Factory Modified JoLida JD 102B
To the average audiophile, the name JoLida should be no stranger. Mike Allen, founder of JoLida, has been designing and manufacturing tubed and hybrid amplifiers and source equipment for quite some time. Over the years, I've had more than a few pieces of Mike's gear through the old homestead. The most recent pieces I've hosted were the JoLida JD 300B and the JD 1000A. Both of them were nice sounding amplifiers. In years past, I've also played with the Response Audio modified JD 301 hybrid integrated amp and also the JD 302 EL34 integrated that one of the local guys owns.
It's kind of a fun story, a couple of years ago I was hosting a Christmas bash for our local audio idiots (I include myself in that description TYVM). Several of the guys brought some guest gear. Mark B brought is Sophia Baby and Mike D brought his JoLida 302. As the afternoon blurred into evening, the effects of the single malts started to set in. The next thing we know, we've got both pieces of guest gear on my workbench and the soldering iron is heating up. What we ended up doing to both amplifiers was removing the coupling caps and replacing the existing caps with some nice sounding alternatives. As I remember, Marks Baby Sophia got some Solens MKP's and the JoLida 302 received some AudioCap Thetas. While I was in the JoLida, I soldered in some el-cheapo Nichicon .15/400v film bypass caps on the power supplies.
When Mark brought the Sophia to the event, he had mentioned that he was thinking about selling it. The Sophia is a nice looking little amp, but the stock sound didn't move him. When we plugged the Baby back in after replacing the coupling caps, you could see Marks face light up. The sound of the Baby had been completely transformed. The exact same thing happened with Mike's JoLida. The little 302 went from a nice sounding amp to something pretty darned special sounding. To this day, neither of the guys have traded off their amps. And for that matter, I doubt either of them will ever get rid of them because they like the sound of them so much.
The reason I tell that story is because it brings me to the factory modified JoLida 102B. Mikes amps have been very popular amongst the audiophile crowd. They are decent sounding and extremely reliable. The other attractive item about Mikes amps are they are easy to modify to gain a fair amount more resolution from them. In fact, there are a couple of ‘modders' out there who are doing just that. These guys are taking Mikes amps to the extreme. They are replacing the stock parts in the JoLida amps with expensive parts like the V-Caps and Riken Ohm resistors.
Mike Allen of JoLida has some very strong opinions when it comes to the sound of his amplifiers. He's gotten his hands on a few of the ‘modded' units and given them a listen. And quite frankly (as he'll be more than happy to share), he doesn't like the way they sound. In turn, Mike has decided to do his own factory mods and offer them to us, the consuming audiophile. These factory mods are quite similar to the aftermarket guys. Now, Mike doesn't go quite as far as they do but quite honestly, Mike is going to get you 80% of the way there. Know what else? Mike only charges $100 bucks for the factory mods. Since he has to solder the parts in anyway, he's just charging (basically) parts costs plus a reasonable mark up.
In turn, Mikes factory modified JoLida amps are going to be voiced to suit his ear. Mike Allen has chosen to use Riken Ohm carbon film resistors in the signal path, Angela Instruments Tin Foil, SCR polypropylene capacitors as coupling caps.
The JoLida 102B is a classic EL84 (6BQ5) push pull, Ultra Linear design. This circuit design is simple and very reliable. Mike applies a little less than 7db of feedback on his circuit to help stabilize along with raising the damping factor just a bit. JoLida uses printed circuit boards in their amplifiers and this one is no different. As many know, Mike custom designs each of his transformers, power and output. No off the shelf Hammond's for JoLida. Mike has his transformers custom wound around a core of German, grain oriented, silicon steel. I'm here to tell you, JoLida does not skimp in the least when it comes to iron. This little amp's footprint barely larger than a piece of 8.5 x 11 notebook paper and it weighs almost 19 pounds. I'd be almost 75 percent of that weight is iron. This is a very good thing.
On the back side of the amp you'll find a pair of 4 and 8 ohm gold plated binding posts along with four pairs of gold plated RCA inputs. On the front of the amp there are only the three chrome plated metal knobs for Selection, Volume and Balance. One thing Mike has designed into his most recent update to this amplifier is he has added a top access point for setting your tube bias. This is darned handy as I've had to reach inside some of his amps while they were upside down and turned on to adjust bias. This can be more than a little menacing for the tube newbies out there.
Over all, this amp is quite the little ‘looker'. It's very attractive in brushed aluminum with chrome knobs and feet. It's amazingly small an as such, I doubt that you'd get much static at all from your wife or girlfriend about its looks sitting on a shelf or out in the open.
The JoLida 102 comes stock with the Electro Harmonix EL84 output tubes. Mike uses a single EH 12AX7 as a preamp tube and a pair of EH 12AT7's as driver tubes for the 6BQ5's. As Mike explains, his choice in EH tubes really isn't because of the sound, its because they are so reliable. He said that he seldom gets a call back or warranty return from these tubes. In turn, he encourages everybody to try different tubes. Not needing any encouragement, I had already dug out some cool tubes to drop into the 102. In my case, the preamp tube got swapped for Telefunkin's and the output tubes got swapped for Bugle Boys.
