In my earliest listening days, I used to think that power amps sounded more similar than different. Sure, there were tubes and some exotic topologies that had a markedly different vibe, but mostly it was about power delivery and quality of build. I also thought of power amps as kind of the boring part of a hi-fi system. As time went on and I had more listening experiences, it became clear that yes, even solid state amps of similar power and circuit topologies may sound very different. While listening to the Parasound JC 1+ monoblocks, the company‘s latest flagship power amps, I came to realize that power amps might just be my favorite type of component to review, and precisely for the wide sonic variations that I hear.
Words and Photos by Dave McNair
Power to the People
Parasound has been around for more than a minute. The first products appeared in the early ‘80s as a result of founder Richard Schram’s desire to produce audio gear under his own banner after having lots of experience spearheading house designs for the Pacific Stereo chain of stores. Remember those, the national hi-fi chain stores? My, how times have changed.
Anyway, Mr. Schram’s experience in sales (Pacific Stereo again!)–and later working with a team of vendors and designers for the house brand Concept–taught him the winning combo of good sound, above average reliability and affordability. [I owned a Concept 5.5 receiver back in the ’70s, and it was superb–Ed.]
Parasound allowed Richard a little more latitude to take the sound quality up a notch so he enlisted famed designer John Curl to help create the Halo JC 1 mono amplifiers. A star was born. Now, audiophiles of reasonable means had access to a pair of high-powered monoblocks with a true audiophile pedigree. If you listen closely on a quiet night you can hear the faint echoes of “my used Maggies never sounded better!” echoing back from the audiosphere.
One of the mission statements of Parasound is to not produce a new product unless it’s fulfilled all their objectives. One of the prime ones: is this a design/product that can stand the test of time? In other words how likely will we be to want to refine it in the near term and have the ever popular MK II? At Parasound, products don’t get regular updates like many other brands do so the Parasound JC 1+, appearing 20 years after the JC 1, was a product I was quite interested to hear.
Given Parasound’s penchant for a high price to performance ratio and the JC 1+ being their most expensive product to date (at $17,000/pair), I wondered what Richard Schram and John Curl had cooked up this time. Corn starch has now officially been dumped into the plot. Or blackened flour if you’re making a roux.
Parasound JC 1+: No Pain, No Gain
I said earlier that I love reviewing amps. Well, except for one thing–most of the great sounding ones are big and weigh a ton. The Parasound JC 1+ monoblocks are no exception. I was determined not to ask my expat Russian weightlifter/audiophile friend Sergei for help this time, so it was little ole me. I’ve gotten pretty crafty at using medium density foam packing material saved from various incoming shipments to Casa de McAudiophile, along with a trusty hand truck that I appropriated years ago from my late ex mother-in-law, God rest her soul.
The Parasound JC 1+amps, at 83 pounds each, were not as difficult to maneuver as I had imagined. I had ’em unboxed and positioned in no time. For the first part of my listening tests I installed them where they had arrived at my mastering studio to power a pair of Acora SRC-2 speakers that I use for work. The Parasound amps came hot on the heels after my time with the TIDAL Audio Intra power amplifier, an amp I was quite enamored with. Would it be a shock to change amps in my day to day, mission critical, monitoring environment? There’s only one way to find out, so let’s plug these babies in and let ‘em cook overnight. Wait, you didn’t think I’d wait to listen, did you? Of course not!
I hit the spacebar on a project. That day I had mastered a soon to be released album by the phenomenal sounding World Music ensemble, Bokante. It was fascinating to hear the contrast to the Tidal Intra that had been in the system for a few months. Yes, the Parasound JC 1+ sounded a hair cold that late afternoon but there was also a classy vibe that was altogether different from the classy vibe of the Intra. Not markedly better or worse, just different.
Okay, now I can go home and rest easy knowing that an overnight play-in would be fine to get me working mañana. Plus I liked how they looked sitting on some new prototype granite amp stands I recently scored from Acora. Looks matter.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Give It Up for Mr. John Curl!
I emailed the fine folks at Parasound with some questions for John. I wanted to know a few things, not only for this review but for my own curiosity. People are busy, I know I am, so I want to give a hardy thanks to Parasound and Mr. Curl for taking the time to answer my queries. Without further adieu, take it away, John!
