There’s a whole world -- a universe, even -- of hi-fi that exists and thrives out of sight of most North American and European audiophiles. We often bandy about the cliché that globalization has made the world smaller, but we fail to take into account that the world is actually really big -- for every audio company we’re familiar with, there are five others operating at the periphery of our Internet-enhanced consciousness.
Despite the shrinkage of the industrial world, the Far East is still very far away. Left to my own devices, I probably would never have heard of JE Audio, a manufacturer based in Hong Kong, let alone been sent a review sample of their HP10 phono stage ($3300 USD).
But I got a phone call. Doug Schneider had had dealings with JEA -- two of their preamps and a brace of their tubed monoblocks have cycled through his system. “You’ve got to listen to their new phono stage,” he told me. “I haven’t heard it, but these guys know what they’re doing. I’ll wager it’s good.”
Who am I to argue? Soon thereafter, a dense, well-packed carton arrived on my doorstep.
Unboxing the JE Audio HP10 was instructive, and in retrospect provides some insight into the JEA mindset. It’s a nice, thick, double box, with snugly protective foam spacers. I don’t usually think much about packaging when I’m writing a review, instead saving my frustration for later, when I’m trying to remember how the heck it all fits back together so I can send the sample back to the manufacturer. The HP10’s packing promised an easy interment post-review.
JE Audio made a unique design choice with the HP10. Rather than simply tack on an additional gain stage to accommodate moving-coil cartridges, the moving-magnet and MC stages are entirely separate entities, each with its own circuit board. According to JEA, this allows each stage to have the shortest possible signal path, and removes the need for a physical switch between the two circuits.
At the HP10’s output are two 6H30 double-triode tubes, acting as buffers. Although their use as buffer stages means that these tubes perform no amplification duties, JEA nonetheless claims that they were selected for their sonic qualities, and to assist the implementation of the subsonic filter and mono circuit.
The HP10’s MM and MC stages are separate, and so are its gain and impedance settings. The gain choices for MC are 60, 65, and 70dB; the MM options are 35, 40, and 45dB. The MC impedances are many: 10, 33, 100, 250, and 500 ohms. Although you’d probably use only 47k ohms for MM cartridges, options of 1, 22, 66, and 100k ohms are also provided.
The HP10 was an absolute pleasure to use. Its manual is mostly redundant, as all functions are totally intuitive. A long press of the Power/Mute toggle button switches the HP10 into standby; another press boots it up, ready for use. All adjustments are made simply and efficiently from the front panel -- an exceptionally nice change from other phono stages of recent memory, which require the removal of a panel, or even the soldering of resistors, to change settings.
The build quality is excellent. The front panel is thick aluminum, and the vented top panel is admirably damped. The side panels are also of milled aluminum, which is rare at this price level, and undoubtedly contributes to the HP10’s weight of 25.6 pounds. Inside, the parts quality is very good, with sensible board layouts, and the four-layer circuit boards feature nice, thick traces.
The HP10 is flexible and user-friendly. From left to right on the front panel are seven buttons: The first, Input, switches between the MC and MM stages. MC is the default, which is good -- I’d bet most buyers of an HP10 will be using a moving-coil. Next is the Gain button, which cycles through the three choices for each mode, MC or MM. With this and the following controls, the HP10 mutes itself for a half-second or so as the change is made. Then come buttons for Impedance, Power/Mute, Subsonic Filter, Invert (phase), and Mono. I found it extremely pleasant to have all these controls right up front, and it encouraged me to experiment with them to optimize the HP10’s performance.
The HP10 measures 17.7”W x 5.6”H x 15.4”D. That 5.6” -- including the substantial feet -- is tall; the HP10 didn’t quite fit all the way into my Target rack. Granted, my rack’s home-brew, stainless-steel-and-foam sandwich shelves are slightly thicker than stock; nonetheless, if you decide to buy an HP10, you’d be best off measuring its proposed home beforehand.
Hookup couldn’t be easier. Plug your phono cable into the MC or MM input, and your interconnects into the balanced or single-ended outputs, depending. (I used the HP10’s balanced connections for all of my listening.) Plug in an IEC power cord and you’re done. When you boot up the HP10, there’s a very short, servo-controlled delay as the reactor core warms up. Warmup was essentially instantaneous, and I never heard much change in sound from cold to warm.
My system isn’t the quietest. I get a fair bit of tube rush from my Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp, so I’m not really qualified to proclaim that the HP10 is dead silent -- but it didn’t seem to add any noise to my system.
A slight oddity, for what it’s worth: During a brief period when I was swapping gear around for no real reason, as I’m wont to do, I didn’t reconnect the tonearm’s ground wire. My Pro-Ject turntable doesn’t hum, so sometimes I leave it ungrounded, due more to laziness than to conscious choice. However, when the HP10 isn’t grounded, the sound changes quite significantly, becoming closed-in and muffled. It took me a while to figure out what the problem was; once I did, and had reconnected the ground wire, all was well.
