Review: Joule Electra VZN-220 Rites of Passage Tube amp

Category: Amplifiers

I’ve found little written about the Joule-Electra VZN-220 Rite of Passage Monoblocks in audio magazines and virtually nothing written by owners. So, as an new owner, I thought I would provide something for audiophiles to consider.

The Rite is a 220-watt OTL that is powerful enough to push most any speaker in a large room. I chose the Rites because I wanted a “no-compromise” solution that would provide the ultimate in amplification for my audio system. I wanted no more regrets, no more second-guessing and no more wasted wads of cash. I realized that every time I compromised on an audio component, I ended up selling it at a loss and spending even more cash. I realized that in audio, compromise results in an endless jog on a treadmill of disappointment. I wanted off the treadmill.

My system:

 Joule-Electra VZN-220 Rite of Passage Monoblock amplifiers with Sitka Spruce Musicwood option in Audi Brilliant Black on custom isolation platforms
 Joule Electra LAP-150 Preamp with phonostage and outboard power supply on custom isolation platform
 Wadia 860X modified to Statement Upgrade by Great Northern Sound Company on custom isolation platform
 Martin-Logan reQuest electrostatic hybrid speakers
 Creative Cable Concepts AC, IC and speaker cable on custom isolation platforms
 PS Audio 20 amp High current outlets on custom isolation platforms
 Tube traps
 Front-wall treatment to enhance electrostatic speaker dipole effect

I took a leap of faith and ordered the 220watt Rites based on the sound of the 100watt Marquis. The 100watt Marquis were more harmonically complete than any other amp I had heard previously. To this day, I still remember how surprised I was by the sound of the 100watt Marquis. I heard the Marquis compared with a very good amplifier I was interested in at the time and the Joule made the competition sound like a transistor radio. The decision made itself. The Joule was much more harmonically fleshed-out. It made everything sound real. I knew that Joule OTLs have the same circuits so I figured that the Rites couldn’t be much different than the Marquis. Obviously, there are some differences between 100watts and 220watts, but I can report that both are magnificent amplifiers.

Jud Barber, President of Joule-Electra, came to Chicago to address the Chicago Audio Society and spent a few days with my system helping me fine-tune the sound. The amps had arrived 2 weeks before Jud. I had about 70 hours on them. They require about 1000 hours break in time.

You may find my impressions of Jud Barber highly personal, but I share them as they are. Jud is pleasantly understated, so much so you might think he’s laid back. Jud is not laid back. Jud is a perfect gentleman with sharp perception, endless drive, an experimental spirit and the will to succeed. He never quits thinking about ways to do things better. In music, he hears straight to the core of the presentation. He says he focuses on fundamental tones. After hearing the fundamentals in my system, he changed out a few driver tubes in the Rites. We ended up with a 6H23 in the front position and an EI gold pin ECC-88 in the second position. Everything else stayed the same.

More than anything, the Rite of Passage is about life in 4 dimensions. They breathe length, width, depth and “Right Here, Right Now”, into music. They accomplish the pre-eminent audio objective of bringing the recorded acoustic into your listening room at the pinnacle of musicality. My sister, who is not an audiophile and heard the system before and after the Rites arrived said, “This is completely different than before. Instead of hearing music played, music is created in space. Instead of sitting pointed at sound, sound just appears around me.” She was completely right. Even at 70 hours break in, her comments captured the striking scope of the soundstage as it extended in all directions of the speakers and fleshed-out the harmonic richness of the music. The amps sound dead neutral and were completely invisible.

What I’ve been able to figure out since hearing the Rites is that massed musical instruments produce music with complex fundamental and harmonic overtones. All instruments are textured and colored differently, and an audio system must be neutral to make instruments sound natural. If the system is tilted one way or the other, the natural coloration of instruments doesn’t come through properly and music sounds veiled or unnatural. The Rites are clear and neutral. They pass fundamental tones and harmonics to the listener with full complexity and presence. Music sounds “Alive”.

One very special point is the clarity of the soundstage. This really floors me. I’ve heard many good amplifiers in a broad range of price-points in my system, at the home of friends and at audio dealers across the USA. I have never before or since heard anything so clearly invisible as the Rites of Passage. These amplifiers are so neutral, so invisible, so musical, so effortless, so detailed, and continue to become more so every listening session I seriously question if any amp, tube or otherwise, could surpass them. In fact, the amps continue to improve so much, so steadily, I hesitate to write this because I know they will be even better later on. As a fellow audiophile, I strongly recommend listening to Joule before spending another nickel on an amplifier.

