November 1, 2008
Parasound Halo JC 2 Preamplifier
I once had a job that involved going around to small towns in Georgia and writing about what they had to offer to new residents and businesses. Having been a city kid all my life, it was an eye-opener. I learned a lot about the character and resources available in towns of only a few hundred to a thousand or so people. The thing that was most obvious to me, though, was that the dozen or so small towns I visited were all quite different from each other -- far more different, in fact, than the big cities Id been to.
This comparison comes to mind every time I review a product from a small or mid-size audio company. Such products reflect the unique character of the people who founded the company and/or developed its products. Not all large audio companies are alike, of course, but a smaller company can be more easily guided by the passion of one or two key people in ways that are difficult for larger firms.
Case in point: Parasound Products, Inc. For years Ive regularly received a catalog from Audio Advisor, which prominently features Parasound products, and so Parasound had always seemed like a big company to me. What I didnt know until recently was that, far from being a Sony or even an NAD, Parasound is a relatively small concern -- somewhat bigger than a boutique, somewhat smaller than a conglomerate -- and that Audio Advisor is its only catalog outlet.
Furthermore, as a midsized company, it has been profoundly influenced by its founder, owner, and president, Richard Schram, and the world-class engineers and designers who have contributed to the development of its products. Such notables as designer John Curl and circuit-board guru Carl Thompson have contributed their considerable talents to Parasound products, and the late Bob Crump contributed expertise in the selection and matching of parts. Curl added their initials (CTC) to Parasounds Halo JC 1 monoblock power amp as well as to the subject of this review, the Halo JC 2 preamplifier ($4000 USD).
A bit of history
The Halo JC 2 was designed to accompany Parasounds highly regarded monoblock amp, the Halo JC 1. As Richard Schram put it, "From the day we introduced the JC 1 monoblocks back in 2003, weve been asked, How about making a preamp to go with it?" A logical question, but one that Parasound found hard to answer with a product, given the effort that had gone into producing the JC 1.
"The JC 1 was a bit of a skunkworks project," said Schram. "We reached higher with those amps than wed ever gone before. We didnt do anything immediately with a preamp at the same level because we knew we couldnt sell as many."
What finally got the project going was a conversation Schram had with John Curl and Carl Thompson about what a high-end preamp could be, based on intelligent decisions in construction that would minimize sonic compromises yet make it commercially viable. "We knew there was room for a better product as long as we could maintain a respectful kind of pricing," said Schram.
Keeping that goal in mind, John Curl used his expertise in designing preamps for over 30 years (perhaps most famously, the cost-no-object Blowtorch) to eventually come up with the Halo JC 2, a high-end preamp for the audiophile on a real-world budget. When the prototype was circulated among the Parasound staff, the response was gratifying . . . eventually. "We initially had a hard time selling the idea of a new preamp even to our company staff," said Schram. "But when we fired up the first unit and let them take it home, they came back with their jaws hanging down. They were hearing things in their old recordings that they hadnt heard before."
The Halo JC 2 is born
The JC 2 has the Halo lines handsomely sculpted, somewhat boxy aluminum front and a host of useful features, including six pairs of unbalanced RCA line-level inputs, two of which can be switched to accept balanced connectors (no phono inputs, though). There are also four output jacks, two of which can be reversed in polarity by remote control. This is a handy feature when you suspect that a recording youre listening to may have been recorded in inverted polarity -- or, in my case, when I want to see if it really makes a difference to feed my Conrad-Johnson amplifier a signal thats incorrectly polarized with the rest of my system. (It matters a lot.)
The JC 2 also includes hand-matched FETs for each channel, and substantial, 3/8"-thick aluminum shielding between the audio circuit boards to protect the signal from the noise generated by the power supplies and control circuits. Furthermore, an R-core power transformer was chosen over a toroidal design because it was quieter; indeed, the spec sheet shows extraordinary signal/noise ratios of 104dB unweighted, 116dB IHF A-weighted. The crosstalk, too, is excellent, at greater than 90dB. "For low-level signals, toroidal transformers can pass through a lot of high-frequency crud from the power line," said Schram. "Theyre better for power-amp applications." He also noted Parasounds long history with R-core transformers: "Our first 60Wpc dual-mono amp, back in 1981, used an R-core transformer. So we know a little about them."
The manufacturing process for the JC 2 and Parasounds other components is itself a product of the companys philosophy. "We have no interest in building cost-no-object products," said Schram. "But making a really great product at a good price is like walking a tightrope with no net." This is the main reason Parasound products arent entirely handmade. "We keep unit prices down by investing in tooling up front and making a commitment to buy more products from our suppliers," he said. "Even so, with the level of quality we want, were ordering a hundred products at a time, not 10,000."
Setup and system
Many of my days as a tweakaholic audiophile have been spent trying to get from my system a cleaner, more open sound. Ive tried exotic footers, vibration-control devices, shelves and racks, power conditioners and regenerators, and cables of all sorts. Nothing new enters my listening room without being subjected to a full-court press from my tweak shelf to see if I can improve its sound, and its the rare piece of gear whose sound doesnt get better.
The Parasound Halo JC 2 was one of those rarities -- but only after a long burn-in period. While many dont believe that audio gear needs time to settle in, to my ears, the sound of the JC 2 changed significantly over a longer-than-usual shakedown cruise. From about 50 hours until well over 150 hours of continuous use, vocal sibilants were highly noticeable and objectionable. Close-miked recordings of singers were particularly problematic, with several selections from Patricia Barbers Nightclub (CD, Premonition/Blue Note 27290) actually being difficult to listen to. After 200 hours or so, this effect gradually died away. Suffice to say, the JC 2 needs to run in for plenty of time before its sound is fully tamed.
