24/192 solid-state versus thermionic style with undisclosed processing speed

To test the JD-100's mettle in the most intimately familiar context chez nous, I compared it against my resident French Cairn Fog player with its optional 24/192 upsampler card ($1,495), all in my 30-watt wuss rig (the term he-man or big rig already being misappropriated by those who own 500-watt Class A amplifiers with bristling heatsinks galore).

Barrio Chino's Méditerra Nostra [Candela/Tinder Records, 861042, 2001] will, in a few days, receive my CD Of The Year award. In the meantime, I used a few of its vibrant cuts to define the similarities and differences between either player. On "Massilia", a male and female voice sing to simple guitar and accordeon accompaniment. The voices are impassioned - refined in their delivery, yet raw with urgency at the same time. There's an emotive charge barely restrained by the simple downtempo tune. And guess what? The JD-100's greater intensity of tonal color portrayed the slightly piercing directness of the accordeon with more swagger, with a subtly greater swell of micro-dynamics. Its entrance into the song occured with more force, suggesting even greater presence. The vocals were more fervent. The Cairn was a mite more aloof - a bit cooler of temperament, but with a more pronounced sense of airiness.

Both exhibited equally quiet backgrounds, the tubed entry in no way handicapped by what expectations might have predicted - a perceptibly higher noise floor. Short of the diverging measure of ardor or image density, the players were far more similar than not.

The hairraisingly vital "Guadalquivir" track showcased larger differences due to a bigger ensemble and far greater compositional complexity. The Cairn was better at sorting out the depth dimension, at differentiating performers in their own individuated spheres. The Jolida's more heated, more voluptuous drama of dense presence reminded me of being mildly under the influence. Your visual perception goes slightly fuzzy but your interpersonal availability of free participation is liberated by a few notches. You laugh more readily, are less shy, wear your heart more openly on your sleeve. You focus less on faraway details. You're more involved with what's right in front of you. Your sense of being present to what is has gotten a semi-hallucinatory boost. Remember, I'm talking slightly inebriated, when this boost is still an enhancement, the slowing down of reflexes minor enough that your important capacities are still fully operational (explain that when you're pulled over).

JD-100 in standby
While this simile of course is a bit handicapped as all such attempts tend to be, it does suggest rather pointedly the essential difference. The Cairn's shaded color temperature equated to greater transparency, brighter aural visibility. The Jolida's enhanced tonal density created more solidity and pop on the stage. This same "molecular compression" made penetration of the soundfield, in its farther reaches of the depth dimension, less automatic.

"Guadalquivir" sports a large assortment of tambourines and chime trees that send sparkling explosions of high-frequency bursts all over the scene. The Cairn's upper-harmonic resolution was superior in its ability to unravel that added number of frantically shimmering metal atoms dancing through the ethers like mad. The JD-100 foreshortened their temporal lives of miniature decays just a smidgen. But with it, each appearance of Taofik Farah's oud -- metallic virilty, incisive force -- carried that extra jolt of Mountain Dew.
JD-100 powered up

The opening on the same track sports powerful bass, hard-working percussion and full-handed piano. The Jolida suffered none of the popular tube-drag notions, excess girth or ponderous physicality. Rather, it perhaps slammed a bit harder than the Cairn for that extra degree of wallop. This conspired again for the creation of a very vivid, emotionally gripping rendition, as though you gazed at a bright summer scene through polarized glasses. Colors pop harder. Familiar surroundings acquire that added infusion of excitement. But I'm not talking the kind of outright (though fun) colored-lens psychedelics that drastically alter color values as though you had traded Gaia for some planet whose atmosphere broke down the visible light spectrum very differently. In audiophile terms, that would be reckless distortion. And the Jolida's slightly polarized version on reality wasn't this wrong kind of distortion. It merely added the acuteness of a minor caffeine rush. Good kind of "distortion". In fact, mighty better for ya than caffeine.

So which player had the better resolution on this high-quality "audiophile-grade" recording?