During my listening I swapped in and out two low-output MC cartridges -- my own Roksan Shiraz (my precious!) and a special guest star, the Ortofon MC Quintet Blue. The Roksan sounded best loaded with 100 ohms, while the Ortofon seemed more comfortable with 250 ohms. While neither cartridge is a true bottom feeder in the gain department -- 0.21mV for the Roksan, 0.5mV for the Ortofon -- they’re on the lower end of the spectrum, and thus a reasonable test for the HP10: With either, I was limited to the lowest of the three gain settings. With the middle setting, I was limited to working within a range of two clicks on my preamp’s volume control. Admittedly, I was using the balanced output, which juices up the signal by 6dB, but still, the HP10 provided enough gain for even the lowest-output MCs. And while I didn’t have a medium-output MC on hand, I imagine that any cartridge with more poke than the Ortofon’s 0.5mV might be incompatible with balanced connection and a sensitive combo of amp and preamp.
It usually takes me a while to ascertain precisely what a new phono stage is bringing to the raging house party that is my stereo system. For the first month, I just rely on my listening habits to tell me what’s going on. Generally, the more I listen and the more varied my musical choices, the better the sound.
In those first weeks, when I was home and not listening, I usually wanted to be. I’d eye the stairs down to the basement and take little time-outs to choose music for my next session. A good sign.
The HP10 had a quiet authority. It was like a large, friendly bodyguard who’s amenable, chummy, and helpful -- but when you need him to kick ass and take names, he’s all business. A short, casual listen revealed a sound that was essentially neutral and didn’t call attention to itself. But when I paid attention for just a short while, there was just a tiny little squirt of sweetness, revealed as a slight accentuation of overtones on cymbals. That’s what registered with me right away, and if I’d stopped there, I’d have only a short, easy review to write.
Longer reflection retained that first impression, but it became clear that more lurked below the surface. First, the HP10 had a very good grip on the bass. You’d expect good bass from a $3300 phono stage, of course, but coiled inside the HP10’s low end was a rhythmic tunefulness that was especially noteworthy. “So,” from Duke Ellington’s Piano in the Foreground (LP, Columbia/Classic CS 8829), just lopes along, Ellington’s wonderfully relaxed, lithe piano leading the way -- but Aaron Bell’s double bass holds the whole thing together. I was immediately taken by the HP10’s presentation of this recording -- how it kept distinct boundaries between Ellington’s left hand and the bass’s lower registers. I could clearly hear where one instrument left off and the other began.
But it still wasn’t that simple. Analytical bass tightness is all well and good if you’re working on your doctoral thesis. It’ll help you dredge all the info you need from the music, so that you can wow the committee with just how much you know. But when you listen for pleasure (as I am now), you need musical suppleness.
So despite the way it delineated the space between the bass and piano, the HP10 sinuously wound the two together. I could hear it integrate the various instruments in “Wind-Up,” from Jethro Tull’s Aqualung (the 2011 Steve Wilson Stereo remix, LP, Chrysalis AQUA 1), and how there’s a peaceful moment near the end of the track when Jeffrey Hammond’s bass circles Clive Bunker’s kick drum. Again, while I could clearly determine where the sound of one instrument began and another ended, what busted through was how tunefully the bass was projected, 46 years after this album was recorded. Musical cohesion, I guess you’d call it.
That cohesion was also audible in how the HP10 cast aural images. Looking back a fair bit less than 46 years, to 1989, I pulled out Michelle Shocked’s Captain Swing (LP, Mercury 838 878-1), which I absolutely loved in my late 20s. While this album isn’t an audiophile treasure, it’s nicely recorded, so it’ll have to do. In “Sleep Keeps Me Awake,” Shocked’s voice has to fight with a whole bunch of thrashing instruments, including brass, reeds, some kind of organ, and an angry electric guitar. Despite all these goings-on, Shocked’s voice formed a correctly sized, realistic, and well-formed head smack-dab between the speakers, and -- surprisingly -- just a hair forward of the center line. Why surprisingly? While my system, with the absolutely wonderful Focus Audio FP60 BE speakers, generally images like there’s no tomorrow, I’d never really had images pop forward of the plane described by the speakers’ baffles. This effect wasn’t a tonal-balance thing, with a prominent midrange forcing the image forward -- I’d have noticed that, and there was no hint of tonal imbalance. I put the HP10’s prominent imaging down to a slight harmonic richness combined with a rhythmic propulsiveness, the result being its way of pulling dynamics out of the music.
