Review: Convergent Audio JL-2 Tube amp

Category: Amplifiers

If we’re lucky, we stumble upon a truly state-of-the-art product at some point in our audiophile path that changes our way of thinking about reproduced music. Once we do, we realize what we’ve been missing. That is the case with the 100wat per channel triode Convergent Audio Technology JL2 Stereo Tube Amplifier.

Having owned and tried a variety of solid state and tube gear nothing has made such a significant improvement. In fact improvement is to light a word. It implies a step from A to B in the positive direction. In this case, this is a whole other level or plane of performance and realm of operation, causing me to forget the typical ways of describing a piece of hi-fi gear and to describe the experience as a whole instead. What do I mean?

Well, we typically rate the End-Result of a component in terms of its Authority, Speed/Dynamics, Transparency/Resolution, Soundstage, Timbral Accuracy, Frequency Balance and Extension, etc. Some equipment is strong in some areas and some in others. Ultimately we end up characterizing the amp based on a subset of these qualities. In the case of the CAT, these sonic aspects are a means to an end. With the end description being in terms of pure realism and music as it was probably recorded and meant to sound. The CAT has ALL of these hi-fi aspects but you are not left describing it in these terms after hearing it. It uses these features and more to create a sound that is transcendental.

Let me start by stating my equipment setup and path taken to the JL2:

Wadia 861-SE with Statement upgrade from Great Northern Sound Co. (review to come)
Dunlavy SC-IVA speakers
Synergistic Research Designers Reference/Virtual dynamics cables
Previous Amp: Krell FPB-600

Being very happy with my speakers and being incredibly happy with the Wadia 861 (contingent on the GNSC upgrades) I was ready to evaluate a new amplifier. I had been using a variety of Krells in the past and had auditioned a variety of other solid state amps. However, I always felt limited to describing the system in terms of pro’s and cons. Basically the Krells and most solid state has great bass, decent mids, dynamics and transparency. However, I always felt something was missing.

The first thing I did was try a highly regarded 200-watt tube monoblock amplifier reviewed in the Absolute Sound. This was a very interesting experience. The tube amplifier delivered much more than the Krell but was lacking in others. The most noticeable was the improvement to the high frequencies. The tube gear was able to resolve and extend much more of the high frequencies. The best way to describe it was crystalline but natural. The tubes also had great bass. In fact, I preferred the sound of the tube bass to the 600watt Krell! It was more harmonically correct. However, the Krell did have much better lower bass frequency potential. The tubes also have a better soundstage and were much more transparent than the already transparent Krells. The tubes seemed to make things sound more real overall. However, I was back to describing things in terms of sonic pro’s and cons. The biggest con’s with the tube amps was a lack of authority and some congestion/smearing on more complex music like rock-n-roll. These amps were better suited to jazz, chamber classical and acoustic music. Overall, I thought the tube amps were better than the Krell, but I felt concerned about the cons and wanted more in terms of realism. Enter the CAT JL2

Thanks to discussions with and trust in my dealer, Bob Lietz at the Analog Shop, and Ken Stevens at CAT, the JL2 was recommended based on my sonic requirements and price point of $12,000 or less. I purchased the unit without hearing it first.

WOW was my first reaction upon hearing it in my system! As I wrote earlier, the JL2 has ALL of the sonic virtues we are used to describing. It has punch/authority, transparency, soundstage, timbral accuracy, speed, dynamics, frequency extension, etc. Believe me, Nothing was lacking. This amp dealt with all of the limitations I’ve heard previously from solid state designs and the other tupe amps I tried! However, as I also said above, I soon lost focus in these qualities and realized how whole, complete and right this amplifier sounds. The sound has a lot of body , is very 3-D, holographic and feels like you’re listening to real musicians in an ambient space. It provides complete, uninhibited emotional involvement. These aspects can’t be under-emphasized. I am amazed at how this amplifier reproduces music and makes it sound real and emotionally involving. This is what I’ve been looking for and it is what I think we are all striving for.

You’ve probably heard this feeling described before but I can’t imagine how anything comes close to this level of experience. At least nothing I tried. Tube or solid state. This unit seems to be in another level. In my opinion, forget solid-state. Also, purchasing just any tube unit will not get you there either. If you’re worried about power…don’t. The JL2 leaves nothing to be desired. Even compared to a 600 watt beast like the Krell. This amp is designed to drive any speaker. The JL2 seems to be a very highly engineered and tested instrument and delivers on its promise.

Ken Stevens once told me that when a unit gets this good it stands out so much that it can be used with just about any ancillary equipment and still stand out. I experienced this effect with Dunlavy speakers when I spent the day with John Dunlavy at his factory. He was playing his statement, SC-VI with a pair of small, A/V amp modules from Marantz. I think they were $2,000 a pair mated to the $24,000 pair speakers. The sound was amazing! I experienced this with the CAT as well. While the Wadia was out for some modifications and I was waiting for new cables, I used my old backup, a 1985 $1,000 Denon CD player with variable outputs through $50 Monster Cable interconnects into the CAT. The system sounded amazing! However, this is NOT to say that investing in a high quality front end and cables does not provide better performance. In fact, using a high quality CD player like the Wadia w/ GNSC upgrades and good cables with something as highly resolving as the CAT is sonic nirvana. It doesn’t get much better than with the right front end and ancillary equipment. What I am trying to say is that the CAT is the type of equipment to make a significant jump to another level of realism and take you most of the way to the end.

