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Joule-Electra VZN-100 MkIII Marquis OTL Monoblock Amplifiers

Be Afraid

I am afraid of my amplifiers.

I got the Marquis amps last month as part of my bulk shipment from Joule-Electra. In a fit of annoyance at the whole “system synergy thing”, I got a pre and a phono stage from them, too because I figured that there’s just no way that they don’t work really well together. Well, no worries. They work really well together. I do have a wrinkle that I need to work out, but that’s with the phonostage (my cart isn’t a good match), but more on that later.

The Joule-Electra amps are, I have to admit, more than a little intimidating. It’s not that they’re terribly big. At 12″ x 21″, they’re not tiny — but they’re by no means towering monstrosities of steel and glass, either. I think what’s freaking me out a bit are how big those 6C33CB tubes really are. And there are 6 of them. Per amp. That’s a lot of glass. Hot, glowing glass.

Hot Mama!

These amps are not recommended for those folks without significant room for them as they’ll heat up a small space very fast, and a big one faster than you’d think. I have my rig in the basement, which is completely sunk into the ground. The room is mostly open, and generally is cooler than the upstairs in the summer and warmer than the upstairs in the winter. With the Marquis, the basement is now the warmest room in the house. The entire basement. It’s November now, and rapidly approaching full Winter, so I’m thinking I’m good for another 6 months. Late spring may be a bit of a challenge.

Consider yourself warned.

It’s funny, but when I was shopping, I asked an audiophile buddy of mine about getting Joule amps. He’d had the Emerald for some period of time before replacing it with an integrated. I asked him why he ditched them and told me that he was tired of swapping the amp out for half the year — his warmed his room so much he pretty much only used it in the Winter. As a space heater.

He wasn’t joking.

Nothing a giant slab of aluminum wouldn’t fix

I have to be honest, the Marquis amps are not quite what I expected. Here’s the thing. When you’re asked to shell out $15k for a pair of amps, there’s a couple of things that must be apparent right off the bat: they need to not only sound great but maintain the illusion that the the cash you just laid out went to something other than robbery. I’m sorry to say that the Marquis amps didn’t quite pass that, admittedly superficial, sniff test. Okay, that might be too strong — say rather that they didn’t pass the test with flying colors.

The chassis on either amp appears to be leatherette wrapped MDF with a black acrylic top plate. Tube sockets are below the acrylic and accessed through holes cut in it. It looks … well … cheap. Very DIY. And for $15k a pair retail, this is probably where most audiophiles will get off the bus. Frankly, I can’t blame them. This is, apparently, a common reaction and is, I suspect, the reason the brand has never climbed beyond a cult following.

Don’t get me wrong. No, they’re not shoddily built. No, they don’t look like crap. No, they’re not falling apart, there’s no glue marks, no staples showing, no cuts or scrapes or signs of obvious abuse. They come immaculate, just like you’d expect from any piece of newly made gear. The issue that I, and others, have had is simply a matter of the level of fit and finish. For the same amount of money, one could get a Plinius amp, which seems to be a giant mass of fractal aluminum. It looks like it’s expensive. The base model Joule-Electra gear just doesn’t quite measure up. It’s nice, but just not as nice as it’s competition. Just saying. But if you want or need that, there is a solution.

The prettier sister

For economic reasons, I chose not to pursue the cosmetic upgrade options on the amps. Perhaps if I’d known about the base look prior to ordering, I’d have considered them more strongly, but I didn’t and blew right past the thought of getting the cabinets made out of some kind of custom “musicwood“, especially when the cost was several thousand per chassis — mea culpa. For those interested in getting your Joule-Electra gear with a serious and significant visual upgrade, this is your path. The musicwood option swaps out the MDF-wrapped leatherette for a Sitka-spruce frame (according to the site, this wood is also used to make soundboards for string instruments) that is braced and painted with automotive-grade paint to provide even more stability and a high degree of resonance control. The top acrylic plate is cut and inset into the wood frame and a perfectly matched resonance-controlling maple base is added. All in all, they look, well, audiophile. IMO, this is what an amp in this price range really ought to look like. It’s much prettier.

