Parasound Halo JC 3+ Phono Preamplifier | REVIEW











Is the Parasound Halo JC 3+ phono preamplifier (website) a modern incarnation of the Vendetta Research?

Before you answer that, have you ever heard John Curl’s original Vendetta Research phono preamplifier? I have, maybe about a dozen years ago when I was writing some sort of column about “old school” amplification. The Vendetta Research was a revolutionary product, one where the importance of the phono stage was instantly elevated into a component that could make a big difference in the sound, leading many audiophiles—including me—to wonder, “Do I need this? Have I been missing out?”

That Vendetta phono pre was sort of plain in a way, with its slim and relatively unadorned rack-mount chassis that inspired me to call phono preamplifiers “little black boxes” in my columns for many years. (My first outboard phono stage, from LFD, was also a mystery box—there wasn’t even a logo or a model designation on the front panel.) That Vendetta Research, however, impressed the heck out of me. It was transparent and natural, and a nearly perfect match with my J.A. Michell Orbe SE, SME V and Koetsu Rosewood Standard that I had at the time. This was one throwback article where the product still rivaled the best we have today.

I know a couple of people in the industry, people known for their love of vinyl, and they still use a Vendetta Research. It’s a prized possession, like an original Keith Monks record cleaning machine.

That brings me back to the Parasound Halo JC 3+, which is also designed by John Curl in collaboration with Parasound’s engineering team. It’s the flagship phono pre in Parasound’s Halo line, which suggests this model is a spiritual successor to that original design. In fact, I swore I read it somewhere—the Parasound Halo JC-3+ is a modernized version. Earlier versions of the Parasound JC 3 carried over several design aspects of the Vendetta Research, like the RIAA EQ arrangement. Once it arrived at my house, I immediately plugged it in and tried to summon my memories of the original phono stage.

That, of course, was impossible. For a couple of months, I forgot about John Curl and Vendetta Research and just started listening to music. That should be a hint about the outcome.

Parasound JC 3+

It’s probably wrong to start off my review of the Parasound JC 3+ talking about the Vendetta Research phono pre so much, especially since John Curl has been working continuously to improve his phono preamplifier designs over the last few years. He’s been focusing lately on using parts that lower the noise floor. We’re talking about better gold-plated RCAs from Vampire, Neutrik XLR jacks, Vishay-Dale resistors and even an internal AC power conditioner.

The Parasound JC 3+ is also a dual-mono design, with separate voltage regulators, filter caps (47% larger than the previous ones used) and rectifiers for each channel. John Curl and Parasound have even gone to the trouble of isolating the AC wires and the power supplies with “low-carbon mild steel partitions.”

The new Parasound JC 3+ also features several important changes from the earlier versions of the JC 3 such as “24-karat gold traces” on the phono board for improved conductivity, and small tweaks to the basic circuitry that further the cause of an even lower noise floor. Notably the loading schemes have changed from the last version—John Curl stirred up some controversy when he chose to offer only 47K ohms and 100 ohms settings, stating that most MCs work well with 100 ohms and creating multiple load settings would introduce noise into the signal path. (Note: more often than not I choose 100 ohms for my LOMC cartridges.)

Now, the Parasound JC 3+ has slightly more flexible loading options than its predecessor. You can choose 47K for your MM cartridge, 47K for your MC cartridge if you wish (some of the Transfiguration cartridges like this setting) and finally a variable setting (with custom-built Vishay dual-gang potentiometers) where you can choose between 50 and 550 ohms. I’m going to say that these are all the loading options I need.

The price of the Parasound JC 3+ phono preamplifier is $3000. That’s the same price as the Vendetta Research back when it came out in the early ‘90s. I have a feeling that if John Curl started making Vendetta Research phono stages again, just like the originals, he could charge a lot more than $3000. That’s what Parasound brings to the table—a scalable continuation of a legend.

Set-Up

I used the ZYX Bloom 3, ZYX Ultimate Airy X and Soundsmith The Voice cartridges with the Parasound JC 3+. Turntables included the Gem Dandy Polytable Signature with the Sorane TA-1L tonearm, the LSA T-3 and my reference Technics SL-1200G.

Actually, the Parasound JC 3+ was the phono preamplifier I chose to use to compare differences between the Technics SL-1200G and the new SL-1210GAE Limited Edition I have in for review. The differences are supposed to be primarily cosmetic, but I now have a pretty cool A/B rig for investigating the rumor that one is somehow better than the other.

But this also serves as a platform for other comparisons between the two ‘tables. I’ve been tweaking my 1200G, trying to extract a little more performance, and I’ve been testing out headshells, isolation devices, platter mats, power cords and even ground wires. The Technics SL-1200 has always been known as a turntable amenable to tweaks, and a John Curl phono pre, like the Parasound JC 3+, should be the perfect tool for these experiments.

