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Mini Review: First Watt J2 Amplifier

I reached out to Nelson Pass of First Watt this summer and asked the “what’s what with First Watt”. By way of response, Nelson agreed to send me a pair of amps — starting with the J2, a 25wpc (into 8ohms) solid state amp that “has a two-stage circuit that operates in pure single-ended Class A mode, with signal JFET devices forming the input stage and power JFET devices for the output stage.” The result, according to some, has been his finest mini-amp to date. Maybe it is, but it’s also one of my favorite amps — of all time.

So, before we get to all that, a little housekeeping. If you haven’t read it already, I strongly encourage you to head over to 6moons to do a little reading. Head Mooner, Srajan Ebaen, has perhaps the most extensive experience of any reviewer (that I know of) with the entirety of the First Watt lineup. Here’s Srajan’s review of the F3, and his review of the F5. The F5 became a personal reference for Srajan, one that I believe he still uses. Okay, all that done? Fantastic! Now, to the amp at hand — one of the latest in the lineup, and the current one with the highest output, the J2. Again, there’s a characteristically thorough review from 6moons you really ought to check out. Here’s a helpful quote:

Mr. Pass preempted this review with his own very terse but to-the-bone assessment. If you remember, that placed the J2 between the F3 and F5 – more relaxed than the latter, more dynamic than the former. The suavity slash sweetness factor I described seems inherent in the choice of a power JFET output and is shared between the F3 and J2. Perhaps because the SemiSouth part is particularly robust for the breed, the J2 gains in get-up spunk to be the F5’s equal in that department.

Unlike Srajan, I don’t have any experience with either the F3 or the F5, the J2 marks my first jump into the work of Nelson Pass, so none of that really means much to me. It’s all “blah blah words words First Watt blah words blah.” But if you have any experience with the other First Watt amps, well, I’m sure it’s a different story. Which is why I pointed it out to you. Because that’s how I roll.

What matters to me is what I heard: I found the J2 to be a low distortion, high bandwidth amp, with enough detail, clarity and speed to make tube amp lovers weak in the knees and spontaneously weep with envy. Okay, maybe not, but it is the quietest amplifier I’ve ever heard here at the house, with a stunningly open mid-range and a bass response that rivals amps 3x the cost and 10x the output. I’ve had a great time with this amp, and even if I am a Johnny-come-lately to this particular party, I’m still feeling pretty cocky. Cocky enough that I have absolutely no hesitations whatsoever to put this amp up against any amp from any manufacturer. Cage match! Woohoo!

(Okay, I might have had too much coffee. Wasn’t sure that was possible, but … well, rules are made to be broken. Whew.)

Anyway, I’ve also never had the distinct pleasure to entertain and toy with some of the megapriced SOTA stuff from Constellation, Vitus, TIDAL, or any other über-brand — happy to do this, by the way, just in case you were wondering — so, it’s going to be tough for me to support a sweeping statement that holds that the First Watt J2 is the best amp ever. But! Assuming the speakers are a good match (which is the caveat for any amp, especially one with output in this neighborhood), I’ll happily guarantee that the randomly sampled listener will not only be thrilled, he’ll be perplexed at what all the fuss is with the higher end amps. This amp is the poster boy for what high-end audio is all about, folks — great work, packaged well, with incredible performance, from the mind and hand of a freakin’ genius. Beat that. I dare you. And if you can, buy that other thing and be happy.

Oh, and in case I wasn’t clear, I love this amp.

So, bringing the hyperbole down a few dozen notches, I’m forced to recognize that $4,000 isn’t cheap. Not by anyone’s standards, with the possible exception of Mitt Romney and his pals that own Nascar teams. As Stew Newness of Affordable Audio is quite happy (and quite right) to point out, you can buy stellar systems for $4,000. I’m going to concede that point and submit that, perhaps, this amp is targeting a different audience. Whatever. Pricing is what it is. Wish I had some impact on all that.

