Jolida Musical Envoy monoblock amps and preamp.
Price: System $9500 ($8000 per pair amps / $1500 preamp)
Source: Reviewer's Reference System
Believe it or not reviewing audio equipment is a mixed bag of pleasure and pain. I certainly used to think that a reviewer's job was one of immense pleasure and infinite ease. After all, manufacturers send you equipment, you listen over a period of a few months, living day in and day out with the equipment, get to know the nuances and write it all out. Move on to the next piece. Well as it turns out 4 years into writing about audio equipment, nothing could be further from the truth. Manufacturers send you equipment, often on a schedule that does not ideally work out for the reviewer, you spend time unloading, setting up, dialing in, burning in, moving around, etc. ad nauseum, and then if all goes well, and the review item is sans any problems, you get to begin listening. Provided everything is really copasetic, you get to enjoy it while maintaining total journalistic impartiality as to brand and type of equipment. As with the rest of life things do not always go according to plan. This past year has been a mixed bag of blessings and curses and as I think I have mentioned I lined up numerous items to review throughout the year and most of them showed up within 3 weeks of each other creating a logistics nightmare. I can see readers now weeping in empathy, "Poor Gary having to shuffle all that exotic equipment around." Ha Ha, laugh all you want. It is no easy life! One of the results of that chaos is this review is a bit overdue in many senses. But that is really no apology to Mike Allen or Jolida as I wanted to save this for the end of the year as it is the most important review of the year for me personally. It is important because what I am offering you, our readership is my reference system amplifiers and preamp for your scrutiny. I wanted to make sure that I had lived with them long enough to give this ensemble its due.
How did I get here?
A bit of history is in order here. I have been searching for a new set of amplifiers and preamp for some time now, close to three years. I had definite ideas of what I wanted. Power, finesse, holographic imaging, superior sound staging, clear crisp and smooth highs, serious bottom end punch and magical mid range! For years it was my intention that when it came time to change out my trusty Quicksilver / Golden Tube Audio components I was going to go all out and get the Cary Audio 211s and Cary Audio SLP 98 preamp. That particular combo would give me all of the hi fidelity joy I was looking for. I know because I have heard that combo do it. That combination retails at roughly $20,000.00 or so. I truly believe that I deserved this. That was what my heart and mind, were going purchase. My wife and checkbook on the other hand were going to do something quite different. Realizing that I and the two of them would never come to any full agreement over this dilemma I gave in and began to look for an alternative that would make us all happy, all the while realizing that happiness for them would involve many compromises and no true happiness for me. I had resigned myself to the fact that I would most likely never realize my dream of owning powerful 211 tube based amps and a matching preamp that would take me to the next level. As much as I revere Dennis Had and the Cary group, (so much for all the requisite journalistic impartiality) it was obvious that I would not be the owner of these dream pieces in the foreseeable future. I had not counted on Mike Allen and the folks at Jolida to change my perspective and my future outlook. While attending CES 051 ran into Mike and his Jolida Musical Envoys in Tyler (of Tyler Acoustics speaker fame) Lashbrook's room. The system was fronting Ty's flagship speakers and suddenly my audio future was so bright I had to wear shades! I looked, I listened, and I purchased the system. I have spent the better part of the last year living in total harmony with my new reference system and what follows is my take on how the relationship has blossomed. Oh yeah, one other thing. My wife and the checkbook think they got the better end of things and I would prefer to let them continue to think that. No sense in letting them down. It will just be our secret that I got everything I asked for and then some for a whole lot less than the price of the similar manufacturers items!
Now here is where I feel the need to argue the case for what is sensible and reasonable as we approach the year of 2008. For those who think that $9500.00 for a set of amplifiers and preamp are not sensible and therefore mention of them not appropriate in these pages let me address that right up front. The Sensible Sound has always been about providing its readership with lower cost options to hi price hi fidelity. Over the past 28 years it has done exactly that. It has created a very admirable balance between bargain basement priced audio values and some of the higher priced toys in our hobby. However during that time costs have gone sky high and in a day when there are a plethora of monoblock amplifiers costing $20,000.00 and some even as high as $300,000.00 a pair the cost of these components represents an incredible value and a very sensible purchase for someone looking at that top rung of audio performance. For that reason alone they most certainly belong in these pages. Read on and I think you will see just what a wonderful value these present the right buyer.
