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January 2012
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Enjoy the Music.com Exclusive Report!
Preamplifier Shoot-Out!
The Jaton Operetta RC2000P takes on Conrad Johnson CT5, Art Audio VPS, Cary SLP 98 and the Audio Research Reference Five.
Can solid-state compete against tubes costing ten times more?
Review By A. Colin Flood

 

Jaton Operetta RC2000P Unit  We gathered the brotherhood to compare four tube pre-amplifiers against the new solid-state Jaton pre-amplifier. About two dozen tweaking audiophiles of the Suncoast Audiophile Society met in a member's home. An audio club is an ideal alternative to few local dealers and distant trade shows. It allows extended listening sessions with multiple components. All listeners in this shoot-out were middle-age men. Half of the members seem to be doctors. There are 18 audiophile groups in the United States. The listeners used most of Enjoy the Music.com's criteria to mark impressions. See "Our Reviewing Standards page.

Sub-bass (10Hz – 60Hz)
Mid-bass (80Hz - 200Hz)
Midrange (200Hz - 3,000Hz)
High frequencies (3,000Hz on up)
Transients (Attack, Decay)
Soundscape depth/width
Overall Imaging
Self-Noise and Overall Musicality

Showing just how much the room and speaker placement influences the sound, we did not use multiple categories for soundstage. All of the pre-amplifiers seemed more alike than dissimilar in that regard. Only one was noticeably better than the others were. We warmed up the pre-amplifiers before listening to them. I used an analog Radio Shack SPL meter to set the first track to slow, C-weighted peaks in the mid 70-dBs.

The host's system has improved considerably over the last few meetups in his custom, dedicated, listening room. The enclosed room is 18 by 24 feet, with an intentionally uneven ceiling that narrows slightly towards rear wall. There was a couch with three seats, a row of three chairs behind it and standing room for three-five people behind the chairs. Most of the listeners rotated seats, except for this reviewer, who stubbornly kept to his center spot in the second row. The host's main speakers were Canton towers. His multi-channel set-up used an Anthem D2v processor with a stack of seven Bel Canto Ref 1000 amplifiers. His player was the silver Oracle 1500 Mkii spaceship. He had both RCA and XLR Nordost Frey interconnects.

The group listened to a few minutes of half-dozen songs in one continuous session:

"Galicia Flamenco," Gino D'Auri, Flamenco Passion (JVC XRCD)
"My Body Is a Cage," Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back
"Muhammad My Friend," Tori Amos, Boys For Pele
"Rev 22.20 (Dry Martini Mix)," Puscifer, V is for Vagina
"Hear My Train A Comin'," (12 string acoustic version) Jimi Hendrix, Blues
"Catfish Blues," Jimi Hendrix, Blues
"Momma Sed," Puiscifier, V is for Vagina
"Fever," Ray Charles with Natalie Cole, Genius Loves Company
"Death Letter," Son House, Original Delta Blues
"Kickstart My Heart," Motley Crue

The music selection was arbitrary; the largest guy in the room had the "clicktatorship" with playlist and remote controller. Subjective impressions are entirely my own though, not the group's rankings. I compared each unit to the previous one. There was a consensus about the best sounding pre-amplifier and an overwhelming favorite. The Conrad Johnson was first pre-amplifier reviewed and thus became the baseline reference.

 

Art Audio VPS
The VPS was next. This is a noticeably handsome unit with its gold knobs -- smart marketing move. Except you can't see the warm glow of its tubes. Compared to the Conrad Johnson, it had better mid-range, high frequencies and transients, but seemed weaker in sub and mid-bass. It was perhaps a bit too bright and sometimes too quick with details. The vocals were quite engaging. Art Audio has a version with the modern convenience of a remote, but this one did not have it. First impression was that there are many subtle differences between pre-amplifiers. The clichés about solid-state and tubes held true...

