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JLTi Phono Stage
as reviewed by Roger Gordon
Over the last year I have spent a lot of time listening to the JLTi phono stage in its Mark I, Mark II and Mark III versions. The new Mark IV version is scheduled for release in late December 2006. I bought my JLTi Mk I without ever hearing it. Buying gear without a least one listen is something I don't do very often. However, at the 2005 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest I spent considerable time with Allen Wright of Vacuum State and his DPA-300B monoblock amps. I was very impressed with the amps, but they were way out of my price range. I asked Allen if he made any audio gear that was affordable by the average audiophile. He said that his business partner, Joe Rasmussen, who runs the Australian side of Vacuum State, was coming out with an affordable phono stage that was based on Allen's design principles.
When I returned home I looked at the Vacuum State website and found a brief description of the JLTi phono stage. I started an e-mail conversation with Joe Rasmussen that resulted in my buying one of the first JLTi phono stages produced. To save money and international shipping costs the unit was shipped to me without a power supply. I ordered an 18v AC wall wart from Jameco for US$12 including shipping. I soldered the wall wart wires onto the JLTi connector and I was ready to play.
Out of the box, I was surprised at how good the JLTi sounded. It really did not sound like a solid stage phono stage, it had more of a very well designed tube phono stage sound. In comparison to my Herron tube/hybrid phono stage, which cost almost three times as much, the JLTi held its own. With the JLTi the music arose from a blacker background, bass was stronger and more forceful, and it had a wide expansive soundstage. Where it feel short of the Herron was in the creation of three dimensional images within the soundstage. Producing 3-D images is something that tube phono stages excel at and with which solid state amps usually have trouble. The Herron was also slightly more musical and had a greater sense of ease. For classical music or small ensembles, the Herron is my preferred phono stage. However, for heavy metal and soundtracks created on synthesizers, I prefer the JLTi. This is because its weaknesses are not important—who listens for an expansive soundstage or 3-D imaging on a heavy metal LP—and its strong point, excellent, forceful bass is what the music needs.
After a few days of listening to the JLTi a reality check was in order. Was the modestly priced JLTi really that good? Did it really offer that much bang for the buck? To see if my ears needed to be realigned or not, I arranged a phono stage shootout at a friend's house, Jay Kaufman of Audio Revelation. Jay sells out of his home, but how many brick and mortar stores do you know that have twelve different turntables on display from seven different manufacturers?
On the arranged day, Jay, two audiophile friends and I listened to a Brinkmann Balance turntable with Graham Phantom tonearm and Shelter 90X cartridge, through an Airtight ATC-2 preamp, Airtight ATM-2 amp, and Avalon Opus Ceramique speakers. The different phono stages with which we compared the JLTi included the ASR Basis Executive, the E.A.R. 88PB, the E.A.R. 324, the Art Audio Vinyl-1, the Whest, the Eastern Electric MiniMax, and the $300 Firestone Korora. By doing A/B comparisons with the same LP track, we arrived at a consensus about the relative ranking of the phono stages. The JLTi was preferred over the Art Audio, Whest, Eastern Electric, and the Firestone. Against the ASR and the two E.A.R. phono stages the consensus was that while the four phone stages were different, there was no clear cut winner. They sounded different, but which was the best was a more a matter of preference than anything else. At this point I told my friends what I had paid for my unit. Their jaws dropped. The aftermath of this listening session was that one of my audiophile friends purchased the last JLTi Mk I and my other friend purchased the first JLTi Mk II to come off the production line. Jay became the USA agent for the JLTi phono stage.
By this time you might be wondering about the differences between the four different versions of the JLTi phono stage. The Mk designations are my own and are not designated as such from Vacuum State. The key points are as follows:
Mk IV - same as Mk III except loading jumpers have been replaced by loading plugs and upgraded RCAs.
The 55dB of gain in MC mode for the Mk III and IV is an actual measured figure according to the Vacuum State owner's manual. However, the JLTi handles cartridges as low as .25mv without any problem. This would indicate that it has 62dB of gain.
My friends and I have done A-B comparisons between the Mk I, Mk II, and Mk III JLTis. There are a subtle differences in the sound between the different versions. However, it is just different flavors of the same sound. Which sound you would prefer would depend on your individual tastes.
The current JLTi Mk III sells for US$1650. There is an optional power supply that costs $950. I have not heard the optional power supply. However, people that have heard the optional power supply say that there are gains in some areas, but losses in others. Whether you would like the optional power supply or not depends, once again, on your personal preferences. My two friends, however, have been experimenting with DIY power supplies with their own JLTis. One friend had a regulated power supply built by a very talented member of our local audio society. The other friend had the same person build an unregulated power supply. My friends brought their units over to my house so that we could compare their modified JLTis with my JLTi. with just a cheap wall wart. With the unregulated power supply the sound emerged from a blacker background and the soundstage expanded in width and depth. With the regulated power supply the improvement was magnified; i.e. less background noise and an even larger soundstage. However, for both DIY power supplies these gains were at the cost of a softening or rounding off of the leading edge of notes. I am very sensitive to the leading edge leading of notes and do not like them rounded off as it lowers the dynamics and visceral impact of music. My two friends however, are more concerned about the size of the soundstage and with noise. For them, the DIY power supplies were an improvement. For me, I heard the improvements, but with my preferences, I won't be replacing my wall wart. My friend with the unregulated power supply is going to continue experimenting with different power supply designs to see if he can preserve the sharp leading edge of notes while still getting the larger soundstage and lower noise.
The JLTi phono stage is a very good phono stage that is comparable to phono stages costing twice as much or more. It sounds more like a tube phono stage than a solid state phono stage. However, it has the excellent bass slam and the lower noise floor of solid state phono stages. If you play mostly rock and roll or other music where 3-D imaging of the individual instruments is not important, then buying the JLTi is a no-brainer. This is true, of course, unless you are able to spend major bucks on a unit costing over three times the price of the JLTi. If, on the other hand, you listen to classical, jazz or small ensembles, then 3-D imaging is probably important to you. In which case the JLTi will be just a way-station until you can afford that much more expensive phono stage.
The JLTi phono stage performs far above its price point. I highly recommend a listen if you are in the market for a phono stage. Roger Gordon
JLTi (Just Listen To It)
In the US