The Rites of Passage are also powerful amplifiers that produce dynamics in a shocking way. By shocking, I mean that they capture the micro- and macro-dynamic interplay of instruments in a sound field with effortless nuance and delicacy. The amps can definitely portray raw power when called for, but at all times there is a naturalness with which events occur that you just don’t get with other amplifiers. The Rites play music with the precision and emotion of a concert pianist and I think that adds to the sense of being “Alive”.

I’ve learned that the VZN-220 Rite of Passage Monoblocks are engineered to be adjustable to the loud speakers they “see” and even the source material being played. There are combinations of Variac voltage, driver stage tube choices and feedback that allow the amp to adapt to virtually any system, any music and any owner. You’re not locked into one sound like most amplifiers. You can achieve many sounds. If you want “Alive” set the amp up for “Alive”. If you want analytical, it is no problem. Do you like your music euphonic? Done. You can dial in the best sound for symphonic, quartet, jazz, rock or whatever kind of music program you want to listen to that day. How cool is that? It’s like being married to every model in an entire issue of Victoria Secret! This amp shouldn’t be legal! But, all joking aside, the basic superlative DNA of the amplifier comes through. No matter how you set up the amp, the musical sensibility is the same.

I find though there is one special combination of settings with the Logans- the manual guides you - which is just absolutely jaw dropping. The clarity is so pristine yet so harmonically full and viscerally solid that first hearing it is frightening. I mean frightening that once heard you fear losing it. But you don’t lose it. It stays and then gets even better! The clarity really reveals itself in the depth and width of the soundstage. These attributes are like none I’ve heard before. You get incredible depth and width between instruments and voices with cushions of air-filled space extending to the front sides and rear.

Jud Barber is an impassioned designer. As he told me the story of his very early design struggles, I realized that he is the kind of man who will take down a stone wall to get to his goal. Jud is the only designer I have ever heard speak about the “Magic 2%”. The Magic 2% is his goal. He said there is a sonic line very difficult for most designers to cross. The circuit and/or the parts get in the way of performance. Short of the “Magic 2%”, performance is good, but not magical. Jud’s goal for Joule-Electra is to push beyond the bounds of excellence into a higher realm. He said that realm can be characterized by an additional 2% improvement over the best attainable. He said 2% doesn’t sound like much, but it is virtually impossible in all but the best circuit designs.

Successful men are never satisfied and Jud Barber will probably never stop refining his products, not because he has to, because he wants to. Jud Barber is the kind of man who enriches your life as he passes through it. Someday I hope he returns.

As Jud was leaving he said, “The system sounds analog”. Knowing Jud a bit, he would expect me to give proper credit to the other designers who have contributed to the sound of the system. As great as the VZN-220 Rite of Passage Monoblocks are, nothing stands alone in an audio system.

To get analog sound from CD playback takes system synergy. A huge part of the synergy is due to the efforts of Steve Huntley at Great Northern Sound Company for his Wadia modifications and Bill Eisen of Creative Cable Concepts for his fantastic cable designs.

Much has already been written about Steve Huntley. He is a legend in the modification business and he is the only person I would allow to work on my electronics. He has clarity of vision developed from his days at Audio Research and Wadia and the technical expertise to translate his vision into acoustic reality. Steve is responsible for keeping me in audio. I was about to give up when we spoke and he started to bring my system to life. He did it first by modifying my Wadia, then he recommended Joule-Electra.

Steve is simply a master of clearing away electronic clutter and passing an unaffected signal to the next link in the chain. It’s easy to follow his suggestions. Steve modifies many kinds of components and I recommend calling him if you are thinking about mods. He also just became a Joule-Electra dealer. Jud Barber and Steve Huntley is a natural match!

The next link in the chain is the Joule–Electra LAP-150. How this exquisite piece of electronics eluded my notice previously can only be called a loss for me. I became a card-carrying member of the “No Preamp” camp because other preamps sounded veiled compared to the Wadia alone. Among preamps, the LAP-150 is in another league entirely.