Seeing before hearing

I’ve heard it kicked around that First Watt is a skunkworks for Pass Labs. I’ve also heard that First Watt is a DIY exercise for Nelson Pass, and a way for him to explore, create, or simply to have fun — and to find a way for him to fund his further experiments and explorations. I’ve even heard that First Watt is a super secret lair of a scientist desperately seeking to undo the damage of an experiment gone horribly awry. Of these stories, I find the last most compelling, but whatever. YMMV. However you dice that onion, the J2 doesn’t look like a skunkworks project, as you can clearly see from the pics. This level of fit and finish is a far cry from “afterthought” or DIY. The look and feel is fully professional — solid, clean, with an industrial aesthetic with robust case plating, a slab-aluminum face, and some nifty blue LEDs sunk deep into the metal. Stenciling on the fascia might would look more sinister awesome if it were punched out with bullet holes, but aside from that and the binding posts, which look like bin parts, the whole of the design is clean, chunky, and terrifically audiophile. In a pleasant surprise, this amp does not require the strength that comes from a top-secret formula to create super-soldiers in order to lift. Would you believe it’s about 30lbs?

Just an FYI, but the amp runs warm. It is Class A, after all. But even after an hour’s stress, the amp is nowhere near the space heater that the Plinius SA-Reference is when you click it over into full Class A mode. The heat output on the Plinius is impressive — you could scramble eggs on that thing (slowly — like you’re supposed to) — but that said, the Plinius itself has nothing on the old Joule Electra monoblocks that I used to run. A pair of those tube amps heated the entire basement something like 20 degrees above ambient, and 6″ over the top of those Russian tubes, I could fry eggs — and fast. By contrast, the J2 never gets hot to the touch, merely uncomfortably warm, and it cooled off quickly. I’d still avoid taking a nap on it, but that’s just me.

There’s no standby and no soft-start, either. You hit the switch on the J2 and the amp goes on, the blue LEDs light up, and sound comes out full voice about 3 seconds from power up. By contrast, my Plinius has a delayed-start — hit the switch, the LED blinks for 30 seconds and that then clicks over into Standby Mode. Output requires manual intervention before the signal begins flowing. Probably means the J2 is a simpler circuit — but also means that you might not get much warning before things get exciting.

The Challenge of Low Power

Today, 25wpc into 8ohms (13wpc into 4ohms) is a modest level of output, at best. With an equally modest 20dB of gain, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re wondering if the J2 is all Bruce Banner when what you really want is the Hulk. Nice one, eh? Yeah, I liked that metaphor, too. Anyway, I want to say “don’t worry about it”, but to do so, I’ll have to make some qualifications. With the average speaker, however you define that, and taking that speaker to absurd Hulk-SMASH volumes, the J2 is going to be problematic. Now, if your speakers are fairly sensitive — a good 5-10dB higher in sensitivity than the apparently average mid-80dB rating — this is a whole different equation, one that the J2 will solve most authoritatively. Which brings up Audio Axiom #1: your hi-fi is a system, and when you look at it as a whole, things like low-power amps and high-sensitivity speakers must be considered together and not in isolation.

Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t run a low-powered amp into a low-sensitivity loudspeaker. Of course you can. And no, this combo won’t cause the your system to implode or cause the Hulk to suddenly get in touch with his feminine side. What it may do is limit your system. That is, total output may be limited and sound quality at high volumes may be compromised. But that’s about it.

The primary thing we’re worried about when matching amp output to speaker sensitivity is compression/distortion. The goal of a good match is to provide the dynamic headroom you need to be able to recreate the swings in volume that occur naturally in the music, without clipping, compressing, or otherwise wrecking the sound. The Received Wisdom would probably say that a loudspeaker sensitivity somewhere into the mid-90s is what you need to make this amp “work” with your system, but that’s probably overstating things. Maybe. I’d shoot for at least 90dB, if you were asking.