 

Jaton Operetta
Jaton? Never heard of them. Didn't see them at AXPONA. Review their equipment? Sure. Founded in 1983 in Taiwan, Jaton Corporation relocated to the United States in 1988. They make computer graphics boards, the kind that insert into computers like a card. The company decided to expand into more product lines around 1998 when they moved out of the US to Thailand. Perhaps they foresaw the day when tablet PCs overtake desktops and the market for graphics cards. Their Thailand factory started making powered 5.1 speaker systems around 2001. Jaton is pronounced as two syllables, with the accent on the first syllable ('je,ton). In Chinese, Jaton means is that they will arrive at the destination first if they walk faster than others do.

Jaton Operetta RC2000PIt took Jaton four years to design and manufacture a complete stereo chain with player, amplifiers and loudspeaker. The RC2000P model is analog input only. The RC2000S model is a 2.1 channel version. It has a stereo DAC built-in and controllable sub-woofer signal outputs. ($1500) . Both models can handle bi-amplifiers. The signal ratios of the bi-amp stereo outputs are 1:1. You do not need to use a splitter cable to divide the signal to 50% of original. Mid-high and low sections can have 100% signals. The Operetta A2300AX power amplifier has 300 Class A watts into 4 Ohms!

The Operetta has clean, simple fit and finish. It is just another black box, with a shining blue read-out panel and sapphire eye. The tonality of the Jaton pre-amplifier was very good, balanced and not noticeably striking or lacking. The only solid-state, and the least expensive, unit in the shoot-out, the Operetta provided details and felt solid. It has no colorations or bloom of the tube units. It had no noticeable anomalies. Though these features make tube amplifiers less accurate, it also makes solid-state ones less engaging. Reviewers had a hard time describing the sound of the Jaton pre-amplifier. The word is neutral. The Jaton is a Swiss amplifier of neutrality.

Compared to the tube pre-amplifiers in this brief shoot-out, the Operetta not only did not embarrass itself; it held its own. Nobody said anything seriously critical of it. Read that line again! Don't make light of it. Sometimes that is all that some tweaking audiophiles are looking for: a unit that gets out of the way of the music. Everybody was very impressed with its performance. I double and tripled checked the price on several occasions. Many listeners thought it was a very good value for the money. If you do not want your pre-amplifier to contribute to your stereo's sound, this is a unit to consider. The stand-by knob on the front panel acts like a quick power switch; one touch and the warmed-up unit is ready to rock.

 

Cary SLP 98
Number three in sequence was the Cary. I liked the open look of its tubes, but there was no protective cover. IMO the Cary was the best value in the pack. Like the other tube amplifiers, except the Audio Research, it wasn't totally accurate; it had some shortcomings. Yet the charming Cary was compelling and organic, with rich textures, and "easy to listen to."

The Cary is nimble and dynamic. Most importantly, this unit got everybody's feet tapping to the music! Although I scored it with minuses in the sub and mid-bass (I am a bass loving man; see my EnjoyTheMusic bio*), I gave it pluses for high frequencies, imaging and most importantly, musicality. Though I thought it was too polite, with its soft bass, the result was still delectable, without large weaknesses and distracting anomalies. I felt like a teenager discovering music all over again. However, perhaps the Cary was a tad too enthusiastic about notes. Maybe it rushed the follow-through, but I did not note its decay as below average. It might appear thin-bodied; more like an upright than a grand piano.

As tweaking audiophiles know, in this hobby, it is possible for the pizazz heard in the store to sound grating once the equipment is at home, but in this system, in this home, in this shoot-out, I give the Cary four Blue Notes for Enjoyment and Value for the Money; it is above average.

 

Audio Research Reference Five
We saved the best for last. I thought the 42-pound, award winning, $12K Reference 5 had few shortcomings. The "Ref 5" was balanced throughout, less solid than the solid-state, and yet less obvious tube weakness in the bass. In fact, my score sheet assigns pluses in EVERY category except the mid-range, where others like the Art Audio and Cary shine just as well. Immediate impression was the Ref 5 was whole, full and rich, with a huge soundstage. This amplifier loves music, has excellent details, though it was perhaps not as quick as typical tube pre-amplifier. No real complaints, but not as initially impressive as the Cary either. The Conrad Johnson has these qualities also, but it seems to be too muted, too "shelved down" to have emotional impact.