When it came to the driver tubes (the 12AT7's), I've got a nice collection of pretty cool domestic and European tubes. As I rolled through my Haltrons, Glotrons, Fivre's, Ei's, I finally settled on a pair of RCA winged black plates with the square getter. In front of the Teresonic's and mated to the Telefunkin, they did just about everything right. Crisp highs without being crunchy, deep tight bass, and very good timbre across the board. With conventional two way speakers, believe it or not, I liked the EH 12AT7's best. That's cool though, it just means we've got another nice sounding, new production tube to choose from.
Digging right in, lets start at the bottom this time. Pulling from some of my more recent favorite bass tracks, Angelique Kidjo's interpretation of the Jimi Hendrix song Vodoo Child, and Me'Shell Ndegeocello's Mary Magdalene, there are some killer deep bass licks on these cuts. As you might expect from the push pull design and the quality transformers, the 102 digs plenty deep. I'm very impressed that little JoLida maintains good control of the speakers on these tracks. I'm not noticing any excessive flabbiness at all. The other thing, where many amps with wimpy output transformers start to roll at about 40Hz, this little EL84 is darned solid down at least to 30Hz (I say 30 because that's where the Teresonic's roll off).
As we move our way up to the ultra critical midrange, this is where the JoLida starts to really shine. Anybody familiar with the sound of an EL84 (6BQ5) will tell you that their upper bass and midrange harmonics are what make these little amps so damned inviting. When well done, they have a very clean presentation yet give you all of that big tube sound so many of us love (don't read plump and veiled into that statement). The JoLida 102 with the factory upgrades maintains that delicate balance between being hyper-detailed and that classic tube sound that everybody talks about.
In front of the Ingenium's, the 102 delivers loads of midrange clarity. I only heard just a tad of veiling, and by tad, I do mean a very minor amount. I have to say that I've not heard the Angela Instruments Tin Foil and poly coupling caps before and I have to say I'm pretty impressed. Granted, they aren't in the same league as say the Teflon V-Caps but for a very affordable coupling cap, a person could do much, much worse. As I mentioned, the mids are very clean. The timbre is very close, and if one thing will screw up the timbre, it's the coupling caps.
The same comments can be made about the high frequencies. I'm really impressed with the Angela Instruments tin foil caps. The highs are nice and clean for an inexpensive cap. I'm getting loads of ‘air' and upper octave extension. Cymbals are crisp without having too much sheen and there's plenty of definition without being fatiguing in the least.
When we start looking at the JoLida's ability to do all of the audiophile things we love like soundstaging, imaging and all that other jazz, here I decided to swap speakers. I landed on the Odyssey Audio Epiphany's. This lets me do a couple of things. First is to see how the 102 interacts with lower efficiency speakers (86db) and second, I just love listening to these little gems. They are my favorite pair of mini-monitors. They're extremely affordable, they completely disappear, they soundstage and image like crazy and they just plain kick ass (sorry).
Running the bias on the JoLida up to about 30mv gave me a few more watts. That defiantly helped drive the Epiphony's a little better. Running a higher bias comes with a bit of tube life reduction. Nothing to major but it should be noted that this will happen. Relying on my favorite test track for soundstaging I gave Pink Floyd's Signs of Life a spin. The water lapping on the shoreline at the beginning of this song came from about 3 feet from the outside of the speakers edge. In the grand scheme of amplifiers, that is well on par most affordable amplifier offerings today. When it comes to imaging my choice in music moved to a fabulous recording by the Adam Rafferty Trio called Three Souls. When the sound engineer recorded this CD, it seems as if he mic'ed the drums with a simple overhead stereo mic. In turn you can easily discern the drummers movements as he rolls back and forth around his drum kit. On the cut Blues For My Shoes, the little JoLida does a fine job of resolving placement of each drum strike across our imaginary soundstage. The image portrayed clear and concise without being overly exaggerated. That's pretty darned impressive for a $750 amplifier.
Since I'm talking about swapping speakers you should also know that I tried a vintage pair of Infinity Qe's that sounded pretty darned good too. Granted, these are a sealed cabinet design so they presented another easy load for the JoLida 102B. Going back a month or so I made it over to one of the local guys homes where we were trying to do a tube intervention. MerRev as he's known on the audio boards has been searching for a ‘different' sound in his system. He's got a Musical Design Chameleon tubed preamp feeding a Chiro C-200 solid state amp. All of this feeds a pair of Meadowlark Osprey's.
That evening as the audio swapfest wore on, we put the little JoLida in front of the Osprey's. The 102B did one heck of a nice job driving the Meadowlarks. I didn't notice any serious sonic faux-pa's in its handling of a far more complex speaker load. The sonics were a fair amount different than the other setup but that's just the differences between tubes and solid-state.
