Review: Convergent Audio JL-2 Tube amp
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.
Wadia 861-SE w/ GNSC Statment Upgrade
Dunalvy 4A speakers
Antique Sound Lab Hurricane