The LAP-150 preamp produces more detail with more musicality than I hear with the Wadia alone. This is splitting the finest of hairs and I am not knocking the Wadia straight into an amplifier. The Wadia fully modified will stand up to any CD player/preamp combo I’ve heard. It’s just that the LAP-150 recovers more detail. I can tell you exactly where this difference is: It's the outer edge of the instruments and voices. Until I heard the LAP-150, I heard no outer edge with the Wadia straight into the amp. But, the LAP-150 seems to better "pull and wrap" outer edges backward and around voices/instruments, revealing even MORE ambient information. I guess the preamp builds a more holographic and coherent soundstage because it exerts better control over the information coming from the Wadia. The Wadia is more analog sounding as a result. Music is more "Alive" in your room. I guess even the slightest edge in musical playback obscures very important spatial detail.

I have no idea how Jud does it, but he does it. Maybe, I hear this because of the electrostatic speakers. This is a very fine nuance, but electrostatic speakers tend to reveal everything.

You can only achieve “Alive” with neutral wire and Bill Eisen is an expert at creating neutral wire. There is simply no other wire that does so little to the sound of the other components. If your audio objective is to create the sound of live music, then audition Creative Cable Concepts AC, IC and speaker wire. Bill’s wire is better than any other I have ever heard, and the better your system, the more the need for CCC wire. I’ve heard Cardas, TG Audio and Nordost in my system and heard many other brands in other systems. Bill’s wire is for audiophiles who want their music to sound like music! Don’t tell Bill, but he could charge more and get it easily. His email address is

What do specific songs sound like? I pulled out the old Diana Krall disc, “All For You” and played the 2nd cut, Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good For You. I could hear the steel of the bass strings mixing with the wood of the instrument like it was standing right there in front of me. The piano sounded like some one had rolled it into the room and it resonated clearly and fully as if the keys were being struck live in my room. And her voice was alive with the rasp, texture and warmth of words flowing freely as if she were in concert. I listened to the whole CD again and again. It had never sounded like that before.

I’m honestly not a big Diana Krall fan. I don’t consider the disk audiophile. It’s ok. I mention it because it sounds so completely better than it ever sounded before. And the thing is that every disk sounds completely better than it ever sounded before.

I put on, “Hell Freezes Over”. I’ve listened to Hotel California about 6 zillion times. I know exactly how it sounds. It was completely different and better! The opening guitar riff was farther back, wrapped in air and the visceral act of Felder playing the instrument was so completely fleshed out I thought I could reach out and play it too. The applause was solid and earthy without silvery glare. The sound of the woodblock on the right side rippled outward across the soundstage all the way to the left leaving a rounded acoustic center where the strike occurred like a droplet impacting glass-smooth water. This really caught my attention. And that whoosh that goes across the stage in the beginning? Well, it started on the left as usual, but it rocketed far beyond the right speaker and then headed down a long hallway off the listening room before finally fading out beyond earshot. It goes on and on every musical moment better than ever before. The amount of air and detail and fleshed out harmonics on every cut on every CD is enhanced from the worst CD to the best. It is more than I ever thought possible and more than I ever expected. I never thought I would ever say that I got more than I paid for in audio, but the Rites are delivering more than I paid for!

This review is long enough as is, but if there were one thing I would scream out it is that these amps are getting better every day. The Rites of Passage are magical. They pull the music and the ambiance of the recorded acoustic from program material like no other amplifier made. They are really in a class by themselves. This review was finished at the 400-hour mark and by the time you read this they will be better than I’ve written.

I haven’t mentioned specifics about bass, mid-range and treble characteristics of the amplifiers because there is a certain irrelevance to it. The amplifiers are so harmonically fleshed-out music transcends these categorizations. It’s ALL there up to the limitations of your components and the source material. I purposely steered clear of direct product comparisons for the same reason.

What about downsides and what about vinyl? I don’t own vinyl, but I’ve heard Joule-Electra play vinyl and it’s better than CD playback. The downsides are easy. First, the amps throw off heat. I live in Chicago. I run the AC in the summer, but no more than usual and I have no amplifier heat problems. Having said that, the Rites will definitely warm a room left to there own devices. Second, they are tubes and they are not as quiet as solid state amps. How do I feel about the amps including the downsides? They aren’t electronics they are incomparable, collectible, functional art.

