Note: Measurements can be found through this link.
Like its designer, John Curl, the recently discontinued Parasound Halo JC 1 mono amplifier is something of a legend. Introduced in 2003, the JC 1 was still considered one of the best values in a high-end, solid-state power amplifier when the last production unit rolled off the line in 2018, at $4495 USD each. Since the introduction of the JC 1, Curl has designed many other highly regarded amplifiers and preamplifiers for Parasound, including the less expensive Halo A 1 series of power amplifiers, of which I reviewed the three-channel Halo A 31. I loved its big, rich sound -- and with the stereo version, the A 21+ ($3150), the A 1 series has received universal acclaim for providing exceptional performance at real-world prices.
As good as the A 1 series is, for those who want something better Parasound has now introduced the two-channel Halo JC 5 ($5995). At almost twice the price of the A 21+, it’s essentially a stereo version of the revered JC 1, with the same specified output of 400Wpc into 8 ohms, but with the convenience of two channels in one case for $2990 less than a pair of JC 1s. Of course, compromises had to be made to make this possible, but Parasound now offers a stereo power amp that they feel is worthy of their reference JC line, which bears the initials of John Curl.
The Halo JC 5 is built on the same chassis as the A 1 amps. The look of these components may be getting a bit dated, but I think they still look attractive, with their clean faceplates of brushed aluminum, heavy-duty heatsinks running the entire length of each side panel, and the Parasound logo stamped into the top panel. This look has been slightly updated for the JC 5 -- John Curl’s signature discreetly appears on the front and rear panels, and slightly narrower metal cheeks at each end of the front panel hide the screw holes for attaching the optional rack-mount brackets. But other than the model name and Curl’s signature, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish the JC 5 from other full-size Halo components. Also on the front panel are three small LED indicators, one each for the left and right channels, and a third to warn of high operating temperature. The small On/Off pushbutton in the bottom-left corner is surrounded by a soft blue glow; when the protection circuit is activated, this turns red.
I like the classic look of the Halo models -- by using many of the same parts in their construction, I suspect that Parasound saves a lot of money on tooling and manufacturing costs, to keep the prices of these high-quality components down. They do their manufacturing overseas, but the overall quality and fit and finish are as good as or better than anything else in their price range. In fact, other than their thicker, more luxurious faceplates and engraved logos, I’d say that the build quality of amplifiers made by Bryston, another company known for its high-quality construction, is quite similar to that of the JC 5 and the other Halo models.
The Halo JC 5’s rear panel sports balanced (locking Neutrik XLRs) and unbalanced (Vampire RCAs) inputs, both with adjustable gain, and a Balanced/Unbalanced toggle switch for each channel. There are also Loop Outputs (Vampire RCA) and a Bridged Mono/Stereo toggle. The speaker outputs are custom five-way binding posts (CHK Infinium) with propeller-style handles to aid in tightening them by hand. At left, a bay of Turn On Options permits Manual/12V Trigger operation, or triggering by the audio signal level with adjustable Turn On Threshold. In a column at far right are, from top to bottom, the fuse bay, the mains On/Off rocker switch, and an IEC power inlet. All of this is framed by two large handles.
Inside, the Halo JC 5 is just as tidy and impressive, and tightly packed with high-quality components, neatly laid-out circuit boards, and a large, 1.7kVA toroidal transformer with independent windings for each channel. There are four large Rubycon capacitors with a total of 132,000µF of capacitance for the output stages, which comprise a total of 24 beta-matched Sanken 15A, 60MHz bipolar output transistors, to provide 90A of peak power per channel. In the input stage are 8880µF Nichicon Gold Tune filter caps and ultra-low-noise Toshiba 2SJ74BL and 2SK109BL J-FETs. Toshiba no longer makes these highly regarded J-FETs (they’re also used in the JC 1), but Parasound has stockpiled a supply that they say will last for years to come. Operating in pure class A up to 12Wpc, the Halo JC 5 is specified to output 400Wpc into 8 ohms or 600Wpc into 4 ohms, both channels driven -- or, in bridged-mono mode, 1200W into 8 ohms.
