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Equipment Review
July 1998

[REVIEW FOLLOWUP]
Joule Electra LA-100 Mk.III Linestage Preamplifier

by Todd Warnke

"Follow-ups—nothing more than double-dipped exposure? On the next Harry Spaniel!" Yep, every time I read a follow-up I have that reaction. So why have I co-reviewed with the long lost and lamented Mike Fenech in the past as well as found myself writing this prologue for a follow-up to a review by Marc Mickelson? First, because in spite of that fact that most follow-ups smack too much of "me too," I like the concept. Trying to understand a component from a single review is like tracing a line when you know only one point on it (actually, understanding a component without hearing it is like understanding a book without reading it—that said, competent reviews can get you headed in the right direction in both areas). So whereas a good review can deliver a lot of information, two reviews, like two points on a line, create much better understanding. And second, after listening to the Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III, I feel more needs to be said about it. So, in spite of the daunting task that awaits anyone trying to follow-up one of Marc’s reviews, I figured I’d give this one a shot.

Discord at SoundStage!

I’ll start with the fun stuff. As much as I respect Marc, I gotta tell you he’s wrong about the LA-100 Mk III. OK, wrong is perhaps too strong a word, but after almost three months with the Joule Electra linestage, I am simply stunned by what it does and so need to take Marc up on his very slightly qualified endorsement. If you re-read Marc’s review (and you should—follow the link at the bottom), you’ll see that he was really impressed with the LA-100 Mk III, especially its bass. As is my wont (just ask Robin, my wife) my first reaction to about any opinion is to disagree. And I’m going to disagree with this as well. It’s not that the bass on the LA-100 Mk III isn’t as good as Marc says it is, it’s more that singling it out has the effect of downplaying the rest of the tonal skills of the linestage. And just about every other parameter of the JE linestage is the equal of its bass, which is immediate, articulate and natural-sounding.

So, starting with the bass, in my system the LA-100 Mk III combines the best of tube and solid-state sound. Dynamic as all get out, like a solid stater, but with the presence and naturalness of a great tube piece, the JE is also very detailed. This gives the bass region an articulation that it especially important to me. My search for the perfect amp has often veered from tube to solid state as I try to balance the warmth and dimension of tube bass with the detail, depth, control and slam of solid-state. The LA-100 has bass that makes me think that I’ve been looking at the wrong component for the solution. When I used the LA-100 Mk III with my 25Wpc, class-A hybrid Blue Circle BC6 amp, I found that its already superb bass control and definition was moved to world-class status. With the Symfonia Opus 10, a 100Wpc solid-state statement amp from Australia (review in a couple of weeks), my Dunlavy SC-IIIs sounded like they had metamorphosed into SC-IVs! Even the soft bottom of the Assemblage ST-40 was tightened and extended by the LA-100 Mk III.

Best of all, the rest of the spectrum was handled as well as the bass was. Marc commented that the treble was not quite as "natural" as that of the Lamm L1 linestage or as "airy and ethereal" as the CAT SL-1 Signature’s. Up against my Audible Illusions L-1, I found that the JE linestage had treble that reached to Mt. Olympus and beyond. Compared to real life, the LA-100 Mk III had an extremely slight immediacy to the mid-treble that added a bit of excitement to recordings. This very, very minor shift was grainless, smooth and natural to my ears. It did have the effect of taking a bit of air out of audiophile recordings, but it also restored a needed bit of vitality to them as well.

As for the midrange, it was also, by the smallest amount possible, a bit more present than absolute perfection, but tonally it was spot-on. Combined, the tonal balance, accuracy and control of the LA-100 Mk III bestowed a dynamic, detailed, and engaging character to my system. Using it with the Theta Miles CD player, the Blue Circle BC6 amp and the Kharma Ceramique 2.0 speakers made for as involving a setup as I’ve heard.

As for imaging, I found that the stage thrown by the LA-100 Mk III was wider than that of my Audible Illusions L-1, as well as that of the Thor Audio TA-2000 I reviewed last month. This is an extreme accomplishment. Depth was on par with the other two linestages, with the Thor having a slight edge. Images on the stage were solidly defined as well. Dynamically, the JE linestage was stunning. It had snap and drive that are essential to accurate musical reproduction.

