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April 2011
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
World Premiere!
Parasound JC 3 Phono Preamplifier
Treat your vinyl collection right!
Review By Anthony Nicosia

 

Parasound JC 3 Phono Preamplifier Unit  As the world's first standalone review of this great product, I feel one should start at the very beginning. San Francisco California is known for many things, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pyramid building, Fisherman's Wharf and for us audiophiles, being the home of Parasound Products. Parasound the company started, in this city by the bay; thirty years ago back in 1981 where it still resides to this very day. The new JC 3 Phono Preamplifier joins a long list of Parasound products such as, in-wall loudspeakers, amplifiers, preamplifiers and tuners. The company is known for making quality products while keeping costs to a minimum. One way to do this is to have a highly respected design team working stateside while assembly occurs in Taiwan, as with the new JC 3. This phono stage is competitively priced at $2350, placing it price-wise between some top-of-the-line and budget minded phono stages. Richard Schram, President of Parasound, says it took him years to convince John Curl to design the circuit for the JC 3. John turned to Carl Thompson for circuit board layouts as he and Carl are no strangers to each other, both having collaborated together on audio projects in the past. If for some reason you have yet not heard of John Curl, think of, among other things, the world renowned Vendetta preamplifier. As for me, my own experience with a John Curl design was through the Audible Illusions Modulus 3 preamplifier (and later the revised 3A) for which he designed the optional low-output moving coil circuit board.

There was a time when a Parasound CDP-1000 CD player found a spot in my audio system. It was first used as a standalone player then later as a transport where it worked quite well. As always though the audio upgrade bug hit me, so off it went into the home of a friend and fellow audiophile where it still makes sweet music even today. Parasound, as some of you might know, was for many years the US distributor for the Japanese company C.E.C. which makes some highly rated CD transports of their own and made two belt drive players for Parasound. C.E.C was once high on my list of players as they made a belt driven CD player/transport which I still regret not having purchased years ago. Looking at their website there is some good news as belt drives are still in use in some of their players. That being said, maybe there will be a chance for me to experience them someday soon.

Having around one thousand records in my collection my eyes lit up when the chance came to review a phono stage. My heartbeat quickened even further when learning this particular piece was not only made by Parasound but designed by John Curl. With such great anticipation of getting a product with this pedigree, the JC 3 could not be delivered soon enough. The factory shipped it out on a Friday and it arrived on my doorstep Monday. Unfortunately I missed the FedEx person and so what felt like a very long twenty-four hour period ensued before the second and final delivery attempt was made. This time I made sure to be home to receive this new product out of Parasound.

 

First Look
The JC 3 came well protected being double boxed and wrapped in styrofoam. Peeling away all those layers there lay exposed a beautiful blue cloth presentation bag that you would not want to throw away. It is large enough for putting in miscellaneous audio paraphernalia such as interconnects, power cords, loudspeaker cables, footers, CDs, a DAC or even a small power conditioner. Yes it is the perfect size for those audiophile parties you find yourself going to, you know the ones where everyone brings over something new to share at a friend's house. Bringing this beautiful blue tote bag will surely grab the attention of others. As for the JC 3 itself, the front faceplate is simply adorned. Aside for some lettering and a nicely indented design line on its front there is only a power on/off on the left and a mono/stereo button on its right side. When the mono button is lit with blue glow it is in the stereo mode and when it is amber mono is activated. Looking underneath you will notice four decent sized footers, another nice little touch as it means you do not have to invest further unless of course you choose to. Upon reading the factory literature and examining the product it was easy to tell there would be numerous features to like about this phono stage. Input and output RCA jacks are from Vampire and 24k gold-plated for better conductivity. Balanced outputs from Neutrik are also standard equipment, no need to pay extra for that. If you own both a MC and MM cartridge, not a problem it can handle either and even has a switch for MC 47k ohm or MC 100 ohm. While limited to these settings most moving coil cartridges seem to work best at 100 ohms anyway, mine included, and you probably will not find this to be an issue. Still it should be noted as for some it might be a factor. There is also a 47k ohm setting for a MM cartridge.

One thing I like about my Placette Passive preamplifier is its use of the famed Vishay-Dale resisters. Well low and behold they are found here as well. Not only is each channel located inside its own separate isolated aluminum case but to further reduce noise the unit has a built in AC line conditioner. Still not satisfied? Well check this out; there is an AC polarity reverse switch to help reduce hum if needed (these is a warning in the owner's manual to turn off the JC 3 and unplug it's AC cord before changing the setting of the AC Polarity switch) . If you are the demanding type and are asking for still more the back panel and chassis are made of non-magnetic aluminum, there are separate high speed- soft recovery rectifiers, filter caps and voltage regulators for each channel. Why there is even a mono switch for those older records. If you are feeling a little lazy and want to use your preamplifier to turn on/off your JC 3 than just use the supplied cable and as long as your preamplifier has a 9-12v output you should be in business.