Take Me To JOLIDA! (Yes it is a well worn pun but still so appropriate)
For those of you not familiar with Jolida let me give you some background on the company. Jolida is a company based in Maryland and has been in business since 1983. Up until 1995 their primary area of business was the fabrication of vacuum tubes and other assorted parts including some very fine transformers. In 1995 they launched a series of tube driven integrated amplifiers into the US market. I was living in Denver when I saw and heard my first Jolida amplifier. It was a JD302B and I took it home. The sound was unbelievable for an amp costing roughly $650.00. It turned out that Jolida's whole philosophy was great quality, great sound, and great pricing. The marketing criteria, at the time, was that most of their lineup had to retail for less than $1000.00. That amplifier ultimately made way for my Quicksilver KT 88 monoblocks. I never regretted acquiring the Quicksilver amps. I always regretted letting the Jolida go to my friend Paul. He still has it to this day and rubs that in a lot. According to Jolida's own literature the design philosophy was to provide the following:
"Reliability and safety: A function of manufacturing with quality parts, design and quality control. Utility: We believe that in a single household, there will be multiple users and multiple uses. The issue is not just to have the amplifier to perform; it had to bring quality sound to the reproduction of the Back Street Boys as well as Mozart. Value: This is balance between the actual cost of the system and how often it is used. Value is when the system becomes a part of the fabric of the person's quality of life."
Over the past 10 years they have lived up to those claims and the pinnacle of the Jolida journey has culminated in the Musical Envoy amplifiers and preamp.
Musical Envoy Monoblock Amplifiers
When you first see the Music Envoy amps you are immediately taken aback by the aesthetics of their design. The housings are carved from 3/8 inch aluminum and the glass front panel glows blue while the words Jolida Music Envoy, Vacuum Tube Power Amplifier glow white and just seem to hover in mid air. A nifty trick created by the use of etched glass, bottom lit by 12 blue led per panel. Inside the front panel you can see the tube array. The tube array is then backed by a mirror panel giving the interior an exaggerated sense of space and depth. The visual impact just cannot be done justice with mere words or photos. Make no mistake this is a statement component and it is visually stunning. The metal cabinet seems rather plain on first blush when compared to the viewing pane on the front but that is by design. Nothing detracts the eyes from the glowing portal. Your eyes are automatically drawn to the tube array. In a dimly lit or dark room they become the focal point of a system and lend a naturally soothing aura to the room. (As a side note this particular approach allows for the tube array and glow to be enjoyed while minimizing the risk of burn or shock to probing little fingers such as those of my nieces and nephews). My first thought was, "If these things sound half as good as they look this is going to get interesting." Suffice it to say for now things are definitely interesting. Each amplifier measures in at 18.5 inches long by 11 inches wide by 10.5 inches tall and the weigh 55 lbs each. The measurements are deceiving as visually these amplifiers seem much larger. The tube enclosure is vented as is the back panel. The top plate is ventilated, but not merely ventilated with cut vents but rather the Jolida symbol is cut out of each top plate and then screened in. This is just one of many examples of a very strong attention to aesthetic detail. Each amplifier is powered by a set of two 211 power output tubes, two EL 34 driver tubes and two 12AT7 power drivers. The 211 tubes were selected for the main power output job because they exhibited long life and represented a value in price. They also provide an experience more akin to a single ended triode tube. The tubes are known to last up to 10,000 hours and only cost $50.00 or so each. Anyone who has ever dealt with KT88 tubes or even more dramatic, 300B tubes, will appreciate what those numbers mean. Jolida uses three power supplies in the unit. The use of multiple power supplies increases reliability since you do not have one source required to do multiple tasks. They also use 3000 volt diodes and 11 watt omnicron heat resistors to protect the output transformers. There is also the feature of two fusing systems and a digital sensing system to protect against surges and short circuits. You can plug the unit directly into the wall and on surges it will shut down. In fact you can plug a 220 volt line into the amp and the only reaction is that the amp will not turn on. If a resistor fails and creates a short circuit in the unit, it will just shut down. If there is a catastrophic failure of the power tube, you lose a 10 cent fuse.
