The much maligned transistor, the object of disdain and ridicule from audiophiles and musicians, doesn’t deserve its reputation. Most “transistor sound” is a result of multiple cascaded gain stages, electrolytic coupling caps and overuse of feedback. For some reason, electrical engineers think that just because they can get .0001 % distortion with feedback, then it is a good thing to do. Point of fact is that you can’t hear the difference between .01% and .0001%, and probably can’t hear a difference between 1% and .0001%. That is because there are much higher levels of distortion from speakers, from the speaker-room interface and from our source components. What you can hear is unpleasant and unnatural artifacts created by insane amounts of feedback, multiple gain-stages added to make up for lost gain when using said feedback, and the peculiar sound of electrolytic capacitors used in the signal path and power supply. To paraphrase some of my friends, transistors don’t make bad sound, bad designers make bad sound.
Why would you want to embrace transistors? Well, they last a lifetime, run much cooler than tubes, can be left on for years without failure, and are compact. That’s why they were first adopted. Can you imagine living without transistors? The transistor was a great advancement in electronics. From there, whether they are used correctly or in the right applications, success begins at the designer’s drafting table. I’ve been unfortunate enough to hear really bad tube designs as often as really bad transistor designs, although tube distortion is a little easier to bear.
One other thing: just as is the case with tubes and passive components, all transistors are not created equal. Most are created to accomplish a task with the minimum investment of time and money. Just as variable-mu tubes, thyratrons and pentagrid-converters aren’t found in high-end amplifiers, so too there are myriad transistors with no application in audio. In fact, other than purpose built op-amps, most transistors are imagined by their designers as multi-purpose devices, much like some pentodes that could have their parameters altered to fit in multiple circuits (pentodes are very flexible).
I feel like I have to say these things with every transistor review because of the knee-jerk anti-transistor faction. For the most part, the anti-transistor crowd is in their 50’s and up, who base their views on gritty sounding monstrosities from the ‘70s and the dark sound of the ‘80s, the variety with uber-black backgrounds to the point that it sounds like a noise-gate is being used. If you are anti-transistor, and have actually read down this far, you need to get out more often. Are there still bad transistor designs? Yes, but only because the designer wasn’t going for good sound, lacked the training or understanding, or that cheap parts were used to keep costs down. Actually, in my experience, as long as parts have enough safety margin and act as you would expect, it’s the circuit that makes most of the sound. I say this because I’ve spent lots of money upgrading parts in a mediocre design where the improved parts made the sound worse. The better caps allow you to hear more of the distortion in the circuit.
The computer and the self-perpetuating electronics industry…
Jaton Audio is one of the newcomers to the high-end scene. Their products have a design aesthetic that seems like the outgrowth electrical-engineering-meets-high-volume-production-meets-CAD-meets-simulation-software industry. Things are compact and purposeful, with a component density about as far from the typical high-end product as the Saturn V was from Goddard’s first experiments. Instead of an audio company developing into a technologically advance company, the opposite seems to have happened. Perhaps the people who design and build the Jaton products were looking for something fun to do with their CAD programs and technical know-how. If you were an engineer at a company like Tektronix, for an example, everything you need to design and build audio is available to you.
This path is the opposite taken from the early high-end audio pioneers, where companies like Audio Research started out modifying and improving on existing designs. It was an incremental approach that caused most competing designs to be rather similar and rather bland and uninspiring too—which is why, I think, the SEDHT thing caught on so fast. Now though, you’ve got people who can, in the matter of minutes, virtually design and simulate new circuits. It affects every part of our consumer lifestyle and now it has been fully applied to high-end audio. One thing that comes to mind, one that the tubeoholics will identify with, is the work by John Broskie on the Tube CAD Journal. He can crank out schematics with fearsome regularity. Mr. Broskie likes to point out that electrons don’t care what a schematic says, and goes on to point out many tube-audio follies, misspeaks, misunderstandings and goes on to take a practical approach to design. With the current state of software, and how it can help guide you through the process, more designs will be done completely in the digital domain: design, prototype and testing, all in the virtual world.
