Fact is, many audiophiles are willing to spend thousands of dollars on a phono preamplifier. This makes sense, at least it does to me. I've put a great deal of time into setting up what I consider is a decent analog front-end, so I'm certainly the type of audiophile that should use the best phono preamplifier I could get my hands on. My current reference is a Pass Labs XP-15 phono preamp, which sells for only a bit more than the phono preamplifier that is the subject of this review, the JE Audio HP10. I'll admit that both the JE Audio HP10 and my reference phono preamps sell for more than many audiophiles are prepared to spend. Yet once an analog set-up and the system that it is feeding reaches a certain level, one would be wise to consider a phono preamplifier that will bring out the best in one's set-up, and sorry to say, one must spend this type of money in order to get a phono preamp with this type of sonic aptitude. And yet these two phono preamplifiers have a selling price that still consigns them into the "affordable" category.
Yet as we all know, there are phono preamps that cost much, much more, and there are enough audiophiles willing to spend the money on them. At least enough of them for manufacturers to continue making them. I have some firsthand experience with these, because until only last month in my system was a Dan D'Agostino Master Audio Systems Momentum phono preamp, which sells for $28,000. I also recently had in my system a borrowed Merrill Audio Jens phono preamplifier that has a list price of $15,449. Both are spectacular sounding. When compared to these boutique phono preamplifiers, the JE Audio HP10's list price of $3,300 makes this component seem low-priced. It isn't. But everything is relative in the world of audio.
There is also a separate passive RIAA equalizer for each input. JE Audio says that they chose a passive equalizer because it introduces less coloration than active EQ's. They go on to say that their tube output stage "greatly enhances the sound" of the HP10. On the unit's rear panel there are RCA inputs for both MM and MC phono cartridges, plus both unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR) outputs. There are three choices of gain levels for the phono cartridge on the front panel of the HP10, and 5 choices of impedance levels. In addition to the gain and impedance settings there are also switches for phase inversion, a subsonic filter, and mono operation. This is as flexible a phono preamplifier as one can not only expect for a phono preamplifier at this price, but for any phono preamplifier, period.
The "pretty decent" analog front-end that I mentioned above will be familiar to readers of my reviews, which consists of a Basis Audio Debut V turntable, with a Tri-Planar 6 tonearm. Currently an excellent Gold Note Tuscany phono cartridge is mounted on the tonearm's business end. Although this phono cartridge sells for around eight-grand, its high performance justifies its asking price. In March of this year I reviewed the Van den Hul Crimson Stradivarius phono cartridge, which sells for a very significant $5000, and I have no reservations about the praise that I lauded upon it, saying that it "performs as well or better than many cartridges costing much, much more". But after re-installing the Gold Note Tuscany it became obvious why some would spend even more than the cost of the Van den Hul, as the Gold Note extracts more detail than I ever thought possible from the record, especially from the upper-midrange frequencies on up, rendering every sound that it extrudes from our precious vinyl records in a more realistic manner. I mention this because this is the type of cartridge that makes using a fine phono preamplifier mandatory, and the JE Audio HP10 is indeed a fine phono preamplifier.
Connecting my turntable's interconnect to the HP10 was no big deal, as the RCA inputs on its rear panel are spaced far enough apart that I can't imagine it not being able to accommodate any phono cable. I used the XLR outputs to connect it to the preamplifier, currently a Merrill Audio Christine Reference preamp that I reviewed two months ago. The power amplifier remains a Pass Labs X350.5, and speakers the Sound Lab Majestic 545. The JE Audio HP10 phono preamp looked great with the rest of the gear placed on the third shelf of an Arcici Suspense equipment rack. It's silver colored faceplate not looking out of place one iota. I let this phono preamplifier break in for as long as I could before performing any serious listening. I used it a bit when it first arrived on these shores just to make sure everything was working OK, then connected its power cord to wall socket on the other side of the room where I let the preamplifier "cook" for about a week and a half. Then I played about a dozen LPs of no sonic reputation when I was listening off axis, reconnecting my Pass Labs phono preamp for any serious listening sessions. That lasted another week before I connected the JE Audio unit for the last time, as it stayed in my system for the remaining portion of the review period.
