If you're an audiophile, you almost certainly know of the Parasound company, a manufacturer of high-end audio/video electronics (and other products) that are of extremely high quality, yet are not stratospherically priced. Halo is Parasound's premium line of components. (The JC 2 is not inexpensive at $4,000, but this is a high-end component we're talking about, and for what you get, that can be considered good value.) You might also know of John Curl, a veteran audio designer who is inarguably one of the true greats in the field. Curl has worked for esteemed companies like Mark Levinson, Vendetta Research, Harman Kardon Citation, Wilson Audio and others, and even worked on electronics for the Grateful Dead. Curl has been a consultant to Parasound since the late 1980s.
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The Parasound Halo JC 2 preamplifier (now you know what the initials stand for) was designed by John Curl, in collaboration with Carl Thompson and the late Bob Crump. It is a solid-state line preamplifier--you'll need an outboard phono stage if you want to use a turntable with it. The JC 2 (suggested retail price $4,000) is clean and understated in appearance, with a handsome brushed-aluminum faceplate, complemented by slightly curved and slightly darker gloss-finish front panel end pieces, and a silver enclosure. Though minimalist, the JC 2 has a look that distinguishes it from other preamps. Its distinctive oval power and source selection buttons are mounted in a recessed horizontal row along the bottom of the faceplate; this row also houses a series of indicator lights. A large master volume knob and two small left-and right-channel volume trimmers are located at the right, and the only other features on the front panel are an illuminated red "P" logo power indicator and a small IR sensor to facilitate remote control operation.
The preamp comes with a remote control made specifically for the JC 2. It's got the fewest number of buttons of any remote I've ever held--which I found an utterly refreshing change from typical remotes with rows of useless buttons. The controls on the JC 2 are the ones you want and need--volume up and down, mute, source selection, power on and off, and a few others including very cool polarity normal/invert buttons (more on that later).
The rear panel has six stereo audio inputs, including two that offer a choice of using either balanced (XLR) or unbalanced RCA connections. There are three sets of outputs--a selectable balanced/unbalanced output (with XLR/RCA connectors), plus an RCA record output and RCA output with inverted polarity. Why offer an inverted-polarity output? Decades ago, audiophiles discovered that absolute vs. inverted polarity can be audible, and many listeners are extremely sensitive to it. Audio waveforms have positive and negative halves. With correct polarity, the loudspeakers are pushing outward when a positive waveform is present, and moving inward when a negative signal is present. With inverted polarity, the loudspeaker is "pulling" when it should be "pushing." If a recording has inverted polarity--and these do exist--the sound won't be right unless a component in the audio system can compensate.
Rounding out the rear panel are four 12 volt trigger outputs that can be used to turn on connected power amplifiers when the JC 2 is turned on; an external remote input for use with infrared remote control repeater systems in a custom installation; an RS-232 serial port that interfaces with home automation and control systems (such as those from Crestron, AMX, Control4, Elan and Niles); a 115-volt/230-volt voltage selector switch; and a receptacle for the detachable power cord. The JC 2 measures 17-1/4 inches wide by 5-7/8 inches high by 16 inches deep and weighs 24 pounds. Some key specs: S/N ratio, greater than 116dB, A-weighted; total harmonic distortion (THD), less than 0.003 percent; frequency response, 5Hz - 100kHz (+0/-3dB); input sensitivity 200 mV; total gain, 14dB.
As you would expect from a John Curl design, there's some serious tech going on under the hood of the JC 2 (a full description can be found in the JC 2 owner's manual). It is a fully balanced, dual-mono design--translation: two mono preamplifiers in a single chassis. The circuit uses hand-matched FETs (field-effect transistors) for superior sonic performance and consistency between channels. In the effort to maintain sonic purity, there are no capacitors in the signal path (technically, a fully "DC-coupled" circuit).
Care was taken in the actual layout of the components and circuit boards, to minimize internal noise that could be caused by electrical interaction of the components, and to attain the shortest possible signal paths. The power supply is a high-current, low impedance design to facilitate wide dynamic range and clarity.
To further preserve the integrity of low-level audio signals, audio and non-audio circuits are separated. Each (left and right) audio channel is on a separate printed circuit board (PCB), and the audio power supply, control power supply and control circuits also have dedicated PCBs. The power supplies and control circuits are physically isolated from each other by two 3/8-inch thick aluminum partitions, and careful attention is paid to grounding and shielding. Parts quality is first-rate throughout, as evidenced by internal components such as Canare shielded wiring, an R-core-type (high efficiency, low-noise) power transformer, Neutrik XLR and Vampire gold-plated RCA connectors, and other refinements.
