JoLida 202A Integrated Tube
Sound and Sanity
Review By Wayne Donnelly
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Picture this: the Audio Reviewer straggles home after five days in Las Vegas, capitol of the American Nightmare (at least for those who are not charmed by comic book fantasy hotels where just getting to your room requires traversing endless casinos featuring atmospheres of 1/4 cigarette smoke and enough flashing lights and grating noises to dangerously accelerate brain cell death). His head is spinning with $40,000 loudspeakers and $20,000 10-watt amplifiers and "revolutionary" subwoofers that can't even begin to reproduce 20-Hz organ pedal notes, and he needs to decompress and re-enter reality. In that frame of mind, the
JoLida 202A is just the ticket.
Don't get me wrong. I love audio gear that reaches for the state of the art, and I often review such "statement" (virtually always expensive) products. The functional equivalents of the 202A in my main system (Thor TA-1000 line stage and VTL MB-750 Reference monoblocks, both
Bybee-modified) add up to over $30K at retail - a cool 40 times the price of the 202A. That kind of hardware represents the right-brain side of this audiophile. But the more sensible left-brain part of me loves to encounter a well-made 40-watt-per-channel integrated tube amplifier that retails for $750.
I remember coming across some JoLida gear several years ago. It was remarkably cheap for the specifications, but it looked cheap too. It didn't inspire much confidence, and I more or less forgot about
JoLida until recently. But during a conversation with the proprietor of a local audio emporium, he opined that the
JoLida line is now one of the true audio bargains. He showed me a couple of pieces, and after a lengthy telephone chat with
JoLida honcho Mike Allen, I agreed to audition the 202A and the JD-100A tube CD player [review to come].
Frankly, I find the company's product strategy somewhat puzzling. They must have a dozen integrated amplifiers, both all-tube and hybrid, with power outputs and price points far closer together than is customary. For instance, how many brands give the customer a choice of 30, 40, 50 and 60-watt tube amplifiers? Clearly the various models share a lot of parts and design attributes.
JoLida also keeps costs down by having primary manufacturing done in China, with final assembly and test of all products taking place at the home facility in Maryland. Given some of the horror stories I have heard from other American companies about parts inconsistencies and other irregularities from some Pacific Rim contract manufacturers, that seems a wise precaution.
When I unpacked the JoLida 202A, my first impulse was to hug it -- it's so darned cute! Not in the "audio jewelry" sense -- no one is going to mistake it for a WAVAC -- but because its proportions and compact size seem exactly right. It's visually attractive in an unassuming way. The chassis and transformer cover are painted black, nicely setting off the brushed aluminum fascia. A pleasing visual accent is the silver-tone decorative trim on the transformer cover, which occupies the rear of the top deck. Just in front of the transformers is the line of four EL-34 power tubes, and in front of those are the four 12AT7 tubes.
The front panel holds only a power switch and LED, a volume knob and an input selector knob. The back panel is also clean and simple: four pairs of RCA input jacks, the IEC jack, two fuse caps and one set of metal five-way speaker terminals. The amplifier looks as if it costs more than $750, and this positive first impression made me eager to hear what it could do.
Stage 1: The Pretty Fair Test
I gave the 202A a good 100 hours of playing time In my upstairs system before I started paying critical attention. In that system the primary source is an Andy
Bartha-modified Pioneer 434 DVD/CD player. [Don't laugh -- it sounds better than some $2-3K players I've heard.] The loudspeakers are the terrific little floorstanding $995/pair Meadowlark Swifts. This setup constitutes my "home theater" system, along with an old 32" Sony TV -- no surround processor, no center channel, no subwoofer, no surround speakers. Not exactly leading-edge home theater, but as my cinematic preferences don't typically run to explosions and car crashes, it fills my needs just fine. More importantly for the present discussion, it also plays music with a relaxed, robust presentation.
Previously, the heart of this system, also tube-driven, has been a VTL 2.5 line stage and VTL Tiny Triode monoblock amplifiers. Those sweet-sounding, highly resolving components, at $3,000 retail, had set the performance bar pretty high, a tough challenge for the little
Mike Allen had commented that the 202A is voiced for warmth and bloom, with the assumption that at its $750 price it is quite likely to be used with inexpensive loudspeakers and source components, which more often than not tend toward the bright and aggressive. Keeping that in mind, I find that the 202A acquits itself honorably. It certainly does not match all the virtues of the more ambitious and costly VTL combination. The
JoLida's bass performance, while rich and full, is not as deep and tightly controlled, and the highs have a darker quality with noticeably less extension and air. The
JoLida also falls a little short of the
VTLs' excellent inner detail retrieval and spatial resolution.