To top this all off Parasound has thrown in a five year parts and labor warranty. As for the owner's manual, it never insulted my intelligence while providing me with worthwhile knowledge. As always, please read it thoroughly before using the JC 3 as you should with all audio products and their manuals. Removing its top cover, to peer inside, one is immediately struck with its very neatly organized interior. Wires are tucked nicely away, 3/8" thick partitions are used to separate sections and an R-core rather than a toroid transformer (to help lower noise) can be found inside. My Whest Phono Stage is a two piece unit connected by a cord. I rather prefer this JC 3 design which puts everything in one much larger enclosure separating everything inside, eliminating the need for an external cord to connect the two separate pieces. A one case design gave me a sense of an overall cleaner look to the product. All in all the JC 3 is very impressive indeed. Still while this all sounds great on paper the true test is of course with the audition, so let's go to see what happens next.

 

A Little Setup First
To begin with my collection of interconnects were amassed in front of me all neatly laid out on the floor. Yes it's true, cable freak here. Each pair took its turn connected to the JC 3 in an effort to coaxe the best music possible from the new kid in town. Cables from Acoustic Revive, Anti-Cable, Audience, Cardas, Kimber Kable, Monarchy Audio, TekLine, Whest (factory supplied cables the came with the Whest PhonoStage .20) were all tried and in my system with its combination of various other cables and components. The Acoustic Revive interconnects were selected. It was close, but for me these did it. Of course as has been said many times, "your actual mileage may vary" so have fun experimenting as I did. The truth be told, no matter which cables that were paired with the JC 3, the unit still sounded right. Do you need to spend $1000 for cables? No in fact the Anti-Cables sounded just fine, but since I had them around, why not? As for the AC Polarity switch it was left in the normal rather than invert position as the JC 3 sounded quiet enough the way it came. It was however very comforting to know that it was there in case need be, again another nice touch from the team at Parasound.

 

Let the Music Play On And On And On
As always, before playing a record where critically listening will be required, my VPI 16.5 record cleaning machine was called upon to perform its appointed duty of thoroughly cleaning each album before placement on the turntable. Once the record was given a good wash and thorough vacuum, the stylus was then meticulously cleaned. After this it was time to sit back to listen and enjoy the following musical selections.

There was no denying it, from that very first moment that a record was placed upon my Oracle turntable and the cartridge dropped into those magical grooves, the JC 3 showed me what makes listening to vinyl recordings so special. Joni Mitchell's For the Roses (Asylum Records SD 5057) is an old favorite of mine and with the JC 3 it did not disappoint. Listening to Joni Mitchell sing the title song, "For the Roses" one can hear a soundstage with an expanded presence that allowed both loudspeakers to disappear into the background. Her voice rang forth with clarity and strength as the notes from her guitar revealed a natural crispness reminding me of a real life performance. Moving forward a little in time to Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time [Capitol Records Cl-91268], to the song with the same title, the pace and timing of the music picked up a bit. Not to worry though as the JC 3 was able to keep pace, not missing a beat. This song had it all, drums, percussion, congas, bass, piano, guitar, as well as both lead and background vocals. Imaging was quite precise making it easy to hear where each instrument and singer was placed within a solid wide/deep soundstage. As a line from the song says, "scared to run out of time", except for me it meant I never wanted the performance to end as the JC 3 had music erupting from a silent background, further enhancing this already great musical event.

So far we see it doing well with female vocals but it was time to give the guys a chance and for that Muddy Waters stepped in. The original master recording of Muddy Waters Folk Singer [Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs MLSL 1-201] seemed like a great place to start. Here precise imaging was even more apparent as instruments were layered all around in a very moving performance during the song, "Long Distance". Here guitar could be localized directly below his voice in proper placement within the soundscape. Listening to "Good Morning School Girl", low level detail was excellent and while the music was incredibly detailed never did it seem overly dry or etched as some lessor phono stages might do. In contrast Muddy Waters voice had a sense of musicality to it while displaying all those rich harmonic textures. Now if you want to hear an expansive soundscape all you need do is put on the cut, "You Gonna Need My Help", (from the same album). If not for the size of my room being limited to thirteen feet across the narrow side where the loudspeakers were placed, it might have expanded even further beyond the boundaries of my limited review environment.

