Joule Electra LA-100 Mk.III Linestage Preamplifier
by Todd Warnke
"Follow-upsnothing 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
itthat 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 Marcs reviews, I figured
Id give this one a shot.
Discord at SoundStage!
Ill start with the fun stuff. As much as I
respect Marc, I gotta tell you hes 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 Marcs review (and you shouldfollow the
link at the bottom), youll 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 Im going to disagree with this as well. Its
not that the bass on the LA-100 Mk III isnt as good as Marc says it is, its
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 Ive 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 Signatures. 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 Ive 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 OConnors "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 songs 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 Ive been fiddling with for the past year or so sounded great
through the JE linestage.
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 Ive 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. Thats 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 isnt. 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
Ive 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 Ive 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 Ive 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,
Id 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.
|Joule Electra LA-100 Mk.III Linestage
Price: $3,295 USD
222 Post Oak Lane
North Augusta, SC 29841