My experience with Parasound goes back 20 years. As a young, wide-eyed audiophile working the sales floor of a hi-fi shop, I’d often recommend Parasound to customers looking for high-value, high-performance gear that could compete with the very best out there. For the vinylheads who didn’t already know it, I’d talk about Parasound’s relationship with John Curl, one of the bright lights of analog in those dark days for vinyl. I’d mention that he designed some of the most acclaimed solid-state circuits around, such as for the Mark Levinson JC-2 preamp and the legendary Vendetta Research SCP-2 phono stage, and how great it was that Parasound made owning Curl-designed gear a more affordable proposition.
Twenty years later, that hi-fi shop is long gone, vinyl’s been taken off the endangered species list, and John Curl is still working his magic at Parasound, having added several phono stages to his design legacy. His much-lauded JC 3+ phono stage ($2995 USD), part of Parasound’s perfectionist-oriented Halo line, incorporates many of the Vendetta’s signature features, such as separately enclosed, dual-mono audio channels, power-supply partitions of low-carbon mild steel, and high-quality signal-path components. Now Parasound and Curl have introduced a more entry-level phono stage, the Halo JC 3 Jr., that promises a big slice of the Halo JC 3+’s sound for half the price: $1495.
Take a peek under the hood and it’s clear that the Halo JC 3 Jr. carries on a lot of the Halo JC 3+’s DNA. Although Jr. doesn’t include Sr.’s separate internal enclosures and dual-mono layout, it does have an aluminum barrier to separate sensitive audio circuits from the power supply and its shielded toroidal (i.e., donut-shaped) transformer. High-quality components -- Rel-Caps and Vishay-Dale resistors in the signal path; high-speed, soft-recovery bridge rectifiers; and a common-mode inductor -- populate the separate analog and power-supply boards, which are spaced as far apart as possible inside the solid-feeling, well-finished case. That slim case measures 17.25”W x 2.5”H x 14.75”D and weighs a surprisingly hefty 13 pounds.
Like its dad, the JC 3 Jr. includes a sensible set of features. Its RCA inputs will accept both moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges, and signals can be output via unbalanced RCA or balanced XLR jacks. A rear-panel toggle switch sets gain for 40, 50, or 60dB for the unbalanced inputs, and 46, 56, and 66dB for the balanced, regardless of cartridge type. Also on the back is a toggle switch that selects MM or MC loading at 47k ohms, or MC loading. Select the latter and use the Variable MC Impedance knob to set the loading anywhere from 50 to 550 ohms. The input sensitivities for a 1V, 1kHz output are specified as 0.9, 3, and 9mV for gains of, respectively, 60, 50, and 40dB. Other features include high-quality Vampire RCA inputs and outputs; Neutrik balanced XLR output connectors; a ground post; a voltage selector (115V/60Hz or 230V/50Hz); turn-on options and a 12V trigger input/output loop; and a main power rocker switch.
Those who read spec sheets will be happy to see that the Parasound boasts impressive figures for a sub-$1500 phono stage: RIAA accuracy to within 0.2dB; THD of less than 0.02%; a signal/noise ratio of up to 94dB, 60dB setting, IHF A-weighted; and interchannel crosstalk of >80dB at 1kHz. Last but not least, in my opinion, the Halo JC 3 Jr.’s front panel features something all but vanished from modern phono stages: a Mono switch. It glows a lovely shade of orange when activated. The only other button on the front is labeled On-Off.
As with most phono preamps these days, setting up the Halo JC 3 Jr. was a breeze. After making all requisite connections, I loaded my Lyra Delos cartridge to 100 ohms and set the gain for 60dB. After some judicious burn-in, and with some trial and error, I set the loading to 115 ohms to better tune the Lyra’s balance. Not including fine-tuning, total setup time was around five minutes. The Jr.’s sound stabilized after about 100 hours of burn-in.
Burn-in of the Halo JC 3 Jr. complete, I cued up Yussef Kamaal’s brilliant, beat-laden jazz-funk album Black Focus (LP, Brownswood BWOOD 157LP). Even while the Delos was still tracing the lead-in groove, the JC 3 Jr. made me take notice of what it wasn’t doing. It was making no noise of its own: no hiss, static, rumble, or any other such additive auditory distraction. In fact, the JC 3 Jr. was so quiet, both in the playback chain and in the groove, I had to crank up the volume and stick my ear right next to a speaker to make sure that the Jr. was functioning properly; only then could I hear the slightest hint of noise. Even before I’d played the first track, the Halo JC 3 Jr. had made quite an impression: It was the quietest phono stage that had passed through my system, regardless of price.
When the music began, the Halo JC 3 Jr. produced a clean, well-balanced, very neutral sound. It’s easily the most neutral sub-$1500 phono stage I’ve heard, and a slight trace of leanness through the upper bass and lower mids did nothing to detract from its natural, uncolored sound. For example, the horns in the title track of Black Focus sounded round, smooth, and appropriately blatty, while synth keyboards chimed with bell-like clarity and detail. When I concentrated on listening, I could hear that both instruments were missing their last measure of body and presence, which had the effect of pushing them farther back in the mix. Nevertheless, the JC 3 Jr.’s unimposing clarity made it easy for me to focus on the music instead of the sound, and made for effortless listening sessions that lasted late into the night.
In “Ragged Wood,” from Fleet Foxes’ self-titled first album (LP, Sub Pop SP777), guitars ripped with good texture and tone without sounding too harsh or aggressive, while Robin Pecknold’s lead vocal sounded uncolored and fundamentally neutral, correct and free of artifice. Lesser phono amps can make his voice sound too nasal or indistinct, but the Halo JC 3 Jr. did no such thing. All of Pecknold’s brightly lit, amber-hued timbre came through intact, with no loss of clarity or intelligibility.
