By Steve Graham
I don’t want this piece to be a teaser, but I’ve been having trouble coming to grips with the performance of the JIL. It’s not that the JIL bad, quite the contrary: I can’t seem to make it stumble. To put it simply, I haven’t been able to challenge it sufficiently, to find its limits. That’s really a roundabout way of saying that all of my analogue sources are, well, crap. I’m sure you know what I wanted to say there, but we’ve almost beaten that joke to death, right?
The analogue tapes that I’ve digitized have meaning for me, but didn’t really hold the JIL’s feet to the fire, performance-wise. A serious phonographic purchase is in my near future; Christmas present to myself maybe? Until that happens, I’ve resurrected my ancient Sony direct-drive turntable, and installed a new Audio-Technica cartridge that I picked up for 50 bucks on Amazon. The Sony/A-T combo sounds OK, but that’s all. Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone nearby with a serious phono rig that I could use to challenge the JIL.
In the mean time, I’ve created some short files for WoS followers to try for themselves; it’s the Sony/A-T playing through three different phono stages. The analogue signals digitized by the JIL were stored on my HP laptop, running Audacity software. WoS doesn’t have a unlimited bandwidth, and I don’t want to tempt the ire of the copyright holder – so each clip is less than a minute long. They are 24-bit/96-KHz FLAC files of some vintage Canadiana; Valdy and the Home Town Band. In a nod to the approaching season, the song is Peter & Lou. You’ll get the seasonal reference.
You might also need a USB DAC to decode them properly. The DAC chip in my computer gags at any sampling rates greater than 48kHz. Even if your computer will play 24/96 files, its built in software is not likely optimal. Audacity is not ideal for playback but it works well enough, and it’s free! Just import a file, choose your DAC (you might set up your computer’s sound options, select your DAC as the preferred output and set the sample rate), then hit the play button. I also purchased a Meridian Explorer 2 DAC and it seems to work well (review coming). The price recently dropped in Canada from $400 CDN to around $280. In the USA it dropped from $300 (US) to $200.
The audio clips are the same musical snippet. The phono stages (and corresponding file names) are as follows:
“Tube 2” (19.3 mb): A hybrid stage using FET’s, opamps and 2 tubes.
“Tube 4” (19.7 mb): An all-tube stage employing 4 tubes.
“Tube 8” (19.9 mb): An all-tube stage that uses 8 tubes.
I’ll provide the full technical details when I do the formal review, but a few comments for now. To make these clips, all power was provided by my usual PS Audio Power Plant Premier. At no time was there a switch mode power supply (SMPS) in use, and my laptop was running on its battery.
These clips are not intended to determine a qualitative ranking, but just to hear differences, if there are any. But then, we’re always making judgements, aren’t we?
Have listen to the clips above first, before scrolling down to read my listening impressions.
What you won’t hear on the three clips:
- “Tube 2” has a very, very slight buzz when connected to the cartridge, but not when shorting plugs are inserted in the inputs. I suspect the cheesy leads from my TT to the preamp are acting as a bit of an antenna for noise. That didn’t occur with the other two amps though. Out of fairness to its manufacturer I won’t divulge the identity of this component. This particular sample has had a somewhat hard life and has suffered through a couple of repairs. It might not be at the top of its game. No hum or hiss could be heard.
- “Tube 4” has a very, very slight 60 Hz hum. Its power supply, in my opinion, has the filament transformer located too close to its B+ transformer. Why do I suspect this? I’ve made this mistake myself when trying to cram too much amp in to an undersized chassis. Hiss was insignificant with this unit.
- “Tube 8” has a very, very slight background hiss. With that many tubes, their emission noise is bound to compound a bit, I suppose. Hum was not audible.
Bear in mind, the various noises were only audible when a record was NOT playing. Once the stylus hit the lead-in groove, vinyl noise masked any electronic noise (Steve needs a better TT. -Ed). The audibility of the noises mentioned was likely exacerbated by using my Sennheiser 600 headphones, with the playback volume on the Explorer 2 set to max.
Listening for musical differences, I had to play each clip several times. I suspect my “yard sale” grade TT and cartridge is the sonic bottleneck at this stage of the game. The differences I heard were very minor. Some of this might be chalked up to deviation from ideal phono (RIAA) equalization, or perhaps the “voicing” related to the tubes used in each amp. Cartridge-preamp interaction is another possibility.
The largest difference I heard was between “Tube 2” and “Tube 8”. “Tube 2” seemed to emphasise record surface noise a bit more, but “Tube 8” was not noticeably treble deficient. In fact, “Tube 8” seemed to have very slightly more detail on percussion instruments. The acoustic guitar in the left channel sounded slightly “janglier” through “Tube 8”. “Tube 8” seemed smoother, yet more detailed than “Tube 2”.
“Tube 4” seemed to fall in between the other two performance-wise. The detail was closer to “Tube 2”, but its non-emphasis of surface noise was similar to Tube8.
Leave a comment if you wish, let me know what you think. I’m going to challenge the JIL more seriously soon, I promise.
Editor’s note: can one of our vendors please send Steve a nice turntable to review? He’ll probably buy it!