Although the stereo JC 5 has lower power specifications than the monaural JC 1, according to Richard Schram, Parasound’s founder and president, “The overall ‘DNA’ is the same, so the topology of the input, driver, and output stages is the same.” Parasound claimed that the Halo JC 1’s more powerful (1.9kVA) transformer could double its output to 800W into 4 ohms, and that it had greater capacitance for its input and output stages, which used Nichicon capacitors. The JC 1 also had 18 output devices for its single channel vs. the JC 5’s 12 per channel, which allowed it to provide higher peak-current capacity and to dissipate heat more efficiently while using the same amount of heatsinking.
However, as much as I admired the overachieving Halo JC 1, the convenience of having two channels of amplification on a single chassis at one-third less the price makes the JC 5 a very attractive proposition, even with the reduction in power output. In addition, there have been a few minor improvements: The JC 5’s input stage, based on a newer MOSFET, has been tweaked; the input board is now shielded; the protection and auto turn-on circuits have been updated; and the far more robust CHK Infinium binding posts are new. The JC 5 also has gain controls to optimize the level of gain in the amp vs. the preamp to minimize noise -- the JC 1 lacked these. According to Schram, the benefits of being able to lower noise through gain matching outweigh any degradation in sound quality that might be caused by a gain control’s additional circuitry -- which, he says, listeners couldn’t reliably identify in blind tests in comparisons to bypassing the gain control with a fixed resistor.
I used the Halo JC 5 to drive primarily my MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9 hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers, as well as a pair of Paradigm’s new Premier 800Fs on hand for review. Preamplification and D/A conversion were handled by an Anthem STR preamplifier and an Oppo Digital UDP-205 4K Ultra HD Universal BD player. A Hewlett-Packard Pavilion laptop computer ran Windows 10, foobar2000, and Roon. Cables comprised various models from Analysis Plus, AudioQuest, and Nordost, as well as power cords and conditioners from Blue Circle Audio, ESP, and Zero Surge.
Listening to The Essential Billy Joel (24-bit/96kHz FLAC, Columbia/HDtracks) through the Halo JC 5 was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve recently had with my audio system. Even in the high-resolution edition, many of my favorite cuts on this set are hardly audiophile recordings -- nonetheless, they sounded totally unforced and natural through my MartinLogan Masterpiece Classic ESL 9s driven by the JC 5. The brilliantly intimate recording quality of “Piano Man,” and Joel’s earnest delivery of the words, gave me the sense of a small, cozy recording space, with the boisterous piano and harmonica placed in the room directly in front of me. The accordion and mandolin were farther back, but I could hear them extremely clearly. Joel’s emotive vocal had a pleasing immediacy that, combined with the naturalness of the instruments, filled me with a sad, sweet nostalgia. The easy-listening sound of “Just the Way You Are” has a more polished studio sound that the JC 5 conveyed with aplomb, including Phil Woods’s soulful alto saxophone solo. While the sax was lusciously smooth, it had just enough brassiness to make it stand out realistically among the well-balanced mix of instruments and voices that the JC 5 spread perfectly across the front of my room. The big Parasound had a relaxed sound that was just so darned easy to listen to. Nothing was over-emphasized -- everything was smooth and coherent, making even these older recordings sound super-involving.
More refined, more contemporary recordings -- such as “Hey Now,” from London Grammar’s If You Wait (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia) -- sounded spectacular through the powerful JC 5. The soundstage was large and enveloping, with sharp imaging and soaring, relaxed-sounding voices. The grip and control the Parasound exerted over the dual woofers of the ESL 9s was as absolute as that of my reference Anthem M1 monoblocks (1000Wpc, $7000/pair), or the equally powerful and stunning Bryston 4B3 ($5695) power amp, which I recently reviewed -- but when the extreme low bass kicked in, the Halo growled more mightily and dug even deeper, with a rich, satisfying quality that those other amps couldn’t match. It was some of the most exciting, visceral bass I’ve ever heard in my system from passive speakers. The Anthems, and especially the Bryston, may be a touch more transparent and utterly neutral throughout the audioband, but darn, did the Parasound ever sound luxurious and involving while being nearly as transparent.
