How you react to anything is always a function of what you're used to. Having lately listened to two upcoming review subjects for a first taste of their respective characters -- Coda Technologies' new S5 amplifier with 50 pure but cool-running, hellaciously fast Class A watts with MOSFET voltage gain and massively paralleled bipolar current output stage; and Peter Thomsen's extremely airy Acoustical Reality 120wpc digital IcePower amp from Denmark -- the Return of the Tubes instantly telegraphed itself in expected ways. Valve hounds refer to those as bloom, wetness or tonal fullness. This was accompanied by reduced leading-edge acuity, as thought the emphasis had shifted from the notes' transient beginnings to their middle section of sustain; more harmonic body for greater density but also less micro detail; slightly obscured decay lengths; and a stronger 'presence lock' on vocals.

More surprising than meeting these usual suspects of the tube debate was how well-behaved within the overall frequency response these attributes appeared because they weren't restricted to an overly spotlighted midrange. Instead, they found themselves balanced on either side by from-the-same-cloth frequency extremes. This element of continuousness - um, continued in the dynamic fabric which, especially compared against the Coda amp, appeared more like the round pebbles you find on the beach. They're smoothed over by the eternal handiwork of the water, craggy surfaces and sharp distinctions polished away. Those reduced micro-dynamic contrasts and softer leading edges made for a more blended, less charged presentation - more milk in your coffee. In the give-and-take of audiophile considerations, this shift away from the edgy elements of music now turned toward the dimension of tone and texture. One way to suggest this shift is as away from looking at the music from the outside in. Away from the angular elements of certain notes 'sticking out' as dynamically louder than others. Away from articulating the music with shapes, defining its action with punctuation and exclamation marks.

Rather, the Jolida then looked at the music from the inside out. Instead of measuring the musical sentences by their rhythms as narrated and defined by commas, colons, semi-colons, parenthesis and line breaks, it explored the sound of the actual words, the feel of those sounds. It softened things. It felt more relaxed, less propulsive and invigorating. Now we need to make a very brief conceptual detour into reviewer language and to what I believe is the purpose of a review. When it comes to the smallest details, components will sound differently from system to system - that's a given. Agonizing over such micro attributes or behavior then becomes patently useless since it won't ever be exactly repeatable elsewhere.

In my mind, a reviewer should instead attempt to capture the most essential character of his subject. Rap over its most recognizable features such that they will remain constant, more or less, no matter where you encounter them. A superior sidewalk sketch artist in Venice Beach or Las Vegas will capture the likeness of his subjects with surprisingly few strokes and very quickly. He does that by instinctively isolating certain core features -- bushy eye brows, close-set eyes, a soft chin, a constant smirk, a hooked nose -- and then overemphasize them to make his point. Nobody could (or would) claim that the person in questions really looked that way. Regardless, 10 out of 10 people could pick that person out of a crowd of 100 without any hesitation or mistake.

That's really the essence of caricature - not something grotesque or satirical but a surprisingly concise character sketch. Good audio reviews are like that. To paint this character sketch, they focus on certain core features and then enlarge them to make them recognizable and meaningful to the reader who hasn't heard this component for him- or herself. The danger enters when the reader doesn't 'shrink back' such descriptive overreaches and minor exaggerations.

Does this guy really have a pointy 2-inch nose, for example? Of course not. But relative to his physiognomy, it is rather prominent. Ditto for my comments thus far. The Jolida isn't dynamically challenged - dynamics just aren't one of its core features as they were with the far dearer Manley Labs monoblocks. The Jolida isn't so much detail-challenged as that the 'diversification' of the musical message into endless strands of details isn't its forte.

The Jolida isn't so much about the visual aspects of audiophilia as it is about the feeling dimension. It's more passive, less active. Hence the usual visual details of performer outlines don't jump out at you - there's more glow between the empty spaces. This makes the details part of something greater. It is this something greater you notice, not the details.

Curiously enough, more apparent detail per se can sometimes equate to less wholeness, more starkness. For example, even a bona fide chef would have to take six or seven spoonfuls of the famously complex Indian Mulligatawny soup to isolate, perhaps as two or three at a time, the various ingredients a particular family version of the recipe called for. Do you really wants these spices to divide, jump out and spell their presence out to you? Or do you want them to blend and, in a way, disappear into something larger? There's no right answer to this question, simply preferences and different degrees of 'holistic resolution' - and the Jolida would appeal to those who not only don't want to isolate and identify those spices but also prefer to step back a few rows and trade the greater separation of the nearfield for the more blended mien of the farfield.

Vicente Amigo's stunning "Concierto for Flamenco Guitar and Symphony Orchestra" [Poeta, Sony Records SRCS 8532, 1997] proved perfect playground to observe these effects in action. Rather than honing in on the edgy, articulated, angular frisson elements of Amigo's guitar and their echoes in large juxtaposed sections of the orchestra, the JD300 focused on the singing qualities of the composition. Areas of specific mayhem -- complicated rhythmic structures interfacing like multiple zippers but requiring extreme precision, articulation and incisiveness to mesh and catch -- ended up blurring a bit, coming across as rounder, softer and less clear-cut than I'm used to with this true 'reference' recording (very hard to find but well worth the effort!).

