September 26, 2011

Paranormal! Parasound JC 3 Phono Stage.

Would you believe me if I told you this review took nearly half the year in the making? It's a long story, as you shall see. One of my buddies took delivery of his unit(one of the very first to reach Malaysian shores) sometime in March 2011. He instantly alerted me that this Parasound is something out of the ordinary, and that I should let the word out to our dear readers. I began arranging for a review unit instantly with the kind folks Center Circle Audio. Unfortunately, I was called away for an assignment, and when I returned, I found out that another reviewer from a local daily had beaten me to it. Like my buddy, the said reviewer was so... impressed with this Parasound JC 3 that he decided to keep the review sample! By then stock had run out and I had to wait for the next batch that came in last month.

A look at the innards of the Parasound JC3 will make almost any vinyl/hifi lover and DIY-ers knees weak. John Curl's attention to detail and production execution is first rate and will certainly put some of the more expensive rivals to shame! 

Post KLIAV, the review sample is in my man cave waiting to slot in to my LP playback chain. It replaced my 2 box Pass Labs X-Ono and here's what I found! But first, I must take the opportunity to admire the sumptuous build quality of the JC(designed by the same John Curl, of previously Mark Levinson JC series phono stage fame) 3. It's solid battle cruiser like build quality is re-assuring for reliability. Parasound's www proudly displays the very thoughtfully designed innards of the JC 3. A few touches stand out, like the huge AC input power factor filter cap on the right side of the casing, feeding clean power to a C-core transformer for low flux leakage. The power supply/regulator board and the C-core transformer is isolated from the AC input and both the dual mono audio signal boxes to further shield the venerable low level audio signal from the cartridge. Like most sub RM$10k phono stages, the Parasound JC 3 does not offer much flexibility when it comes to signal gain and cartridge loading choices.It's either MM @ 47db gain with default 47k ohm loading or MC @ 68db gain with 100 ohm loading. One may leave the MC loading option wide open at 47k ohm too, however I did not need to try. The Parasound, like my Pass Labs, offers RCA only input, with a choice of RCA or XLR output, which I used for the course of this review. My resident Linn Sondek LP 12 turn table mounted with Benz Micro LP low output(0.34mv) cartridge rounds up the partnering ancillaries.

The front panel of the Parasound JC3 only has two buttons. The one on the left is an ON/OFF switch, and the one on the right is a MUTE switch. The Parasound logo in the middle glows a healthy red when powered.

The Pass Labs X-Ono had ruled supreme the phono stage world within it's price range for almost a full decade, and the Parasound JC 3 show us just how far that world has progressed sound wise. I noted that even though the Parasound only had 68db of gain, it sounded as loud as my Pass on maximum 76db gain. I was also surprised that my cartridge sonically mated well with the Parasound on 100ohms of loading only. I was immediately impressed by the dynamics, and sense of urgency that this Parasound projects, it's very nearly equal to that of the X-Ono. Tonal quality aspect, the Parasound very much follows today's trend of absolute neutrality, as compared to my warmer sounding Pass. However, that absolute neutrality does not necessarily mean boring either! The highs are open and highly extended, never failing to convey a sense of top octave energy, if not as overall liquid as the Pass in presentation as I witness when playing Charlie Antolini's Crash LP. The mids are solid, but never beguiling like the Ayre P-5xe phono stage which plays the violin instrument like no other I've heard. The bass is fast, articulated and never short on impact. If anything, I found the musical presentation with the JC 3 when playing the Crash LP more up front and energetic compared to the warmer, more laid back X-Ono. 

The Parasound JC 3 is also impressively transparent with ultra low noise floor to boot(an area which the Pass X-Ono lost out). The Pass at maximum gain had some white hash in the quiet back musical grounds compare to the dead silent Parasound. Despite the up front musical presentation, I never felt fatigue or any ill effects of jarring highs. In fact, there's a real sense of musicality on offer here, which makes me look forward to every vinyl listening session during it's two weeks in my system. I think I spun nothing but vinyl during that whole two weeks!
The rear panel only has one RCA input and a choice between RCA or XLR output. The toggle switch selects cartridge loading.

There are few credible contenders in the phono stage market for less than RM$10k today. In fact, I counted three, from established high end marques.
1) PS Audio GCPH
2) Ayre P-5xe
3) Parasound JC 3
From the list, PS Audio sits right at the most affordable end, but still puts up a set of impressive hifi performance. Both the Arye and the Parasound offers more high end performance for a reasonable top up, the difference being the Ayre has lower gain for MC cartridges, and that makes it rather selective for partnering cartridges. While the Ayre's sound is definitely smooth with mid centric beguiling, it's slightly weak dynamics and lack of drive will works against it, unless partnered with a suitable medium output MC cartridge like the Clearaudio Concerto V2. The Parasound is the best sonic and musical all rounder, that balances speed, transparency and accuracy with musicality, that makes it a great partner for medium to low output MC cartridges like the Dynavector Karat D3(also sold by Center Circle Audio) or any of the higher range Benz Micros, like my LP. However, all three phono stages on the list does trade off adjust ablity for sound quality. I guess one has to pay more when looking for phono stages with higher flexibility but not necessarily better sound either. Do note that the Ayre P-5xe was never formally reviewed here either, but I had the opportunity to play with it in my system for a few days, sometime ago.

Should one wish, the other phono stages available at RM$10k or less are the various versions of FV Euroaudio's Pipit phono stages by Frank Acoustics(or simply Frankie, if you know tha man!) and the various versions AIME's from Audio Image, all locally made with pride!

Charlie Antolini's Crash LP is a very dynamic drum recording. It was know as a speaker buster back then in the 80's! This cover art represents the original pressing. My LP copy is a recent JETON re-issue, which looks slightly different on the cover art.

That more or less sums up my impression of the Parasound JC3 phono stage, priced at a very reasonable amount of RM$9,200.00 only.  Due to the very successful product sales world wide, Center Circle Audio tells me there is currently a waiting list for the Parasound JC3. If one dabbles in to the black arts, one should really check this Parasound out!

Parasound is sold by Center Cricle Audio, contact Sky, or Nelson at 03-77282686.

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