So, before we start bemoaning the potential for mismatch, let’s talk about your preamp. For the last couple of months, I’ve been enthralled with the Wyred4Sound STP SE, a preamp who’s transparency has been nothing short of astonishing. Perhaps unfortunately, the STP SE has zero gain; it’s not doing much in the way of amplification (as in “nothing”) to the signal coming out of your sources. I say “perhaps” because, well, there are quite a few amps on the market that produce gobs of gain — take my Plinius SA-Ref, for example. That sucker drives 32dB, and thus, a zero-gain preamp suddenly makes a lot of sense.

Which brings me to another point. When running the J2 single-ended, you must use the supplied jumpers on the XLR inputs or the amps won’t produce any gain. Ask me how I know! Man, that was a long morning, trying to figure out WTF had just happened to my system when I swapped in some new interconnects from High Fidelity Cables (they’re all single ended). Anyway, keep the little brass suckers handy if you plan to play around with cables, but my suggestion is to not thread them through your unused earring holes “just to keep them out of the way”. Yeah. Back to the amp — don’t bother going single-ended unless your preamp is putting up some gain. If it’s not, or if that gain is on the low-side, the balanced inputs are really the way to go as this nets you a typical 6dB. And with a J2, on mid/low sensitivity loudspeakers, this helps.

So, with that said — with my gear, the J2 really didn’t have enough oompf to rock out — where the semantic load for the phrase “rock out” is filled in by “average SPLs in the 90+ range with regular excursions requiring 10dB of headroom for skull-crushing peaks of output” — at least, not on my low-sensitivity loudspeakers. Cranked too hard, the music flattened out.

Interestingly, backing the volume knob off by about 6dB to merely loud instead of painfully loud, I was able to do awesome things with even my low-sensitivity speakers. Which brings up another point — the J2 does it’s most surprising and seductive work if you take it down even further, say, to anything below loud. My big amps really don’t come alive until I start approaching the high-end of the output scale, but the J2 didn’t care. It seemed to thrive even when the listening levels were moderate and on down to modest, producing all the subtleties and dynamics that the big amps wouldn’t unless the volume knob got some love. Are you a late night listener, or someone who wants great sound but not at disturb-the-neighbors volumes? The J2 will be very exciting.

Loudspeakers

So, what did I get to try the J2 out on? Here’s the list:

Let’s take the three stand-mounts all at the same time, because the results were similar. First, at moderate output volumes, the sound was very linear, producing startling bass, a sweet (where “sweet” = refined, not as in rolled-off), and an intimate and open mid-range. Transients were incisive and the detail retrieval was excellent. When the volume levels went up past normal and into stupid, the sound became compressed and flat. Getting to this output level usually entailed pushing the volume knob way over — compression very definitely did not happen at my normal, daytime-listening levels.

Turning to the F300s — a big ass, full-range, floor-standing loudspeaker — the J2 maintains it’s poise for far longer into the dial-crank. It’s only a couple of dB more sensitive than the stand mounts, but again, every little bit really helps. Here, the J2 is like a paper cup — no glass! (You have to say that in Russell’s voice for that joke to work). On that AMT tweeter, the treble with the J2 in the system is outstanding, and not merely clear, but an open window onto the music. Yup, that’s a cliché. You’re welcome. Here’s another fun thing — my ears gave out before the amp did. Any compression or flattening of the sound stage happened well past my tolerance for pain. The sound coming out of these loudspeakers was big, bold and powerful. Bass notes, like the kick drum that comes in with the chorus on “The Luxury of Knowing” from Lori McKenna’s album Lorraine, were shocking. That drum is not just deep, it’s huge — and the J2 can rattle the room with this track. 25wpc, folks. You’re simply not going to believe how far they’ll carry you.

On the Living Voice IBX-R2 loudspeakers, which I had here as a short-term demo from local dealer Gary Dews (the man behind the Border Patrol brand I just mentioned), things were even more interesting. During that exercise, which was generally centered around a push-pull 300b-based amp, I swapped in the J2 just for color. Guess what. This is the loudspeaker that this amp was looking for. Sweet, clear and effortlessly extended treble. Thunderous, “real” bass — not “slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick” bass, but real, bloomy and strong in a way that the tubes just couldn’t touch. The mid range was layered, with precise imaging, and at this sensitivity, the J2 had a lot of balls. I played a lot of music with this pairing, and while I do understand the allure that tubes have for many audiophiles, I’m not sure that they’re required if all you’re looking for is sound quality. This is what synergy is about — 94dB and 25wpc — and, suddenly, there was magic in the air [cue the romantic music]. Ahhh.