Next up was the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue [Columbia PC 8163]. Fortunately for me I was lucky to have heard it played on a Clearaudio Statement Turntable with integral stand. Turntable and stand alone, without associated equipment, were priced at $150,000 USD, not including a cartridge or phono stage. Before you ask, no the JC 3 did not, nor would one expect it to, make my Oracle Delphi MK I sound like the Statement turntable. It did though provide me with a great rendition of this classic musical performance. Truth of timbre being quite accurate, not only in regards to the trumpet played by Miles Davis, but the sound of Wyn Kelly on piano as well. In my very early years my wise mother insisted on exposing me to piano lessons, even though the guitar was my instrument of preference. Therefore the sound of a real piano located within a room is not foreign. Quite recently my brother-in-law spent over ten thousand dollars for a piano for his son to learn upon and he to enjoy as well. Listening to them both play made me regret not having continued my piano lessons, yet as they say it is never too late. With the song, "Blue in Green", notes from trumpet flowed forth from each loudspeaker with a smoothness and ease one would expect from a fine jazz performance. Each instrument took its own unique separate space on the soundscape as a good sense of depth prevailed. Trumpet sounded neither shrill nor piercing, as sometimes can happen with horn instruments played back on less than ideal systems. Rather the trumpet sounded pleasant to these ears, making me momentarily forget about reviewing as it encouraged me to sit back and enjoy the music.

As for bass performance it did admirably well delivering the goods whenever called upon to do so. On Dire Straits, Brothers In Arms record [Warner Brothers Records IncW1-25264]; with the song "Your Latest Trick" the JC 3 emitted a bass presence many would consider far more than adequate. On "Money for Nothing" it handled the lightening quick guitar playing of Mark Knopfler with ease. The true test of a unit's musicality though is when it makes me get up off my chair to dance. With "Money for Nothing" even my wife joined in as we together both danced .Double applause goes to the JC 3 for getting my wife to dance!

Now for something along the classical lines of music we turn to Vivaldi 12 Concerti OP.8 [Philips 6747 311] with a collection of three European pressed vinyl records. Here the soundscape depth was again good giving rise to a great ambient presence with a sense of the actual physical space where the recording took place. The upper octaves of music were more than adequately represented by the JC 3 as it played back those beautiful stringed instruments with precision. The silence between and around instruments lent an excitement to performances that should not be overlooked. Perhaps it was those beautiful Vishay-Dale resistors, the electrical and mechanical isolation or maybe even the power conditioner found within the JC 3; either way those who cherish the "silence is golden" rule will truly love this quiet phono stage. Before leaving you with my final thoughts to go on to enjoy music as revealed to me by this excellent new phono stage from Parasound it is time to turn towards one more album. On House of Sleeping Beauties we have Lucia Hwong composing as well as playing, Zither, Kayagum, Pipa and Synthesizer. This is a woman whose grandmother was Madame T.C. Lu, a famous Chinese opera singer who was herself trained in both a classical Chinese as well as a classical Western style of music. Images of vast landscapes extending as far as the eye can sees comes to mind when hearing the song, "In the Dream" and "Journey to Lhasa". On the front and back covers of the album are pictures of mountain ranges enveloped almost completely by fog except for the very highest peaks of mountains rising above them. It is this image of depth, vastness and mystery which the music portrays. Closing my eyes the songs brought me to rest upon those mountain tops surrounded by silent wide open spaces. The percussion section within the music on "Himalayan Twilight" was quick with plenty of impact and showed the JC 3's ability to follow complex passages. Found here and throughout the album are selections which made one sense the expansiveness of China as it played to the JC 3's strong ability to display a wide and deep soundscape.

Usher Audio sent over some Mini One Dancer Series loudspeakers, retailing for $3999 a pair and reviewed here. These are a two-way system which excelled especially in the upper and mid-range frequencies, but more on that in an upcoming review. By the time of this writing the Mini One's had just finished their break-in process, and were ready for a serious listen. As is often the case when products from different manufacturers overlap, making them available here together, it is just too tempting not to test their compatibility with one another. The JC 3's strong mid-range presence and open soundscape coupled with the Usher's strength in the same areas, made for an excellent marriage of components. Listening to Dave Mason's Alone Together [MCA-11319] album on 180 gram virgin vinyl gave me the goose bumps. Here on "Only You Know And I Know" the depth of the soundstage was shockingly good. This continued and was even more impressive on "Can't Stop Worrying Can't Stop Loving". The clear precise imagery of separate performers on a deep wide soundscape was quite astonishing. Lower mid-bass presence was both fast and powerful while guitar solo's played with a sense of extreme ease with notes floating in a holographic soundscape. The JC 3 was not just good, it was truly mesmerizing.