But after those 200 hours, I heard only an openness and a clarity that didnt demand much in the way of change. After trying several different support devices without hearing anything that sounded like an improvement, I left well enough alone.
The other gear used in this review included a Rega P3-24 turntable with Clearaudio Maestro Wood cartridge and Lehmann Audio Black Cube phono preamp, an Esoteric X-03SE SACD/CD player, a Bent Audio NOH passive transformer line stage, a Conrad-Johnson Premier 350 power amplifier, my reference Triangle Stratos Australe speakers, Legenburg Apollo speaker cables and Hermes interconnects, ESP Essence Reference power cables, a PS Audio Power Plant Premier power regenerator, and Stillpoints isolation devices.
During the time I listened to the Halo JC 2, my non-audiophile friend Steve and his family came by one evening for dinner. Steve and his wife, Jodi, were impressed as we switched back and forth between my reference preamp and the JC 2. "The JC 2 sounds more like the musicians are really here, right in the room," said Steve, somewhat astonished. Jodi nodded agreement. "Both ways, you get a really clean sound," she said, "but when you hooked up the JC 2, I could hear so much more."
That matched my own experience exactly. There was something special going on with the JC 2 that made an important difference, and unlike many audiophile distinctions, it wasnt hard to hear. There was a level of articulation, an ability to convey both subtle nuances and dynamics that made the music not only present and real, but impactful and evocative. Furthermore, the JC 2s abilities to create a realistic soundstage and convey the distinctive characteristics of the recording space were unsurpassed, in my experience.
In past reviews, Ive listened to Hugh Masekelas "District 6," from his Revival (CD, Chissa HUCD 3093), primarily for the tonal and dynamic quality of his trumpet solos. Indeed, with the JC 2 in the system, they were as expressive and powerful as Ive ever heard them. But what really hit me was the level of realism and impact from the solo female voice and male voices on this track, which fell naturally into place in a way Id never heard before. The male voices singing in unison had a range of tonal qualities that for the first time were easy to distinguish from each other, and the uncredited female singer had a level of presence and relaxed detail that made it easy to believe she was standing about 6 behind my speakers.
This resolving power made a difference in classical music as well. In the last 50 seconds or so of the middle section of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, as performed by Maxim Vengerov with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic (CD, Teldec 90881), there are six exchanges between instruments, in a sort of call-and-response pattern, that strain the resolving power of an audio system. The test of resolving power comes in the "response" portions of these musical phrases, when several instruments combine in emphatic one- or two-note bursts that sound distinctly distorted through systems of lower resolution. Listening through my reference gear, I can usually hear four of these responses cleanly, and two with some loss of clarity. With the Halo JC 2 in place, I was hugely pleased to hear every one of them intact for the first time. Furthermore, even those that had seemed acceptable before attained a new level of resolution.
The clarity of the frequency extremes through the Halo was also notable. The spec sheet lists the JC 2s frequency range as 5Hz-100kHz, +0dB/-3dB. At the top end, the claimed level of resolving power should imply something about the products ability to reproduce high frequencies faithfully, and the JC 2 definitely excelled in this area. There was no sense of strain -- just a relaxed ease that served the high frequencies and harmonics well. It was at the bottom end where new ground was broken. I have never heard cleaner, more powerful bass from my system, particularly with the Conrad-Johnson Premier 350 amplifier. As with the treble, the hallmark of the JC 2s bass was a sense of effortlessness: the low frequencies were just there, continuous with the midbass and midrange, but with a finely resolved power that was both impressive and easy to listen to.
The downside of the JC 2 was that it didnt quite match up to the best preamps Ive heard, or to my reference preamp, in reproducing acoustic timbres. There was a slight but meaningful sense of the tonal quality being not quite right, of orchestras and individual instruments sounding slightly hard. When I left the realm of orchestral and chamber music, though, this became a vanishingly small quibble, and the Halos dynamic range, detailed bass, and realistic articulation of musical detail carried the day. For instance, when I played a 1995 vinyl reissue of Sonny Rollins classic 1962 album, The Bridge (LP, RCA/Classic LSP-2527), the sense of room presence and the way the instruments came to life in "Without a Song" was plenty good through my reference preamp, but downright remarkable through the JC 2.
Depending on what you most value in your listening, theres a clear tradeoff here. The Halo JC 2 was good enough that I had a few moments of genuine regret that the music I listen to most often would not be served as well as Id like. I had a crazy thought: Do I really like classical music all that much? Cant I get along with listening to just jazz and world music? With the JC 2, I was that close to finding my ideal preamp -- I had the sort of feeling I get when the number on my lottery ticket differs from the jackpot number by only a single digit.
But theres so much to like about this preamp that if your taste runs to almost any type of music other than classical, its likely that the Halo JC 2 is your winning ticket.
Considerations and conclusion
In the last year or so Ive listened to and reviewed a range of high-end preamps from several manufacturers. In that company, Parasounds Halo JC 2 is an astonishing piece of work. As I looked back, I was surprised to realize that its also the least expensive of the preamps Ive reviewed, and in many of the ways that matter, its the most distinctive. Its articulation of detail, its ability to probe the deep inner qualities of the music, and the ease with which it created a "you are there" experience, were unequaled.
One of the joys of traveling is discovering where and how you want to live. If I hadnt toured those small towns in Georgia, I dont know if Id now be living here, in the small city of Appleton, Wisconsin. And if I hadnt heard the Halo JC 2, I wouldnt have realized how much a reasonably priced audiophile preamp could do. If it suits you to move into its neighborhood, youll have a very special neighbor.
. . . Albert Bellg
Parasound Halo JC 2 Preamplifier
Parasound Products, Inc.
Phone: (415) 397-7100
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