Lest you think all my talk of the JC 3 Jr.’s uncolored, neutral sound is faint praise, think again: I’ve heard more than a few phono stages, many costing much more than the Jr., get nowhere near as close to neutrality -- in their attempts to impress, some even laid on a thick blanket of warmth, or pushed forward the midrange, or goosed up the bass. While such auditory editorializing may be an easy path to forcing one’s ears to perk up and take notice, I find it, at best, fatiguing over the long haul, and, at worst, detrimental to my overall enjoyment of the music. Given the choice, I’ll take the JC 3 Jr.’s eminently listenable, uncolored sound every time.
Fleet Foxes also gave me a good opportunity to evaluate the Halo JC 3 Jr.’s lows. Its bass sounded well developed yet cleanly defined, without ever calling undue attention to itself. For example, the bass drums in “White Winter Hymnal” resonated with excellent weight and tactility, while the kick drums in “Ragged Wood” thumped with precision and authority. Even at the end of “Limit to Your Love,” from James Blake’s eponymous debut LP (Universal/Polydor B0015443-01), the ostinato synth-bass riff rattled the room with its rolling, visceral impact. Only in the lowest octave did the Jr. shave off a bit of dynamics and amplitude compared to some pricier phono stages, but in absolute terms it remained quite satisfying in the nether regions.
The Halo JC 3 Jr.’s treble response sounded just as good and well integrated as throughout the rest of the audioband. The cymbals and hi-hat in Nicola Conte’s Other Directions (LP, Schema 386) and Airhead’s For Years (LP, R&S RS1308LP) rang with realistic clarity and transient decay, while the high-pitched percussive accents in the latter album sounded appropriately refined and delicate. Here again, the JC 3 Jr. might have given up a bit of harmonic development and shimmer to some more expensive phono stages, but it was more satisfying in this region than nearly every other phono stage I’ve heard for around $1500.
Feeling confident I had a firm grasp on the Parasound Halo JC 3 Jr.’s sound, I was ready to compare it with my reference phono stage, an Audio Note L3 V2 with Signature upgrades coupled to a custom-made Sowter Magnetics 9570 step-up transformer. On paper, the two models couldn’t be more different: The Audio Note is a large, all-tube, low-gain design that requires the Sowter for MC duties, while the slim Parasound uses transistors throughout and requires no step-up. What’s more, the JC 3 Jr. includes several cartridge- and system-matching adjustments; the AN has literally zero features. Last and perhaps most important, the L3 V2 is built more like a no-compromise design. Premium parts modifications throughout, such as pure copper-foil capacitors, nonmagnetic tantalum resistors, and silver wiring help push its price to roughly $6500. The Parasound was designed to a $1500 price point, or less than a quarter of the Audio Note’s cost. Still, given what I’d heard so far, I felt confident the Parasound would hold up well in the comparison.
Listening to Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch (LP, Blue Note/Music Matters MMBST-84163), I noted the Parasound’s clean, neutral sound. Dolphy’s flute came through with good tone and clarity, and other instrumental timbres were fundamentally correct and true. Switching to the Audio Note, however, proved instructive: It simply sounded more realistic overall, with a larger, more palpable presence, better tonal development, and greater fluidity. Instruments with harmonically complex sounds, such as vibraphone and piano, sounded texturally fuller and richer. Cymbal crashes and hi-hat didn’t decay from loud to soft as cleanly or as colorfully through the Parasound, and the tubed preamp developed better transient clarity and microdynamic nuance. But while the Audio Note consistently bettered the Parasound, their differences across the audioband were smaller than I’d expected; the JC 3 Jr. acquitted itself quite well in this regard. The Parasound Halo JC 3 Jr. also projected solid, stable aural images across a realistic soundstage, as it did with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (LP, RCA Living Stereo/Analogue Productions LSC/AAPC-2406). But with the Audio Note in the chain, images became much more three-dimensionally solid, and the soundstage that bloomed into the room was wider and deeper.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Audio Note bettered the Parasound. But that was as it should be: Although the Audio Note costs more than four times as much, it’s still a value leader in its class. What surprised me was just how well balanced the Halo JC 3 Jr.’s strengths were across the board, even in comparison with the Audio Note: Instead of committing egregious errors in one or more areas, it deftly shaved off balanced amounts of sound quality and refinement here and there to create an overall sound that was far more refined and complete than its modest price would suggest -- a sound that allowed it to stand toe to toe with this much more expensive phono stage and not be embarrassed. Color me impressed.
No doubt about it -- Parasound’s Halo JC 3 Jr. is a heck of a fine phono stage. Its supremely well-balanced, uncolored, musically impartial character makes it unique among its budget-friendly brethren, and its compatibility with all manner of phono cartridges means it will work well and sound great in a wide variety of systems. Moreover, its utter lack of self-noise makes it the quietest phono stage I’ve experienced, regardless of price.
It’s not perfect. I could do with a bit more lushness to the sound, a little more emotional engagement, perhaps some more fullness and body. But to focus on the things that might make the JC 3 Jr. a little better in my system is to miss the point of this thing entirely: The Halo JC 3 Jr. got out of the music’s way while impressing me with how much refined sound quality is on tap in the recordings I already own. In my experience, surprisingly few “perfectionist” audio components do this well, and fewer still do it for a price as low as the JC 3 Jr.’s. Reviewers’ Choice with a bullet.
. . . Oliver Amnuayphol
Parasound Halo JC 3 Jr. Phono Stage
Price: $1495 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
Parasound Products, Inc.
2250 McKinnon Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94124
Phone: (415) 397-7100
Fax: (415) 397-0144