Monday, December 10, 2012

Flawless Fidelity - from China??

oving into my new place seemed a daunting task unto itself.  Usually, the first thing to move is whatever device it takes to get music, seeing as that makes everything else just a little bit easier.  Not this place, though.  With its high ceilings, I wanted my speakers to be ceiling mounted and devoid of cables.  That meant cutting a bunch of holes in new perfect walls, which was not only awful but messy.  Yours truly is not the handiest person in the world, so there was no certainty it would be put back together well either.  Nonetheless, after a good week or so it turned out as planned, and it was finally time to attach the receiver and see if noise come out.  Thankfully, it did (seeing as I forgot to do this test before patching all the walls).

Kenwood KR-V5580 circa 1996
Back in my late teens and early twenties I was as much of an electronics and audio buff as I could be with my limited budget.  I couldn't wait for the next receiver to come out with more features and buttons than ever.  Like most "noobs" in this area, it was features and electronics that mattered, not really the quality of the sound or the speakers themselves.  I gave that up in 1996 when I purchased my last Kenwood receiver from a Best Buy type place.  It's been with me ever since, along with some Polk speakers I bought in 2000.  Honestly, I didn't find them half bad, especially after I found that good speaker cable makes a difference.  These days, however, I'm finding that I have to turn the volume up ever higher to get the same amount of sound that I got in the past.  The poor thing is giving out.

Having grown up some, I could care less about features.  I don't want surround sound - not 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 channels of anything - I just want flawless stereo sound.  Walk into any high end audio shop and their premier product is typically McIntosh, a bajillion dollar setup before you even have speakers.  What makes it sound so magical was their epiphany that tubes sound better than transistors.  It's a warmer, richer sound than any other tubeless amp, and an entry model will set you back about $2400 for the pre-amp, maybe another $3500 for the amp, and then some seriously fancy speakers to match.  Nice sound, but is it worth that kind of coin?   Not to me it isn't.  I like music as much as the next guy, but I don't think I'm going to hear the nuances between that and a cheaper competitor.  So I set out on a quest to find a better tube-based integrated amplifier.  "Integrated" means that the pre-amp and amp are in the same box so that you're buying one unit and not two.

Jolida JD801BRC Integrated Amplifier
Atwater Kent Model 10C Radio, circa 1924
In digging around, I came across a Chinese manufacturer called Jolida, who makes tube amps at earthbound prices.  They have a number of units available, but the JD801BRC really stood out.  Aesthetically, this unit is a lot like the early radios of the 1920s.  Back then, simple was the name of the game, so early radio companies simply adhered the components directly to a board.  It looks crude by today's standards, but they had a machine-age beauty to them.

The Jolida build quality is not something that you'd find in your mass-produced iron from China - these aren't made by the thousands.  They do contain some high quality tubes that provide depth and warmth of sound and feature a faint glow when warmed up.  The unit features a power switch, a volume knob, and an input selector for four input sources.  Done.  No stupid features, absurd displays, configuration options, etc.  You add speakers, it amplifies the input source, and produces amazing sound.  It's even nice to look at.  Tubes need to be replaced from time to time and they're not cheap, but outside of that there's no reason why this unit wouldn't last a lifetime.  Weighing in at 47 pounds, one can actually feel that shortcuts were not taken.

The lesson here?  Made in China is not always something to be wary of; the Chinese are producing some pretty amazing stuff at great prices, from audio equipment to furniture to cameras.  Just read about it and do your research; in this instance you can have some pretty high end kit for about 1/5th the cost.  May this be the last receiver I ever own!

--A

Correction: Jolida is actually a US company; the Chinese version is a copycat brand. Buyers beware! There are other good Chinese tube amps though; check out Mei-Xing for example.