Review: J&R Essential Essential 3160 Preamplifier
I simply had to share my own impressions of the upgrade that I recently received from Raul on Jose on my Essential 3150, which has now been upgraded to their ultimate Essential 3160 specifications. I'll post the exact response as I have just sent it to Raul and Jose, so please excuse any content that might not bear direct relation to this review. However, it is as honest a response as I am capable of giving and I hope it will prove useful to others ('everyone' really).
"Monday 13th August: Essential arrives. Connected and set up. Play music for 4 hours alternating between MM (Moerch DP6/Music Maker 3) and MC (Ikeda/Allaerts). 100% jazz played.
First and most immediate impression was that the Essential sounding hugely different to its sound before the upgrade. There seemed to be a richer but darker sound. The sparkle of the early version seemed somewhat lessened but so too did its slightly lean sound, which I had largely put down to being a problem with the Talons and their Thiel ceramic drivers. My perspective on all of this (and, as you’ll see, ‘my actual system and its setup’) was to change dramatically over the coming days.
Tuesday 14th August: Let both MM and MC stages run for 5 hours with volume turned down (without my listening to them). At 19:45, I listened to both stages again for a further 3 hours. 75% jazz, 15% classical and 10% blues played.
Immediate impression was “wow”! The apparent darkness has become simply more of everything. The mid range just oozes more detail. Male vocals are far richer and yet the treble has also become more aggressive or vital. Anyone who thought that the Essential sounded lean in its former manifestation should just hear what I am hearing now!!
Wednesday 15th August: listened to tuner (Marantz ST-17) and CD Player (Marantz CD7). Again, the richness of detail remains markedly improved across the entire band width that my speakers are capable of delivering (flat at 40Hz-40Khz).
I then repeated the exercise of playing each track on the MM and MC alternatively for four hours. Sound stage and focus seem more precise and large. I had thought that the ML 23.5 might not have been good or powerful enough to drive my Talons. The improvement in the dynamism, fullness and accuracy of the new Essential has proven this not to be the case. The Levinson is doing a phenomenal job and is an even better amp than I had realised. Bass production also fills my room in a more tight and detailed way. This leads me to some of the consequences of the improvements that have been made to the Essential.
JOYOUS GRIPE: The first thing that became most obvious to me (now by day 3) was that the treble was far fuller and immediate. However, the timbre on my favourite test album for this region (ie. Taj Mahal’s “Teacups Jazzy Blues Tunes” from his album, Oooh So Good’n Blues) seemed wrong. The Pointer Sisters’ use of sleigh bells and Chinese finger cymbals on this track just did not seem to have captured the full sparkle and timbral accuracy of the instruments. This led me to play around with my speakers and super-tweeters (sts). I noticed that each time that I turned the sts down a level the situation improved. Finally, I removed the sts completely and, eureka, the sleigh bells, finger cymbals and cymbals (triangle) and stick emerged gloriously into my listening room. So the improvements in the Essential concerning high frequency have left me with a redundant set of Townshend sts! Raul had suggested that I did not need the sts but I was looking for (what I now suppose was simply) “more” sound (maybe feeling the Essential had been giving me a slightly lean sound myself) and could not fully note the poor integration of the sts to my speakers before. The 40Khz top end of the Talons is really something quite special but I never really realised just how special until I got the Essential back in its new incarnation and consequently lost the sts.
Thursday 16th August: One hour of listening to the tuner and two hours listening to the cdp in the morning. Just glorious: everything is just better than before - more detailed, vibrant and right.
Back to the MM and MC for a further 6 hours real listening. 50% jazz, 45% classical and 5% blues played. Everything seems just so good but I notice that on some tracks (such as “Wagon Wheels” from Sonny Rollins album, Way Out West), there was slight confusion about the position of the musicians. At times the drummer (Shelly Manne) drifts ever so slightly forward as the sound of his playing increased and a similar situation occurs with the bassist (Ray Brown) and saxophonist (Rollins) when their solos reach a crescendo or increased in volume. This led to more playing around with my set up.