Taken all together, the virtues of the LA-100 Mk III worked magic on Sinead O’Connor’s "Nothing Compares 2 U" (from her So Far...The Best of [Chrysalis 8 23685 2]). The vocal line is clear and emotive, the strings are natural, and, best of all, the drums at the rear-center of the stage are distinct and powerful. The articulate voice of the LA-100 Mk III highlights each discrete part of the song’s musical makeup, while allowing the parts to speak with a common voice. Very well done.

Other music, such as jazz and rock, sounded as if recorded for playback specifically on the LA-100 Mk III. Classical had more of a front-hall than a mid-hall view, but with that caveat, was flawless as well. Even the ambient/techno stuff I’ve been fiddling with for the past year or so sounded great through the JE linestage.

Harmony returns

Marc mentions in his review that the LA-100 Mk III, while possessed of superb clarity, was not as refined in the treble as the Lamm L1. While I’ve yet to hear the L1 here at the Warnke Mountain Lodge and Music Spa, I also felt that while superbly clear and detailed in its presentation, the LA-100 Mk III was ever so slightly masking some detail. Compared to the Audible Illusions L-1, it was the easy victor, making that unit sound coarse and clouded. But up against the nearly three-times-as-pricey Thor TA-2000, it was a nearly even fight with the Thor pulling ahead at the wire. To be complete, the Thor presents information in a slightly different context than the JE, and I can easily see where different systems than mine would react differently with these two linestages.

This is probably the best place to talk about the overall character of the LA-100 Mk III. Back a few paragraphs I mentioned that the Theta/JE/Blue Circle/Kharma system was as involving as any I know of. That’s true. On the other hand, when I used a Sony CDP-XA20ES CD player, Symfonia Opus 10 amp and the Dunlavy speakers, the system moved from detailed and involving to just detailed. This could be construed as an indictment of LA-100 Mk III, but it isn’t. Rather, I found that the JE was as accurate--and by this I mean it passes through exactly what it hears at the inputs with the least amount of additive distortion possible--as any active linestage I’ve heard. In this respect, once again, it reminds me of a solid-state unit in that, in spite of the tubes, there is virtually no tube euphonics to create false depth, warmth or harmonics. So the Sony source (read the review here), which is a bit thin, had no buffer to hide in. The Symfonia, which is ever so slightly dry, and the Dunlavy speakers (review here), which are the most accurate speakers that I’ve heard in my listening room, gave no final sweetening to the sound. So a quick caution not to avoid the LA-100 Mk III, far from that, but do approach it aware that it will, in all probability, be the most accurate component in your system. If you use involving sources and speakers, your system will retain that character, but will be highly accurate as well (at least as far as the associated components will allow). If your system is bright or detailed but soulless, the LA-100 Mk III will not perform any sonic alchemy. Instead it will highlight the other areas in your system that need work. In my personal hierarchy of system values, this makes the LA-100 Mk III extremely desirable.

So is the JE pre-amp the best so far? Well, the previous best preamp I’ve auditioned (best as in non-distorting) is not a preamp at all, the passive Audio Synthesis Passion. This little and affordable box places just a single resistor along with 3" of silver wire and two sets of RCA jacks in the signal path. It exposes every flaw and every virtue in a system. And while electrically forgiving as passives go, nonetheless it requires careful system matching. The LA-100 Mk III is in most ways its equal. It gives up a bit in absolute detail retrieval, but offers better dynamics and a very slightly fuller harmonic envelope than I remember from the Passion, while being much easier to drop into a system. Yes, it costs more as well, but given the build quality and the beauty of the Joule Elektra unit, as well as its musical skill, I’d put first on the list. It easily handles the Audible Illusions L-1, and in nearly all respects gives the Thor TA-2000 a neck-and-neck run. With that in mind, the LA-100 Mk III is not just a recommended guest if you are auditioning line-stage preamps in the $2,000-$6,000 range; if you want the best possible sound, it is a required attendee.

...Todd Warnke
todd@soundstage.com

Joule Electra LA-100 Mk.III Linestage Preamplifier
Price: $3,295 USD

Joule Electra
222 Post Oak Lane
North Augusta, SC 29841
Phone: 803-279-6959
Fax: 803-279-6461

E-mail: info@joule-electra.com
Website: www.joule-electra.com

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