DMc: What makes your designs sound good? Specifically, the Parasound JC 1+. Or, to put it another way, what do you look for in measurements that correlate to a sense of musicality–in whatever way you interpret that term?
JC: There are three factors that make a successful design: 1) a complementary differential circuit, which is essentially two parallel paths from the input to output, noting that this is expensive to implement; 2) the use of appropriate and good parts as well as optimized board layout courtesy of Carl Thompson, where the circuit paths have to be optimized for a more linear driver stage. This is his specialty. There are very few people in the audio business with Carl’s skillset and experience (in theory, a computer aided program could put this together but the human component—ears/brain through listening–optimizes it); and 3) quality parts demonstrated by measurements and confirmed by listening. This leads to a product which is both refined and stable and a product which simply sounds good when in use.
You could say the JC stands for John and Carl (Thompson) as we are highly complementary and it is our collaborative efforts over many years which led to the development of the Parasound JC 1+ from the original platform, the JC 1.
One other element of good design is that the product withstands the test of time. As an example, the Parasound JC 1 was active in our line for 18 years of consistent, continuous production…and the last one off the production line sounded as good as the first one off the production line.
DMc: How do you go about trying a new idea for a certain topology?
JC: I usually diagram it out on graph paper, designing and redesigning the circuit over days and months of contemplating it and refining it. Computer analysis is not deployed as much as others. I have been using CAD designs for over 55 years, but find it limiting as it does not provide full answers for audio applications. The human ear/brain computer is still the final arbiter. Consequently, the process is to build, measure, listen, refine. This is where our many years of practical experience is a significant asset to Parasound. There is no computer program that can include nor calculate nor listen to this level of experience manifested in the final product.
DMc: Once you think you’re onto something cool, what’s your process for tweaking?
JC: I build, measure, listen, refine, and repeat. I use solderless bread boards during the early stages to determine proof of concept. Then, I build hardwired prototypes and then refine the layout—this is where Carl comes in to the process. With respect to Parasound, similar practice has been used throughout our years with these products and with the longevity of our models illustrating the stability of a good foundational design concept. The Parasound JC 1+ is the collaborative result of my design ideas as well as Carl’s input at the board and component level including implementation of the highest parts quality (where it makes a sonic difference) that we can arrange.
DMc: All engineering is the art of compromise. What are you willing to give up to achieve a final result?
JC: If a compromise is inevitable, I will give up lowering 2nd and 3rd harmonic distortion (as long as it is only pure second and third harmonics, no higher) to help keep global (not exclusively local—a lesser evil in audio) feedback lower (from magnetic tape recording experience—many recordings done analog have this distortion) to maintain DC stability. I assiduously avoid the higher order (especially high, odd order) harmonics at all costs because these are non-musical and distort the sound.
DMc: When do you know it’s time to stop when designing a new piece of gear?
JC: I stop when progress ceases. Typically, I am not guided by a timeline from the vendor for whom I am designing. I am not guided nor directed by a parts cost constraint. This is why the Parasound JC 1+ took five years to deliver. As an aside, one of the many Parasound JC 1+ design goals was to keep unit weight under 100 pounds in its current chassis size for obvious reasons, not the least of which is shipping given the cost today of shipping, not to mention the Parasound staff who has to move these around, and the customers who have to unbox and place them in their systems.
DMc: What do you feel have been your most significant jumps in performance/listenability as far as circuit designs over the years?
JC: The Vendetta…this was a breakthrough product working with Carl Thompson. The Parasound JC 1+, refinements from the JC 1 and deploying refinements from Carl’s layout and premium specific parts. The Bybee Music Rails at the input stage are an added component to refine the power supply further (by eliminating undesirable high frequency noise) and to make it sound better.
Toshiba FETs (2SK170 and 2SJ74) are very important…without them, the designs would not be fully implemented. We have purchased an ample supply of these FETs as they are no longer available from Toshiba. These have not been equaled to date–the intellectual property has not been not shared and is not available for anyone else to deploy. These Toshiba FETs are close tolerance, have more voltage gain, and are better behaved than competitive models at the time…and now.
The Nichicon GoldTune filter caps are the acknowledged leader in filter caps optimized for audio. The long lead time to secure these parts is even longer with the pandemic-induced supply chain shortages.
DMc: Are there any designs you’ve been excited about that for whatever reason did not go into production?