A gazillion years ago, when you could still find great deals at record stores, I picked up a bunch of classical recordings on 45rpm Angel discs. I now excavated one of those, figuring it would help me belabor my point. Sure enough, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, with Jean Martinon conducting the Orchestra of Paris (45rpm, Angel SS-45016), is a dynamic blockbuster, just as I remembered it. Rapsodie begins with gently swelling strings, which the HP10 plonked down right where they need to be: way back, behind the speakers. But small details -- plucked violas, flutes, oboes, even at low levels -- pushed appropriately forward, retaining their appropriate size and perfect lateral placement. This was superb imaging and wonderful soundstaging, not something I had to listen hard for. The HP10’s imaging prowess rushed out toward me.
Rush! Yes! The Canadian group that women invariably detest and young males simply must air-drum to! The Rush catalog is now nearing the completion of a cycle of deluxe reissues on vinyl, replete with high-quality artwork and record sleeves and 200gm pressings. So far I’ve cherry-picked a few titles, and they’re superb. Moving Pictures (LP, Anthem B0022380-01) is by far my favorite Rush album -- “Camera Eye” holds a special place in my still-adolescent heart. Please don’t hate me for comparing “The Camera Eye” to Rapsodie espagnole, but both begin peacefully and introspectively, with huge dynamic contrasts to follow.
But Ravel didn’t score for dual kick drums, and when Neil Peart invaded my room, moving forward in the soundstage like advancing artillery, I was thrilled by the crisp impact and harmonic intricacy conveyed by the HP10. Are you ready to call bullshit on me about describing the sound of a kick drum as harmonically intricate? Well, it is. Through the HP10 I could almost see the mallet’s lamb’s wool thwack the skin each time Peart stomped on that pedal -- I could smell the dust, imagine the electrical ozone tingle of the energy in that recording studio. Heady words, I know, but this was the kind of enjoyment heaped on me by this system configuration -- by this phono stage.
There are tubes in this thing, you know. While the HP10 didn’t sound overtly tubey, its sound was slightly relaxed through the midrange and up through the highs. I generally skip Tanguedia III, from Astor Piazzolla’s Tango: Zero Hour (LP, Pangaea PAN-42138), finding it a bit too bitey in the upper midrange. It’s a jangly, intense piece, all elbows and knees, and it sets my teeth on edge -- so I usually push the needle over to Milonga del Angel, which makes we weep with sorrow. But via the HP10, I found I was more willing to endure Tanguedia III, which indicates, to me, a tiny bit of softening in the upper midrange, where all the action in this piece takes place.
Which is not to say that the HP10 is in any way rolled off or reticent in the upper midrange and highs. Just to check, I fired up Neil Young’s Greatest Hits (LP, Reprise/Classic 48935-1), and proceeded to have the skin ripped off my face by “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Side 1 of Greatest Hits is recorded extremely hot, and the HP10 pulled no punches.
No, there was plenty of treble extension here, and a ton of air. But now I come full circle -- that extension and air were complemented by a density of the music’s overtones. It revealed additional overtones and information that softened the knife-edges of the leading transients. Was this the JE’s tubed buffer stage? I’d wager that it was.
All that digging deep into the cellular structure of the JE Audio HP10’s sound is just minutiae. All you really need to know is that the HP10 is a neutral-sounding phono stage with excellent bass extension and imaging, and just enough sweetness to endear itself. How cool is that?
When you combine that excellent sound with the HP10’s superior build quality and considerable flexibility, it boils down to a very good value at $3300. That said, if you’re a North American, the lack of a dealer network here means you won’t be able to listen to the HP10 before you buy. JEA offers free shipping for those countries without a local distributor, which takes the sting out of ordering a piece of expensive stereo gear sound unheard.
As I type up my final thoughts about the JE Audio HP10, I’m using it to listen to an old but freshly cleaned copy of Joni Mitchell’s Mingus (LP, Asylum X5E-505). “God Must Be a Boogie Man” is parsing out Jaco Pastorious’s reverb-soaked electric bass, and some explosive guitar and percussion whacks. It’s a beautiful track, the music sparsely laid out, but it’s gravid with musical meaning. And I’m enjoying it immensely. For the most part, an audio component needs to affect me at a deep level to get my juices flowing, and it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes a component works great and sounds fine, but just doesn’t quite musically connect with me. In those cases I can still happily listen to it and write a good, insightful review, but at the end of the listening period I’ll pack it back up and ship it back without a second thought.
I won’t be happy to see the back of the JEA HP10.
. . . Jason Thorpe
JE Audio HP10 Phono Stage
Price: $3300 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor; 90 days, tubes.
Unit L, 5/F, Block 1
International Industrial Center
2-8 Kwei Tei Street, Fotan, Shatin
Phone: (852) 3543-0973
Fax: (852) 3543-0971