This Ultra Linear amp rated at 200 watts per channel at 8 ohms, 25Hz to 40 KHz, has little chance of ever being referred to as a flea weight. The stated frequency response is 14Hz to 50 KHz plus or minus I dB. Distortion is less than 1% at 150W output. The monoblocks have so much push that they can easily drive a speaker with a sensitivity of 78 dB without running out of steam. The rear panel has an RCA input, three speaker terminals--4/8 ohm and ground, a fuse, the receptacle for the power cord, and the input for the remote control. All of the connections are top quality and the speaker connects appear to be WTB. Jolida provides the units with digital protection circuitry which will protect the amps from power source surges or tube failures. They also have a delay of approximately 45 seconds during the warm up process as part of the protection circuitry. Jolida provides a warranty of two year limited parts and labor coverage. They also give the owner a tube warranty for one year or 1000 hours whichever comes first on the original Jolida Tubes. That is a pretty strong statement about their confidence in the integrity of the product!
Musical Envoy Vacuum Tube Preamplifier
The Music Envoy preamp is a bit more compact and straight forward looking, especially when compared to the power amps. It is almost dwarfed in size by its counterparts. The preamp measures 17 inches by 13inches by 4.5 inches and weighs in at 22 pounds. The unit is fronted by an aluminum face plate with a standby button, volume control and six input buttons to select mode. The available inputs are CD, Tuner, Phono, Aux, and Tape 1 and 2. The preamp comes with a full feature remote control, a fixed RCA out, a variable pre-out, and a high gain output. Included is a phono stage that will handle MM, MC and Dynamic head. Rated sensitivity is .25 mV-95 dB. The unit also has two 12 volt triggers. Frequency response is stated 5 Hz to 110 KHz, (+/-1 dB), SNR > 100 dB, phono stage is MM: 70 dB, 5 mV, MC High: 85 dB, 0.5 mV-1.5 mV, MC Low: 95 dB, 0.25 mV-0.5 mV Voltage Gain is 20 dB (output 1) and 10 dB (output 2). Maximum voltage output is 30 V. THD is rated at less than .02%. The unit makes use of a 12AX7/12AT7 tube compliment employing 2 of each tube. The back panel holds RCA connections for the inputs plus an auxiliary input for an outboard phone stage. Also included are the power switch and the control signal output. The unit also comes with a remote control that turns all three units on simultaneously and controls all functions. The unit is made of billet aluminum and uses ball bearings for the switch work. It is another example of attention to detail and aesthetics. The unit weighs in somewhere around eight to ten ounces and just seems to fit perfectly in the hand. Warranty provided for the preamp is two years parts and labor on chassis and one year on tubes.
Setup is fairly straightforward affair. Remove the units from the rather substantial packing materials and wrestle into place. Hook the remote signal cable between the preamp and amps and everything else is very straightforward. You can tell the thought that went into the potential placement of the units as the remote triggering cable is plenty long enough to provide a good deal of separation of the preamp and amps. The amps will generally need to go on dedicated stands and I was very fortunate in that Ty Lashbrook had made a beautiful set of stands for these amps and gave them to me. There are many top quality stands available and the amps will benefit from being placed on any good quality stand. Thanks again Ty! Give them room to breath.
Sound--Would Jolida Us On? (Sorry it was just there and I had to take it.)
Succinctly, they sound fabulous! That does not mean much in and of itself but it is accurate. The Jolida Musical Envoy ensemble has given me everything I had desired in an amp and preamp combination for less than half of what you would expect to pay. That right there makes it worthy of praise. That being said let's talk about some of the attributes that lead me to that conclusion.
