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Custom Analogue JLTi EL34 amplifier review

I’ve always had a soft spot for EL34 valves. Indeed, my main amp for some six years was a Consonance M100+, sporting 4 x EL34 valves. That knocked a Krell KAV-300i out of my system and – along with much valve rolling – saw off all other reasonably priced contenders for half a decade.

The JLTi EL34 (~AU$1300) is a power amplifier that began life as a Chinese-made Yaqin integrated amplifier and has been modified by Sydney-based Joe Rasmussen of Custom Analogue Audio. “Basically, this is taking a classic 50’s style tube circuit used by Yaqin, then adapting to encompass modern 2000-2010 ideas”, Joe told me. He added, “In the JLTi EL34, the idea was to take a suitable Chinese amplifier that are available at a lower cost that we could make, use it as a vehicle and then take many of the ideas incorporated in much more expensive amplifiers we have made and get something like 80% of the performance….”.

Over the course of two months I audtioned the JLTi EL34 with a variety of sources, pre-amplifiers and speakers (RRP from around AU$500 to AU$10000). Most of the testing was done pushing the Osborn Epitomes or Proac Response 3s with a Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe + Pulse on pre-amplifier duties. My listening also including driving the JLTi directly from a Consonance Droplet CDP using its in-built volume control.

Note: none of the speakers used in my testing were difficult to drive and the JLTi was equally assured with all of them.The Yaqin makes a very nice platform from which Joe can work. Build quality is excellent and the aesthetics are a nice mix of the utilitarian with some glam. If you like the look of valve amplifiers this one won’t disappoint – Joe’s custom JLTi front plate distinguishes it from the stock Yaqin.

Interestingly, the stock tubes supplied with it are also good. I didn’t try too much tube rolling, but I did make use of a matched quad of Electro Harmonix EL34 tubes. I always liked the EH sound, but in this amplifier I preferred the stock tubes. There’s no need to rush out and start experimenting with expensive tube changes, but given some enthusiastic trial-and-error, rolling would provide an upgrade path at some point.

The JLTi EL34 has the kind of sound that is hard to fault at the price point. Plenty of dynamics and very detailed, even at low volume levels. It had no problem at all coping with complex or detailed passages and on choral works I could discern individual voices.

Back-to-back against a pair of 500wpc Emotiva XPA-1s, the EL34 held up extremely well – very deep bass, very detailed through the entire frequency range. Only the most demanding dynamic swings (eg Film & The BB’s Tricycle or Track 1 on the Dallas Wind Symphony Orchestra sampler), saw the XPA-1’s extra oomph win out. However, almost every time I put the “test tracks” down and just listened to music, I preferred the JLTi.

What the JLTI gives up in terms of grip and control, it more than makes up for by being more emotionally engaging than the big Emotivas. If you have reasonably efficient speakers, don’t worry about the conservative 20 wpc rating being too low. Having listened to plenty of high-powered amps over the years I’m always eventually drawn back to more modest output into efficient speakers. Everyone has their own tastes, but I find that some amplifiers overdo their sense of grip and strangle the natural timbre of music.

Back to the JLTi. The thick midrange renders vocals as rich and “within reach”. The amplifier pulls plenty of detail from the source: vocals, instruments and electronic sounds. As well as the expected competence with wind, brass and strings, the JLTi is very good with organs and percussion.

However, the amplifier is not perfect. Looking past its agreeability, ease and emotional involvement, there isn’t quite the slam/impact offered by more expensive packages. It’s good, but not great. Track one on the SACD of Dead Can Dance, The Serpent’s Egg isn’t quite as thunderous as it ought to be. Some of the bass resonances from Cinematic Orchestra’s Man with a Movie Camera aren’t quite as meaty as I’ve heard with other amplifiers. The percussion on The Motels “Total Control” doesn’t have the thwack that an amplifier that’s truly in control provides. Really dynamic symphonic pieces don’t always have the impact to convince you the orchestra is right there in the room with you. And whilst the soundstage is accurate and stable, it isn’t quite as sizeable as that of the very best ($x000) amplifiers.

Bizarrely, I found the JLTi to be quite sensitive to interference. Fluorescent lights seemed to be readily picked up by the amplifier and transferred as a low hum to the speakers. Reader should also note that this amplifier is not self-biasing and a monthly visit from a mulitmeter will be required.

And yet one must remember that this thing costs AU$1400, and the comparisons above are to amplifiers that cost many times more, including the Tom Evans Audio Design Linear A and Musical Fidelity KW750, which hover around the AU$10K mark. I can honestly say I’ve never heard any other power amplifier at the JLTI’s price point that is as competent as the JLTi EL34. It’s an amplifier that makes you want to listen to music, and just keep listening. It’s an amplifier I could happily live with for a long time. For anyone building a system where the bulk of their favoured genre is jazz/vocals/acoustic, this amplifier will likely outlast a good few source and speaker upgrades.

My reference power amplifier is now a Tom Evans Audio Design Linear A, which for my ears represents the best sound reproduction that innovative engineering can provide from a valve amplifier in 2010. The TEAD is better than the JLTI in every respect, but the JLTI shares the TEAD’s most attractive trait – it gets out of the way and allows the detail and beauty of the music to flow forth. JLTi stands for “Just Listen To It”. Several times whilst listening to very familiar test tracks I found myself disengaging from the critical process and just enjoying the music.

What Joe Rasmussen has achieved with this amplifier is remarkable. He’s taken a good quality (and ludicrously cheap) Chinese product and lifted its performance to a more than satisfactory level. The result is a highly resolving amplifier that makes music sound just lovely.

Associated Equipment

  • Audio Aero Capitole Reference Signature CDP
  • Logitech Squeezebox Touch
  • Consonance Droplet 5.0 Reference CDP
  • Sony CE595 SACD
  • VPI Junior TT with Lyra Helkion cartridge
  • Little Dot DAC_1 fed by Apple Airport Extreme
  • Stereo Knight Magnetic Enigma Silver Ultimate
  • Tom Evans Vibe + Pulse
  • Emotiva USP-1
  • Osborn Epitome mk V with bass units
  • Proac Response 3
  • Proac Tablette 8 Reference

Audition Music

  • Allison Krauss and Union Station – New Favourite (2001)
  • Dead Can Dance – The Serpent’s Egg (1988)
  • Cinematic Orchestra – Man with a Movie Camera (2003)
  • Film & the BB’s – Tricycle (2003)
  • Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis (1969)
  • VA- Jazz at the Pawnshop (1976)
  • Rebecca Pidgeon – The Raven(1994)
  • Deep Forest – Deep Forest (1993)
  • The Motels – Motels (1979)
  • Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms (1985)
  • Tool – Lateralus (2001)
  • Libera – Angel Voices (2006)
  • Varujan Kojian, Utah Symphony Orchestra – Berlioz Sumpphonie Fantastique Op. 14 (1993)
  • Radiohead – Amnesiac (2001)

Further Information

Wyred 4 Sound W4S DAC-2 review (Sabre 9018)

EMusic – more digital ash for the digital urn