Now you'll understand the opening exposé with its many qualifications. In case you wondered. In audiophile terms of separation, of maximized decay times, of inner detail and so-called transparency, the Cairn wielded the more sharply honed blade. But for emotional resolution and optimized tonal contrast, the Jolida took the crown. Two different races, two kinds of spectators. Two winners. No losers.

Which one did I prefer? The majority of my listening fare favors complexity over simplicity, rhythmic mayhem over neat order. My reference rig is plenty intense already with the turbo-charged dynamics of the hornspeakers and the image density of the TimbreLoc optimized AUDIOPAX monos. In this sytem, most of the time, I'd favor the Cairn for how its cooler, more analytical mien interfaces with the more "romantic" signatures of the remainder.

JD-100 rear - note twin pairs of outputs
However! My second system around the Bel Canto eVo 200.4 (especially when preceded by the matching PRe1 to remain solid-state pure - no tube-derived distortion in other words) might offset said balance in unequivocal favor of the Jolida's contributions. I moved both components into the adjacent room to test this hypothesis with the Coincident Technology Victory speakers. They had finally transcended their initial out-of-the-box state of sheer unlistenability. They began showing promise while still hovering slightly on the hard side of neutral to severely test my usually good-natured break-in patience. Add some hotter Pop recordings into said mix. This might just have the makings of mimicking a more mainstream rig, fed with a more mainstream diet of merely so-so recordings you love to death for their musical messages, never mind the warts and crow's feet of inferior production values. Can you say "real world" instead of idealized ivory tower conditions?

From blatant annoyance to guilty enjoyment

The header gives it away. The Jolida won. By a long shot. Lemme 'xplain. My living room is considerably larger, its expanse of Italian tiles and curtain-less walls rather more lively than my well-tamed Avantgarde-AUDIOPAX room. I know what it needs but haven't gotten around to it yet. Rectification is doubly damned by my complacency of a dialed-in reference room. To now compound the intrinsic brightness of this space, I popped in Tutus by Turkish Pop diva Esra Özmen [Kiss Muzik]. This is your commercial staple production, close-miked to let you see straight down the throat of your favorite leading lady. In short, an in-your-face affair teetering on the brink of relentless fatigue. But then, Ezra's got such glorious pipes that I overlook these, ahem glaring shortcomings just for a brief contact high on certain needful occasions.

What can I say? The Cairn's tell-it-as-it-is honesty turned mercilessly annoying. 'twas thin, bright, turn-me-off bad. Not its fault, really - but conditions were purposefully stacked against its kind of resolution.

The JD-100 didn't turn a rascal into a saint, but it did transform a torturous sadist into a rascal. While the former is an unacceptable menace, the latter's great fun - with a certain edge you'll want to monitor closely lest he takes advantage of you, but otherwise more colorful, street-wise and vibrant than your typical goody two-shoes.

JD-100 remote control
And yes, this is a lighthearted way of describing things. But you know what? It goes straight to the heart of the matter. If you're suffering from edgy recordings, a bright room, forward electronics -- or all of the above -- the Jolida CD player could be heaven-sent. It can't perform wholesale miracles, of course. It's not fake Maple syrup that drowns out moldy pancake staleness with such cloying sweetness that you can swallow a wholesale mess. But it does inject a potent dose of midrange liquidity coupled to energetic dynamics that add color and brio to proceedings that might otherwise be just slightly offputting or a bit sleepy and flat.

To assess whether this magic formula of system/room/software equilibrium could be displaced again, I now substituted the Art Audio VPS-dm for the Bel Canto PRe1. This is a highly dynamic remote-controlled tube linestage that performs its thermionic voodoo in very refined doses. I played the same cut.

The improvement rendered by the Cairn/VPS combo exceeded that of the Jolida/PRe1 team by a considerable margin. There was now added depth and layering, far more air, a greater sense of overall sophistication and relaxation that knocked the former brusqueness flat on its ass. In short, putting the tubes in the preamp section -- of this particular preamp
-- became the bigger equalizer. Özmen was now highly enjoyable and surrounded by a goodly dose of ambience, the former distractions of shortcomings banished to a fuller assimilation of the music per se. Perhaps she had retreated a bit on the mild side of the passion fence though? Sophisticated yet tame?