I might be mistaken, but the Jaton products strike me as being developed by the new wave of audiophiles who are applying their familiarity with CAD to audio design. Their day job might be designing computers or cell phones, which makes audio look simple. Their familiarity with CAD software, along with SPICE simulation programs, makes designing a piece fast and error free. You can literally design and test the circuit on your home computer, all in a matter of a few days.
Some of the trappings of the Jaton electronics are a little pedestrian, especially the casework of the preamp. On the inside however, its no-nonsense approach actually delivers something that wouldn’t look out-of-place in extremely expensive transistor gear from the more well-established companies. The packing and stuffing screams CAD: that’s the only way you can get all those components in such a small space. Something else that jumps out is that it seems that someone involved with the design must have had experience in shielding electronics from digital garbage. I’ve seen this type of packing and shielding in modern telecommunications equipment. This is, speaking quite honestly, how electronics should be designed and built. It makes a number of competing products look like refugees from the ‘80s.
I wonder, like The Terminator, will the machines that take over continue to make high-end audio? That could be the basis of another sequel with Ah-Nold clones arguing about VTA, tubes versus transistors, and whether the mono or stereo mix of Sgt. Peppers is better. Or perhaps the heads of Jim Bongiorno and Nelson Pass have been spliced onto robots, just like Robocop. In the words of the great Donald Fagen:
On that train all graphite and glitter,
Undersea by rail,
Ninety minutes from new york to paris.
(more leisure for artists everywhere)
A just machine to make big decisions,
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision.
Well be clean when their work is done.
Well be eternally free yes and eternally young.
No Muss, No Fuss
George offered me the chance to hear his more audiophile oriented electronics, and it seemed like a good opportunity. Jaton offers products aimed at both audiophiles and home theater buffs. My perception of Jaton from the various shows was that the electronics were slightly laid-back in character, no-nonsense in design and a good value. Jaton’s pricing is aggressive, especially with its innards. The parts quality and quantity compete with products selling for way, way more money. I never assume good sound from good parts, as it’s just as likely to give awful sound, but it’s easier to get good sound if you have good parts to use. The specs will tell you these boxes aren’t full of air. By the way, I swear the amp weighs more than 80 lbs. It felt heavier than that and darn solid, too.
Connecting and using the Jaton gear was uneventful. Everything was straightforward and seemed rather normal except that the power switches were reversed, in my opinion: the preamp has a power switch on the front, while the amp has its power switch in the back, which is integrated with a circuit breaker—very heavy duty industrial type stuff. If something should be left on all the time, it would be the preamp. With a low-power transistor preamp, why not leave it on all the time? It’s not going to run up your electricity bill; the amp might be noticeable, but not the preamp. A MUTE or STANDBY switch on the front of the preamp would allow you to swap cables without fear of frying a speaker. Otherwise, just let it idle.
This isn’t the first design, and God knows it won’t be the last, to force the listener to do a reach-around (pun intended) to switch off their amp. I’m not singling out Jaton. It’s something that I see too frequently. Listen, you audio designers: power amplifiers, whether the power switch is on the front, on the back or totally missing, are not works of art. Okay, maybe there are two or three that actually stand out as works of art, but they are exceedingly rare, almost singular. You aren’t drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. If you call a piece of audio equipment high art, we need to schedule an intervention at an art gallery. A power-switch can be artfully integrated into the cosmetics, which still doesn’t make it art. Obviously, Jaton wanted to use the circuit breaker set-up, in lieu of a fuse on the back. You can keep the circuit breaker while introducing a regular power switch somewhere on the front.
In my experience, it took about 48 hours for the preamp to sound its best. The amp runs cool enough to leave on all the time, so turn it on and leave it on for a couple days. When both units are cold, everything is slightly constricted, tight, forward and two-dimensional. I noticed a small difference in my power bill, like I switched a few CFL bulbs back to incandescent bulbs. For some of us, this is no big deal. I’ve made my house more efficient, so I feel this little indulgence is okay. If you listen on a daily basis, you will need to turn them on and leave them on. Sorry. That’s a big benefit of tubes—they heat up to operating temperature in a couple hours, not a couple days. If you listen primarily on weekends or a certain night of the week, fire them both up at least 36 hours in advance. Some equipment takes longer to sound relaxed.
