With LPs on a seemingly endless comeback streak -- 2017 marks the 12th straight year of sales growth, according to Nielsen SoundScan’s figures, as reported in Billboard -- the demand for vinyl-related gear seems to have concomitantly increased: Turntables abound, with more models at more price points available than ever before. The number of available phono stages seems higher still, in a market well populated by less-well-known, specialty audio firms offering quality hi-fi at less-than-stratospheric prices. Among these is JE Audio.
If that name is new to you, I’ll consider myself in excellent company: I’d never heard of JE Audio before I pondered accepting for review their HP20 phono stage ($1600 USD). A quick search on the interwebs told me that JE’s founder, John Lam, founded the Hong Kong-based venture in 2007 with “a strong commitment to produce the finest quality audio electronics.” Since most JEA models are based on tubed or hybrid topologies, I knew that this was a company after my own heart. And after reading Vade Forrester’s review of JE Audio’s VS70.1 power amplifier ($3000), Jason Thorpe’s review of the HP20’s big brother, the HP10 phono stage ($3300), and Doug Schneider’s review of the VL10.1 preamplifier ($5000), I was eager to hear for myself what JEA could do to amplify the analog groove.
With dimensions of 12.8”W x 4.5”H x 14”D, the HP20 cuts a compact yet substantial-looking figure. It’s quite hefty at 14.5 pounds, and the thick, solid panels of machined aluminum that comprise its case undoubtedly contribute much of that weight. The brushed finish and smoothly curved edges of the aluminum front panel add nice design touches, while ensuring that the HP20 looks little like the innumerable rectangular black boxes of AudioLand.
Compared to other JEA models, the HP20 stands apart for what isn’t inside its case: vacuum tubes. With its brethren it does, however, share JEA’s ethos of low-noise design and emphasis on well-designed power supplies. Dual regulated DC supplies provide overall power duties and keep the noise floor low, while four additional supplies power the amplification circuits and keep the noise gremlins further at bay. The amplifying transistors were also chosen specifically for their lack of inherent noise, as was the passive RIAA circuit configuration, which is specified at an impressively low deviation of ±0.3dB from 20Hz to 20kHz, for both moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges.
A peek inside reveals that the separately encased power supply on the left takes up a third of the HP20’s interior; occupying most of the remaining area is a clean and well-designed audio board populated with a smattering of audiophile-quality parts. Milled partitions on both sides of this provide further isolation, and shielded interconnects connect it to the signal input board. Input and output signals make their way through the HP20 via chassis-mounted unbalanced (RCA) or balanced (XLR) jacks.
The HP20’s front panel isn’t as comprehensively rich in features as the HP10, but those it has seem judiciously chosen. A pushbutton selects 40, 60, or 70dB of gain for the unbalanced inputs; for the balanced inputs, the values are 46, 66, or 76dB. Another pushbutton selects one of five input impedances for MC cartridges: 10, 33, 100, 250, or 500 ohms (for MM cartridges, the 40dB gain setting defaults to 47k ohms). Besides the RIAA spec, the HP20’s only other important figures are a THD of 0.05% and signal/noise ratios of up to 85dB for MM and 70dB for MC. Gain settings and input sensitivity are not given.
As befits a modern-day, high-quality phono stage, setting up the HP20 was an effortless, drama-free affair of five minutes. I loaded my Lyra Delos cartridge to 100 ohms with 60dB of gain and, after 100 hours of burn-in, felt that the HP20’s sound had stabilized enough for me to do some serious listening.
I placed on the platter Miles Davis’s fusion masterpiece, Bitches Brew (2 LPs, Columbia/Legacy 740407), and listened. Almost instantly, the fundamental musical correctness of the JE Audio HP20’s sound set my ears at ease: Backgrounds were silent; the sound was free of overt sonic bunions; and the HP20’s unforced, natural sense of timing let me sit back and take in the music, my mind relaxed. The HP20 organized the notes and beats well enough that intricately layered rhythmic lines always remained synchronized and woven together. Pitches and the relationships between them were also well sorted and devoid of melodic aberrations or distortions, making it easy for me to hum along with the “tune,” as it were.
Judging by some of the recent hi-fi components I’ve heard, these are no small feats. And for many listeners, the HP20’s ability to deliver the musical goods intact and unscathed will be enough for them to give it a whirl and then take one home. But since this review is as much about the HP20’s sonic abilities as about its musical abilities, I shall proceed to discuss the former.
