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Roland Pöntinen is a pianist of many faces and he has turned his Bösendorfer 275 into beauty and beast. The JE Audio duo helped to paint colorful tone pictures in Stravinsky’s Petrushka with layers of intertwining melodic lines and accurate weighting of constituent notes within the complex chords. The ferocious Toccatas by Prokofiev and Khatchaturian shimmered and dazzled with contrasting percussive notes that matched the delicateness and exactness of pointillist art. The fast attacks and repeat flurries were inexhaustible spurts of energy that pierced through the air free of drag. The JB TL66 did not excel at the same scrupulous intensity with Stravinsky, Prokofiev or Khatchaturian but made up with exuberant ambience in Rachmaninov and Scriabin. With a more introspective repertoire, the single-ended beam tetrode would please the valve devotees but the balanced push-pull option was not an ambience vacuum, just more purified and perhaps somewhat dehumidified.

Tube preamp + SS power amp vs. SS preamp + tube power amp: When JE Audio's VL20 replaced the Audio Zone Pre T-1 passive preamp and fed signal through XLR cables to the NuForce Reference 9SEV2, dynamics both macro and micro made a great leap forward. Yet the biggest improvement was added warmth that transcended into sweetness on vocals, vibrancy in symphonic works and realism in chamber and solo instrumentals. (CDs included Songs of Rossini [Arabesque Z6623], Schubert’s 'The Great' Symphony [Tudor 7144] and Alberto Williams’ Music for Piano [Marco Polo 8.223799].) The VL20 did this impeccably and never flooded the soundstage with valve bloom. Everything was proportionate and well poised without overt coloration. The tube preamp did a good beautifying job of honing and polishing the NuForce high-rez perspective without compromising realism but rather enriching it from within. That was the major difference with some tube preamps which force excessive valve bloom onto solid-state amps and sound like add-ons.

It was surprising that the physically bigger preamp projected a more concise sonic image of solo piano. With the Audio Zone passive preamp, the piano was in a huge concert hall whereas the VL20 consolidated the image into a café or small dance hall atmosphere that added more Argentine verismo to the Milongas by Alberto Williams. Then it opened up with huge orchestral works like 'The Great' Symphony where the spacious soundstage was generously filled with detail front to back with a good sense of distance and perspective. The balanced preamp somehow aroused more emotional attachment with the Schubert. Was it harmonious richness and majestic grandeur or simply Jonathan Nott’s insightful reading? I started to wonder if the so-called neutrality of the passive preamp was too rationed for switching amps. Likewise the beautiful Rossini duet "La Pesca" sung by Arleen Auger and Jennifer Larmore had the VL-20 elicit natural tonal coherence that made the two voices melt into one and was just as mesmerizing as Delibes’ Flower Duet, although it remained discernible that the soprano was standing to the right of the mezzo.

The combined force of balanced tube preamp and high-power switching amp confirmed a dream partnership of remarkable ability to articulate without losing sight of musicality. The ultimate test was to bring in some Nibelungen firepower. My top choice of the Ring Cycle has to be the epic Decca release by Solti/Vienna Philharmonic that first began in 1959. Instead of going through the 14 CDs picking tracks, I have the Highlights twofer[Decca 466 261-2] to facilitate such auditions. The full course of Wagnerian melodrama included "The Ride of the Valkyries", "Entry of the Giants", "Entry of the Gods into Valhalla", "Magic Fire Music", "Forging Scene", "Siegfried and the Dragon" and "Siegfried’s Rhine Journey" - all on two CDs. I confess that none of my previous system attempts could match this partnership for minutiae and magnitude. Both KingRex PREference + JohnBlue TL66 and JE VL20 + VS70 showed compromised resolution and slightly blurred imaging in the most challenging orchestral tutti. The Audio Zone + NuForce combo did not sustain the firepower.

Changing partners sometimes ends up in tying a knot. In the case of the NuForce P9 + VL70 proposal, that was a dead knot. I immediately felt let down in tonality which turned lackluster. The sweetness was gone. It was surprising that valve bloom was less evident because I’d have anticipated the reverse. High-pitched vocals were a shade brighter but sadly did not translate into more clarity. The orchestral layout in Schubert’s "The Great" lost focus. The energy was more a show of brute force in The Ring. Soundstage was narrower, deeper but pushed back and compressed. This was an unfortunate mismatch that once again proved the importance of synergy rather than any incompetence on the part of individual components.   

