JoLida Glass FX-10 Integrated Amplifier and Glass FX Tube DAC (TAS 222)

Equipment report
Categories:
Tubed power amplifiers
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Products:
JoLida Glass FX-10
JoLida Glass FX-10 Integrated Amplifier and Glass FX Tube DAC (TAS 222)

My two GenNext sons like their music portable—on iPods played back through earbuds, headphones, or via RatShack hookup to thrift store electronics and scrounged speakers. In this, they’re typical of their twenty-something generation. It’s even hard to get them to sit through any kind of listening session. They start talking about the music, fingering through touch-files stored on their portable drives, sampling and playing blips and bits rather than any one, single recognizable tune. It drives me nuts.

But their lifestyles have them constantly on the move too, jumping from the couch to a party across town, then to a club for live music, to a beer hall for yet another gathering. They’ve earbuds on while cycling around town or riding the bus, while tapping keys on their computer at a coffee shop updating a Web site they’ve designed. Or, if they are still a moment, they’re listening in their apartments via desktop speakers attached to their computers, playing MP3 or Apple Lossless (I’ve converted one son) files. Their music systems need to be small, even pocketable. Unlike Pops, they don’t have what they call, derisively, Big Stereo.

This is precisely why Michael Allen, President of JoLida, a Maryland-based audio company, designed his new Glass Series of components.

“I started thinking that the high end has gone way big and priced itself completely out of the entry-level,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “So I thought up a series of six components—a tubed amp, a hybrid amp, a mini-DAC, a tubed DAC, a phonostage, and a transport—that would be small, affordable to younger people, and provide good sound.”

JoLida has, since 1994, steadily produced a line of normal-sized tube amplifiers known for their good sound and very low prices. When most high-end electronic products might cost in the thousands of dollars per unit, JoLida prides itself in producing equipment, both handsome and musical, for mere hundreds. Designed in Maryland by Michael Allen and a team of engineers, JoLida products are built in China to Allen’s specifications. And, since the mid-90s, the company has also added CD players, hybrid amps, SET amps, and preamps to its offerings—albeit some with prices north of a thousand.

“With the Glass Series, the trick was getting things small,” Allen said. Three-quarters of the design problem had to do with getting the equipment into a box of about 8" x 7" and making the components stackable. “We also wanted the tubes exposed, so that meant there had to be a glass top for the casing.”

Once those problems were solved, JoLida put things into production, coming out first with the FX-10 integrated amp ($499) in 2008, then the mini-DAC ($120) and Tube DAC ($379) in 2009. Forthcoming are the Glass transport, hybrid amp, phonostage, and a new headphone amp.

The Glass FX-10 is a beautiful display box of an amp. Coming in silver or black (mine was black) and weighing in at twelve pounds, it measures a compact 8" W x 7" H x 7" D and feels sturdy and solid. Fit and finish are of high quality. Self-biasing, it uses two pairs of Electro-Harmonix EL84 output tubes and two Tung Sol 12AX7 input ones that sit in front of a tidy housing for its transformers, all enclosed on four sides and on top with heat-resistant safety-glass panels. Assembly was a snap. All I had to do was pull the amp out of its shipping box, place it on its side, and unscrew the four aluminum feet. Pulling the feet out from the bottom of the amp also withdraws the long aluminum rods that hold the amp’s glass casing together. Once that’s out of the way, this allows you to remove the block of Styrofoam from around the tubes that secures them while in transit. Simply replace the casing and screw in the feet/rods, and the amp is reassembled and ready for operation. The look is clean and its size perfectly suited for a desktop or even a nightstand.

Functions are all straightforward. The front control panel consists of four small push-buttons (marked standby, cd, aux, and input), a volume dial, and a 1/8" input jack for an external dock or MP3 player. Blue LED lights above each button illuminate when in use. The FX-10 designation is silk-screened underneath a distinctive, half-inch square gold badge embossed with the JoLida logo. The off/on switch is on the back left rear and the amp goes into standby mode when switched on. Also on the back are 4- and 8-ohm taps for speaker wires, two pairs of gold-plated RCA input jacks, and an IEC jack. When you hit the standby button on the front panel, its LED switches from red to blue and the amp itself bursts with blue light emanating from under each tube. While the amp is operating, the blue light stays on and illuminates the tube bases in an attractive circular parachute pattern around their mounting pins. About the size of a ¼" stack of Monopoly chance cards, the logo-less remote is a battery-powered, feather-light wafer of black plastic with blister buttons for mute, power, up and down volume, sequential function-switching, and also direct switching (to cd, aux, and input). It worked perfectly.