The HP20’s spectral response could be characterized as well balanced and coherent from top to bottom of the audioband, with a slight highlighting of the lower and central midrange -- or as mildly subdued in the extreme high and low frequencies, depending on your system and/or auditory perspective. I didn’t find this objectionable, given the quality of the HP20’s reproduction of the midrange: clean, clear, pleasingly open, and devoid of undue etch, glare, or hardness. In “Pharaoh’s Dance,” for example, Chick Corea’s electric piano came through with ample transient sustain and generous decay, blooming into the room with an addictive fluidity and smoothness but without harsh distortion in its overtones. Given this instrument’s harmonic complexity, I found this impressive: I’ve heard more than a few phono stages struggle to get this right, but the JEA HP20 sailed through this test with relative ease.
Wanting to hear more of what the JEA could do in the mids, I decided to take for a spin Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony’s recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (LP, RCA Living Stereo/Classic LSC-2446). The HP20 proudly put its midrange prowess on display, reproducing this long tone poem’s wide swath of acoustic instruments with fine harmonic complexity and timbral richness. The horns in the opening motif sounded big, bold, and fulsome without being aggressively so, and the strings and woodwinds, in particular, sounded appropriately smooth and lush. I was also impressed with how, in the contrapuntal cello part in the second movement, the HP20 got the meat of the midrange correct: I was nearly convinced that the cellist was sitting in the room with me, moving bow across strings, the large, wooden body of the instrument producing a densely textured and appropriately luscious sound.
Back to Bitches Brew: I could hear that the HP20 performed well in the lower registers, if not quite up to the standard set by its impressive midrange. Kick drums, for example, had plenty of weight and authority, but without that last iota of explosive snap and incisiveness, while electric and double bass lost a bit of their leading-edge definition and purr. Hard-hitting synth-bass beats -- as in “Detroit, Part I,” from Shigeto’s No Better Time than Now (LP, Ghostly International GI-184LP) -- thumped with satisfying amplitude and impact but could have used a touch more tautness and tactility. However, such omissions were hard to hear and quite minor -- unless I actively listened for them, I found the HP20’s bass response more than satisfying.
At the other end, the JEA’s treble sounded complete and spectrally composed, if slightly subdued overall -- which, in qualitative terms, mirrored its bass response. In Airhead’s For Years (LP, R&S RS1308LP), cymbals were farther back in the mix than usual, and the treble region as a whole lost some air and sparkle. Decay components and top-octave harmonics also could have used a smidge more definition and clarity. Nevertheless, the HP20 did such a fine job of integrating the highs with the rest of the audioband -- certainly as well as any other ca.-$1500 phono stage I’ve heard, and better than some -- that I probably wouldn’t notice anything missing if I were just kicking back and enjoying the music: something the HP20 definitely let me do.
Focusing on the HP20’s soundstaging and imaging capabilities showed it to be capable in those areas, if not spectacularly so. The JEA seemed to favor a front-of-hall perspective while diminishing both depth and width; images on that stage were compact yet stable, though not as tactile and present as some other preamps have allowed them to be. The soundfields of Bitches Brew and For Years, for example, can envelop the listener with substantially solid and distinctly separated aural images; through the HP20, these images weren’t as large or as sharply drawn, the result being my feeling less deeply immersed in the music than I am when listening through the best gear. Still, the JEA HP20 was not unsatisfying in these regards, losing out to only the benchmark competitors in its price class.
General assessments out of the way, I wanted to hear how the JE Audio HP20 stacked up against the competition. From the start, it was clear that comparing it to my reference phono-stage combo of Audio Note’s upgraded L3 V2 Signature phono preamplifier (est. $6000) and custom-made Sowter Magnetics 9570 step-up transformer would be unfair: At four times the JEA’s price, the all-tube Audio Note bettered the HP20 across the board, and rightly so. Even though the JEA didn’t blush at the match up, I was more interested in how it would fare against my go-to recommendation for ca. $1500, Parasound’s highly musical, sonically refined, and overachieving Halo JC 3 Jr.
The JEA and Parasound are quite similar: Both use transistors throughout, include cartridge- and system-matching adjustments, have separately enclosed or partitioned circuit sections, and prioritize low noise. The Halo JC 3 Jr. costs $1500, the HP20 $1600. Given all that in common, I felt confident the JEA would hold its own.
The HP20 did not disappoint on musical grounds with BadBadNotGood’s IV (LP, Innovative Leisure IL2034V), sounding tuneful, clean, and wide open through the meat of the midrange. Synth keyboards and strings, courtesy a Yamaha CS60 or Crumar, came through with fine clarity and tone, and instrumental timbres were fundamentally correct and true. Switching in the Halo JC 3 Jr., however, reminded me of why I gave it a Reviewers’ Choice award in the first place: It was eerily and supremely quiet, clearly besting the already accomplished HP20 in this regard. And when the music started, it had no trouble pulling me in, sounding more neutral and detailed than the JEA. It also presented instruments with more apparent space between them, especially through the upper midrange. The treble, too, was airier and more open, more extended and texturally detailed. The sounds of cymbals, bells, and other instruments with strong harmonic content decayed from loud to soft more colorfully through the Parasound.