What do those differences amount to in terms of the listening experience? Well, with Renee Fleming singing Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs on RCA CD, I don't hear her quiet breathing and as distinctly as before. And in the "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath" from the Berlioz
Symphonie Fantastique [XRCD2 reissue of the RCA Living Stereo original] the thrilling brass attacks lose some of their characteristic bite. In addition, the low, soft drum rolls in the opening bars are comparatively slightly smeared, and the shallower, less precisely defined soundstage does not locate the drums so precisely at the rear corner of the hall.
But the JoLida's shortfalls do not significantly lessen the pleasure of listening to those pieces. Renee still evokes a full measure of
goosebumps, and it is still evident that Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony are delivering one of the great-recorded orchestral performances. On a wide variety of music, I find that the 202A gets the most important stuff -- midrange tonality and in the harmonic structure of the music -- essentially right. If you have listened carefully to many mid-fi solid-state amplifiers, you know that those are worthwhile achievements.
Stage 2: The Unfair Test
Meanwhile, back at the main system, another more ambitious review preamplifier loses a channel. Having dispatched it to the manufacturer for pair, I decide to throw the little
JoLida into that the big, deep audio pond to see if it sinks or swims. Save for a couple of interconnects, every piece of this system costs considerably more than the 202A. Power is not an issue, as I am still using the prototype Von Schweikert dB-99 loudspeakers, which are 99dB sensitive, have a stable 8 ohm impedance, and incorporate active transmission-line basis systems with a dedicated 600-watt amplifier in each enclosure. This system plays very loudly with 10-watt SET amplifiers, so the
JoLida's 40 wpc are more than sufficient. The challenge is its sonic performance in this far more demanding context.
Expectedly, the differences described in the previous section are even more evident with this class of equipment. The
JoLida's presentation is mellow and
midrangy, with somewhat soft bass and rolled-off treble. In other words, it sounds not unlike some single-ended triode amps, but with more headroom. The 202A may not get top marks on the typical right-brain reviewer's checklist -- the kind you'll find at the end of this review -- but I had a lot of fun during the couple of weeks I subjected it to this unfair test.
For the sake of conciseness, I am taking reviewer's liberty here. I tried various accessories throughout the review process, but I will limit my comments to the results obtained in the big system, where the effects have greater magnitude.
Let's start with wire. The JoLida does not seem terribly wire-sensitive, but there are some differences worth comment. With interconnects and speaker cables, the presence of silver seems to liven up the presentation and convey a sense of greater transient speed and more high frequency information. This is true with both expensive
(Nordost SPM) and comparatively inexpensive (DH Labs) wires. On the other hand, the even more costly -- and typically very fine -- Transparent Reference XL left the high frequencies a bit dark, and shifted the overall tonality in that direction. Each of the half dozen different power cords I have on hand changed the sound of the amplifier to some degree, and all were better than the cheapie stock cord. The best results were with the TG Audio Silver ($500) and the new prototype Jack Bybee quantum purifier cord (not officially named or priced yet, but keep an eye out for it).
Several isolation and resonance control footers saw service under the 202A, and all of them offer improvements over the stock rubber feet. Among the hard devices, I like the large Polycrystal cones. They speed up transients and provide al more exciting sound, accompanied by some additional forwardness in the soundscape. A Townshend Seismic Sink, carefully adjusted for proper inflation , improves dynamics and reveals more low-level detail.
But my favorite feet turn out to be the least expensive ones. Bright Star Audio's IsoNodes -- little gummy half spheres, 4 for $12.50 or $19.50, depending on size -- equaled the benefits of the hard cones and air-suspension platform. Even better are Vibrapods -- stinky little
vinyl footers that sell for $6.00 each. They essentially improve everything -- dynamics, extension, speed, detail, and air.
It's important to remember that your results will vary in different system environments and with different components; that there are lots of products out there that I haven't tried; and finally, that you may be able to come up with homemade tweaks that work well and cost almost nothing.
Who Needs It?
