The word JCAT is not exactly a household name, but it is rather well known among the hard-core group of audiophiles who are both feet into computer audio. JCAT represents a system of audio hardware that are meant to advance the science and art of music played through the computer. Perhaps it would ring more bells if it was explained that JCAT is the brainchild of the same enthusiasts who have brought JPLAY into the world, which is computer audio playback software designed to play music files as optimized as possible within the Windows operating system environment. The products under review here include the JCAT USB card, battery power supply, and USB cable. The test bed is the CAPS v3 Micro Zuma with HDPlex linear power supply, providing the bits to the excellent-sounding Eastern Electric MinimaxPlus DAC modified with DEXA discrete Op-Amps in all positions.
JCAT USB Card Before The Fun
Why on earth would anyone do this and not leave well enough alone, and how could a mere PCI-E host controller make any sonic difference anyway? Fortunately or unfortunately, the Renesas driver was the preferred choice for sonic reasons in this reviewer's system, and the fact the driver is free somewhat makes up for the extra effort involved. The degree of sonic difference was not dramatic or mind-blowing, but it was noticeable and worthwhile, clocking in at somewhere around the 5 to 10 percent range like many computer software and hardware changes tend to produce.
Renesas driver could be described as revealing a little more vibrancy and texture in the instruments and vocals. Vibrancy is brought to fore by allowing the musical colors to become a bit more saturated and fresh, akin to a red sports car that was just washed five minutes ago versus one day prior. Both look great, but the one just washed is more vibrant-looking. Perhaps because of this effect, textures and closely mic'ed lip-smacking sounds come across clearer and freer. In this system, the Renesas driver added just a smidge more reality to the musical proceedings and is recommended to try for the end user.
The System Approach
The calling card of the JCAT combo seems to be solidity of musicians set against a jet-back background, combined with very high overall resolution. While there was plenty of warmth and the desired "analogue" feel richly inhabiting the room, what the JCAT combo did better than others was to present a very high degree of musical details, not in the sense of certain frequencies being accentuated but in the way vibrations and textures of instruments jumping off the musicians into the room with startling speed and urgency. This is a very dynamic combo that throws a bouquet of colors and rhythm right to the listener without brakes or filters in the way. The attack of notes including drums can be so explosive and impactful; it was difficult to believe how the same combo delivered the full measure of crooning, subtlety, and deep warmth when such music called for it.
Experimenting with different USB cables, the JCAT USB cable especially seems to possess tremendous "pop" and rhythmic drive, bringing life and forward energy to rock, pop, and dance music. This cable also delivers "pop" and vibrancy to upper-midrange/midrange area, and since the combination of well-filtered USB cards and battery power supplies tend to enhance calmness, smoothness, and liquidity, the high level of vibrancy provided by the JCAT USB cable actually synergized exceptionally well in this scenario. High jump factor would mean very little if the Deep Tone was missing, and the JCAT combo dug deep, very deep, into the tonal verisimilitudes, to the level this author did not think was possible out of digital medium or computers just several years prior. This is the sound almost completely opposite to the "digital sound" one thinks of when remembering the 80's and 90's when CD players came and took over the market, giving the world the ubiquitous digital sound that, in hindsight, was granular, chalky, with chromed outlines filled with pale colors just hinting at the real thing at best. At their worst, especially when someone tried to lift the rooftop off with early solid-state gear and speakers with early metal domes, the result was often rock-hard tension in the shoulders, tightly grimaced teeth, and the eventual headache along with the desire to go get some vinyl.
One of the nice features of JCAT USB card is its ability to engage or disengage the internal power filter for the 5V USB output. This is easily done by moving a jumper on the card to either "Filter" or "No filter," and since there are two USB ports provided, one can engage the filter on one USB port and off for the other port, allowing the user to easily try both and pick the one that fits better with a given system configuration.
Today, with the aid of well-designed asynchronous USB DAC's not dependent on the digital source for the all-important clock information, more and more audiophiles are able to assemble computer sources with various software and hardware tweaks to achieve a sound that bears more than a fleeting resemblance to high-end vinyl or even reel-to-reel sources, with the overall gestalt built from ground up on solid, warm foundation, giving rise to tonal and textural involvement that belies the format. The JCAT combination belongs in this rarified category of musical reproducers, as they produce the most "analogue" sound using the most "digital" parts and software one could imagine.
A Word About JCAB USB Cable
On its face, the materials utilized do not seem all that fancy in audiophile terms, as it uses multi-core, multi-stranded silver-plated copper conductors in Teflon dielectric. The build quality is very high with solid aluminum USB connectors and immaculate fit-and-finish, but certain audiophiles may have preconceived notions regarding silver-plated copper conductors and may demand pure silver or perhaps even UPOCC (Ultra-Pure Ohno Continuous Cast) silver. While such worries may be justified when used in analogue interconnects, when digital data is transferred over USB 2.0 protocol at maximum of 480 Mbits/sec, it is not the same thing. The JCAT USB cable presents music in a highly detailed, robust, dynamic, and involving manner. This is not one of those delicate, ethereal-sounding cables that have anemic foundation and water-color type of editorialization. Images are center-of-earth solid and dense while not miniaturized or overblown in size. Performers occupy space in a 3-D manner, with image size that falls somewhere between the Wireworld Platinum Starlight 7.0 pure-silver USB cable and Cardas Clear all-copper USB cable which has the largest image size.
The top-of-the-line Wireworld probably has the most obvious top-end "air," similar to how pure-silver cables tend to have, but the JCAT fights back with more apparent detail in the midrange and more punchy dynamics. Cardas has more of a rounder, smoother, yet rich gestalt, which can be quite pleasant, but JCAT simply sounds more resolved and dynamic. Some older recordings or those mastered a bit hot, e.g. some of RVG Jazz remasters, can come across a bit unforgiving via JCAT USB cable, but no one fixed system will serve all recording variables equally well.
Enter TheJCAT Battery Power
The magnitude of sonic improvements from powering USB audio cards like JCAT should not be underestimated. The sound without the battery power supply was very nice. The sound was already warm, clean and musical without obvious digital brightness or haze. However, once the battery took over the juice delivery, it was like one's eyeglasses were updated with new prescription. Image outlines snapped into focus with more density and palpability to musicians, and the already-low noise must have dropped further because there was simply much more clarity, resolution, and vibrancy. Bass also snapped into focus with better definition and pitch, keeping rhythm a lot more "on time." There was no downside to using the battery supply, except for the substantial cost obviously.
There is one caveat to the JCAT battery power supply, however. As supplied, it comes with a cable loom that has a dual-head, an LP4 molex connector and a SATA power connector.
The LP4 molex is meant to be connected to the back of the JCAT card inside the computer, and the SATA connector can be used to power an internal hard drive. Some users have reported that battery powering an internal SSD, preferably with the operating system on it, improves the sonics significantly. The review system could not test this since the operating system resides on an m-SATA card. The problem was that CAPS v3 Micro Zuma does not have the room inside for the battery power supply, and there were no holes to thread the battery cable into the computer if the battery supply sat outside the computer. I was able to make a DIY cable with a DC barrel connector to power the JCAT USB card from its outside DC barrel jack, but a stock cable loom that included the DC barrel connector would have been very welcomed.
Battery Power Supply