Balanced tube system vs. unbalanced transistors: Symphonic Line amplifiers are mostly solid-state designs but among fans enjoy a reputation of sounding as warm as tubes (the rub-off effect of their flagship tube preamp Erleuchtung perhaps). As a contented user for many years having upgraded from RG3/RG4 MkII to MkIII, that’s precisely the reason for my loyalty. Anyhow, putting them to the test against a tube system with ultra-low noise and high resolution that had already put a lot of solid-state amps to shame would be interesting. First I let the JE Audio challengers take center stage.

Aided by the Apogee Centaur Minor, they carved out a holographic sonic image with Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjeuz [Mercury 434 369-2]. Full frequency expansion was augmented by tonal balance and rich timbre – everything one could have asked for in this colorful masterpiece. Ditto for Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony [Naxos 8.570568] although here the colors were largely overshadowed by the desolate hue of Byron’s tragic plot. Yet in the second movement portraying Byron’s journey through the Alps, the solacing second theme not only brimmed with sonic rainbow colors but also evoked an emotional appreciation of nature's beauty.

I was magnetized and kept feeding CDs into the Restek player. The latest release of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by Thibaudet/Alsop/Baltimore SO [Decca 478 2189] brought the pianist and the big band to life with a soundstage that extended beyond my three walls. Piano tone was pearly, leaps and attacks were ferocious and the caressing arpeggios sensuous. Éduoard Lalo’s grand ballet Namouna [ASV CD DCA 878] was another hard-to-crack orchestral monster that prompts me to call the composer the French Wagner but again the JE Audio delivered with hardly a fault. Only here did I realize that the paired Mark & Daniel subwoofers were not powered on even though I had their power cords plugged in and intended to audition with them fearing that the JE Audio would be marginally bass shy facing the Symphonic Line powerhouse. My fear was entirely unjustified.

So I turned to the lighter side. Soprano Julianne Baird and lutenist Ronn McFarlane revealed the pithy of English Lute Songs [Dorian DOR 90126] with grace and lyricism while the JE Audio duo complimented them with charm and a candid balance between the expressive vocal vibratos and the intricate fret work. The musical atmosphere could best be described as clean, pure, with the right degree of airiness and not gravitating towards bloated resonance.

With the English Lute Songs still spinning, I swapped in the Symphonic Line. Immediately there were enriched harmonics. Decays lingered longer. There was more air around voice and sound box of the lute. In a blind test, I would have pegged this as the valve amp system. The saxophones and wa-wa trumpets of Rhapsody in Blue also had a more bluish hue. But I definitely preferred JE Audio for the more holographic instrumental localization within the much deeper soundstage. JE also maintained a better proportion of the piano where the Symphonic Line slightly inflated the piano during loud passages. Increasing volume without increasing image size has always been one of the biggest challenges for tube audio amplification. The JE Audio’s patented circuits paid off handsomely.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some tube aficionados associated the Symphonic Line’s warmth with musicality. I myself have done so for years. But a revelation dawned at long last. Of all the tube amps that stood next to the Symphonic Line in years past, none had me realize that co-existence of definition and musicality was attainable and admirable. Lalo’s Namouna was infectiously warm, piano was meatier and fuller with the Symphonic Line and I’d never have doubted it until I heard JE Audio’s more precise focused imaging, faster transient speed, snappier punch and tighter bass especially with the Assemblage D2D/DAC's 24/96 upsampling. I had to sit back and think. The refined definition was not alienating musicality but collaborating to take music reproduction—or rather musical enjoyment—to the next level.

In case my clumsy expressions get in the way, two of my fellow writers have articulated the same notion earlier. Joël Chevassus in Fragile Souls III: "Alas, many audiophiles have utterly distorted the notion of a valid musical reference by what they call "musicality". To many forum posters, musicality seems to be the opposite of a "precise and detailed reproduction of music". It seems strange to think that one should simplify the dimension of sound to preserve the musical essence. Some people—originally manufacturers and advertisers—have used this concept of musicality to justify the poor technical performances of their products."

Chris Redmond in Artisan Silver Dream: "It's important to note that increasing resolution should not result in a more analytical sound. When resolution increases across the board, bass becomes more defined and gains more character to add a more musical foundation. The quality of bass also impacts ambience and acoustics, which in turn impact soundstaging which affects depth and ultimately realism." Realism. That’s exactly what JE Audio designed for.

Juxtaposing Everything to scale: Handicapped by my restricted arsenal, I formed an assessment of JE Audio's potential and touched upon some issues that may concern those in the market for a tube system or who are considering mixing tubes with transistors.

