exited with an amount of decay that I just wasn’t used to hearing. Impressive. So I then pulled out Roseanne Cash’s 10 Song Demo (Capitol CDP 7243 8 32390 2 3), thinking that any amp as fast as the VZN-80 Mk III would definitely stumble on a CD as forward as 10 Song Demo. Not so. Cash’s voice, which with lesser gear can really get on my nerves, was settled between the big ProAcs and four feet back, as though Cash were sitting on my equipment racks. And to hear something like this—no straining or mental justification required—made the whole high-end thing come into clearer view. This was what it’s all about—instant connection with the music.

I continued, throwing on disc after disc, but it became fruitless after the first dozen or so to continue looking for a chink in the VZN-80 Mk III’s armor. Nothing could trip it up, not Todd Snider’s chalky Songs from the Daily Planet (MCA MCAD-11067), not even Wayne Kramer’s thin and screechy The Hard Stuff (Epitaph 86447-2). Nothing could rattle the VZN-80 Mk III’s rare combination of speed and purity, so I just gave in and forgot about reviewing for a few nights and listened for pleasure instead. In particular, the VZN-80 Mk III brought to life acoustic music recorded in smaller, more intimate venues. My favorite cuts on the Columbia Records Radio Hour, Volume 1 sampler (Columbia CK 66466) are those by James McMurtry, a master storyteller. At the beginning of "Safeside," McMurtry introduces Jules Shear and his "magic shaker." There’s a bit of banter, then a quick pause. McMurtry’s guitar enters, then Shear on the shaker, and then McMurtry’s voice. All were put into high relief with the VZN-80 Mk III in the system because they each began in such a real manner, with great speed and clarity. And as McMurtry and Shear sang the chorus, their voices were very distinct—as were the guitar and shaker. I didn’t have to imagine to "see" McMurtry and Shear there, sitting on stools perhaps, with the audience around them. I felt like part of the audience.

If the VZN-80 Mk III can be improved noticeably in any way it would be in the bass, which isn’t particularly deep by solid-state standards, but is articulate and expressive nonetheless—rather like the amplifier’s midrange in a general sense. The bit of added weight in the midbass of the LA-100 Mk III is absent from the VZN-80 Mk III, so listeners may think that the amp is bass shy, even when compared to other tube amps. This is not true, but it is understandable. Trust me on this one: The VZN-80 Mk III has nimble bass that’s not overblown or additive. If you find that some tube amps of similar power have more prominent bass, realize that you may be hearing a coloration, pleasing though it may be, and not the musical truth.

To say the least, I was impressed by the Joule Electra VZN-80 Mk III amplifier. Its spacious and airy soundstage made the other gear disappear more readily, and its overall speed and pure treble are a very rare combination. Some of you are perhaps waiting for me to speculate on how much of the VZN-80 Mk III’s sonic goody-bag is attributable to its OTL status. I haven’t heard another OTL amp for comparison, so I can’t say if the VZN-80 Mk III is a typical OTL design or not. But whatever the case may be, the VZN-80 Mk III is a fabulous amplifier, one I’ll remember long after it’s gone.

All Together Now

The Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III linestage and VZN-80 Mk III amplifier share some family resemblance, but they are ultimately their own products with their own sets of sonic strengths—and they have many. When they are used together, however, they eclipse the performance of either used alone, creating a full and wide presentation from top to bottom. They have clean highs, transient speed, an uncongested midrange, and bass that’s resolving and reasonably weighty—quite a shopping list. I was never less than delighted with the sound the combination helped produce, even with the wide array of ancillary equipment used.

Two recordings that sounded especially impressive with the Joule Electra gear in the system were both live efforts, Victoria Williams’ This Moment in Toronto (Mammoth/Atlantic 92642-2) and Phish’s A Live One (Elektra 61777-2). I’m a Victoria Williams fan—there’s just something about her smiling voice that makes me feel good—but I can’t say that I’m a Phish-head yet, although each time I hear A Live One, I admire the way the group improvises as one, as though each of the members knows exactly what the others will do. The Victoria Williams CD was recorded in a small-to-medium-sized hall (the Bathurst Street Theatre in Toronto), while it’s clear that A Live One takes place in a much larger space—the great outdoors (it was recorded at The Clifford Ball, Plattsburgh Air Force Base, Plattsburgh, New York). The Joule Electra gear gets so far inside these recordings that their venues and performances come alive. I easily followed Williams’ poignant and often funny story-songs, while with Phish it was easy to revel in their joyous invention—one of cuts is over 30 minutes long but seems to go by in an instant. Yes, it’s the music that matters, but it’s the equipment that often reminds us of this.

Livin’ Large

The Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III and VZN-80 Mk III are in the high end of high-end components, capable of drawing you into the music as few others can. They have very distinct and impressive sonic virtues by themselves, but when they’re used together, they really shine, surpassing either when used alone. Were they engineered to be used in tandem? I think not—they work so well on their own. I would speculate, instead, that their obvious synergy comes not from any predetermined set of sonic parameters but from the designer himself. Jud Barber designs by ear, and if his products are any indication, he’s a careful listener.

When we at SoundStage! were only beginning to talk with Joule Electra about a possible review, I mentioned to Jud Barber that I’d heard about his products through a number of channels, and that they seemed to have an almost mythic quality—a brand that many audiophiles had heard of but few had actually heard. Well, the cat’s now out of the bag. Joule Electra may be a small company, but it makes big-time equipment.

...Marc Mickelson
marc@soundstage.com

Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III Linestage and VZN-80 Mk III Amplifier
Prices:
  • LA-100 Mk III linestage, $3295 USD, extra options available
  • VZN-80 Mk III amplifier, $6595 USD.

Joule Electra
222 Post Oak Lane
North Augusta, SC 29841
Phone: 803-279-6959
Fax: 803-279-6461

Email: info@joule-electra.com
Website: www.joule-electra.com

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