So, here’s another way of putting the price/finish issue. The Marquis monoblocks actually cost $20k, retail. This is the full-blown musicwood version. For those of us that are price conscious, there is an option that the vendor will consider that will offer you all the sonics (though I’m sure that there are those that would argue that the upgrades offer sonic benefits as well) for 25% off. And put this way, I feel like the non-musicwood amps just became a bit of a bargain.

Moving on

Okay, so potential aesthetic shortcomings aside, you really do need to turn these guys on and take them for a spin. It’s really only once all the glowy bits start humming along that you start to get an inkling of why what might seem, at first blush, an underwhelming product might have a cult following in the first place. Because here’s the kicker:

These are the best amplifiers I have ever heard. Ever. No shit.

Fussy Fussbudgets

Here’s another thing that might turn folks off. These are some seriously fussy amps. The tubes are not auto-biasing. Auto-biasing adds circuitry and extra circuitry might impact the circuit performance and was therefore banished. Bad auto-biasing! Bad! But that means that you have to do it. This is a bit of a chore, especially as the tubes settle in during that first 100-200 hours or so. I’m at about 500+ hours now, and I only need to tweak the biases on a couple of tubes occasionally just after I turn the amps on.

Which gets me to the variac. Yes, I said variac. Not sure what that is? Google it. I’ll wait. Anyway, the two monoblocks are connected to a single variac which provides power to the output tubes. Interestingly, the driver tubes are always on — the only way to turn those little guys off is to unplug the variac. This design will, at the very least, save you a bit on audiophile power cords — all you’ll need is one, as the variac itself has a tangle of reverse-IEC connector cables coming out to wire up the amps. To start up, you need to turn the dial over in a smooth, continuous motion all the way from stop to “full power”, about 64v on the LCD readout on the amp (failing to “go all the way” in a single, smooth motion may actually damage the system and/or blow a fuse, which I did early on). In practice, this means that one will read 65v and the other will read 63v, so averaging them gets you to your magic 64v. Hitting that sweet spot is a bit of a challenge as there’s no markings but a sticker on the acrylic underneath and to the side of the dial. There’s no clicks in the feel of dial as it turns nor much in the way of markings on the acrylic at all for you to guide your hand. It’s kind of a blind guess, and you’ll both over- and undershoot trying to find the right setting. You’ll get a feel for it, eventually, but regardless of where you land on the dial, you’re amps will still need about 30mins of settling before stable voltage is provided at the readout, so expect to do a bit of tweaking. In my case, the “sweet spot” for the variac rests right up against a zone that causes the variac to emit a high pitched (~2kHz) whine. Yeah. Ouch. Totally audible from the listening position and the only thing I can do at this point is either turn the amps off and let the bottles cool and try again later, or I can fiddle with the knob to see if I can move the variac out of the trouble zone. The issue seems to be the power I’m feeding it; Jud Barber (Mr. Joule-Electra) suggests that this is line noise. I’m dubious as I have tried the variac plugged into both the wall directly and also into a series of line conditioners with little love. It really seems to be about the power — and the fact that the whine tends to only crop up during the day and not in the evenings. No idea what to make of that, but I suppose I’ll have to try out a more heavy duty line isolator or something.

So, lets talk about feedback. The amps are not a zero-feedback design. In fact, there’s a dial on each amp so you can select the amount of feedback you want, between .6ohms and 3ohms. Got a sealed speaker? Turn the dial to 9 o’clock for 3ohms of feedback. Got a ported speaker? Turn the dial to 3 o’clock for 1ohm of feedback. Wanna split the difference? 6 o’clock it is, which gives you 2ohms. Got a religious problem with global feedback? Get over it — or try 11 o’clock for .6ohms.

Are we having fun yet?

Mighty Morphin’ Power … Amps!

