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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Audio

Listening to LPs: Explorations in space and time

The Audiophiliac digs deep into the sound of his LPs with the Parasound Halo JC 3+ phono preamplifier.

Over the last week or two, I listened to my copy of Prince's "Purple Rain" LP a bunch of times -- it's the one I bought in 1984 when it was first released. Great music like this never gets old, and with a stellar turntable like my VPI Classic, Ortofon Cadenza Black moving-coil cartridge, and the Parasound Halo JC-3+ phono preamp, my "Purple Rain" LP sounds better than it did when it was brand new. That's one of things you have to realize about LPs: the well-recorded ones tend to sound better and better as you upgrade your analog system. Thirty-two years on, "Rain" has more to reveal.

Parasound Halo JC 3 phono preamp

Parasound

Of course, listening to Prince since his passing carries more emotional weight, and that led to thoughts about the one and only time I saw him live, right around the time "Purple Rain" was released, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. During the show, I felt Prince was somehow taking Jimi Hendrix's music to the next stage, the next plane. Prince's guitar genius was part of it, but also the way he radiated energy that night -- he clearly wasn't just another pop star.

With the JC 3+ preamp in play, I became newly aware of "Purple Rain's" deep and atmospheric reverberation, especially on the title track. It was always there in the grooves, but the reverb was less present and covered over by the instruments and vocals. Now, the reverb literally adds a sense of depth to the sound of the music. It may not be the most dynamic recording, but it kicks harder now -- Prince is in the house!

When I played John Coltrane's "Blue Trane," his tenor sax' tone and body were more like the real thing than I remember from this LP, and Coltrane's sidemen were really listening to each other. When I hear that on a jazz recording, that the music feels like it's happening in real time, that's a real thrill.

There's a lot going on -- more details, more density to the music, more texture, more resolution -- the JC 3+ dredges up more of the good stuff from my LPs. Music is more interesting, more engaging. Other phono preamps can sound perfectly fine, but here with the JC 3+ it's like I'm listening to a better phono cartridge or turntable.

Playing through a stack of LPs, the thing that stood out was how different each LP sounded. Take African Head Charge's "My Life In A Hole In The Ground" -- the bass was huge, providing a heavyweight foundation for the band's psychedelic Afro inspired dub workouts; then Miles Davis's ever-changing kinetic rhythm section on his "On the Corner" LP; and then chilling out with Brian Eno's brilliant "Music For Films" ambient LP, as each track unfurled a surreal soundscape.

The JC 3+ handles moving-coil and moving-magnet phono cartridges -- it was designed by John Curl, creator of the legendary Vendetta Research phono preamp in the 1980s. Since the early 1990s, Curl has been designing amplifiers for Parasound, which is based in San Francisco. In the early 1970s, Curl worked his magic on the Grateful Dead's concert and recording sound systems, and later kept the Jefferson Airplane aloft.

The Vendetta is still sought after on the used market, but the JC 3+ represents Curl's latest thinking. It's a "dual mono" design; each audio channel is separately enclosed in its own extruded aluminum enclosure within the JC 3+'s chassis. I was pleased to see a "mono" switch on the front panel -- it comes in handy when you play monophonic LPs. Moving-coil cartridge impedance loading is continuously variable between 50 and 550 ohms or fixed at 47,000 ohms. The JC 3+ has RCA and XLR stereo output jacks; it's a full-size component measuring 17.25 inches (437mm) wide and weighing 19 pounds (8.6 kg), and it's available in silver or black finishes.

To finish up I compared the JC 3+ with the Tavish Design Vintage 6SL7 tube phono preamp. The Vintage 6SL7 produced a bigger, more "holographic" soundstage, but the JC-3+ was more dynamically alive, and its bass went deeper and was better defined than the Vintage 6SN7's. The Halo JC-3+'s sound was more precise, the Vintage 6SL7's more romantic -- both are excellent.

The Parasound Halo JC-3+ sells for $2,995, £3,299 and AU$5,995.