Even the overproduced sound of Cher’s album of ABBA covers, Dancing Queen (16/44.1 FLAC, Warner Bros.), which can be a little sterile at times, especially with her voice, had a pleasing, pulsating beat with great pace in “The Winner Takes It All.” There isn’t much depth to this recording, but the JC 5 still presented an invitingly wide soundstage. “SOS” had a bit more depth, but the same rather dry quality to the vocal. Cher’s voice isn’t as disembodied here as the robotic, Auto-Tuned character in the title track of Believe (16/44.1 FLAC, Warner Bros.), but it still exhibited a slightly synthetic, wavering quality. However, the JC 5 did nothing to exacerbate the artificial character of the recording, and provided an otherwise smooth, balanced sound with these upbeat tracks, which had me tapping my toes and singing along.
AC/DC’s The Razor’s Edge (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony), made in 1990, has a clean but slightly thin sound not uncommon in recordings of that era. The bass in “Thunderstruck” was as thunderous through the JC 5 as the title suggests. Angus Young’s guitar snarled as he delivered his lightning-fast chords, and Chris Slade’s drums pounded out a deafening beat as Brian Johnson belted out the words. With the JC 5, the song hung together at insane volume levels without the bass sounding overblown or the voices losing their composure. In comparison, the Anthem M1s were more detailed, with better-defined images and, especially, low-level detail, but sounded somewhat restrained and polite in comparison. With their rated power of 1000W into 8 ohms, the Anthems could drive the MartinLogan ESL 9s to any volume level I desired, but lacked the visceral wallop the Parasound consistently delivered when I wanted to rock out. Bottom line: The Anthems were more neutral, but the Parasound was more fun to listen to.
One of my long-term reference recordings is Robbie Robertson and the Red Road Ensemble’s Music For The Native Americans (16/44.1 FLAC, Capitol), which I use for its sparkling clarity and the openness of its soundstage as Robertson explores the complex rhythms of the music of his native heritage. The Halo JC 5 handled the dual woofers and electrostatic panels of my ESL 9s in a way that re-created a huge soundstage with scary-good imaging. Through the Anthem M1s the sound was equally big and precise, but the bass lacked a bit of the slam and weight of the JC 5 in such cuts as “Akua Tuta” and “The Vanishing Breed.” This was also noticeable on Robbie Robertson (16/44.1 FLAC, Geffen) -- the heartbeat-like rumblings in this album’s “Fallen Angel” had a massive weight that the M1s couldn’t quite duplicate. My head tells me I should be more impressed with the Anthems’ neutrality, but my heart belonged to the Parasound -- my visceral reaction to its exciting sound was undeniable.
When I first learned that the Halo JC 5 cost $5995, I was surprised. Although that’s considerably less than a pair of Halo JC 1 monoblocks, it’s a lot more than a Halo A 21+ ($3150). But now, having heard the JC 5, I realize that it’s worth every penny. There was an absolute sense of effortlessness as sound flowed smoothly and steadily from it, regardless of what speakers I used or music I played. Not only was the sound exquisitely smooth and natural, it never ran out of steam, regardless of how loud I cranked it. From the moment I began listening to the Halo JC 5 until I had to pack it up and send it back to Parasound, its sound delighted me in ways that few other components ever have. By any measure, the Halo JC 5 is a superb power amplifier. For $5995, it offers reference-quality sound, and enough power to easily drive any loudspeaker.
Often, in the Conclusion of a review, I offer a few qualifying thoughts or caveats. This time I have none. I can’t recommend Parasound’s Halo JC 5 highly enough.
. . . Roger Kanno
Parasound Halo JC 5 Stereo/Mono Amplifier
Price: $5995 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