We have here a cool-looking tube integrated amplifier, well built with good-up quality parts and designed for little or no regular maintenance. (Mike Allen points out that the power tubes are run conservatively, should require biasing only after a year or two of use, and typically last 5-6 years or more. The small-signal tubes should last even longer. And the asking price is a modest $750. So who is this amplifier meant for?
I can think of two categories of people who should look seriously at the JoLida 202A. One is the budget-limited entry-level or budding audiophile. This guy [or gal -- let's be inclusive] has probably auditioned exclusively solid-state components, and very likely thinks that tubes are out of reach financially, or perhaps that tubes will be too much trouble to maintain. The
JoLida 202A can give this listener a good first taste of tube musicality. And because the amplifier responds so well to various performance tweaks -- and, I suspect, modifications -- an incremental upgrade path is built in. In addition,
JoLida provides good but not great tubes, primarily from China and Russia, so a little NOS tube-rolling could also be very interesting. For a small investment, this amplifier offers good sound now and intriguing possibilities for the future.
The second kind of ideal customer for the 202A is not an audiophile at all, and probably doesn't read Enjoy the Music.com. He or she -- and there are lots of she's in this category -- really likes music and would like to have a simple, affordable, easy-to-use and good-sounding system. Most of us know someone who fits this description. Without advice from a knowledgeable friend, this person will probably wind up with a Bose Wave, or one of those department store rack systems with way too many useless lights and switches and way too little musical soul. Be a pal, and let them hear tubes.
As for me, I'm hanging onto this 202A. Since a very lucky friend is now happily listening to my old VTL gear, I need a new amplifier for the small system. And I'm interested to see what I can do to make it even better. At these prices, what's not to like?
About The Numerical Ratings
In the Review Magazine under "How We Review," Editor Steven R. Rochlin offers a detailed explanation of this site's numerical rating system for equipment reviews. Judging from numerous letters that readers have written to me, I think quite a few readers have skipped over that information. Specifically, it is important to realize what the 100-point scale signifies. The following is excerpted from "How We Review":
Every product will be rated by a points system. Each product will be analyzed in various ways such as stage width, depth, tonal accuracy, spectral balance, imaging, etc. In this way you, the readership, can plainly see a measured subjective in which you can compare one product to another. Of course each review will have her or his own base-line in which to begin. Each category will have a point value of 1 to 100 with 50 being a good measurement.
Consider most good high gear a 70 while the truly exceptional pieces get a rating of 90 or above.
I recently reviewed the Meadowlark Swift loudspeaker, an excellent performer at $995/pair. In the text of the review, I enthusiastically praised the Swift's bass performance as exceptional in this price range. In the numerical chart, I assigned a score of 75 for sub-bass. In retrospect, that score is probably a bit high, given the editor's explanation. But afterwards, more than one reader wrote to me asking why the Swift's bass performance was so poor. It seems that we have reached a state where "grade inflation" is pervasive -- any score below 90 is automatically considered bad. None of the scores for the
JoLida 202A will approach 90. But if you read the review, you'll see that I have judged it to be a very respectable performer and a terrific value. Information needs context!
Maximum Power Output: 60 W per channel at 8 ohms, 1KHz
Rated Output Power: 40 W per channel at 8 ohms, 30Hz to 80KHz
Frequency Response: (at 1 watt into 8 ohms) 7Hz to 140KHz + 3dB; 0dB at 1KHz
Bandwidth: 17Hz to 140KHz + 3dB; 0dB = 40 W 1KHz, 8 ohms
Distortion THD + N: Less than 1% at 30W output, 40Hz to 14KHz, 8 ohms
Circuit Type: Ultra Linear, Class AB1
Input Impedance: 100Kohms
Input Sensitivity: Max. 350mV at 1KHz for 40 watt output
Output Impedance: 4 ohms and 8 ohms
Negative Feedback: Less than 9dB
Noise and Hum: 80dB below rated output.
Tube Complement: two matched pairs of 6CA7/EL34 power output;
two 12AX7A pre-amplifier, two 12AT7 power drivers.
Bias Settings: 40 millivolts + 4 mV
Dimensions: 12.5 x 12 x 8.25 (WxDxH in inches)
Weight: 28 pounds
Warranty: One year limited parts and labor. Six months or 500 hours whichever comes first on
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