Then the big revelation came. Deadfish (as he's known on the audio boards) brought along a pair of vintage Altec Bolero's that he had picked up at one of our earlier audio meets. He invested some relatively minor money in crossover capacitor upgrades plus some new binding posts and called it ‘good enough'. When we plugged the Bolero's in and hit the play button on the CD player, everybody's face lit up, mine included. This was some kick ass sound. Granted, the Bolero's sound like most classic Altec's but boy you want to talk about a fun listen. As far as I'm concerned, everybody needs to own a pair of these to constantly remind us that music is about the emotion not the ultimate in accuracy. Again, the Bolero's are a sealed box design with a 10" woofer, a 10" passive radiator and a horn. These speakers were right at home with the little JoLida 102B. It was a fabulous combination. I need to get me a pair of those.
I also tried the JoLida 102B in front of the Aperion 633T floorstanders. The 633's have a pretty reasonable efficiency and a fairly even impedance curve. As much as I hoped they would have worked better, I'm afraid the 633's longed for a bit more current drive. The 102B, as it is with most tube amps, didn't quite have the oomph to drive this slightly more demanding speaker. Don't get me wrong, the tunes we nice but the 633's never really came alive like they do with nice solid state gear or bigger, more beefy tube amps like my modified Radii's. That's OK though. I sort of expected that to happen after living with the 633's for a while. I have begun to know their character pretty well.
If I were forced to pick nits about this fine little amp, I honestly wouldn't find too many things to complain about. The first might be the heat generated. Though its not excessive (in tube amp terms), the tighter concentration of the tubes and trannies condenses that heat into a compact area. If you are thinking about placing this on a shelf, be sure that it's well ventilated and you should be fine. The next thing would be slightly narrowed soundstage of a push pull design (when you compare it to a good single ended design). It really isn't fair picking on the JoLida in this respect but you need to know that the 102B comes with that slightly closed sound associated with any push pull design. Honestly, after that and considering its cost, I really can't find a darned thing to complain about. Oh, a remote would be cool but I don't think it would fit in the case; it's pretty tight in there as it is.
In The End
So after caveat, I've got to say I'm damned impressed with this super affordable amplifier. Mike at JoLida has done a really nice job ‘voicing' his creation. Its not hyper detailed, its not veiled, it's nearly a perfect balance between the two. There is enough here to satisfy nearly anybody. Could you squeeze a little more out of it? Sure you could... but at what cost?
The factory modified JoLida 102 will work great with a variety of speakers. As I mentioned, I tried it in front of about five different pairs of varying efficiencies and loads. Each time, this little gem just continued to sparkle. You high efficiency guys out there that are looking to add a little more wattage on the cheap, might want to give the factory modified 102 a listen. Sonically, I think you are going to like what this amp has to offer. For those of you that are looking to find out what a truly fine sounding tube amp sounds like without spending scads of money, this is your ticket. The Jolida 102B does everything a really good tube amp should do. All of those rich EL84 harmonics come through without sounding ‘tubey' or sacrificing an once clarity. I only wish I had my Altec A7's up and running during this visit, I'd bet they'd have been one heck of a great match too.
I know you may be wondering about the puny 20 watts and your low efficiency speakers. As long as your speakers don't present too nasty of load or need tons of current to come alive, this little amp should perform pretty well. I'm hitting 95db peaks with 86db speakers in fair sized room and it sounds darned fine to my ears. Besides, you can coax a few more watts out of this amp by taking the bias up to 30 milliamps rather than the 20 JoLida recommends. Granted, it shortens your tube life a bit, but EL84's are dirt cheap for a current production matched quad.
I can't recommend this amp highly enough. It's a screaming deal at $750. It's compact, built like a tank, attractive and puts out some phenomenal sound. Could you find some very minor faults with it? Sure you could if you picked at it long enough but at $750 bucks, it would be pretty foolish to try. Sonically, this doesn't sound like the rest of the JoLida lineup. This little gem is clean, clear and an absolute pleasure to listen to.
To finish up, let me make mention of what Mike Allen mentioned in a recent phone conversation, "I'm amazed that nobody has ever wanted to review this amp." Well, after listening to JoLida 102B, I'm amazed nobody has found this little gem either. I guess this makes it a World Premiere review of sorts.
Oh BTW, I'm buying the amp, its that good, honest.
Tube Complement: 2 matched pairs (4) of EL84 power output; 2 pcs. 12AT7 driver and 1 pc. 12AX7A pre-amplifier
Circuit Type: Ultra Linear, Class AB1
Power Output: 20 wpc at 8 ohms (1kHz)
Frequency Response: 14Hz to 80KHz (+3dB; 0dB @ 20 Watt)
Distortion THD + N: Less than 1.5% at 15W output
Input Impedance: < 250Kohms
Input Sensitivity: Maximum 900mV for 20 watt output at 1kHz
Output Impedance: 4 ohms and 8 ohms
Negative Feedback: Less than 7dB
Signal & Noise Ratio S/N: 70dB below rated output from 10Hz to 200khz
Dimensions: 12 x 8 x 5 (WxDxH in inches)
Weight: 18 pounds
Warranty: One year limited parts and labor
Price: $650 stock, add $100 for the factory mods