POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 23
the Piano EL-34 integrated
as reviewed by Francisco Duran and Lester J. Mertz
With its unique looks and straightforward functionality, the new Jasmine Audio Piano integrated tube amplifier conveys the idea that it is built with the fun factor turned up to 11! Jasmine Audio's design philosophy is "Pure, Simple, Natural." The company was established in 2001 by "a group of professional audiophiles with the pure passion for the perfection in sound." Jasmine also claims that "All audio components are hand picked by experienced and qualified engineers. Owning a Jasmine product should be seen as being part of a very special club created by enthusiasts for enthusiasts." I like that. It expresses the heart and soul that went into the making of this product. It is good to see an audio company that wears its passion on its sleeve.
Like the Qinpu amp, which hails from the same Hawaii Audio stable, this amp is similarly spartan in its outward arrangement. There are three outputs, 4- and 8-ohm speaker taps, and a dimmer switch that accompanies the volume, input selection, and on/off switches. Perched atop the Piano are four EL-34 output tubes and two 6F2s. The bias of the output tubes must be manually adjusted. No problem. The manual covers bias thoroughly. In fact, it covers all areas of operation, including thoughts on such issues as where to place the amplifier and reasons for changing tubes. And the Piano's styling, with its lit-up acrylic side panel and sturdy tube cage, is really cool. Still, once the tube cage came off, it never went back on. (The side panel light stayed on!)
I usually connect a passive line stage to my amp(s) and a CD player to the line stage with Analysis Plus interconnects. It was not practical to sit the Piano on the shelf where the passive resides, so a reconfiguring of interconnects was in order. Fortunately, my 1.5-meter pair of interconnects reached to the floor, where I placed the Jasmine amp on a Black Diamond shelf. I was therefore able to use the same interconnects that I am accustomed to, and to take advantage of the vibration-damping properties of the Black Diamond shelf that I always use under my amp(s).
This review was postponed a month or so due to my inability to get a handle on the sound of this amp. Oh sure, it is a tube amp. Part of the problem stems from having both an Edge G.5 solid-state amp and a Qinpu solid-state amp here at the same time. Switching these three amps in and out of my system proved both enlightening and frustrating. Compared to the Edge amp, the Piano sounded downright lush, but compared to either of my tube amps, it sounded lean and fast. My initial impression of the Jasmine was that it was a bit bland—it didn't light a fire under the music. Experience dictated that a change of output tubes was in order, so out went the Chinese EL-34s and in went some Svetlanas. After a simple bias adjustment, there was instant pizzazz. Liveliness and musicality was restored. Wanting to go further in this direction, I was stopped by the price of a pair of NOS replacements for the 6F2 tubes—$30 to $60 dollars per pair. Because the Svetlana EL-34s had such a positive effect on the sound of the amp, I left them in, along with the stock 6F2s, for the remainder of my listening time.
Tube amps are all about texture and body, and the Jasmine Piano is no exception. I spent quite a few hours with this amp just watching TV or listening to FM radio and cable music stations. When it came time to get down to business, I still hadn't gotten my Kuzma turntable and tonearm back from where it was being worked on, so my Musical Concepts Pioneer CD player did the music-making duties for this review, as it has for many reviews in the past.
The Jasmine Piano acquitted itself well, for the most part. EL-34 tubes have a reputation for being on the dark, lush side of the musical fence, but that was not completely the case with this amp. The Piano was fast and dynamic, with an extended top end that displayed more light than that of either of my tube amps. I was very favorably impressed by the Jasmine's quickness and dynamic ability. In between a couple of my CDs, someone in my family (perhaps the resident teenager) slipped Shaggy's Hotshot disc in the tray and turned up the volume. The first track, "Hot Shot," showed that the Piano had no problem handling the big Dali speakers. The dynamics of the music pressurized the room, and the bass sounded taut and full. It was also tuneful and articulate, which has been the case with most of the tube amps that have come my way. The amp did a good job of differentiating the sound of a bass drum from that of a kettledrum. It tracked the string bass section of orchestras very well. This quality is one that I consider very important in the performance of an amplifier.
The Jasmine did a good job with the microdynamic shadings on Sade's Love Deluxe. It never obscured the small details of the cymbals or drum kit. Instruments sounded very focused and quick, with nice decay that never sounded exaggerated. The Piano also spread those details over a very wide stage, although the stage's depth was a tad shy compared to the resident amps. Getting back to texture and body, the Jasmine amp favored neutrality over lushness. This was most noticeable when Sade or Shaggy started belting. Although the Jasmine was not as sweet or smooth as my Margules amp, its midrange tone and timbre was very even. The midrange did sound slightly bright, and a tad chalky, but there was still evidence of dimension and air. Instrumental colors were very much present, and images had density, presence, and body. The amp exhibited all of the virtues of tubes without going overboard.