JOYOUS GRIPE: To cut a long story short – I changed the SAEC SS 300 metal mat for the Boston Audio Mat1 and then the Basis Reflex Clamp for the Acoustic Signature (Grip MKII) clamp (I tried various combinations of these four components on various music over a 4 hour period). Again, Eureka, the sound stage is fixed in place and timbre and rhythm took another step into the realms of live performance. I’m not certain if the loss of the rubber in the Basis grip was the key factor but the change is irrefutable. If Raul gets a chance, please, please give this combination a go on one of your AS turntables. I’d really be pleased to hear your impressions and so I won’t go into any more details about what I’m hearing with this alteration.
My impression of the Essential has now gone into the stratosphere. Everything is just excellent. The sparkle that I felt was greater on the original Essential was now back only now far more in context. This showed up on all piano and horn work and was just stunning on Darius Milhaud’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (ORS 78297). In fact, I’m now really considering buying a pair of Escalante Pinyon monitors as they have even better specifications than my Talons and share the same designer – who personally swears by the marked improvements in his newer work. The reviews of them also seem to bear this out: there are some interesting reviews on Audiogon discussions and at http://www.enjoythemusic.com/magazine/equipment/0905/escalantedesign.htm and another one at http://www.escalantedesigns.com/viewer/home/reviews_ST1.asd. The key specifications that interest me relate to getting ‘even more’ out of my set up and giving the Essential a better environment for the music that it is delivering:
Frequency range 40Hz – 40Khz 34Hz – 50Khz
Sensitivity 87db 89db
1. Will this be any problem for the recalibration of my Essential that you did in regards to the Talons or will it still marry well with the Pinyons? and
2. Will this not alter the cross over point when you change my ML23.5 for the subs?
Friday 17th August: Started playing records (volume turned down) at 7:00 am. Decided to write this review up and so left the music playing to itself for 2 hours (obviously popping back to change the records as it went along). I began proper listening at 10:00am and listened intermittently throughout the day until 22:00pm. 45% Classical, 25% Blues, 15% Jazz, 10% rhythm and blues/soul and 5% popular chart music played.
The sound on both the MM and MC are just fantastic. Timbre, dynamics, sound stage, rhythm are all as good as anything I’ve ever heard. I had often thought that there was a distinction between the emotional impact of tube gear and solid state (no doubt because of the noted quicker human reception of distinct harmonic orders). In fact, and largely no doubt based on not a little romanticism and nostalgia, I had always felt that the most emotionally involving system I had owned was my Audio Research and Proac response setup of more than a decade and a half ago. NOT SO. The vibrancy, detail and fullness of the music that I am now hearing from the Essential driven new setup is just so much more than I can really express.
JOYOUS GRIPE: The amazing performance of the Essential 3150/60 is – as I’ve said - the key reason why I am thinking of upgrading my speakers to the Pinyons: I think the Essential needs the best that I can have (although a bank loan will have to come into play hear: still, it was my birthday a couple of weeks ago so I can claim it as a late present to myself!?).
Saturday 18th August: Early start. I have now switched over the Music Maker 3 for the Empire LTD 750, which Raul had recommended as a very good cartridge. I will let you know my thoughts when I have given it enough time to run-in and be certain of what I hear and think. However, immediate impressions on playing it without any break in is of a wider but more compressed (front to back) sound stage and yet a better level of clarity and precision (compared to the fantastic and vibrant sound that I was now getting from the MM3). It also seems to play much louder.
The upgraded Essential gives me more of many things that are best summed up by what I saw Raul once describe simply as “MORE MUSIC”: here and in my system (even with its current limitations – no subs and fairly limited room treatment) the term ‘more’ can be substituted by the terms ‘accurate’, ‘believable’ and ‘real’. The potential for my home reproduced music now seems almost limitless.
Thanks, from the bottom of my heart, to both of you for your genius and generosity here"
Warts and all, that's what I've found and that's what I've posted. Just hear it for yourself.
Wishing the best
Mark Levinson 23.5
Talon Hawk monitors
Partington Broadside speaker stands
Acoustic Signature Mambo turntable
Allaerts MC2 Finish Gold MC Cartridge
Moerch DP6 (12" red point) tonearm
Music Maker 3 MM cartridge
Empire Ltd750 MM cartridege
Marantz ST-17 tuner
Marantz CD7 player
Kubala Sosna and Analysis Plus silver cabling throughout
EAR 324, Sunhilde phono stage, Conrad Johnson prem 16 & prem 17 LS, Atma-sphere MP3, Audio Research LS25 MKII, Croft preamp with phono stage, Plinius, Krell and various others (owned and/or auditioned in home system)