Although most of my audio listening and reviewing involves equipment that falls into the upper echelons of performance (and, alas, price), I love to encounter lower-priced gear that delivers good musicality without threatening financial disaster for the buyer. JoLida has for years provided decent-sounding, well made and reliable components, and I have previously reviewed enthusiastically that company's JD 202A 40-wpc tube integrated amplifier and JD-100A tube CD player. Today, by far the least costly component in my reference system is the JD-402 tuner, a handsome tube unit that daily brings me the lovely sound of Chicago's great classical music station, WFMT.
I was curious to learn how well the JD 9A would reflect JoLida's excellent price/performance tradition. Let's start with the basics: The JD 9A is a phono preamplifier that will handle moving magnet, moving coil and dynamic head cartridges. It provides both RIAA and line-level outputs (but no volume control, so it must be connected to a preamp or integrated amplifier with that function). It features adjustable settings for cartridge type via DIP switches on the rear panel. Gold-plated RCA input jacks are a nice quality touch at its $450 MSRP. The tube output uses two Chinese 12AX7 tubes. The enclosure is a sturdy low-profile design that JoLida says is designed to serve as a base for another component such as an amplifier or turntable, so that a dedicated shelf for the JD 9A is not required.
I subjected the JD 9A to a sterner test than it was intended for, dropping it into my system in place of my then-reference Thor TA-3000 tube phono stage. My analog rig at the time was a Basis 2800 vacuum turntable, Graham 2.2 arm and Transfiguration Temper cartridge. The JD 9A fed my VTL 7.5 line stage, which drove both VTL Siegfried tube monoblocks and the Spectron Musician 3 class D stereo amplifier. Speakers were the Analysis Audio Amphitryon planar-ribbons. This highly resolving system gave the JD 9A no place to hide any serious sonic shortcomings.
I had used the Thor Phono Burn to break in the JD 9A, so that it was ready for serious auditioning as soon as I installed it. It took just a few LP sides to establish that this $450 component could not equal the tonal refinement and voluptuous soundstaging of the $6,000 Thor. What shocked me was that those differences were far less noticeable than I expected. And after a few days, as I got used to the JD 9A, I found myself playing all kinds of vinyl and enjoying the essential honesty of the JD 9A's presentation. A few examples:
Symphonic: On Peter Maag's great Decca LP of Mendelssohn's Scotch Symphony, the stage breadth and depth were foreshortened by about 10-20 percent. The double bass lines lost the lowest half-octave, and brass lacked the full "bite" that I knew was there. But reproduction of upper strings and woodwinds, while falling a bit short of the ultimate "bloom," were really very good. Dynamics were quite good on the macro end, and the quiet slow movement was only slightly beset with noise. Overall grade: B.
Vocal: Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, in her vocal prime on her mono recording of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, was missing a bit of solidity in her chest tones; her glorious top notes still evoked the customary goosebumps. And on her wonderful second LP Give It Up, Bonnie Raitt's sly treatment of Sippie Wallace's "You Got to Know How" brought a big smile as always. Overall grade: B.
Jazz: Dave Brubeck's classic Time Out came on strongly with Paul Desmond's lyrical sax, Brubeck's angular piano and Joe Morello's inventive drumming. On a very different-sounding LP, the warmth of Bill Evans' lyrical piano on Waltz for Debby is also faithfully presented, although the piano reproduction on both LPs was short of capturing the full scale of the instrument — something that these speakers can do exceptionally well. Overall grade: B/B+
Rock: On The Band's Music from Big Pink I was surprised by how well the JD 9A captured the complex textures and rhythmic drive of that landmark album. And The Beatles' Rubber Soul seemed as charming as ever, as those great songs drew me in. Overall grade: B+
The JoLida/Audible Arts JD 9A Special Edition
Jeff prefers to keep many of the details of this unit proprietary. But the modifications include extensive parts upgrades: new microprocessor, better capacitors, improved wiring, a reworked motherboard and a new star grounding scheme. JoLida's stock 12AX7s are replaced by cryo'd JJ 12AX7s. With all those standard modifications the unit is priced at $1995. For those who want to take it to the limit, Jeff offers even better parts upgrades and a choice of classic NOS tubes.
Fortunately, the SE unit was already well seasoned, so I was able to get right to critical listening. All of the LPs cited above were pressed back into service, and it was quickly evident that this JoLida was playing in an altogether different league. Dynamics were now both more explosive and subtler, as the music demanded. Deep bass, a bit shy on the stock unit, was now both deeper and tighter, with excellent pitch definition clearing up a bit of congestion I had heard previously. Imaging was more dimensional, and instruments and voices more "locked in." The soundstage gained in width, and especially in depth. Both vocals and instrumental voices were simply more beautiful, expressive, and emotionally engaging than before. Finally, the highs were notably smoother and more extended, with a rich harmonic palette. All of those impressions were further confirmed when I moved on to my favorite audiophile reissues.
At two grand this little beauty is every bit as fine a bargain as the stock JD 9A is at $450. But that comparison really doesn't compute. The real competition for the Audible Arts SE mod is phono preamps selling at $3,000 and up. Its sound was definitely in the same league as my $6,000 Thor, and the SE has the sonic chops to play on equal terms with the rest of the system. I was sorry to pack it up and ship it back to California after just three weeks.
Specifications are not available for this unit, but with its fine sound I'm sure they would be excellent.