My Margules U280SC is a very flexible amp. Its ability to use several kinds of output tubes, and its ability to switch between ultralinear and triode mode, makes it both user friendly and a sonic chameleon. Outfitted with a set of KT-88 Ruby tubes, the Margules' soundstage was a little narrower yet deeper than the Jasmine's. The top end was extended and clean, but sounded more like I was listening just after sunset instead of in broad daylight (in other words, it was dark). As for timbre, tone, and body, the Margules had the advantage, exhibiting a very clean midrange with true timbres that noticeably surpassed those of the Jasmine. The slight chalkiness in the Jasmine's upper midrange, as well as its lack of sweetness and extension compared to its Mexican competitor could have been the culprit, but even though the Jasmine's midrange was not as smooth, its top end was more extended, with more air and light.
While the Jasmine's soundstage was not as deep, it was wider and better "lit" than the Margules'. This gave the Jasmine a sense of liveliness, which extended into the solid, dynamic, and full bass. Dynamic peaks did sound a bit strained on some CDs, including Dave Brubeck's Time Out. There was a slight distortion on the piano and horn on dynamic peaks. They also sounded slightly bright, which was not obtrusive, just different. In fact, I found the brightness enjoyable, as it added life to the top end. Don't get me wrong—the Jasmine is not bright except by comparison to the Margules, and the difference was slight.
To be fair, the Margules costs more than twice as much as the Jasmine, and since it is strictly a power amp, I have to strap it to my line stage. Not so the Jasmine Piano. Just connect your sources, turn it on, and away you go. Although the differences I have noted above were easily noticeable, they never impeded my enjoyment of music with the Jasmine. Even the slightly un-involving character I first noticed was largely corrected by my tube swap. The Jasmine held its own with the more expensive competition.
The Jasmine Piano has great speed and dynamics, coupled to pleasing timbre and just the right amount of body and bloom. Its smooth sound makes it capable of fending off much of its competition. Add its unique styling (not to mention the ability to swap tubes), and you get an amplifier very worthy of an audition. Francisco Duran
Some things have a feminine look despite being inanimate, and this amplifier is one of those things. It's so damned pretty, with its sensuous, curved, clear plastic sidepiece that mimics a piano. Carved within the curved plastic, the Jasmine name floats, illuminated from behind by an azure light that glows when you switch on the amplifier. Shortly after that, the two small tubes at the rear of the chassis start to glow brightly. A delayed warm-up protects the filaments of the four output tubes, but the process lasts only seven to ten seconds, at which time the output tubes begin to give off their orange thoriated-tungsten light. The whole sequence is something to behold—just magnificent!
The amplifier also announces itself sonically during the light show, with a softly rising hum as the power supply capacitors charge up, but which then quiets to inaudibility. Then you're ready for music. The Jasmine does not exhibit the pops and crackles common to tube gear, but after about forty minutes I heard a single loud crack coming from the right side of the amplifier, even after six weeks of break-in. Speaking of break-in, the Jasmine took longer than I expected to reach its final sound. During the first few weeks, the bass was so ample that I was thinking that I should get some small bookshelf speakers, but after about three to four weeks, the sound became more balanced.
The amplifier is named again on the front left, in smaller script, as the "Jasmine EL-34 PP-Tube Amplifier." I guess the company wants to make sure that you get the name right. The tube layout is unique, in that the output tubes follow the piano shape of the curved chassis, which is superbly finished in satin black and is accented on the right side with a large crackle-painted black box that covers the transformers and extends from front to back. Three black knobs are all the controls you get: (1) a volume knob (noisy in operation), (2) an input selector with three settings, and (3) the on/off switch. There is no balance control, and initially I did miss it because the left channel seemed slightly louder, but after several days, the issue resolved itself as the tubes settled in for the long haul. The rear panel sports three pairs of RCA inputs, an IEC connector for the power cord, and six nice WBT (or knockoff?) terminals covered in clear plastic—a ground and both 8- and 4-ohm terminals for each channel. These covers caused a minor problem when I tried to use speaker cables with pin connectors. The plastic tightened on the pin, but did not make a solid connection, and I thought that the amp had lost a channel.
