Rites of Passage/Elrod/GNSC

Category: Amplifiers

Awhile ago I posted a review of the Joule-Electra VZN-220 Rite of Passage Monoblocks to provide something for audiophiles to consider. I thought it a good idea to post a follow up to explore the longer term performance of the amp and its integration into my system. The Rites are about 8 months old at the time of this writing and many things have changed. Here’s what you’ll encounter as you read on:

Further information on the Rites of Passage (Jud Barber)
Additional comments on Steve Huntley and Great Northern Sound Company
The impact of Elrod Power Systems AC cords

So, starting with the Rites:

Basically, the Rite of Passage is a 220-watt single-ended triode with the output transformer removed. It’s called an “OTL”. Removing the output transformer avoids sound degrading occurrences like transformer saturation and hysteresis.

Magnetic hysteresis is the lagging of an affect behind the cause. That means the magnetic field in the transformer lags behind the variations in the field caused by the signal. When the flux in the transformer’s magnetic field lags behind the signal, the result is distortion of the original signal as it comes out of the transformer. To complicate things, a transformer can only "hold" so much magnetism. As you increase the current through the primary winding of a transformer, the magnetic field also increases. Increasing the current beyond a given amount will not increase the magnetic field any more. That is called the saturation point. When the transformer's core reaches the saturation point, it then draws far more current then it normally would at that frequency and voltage. When either or both of these 2 events occur, bad things happen for the audiophile. Sound goes very wrong. And these 2 events can occur with output transformer coupled amps.

An OTL, because of its lack of output transformers has better transient speed due to bandwidth and the elimination transformer "choke". The speed is effortless without etch inherent to so many designs. The "directness" is unmatched by any other form of amplifier I have heard, and is particularly spectacular in the Joule.

As I wrote previously, I chose the Rites because I wanted a “no-compromise” amplification solution that would provide the ultimate in performance. I wanted no more regrets, no more second-guessing and no more wasted cash. So, am I off the audio “treadmill”?

My system:

• Joule-Electra VZN-220 Rite of Passage Monoblock amplifiers with Sitka Spruce Musicwood option in Audi Brilliant Black
• Joule Electra LAP-150 Preamp with phonostage and outboard power supply
• Wadia 860X modified to Statement Upgrade by Great Northern Sound Company
• Martin-Logan reQuest electrostatic hybrid speakers
• Elrod Power Systems AC cords (new since last review)
• Creative Cable Concepts IC and speaker cable
• PS Audio 20 amp High current outlets
• Tube traps
• Front-wall treatment to enhance electrostatic speaker dipole effect
• All components are isolated on Critical Mass Systems isolation platforms. Please note: In the spirit of transparency and objectivity, I am the President of Critical Mass Systems so I’ll avoid references to isolation platforms accept to say that well-executed isolation steadies the hand of the painter. It’s hard to paint with your arm shaken. 

Initially, I took a leap of faith and ordered the 220watt Rites based on the sound of the 100watt Marquis. The 100watt Marquis was more harmonically complete than any other amp I had heard. It made everything sound more real and musically involving.

Essentially I broke the Cardinal rule of audio and bought a $28,000 amplifier unheard. In my defense I had the assurance of Harry Pearson that it was one of the best tube amps made. Today, I think he was very accurate in his praise.

I’ve grown to know Jud Barber over time and feel like he’s just the most damn brilliant amplifier designer around today. Jud says he focuses on fundamental tones. That’s the understatement of the new millennium. His amplifiers do a lot more than that! Somehow, some way, he designed a circuit that sounds best when it is compared to the best. I’ve heard raved-about amps go head to head with the Rites. Ouch!

In my previous review, I said that the Rite of Passage is about life in 4 dimensions. They breathe length, width, depth and “Right Here, Right Now”, into music. I said that they accomplish the pre-eminent audio objective of bringing the recorded acoustic into your listening room at the pinnacle of musicality.

I have a solidified opinion of what components contribute to a system’s sound and how great sound reproduction should be defined. I think too many reviews are vague. Granted, sometimes differences are so slight, they are insignificant. But, other times the differences are so pronounced, they demand being noted. Great art defines itself. Music is art, is it not?

I think the reproduction of music is the reproduction of art. And, I believe the experience of great sound reproduction should be the same as the experience of great art. I am pulled in by great art. I can’t resist the tug, I can’t stop the journey. I don’t feel any desire to reject any part of what I am seeing and I can’t see anything other than what I am focusing on. I am emotionally and intellectually drawn in, embargoed from events around me by the image before me. I am unavailable. I am a captive of my imagination. I can define the experience. I am aware of its occurrence. I know by its presence or absence if the piece of art touches me intellectually and emotionally. Applying the same measurement to the reproduction of music, I could easily define the difference between Great, Good, and Other in sound reproduction and so could you.

Held to the test, I didn’t get “Great” from music reproduction and I certainly didn’t get art. I got a poke in the ears. I got a poke in the ears that told me that what I was listening to wasn’t art. Not even remotely close to art! The endless poking by woeful malfeasances of audio design and function kept me on the wheel of change. I didn’t want change, I wanted art!

The creation of art dwells in the artist and if music is art, the front end is the artist; the creative vision. It is the most important part of a system. It is either the limiting factor or the stroke of genius as you choose to view it. In the case of my system, the artist is the Wadia 860, and sound reproduction cannot be better than the Wadia.

