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Jaton Real A&V-803 Floorstanding Speaker Review

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Jaton Real AV 803 loudspeakerPhillip Holmes talks serious music via the $6,000 Jaton Real A&V-803 loudspeakers

A pleasant surprise from the last day of 2009 CES was meeting George Cheng of Jaton Audio. Fellow Dagogoan Gary Lea asked me to check out the Jaton room after I told him I hadn’t been in to visit. George was slowed by an injured foot, but that didn’t dull his enthusiasm and passion for the newly released Jaton Audio products. Upon first impression, the sound was taut, clean, slightly forgiving and dimensional. It was a stark contrast to some systems that were in the 100’s of thousands of dollars and sounded like sonic weapons of mass destruction; several much hyped turntables were prime offenders.

George, on the other hand, was sporting affordable speakers, driven by his Operetta class A amp and a good quality digital source. I wouldn’t call his equipment “budget”. You will find cheaper products. But, considering the beautiful build quality, I was pleasantly surprised by the prices. We need more people like George.

George offered the A&V-803 Realwood Floor-Standing Loudspeaker for review, and I quickly accepted. It’s a more traditional loudspeaker than what I’ve been using and reviewing for the past few years (horns, panels, etc.). It’s a rather conventional three-way bass-reflex-loaded floor-stander, with two 8” woofers, a 5” midrange and a 4” long semi-horn-loaded ribbon. I’ll admit that the ribbon was the deal clincher. If it had been a ring radiator or a dome, I’d probably have hesitated.

The base/stand is bolted on the bottom of the speaker and provides extra stability. They also probably affect the bass response, but I listened with the bases on for the duration of the review. The supplied grills have a grayish color and are built from MDF. The MDF seems to continue the tweeter’s horn flare, and subjectively, the speaker did sound brighter with the grills on, so I decided to listen without them.

There are two price points for the speakers. They run $6K for walnut and dark walnut veneers. Sandalwood and mahogany cost an additional $600. I actually like the walnut as much as the mahogany. All the veneers are very attractive, and beautifully finished in a high gloss. The clean corners and edges don’t show any clue to the thickness of the veneer, or even that a veneer is being used (instead of solid wood). Non audiophile guests were very impressed with their looks, often asking “how much?”. The finish is first rate.

Synergy

I experimented with wires and positioning for a few days. I quickly settled on bi-wiring, which sounded smoother and more transparent than using single runs of the same cable. Something that popped up that wasn’t in keeping with the rest of the speaker was the binding posts. Though they are of high quality, they were knurled, instead of the more convenient hex head. Something about the construction of the binding posts wasn’t allowing a good tight clamp, and the cables would work their way loose; finger tightening wasn’t getting fail-safe connections. I finally resorted to pliers, which did the trick, but at the cost of scraping some of the finish off the posts. It’s not a big complaint, but I’d like to see ALL speakers use either a hex head, or provide a slot for a quarter (or really big screwdriver).

Room positioning was a little touchy. As indicated by the specifications, the speaker starts to roll off at 35Hz, so you want some boundary reinforcement to keep the bass going down into the 20’s. The port is on the backside of the speaker and positioning too close to a rear wall quickly leads to bloated bass. I can’t give a definite positioning since that will differ according to individual rooms. I had them toed-in, and relatively far apart (and close to my corners, which helped in the last octave). As a result, they were about 30-32” from the back wall. Your room dimensions will make a big difference on how far out from the wall you need to site them for overall best bass. Experimentation is always important with speakers, regardless of type.

As I said earlier, I did all listening without the grills. The highs were rather brighter with the grills in place; I also preferred the appearances of the speaker without the grills.. The nice veneer was more appealing to me and my wife. She usually doesn’t like to see cones; but, she liked the looks of this speaker without grills, even commenting on the “cool looking” drivers.

Before I dig into my own listening notes, I wanted to go back to what I heard in Vegas. George was getting lovely sound from his matching, class A transistor amp and a digital source. I initially had a hard time getting the same tonal balance in my listening room. Knowing what the speakers were capable of, I figured something I was doing wasn’t resulting in a good synergistic match.

During break-in, I noticed a slight brightness in the extreme highs. Or, perhaps it was a small resonance. After experimenting with amplification, I figured out that the Jaton A&V-803 preferred the larger amps I had. This has less to do with power, and more to do with control, such as damping, output impedance, etc. With the EL34-equipped Grant Fidelity RITA-340, and my extensively modified and restored KT66-equipped HeathKit W3M (with Acrosound TO300 OPT), there was a rise in the top octave, along with a little too much warmth in the midbass. Switching to the Plinius SB-301stereo amp and the StereoKnight M75 monoblocks, the top-end smoothed out and the bass gained focus and tightness.