JC: I have designed several products looking for opportunity but which never found traction. Balanced bridged outputs require greater size and more complexity and more parts—prototypes only designed for Gale Speakers out of the UK, for Brian Cheney of VMPS Speakers, as well for Dick Sequerra (on paper only) and of course for Ampex during my time there. These only went as far as a paper design or prototype design stage only…no production models.
DMc: What recordings do you use or have used as long time references in your work?
JC: I use the Sheffield records, Direct Disc records from the 1970s. Thelma Houston is a favorite and when done correctly, such female vocalists will evoke emotional involvement at playback. The same applies to Joan Baez recordings. I like much of the Miles Davis catalog….KOB and “So What.” I enjoy ballet scores from Stravinsky, especially those performances conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Very little rock and roll listening primarily because of the need to maintain good neighbor practices. When I do listen to rock, it’s Pink Floyd and the Dead.
Well, that was fun. Now back to the review.
Parasound JC 1+ In Use
I ended up listening to the Parasound JC 1+ for maybe six weeks while doing my day-to-day work. I also occasionally plugged in the hi-fi system to spin records using a TW Acustic Raven LS turntable and arm, Charisma Audio Signature One cartridge into a VAC Master Preamplifier with built-in phono stage. During this time, I certainly enjoyed work as usual, and honestly didn’t give a lot of thought to much in the way of review style mental gymnastics sometimes required to describe the indescribable. Partly because I was more focused on mastering, but also because I knew when it was time to move the last of the hi-fi system to our new house, the real review listening would begin.
During this studio time I slowly dug deeper into the sonic vibe of an amp that is simply hella powerful and clean. But there has to be more to the Parasound JC 1+ than that, right? The Acora SRC-2s are most definitely an easy speaker to drive while at the same time they do not suffer fools. Some days, just for fun, I cranked the bejeesus outta things to see what would happen. Loud and clean. No sense of strain or congestion. No nasty high frequency gnashing of electron teeth, but they were a hair more grainier and slightly less fluid sounding than the Tidal or Pass Labs amps. Low end was solid although not rock-concert, huge. That’s what happened.
The Parasound JC 1+ have back panel switches to choose input gain level of either 29db or 23db, plus a selectable bias level. The gain setting will help match a preamp or streamer/DAC output with a high or low level for best noise/overload performance. This is a welcome cue taken from the pro audio world where standard practice is for all successive gain stages to be in a nominal range–i.e. if your volume control is barely cracked open, use the 23db setting, capiche?
The bias switch either gives the user 25 watts of Class A before sliding into an A/B transfer mode. This gives a total output of about 450 watts per channel @ 8 ohms, 850 @ 4 ohms, and a whopping 1300W into 2 ohms. The lower bias setting lessens the initial Class A watts to 10. I guess that’s cool, but for me, I’d rather have more in the A category. I heard almost no discernible change in the sound when changing the bias level. Parasound says the amps maintain stability when called upon to drive impedance dips below 1 ohm. Impressive!
The Parasound JC 1+ amps have balanced and unbalanced inputs, with nifty parallel outs to use for driving additional amps or subwoofers. I used balanced inputs during the audition period. A double set of high quality binding posts for speaker hookup rounds out the back panel. I liked the snug feel when tightening down the winged plastic caps to make spade lug connections solid for both Cardas and Siltech cables I used.
Some days, I missed the slightly less neutral sound of the pair of Pass Labs XA-200.8 amps I have grown to love. The Pass has a more sense of weight in the lowest octave. Actually, I shouldn’t even call it an octave–I’m talking 24 to maybe 30 hz. They are also a little smoother in the high-mids than ultimate reality. The Parasound JC 1+ amplifiers had almost no colorations. The proverbial straight wire with gain. My thoughts evolved a bit when I got them to my home listening sanctuary. This is when things got fun.
Letters From Home
As I wrote in my review of the excellent Luminous Audio Axiom III preamp, my new home listening room has proven to be quite good. After schlepping the Parasound JC 1+, the VAC preamp and the rest of the analog setup from the studio to the house, I installed everything and got down to bidness.