Without going into details, let me summarize my findings of mixing JE Audio with Symphonic Line and other related auditions in scaled form and bullet points. The following scales are based on the notion that we accept musicality and definition as dual-pronged attributes which work hand in hand instead of sliding on a polarized scale. On the scale of 1 to 10, 5 is passable, 7 is good, 8 is very good and 9 is excellent.

Preamp + Power amp Musicality Definition Total
JE VL20 + VS70 8.5 9 17.5
SL RG3 + RG4  9 7 16
JE VL20 + SL RG4 8 8.5 16.5
SL RG3 + JE VS70 8 7.5 15.5

The VL20 consistently showed high potential pairing up with solid-state amps, first the NuForce Reference 9SEV2, then the Symphonic Line RG4. High-power transistor amps of course broaden your choice of loudspeakers. Conversely, matching the VS70 to solid-state preamps should be done with caution. As my two experiments showed, the wrong contender may undermine the sonic virtues of the VS70. The Symphonic Line duo proved to be the perfect match for both Apogee Centaur Minor and Mark & Daniel Diamond. The JE Audio duo and Apogee complemented each other perfectly but the M&D Diamond proved the wrong match. High frequencies became too hot and overexposed. In addition to low efficiency 4-ohm speakers like Apogee Centaur Minor and Dynaudio Facette, other good matches for the JE Audio duo included the Loth-X BS-1 and Klipsch Synergy F2, both being high-efficiency 8-ohm speakers. However, I personally felt that the JE Audio's potential was not fully tapped by these entry-level models.

Conclusion: JE is for jealous competition
. JE Audio has placed itself in an enviable position of redefining tube amplification with attention to finer inner details that put most solid-state amps to shame. At the same time their ability to conjure up palpable musical realism leaves traditional tube amps in the cold. They form a bridge that crosses two worlds separated for decades. This is a thorny road for a valve amp manufacturer to take. The bulk of tube aficionados don’t normally look for these qualities in tube amps and rather burn this bridge for good. But that doesn’t mean minds can't be opened. Heads are already turned. The unorthodox chassis design of JE Audio is an eye opener - or even eye candy as it is for yours truly.

Sonically, JE Audio is not alone. I can recall two tube amp manufacturers that have been treading the same path. I didn’t have the luxury of actually comparing them with JE Audio but only listened to these amps separately in their Hong Kong showrooms years ago. Their dedication to realism through high definition was hard to forget and left a lasting impression. The first was a Rogue Audio R99 preamp with M150 monoblocks used in a Guangzhou recording studio as monitoring system. The second was the Octave V80 integrated amp, which rightfully garnered the Blue Moon Award for "Tubes done right for transistor fans" from our publisher. Although these amps are featured with XLR sockets, none of them is truly balanced. The JE Audio duo is, from head to toe - and it sells at a fraction of their prices. Hats off then to John Lam, designer and founder of JE Audio. He wins a well-deserved Blue Moon Award for his VL20 and VS70 balanced valve machines that should make both tube and transistor competitors jealous.

Quality of packing:
 Double carton box with foam cradle.
Reusability of packing: Unlimited times if shipper handles the cartons with care.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Entirely unproblematic.
Condition of component received: Immaculate.
Completeness of delivery: Amplifiers delivers with tubes fitted. No power cords.
Quality of owner's manual: Comprehensive and detailed. 
Website comments: Absolutely professional with informative FAQ and white papers.
Warranty: Must register within 30 days after original purchase to validate three-year warranty on parts and labor (tubes 90 days). Failing to do so will reduces warranty to one year. Warranty is conditional and non-transferable. Terms and conditions are posted here.
Global distribution: Global network not yet established. Direct purchasers should specify local voltage requirement.
Human interactions: Professional and friendly, timely responses to questions, forthcoming about technicalities. 
Pricing: Exceptional value.
Application conditions: VS70 power tubes (KT77/EL34/6CA7) require manual adjustment of bias current. On-board LED indicators provide for easy adjusting and no external meter is required. Full instructions in the owner’s manual.
Final comments & suggestions: Balanced silver cables offer optimal synergy. Balanced connections from source components are preferred.

Manufacturer’s comment: I would like to thank David Kan for his thorough review. It has been quite a long time since I shipped him the amps. When David was about to complete his reviews, he was caught up by a number of urgent assignments. However, these did not prevent him from asking many technical questions related to our product design. After the last question, only a few days would pass until I'd receive another email for one more last question. If I remember correctly, this situation went on for a few months. But I must say this also helped me a lot as it reinforced my understanding of design fundamentals. - John Lam, JE Audio
JE Audio website