Many know this record not because of the excellent, classic hard rock contained within, but because of its lenticular image on its front cover. OK, most call this a "3-D" cover, but I've been discussing the record with some Brits, and lenticular is what they call it, most of them not being familiar with the term "3-D" until the movie studios started to make it popular once again, and yet they continue to call a flat 3-D image "lenticular". But I digress. This album is basically one of a power trio – bass, drums, and guitar – with a lead vocalist placed out front. This "supergroup" of sorts featured lead vocalist Rod Evans, previously in one of the first incarnations of Deep Purple, appearing on their first three albums (including their charting single "Hush"), their lead guitarist Rhino and bassist Lee Dorman both of Iron Butterfly, and drummer Bobby Caldwell of Johnny Winter's band. This is a perfect example of a band where the sum is greater than the parts.
I file this LP with my other hard rock records, but many call it progressive, with hard rock and metal overtones, with a sprinkling of jazz and space-rock influences. Their difficult to describe sound is definitely on the heavy side, though, with a tightness that is sorely missing in many of their contemporary's releases. The album's sound quality is typical of the day, including its slightly tipped up bass, but thankfully there is a separation between the instruments and voice that allows me to use the album to audition components of in my system for review – and simply to enjoy, as it is one of my favorite rock albums.
The JE Audio HP10 could take advantage of the album's excellent sound quality, as there was nothing that seemed out of the ordinary that I heard from this very familiar program material. But it was more than simply not making any errors of commission, as it also was able to make this album sound as good as it ever has. This was mostly because it kept each instrument and voice in separate compartment of the soundstage, as well as enabling this soundstage to spread between, behind, and way out to the sides of the speakers. In my mind's ear, I could imagine the band laying down the basic tracks together in the same room, separated by baffles perhaps, but still enabling each instrument to slightly bleed into the other's tracks to produce a near live experience. Yes, I could clearly hear which tracks were overdubbed after these basic tracks were laid down, especially the vocals, which were obviously sung in with some sort of isolation being applied, such as a vocal booth, or simply letting him sing into the microphone in the well-damped room after the basic tracks were laid down. Perhaps it was the phono preamp's vacuum tube output that injected more than a bit of an organic character to the preamp's sound, as the album was the antithesis of clinical.
This isn't an album to marvel at the individual sounds being extracted from the grooves of the record, it is an album where one can marvel at the songwriting, the excellent riffs that created a sort of southern-rock/progressive-rock hybrid, with more than a smattering of British prog lyrical themes which include the meaning of existence, outer space, and mysticism. Yet the HP10's sound was detailed enough to let me revel in the guitar sound, obviously a Fender Stratocaster, with perhaps the pick-up selector placed between the positions, creating the classic out-of-phase sound that so many guitarists chose when wanting to have enough distortion coming from an overdriven amp, but with a layer of clarity in the guitar's midrange and lower treble. There is also a host of hand-held percussion instruments played by lead singer Rod Evans, such a cabasa, which is constructed from dried oval- or pear-shaped gourds with beads strung on the outer surface, and played by twisting it with one's non-dominant hand. He also frequently hits a cowbell with a drum stick. Both these instruments are a great test of a components upper mids and treble, and the HP10 was able to render these instruments in a very realistic fashion, with plenty of air around the instrument, and at the same time all the instruments and voices remaining in its assigned space in the soundstage.
The HP10s upper treble, tested by the drummer Bobby Caldwell's cymbals and Evan's vocal sibilants, was not as crystal clear as my reference Pass Labs XP-10, perhaps owing to the near 1000-dollar price difference between the two. Obviously, the laws of diminishing returns have not kicked in yet when applied to phono preamp design. The treble of the JE Audio HP10 phono preamp was still first-class though, and perhaps owing to its tube output stage, the treble was very easy on the ears, never drawing undue attention to itself, unless it was the intention of the musician or recording engineer (yes, I'm looking at you, Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Kramer!).