The “watts” of the amp is sufficient for most audiophiles with speakers at 90+ dB efficiency. With the power hungry Maggies, which are more like 86dB efficient, I was only able to drive the amp to clipping once. I put on the Telarc LP of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony and cranked it to live volume. Everything was in control until the last over-the-top chord, when the system totally crapped out. Compared to my favorite transistor amps (Sanders Sound Systems), the Jaton sounded less brawny. To be fair, the Jaton doesn’t claim to be a muscle-bound head-banger. On a few other occasions, I pushed the amp to the point where three dimensions shrank to two (this is pretty normal in amplifications). This was in a room that is 17 by 23 with 10-foot ceilings. It’s a difficult speaker in a large room. If your room is more modest and/or your speakers are 90dB+ efficient, you should have power to spare.
The last quibble about the amp is not really a fault with it. The fault is with the nutty cable manufacturers who make speaker cables as flexible tree trunks, and the do-gooders who feel the need to regulate every aspect of our lives. Regardless of how tight I hand-tightened the speaker-cable binding-posts, they worked their way loose. I wound up destroying the plastic parts of the binding posts with pliers. Because of the pansy communists in the EU, fearful that some unwary audiophile would somehow be electrocuted by their power amp, we are cursed with these horrible connectors. There should be two options for speaker binding posts: intelligent users (who get gold plated copper posts without useless plastic), or weak-kneed-girly-Euro-men-who-need-their-government-to-help-them-hook-up-an-amplifier-for-them option. Come to think of it, Robophile Governator will say exactly that in the not-too-distant future.
The overall sound of the Jaton preamp and amp is hard to describe. One of the reasons that reviewers like tube amps is that they always have an easily described character. Trying to describe the sound of a push-pull class-A transistor preamp and amp can be difficult. The levels of distortion, or all kinds of distortion, are low enough that you primarily hear the quality of the recording and source. Over a long period of time, I did start to form the impression of something like a medium roast coffee with a hint of cinnamon. In contrast, ultra transparent equipment can be like sparkling mineral water with a lemon twist, or green tea. I just don’t have the vocabulary to put such subtle aural artifacts in words. Drink all three back to back, water, tea, then coffee and you understand. Unlike hot chocolate, you can see through coffee, which, like the Jaton units, is transparent. So, if you are reading between the lines, there is a slight darkness in the midrange and up, with a bold character in the lower mids and down. I partially attribute this to the choice of capacitors, something I’ve heard in most of the gear that sports Mundorf electrolytic caps. They aren’t as wide open as polystyrene and Teflon, it’s literally impossible for electrolytic caps to be as transparent as teflon, but they don’t have the crunch and dirt of old style electrolytic, especially those nasty sounding tantalum types from the ‘70s.
Going from tube to transistor can spotlight problems with sources that were glossed over by tubes. For instance, the Haniwa cartridge I use must be loaded with a very low impedance to have good tonal balance. With the load set to 50 ohms, the lowest setting on a phono stage I was using, the sound was slightly bright and forward. With tube equipment after the phono stage, the problems were covered up by the warm sound of tubes; most tubes, that is, since there are analytical sounding tube products. The Jaton gear didn’t accentuate the problems that were there, but did occasionally produce results which were annoying on some disks. Certain recordings of Miles Davis have appreciable distortion caused by his harmon mute. Most tube gear smoothes the distortion over, and blends it into the sound of the trumpet, giving it more of a “brassy” tone. Not the Jaton. Some “transparent” gear is actually threadbare and bright. The Jaton gear is not threadbare and is definitely not bright. Don’t expect softness or artificial sweetness with this combination. The Jaton gear doesn’t lie to you. With the correct blend of speaker and source, the combination can be warm, neutral or analytical—it’s your choice.