Chris Johnson conducted a low frequency square wave test on the JD300's transformers and pronounced the measurements "extremely good for a SET design - exceptional performance at the frequency extremes, not a traditional strength of a tube amp". Thus presumably more a function of the chosen output tubes (Russian Electro Harmonix) rather than the iron behind 'em, the 300B-typical midrange-y focus has definitely expanded in this implementation and thus been equalized or spread across the entire audible spectrum. Still, the end result didn't exhibit the kind of treble openness and airiness you get with solid-state amps and especially many of the modern 'digital' variants.

This meant that some of the ambient cues present on the Amigo recording weren't resolved with quite the usual 'clear skies' visibility, feeling a bit opaque. This brings me back to my earlier statement that the Jolida is less of a visual and more of a tactile performer. Alas, strategic system tweaking managed to banish a certain overcast in that department. In my review of the Omega Mikro Ebony digital interconnect with active DC bias on its barely-there mesh shield, I described how amazingly potent of an aural Tylenol it is. To stay with this image, it thins the blood to quicken the pulse. It also mandates carefully measured employ to not abandon all body in the quest for speed and treble brilliance. After all, it unapologetically works as a thinning agent, stripping away fat and grizzle. Replacing the warmer, fuller Furutech Digi. Reference sound with this very fast, open, crystalline and immediate Mapleshade signature sound was, on the Jolida, a match made in heaven. I got more apparent resolution without upsetting its very melodious core traits. .

Further substituting the open while full-bodied Z-Cable reference wires currently in for review with my customary HMS Gran Finales enhanced apparent transparency another few degrees by not adding extra body, something this amplifier clearly doesn't need. While the final balance between mellow density versus more excited transparency can clearly be tweaked, it should be clear by now that the living quarters of the JD300 do reside squarely within the general expected 300B neighborhood, far more so than the more brazen, 'modern' Manley Labs monos..

Coming off the kind of resolution the aforementioned transistor amps provide, never mind the astounding directness of the Second Rethms, I now could enjoy the Jolida on the kind of rhythmic fare I fancy while still noting that, for my personal taste, a bit more incisiveness would have been welcome. Naturally, the JD300 veritably shines where you expect it to - with timbral glory. Very much to its credit, it avoids the mush and soggy condition of thawing snow I'm dealing with right now each time I have to clean my mud-encrusted shoes.

It is an intrinsically soft but not sluggish amp - the lower and midbass are too well controlled for that. While the term 'caressing the music' would exaggerate what I heard because it suggests a higher degree of lushness than was in fact present, something along the lines of 'gentle poetry' does seem rather fitting. This had me naturally gravitate to less driven music which innately complemented this approach. For a reality check and while still in Vicente Amigo mode, I inserted the eVo 4 which Bel Canto recently dispatched in place of my former 200.4 incarnation to allow for a completely current comparison with the IcePower amp. Going from 9 watts SET triode to 360 watts of bridged Tripath power fed balanced from the PRe6, this was, needless to say, worse yet than comparing apples and oranges. Forgetting the power discrepancy which, on 103dB sensitive speakers, is literally a mute point since you play in the 2-5wpc output band, this exercise showed a far more resolved and airy presentation that removed the remaining inter-note bloom or thickness to finally do this extremely well recorded album complete justice: More spatial cues; better separation; more brilliance on strings, more incisiveness on percussion and palmas; longer decays of fading sounds in the recording venue when individual tracks ended.

Coming back to earth, these improvements didn't invalidate the half-as-expensive single-box Jolida. Double the money should buy noticeable refinements. It simply represented two possible positions within the opposing poles of resolution versus romance. With the immediacy of superior SETs, the resolving power of first-rate sand amps and a very easy listening quality without any etching, the Bel Canto occupies a very becoming middle ground. With the warmth and relative seduction of good tube amps, the Jolida moves away from the middle toward romanticism but stops well short of syrupy excess. Because it doesn't pour its tube attributes exclusively on the vocal range, you won't hear what Dennis Had of Cary refers to as Deep Triode, that extreme glow-by-the-fire thing. The Jolida practices more moderation or restraint. In the final analysis, it is a beautiful sounding amp that, for my tastes, only makes music with less 'active tension' than I crave.

Surveying the scene of 300B amps I know about, the Jolida JD300B Level-2 is clearly fabulous value considering its build quality, functionality and extremely low self-noise. Its resolving power should be well suited for the kind of financially matched front-ends that are likely to become its mates. The very non-finnicky, wide-angle remote worked flawlessly. Its inclusion predicts far more open doors for this affable 300B integrated than were this feature missing. It has, after all and rightly so, become nearly de rigeur in the real world. Listeners who sympathize with my expressed sonic biases are advised to experiment with intrinsically fast and neutral -- or even slightly lean -- cables. They'll balance against the amp's obvious body and density. Those listeners who adore 300Bs for what they do with such particular panache will love the Jolida as is. Because of its numerous inputs, you can build a rather complex system around it.

Naturally, the usual common sense with regards to power limitations applies here, too. Consider 91dB-or-higher speakers with a narrow impedance window around 8 ohms. They should preferably not be complex multi-ways but simple two-ways such as Cary introduced at CES 2004. In the $2.5 - 3.5K range, the options for integrateds are larger than ever, both for solid-state and tubes. But as soon as you narrow down the tube choices to 300Bs, things get rather skinny. Demand remote control to boot and they become outright barren. If this budget range is you as is a lustful Jones for this 'king of triodes', today's custom-modified Jolida -- or perhaps even its stock version -- finally give you something to play with. And once you have played with it, you might call it exactly what you had been looking for all along.
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