I want to note that I didn't read any of the technical material about the JC 2 before listening, to avoid preconceived notions. I need to emphasize that because my first sonic impression of the JC 2 was...no sound at all. It was so quiet that even with my ear right up against the speaker, I could hear absolutely nothing, and thought I must have wired something up wrong. Then I put on a CD and realized that everything in the system was working perfectly--and that the background noise of the JC 2 was nonexistent. (Even when listening to vinyl using the Parasound Zphono phono preamplifier, a bargain at $200 suggested retail, noise was vanishingly low.)
Because there's no background noise, grunge or hiss, resolution of low-level musical detail and transient accuracy are absolutely superb. For example, "After the Gold Rush" by Neil Young [Reprise MSK 2283] is a song I've listened to at least dozens of times. With the JC 2 in the system, I could hear Young make a kind of "ah" sound at the end of the last line that I'd never heard before. Cymbals on various recordings, such as Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" [Classic Records re-issue of Columbia CS 8163] and "Getz Au Go Go--The New Stan Getz Quartet Featuring Astrud Gilberto" [Verve V6-8600] could be heard with remarkable subtlety in the various ways in which the drummers would strike the cymbals, and the way different cymbals in a drum kit would fill the recorded acoustic space in different ways.
The ability to delineate musical subtlety was particularly evident on classical music. The Mercury Living Presence recording of Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" [Mercury SR90216] is one of the most beautiful and captivating I've ever heard, with a sonic palette of variegated instruments contrasting with each other, blending together and playing off of one another to create complex musical orchestrations and textures. On a lesser system, these textures get blurred and homogenized. With the JC 2, the various tonal colors were easily heard, thus more clearly communicating what the composer wanted to convey. Individual instruments were easy to pick out, even in the midst of densely orchestrated passages. Although capable of superb subtlety, the JC 2 can also kick you-know-what--dynamic authority is pretty much a given for this preamp, from quiet passages to bombastic fusillades of synthesizer dance music or a loud orchestra. (I don't think it's a stretch to say that the speakers in one's system are the limiting factor here.)
As a sonic corollary to the JC 2's exemplary reproduction of fine low-level musical detail, soundstaging and imaging were excellent. On recordings of sufficient quality, the room in which the recording was done was effortlessly rendered, whether the smaller room of Art Davis's "A Time Remembered" jazz session [Classic Compact Discs JPCD-5001-2], the concert hall of Petrouchka or the mammoth virtual-reality synthesizer soundscapes of Kraftwerk's "The Mix" [Elektra 9 60869-2] and "Computerwelt" [EMI Elektrola 1C 064-46 311]. Imaging is simply first-rate, with vocals and images locked into place, unwavering and practically tangible, whether Larry Carlton's electric guitar on Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark" [Asylum 7E-1001] the players on the "Getz Au Go Go" session or any of numerous additional examples that could be named.
The most difficult thing for a reviewer to do is try to ascribe a tonal coloration to a component when none is obvious (or even exists). The tonal balance of the Parasound JC 2 is a case in point. Across the frequency spectrum, this preamp is, to me, essentially superlative--neither lightweight nor dark. If I had to choose whether the preamp tends toward a light or a heavy tonal balance, I'd say it might be a touch--a hint--on the lighter side, although I honestly can't be definitive on this. I might just be getting fooled here, based on all the wonderful low-level detail, sonic spaciousness and high-frequency "air" the JC 2 can deliver. Thanks to those attributes, you would never mistake the JC 2 for being "slow," thick, bloated or boomy. Certainly the preamp has an even balance across the frequency spectrum, with articulate bass, a midrange with a wealth of musical texture and complexity that you could lose yourself in (well, I did), and clean, extended treble.
Great audio components can reproduce vocals and instruments with an almost palpable presence. The JC 2 does this with ease. On "Tell Me Why" from "After the Gold Rush," the multitracked acoustic guitars sounded truly three-dimensional. As did Tal Farlow's guitar on "Cookin' On All Burners" [Concord Jazz CJ-204] Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane on "Kind of Blue" and Stan Getz' saxophone on "Getz Au Go Go," the latter a particularly stunning example of the preamp's ability to convey singers and musicians with a reach-out-and-touch-it quality.
Read The High Points, Low Points and Conclusion on Page 2