I became curious. Would putting tubes in series be too much of a good thing? JD-100 + VPS = mush?

Not at all.The effects were certainly dramatic and larger in scope than the differences between the two front-ends on the solid-state preamp. The somewhat mellow and relaxed character of the Cairn/VPS combo now turned far more dramatic. A certain bluster crept back into the mix, not of glare or edge but overt seduction. The whipped-cream airiness of the VPS remained but was now augmented by saturated tonal values. The expressive envelope of quiet and loud passages expanded to make Esra's vocals more gripping. She was now reaching across space with stronger conviction.

Following up this stand-in track for worst-case scenario was some Anne Sophie Van Oter on Mozart arias. These distinctions in tonality and dynamics remained, albeit less clearly preferential. The differences now came down to nearfield versus midhall seating, the Cairn creating the farther perspective, the JD-100 the more intense one of closer placement.

What many popular notions about tubes overlook is their potential for superior dynamics over solid-state. This, more than tonal voluptuousness, is what makes them sound so alive. What tube detractors cite instead are bandwidth, noise and life expectancy limitations. And while the latter are real challenges that good engineering must account for, the reliability issue in particular is far less acute in low-voltage, low-level circuits. In other words, you want tubes but are worried? Stick 'em at the head-, not tail-end of the playback chain.

You see where I'm going. When you add up the build quality, features, price and performance of this machine from the East (but endowed with US-based engineering as its backside label proclaims); when you count the number of less-than-stellar recordings in your collection versus its showcase examples; it doesn't take hair splitting to recognize that Jolida's affordable Vacuum Tube Reference is an awesome value with real applicability in the real world.

Its particular sonic talents will be especially appreciated in affordable systems that presently lack harmonic finesse and the kind of colorful intensity that thermionic timbres and dynamics bestow. While I don't know the platform Chris Johnson started out with, it's clear that his skillful upgrade of parts in the proper places and values highlights the famed promises of tubes while conscientously accounting for their known weaknesses.

Limp bass? Muted highs? Thick midrange? Forget all that, especially the first supposition. I admittedly had my doubts when I read Johnson's benefits list below the list of parts his upgrade installed. His "bass as good as solid-state" raised my cynical eye brows. Unless the silicon-heart Cairn is underendowed in that department -- and I really don't think so though there's never any telling what a truly monstrous power supply might do -- the Jolida's bass is fully comparable in reach and definition and in fact seems to exceed the Gallic warrior in wallop and displacement. The only thing this player lacked vis-à-vis the slightly more expensive Frenchman - and "lack" is clearly the wrong word as we've established? The last word in spatial resolution.

But for all its heady Euro charm, that fellow lacks some of its vivacious intimacy. Could one have both? I dare imagine. But at what cost I have no idea. I seriously doubt you'd find it anywhere near the Jolida's asking price. The question now simply becomes what kind of resolution your system is more in need of: spatial or emotional?

In case it matters, I twisted Walter Liedermann's arm. My trusty -- but oh-so-long-in-the-tooth -- Denon DCD 1560 finally began skipping on all CDs like a smooth flint stone jumps the water. Since I had to replace it literally any day now lest my living room system go mute; and since this JD-100 fit its bill to such a "T"... it's gonna stay. Walter gets a Showcase spot, I get a music maker. This trade doesn't put food on the table but a smile on my face. And that, folks, sometimes and when you're soft in the head, is the far more important ingredient of the two.

A reader responds: Enjoyed your review. I've had this player (sans the PE upgrades) for about
6 months. I've thoroughly enjoyed it. I've done the tube rolling exercise with 10 or so variants of the 12AX7 variety, and have settled on the GE 5751 triple mica black plates. Suggest you give them a try. Outstanding bass, gentle mid bloom (fabled tubes such as the Mullards just overdo it) and the treble pings with little compromise.

Nice site! I'll keep reading.


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