100wpc into 8ohms (60wpc into 4ohms) isn’t a ton of power these days. I mean, sure, you can crank it up quite a bit, but I’m sure we’re all familiar with some megawatt amps that dim the lights when you power them up. In fact, I have one right here — a Plinius SA-250, their 125lb, 20amp, top-of-the-line, monster amplifier before the Reference was launched. The SA-250 has the best bass of any amp. No contest. And running that puppy in pure Class A yielded some of the best sound I’ve ever heard. It was this amp that caused me to run dual 20amp circuits fresh and straight from my breaker box — and once I did, wow, did that amp open up! At 250wpc into 8ohms and 450 into 4, the Plinius was — is — a beast.

The Marquis is a whole different kind of animal. No, it doesn’t have the bass slam or control of the Plinius, but then, nothing does, so this is hardly a fault. But what it does have is air and extension. The clarity, speed, and natural ease of the Marquis is breathtaking — and this was the first time my wife actually walked into the audio room and said, “Wow, that sounds really good!” I couldn’t have said it better myself. The bass is very natural and integrated, and the degree of punch is a matter of taste which can be dialed in quite a bit with the feedback selections on offer. I’ve never heard treble extension like this before: effortless, seamless, never-ending, and totally non-fatiguing. Interestingly, this is also something you can dial in with these amps. Are you utterly susceptible to overdone treble? Turn the bias on the output tubes down closer to 26. Are you more of a detail freak? Turn the bias up to 28 per tube. Want to harm yourself, your dog, and your amps? Well, of course not, but apparently that’s possible by turning up the bias on the tubes past their recommended operating zones (26v-28v). I think all this flexibility is pretty nifty. Name me another amp that let’s you tweak the response of the system’s sound more thoroughly!

This is a really nifty amplifier.

A note: I was asked about how quiet the amps were. They’re not. No, there’s no transformer hum coming out of either chassis or anything like that (they’re OTLs, so there is no transformer), but if you put your ear to the tweeter before letting the needle hit the vinyl, you’ll hear some crackle and hiss. This is not audible from the listening position, and it’s actually on par with the rushing sound a Plinius puts out, too. Just wanted to put that out there. Also, as I mentioned, my variac isn’t silent, even when it isn’t whining. This noise can be a bit louder than the transformer hum on my Berkeley Alpha DAC (a known issue with that design), but generally isn’t distracting and neither is it discernible during playback.

Never Gonna Say Goodbye

Let me sum up. These amps are staying. Yes, I have some aesthetic objections, at least for the non-musicwood models, but simply consider yourself warned.

The reason the amps are staying is simple. The sound they put out is beyond anything I’ve ever heard — I’m totally enthralled by them and what they do to (and with) my speakers. Full stop.

Personally, I didn’t get into audiophilia for the false hope of recreating a live music performance without all the fuss and bother of actually going to one. I’m in it for the gear. Even aside from a belief in the so-called “magic of tubes”, there’s something very nostalgic about tubes, turntables and vinyl. For whatever reason, I just get off on that. And the fact that I have to interact with it makes each opportunity an experience, taking it beyond simply listening. I like that. So, yes, these are by far the fussiest amps I’ve ever heard about, but, for me at least, that’s part of the point. And the fact that they sound heavenly, well, even a “real” audiophile can appreciate that.

Maybe there’s something to this cult thing after all.

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3 Comments on Joule-Electra VZN-100 MkIII Marquis OTL Monoblock Amplifiers

  1. Michael De Salvo // June 26, 2012 at 12:27 PM //

    Just got a pair of these “Frankenstein” monoblocks. The reason I say Frankenstein is because they look like monsters, somewhat stitched together, but the personality inside, OMG. I never in my life, WITH ANY SYSTEM, heard anything that put me closer to the music. Even with the crappy AC cords attached. No tube rolling needed. No changes in the rest of the system. No thinking about what if. Of course being an audio nut, I’m changing those cords, but I might have to feed the band members.

  2. Is the heat thats put off overwhelming? Do these need to be on an open amp stand, or could they operate in a sideless shleving unit? Also, what was the overall height including tubes?

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 17, 2012 at 5:20 PM //

      I can’t remember the height, but the heat output is something like 300 degrees — per tube. That’s hot. It warmed my whole basement to +10 degrees from the main floor. The usual temp is -15 degrees from the main floor temp. Quite a difference. Okay, so maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But not much! Anyway, no, they need open air above them, not shelves.

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