The two cascaded regulated power supplies have been replaced with a single one for each channel with “greater capacitance…the result is that the tube stage now sees twice as much capacitance directly as in the other ARTs.”
Johnson says revisions in the ground paths have resulted in lower overall noise and that similar adjustments to the audio circuit have improved high-frequency transient response.
Consider this Part One of the review, with the second to follow (if all goes well) in the next issue. One of the reasons for the delay is the result of an intensive effort over the past several months on my part to assemble a total system that represents a breakthrough in reduction of the distortions and colorations that make present-day reproduced music sound so, well, so unreal, so unlike a simulacrum of the real thing. (Many of those products are getting their Golden Ears here, instead of there.) Price: $25,000.
Joule Electra LA-150 Mk II
Not everyone, putting it mildly, has 25,000 dollars to live with and experience the component whose lack of an electronic “signature” is at the current state-of-the-art, a component in which the line between the music and the illusion of the music becomes paper-thin. Nevertheless, a master designer—and make no mistake, Judd Barber of Joule Electra is that—can use his craft to achieve a wizardly concatenation of the ingredients that make up a linestage to get a kind of musical magic. This unit is so seriously seductive that many a veteran listener will accept its version of the musical “truth” and be happy exploring old favorites in his collection. Part of what makes a great-sounding component has to do with balance, that is, the relationship between the spectra of sound. The LA-150, in its new edition, has bottom-octave response—and this includes the dynamic, as well—that you seldom get in any linestage, much less one at $5200 or so. Oh yes, you can have deep, deep bass (vide, the Burmester 011 preamplifier), but you almost never, in any price range, get the explosive transient dynamics you get here. (Try the last minute of Cut 9 of The Thin Red Line soundtrack.)
What is more remarkable—and to these ears, a bit of legerdemain—is the midbass response, which is even more propulsive, dynamic-contrasty, and three-dimensional. It almost never happens that you get this kind of jolt from the bottom two octaves without one of them being obscured, usually the very bottom (that is, below 40Hz). There is a price to be paid for this, but first let me suppose that I know why Barber has done this. Most speaker systems these days, and maybe even the one that Barber himself uses, really do not have much in the way of a bottom octave, and among their number are some highly touted and highly expensive big systems, say, from out West. With the LA-150, you’re going to think your speakers have bottom-end response like they never did before. And it won’t sound “wrong,” either. That’s because Barber has elicited from the electronics a correspondingly alive and dynamic upper midrange, though not enough of one to make you think it’s a euphonic coloration, so skillful is the design. And all this is bathed in glorious “tube” sound, like a darker version of the classic gear when Audio Research ruled the waves, and with even lower distortion.
If you have something like c-j’s latest ART on hand, you’ll soon enough become aware of a diminishing top octave (yes, most high-frequency transients do get through) in this unit, and of the loss of focus in that awesome midbass. But then again, you may think the c-j sounds, by comparison, a bit anemic in the midbass, until you ears make the adjustment to its rightness there. This I mean as a tribute and compliment to Barber, whose window on the world of sound is entirely convincing when taken by itself as, you might say, its own singularity.
A few more thoughts. According to Barber, the original linestage, introduced six years ago, used a Russian 6C45, a single triode, as the gainstage (which probably, Barber thinks, accounted for a harsh sound that made me disregard the unit). The Mark II version uses a 6350 instead (a tube used elsewhere in the circuit), and with very little feedback.
The unit comes with a remote I am not nutso about. The level and balance adjustments are not subtle, unless, as I learned from Barber, you touch the controls only lightly, as an experienced typist might. It is a plain, utilitarian-looking piece of gear.
What is interesting about the LA-150’s price is this: Given the radically increasing cost of its internal electronic components (resistors, capacitors, even wire), thanks to developments on the international market, five thousand has become almost an entry price for real high-end electronics. That the LA-150 sounds the way it does represents a victory of design witchcraft over commercial realities.