In the interests of transparency readers should know that the $2999 Parasound JC 3+ has been my reference phonostage since I reviewed it in Issue 245. I say this not because I’m partial to Parasound products in general, but because I flat out believe there is no better phonostage on the market within shouting distance of its price. For me, the John Curl designed JC 3+ has consistently drawn forth a wealth of musical and sonic detail from a range of cartridges. Its build-quality is superior and by today’s affordability standards it has a staggering price/performance ratio. So, what happens when Parasound taps Curl and his partner, circuit board designer Carl Thompson, to make lightning strike twice at a cost half as much as the JC 3+? The JC 3 Jr. is what happens.
To understand how they did it I needed to speak with Parasound chief Richard Schram. As Schram tells it the key question was how to allot the more limited resources where they’d benefit sonics the most. Discussions began in early 2016 with wizards Curl and Thompson, and it was agreed the Jr. would employ key core technology of their previous efforts, including a direct-coupled circuit using DC servos and Curl’s signature RIAA EQ circuit with the same REL capacitors and passive parts used in the JC 3+ (and Curl’s iconic Vendetta Research SCP-2), plus a sophisticated power supply with a common-mode inductor and high-speed/soft-recovery diodes.
But something had to give—and first on the chopping block was the costly dual-mono architecture with its individually shielded vaults for each channel. The R-core transformer for the 3+ also gave way to a more prosaic toroidal variant, as did the independent power supplies (Jr. uses a single PS) and larger filter caps for each channel, and lastly the internal AC line conditioner. While many of the parts are the same or similar, the JC 3 Jr. uses a single, high-quality volume potentiometer that’s less expensive compared with the pricey, dual-channel, custom Vishay pot of the JC 3+. Its low-profile chassis also contributed to cost reduction.
At a wafer-thin 2.5 inches tall the JC 3 Jr. may resemble a 3+ after a close encounter with a pastrami slicer, but there has been no scrimping on features and configurability. Designed to be optimized for moving-magnet and low-output moving-coil (mm and mc) phono cartridges, the gain circuits feature independent toggle control of gain, load impedance (variable or 47k ohm), plus a small knob for variable mc impedance. The JC 3+ “DNA” is apparent in the Jr.’s circuit topology and many of its parts, including the fine Neutrik locking XLR jacks and Vampire 24k gold-plated RCA jacks. A substantial aluminum partition isolates the phonostage board from the power supply, power transformer, and internal AC wiring. The power transformer is encased in a steel enclosure to prevent emissions that might impact sensitive audio circuits. Convenience features include stereo/mono select as well as auto turn-on with a 12V trigger. Gain is adjustable between 40, 50, and 60dB (unbalanced) for any cartridge. The back panel includes a set of balanced and unbalanced outputs and a set of unbalanced inputs.
Listening note: During my sessions I ran four different cartridges with outputs varying from 0.4mV to 5mV. They included the high-output Grado Prestige Black2, an amazing deal at $75, the Clearaudio Essence mc ($1500), and Clearaudio Charisma mm ($2000), and the Sumiko Palo Santos Presentation mc ($4500). It was in the context of reviewing this phono pre and Clearaudio’s Concept Black turntable (review in this issue) that I came to strongly admire Clearaudio’s new Charisma mm cartridge.
At the JC 3 Jr.’s modest $1495 price another design team could have easily phoned this one in, but Messrs. Curl and Thompson are heavy-hitters in audio with formidable reputations to uphold. (You only need to consider Constellation’s flagship phonostage, the $75k Orion, to appreciate the degree of seriousness they bring to their work.) That said, the JC 3 Jr. was one feisty chip off the old block. With high levels of the 3+’s character coursing through its circuitry, Jr. established a sonic kinship that imparted a wide soundstage with noiseless, black-velvet backgrounds—a prologue for the level of resolving power I later observed. Even as lower-output cartridges were added and the gain was adjusted to compensate, noise was never a factor. Like the 3+, the Jr. manifested a high-energy, dynamically lively, and slightly forward tonal momentum that focused my attention. As I listened to the superb Argo pressing of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, the family resemblance between the Parasounds was undeniable. Jr. conveyed the warm ambient flavor of the recording venue, an openness rather than a constriction of the hall. Wind and string transients were smooth and naturalistic. Not as dynamically flashy as through the JC 3+, but not flatfooted either. Ultimately I concluded that Jr. can’t quite muster the full midrange sensuality that its elder brother possesses—the ability to extract woody resonances from clarinet and oboe or the fat soundboard decay from a stand-up bass, but at twice the cost, the JC 3+ was certainly deserving of a senior moment.