Speaking of incomparable, collectible, functional art, the final word on the Rites is about the Musicwood chassis. When I ordered the Rites I’d only seen pictures of Musicwood, never seen Musicwood or heard it. I ordered the option based on Steve Huntley’s recommendation. Later on, I spoke to Clark Walding, the artist who builds the chassis and, of course, Jud. I can only say that the Rites with Musicwood are worth the extra money. If I had it to do again, I would spend the money again…….no compromises. The workmanship is artisan and the sound is spectacular. Clark is a marvelous craftsman and I can personally vouch for Musicwood sounding musical. Briefly, Musicwood is quarter-sawn Sitka Spruce. Sitka Spruce is used in the soundboards of many fine musical instruments, like Steinway pianos. The theory is, since all electrical circuits resonate, allow the circuits to do their thing without the chassis over-damping the process or adding odd-order harmonics. Let’s face it, they don’t build too many aluminum Steinways. If you can swing a new Joule, with or without Musicwood, or buy one used I’d recommend it. If you want more information on Joule from real pros, call Jud Barber at Joule or Steve Huntley at Great Northern Sound Company. They can help you sort it all out.

Many thanks to Jud Barber, Steve Huntley and Bill Eisen for keeping an audiophile on track! If anyone lives near Chicago and wants to hear the Rites, drop me an email.

Associated gear
 Joule-Electra VZN-220 Rite of Passage Monoblock amplifiers with Sitka Spruce Musicwood option in Audi Brilliant Black on custom isolation platforms
 Joule Electra LAP-150 Preamp with phonostage and outboard power supply on custom isolation platform
 Wadia 860X modified to Statement Upgrade by Great Northern Sound Company on custom isolation platform
 Martin-Logan reQuest electrostatic hybrid speakers
 Creative Cable Concepts AC, IC and speaker cable on custom isolation platforms
 PS Audio 20 amp High current outlets on custom isolation platforms
 Tube traps
 Front-wall treatment to enhance electrostatic speaker dipole effect
Great review, Joe!
Well done! Excellent review. Makes me want to come to your place to hear these things for myself.
Thanks JSL for your fine review. I hear you loud and clear on Jud Barber's design goals, the Joules truly aspire for the magic and elusive "2%". As with all things of the highest order, they don't bring attention to themselves by hype or "euphonizing" the sound of music but recreating the splendid harmonic texture that is there waiting to be extracted. Their recreation of the upper frequencies are nothing short of miraculous in my experience. Veils are removed and nothing is left but the real sound of music with air and space that seems so elusive in lesser designs. I expect that at some point in time I will own Jud's amps but only when I have space as they do run quite warm. And while not inexpensive they are still one of the best amplifier values out there. They are one of the few products that are awe inspiring in looks, user features and sound quality. I hear you man!

Happy listening and if ever in the Chicago area I would love to hear your system.
Very fine review. I onced tested the Joule preamp and was very impressed with its sound and build quality. May I suggest that you consider upgrading to the latest iteration of the Martin-Logans. The Odyssey or the Prodigy are a very worthwhile improvement over the reQuest. Also, please describe your front wall treatment.
Nice review. And welcome to OTL.
The meeting of the Chicago Audio Society mentioned was held on June 22nd. Bios on the guests for that meeting are in the June newsletter, available on the website (

In addition to Jud Barber, Steve Huntley, Bill Eisen, and Joe (Jsl) (who spoke briefly about his isolation stands), Dr. Roger West of Sound Lab gave a presentation. Sound Lab Ultimate-1 speakers were used for the demonstration.

Brian Walsh
Great Review!

I heard Jud's gear 15 years ago at CES with Merlin Speakers, it was wonderful. I too have become smitten with OTLs, finding a great organic signature with less distortion that SET's. I am a fortunate owner of the Berning ZH270 integrated OTL (a 15 year old design) that has transformed my vinyl; with my Premier 15 phono stage and Airtight PC3 cartridge as well as my Wadia 850 CD player, I have second thoughts of upgrading. I don't need a step up transformer now, and the 60 watt OTL directs my full range Emme Gamma Reference speakers with full control, charting a very dynamic lighting speed course for the drivers. Awesome full instrument separation with harmonics and tone that still have life is what I hear in OTL's more than any other amplifier.