These days, the growing majority of audiophiles are aware of Great Northern Sound Company and Steve Huntley’s ability as a modifier. He is become a legend and deservedly so. In my case, Steve took a piece of electronics with very audible drawbacks, and transformed it into insight. I would say that the Wadia has superb clarity of vision. I continue thrilled with the amount of music, detail, dynamics and nuance Steve built into this Statement modification. Consider that Wadia has evolved an 861 and an SE upgrade and I haven’t jumped at either opportunity. I just love the musicality of the 860 Statement upgrade and that is a tribute to Steve. He pushed my Wadia right up to the analog threshold. The Wadia is the artist in my system and Steve is the visionary who elevated it.

If the Wadia is the artist, the Rites are a vast palette of paints; fundamental tones; brilliant hues; sultry shades; predisposed to the pleasure of the artist and the audience. The Rites paint power and control or sophistication and subtlety at the direction of the artist. The beauty of the Rites is that they can do the aforementioned simultaneously. The vastness of the power reserves and control over the soundstage create definition and holography to an extent that brings this to ear. The Rites actually paint a visual image of the artist at work. “Great Art” is painted again live. What would you give to watch Van Gogh paint in your listening room? How would you feel if the sound reproduction in your listening room were so organic it mimicked the original event? I get that with the Rites. I have never heard that with any other amplifier. Not ever.

Is art perfect? This is important. I am referring to software and we all know that finding good software is a struggle. I’m suggesting that art is the reproduction of the recorded event, warts and all, exactly as it happened and that with the Rites and the Wadia I get the impression I can hear down to the microphones that were being used. There is insight, within the detail, within the music. It’s the feeling that you’re, “Getting it all”; that all of the information on the CD is being retrieved exactly as it was laid down.

One thing I would say emphatically about these amps is that they get 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. I salute Harry Pearson for identifying this amplifier as the best tube amp made. In the audio media, too many find too much too good too often. Harry Pearson generally nailed it with the Rites. He most definitely spoke the truth!

The speakers are the canvas of any system. They are the medium upon which the paint is laid. They make the picture we “see”. Put tears, bumps, wrinkles and dirt on the canvas and you’ll play hell to create beautiful art. The down and up sides of my canvas are the electronics feeding it. Electrostats are painfully sensitive to the things driving them. Yet they jump to higher and higher levels of performance as you feed them a better artistic vision. In my system, the speakers are the weakest component, yet on balance, I’ve heard nothing as good as an electrostatic fed by highly artistic components. I have no complaints. They give me more than I ever thought they could.

Then, there are the Elrod AC cords. If they are anything, they are the paintbrush, or more correctly, many different paintbrushes deftly facilitating the artistic vision. Elrod AC cords have had a profoundly positive impact on this system. They are a component in the system to the same degree a CD player is a component. They are that good! The cables are the EPS-2 Signatures and they are plugged into the Wadia and the Joule LAP-150 preamp. The Elrods add weight, texture and dynamics to the fabric of the music. They also throw the soundstage wide open. They lay the paint on the canvas so well; their synergy within the system is so natural, music is reproduced with a natural sense of aliveness that is hypnotic. They let you hear the best of what you own in components without imposing themselves on the canvass! I will definitely order more Statements and keep the Sig2s. They are quire an accomplishment!

Why am I so focused on comparing music to art? Consider this; the composition of the music is visual in this system! The reproduction of nuance and detail and body and dynamics and depth and tonal shading and emotion is so accurate belief suspends. You can “see” the music playing. “Reproduction” is transcended. Music becomes art in the moment with these components. The system is as visual as it is aural.

The Joule-Electra VZN-220 Rites of Passage have matured like a fine wine. They remain unparalleled by a widening margin to anything I’ve heard. Too, the system has blossomed and reached a new level of musical sound reproduction, I have never heard anywhere else.

As a fellow audiophile, I strongly recommend the work of Jud Barber, David Elrod and Steve Huntley. These men are impassioned designers. They really get it! Their work enriches the musical experience for the listener.

I haven’t mentioned specifics about bass, mid-range and treble characteristics of the system because there is a certain irrelevance to it. The system is so harmonically fleshed-out, music transcends these categorizations. It’s ALL there up to the limitations of the source material.

Speaking of art, the final word on the Rites is about the Musicwood chassis. 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 cost. If I had it to do again, I would spend the money again…….no compromises. The workmanship and the sound are spectacular. I can personally vouch for Musicwood sounding musical.

If you can swing a new Joule, with or without Musicwood, or buy one used I’d recommend it. If you are looking for the last cable you will ever need to own, call David Elrod! If you are like me and own at least one piece of electronics that you want to stick with, whatever it is, I highly recommend a phone call to Great Northern Sound Company. Steve’s prowess extends to many components. If you’re fortunate, he can modify it.

Many thanks to Jud Barber, Steve Huntley and David Elrod for keeping an audiophile on track! If anyone lives near Chicago and wants to hear the Rites, the Wadia or Elrod cable for the 1st time or once again, drop me an email.
Man , how did I miss this. What a well crafted empassioned articulation of your beliefs and observations. Beautifully constructed , I have read this a dozen times now . I know of David Elrod and am too a firm supporter of his products . I am going to find out much more about Critical Mass isolation products. You may be hearing from me. Thanks for a well written , exciting essay.