Amplifiers

Okay, let’s talk turkey. The J2 is a beautiful little beast, but I did have a bunch of amps floating through at about the same time, so a quick survey may help to locate this amp on that playing field.

Starting at the top. Tonally, the Plinius SA-Reference is warm throughout the band, where the J2 aspires to neutrality from warm, if that makes sense. It’s not neutral, per se, but compared to the Plinius, it certainly is more so. The J2 gets the nod on the treble, where the decays are matched with a sense of air and spaciousness the Plinius doesn’t quite manage. Mid range clarity, speed and detail all go to the J2. But the Plinius has the grunt and the poise to sort out an acoustic mess when the J2 might have gotten lost.

If you haven’t already, grab your significant other’s copy of (or your rip from) the CD version of Adele’s album 21 and then cue up “Rolling In The Deep”. Yeah! Um. Hmm. Eww? Yeah, this CD has pretty much all the life crushed out of it (interestingly, I’m told this isn’t true of the vinyl version), which is fucking criminal because it’s a fun album and I really like that opening track. Anyway, played back at high volumes on a truly excellent tube amp like the Audio Space REF 3.1, this wickedly compressed piece not only sounds like ass, it sounds like muddled ass, regardless of which loudspeaker I tried this with. Swap in a solid-state amp like the J2, and instantly it’s merely unpleasant. This is progress! Of course, moving up to the Plinius SA-Reference and you approach listenable, but then, there’s really nothing like having gobs and gobs of power on tap when the music is this FUBAR’d — think “Alexander’s solution to the Gordian Knot” and you have it precisely. As you’d expect, this imbalance greatly rectifies itself as the climb up the sensitivity ladder increases, but at no point with any of speakers I had did the J2 really match the Plinius. Remember, the Plinius is $12k and 100lbs more. This isn’t fair. But if you’re getting an idea that the J2 is slugging it out toe to toe, you’re now picking up what I’m laying down.

Where the J2 really shines is in what it doesn’t do: noise. There just isn’t any. I mean, like, any. It’s weird. With my big Plinius wired in, you can turn the volume up and just before you click “Play”, you can put your ear to the tweeter/mid-range drivers and hear a light, constant hash. It’s like a ground loop, but it isn’t. It’s like tube rush, but there are no tubes. In fact, I’ve heard that the designers over at Plinius are aware of this “feature” and are content with it — removing it without wrecking the other things that the amp is great at, like bass, wouldn’t be possible (apparently). None of this is audible from the seating position, but if you check the Stereophile measurements, you can see that Plinius doesn’t really excel in this signal-to-noise category, perhaps due (as John Atkinson suggests) to the fact that this amp has 32dB (!) of gain. I can’t respond to this one way or the other, other than to note it and move on. For whatever it’s worth, running the amp in Class A helps, but doesn’t banish the hum (and like I said, it isn’t a ground loop — the amp has a ground lift, which works a treat; this is something else). My Odyssey monos can’t do Silent Bob trick either, though they’re way quieter than the Plinius. Anyway, when I put my ear on the drivers with the J2, there’s just nothing there. It’s as if the system isn’t on. Black of night, silent as the grave, whatever — pick your cliché and run with it. You hit to power switch, there’s a buzz of the transformer as it warms up, and 3 seconds later, you’re wondering if you just had a power failure — it’s the blue LEDs that are the only thing telling you that you’re good to go.