Compared to the Cary and the others, the Ref 5 had more muscular definition to its tone; it was more like a well-rounded super car than a little sportster. A Vette may do nothing wrong, but it holds no surprises. The Miata is not in the Vette's league, but is surprisingly fun. The Ref 5 had no disturbing artifacts. It was more like a grand than upright piano. I bet its waveforms are fairly square. It made music sound natural. The tubes had but 1,200 hours on them, but one participant thought newer tubes might make Ref 5 sound more like the Cary.

 

Audio Research LS2B Mark II
In fact, after our shoot-out the host bought the precursor to the Ref 5, the Audio Research LS2 (balanced) Mark II. This time, our host used his two Velodyne Digital Drive 18 subs. Although I am a smooth jazz aficionado, orchestral music makes most home movie and music systems sound pathetic. Many systems with musical qualities encourage listening to polite studio sound of small groups. How many vendors demonstrate Diana Krall at AXPONA? Few systems can handle the power and energy of multiple acoustic instruments, all playing together in a dynamic crescendo! Nor can systems replicate the widest possible frequency range of timpani and piccolo simultaneously. See Our Reviewing Standards page for this too.

Yet both the LS2 and the Ref 5 handled orchestral music as well as any dream system I've heard at AXPONA*. It had noticeable soundstage, separation, definition and sustain with multiple instruments hitting crescendos. Both easily showed the weaknesses of older recordings, not rudely, but by clearly showing off their enormous capabilities with higher quality, newer ones. (I need a new reference stack!)

On Enjoy the Music.com's grading scale, five Blue Notes "are the very best regardless of price." Therefore, unless impedance, phasing or something else is a synergistic mismatch, I think the Ref 5 is five Blue Notes for Enjoyment! I was stunned at its level of realism and competence compared to the other pre-amplifiers in this brief shoot-out.

 

Can Solid-State Compete Against Tubes?
In this system, in this home, in this shoot-out, where a $12,000 amplifier – at ten times the cost - leads the pack, I think many of the doctors were pleasantly surprised with the Operetta! Where the Ref 5 seemed to do everything right, the Operetta seemed to do nothing wrong. Master film-maker Martin Scorsese' recently created a marvelous movie, "Hugo 3D." Yet the fourth "Twilight" teenage vampire movie outsold the master's piece by ten-fold in the movie theater. Not all movie mavens, audiophiles included, want the same things. Like "Hugo 3D", the Cary and the Art Audio units - and the Conrad Johnson in a subdued fashion - color the music with bright and cheerful palates. On the charts, their square waves may appear bumped out or dented. For tweaking audiophiles like me  who prefer one or two parts tubes in their recipes, and perhaps more nourishing details than Wow effects, this inaccuracy sounds like music. For almost three times the price of the Operetta, tweaking audiophiles can have charming musical inaccuracy. For ten times its price, they can have stunning performance.

 

 

Specifications
Type: Solid-state stereo preamplifier
Frequency Response: 10 Hz to 100 kHz (+/- 0.2dB, -3.0dB @ 168 kHz)
THD+N: <0.01% @ 8Ω, 1 kHz, 70 Watts
S/N ratio: 105dB
Input impedance: 20kOhm (XLR), 100kOhm (RCA)
Maximum output: 1.7Vrms @ 1.0Vrms input level
Inputs: 1 pair XLR/RCA, 3 pairs RCA
Outputs: 1 pair XLR/RCA, 1 pair RCA Bi-Amp
Dimensions: 17 x 4 x 14.5 (WxHxD in inches)
Weight: 18 lbs.
Price: $1300

 

Company Information
Jaton Corporation USA (Headquarter)
47677 Lakeview Blvd.
Fremont, CA 94538

Voice: (510) 933-8888 
Fax: (510) 933-8889
E-mail: sales_av@jaton.com
Website: www.jaton.com/av/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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