The Glass Tube DAC has the same footprint as the FX-10 amp, measuring 8" W x 3" H x 7” D and weighing only 6½ pounds. It too comes in silver or black and has a safety-glass top silk-screened with the JoLida logo. Like the FX-10, build-quality is impressive. And no assembly is required. While its inner workings are shielded from view by a black metal casing, its two side-mounted Tung Sol 12AX7 buffer tubes are on display, seen either from above or through a neatly done rectangular cutout on the far right of the DAC’s front panel. The rest of the front panel, from left to right, consists of a largish power button and a smaller control button that switches the DAC from its USB, coaxial, or TosLink input connections, signified by a trio of labeled blue LED function lights. In back are a pair of RCA output jacks and the TosLink, coax, and USB inputs along with a ground pin and the IEC. Its components are decidedly high-end—ESA Clarity capacitor filters, gold-plated RCA jacks, and a PCM 1793 TI Burr-Brown DAC. Via USB, the Tube DAC accepts signals at 16 bits at rates from 44–96kHz. Via its coaxial and TosLink connections, it supports 192kHz/24-bit.

“Aside from the size, we basically worked on parts quality, sound, and producing a good soundstage,” Allen said.

Hooking everything up is entirely intuitive. The only hitch might be working with the amp’s speaker taps, as the posts are necessarily very close together and can’t be tightened with a tool. I had to carefully position the spades of the speaker wires so they never touched, and then finger-tighten the knurls by twisting the spades at the same time to ensure a tight fit. I used three different sets of interconnects and two different speaker wires, all with great results. I also used three different USB cables, two different coax cables, a Wadia 170iTransport dock, my iMac (OS X 10.6.8) and both an iPod and an iPhone, each running Apple iTunes (10.5.2) and loaded mainly with iTunes Lossless files (44.1/16). As for speakers, I first used a review pair of Sonist Recital 3s (93dB/8-ohm), then a pair of Sonist Concerto 3s (95dB/8-ohm), and finally, my reference Von Schweikert VR5 HSE (91dB/6-ohm). Things could not have been easier. And, I tell you, the results just knocked me out.

From the start, the pair of JoLida units sounded great. One of the things I like to do late at night is listen to small jazz combos, particularly the great Miles Davis sextet from the late 50s. I turned to an old favorite—“So What” from Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy CK64935) ripped to iTunes Lossless from CD to my iMac’s hard drive. From the first few notes, I heard great presence in the recording. Paul Chambers’ plucked bass seemed to inspirit my listening room. I heard deep, pliant notes thump and resonate in the chamber of its chthonic body. Bill Evans’ piano sent out a rich bounty of harmonics, sometimes in counterpoint to the bass, sometimes doubling it, and other times trailing in light trills of thematic echo. The horns blended in precise, pulsating choruses. And, on the first solo, Miles’ trumpet sounded clean, lightly propulsive, on occasion just shy of piercing, and had a touch of warmth. There was Coltrane’s characteristic swagger in his solo, his tenor sounding burnished and muscular throughout. Finally, Adderly’s swinging alto reached deftly back into Charlie Parker’s bag of speedy bebop and robbed it, not for virtuosity, but for a concise vein of pure sweetness. This was music one could taste and savor.

Wanting to hear what a straight download might sound like, I went to the iTunes Store and purchased Adele’s Live in Soho (lossy AAC). I figured Apple’s MP4 file would put the JoLida amp/DAC combo’s powers of resolution, extension, and micro-dynamics to the test. It passed with flying, portmanteau colors. Adele’s charming melody and swooping wails on the acoustic version of her hit “Chasing Pavements” combined with exquisite coos and titillating high-note piping in a lubriciously intimate style that interwove with a sensitive acoustic guitar and electric piano accompaniment. When she wailed Ohhhhhhhhhwwwww in a climactic passage, there was absolutely no breakup, no clipping—only the dramatic extension of her soulful voice, attesting to the FX-10s power and the Tube DAC’s resolution and smoothness. Yet, Adele’s voice could also sound a bit pushed at times, as though from a bump in the upper midrange, possibly due to Apple’s file compression.

On most rock recordings with male voices, the JoLida gear performed as well as it did with female voice and small-combo jazz. I switched to the Sonist Concerto 3 speakers with their larger cabinets and dual 8" woofers, hooked my iPhone to a Wadia 170i Transport dock and played lossless files of vintage rock like Cream, Traffic, and The Band, and paged through the touchscreen for more of what I wanted. I found U2 and Joshua Tree [Island 7 90581-2]. The Edge’s guitar had a gritty metallic bite and clarity I hadn’t heard before on “With or Without You,” and the studio amplification to his chording added a chiming sustain that was mesmerizing. Together, the tambourine intro, distortion lead guitar, and cimbalom-sounding rhythm guitar chords created a fine tapestry of electronic sound against which Bono’s expressive vocal had loads of complexity—depth, screaming attack, bite, and some raspiness. There were punchy toms and a kickdrum that both sounded almost synth-like. Characteristically, the soundstage was deep and wide. Another thing I noted was the good centerfill. Although FX-10 only outputs ten watts, those watts are mighty mighty!