I’ve also mentioned the detail retrieval before, but let be be explicit — with the J2 on the F300, detail is good as I’ve heard here in the listening room. Never distracting, but still, this is great stuff and the crickets are on full display. That is, with this amp on the eFicion F300, I’m able put Chris Jones squarely into a field being devoured by insects. Okay, no, the bugs are probably mixed into “Roadhouses & Automobiles” (from the album of the same name), but they’re not at all obvious, and if I had to guess, I’d say they’re pushed down at least 10dB from the vocals. Of my solid-state amps, the J2 is the best at being able to bring out that quiet chorus. Anyway, I’ve only heard better on two other systems — one being an expensive ceramic-driver based loudspeaker fronting a $100k+ system, and the other, a Border Patrol S10EXD with monster power supplies driving the top-of-the-line Living Voice OBX-RW loudspeakers (more on that in another post).

Which brings me back to Odyssey. My monos, courtesy of Herr Klaus Bunge, are completely custom. Just like every amp he makes. Sure, Klaus has a website, and sure, there are some general suggestions and prices attached. But those all appear to be suggestions. Five minutes on the phone, and he’s suggesting little tweaks and upgrades that’ll not only spin your head around, it’ll leave you drooling. Klaus is quite a character, and if you ever get the chance to go to RMAF, look him up. Five minutes and you’ll know what I’m talking about. What Klaus does is make some damn fine amps for some outright reasonable prices. My monos, which include Klaus’ kitchen sink, the dishwasher and the fridge, mark the top of the line. The only thing I didn’t go for was the casework — Klaus said he could fit everything into an entry level case, so, he did.

Tonally, the Odyssey amps are closer to the Plinius than they are to the First Watt. Dense, rich, and warm — that’s the signature. Frequency extension is strong and refined, but the Plinius is the Hulk when it comes to bass, compared to, maybe, Captain America. Yeah, The Avengers was awesome! Anyway, compared to the First Watt, the Odyssey amps are warmer, smoother and an inch or two to the side of silent. The Odyssey has a richer mid-bass and mid-range, though the J2 brings it up top. All in all, the J2 feels lighter, more lithe. With the Living Voice, the J2 was far and away the better match as the Odyssey simply brought too much of a good thing to that already warm speaker. But with the lower-sensitivity Rev5 and Pulsars, the Odyssey simply had more on the ball than the J2. More dynamics, more slam, more reach, more room-filling sound, even when I pushed it to eleven. And, yes, obviously, when the big Magnepan 3.7 panels slid into place, the Odysseys were the blatantly obvious choice. Just an FYI, the J2 does actually produce sound on the 3.7s! Just not much.

Wrap it up!

I think the J2 is a marvelous creature. It’s speed, finesse, and sheer clarity are breathtaking and marvelous and altogether glorious. If I had a general nit, it was total power output — 25wpc is “fine” but simply not universal, which is a shame, because I think there are a boatload of loudspeakers on the market that wouldn’t benefit hugely from a J2 injection. As is, however, I can also imagine that many would feel the diet to be a bit thin. But, assuming you have the right loudspeakers, the J2 could be a finisher — the last amp you’d want or need. As a reviewer, I found the J2 is a wickedly helpful tool and I loved having it here. You know what would be awesome? A 100wpc J2. Yeah. That would do it — assuming that it could be done without ruining the character. I really don’t want to change a thing — I just want more of it! 200wpc would be nice and 500wpc would be incredible, but really, all that’s gravy — 100wpc would do it.

Consider this to be a candidate for Most Wanted — assuming you’ve got the right loudspeakers, and again, think 90dB or better.

My next Nelson Pass experiment will, hopefully, be a First Watt SIT amp to use with some high-sensitivity loudspeakers I’ve got scheduled for after RMAF, including offerings from Tekton, Zu and Volti. Interestingly, I’ve been informed that a pair of XA 60.5 amps from Pass Labs should be here in about a week. Last but not least, my crystal ball is showing me images of an XP-30 preamp in my reference audio rack.

I guess you could say that, with this amp, Nelson Pass has captured my imagination and the conquest of my listening room is fully underway. We’ll see where this goes.

12 Comments on Mini Review: First Watt J2 Amplifier

  1. Thank you for a quick informative review.

    If you could point out what preamps you have used and if a tube pre amp did anymore that a solid state piece.