But the JEA countered with strengths the Parasound lacked. With Yussef Kamaal’s Black Focus (LP, Brownswood BWOOD 157LP), for example, the HP20’s lower and central midrange were more present, solid, and fluid, with more natural roundness and liquidity throughout, and stood slightly forward of the rest of the audioband. The JE’s higher-quality midrange was also evident in the Reiner/CSO recording of Scheherazade -- flutes and strings sounded a bit thinner and less lifelike through the Halo. The JE’s sound reminded me of a good tubed component through the mids; it made the Jr. sound a bit analytical. In terms of their spectral components, it was toss-up: The Parasound sounded better balanced and more refined across the board; the JEA’s midrange presence was more musically compelling and alive.
In terms of dynamics, the Parasound was the clear winner. Sticking with Scheherazade, the Halo Jr. simply sounded more convincingly expressive in this regard, particularly in terms of macrodynamics, accelerating from pp to fff with greater ease and insistence. The HP20 sounded mildly constricted by comparison, with less startle factor. It did, however, slightly better the Halo JC 3 Jr. in midrange microdynamics, making pizzicato strings jump with a bit more start-and-stop energy.
Both preamps did well in terms of rhythm and timing, the HP20 being a hair more propulsive. With one of my favorite tracks for testing rhythmic acuity, the title track of the Junior Boys’ So This Is Goodbye (LP, Domino WIGLP 178), the JEA propelled the music with just a touch more energy. In contrast, the Parasound sounded a bit too relaxed and laid-back. Still, both preamps remained fundamentally organized in time, without blurring temporal or rhythmic information.
When the dust had settled, I found it difficult to choose an overall winner. Listeners looking for the most neutral, uncolored, refined sound will likely choose the Parasound Halo JC 3 Jr.; those wanting a more musically expressive, tonally compelling, more lifelike midrange will opt for the JE Audio HP20. Because my system is spectrally quite flat overall, I’d opt for the Parasound: It’s a better fit for my rig, and its continuously variable input impedance better matched my cartridge. For systems that require some extra midrange presence or magic, or that emphasize the frequency extremes over the midrange, the JE Audio might be the perfect solution.
Having never heard of JE Audio before essaying this review, I had no idea what to expect. The HP20 was a pleasant surprise. Although here I’ve nitpicked its sound quality more than any regular listener might, I found that its combination of inherent musicality and a smooth, open midrange communicated the music in a way that reminded me of a good tube preamp. Furthermore, its low noise floor and compatibility with a wide swath of phono cartridges mean that it will work well in a variety of systems. I could live with the HP20 as part of my system, and contentedly, too.
True, the JEA HP20 won’t wow your audiophile buddies with whiz-bang sonic wizardry. They’ll notice that the HP20 shaves off a little treble detail and refinement here, a little bass definition there, and some dynamic expressiveness throughout. But these are mainly sins of omission, and take little away from the HP20’s musical acumen, especially through the midrange. Those who prize this quality above all others will find a lot to like in the HP20, and will think $1600 a fair price to pay for the level of musical satisfaction it offers. And it’s to those listeners that I heartily recommend the JE Audio HP20.
. . . Oliver Amnuayphol
- Loudspeakers -- Living Voice Avatar
- Integrated amplifier -- Audio Note L3 El84 with Signature upgrades and C-core transformers, modified
- Phono preamplifiers -- Audio Note L3 V2 with Signature upgrades, modified; Parasound Halo JC 3 Jr.
- Step-up transformer -- Custom-made Sowter Magnetics 9570 (1:10)
- Sources -- Rega Research RP8 turntable and tonearm, Lyra Delos cartridge
- Interconnects -- Custom single-core copper, coaxial (RCA); Blue Jeans Cable LC-1
- Speaker cables -- Tellurium Q Ultra Black, Wireworld Oasis 6
- Power cords -- Wireworld Aurora 5.2 and Electra 5.2
JE Audio HP20 Phono Stage
Price: $1600 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Unit L, 5/F, Block 1
International Industrial Center
2-8 Kwei Tei Street, Fotan, Shatin
Phone: (852) 3543-0973
Fax: (852) 3543-0971
Phone: (925) 425-0450