Parasound – the name sounds familiar. They make a wide range of HiFi down there in California, right? Nearly. Their products are designed and engineered in San Francisco and manufactured to their specifications in Taiwan. They are a California-based company, and they’ve been around for close to 30 years. They are not primarily a high-end company, but solidly mid-range and remarkably competitive. So far so good, but this was not enough for Richard Schram, Parasound’s founder and President. Richard had the brilliant idea of bringing a top quality monobloc amplifier to market at a most attractive price. He commissioned the renowned audio designer John Curl to make his dream come true and the outstanding JC 1 400 watt amp was announced in 2002. It’s an attractive looking unit, capable of driving just about any load, and has won kudos all over for its powerful and refined sound. It’s still in production today and a top recommendation at its price point of $4500 US each (you’ll need two for stereo). I’ve heard these amps many times over the years at various HiFi shows, often driving speakers (such as the Martin Logan Summit) that other powerful high-end amps find difficult to drive.
In this review I take a look at the follow up to the JC 1, a stereo preamplifier not unnaturally called the JC 2, priced at $5,299. JC once again stands for John Curl, and the name has more than one resonance. Perhaps the first true audiophile transistor-based preamplifier was John Curl’s ground breaking design, the Mark Levinson JC-2, which arrived in 1975. The Parasound Halo JC 2 is the result of continuous development of that design over a period of more than 30 years. So the pedigree is strong. John enlisted the talents of the late Bob Crump in selecting parts for his circuit design, and Carl Thompson for the all-important task of circuit layout.
This is a substantial component weighing 24 pounds and measuring 17.25-inches wide, 16-inches deep and 6-inches high. A rack mounting kit is available. The casework is sculpted in the same attractive and practical way as the other components in the Halo series. The front panel is an exercise in minimalism. You get one giant volume control, an illuminated power button that toggles between On and Standby, and a button to page through the six inputs, with blue lights indicating which input is active, a blue light for inverse phase, a flashing red one for mute and a large red light power indicator. You also get two small controls to fine tune the volume for each channel, which we are advised should normally be set to their maximum position, which takes them out of circuit. You can adjust them to control balance or if your power amp is unusually sensitive.
The simple plastic-case remote control adds direct source switching, buttons for On and Off (Standby) , On and Off Triggers for other components, Volume Up and Volume Down, Mute, Normal and Inverse Polarity. At the bottom are four buttons to control a Halo T 3 Tuner. After struggling with so many poorly laid out remote controls, it’s a pleasure to find one so well designed. Pressing the Volume buttons on the remote causes the Volume control knob on the front panel to rotate. I would have preferred a digital readout, but you can’t have one with an analog volume control and Parasound found no digital volume control that would sound as good. I’ll settle for some more markings.
The first two inputs can be either balanced or unbalanced – in fact you can select via a rear panel toggle switch for each channel independently. Inputs 3 to 6 are unbalanced only. The outputs are unusually flexible – there are four for each channel, all working simultaneously. The top row is for the left channel, and directly underneath are the right channel connections, reflecting the independent circuit boards for the left and right channels inside the chassis. You get balanced and unbalanced, then inverted and finally a fixed level out to feed a recording device. All connectors are of high quality, Neutrik for balanced and gold-plated Vampire for unbalanced. You also get an RS-232 serial port, connections for external remote and four twelve volt triggers. The unit sits on four removable metal feet.
So much for the outside. The attention to detail continues inside where you’ll find a 3/8-inch shielding around the audio boards. The circuit is based around hand matched complementary FETs in a direct DC servo coupled circuit with no capacitors in the signal path. Separate TKD analog gain controls are used for left and right channels in place of a single balance control. Curl specified an R-Core transformer for the all-important audio power supply with an independent power transformer and power supply for triggers, controller, relay coils, and LEDs.
The specifications for this unit are nothing if not spectacular. The JC 2 has a frequency response rated from 5 Hz to 100 kHz (+0/-3 dB), a THD rated at less than 0.003% at 100 Hz (less than 0.005% at 20 kHz) and a S/N ratio of less than 116 dB input shorted, IHF A-weighted (less than 104 dB, input shorted, unweighted). What matters of course is the sound, and here the JC 2 lives up to its billing. I put it in a system with a powerful Bryston power amp, an EMM Labs SACD/CD player, and Wilson Benesch ACT 1 speakers and fed the lot with Nordost Valhalla cables. I also switched in Totem’s “The One” and some Atlas Mavros speaker cables. Do we have a winner?
I like to play a wide variety of recordings, mostly acoustic, to see if a component favours particular types of music. From Bach’s Goldberg Variation, magnificently played by Rosalyn Tureck to the Haydn Quartets played by The Kodaly String Quartet with breathtaking cohesion and perfect phrasing, then on to Shostakovich Symphonies with Haitink before switching to Jazz from Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins. Tureck’s Bach has never sounded so warm and natural. The Kodaly Quartet were right there in my living room, I could swear. Shostakovich’s Fifth was more all encompassing and richly detailed than ever, while Rollins and The Hawk’s very different sax sounds were never easier to identify. Each recording sounded more lifelike than ever, while at the same time, more relaxing to listen to. The JC 2 does not play favourites. Whatever it brings to the table, it does so consistently and readily reveals the quality of the other components in your system.
As luck would have it, the new mono and stereo Beatles boxes arrived around the same time, so when I switched to pop music, I switched to the best. What a treat that combination provided! Paul’s bass and the Beatles vocals delighted me and my listening panel.
The Parasound throws a huge soundstage of astonishing clarity and adds absolutely no hiss or hum of its own. Its reflexes are superhumanly fast and audible distortion totally absent. The frequency response is pancake flat in both directions. On top of this, tonal colour is neutral and resolution as high as I’ve ever heard. In virtually every respect, this is state of the art performance. I’ve heard a more tightly controlled bass on a Krell preamp, a more liquid midrange on some an ARC tube based preamp, a sweeter treble on an EAR tube preamp, but these are megabuck components and none is consistently better than the modestly priced Parasound. Yes, $5,299 is modest for a component of this calibre. Competitors can run well into five figures.
What you get here is as clear a window into the music as you are likely to find no matter how deep your pockets, all wrapped up in an attractive and easy to use package with none of the fuss of tube designs. It’s so good in fact that I’m not sending it back. It will be my new reference and I can’t say fairer than that.
Parasound Products Inc.
Distributed in Canada by Precor Consumer Electronics 1-800-268-1172
Parasound Halo JC 2 Stereo Preamplifier
Price: $5299 CAD