Yet, at first, I thought the little integrated didn’t seem to have quite the authority of higher-powered separates driving my reference Von Schweikert VR5 HSE speakers once I switched to them. The FX-10 sounded a tad shrill in the violins on Ivan Moravec’s Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 [VAIA 1021]. There was nothing overtly unpleasant, really—piano arpeggios were buttery, liquid, and smooth and Moravec’s trills sounded okay, if not superb and crystalline. There was a nice bass rumble from the piano’s lower notes and fine timing with the Vienna Musikverein orchestra. And, in refinement, the JoLida combo got Moravec’s emphatic inflections on the keyboard, his idiosyncratic phrasing. But violins and flutes were just a shade thin and strained at times and orchestral tuttis sounded muted. However, once I changed wires from the budget-level but very decent Audience Maestros and Au24 jumpers to my reference Siltech 330i interconnects and 330L speaker wires and jumpers, these flaws diminished.

Midway through the review period, I changed output tubes in the FX-10 amp, swapping the stock EL84s for a matched quad of Shuguang Psvane tubes from Grant Fidelity and the stock 12AX7s in the Tube DAC for a pair of Psvane 12AX7s, also from Grant Fidelity. And the sound got even better—smoother, more resolving, with a deeper soundstage, more focused images, even more jump, and a nice boost in midrange warmth. Tonal balance seemed perfect. “No Quiero Celos” from Tribute to Cuarteto Patria by Eliades Ochoa [Higher Octave World 47494] had great pace and exquisite separation of timbres among the numerous instruments.

The JoLida Glass Tube DAC and Glass FX-10 amp are great music-makers, capable of wonderfully rich yet nuanced playback on all genres I tried. Good with their stock tubes and using budget cabling, they sound even better as you upgrade the tubes and wires and match them with speakers sensitive enough to be driven by a low-watt amp. While not the Big Stereo that my Gen Y sons decry, the JoLida Glass gear is seriously Good Stereo—affordable, compact, great sounding, upgradable, and entirely attractive. I recommend both the Tube DAC and FX-10 amp to anyone making the move up from portable sound or simply wanting to put together a quality desktop, computer-sourced system.

SPECS & PRICING

Glass FX-10 integrated amplifier
Maximum power output: 12Wpc at 8 ohms, 1kHz
Frequency response: (1W into 8 ohms) 17Hz–37kHz +/–1dB
THD + N: Less than 1% at 10W output, 39Hz–10kHz, 8 ohms
Circuit type: Ultralinear Class AB
Tube complement: Two matched pairs of EL84 power output; two 12AX7 preamplifier
Bias settings: Self biasing
Dimensions: 8" x 7" x 7"
Weight: 12 lbs.
Price: $499

Glass Tube DAC
Tube complement: Two 12AX7 preamplifier
Frequency response: (1W into 8 ohms): 8Hz–130KHz +/– 1dB
Output level: 2.0V
THD: Less than 0.02% tube out (1kHz)
Circuit type: Ultralinear, Class AB
Dimensions: 8" x 3" x 7"
Weight: 6.5 lbs.
Pricing: $379

JoLida Inc.
10820 Guilford Road, Suite 209
Annapolis Junction, MD 20701
(301) 953-2014
jolidacorp@msn.com

Associated Equipment

Digital sources: Cary 303/300 CD player; Apple iMac, iPod, and iPhone with JoLida Glass Tube DAC
Digital transport: Wadia 170iTransport
Preamplifiers: Lamm LL2.1, deHavilland Mercury 3 line stages
Power amplifiers: Herron M1, deHavilland KE50A (both monoblocks)
Speakers: Sonist Recital 3, Sonist Concerto 3, Von Schweikert Audio VR5 HSE
Speaker cables: Audience Maestro and Au24 jumpers; Siltech 330L and 330L jumpers
Interconnects: Audience Maestro, Atlas Navigator All-Cu, Siltech 330i
USB cables: Wireworld Starlight, Wireworld Silver Starlight, Cardas Clear
Coaxial cables: Wireworld Starlight 6, Radio Shack Auvio
Power cords: Cardas Golden Reference, Fusion Audio Predator and Impulse, Harmonix XDC Studio Master, Thor Red, Wireworld Stratus, Siltech Ruby Hill, Siltech SPX-800
Power conditioner: Weizhi PRS-6, Siltech Octopus
Accessories: Box Furniture S5S five-shelf rack in sapele, HRS damping plates, edenSound FatBoy dampers