    I have had tough time getting my f5 to sound good on passive or et3se from cj. I think it has to do with lack of gain. Could you explain how you hooked up your amp it would help me greatly.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // January 1, 2013 at 2:59 PM //

      Gain is exactly the issue. If you speakers are mid to low sensitivity, that is (85-88dB). I tried passives from Wyred4Sound and Luminous, and as long as the gain was “enough”, the sound was great. When it wasn’t, the sound was limp and thin. I had a high-gain pre from Plinius and the sound was very lively. I’m still actually on the hunt for a good high gain pre ….

      • My speakers are close to 100 db sensitivity so I have the opposite problem. It was too loud with high gain grounded grid pre, flat with passive resistors, and too solid statey (new word?) with cj. I needed a whiff of tube without the gain. 25 watt seems to go a long way. Harbeth 40.1 can be driven to quite loud levels with these.

  2. Pierre Kennedy // October 12, 2012 at 9:26 AM //

    A very nice review indeed: down to earth and no BS…and to boot some delightful photos as a cherry on the topping! Indeed, they do (it’s down to my opinion of course, and I do stress the point) seem to be the best pics close-up I’ve seen to date of First Watt amps: many pics I have seen of this gear just DO NOT DO JUSTICE in terms of their fit-and-finish…

    Needless to say everybody agrees about their sound: just so remarkable at their respective price-points regardless of the competion albeit – in the right system of course!

    As for me, I’ve heard a couple of these amps and it’s The F-3 that does it for me…I shall no doubt purchase one when I’ve the cash to do so, and without hesitation!!

    Well done, and thanks again!

  3. A really nice reading… again… 🙂

    As a happy owner of both a Plinius SA-103 as well as a First Watt J2 I can only concur with your findings. It also made me wonder what all the fuss was about those big and expensive amplifiers.

    I temporarily paired it with my Sonus Faber Cremona M speakers (about 90db/4 ohm) and I was expecting the 13w to quickly run out of steam… I was completely wrong: as far as I’m concerned it easily played loud enough for my tastes without any hint of compression.

    As you rightly pointed out, the biggest difference compared to the Plinius was the gain: yes I had to turn the volume up a lot more but that’s about it.

    I bought the J2 for my secondary system where it’ll be paired with a pair of Zu Soul Supreme speakers (100+ dB sensitivity) – I’m really looking forward to seeing how good that combo of low power / high sensitivity speakers works out. Sean (at Zu) told me it’d take at least five weeks to get the Soul built so for the moment I have to patiently wait 🙂

    Thanks for the nice review – the J2 deserves it!

    • @ Rob. Have you received your Soul Supremes? If so, what are your impressions of the J2 with the Supremes? I have a J2 and am considering the Supremes.

  4. How about a comparison to the Joule-Electra VZN-100 MkIII Marquis OTL Monoblock Amplifiers, I`m sure you can say something about it?

    • Part-Time Audiophile // October 9, 2012 at 8:10 AM //

      It’s been over a year, so anything I have to say there, please take with a grain of salt, but —

      The OTLs had the best treble I’ve ever heard — sweet, eerily beautiful, delicate, pure. The mid-range was every bit of “lit-from-within”, and again, one of the best I’ve heard. The mid-bass on down, however, pretty much took a vacation.

      • Thank you very much for your reply. I`m looking for the greatest immediacy in sound presentation, that`s why I asked. Supposedly the Devialet is one such hybrid amplifier that might have it in spades, but of different sort. I˙`m not after romantic, distant images, but rather enjoy being immersed into the aural experience as a true or near-true holographic participant, heh…

      • Part-Time Audiophile // October 9, 2012 at 10:31 AM //

        Everything depends on everything else. Some of the best sound I’ve heard have been pairings with low-power amps and high-sensitivity speakers. That isn’t the only way to go, however. Lots of ways to reach Rome ….

    • Kemper Holt // October 10, 2012 at 10:05 AM //

      Joe, Please try to audition a Berning ZOTL amp, the 200 w monos are very transparent & immediate sounding.

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