Well do I recommend the CAT JL2? You’re damn right I do! My advice to you if you’re having trouble affording one is to sell your front-end equipment (unless it is already state-of-the-art), cables and tweaks, etc. and buy a JL2 with a cheap, modest CD player and enjoy the ride! Then work on making the system better later. Fortunate are the current owners of CAT amplifiers and those that take my advice.

Associated gear
Wadia 861-SE w/ GNSC Statment Upgrade
Dunalvy 4A speakers

Similar products
Krell FPB-600
Antique Sound Lab Hurricane
Nice to hear how happy you are with your new amps. For so many of us who lived with solid state at the start, and then heard the magic of tubes, there is no going back no matter how much hassle they can be. It took me several years to find a tube amp to work well with the Magnepan 3.x series, but with the Wolcotts, my search has ended. It has everything to do with system synergy, nailing down our personal preferences and finding good value.
I have owned the Convergent Audio JL2 triod amp for several years now and it is the statement piece of the company. The transparency and vibrant musicality of the JL2 is increadible and it's see thru like quality allows me to hear more of the music in a really enjoyable way. As you mentoned in the review the mid and low bass is outstanding as it has many of the qualties I hear in live music such as speed, depth, power, weight, slam and balance. The bass reaches very deep but does not get muddy or undefined like my previous Jadis Defy 7 amp did. The JL2 sounds very clear across the entire audio range and it has a wonderfull midrange which is espically evident on fine vocal material. This is one part of my system I have no desire or intention to try to upgrade as I fell it would be very difficult to beat in overall performance.

Your review really hit home for me, because I'm currently experiencing exactly what you've described from a pair of Canary CA-339 amps. In describing the sound of the amps I have used the word "complete" more often than not, because to describe the amps simply in terms of their individual audiophile properties misses the point - it's kind of like the blind men describing the elephant. What's important is that sense of wholeness - knowing that you're hearing the original event as well as you possibly can (within the limits of the recording, all else being equal, void where prohibited, etc. etc.). Hearing for the first time all those audiophile properties we so cherish in such perfect balance, all in service of the music, is a sublime revelation.

I'm glad to hear you describe the JL-2 in the way you have, because it reinforces my opinion that we are on the verge of a second Golden Age of Gear, where the new designers are "standing on the shoulders of giants", adding their own unique insights to the mix and bringing the whole enterprise up a quantum level. The next decade will be a wonderful time to be an audiophool!

Great follow-up. I think more and more of us are beginning to use the term "completeness" as a way of decribing our sonic ideals. Maybe you are correct in assuming that a new Golden age will occur as a result. This sonic character (or no character at all :))will likely force the majority of electronics manufactures to realize that higher bars are being set.
Congratulations on your find.
Folks whose opinion I value highly, have said that CAT's are the best push-pull amps they have heard, and come close to equaling or exceeding the best SET designs.
While there is no "best" anything (trade-offs are always present aren't they?); there are only a few damn fine products, and IMHO, CAT's must be put in that category.
My reaction to my CAT JL-1's is the same as yours to your JL2. I acquired mine late last year, and they replaced a Mark Levinson 336, driving Soundlab M1's. The improvement was absolutely stunning! Sonic improvements were across the board. It took my rig to a whole new level -- above and beyond anything I had ever experienced. I have yet to loose my appreciation of these amps, and the only way I would let loose of them, is for other CAT's.
I don't have much to add to what has been said. I agree the JL2 is among the best. What I can't understand is how a product of this quality somehow doesn't manage it to make it into the pages of TAS or Stereophile as a recommeded component. I guess this is the fate of Word-of-mouth components (Quicksilver, Audible Illusions among others)that have decided not to advertise but produce the very best products in relatively low unit production.

Is there anyone who could make match between JL1 and JL2 ?
Someboby could describe the sound difference ?

I have TAD TSM1 speakers.
They are very difficult to drive (3 ohms between 30 / 600 Hz)

my website (not update)


PS.: Sorry my english is very bad...
I've owned CAT JL1s monoblocks and now own JL3 signiture monoblocks. I
was very reluctant to let the JL1s go because they were basically
perfect for me. I decided to step into the JL3s just because I could,
not for any want. I had become good friends with Ken Stevens, after
years on the phone with him, and did the trade up for him, hehe. Of
course, I'm glad he talked me into it. The JL3s are absolutely
amazing.... but then again so were the JL1s (JL3s more weight/solidity,
but I couldn't do back to back listening as the JL1s were sold). All of
Convergent Audio Technology gear means top notch music; I don't believe
you can go wrong with CAT.
Severed, what pre do you use with CAT amp?
Any recommended small tube rolling experiences with the CAT amps?
Well, I have had the JL2 4+ years now, and I've had 5 or 6 tube and SS amps in rotation to see if I could find something to beat it. Well all I can say is you have to be kidding! I've given up and am accepting the fact the CAT is the best amp I'll ever own, and by an obvious margin. They're hot, heavy, and expensive to retube, but they may well be the best amps on the planet. I found that I prefer the Joule 150 MKII preamp with them after having tried the CAT SL1 Ulitmate MKII, Lamm LL2, and Placette Active, but it sounded fanstastic with all of them and my Merlin VSMs.
A bit late to this post, but regarding a suitable Pre for any CAT amp would be either the Renaissance or Legend. Even the Renaissance is far better than the previous Ultimate MKII. And yes...Ive heard them all in the correct objective conditions.
Haha ... I am quite late too

I have the JL-2 (non-Signature version) for many many years, and is by far the best amp I have ever owned.

I used to pair it with a Gryphon preamp - the Elektra solid-state, and it was a good match.

Late last year, I changed to a Wavac PR-Z1 tubed preamp, and the JL-2 continue to impressed me. It's a keeper or to upgrade up the CAT line