The smaller amps would play plenty loud. Perhaps the ribbon has a slight impedance drop that the smaller tube amps didn’t handle well. I’m not sure about it at this point. Tangent: it’s possible that the sonic signature of the EL34 and KT66 isn’t a good match with these speakers. The tighter bass was probably attributable to the better damping from the larger amps. Bass reflex designs present some challenges to amps with low damping factors. Perhaps it’s the three way crossover, with the extra chokes and caps, which tend to take away from a tube amps ability to control the drivers. However I tried things, the powerful amps ruled the day. After getting a handle on the associated amplification and careful positioning, the speakers were very close to what I heard at CES.

Associated components included the Blacknote CDP300 CD player, a Lyra Argo mounted to SME V with a Denon DP80 in custom base, preamps from StereoKnight and NAT Audio, Grant Fidelity Rita-340 integrated amp, Plinius SB-301 power amp, and several different wiring combinations.

The Sound

I started with listening to vinyl, and the Grant Audio RITA-340. The RITA-340, an EL34-based integrated amp, proved to be a two-edged sword with the Jaton speakers. On one hand, it elicited superb detail and a marvelous soundstage. On the other, it had the aforementioned rising top-end and plump midbass. To be fair to the Jaton speakers, the Rita-340 had a wee bit more zip than neutral, something I heard with two sets of speakers. I attribute this zippiness to the characteristic sound of the EL34, not to poor design; the combination of the Jaton’s ribbon and the RITA-340 was too much of a good thing. It did prove to be an illuminating review tool while listening to source changes. VTA adjustments were easily heard. As well as mistracking, dirty vinyl and bad mastering. Some previously dark sounding recordings sounded terrific, while other records had their flaws ruthlessly displayed.

A combination that was more inviting was the Blacknote CDP300 and RITA-340 in lieu of the analog front-end. The Blacknote, using vacuum tubes, is a slightly forgiving player. It actually sounded more analog like than my vinyl rig at times (the Lyra errs on the side of leanness). The Eurythmics – Greatest Hits, has some fantastic, artificially created ambience, along with interesting timbres (care of David Stewart). On some cuts that were already hot in the highs, there was an occasional wispy character; not bright, just a couple dB too much at about 12-14kHz.

On a few cuts that were a little dull, such as “Here Comes The Rain Again”, this combo breathed life into the music, making me reach for the Blacknote’s repeat button. It really took me back to the ‘80s, but with much better sound. On this track, the soundstage was seamless, deep and wide. Images were well outside and behind the box. Bass was very tight. Annie’s voice was sensuous and well centered. The contrast between main vocal and background vocal was quite nice, with two different acoustic spaces clearly audible. Likewise, on “Love Is A Stranger”, separate spaces (real and artificial) are contrasted against each other, without smearing or blending. The vocal doubling was beautiful; very clean and well delineated.

On Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler’s guitar was well outside the speaker on “Down To The Waterline”. The acoustic space on “Water Of Love” was large, and likewise images were outside and behind the speakers. The dobro was raspy and life-like; I could hear individual strings “jangle” and pop against the body. (Note: Dobro is a stringed instrument, a type of guitar with a metal resonator on the body. It’s mostly used in Blue Grass music.)

Changing gears, I swapped the Grant Fidelity integrated amp for the NAT Audio Plasma Preamp and Plinius SB-301 amp. I immediately heard improved tonal balance, better bass control and a larger soundstage. I also switched to vinyl at this point, and remained analog for the rest of my review. Listening to the Classic Records reissue of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong-The Great Reunion, (Clarity Vinyl 200G 45 RPM, 3-Disc Box Set Roulette SR 52103-45-200G), reinforced my belief that the Jatons are excellent imaging speakers, reproducing a large recording venue. It did a remarkably good job of recreating the stringed bass, integrating the body with the overtones, and solidly placing the instrument just inside the speakers. In many ways, the performance of the Jaton’s ribbon was similar to the performance of the 3’ long ribbon in my Maggies. Its super fast, with lots of fine textures. Cymbals didn’t sound like compressed air, but like shimmering sheets of hand-worked bell-bronze.

On The Witch Doctor by The Jazz Messengers (mid ‘70s Liberty pressing; originally released on Blue Note 84258), van Gelder’s sound came through unscathed. At this point, in 1961, he had learned how not to overdrive his microphones, and Lee Morgan sounds fabulous. The body of the trumpet sounded thick, with the correct arrangement of overtones going way up in the treble. Wayne Shorter’s tenor sax is dynamite, with reediness, the sound of air escaping pads and corks, and just enough “honk”. The midrange character of the Jatons is very natural and distortion free, while the ribbon does an excellent job of continuing the overtones to inaudibility. The net result is that brass and reeds sound authentic.

Kenny Burrell’s Live At The Village Vanguard (Muse MR5216) is an excellent live recording. The Jatons did a superb job of letting me hear the size of the club, the out-of-phase (in relation to the microphone) audience surrounding, and the engineer changing microphone levels (and how it shifted the perceived shape of the venue-from the perspective of the microphone). I could almost make out where people were seated, depending on which microphones were on. These speakers would be ideal for detail junkies.