 

In Summation
For the money, there is no question in my mind; what a truly great phono preamplifier this is. One could easily spend double its $2350 asking price in an effort to coaxe more out of one's vinyl collection. Before doing so the question you should ask is this: is it really worth it to you? If you are one of those serious vinyl collectors who do not mind spending in the range of ten thousand dollars or more on a turntable/arm/cartridge setup, a phono stages costing upwards of $5000 or even $10,000 might be what you would seek. There are some pretty good phono stages out there for those willing to spend the money but for many the JC 3 should be more than you need. Quite frankly, unless my associated gear was about to take an upgrade to another level entirely, the JC3 would give me no reason to seek a more expensive piece. The team at Parasound has produced a winner with the JC 3! With its many desirable features and high quality parts, those who seek vinyl playback nirvana would do well to put this one on their short list of quality audio components.

 

The Listening Environment
The review room is eighteen feet eight inches long by thirteen feet wide with loudspeakers and equipment kept on the short wall. The cathedral ceiling starts at eight feet from the short wall sloping upwards reaching a height of thirteen feet in the middle of the room. The hardwood floor has a nine foot by six foot oriental rug lying down the long ways facing toward the system placed dead center in between, yet not under, the listener and the review equipment The room has no doors but there are two openings. One opening is in front of the right loudspeaker giving access to the hallway while the other is behind the listening position which opens into a formal dining area with a table that seats eight people. The room is treated with three floor standing acoustical panels whose placement varies depending on which loudspeakers are used and their position within the room. All the audio equipment is located in a Cherry Synergy Twin S30 Salamander audio rack placed about a foot away from and in the middle of the short wall opposite the listening position. Power conditioners are all located on the hardwood floor behind and to the left of the audio rack.

 

Review Equipment
Placette Passive Preamplifier (the three input version)
Monarchy Audio SM70-PRO Amplifiers (two amplifiers run in mono bloc configuration)
Legacy Focus 20/20 Loudspeakers
OPPO Digital BDP-83 Special Edition Universal player
Oracle Delphi MK 1 Turntable, Grace 707 Tone arm with custom made interconnects
Audio-Technica Prestige AT33PTG Moving Coil Cartridge
VPI 16.5 Record Cleaning Machine
Whest PhonoStage .20+MsU.20 Power Supply
Audience aR2p-T0 power conditioner
PS Audio UPC 200 Power Conditioner
PS Audio Power Port Receptacle
Two Blue Circle Audio Mk III Power Line Conditioners
Loudspeaker Cables: Cardas Golden Presence (2 pairs running bi-wired)
Interconnects: Acoustic Revive (phono stage to preamplifier, preamplifier to amplifier)
Power Cords: Cardas Cross (1)

 

My Ratings
As always you should be the final judge as to what works for you in your environment and measured against what traits you value most. The following was how I rated the equipment based on a rating system that does not take in to consideration the cost of the product, until the very last question, "Value for the Money". Before that all products are rated against others in its category, regardless of financial considerations with a highest rating of 5.

 

Tonality

Sub-bass (10Hz - 60Hz)

Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear  
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: MM/MC solid-state stereo phonostage
Inputs and outputs use Vampire brand 24k gold-plated RCA jacks
Balanced outputs use Neutrik brand premium XLR jacks
MM 47 k ohm, MC 100 ohm or MC 47 k ohm
S/N 86 dB MM; 75 dB MC
RIAA accurate within 0.2 dB
Exclusively Vishay-Dale resistors in the audio path
Dual mono design with right/left separately enclosed in its own aluminum enclosure
R-core type power transformer
Built-in AC line conditioner to prevent AC noise from polluting the circuits
AC polarity reverse switch can reduce hum in many systems
Turn On Options Switch: manual or auto with 12v trigger input
Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz (+/- 0.2dB)
THD Distortion: < 0.005% at 20 kH
S/N Ratio (MM): > 86 dB, input shorted, IHF A-weighted
S/N Ratio (MC): > 75 dB, input shorted, IHF A-weighted
Crosstalk: 72 dB at 1 kHz
Output Impedance: Unbalanced is < 100 Ohm, balanced: < 100 Ohm per leg
Total Gain: MM is 47 dB an MC is 68 dB
Dimensions: 17.25 x 13.75 x 4.2 (WxDxH in inches)
Weight: 18 lbs.
Warranty: 5 year parts, 5 years labor warranty (For USA and Canada purchases only)
Price: $2350

 

Company Information
Parasound Products, Inc.
2250 McKinnon Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94124

Voice: (415) 397-7100
Fax: (415) 397-0144
E-mail: sales@parasound.com
Website: www.parasound.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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