As frequently happens, a veritable pile of killer gear for review arrived soon after. This phase of listening included the Axiom III or VAC preamp and a Meitner MA-3 DAC/streamer. Loudspeakers used were my Qln Prestige Fives, Credo Audio Switzerland EV Reference One, and Von Schweikert Audio Ultra 55. Analog remained the TW table/TW arm/Charisma cart and added an Integrity HiFi Tru Glider tonearm fitted with a DS Audio DS 003 optical cart and either the DS or Meitner decoder box. Cables used (both signal and power) were Siltech Classic Legend 880 series or Cardas Audio Beyond Clear. Obviously, I’ll go into more detail (too much detail?) when I review the aforementioned treasure trove of audiophile bounty but let’s just say there was lots of great sounding stuff to play with.
I started with the QLN P5’s cause I know them best. The Parasound JC1+ monoblocks did their thang with aplomb. P5s are not super efficient so they loved the nitro dump into a supercharger that the Parasound amps provided. Yet my ears have grown accustomed to the sound and apparent synergy that occurs when using my Audio Hungary Qualiton APX-200. The Qualiton amp is not even close to neutral with its technicolor via a quad set of KT-120 power tubes. When I swap out a solid state amp for the APX, it’s like Kansas in black and white compared to Dorothy arriving in Oz. Powered by the Parasound JC 1+ there was less harmonic texture and dimensionality, but a much truer representation of the mid-bass, along with more detail and top end extension.
Next up was the Credo EV Reference One. I liked this speaker a lot, and so did the Parasound JC 1+. This was where my ears started to not only appreciate but crave the sense of control and detail that is the core of the JC 1+ sound. Swapping back to the Qualiton was a big letdown.
When I was ready to install the Von Schweikert Ultra 55, I couldn’t call Sergei to come move and unbox the crates because of government sanctions (sorry Sergei, I know the recent atrocities are not your fault) so I enlisted my pals Chris and Langston from Ember Audio + Design.
The VSA speakers loved the Parasound amps, or was it the other way around? Anyway, the Ultra 55s really allowed me to hear what the Parasound JC 1+ amps are capable of.
There was one particularly memorable listening session where I had come home for lunch. I ended up playing hooky from work for a few hours while I sat and cycled through tracks on Qobuz. The Meitner MA-3 made this especially rewarding. Dang, the system was firing on all cylinders. It was almost impossible to tear myself away to get back to work. For over an hour I said to myself “Just one more taste.”
Parasound JC 1+ Conclusions
So Dave, what did you really think of those handsome silver beasts?
I have a feeling that I can be pickier than a lot of listeners, so I’m not going to unconditionally rave nor damn with faint praise. I sit in a studio all day long, five days a week, and I make instant judgments about the tonality of mixes. Then within limits, make them sound like what I wanna hear. When I’m reviewing hi-fi gear, I do everything I can in search of the same thing, but there are considerably greater limits.
Using the Parasound JC 1+ in two separate listening rooms and with four different speakers, my impressions are thus:
These amps have a cleanliness and abundance of power that works very well to unlock the potential in a lot of speakers, especially ones with a complex crossover and large impedance swings. The sound has plenty of detail, without being etched or glassy sounding. Imaging properties are truthful if not voodoo-like. The Parasound JC 1+ does many things very well and nothing wrong. I was truly engaged on many nights while listening.
The term I would use is stoic. Don’t expect audio fireworks or a warm hug kind of sound. Yet the Parasound JC 1+ does all the things you’d expect an amp of this caliber to do. There was no major sense of lack of color or excitement, they simply tell a speaker to move like the music moves, just not in quite the same way that those ultra-mega-buck vacuum tube or solid state amps do. Now that I’ve gotten used to a high level of performance in my system, I find color to be very overrated. Yes, I still love the listening experience I get with vinyl and tubes. However, even in that area my taste has evolved to the cleanest sounding of tubes and record playing devices and similarly with solid state gear. But I’m very picky about the exact kind of clean.
On my wish list for the Parasound JC 1+ would be a very slightly bloomier low end along with a smidgen of extra juice to the mids. No, the amps never sounded thin, but for me most stuff I played didn’t quite have the harmonic juice and sense of thickness and density that I hear in most tube amps and many ultra pricy solid state amps.
I can highly recommend the Parasound JC 1+ if you need lots of power and/or you want very clean and clear power and don’t have the budget for the tiny amount of extra refinement you’ll get with a pair of EMM Labs, or Pass or The Gryphon or MSB or the like. I can imagine the JC 1+ would make a great pairing with anything from Wilsons to Vandersteens. They were great with the wide variety of speakers I tested. Do yourself a favor and audition them.