Tina Brook’s saxophone, on True Blue (the Music Matters 45rpm reissue), was very powerful; close-miked wind instruments can play havoc with speakers. These reissues sound marvelous, they are as close as you will come to a master tape, without the hassle of an open-reel tape deck. The Jatons didn’t rob the sound of its dimensionality or transparency. The complex nature of the saxophone can reveal the faults of the crossover and drivers in a multi-way design. Reproducing the fundamental tone, the correct distribution of overtones, and the random noises of a real instrument, is something most full-range drivers can’t do. On the other hand, a poorly designed multi-way speaker can screw up the balance of these tones and resonances. The Jatons have found a sweet spot where the midrange driver almost sounds like a small full-range, augmented with a ribbon. The sound is organic.

An old audiophile spectacular, the direct-to-disk 45rpm Japanese pressing of The Great Jazz Trio on East Wind records showed how quick and dynamic the Jatons can sound. This record features Hank Jones on piano; Buster Williams on bass; and Tony Williams on drums. D2D recordings are, in my opinion, the most lifelike sounding records made. The Jatons produced a very articulate, fast and clean sound, with no sense of overhang or slop. Tony Williams kick drum and toms had realistic impact, and the speakers would take as much power as the Plinius could dish out. (Note: Toms, short for tom-toms, a cylindrical drum without the snare.) There was a sensation of being on the other side of the glass, listening to the session in real time.

On Mission Of Burma’s Vs., (OLE 731-1), a grungy-punk affair, the guitar sound was full-bodied and had a thick texture. This is a noisy, grungy and dirty record (punk usually is), and the Jatons played it loud without losing composure.

Final Thoughts

The Jaton A&V-803 is a well constructed speaker with a lot going for it. The veneer is high quality and is expertly applied. The look is rather elegant and wouldn’t be out of place in a variety of decors. Cabinet construction seems to be well braced, strong and low resonance, from employing the scientific measurements of the knuckle rapping test, and the “it was heavy enough to make me grunt” test. My only reservation on build quality was the type of binding post used. I’d like to see a hex head design that is easier to torque.

The sound is well balanced and a little forgiving due to a slightly rising mid-bass. During most of my listening, I didn’t hear pronounced midbass, just mild midbass warmth that I found agreeable. Positioning is important to strike a balance between the right amount of boundary gain, and a bloated bass. Experimentation is key. Also, I found that a powerful amp helped to eliminate much of the warmth, indicating that it probably has something to do with the bass reflex design, and the relatively more complex impedance curve that a bass reflex design will present. Though they are a large speaker, they don’t do subterranean bass. That’s okay with me since the vast majority of music takes place above 45Hz. The 35Hz -3dB point is good, and unless you are into house-shaking pipe organs or strange special effects, you won’t miss anything.

In the very high treble, above 12k or so, there seemed to be a couple dB of a rise. It doesn’t come across as bright or edgy, but more of an extra shimmer on cymbals, more breathiness on vocals, etc. I must say that the quality of the treble was organic, with none of the compressed-air sound I hear from some tweeters. These speakers preferred the treble from the CD player. Had I switched from MC to MM on my vinyl front-end, or a warmer MC than the Lyra, the balance would have been more favorable, and probably subjectively flat.

Choosing complementary cables, tube rolling, VTA adjustment and other small adjustments, can really help dial in the highs to your taste. I’m especially sensitive to this. Judging from some of the sounds I heard at CES and the positive response from other reviewers, there are people who seem to like a hot top-end, much hotter than what the Jaton presents. So, it comes down to taste.

Rhythm and dynamics were excellent. Drum kits, piano and plucked strings were quick and caused plenty of toe-tapping, and air-drumming. They could play very loud without sounding compressed, though they did like a relatively powerful amp to help things along. Perhaps the best aspect was the image depth and width. The midrange driver does an excellent job of fleshing out timing cues, phase information and ambience that lead to a realistic sense of space. Whether the acoustic was artificial, real, small, or large, the Jatons did an excellent job of letting you know where you were.

Overall, I find these speakers an attractive package with excellent performance. Compared to speakers I’ve had in the house in the past, like the ubiquitous Vandersteen 2ce, these are easier to drive, are more attractive, play with better dynamics, and have less power compression. Your choice of amplifiers can be wider due to a relatively efficient design. For instance, the 2ce is 86dB efficient, making the A&V-803 5dB louder with the same amp. An amp with low output impedance (or good damping) will deal with the three-way design and ported box better than a zero feedback, single-ended triode amp.

I can easily recommend the A&V-803 for people who are looking for a traditional and aesthetically attractive package, myself included. Sometimes I get the feeling that some designers are purposefully marketing ugly speakers for shock value. The Jatons represent a well designed speaker at a fair price. I had a lot of fun with these and recommend an audition. While you are at it, check out George’s class A transistor power amp.

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