It is the midrange of the HP10 that is worth discussing, since it is where not only where just about all of the music lives, but because it is one of the HP10's strong points. It reproduces these frequencies transparently, enough so it seems to recreate the music exactly as it is embedded into the grooves of the record. That is more difficult than it sounds, as I've heard many phono preamplifiers that can perform this task, but not without adding some sonic personality of its own. Sometimes this includes additives such as boosting certain frequencies above others, or worse, adding noise. More often these faults are subtractive, such as a reticent midrange, or worse, some phono preamps seem to simplify the program material by lowering the volume of or totally missing low level cues. Not the HP10.
During the audition period, I listened to my favorite recording of Prokofiev's Romeo And Juliet, the outstanding three-LP set on Decca, with Lorin Maazel leading the Cleveland Orchestra, which coincidentally was also recorded in the early 1970s, just as the recording above. Many not only consider this the best recording Lorin Maazel ever made, but it is also one of the best Romeo And Juliet ever recorded, especially the full version of this ballet score. Maazel's reading has so much energy, his sense of rhythm is unmatched, and he seems to highlight what I like so much about the score in the first place, such as Prokofiev's modernistic touches (for the mid-twentieth century, that is), such as overlapping themes in different keys which seem to create "wrong notes". Most notably, at least for the purpose of this review, is the superb sound quality of this classic Decca LP set, which has been and still is used at many audio salons and shows as a demonstration disc.
There are so many memorable themes in this score, from marches to soaring melodies, all of which give the listener lots to grab onto as far as listening to a components ability to deal with these instruments and groups of instruments in the large orchestra that is required. To the HP10's credit, I had some difficulty in my assessment of this phono preamplifier because during the audition the music was downright distracting, reproduced so well that the phono preamp disappeared into the analog chain.
As far as I'm concerned this is what it is all about, the music! When a component can simply do its job well, and make me forget that it is even in my system, this is what makes a component a fine one. This didn't happen only with the Prokofiev set, but with just about every record I played that was decently recorded. With those that weren't as well-recorded, the HP10 was able to give me more than just a clue about how the recording came to be and why it didn't sound first-rate.
But the above hardly helps the audiophile who is reading this review in helping them decide which phono preamplifier will fit best into their system. So, in a nutshell, the JE Audio HP 10's bass is superb, digging as deep as the recording demands. Its midrange is superb, sounding as if the combination of its solid-state input and a tube-output are working in harmony to produce a component that reproduces a midrange that sounds neither solid-state or tube-like. It simply sounds like music, and this trait is a big reason why when it comes to its midrange, it seems as if the HP10 is an inaudible piece of the analog-chain.
The treble of the HP10 is certainly respectable. It also takes advantage of the hybrid construction of its circuit, but seems to be affected by the tube output stage more than the other frequencies that it is amplifying. The treble isn't rolled off, neither is it deficient or reticent in level. The fact that it does not reach to same heights as my reference Pass Labs XP-15 might be more to do with its higher price. It is not only able to differentiate between the different high-frequency sounds it might encounter, but there is a bit of sibilance the HP10 adds to voices, and other sounds that might have some very high frequency treble as part of its makeup. But as I mentioned, the HP10's treble is undeniably worthy of price JE Audio is asking for this phono preamplifier. It's also good to remember that I just got finished reviewing some very expensive phono preamps, so I might just be a little spoiled.
All the other traits that should be possessed by not only a good preamplifier, but also of a good phono preamplifier such as the JE Audio HP10, such as a wide soundstage, pin-point imaging, and a pitch-black background. It's worth mentioning that the silence of the HP10's background when in idle is superb, and appreciated, since not only is the phono preamplifier responsible for boosting the gain of what can be a very low signal, but the component that is connected to the linestage on one end, and the other end the turntable, tonearm and cartridge, and all are very susceptible to noise, whether that noise be RFI, EMI, or just plain old 60 cycle hum. Any noise added by the phono preamplifier is certainly not welcome. And is very noticeable. The HP10 when idle was so silent that when I would start the turntable spinning it was difficult to tell whether the HP10 was powered up. When dropping the needle into the grooves, that's when there was some background noise, from the surface of the record of course. Still, once the music starts any noise that is coming from any one of the components in the analog chain is hardly welcome. The HP10 did not add any noise that I was aware of. None.
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