The Sound of the Stoic

That’s a word I haven’t thought about in a long time, perhaps since the last time I picked up a Tom Wolfe book. The Parasound Halo JC-3+ phono stage was stoic. That’s the first word that popped into my head when I thought about writing this review.

The Parasound JC 3+ arrived during a period of chaos. I had a lot of gear coming in and out, including the LSA and the Gem Dandy. Plus, I was spending a lot of time trying to get my digital rig—Innuos, Merason, BorderPatrol—properly set-up. I simply didn’t think about the Parasound JC-3+ for a long time. I played records, I enjoyed how they sounded, and there were other areas of my system that needed attention. Time marched on.

I know what you’re thinking—this is going to be another review of some sort of amplification that’s so neutral that I couldn’t come up with words to describe its character. It simply stays out of the way of the music, and that’s what it’s supposed to do. Right? The Parasound Halo JC 3+ was neutral, but there was something on top of that, something slightly rich and soft and, well, velvety about the sound.

Here’s where I’ll admit to a bit of inexplicable bias with the Parasound JC 3+. The Parasound is attractive and well-built, yet it’s another silver box, about the size of an average preamp or integrated, with only two buttons on the front panel—power and mono. Perhaps that adds to the stoic façade, the very fact that I set the Parasound and forgot about it. I trusted it to do the right thing, and it got right to work.

I’ve had several phono stages in that looked very similar to the JC 3+, that silver box with a nearly bare front panel. For some strange reason, they all wound up sounding fairly neutral. That connection was somehow cemented in my brain, and I needed to dispose of it. So when I started listening more deeply to the Parasound, I was surprised and relieved to hear that velvet, that warm and snuggly sound that was so inviting to these ears.

Maybe next time I’ll ask for the black one, which Parasound offers.

The Parasound excels at dynamics, partly in due to the supremely low noise floor, and it was particularly strong in the low bass. (That’s why I found the JC to be a great match with over-achieving 2-way monitors like the Acora Acoustics SRB and the Marten Oscar Duo.) Those dynamics also contributed to an overall sound that was open and clear and so revealing of the tiniest of details. But the wonderful icing on top was that smooth undercurrent of romanticism, that slight lushness that a tubed phono stage would be obliged to provide for you without so much as a nod.

We’re talking about a slightly laid-back presentation that reveals a larger, deeper soundstage for you to explore. It was like wandering into the most fabulous antique store in the world, one full of treasures you’ve always wanted, and now you can reach out and touch them for the very first time. What you’ll remember most, however, is the store itself, how inviting and cozy and warm it is just to sit there and soak it all in.

Listening

Not only did I use the Parasound JC 3+ to evaluate the performance of the two turntables (and, surprisingly, there is now a microphone due to my recent involvement with The Occasional Podcast), this was the phono preamplifier that sat in the system when I performed my very detailed comparisons of the Bryston 4B3 power amplifier with an older Bryston 4B-ST. I evaluated the Canadian amps with a steady diet of Kane Mathis, Chet Baker and plenty of solo piano recordings from Gregg Karukas, Masabumi Kikuchi and Satoko Fujii.

I really grew to appreciate the Parasound while listening to those incredible new Chet Baker LP reissues from Craft Recordings. Chet, that famous 1958 collection of ballads, really stood out as a perfect capture of a historical recording, matched to Kevin Gray’s spectacular remastering effort. The combination of the beautiful and pristine pressing and the faithful preservation of the original sound almost tricked me into believing I was listening to the master, all silence and unbridled dynamics.

Another LP that I just can’t put away, even after a year, is Rasmus Kjaer’s Turist, that combination of electronica and funky percussion flourishes. The Parasound JC 3+ got so deep into this recording that I discovered a whole new layer of recorded effects, machine noises and mechanical movements. The Gem Dandy analog rig was particularly revealing when it came to drawing the line between synthesizers and programmers, and real live musical instruments. I should have given just as much credit to the Parasound in the PolyTable review, so I’ll do that here. That big, dynamic and quiet JC 3+ canvas carried over into LP after LP, thanks to the JC 3+.

I’m not saying the Gem Dandy didn’t contribute to the overall excellent sound, but I have many fond memories of listening to music through the PolyTable, the Sorane arm, the ZYX Ultimate Airy and the Parasound JC 3+. This was a fascinating analog rig, one I’d seriously consider buying.

Conclusions

The MSRP of the Parasound JC 3+ is what I think about mere days after I boxed it up. I have two phono preamplifiers coming in, and both are in the five-figure range. I’m sure that when I conclude my time with them, I’ll understand the Parasound’s value in a more detailed context. Right now? I’m not so sure I need much more than this.

Three grand is a lot to spend on a phono pre for some people. For others, it’s not enough. I think the Parasound JC 3+ is a good argument for ignoring price tags. Like other Parasound products that are far closer to the state-of-the-art than the price would suggest—the big Halo monoblocks come to mind—you have to treat the JC 3+ as something of a gift, a product from a great engineering mind produced by a company that keeps impressing me over and over. Highly recommended.