The circuit must be of the simplest possible push/pull design, with just one tube driving a pair of EL-34s for each channel. Checking through my audio library confirmed that the Jasmine is just that straightforward, with three stages in all—input, phase splitter, and outputs. The first tube is a little unusual. It is not your standard twin-triode miniature, but a triode/pentode 6F2 (a 6U8A or ECF82 can be substituted) that provides both input amplification and phase splitting for the output pair. If there are interstage transformers (which I doubt), they are well hidden under the transformer cover. I did not open the amplifier to find out! This is not the type of push/pull circuit that most manufacturers would use, but the designers seem to have pulled it off nicely.
John Prine's new album, Fair & Square, was my first listen, and it was a sonic delight. It has some great electric guitar that sounded luscious, just dripping with tube-amp sweetness. Prine's voice sounds a little deeper on this album. It has aged beautifully, and convincingly carries his tunes, in many of which he continues to put in his digs at our society's hypocrisy. The album is a great comeback for him, and I recommend it highly. It has a reality and authentic beauty that I miss in the years between his few-and-far-between albums.
The Jasmine EL-34 has a weighty sound. The music has a body and gravity that made me think the amp should cost more than it does. After the break-in, the sound was quite neutral, with a slight roll-off in the top registers that made me realize that it was time for me to dig through the old cable box for something with a little more in the upper ranges. Synergistic Research makes a cable for tube users called the Looking Glass, now available in the X-active version with powered shields, and these interconnects opened things up in a big way. The sound was much more balanced, and had a great, airy openness on the top end. The cables also have the same blue running lights as the amp! In a darkened room, those blue lamps, coupled with the orange tube glow, were mesmerizing.
During the early weeks of break-in, with all that bass, I reached for something heavy duty. One of my very favorite pieces is the soundtrack from The Thin Red Line. The first cut, "The Coral Atoll," starts with a rumble from the orchestra that sounds like a fleet of propeller-driven aircraft coming toward you from a great distance. That sound builds from an unrecognizable groan to a massive crescendo as the piece shifts to the strings. The Jasmine sounded convincing here—not an easy task with such heavyweight material. I've played this album on the systems of some of my audiophile friends, and lesser gear turns that segment into mush. On the third selection, the fluttering violins and bow tapping were easily distinguished for what they were—another difficult feat.
Michael Stearns' The Lost World is another sonic blockbuster, and the Jasmine motored through its remote jungle waterfalls and deep native drumming, vibrating my large room with ease. The tenth cut has some realistic bird calls and an underlay of instruments, then on the far left, well outside the left speaker, someone quietly walks through the brush, left to right. I could easily follow their progress across the soundstage.
After about three weeks, I replaced the Jasmine with my usual Blue Circle preamp and Sonic Frontiers power amp. I may be nitpicking, since the two systems sounded quite similar, but there were differences. First, the BC/SF combination floats images way behind the speakers, which completely disappear. The Jasmine hangs the soundstage closer to the speakers, with slightly less depth of image. Second, even with the Synergistic Research cables on the Jasmine, the highs are not as effortless as they are with the BC/SF pair. Last, the Jasmine's bass sounds very forceful and realistic, but it does not reach as far down into the depths of the frequency range as the SF Power 1. As I say, these are slim differences. I also they might change with different speakers, so I tried some.
I own more speakers than is considered normal, even by audiophiles—I usually have five or six pairs lounging around. One pair of ported bass-reflex speakers uses Dynaudio drivers that are virtually identical to the ones in my transmission-line speakers, except for their age and their different voice coil impedance (the ported pair is 4-four ohm, while the transmission-line pair is 8-ohm). There are other differences, in cabinets and so forth, but I expected the overall sound to be more similar than it was. With the bass-reflex speakers, the Jasmine sounded soft, with the loose, wooly quality of yesterday's tube gear. This may have been due to the speaker's low impedance affecting the amplifier's feedback loop. Or maybe this amp just likes 8-ohm speakers—who knows? Everything else remained the same, so while the bass of the bass-reflex speakers was not as good, things were virtually identical from the midrange on up. I attribute the difference to the low impedance, so if you are in love with a pair of low-impedance speakers, you should try the Jasmine before committing to it.
I am quite taken with choral music, and on weekends I arise at ungodly hours to listen unmolested by telephones and other demands. One of my favorite recordings is Chanticleer's Palestrina—Missa pro defunctis—Motets on Teldec (D106302). Some choral discs have a nasty, sibilant, but not this disc, which is just great. I put it on one morning and went into a meditative state, enraptured by the group's magnificent voices and the disc's glorious sound. The music swallowed me up, calming my constantly rambling and analyzing mind. I was in a place in which nothing but the music existed. I was unwilling even to move my foot, concerned that any action on my part might break the spell. What else can I say? Achieving oneness with the music is as high a recommendation as I can give, and the Jasmine amplifier took me there. Les Mertz