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Parasound ZPhono, ZPhono XRM, JC3 Jr. Review

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Parasound maintains a relatively long history in Hi-Fi. The brand has been around for decades and while still going strong, reliably and dependably, it manages to do so without a great deal of fanfare. Workmanlike is a word that has been used to describe their products; rugged and sturdy, they soldier on. I joined the Parasound Owners Group on Facebook to learn that a good number of them are loath to part with their gear and, from the build and quality of the products, I can see why.

My decision to live/reside on both sides of the Atlantic means stocking two residences with the requisite gear. In the States, the Parasound brand is prevalent, whilst in the UK, not so much. It is making inroads, so here in Central Ohio, Columbus to be exact, I decided to make things easy at the start by setting my sights on a workhorse of an integrated amplifier, one that could do pretty-much anything, and purchased a Parasound Halo 2.1 (now superseded by their HINT 6). The Halo 2.1 covered all the bases and, fortunately for me, it sported a phono stage. I say fortunately because as I shipped over a turntable along with cartons of furnishings and clothes from the UK, I absent-mindedly forgot that voltages can make a difference and without a great deal of work and relative expensive cost, my turntable took an unnecessary transatlantic voyage.

Compared to the US, vinyl records can be expensive in the UK, especially when the goal is to fill up empty racks and shelves in my listening room(s). With that in mind I went turntable shopping. While auditioning tables at home I realized that, while the Halo 2.1’s phono stage was more than adequate, it was not terribly efficient logistically to have go to the rack and snake my arms around the back and start shifting cables blindly. Enter Parasound’s ZPhono: minus a wall-wart (YAY) and minus hum and RF interference (double YAY) for which I am truly grateful. I auditioned numerous sub-$300 phono stages and one of those, which costs half as much and whose brand name raises eyebrows would be my nemesis. I bought one, returned it for a replacement and returned that one for a refund. Shielding is ever so important, and from personal experience the absence of a wall-wart is one less item that can be blamed for audible noise from hum and interference. In contrast, the ZPhono and the ZPhono XRM are as quiet as church mice with all of the tables I auditioned.

Having finally decided on the phono stage and having fitted the Rega RP1 with the now-infamous Rega Carbon cartridge, I descended voraciously upon all the local independent records shops. As the shelves filled and I started fleshing out numerous systems at home, I began purchasing and acquiring more turntables. Let me say this right here and now: a fully automatic turntable can be a social drinker’s really good friend when one’s faculties are diminished and eyes grow heavy. A good number of these new models possess integrated phono stages, and while relegating them to hell , they’d find themselves a suitable home in purgatory.

Fast-forward nine months and my bookshelves and storage units are now to the gills with records, and I find myself with a bevy of turntables: a Pro-Ject RPM1, two Denon DP-300F’s, a vintage Denon DP-47F, a Rega RP6 and a VPI Prime Scout. As I unpacked gear from storage, I started building multiple systems in the living room, and then one in the office, and one in the guest room, as one would do. #insanity #obsession.

Through this all I had become enamored with Parasound as a brand. When I heard that they were releasing the JC3 Jr., a streamlined version of the much acclaimed JC3/JC3+, and the ZPhono XRM (an upgraded ZPhono), I got on the horn to Richard Schram, Parasound’s CEO, and inquired about the products, wanting to write about them. First the JC3 Jr. arrived and then the ZPhono XRM. Both were a breeze to set up. It really does help if you burn an image of their respective rears, the business ends, in your mind remembering to reverse the image when blindly making the connections from the front. It is a skill a lot of us don’t realize we’ve attained until we sit down and wonder what just happened.

The ZPhono XRM made a big difference if for nothing else than its features. I’m always curious about how different an MC cartridge could and would sound from an MM cartridge, but I didn’t have an easy way to switch between the two without it being tiresome. The XLR outputs are a nice touch, but I was more taken with the addition of adjustable loading and a mode switch for stereo/mono and an input switch for MM/MC, both switches being on the front of the unit. Flexibility is a good—no great—thing. If I’ve learned anything over the years in Hi-Fi it’s that matching components is everything.

Logic might dictate that coupling a higher quality, more feature laden phono stage would improve any lesser cost turntable, but then I must remind you that for all the wonders High-Definition television brought to sporting events, it did not do wonders for newscasters, whose every wrinkle and pock-mark became all the more evident. The entry-level turntables I have here at my disposal, including a Parasound LTD-900 model I picked up on eBay, which I keep around here as more of a conversation piece, did not improve appreciably with the addition of the XRM. Swapping the phono stages out at the moment made it clear to me that a basic turntable partners just fine with a basic phono stage.

It was a different story with the Pro-Ject RPM1, Denon DP-47F and VPI Prime Scout. As one would predict with the latter two, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a noticeable improvement with the Pro-Ject RPM1, a rather fancifully designed table, and the vintage Denon DP-47F. These two tables came alive, as if they were jump-started. Recordings I had played on them connected to the ZPhono now sounded richer, fuller, with much more detail played with the ZPhono XRM. Imagine you’re decanting a fine bottle of wine and having it breathe for anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours. The result will be that you’re able to pick up more of the wine’s properties, its characteristics, and that’s what the XRM was able to accomplish with these turntables.

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