The soundstage that this amplifier and preamp combo produce is easily the largest I have ever been able to get in my room. It actually removes the wall boundaries when pushed to strong listening levels. This occurred with three different sets of speakers that I have used in conjunction with this setup. The Usher 6311s, the AES Q5er, and even the AAD C880 all produced an enormous soundstage with this combo. The imaging is excellent and the sound stage depth is also very, very good. I will say that it is not quite on par depth wise as a few other amps I have lived with but this may also be an exaggerated phenomenon due to the extended width and height of the soundstage that they produce. It is one thing to produce size and staging. It is quite another to do it on this scale with instrumental textures that are so clearly defined, liquid and free of graininess. Music just emerges from a black background. I have never had a tube amp of any kind that was this quiet. It is not uncommon for large power amps to provide excellent micro dynamics especially at race speeds but the Musical Envoys represented themselves well by delivering exceptional production at much lower listening levels. Numerous times over the months I have had the system playing at low levels as I have read and been drawn to just how much information they are able to deliver at lower volumes.
The amplifiers have huge power reserves. I have yet dared to push them to anywhere near their peak. I have driven myself out of my listening room on more than one occasion trying to push them to nether regions. The bass is simply magnificent and incredibly powerful! As a matter of fact any speaker capable of reaching into the 30HZ region, being pushed by these amps, will make you rethink the idea of a subwoofer. I have never heard any 200 watt per channel amp, solid state or otherwise, out pace these amps and certainly no triode amp has ever come close. With 200 watts per channel on tap I was expecting the thunderous bass and was not the least disappointed. The fact that the bass remained tuneful was a real bonus. If I expected a compromise in the lower regions this is where I thought it would be. I was quite elated to find that there was no compromise of the sort here. When listening to Stanley Clark's bass on "What Looks Good on the Outside" from the Animal Logic II CD, (IRS Records X2-13106) not only did I get the impact but also the delicacy of Stanley's impeccable touch on the strings. Same thing with Paul McCartney's bass on "Something" from Abbey Road, (EMI Records CDP7464462). If you listen to these two tracks on the right system it becomes apparent that the bass guitar in both tracks acts not only as a melodic counterpoint to the main melody but actually becomes the instrumental focal point of the song. The Musical Envoy system delivered that nuance. As for slam I always reach for Taiko drums and Hiroshima to test a systems cajones! The track "One World", from the CD LA (Qwest Records 9 45601-2) contains a combination of a traditional trap set along with Japanese Taiko drums. Having sat front and center at numerous Hiroshima concerts and witness the traditional show closer I can say that this system produced as close to a live feeling of the song as I have yet to hear. The percussion is a mixture with a lot of information coming at you and yet the Musical Envoy delivered all the percussion as so many individual snippets with clear definition of each component. As with a live performance you could not only hear the sound of the drum, especially the Taiko drums, but also the separate sound of the sticks hitting the skins. With midrange cues the amps do what tube amps do best. They deliver that warmth and real feel that generally is a hallmark of tubes. The Music Envoys just provide that much more. Delicate is a word I often reach for when I am taken aback by mid range sweetness and that certainly applies here. Chris Botti's "Good Morning Heartache" featuring Jill Scott on vocals, from the CD To Love Again (Columbia 8-2876-77505-2 exhibited this phenomenon as well as could be hoped for. Chris has a very delicate touch on the trumpet and Jill's vocals can range from gutsy and blues laden to the whispered tones of a great cabaret singer. Together there is a great deal of soft and delicate notation going on in this track. The Music Envoys separate and deliver each note between the trumpet and the vocals as distinct and separate entities occupying the same space, together but distinctly separate and individual. What this leads to is zero listening fatigue because your ears are not working overtime to pick up all the nuances. The Jolida system just deliver them to you in a tiddy little package. As for the highs well they are there in all their glory but without any strident or harsh edge to them. They are not as bright and in your face as some other amps and I realize that many people like cymbals to sound metallic and edgy but the Envoys do take the edge off and some may find this noticeable at first and even disappointing but after a bit of listening you begin to realize that it is part of the overall balanced delivery of the music and it becomes something you appreciate more and more.
It is not lost on me in the slightest that not every reader of this magazine will want to run out and purchase this setup or one similar in size and cost. However, for those looking to take a good move up but hesitant because that next leap is generally one of huge proportions it is comforting to know that there is an amp and preamp system designed to give you all the goose bumps and thrills of a $30,000.00 combo for less than ten large! In that respect the Jolida Music Envoy system becomes some seriously sensible sounds for the money.
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|Article Type:||Product/service evaluation|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2007|
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