Depth and width of image were above average with image depth being shallower than the best I’ve used. Images were often behind the speakers, and the combination performed well when compared to many popular tube designs. Most single-ended tube amps have major issues with frequency response and output power, and you need both for good depth and width. Aberrant frequency response distorts images—I can prove it to you, but I don’t think I’ll be coming over to your house with two different sets of amplifiers any time soon. When I had the Vaughn Audio Zinfandel in the system, the counter-intuitive combination of high-efficiency speaker and powerful transistor amp produced very delightful results. I was expecting something less refined, but I heard the opposite. With this combination, image width was outstanding, so channel separation must be very good. Transistors, because they have less channel-to-channel variation, seem to always have the edge in terms of stereo width. Conversely, tubes have the advantage in depth—that’s based off my observations over the years. In my large-ish room, the extra power of the Jaton gave better frequency response and better imaging. Perhaps in a smaller room, a seven-watt amp would be just as good. What I do know is that most of the music I hear played back with low-powered SET amps is small, meaning very few musicians playing uncomplicated music. Even with efficient speakers in a small room, a certain amount of control is needed to play back complicated recordings. It’s interesting that this high-power preamp-amp tandem, mated with high-efficiency speakers, worked so well. The results reinforce my belief that flea-powered amps are appropriate for headphones, but fall apart when driving real speakers with real music.
As I said earlier in this review, the Jaton combo was able to push difficult loads to high levels with only a couple instances of strain, compression or outright crash-and-burn failure. If your speakers are 89dB efficient or better, and your room is medium-sized or smaller, you shouldn’t run out of power, unless you really like it really loud and I really mean it. The power supply must be overbuilt because the sound was subjectively more powerful than many other amps with comparable output power. I didn’t take the unit apart, but images from Jaton’s website show equipment packed with high quality capacitors. It’s not a lie. Where many amps, most amps actually, have poor power-supply to rated-power-output, the Jaton amp seems just the opposite. There’s no reason to have a bunch of output transistors or tubes when you don’t have the balls to back it up. It would be like having a car with huge tires and breaks, with a low center of gravity and great handling, but with a wimpy 4 cylinder. (Exception: the Mercedes SLK230 Kompressor. –Ed.)
Macro dynamics, where transistors seem to do well, were very strong. Unlike a number of transistor pieces I know, the micro dynamics were also clean and sufficiently fast. Still, the micro dynamics of a low-powered tube amp is somewhat superior. There was a hint of sluggishness that I attribute to the powerful design (the multiple parallel devices). The Zinfandel, driven by single-ended tubes, had hair-triggered attacks. With the Jaton, the rise time seemed a touch slower. Obviously, the Jaton gear could do big dynamics and slam better than the majority of tube amps. Is there an amp that does both? The big Atma-Sphere OTLs do both, but still require easy loads, preferably 8 ohms minimum, and moderately efficient.
An interesting quality of the Jaton gear is how well it integrated dynamics into the music. Some amps treat dynamics like a claymore mine: a transient, for an almost imperceptively short time, unleashes hell, then calms back down. I can’t explain the observation any other way. The darker, more traditional, class AB transistor amps seem to dump tons of current for a tiny fraction of a second then pulls back like nothing happened. Perhaps it’s a symptom of feedback? In the real world, dynamics are not separate from the rest of the sound.
The build quality was somewhat Jekyll and Hyde. The amp is very heavy, solid and sports high quality case work. The faceplate and various parts are very good. However, the preamp has a little LCD readout and a thin cover that doesn’t do justice to the parts inside. It rings when tapped. I’m not advocating the tired old high-end formula of putting 2oz of parts inside a really expensive chassis. What I am saying is that the amp looks and feels like a good value, where the preamp seems like it was made by another company. If given a choice, I’d take the unit with the good parts inside. Reality is this: many listeners make their decisions purely on marketing hype and looks. Jaton could easily beef things up without too much added expense.
Right For You?
There is a place for the Jaton amp and preamp, and there are people who need this combination of value and strength. If you have difficult dynamic speakers, you should try this amp. It did a good job of driving difficult loads while remaining graceful. Because the combo was slightly dark, it’s a good match for wispy/silvery speakers. I never found anything this combo was bad at, which is a good recommendation. I wouldn’t call the Jaton sound just right for me since it would require changes in the system to get the balance back to where I like it. But, depending on what speakers you own, and the sound of your listening room, these might be the ticket. Value for dollar cannot be questioned. Neither did I hear anything that sounded less than good from the Jaton pieces. If your tastes are for flat frequency response, you listen to all types of music, and you need a decent amount of power, then these two pieces, especially judged in tandem, are easily recommended.
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