Product: Jungson JA-99D Class 'A' power amplifier
Manufacturer: JungSon Audio - China
USA and Canadian distributor - Grant Fidelity
Cost, approx (very): 4500 USD (YMMV)
Reviewer: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: July 2009
Please forgive this very long preamble, but something has happened here and I think you need to follow me down the journey...
12 years ago I made a major shift in my listening in that I sold my Naim amps and crossed the Rubicon into the world of valves with an Audion pre/power combination. In a way perhaps that wasn't the huge change. I'd swapped a 40 Watt transistor amp for a 30 Watt EL34 PP which seemed equally happy driving the speakers I had at the time, my home-built IPL transmission lines. To be brutally honest the swap was as motivated by the desire to own such beautiful things, and that valves were 'serious' as to any great improvement in sound quality. That said the Audions did sound magic at the time, their colour (not colouration) beguiling after the 'flatter' sounding Naims.
I had a brief dalliance with high-power transistor amps in the hulking shape of the Korato pairing I reviewed for TNT. Although the preamp was valve based the power-amp was classic, brute-force tranny class 'A' and the sheer grip it had on the low bass of those IPL's made me very tempted to buy them – the Audions had it in the midband, but boy that bass!
Any then of course the goalposts moved to the next stadium with an infatuation with a pair of single-driver, full-range horns in the shape of the Loth-X Polaris. These broke the bank, but it was that or break my heart so they then became my main speaker. Of course as well as sounding wonderful they were designed specifically for low-power valve amps and most importantly the 'holy Grail' of the Single-Ended, Direct-Heated triode...
And trust me guys, SE amps, if done properly are very, very special indeed. The adjective 'open-window' was made for them. But all this sent me further up the 'lunatic fringe' path as my main system became an Audionote Pre/Power running 300b's and producing a mighty 8 watts to fill my 7x5 m, well-damped living room with music to die for.
Which was great but had the effect of pushing my reviewing down a pretty narrow cul-de-sac of very low power amps and high efficiency speakers. Of course that's fine too, but after reviewing half a dozen 300b amps I wonder if the reader gets a bit bored. Of course the idea of removing the magic from my living room was unthinkable, so the obvious answer was to build a new room for reviewing purposes:-) Well actually it's not quite that simple because one of our barns turned into a library/listening room, with a mezzanine above were my children could play their guitars and drums and even have friends to sleep over – every teenagers dream and how to be a really cool Dad:-)
So far so good but it meant that the resultant listening room ended up as a big volume to fill with music! It was also an echoing barn of a place and my first ventures into reviewing in it ended in disaster – no way, I couldn't even bear to spend much time in there listening myself... So there followed a lot of building the likes of bass traps, huge damping panels etc to tame it all down, and to a certain extent it was successful – though the living room was still a big step ahead.
Eventually reviewing started there and of course first up were huge, high-efficiency horn speakers designed for SE amps:-) The Opera M15's did pretty well, and had no problem filling the volume. In deference to the space involved I used the SQF Son-of-Pharoa amp – a substantial and expensive amp producing 40 watts from eight EL-34's and with a lot of current for a valve amp. The result was a warm big and blowsy sound, but I was constantly making allowance for the poor acoustics of the room – a not satisfactory situation and one that made me a little unhappy with the result, both sonically and in how I had judged the speakers. In the end I was only happy with their bass performance having dragged them into my living room to really check them out...
The crunch came a few months ago with the arrival of the Acuhorns – once again I'd ended up reviewing a speaker that I could have done in my living room system! Old habits die hard it seems. But space limitations and the belief that my wife was starting to get fed up with me ripping apart the living room system every couple of weeks consigned them to the new 'listening room'
The result was a disaster. I really didn't like them – flat undynamic, bandwidth limited. They were utterly lost in the barn-like room and acoustic. Then as often happens when things are going badly, they got worse as a fault developed in the amp... Losing patience I rigged up the Lehmann Stamp digital amp to fill the hole. As this produces 20 Watts it's hardly a powerhouse, but I thought that as it was a decent amp at least I could get on with the review and get it out of the way. Imagine my surprise when I found that the speakers sounded better driven by this little digital amp rather than 8000 Euros worth of valve amp. I still didn't like them, but they were considerably more palatable thus driven and this got me thinking. Just because they were full-range horns had made me go into a Pavlovian response and go 'valves'. A look at the Acuhorn website revealed that there was more than a hint that these 96 dbl efficient horn were best with transistors.
The Lehmann was hardly typical transistors and I had nothing suitable, but Grant Fidelity had just sent me some of the 300b 'black bottle' valves for test (review to follow!). I knew they distributed some rather meaty class 'A' amps from China under the Jungson brand. Shamelessly I cadged one with the promise of a review – the result being a monster Jungson JA-99D 100 Watt class 'A' integrated dropped on the doorstep and with a lot of grunting and straining was lugged into the listening room and wired up... Thanks are very much due to Grant Fidelity who have been extremely helpful and tolerant of a pushy reviewer...
The result you can read in the Acuhorn review, suffice to say the speakers gave an even better performance, still not quite my cup-of-tea, but certainly something worth while.
Of course, that out of the way it was payback time and I had to do the review of the Jungson JA-99D...
Which is why a few weeks ago I plugged a massive black box into the Opera M15's – speakers designed for SE amps:-)
As you can see from the pics here we have a classic hunk of Class 'A' naughtiness. Lifting it is best done with two people (40 kgs...), the plates that make up the chassis are battleship armour thick and the finish beyond reproach. If you buy Hi-Fi by the pound then this is a bargain. On the front plate are set a pair of VU meters that although very '70's really make the aesthetics for me – I'm a sucker for twitching needles no matter how pointless, and this makes up for the lack of glowing tubes... Apart from that there is an on/off button, a stepped volume controlled by two buttons and a mute and input selector – that's it. A remote duplicates these functions, in my case the supplied remote was a full 'system' device not the one shown on their website which is now replaced.
Connections are comprehensive and top quality. 3 phono inputs, a balanced input, a set of 'line-out' and two pairs of speaker terminals. The remote controls volume and input, and these are thankfully reproduced on the neat front panel.
Opening the lid revealed a lot of very shiny components (gosh aren't transistor amps complicated!) which must add up to a lot of the cost, not least the 800VA transformer, banks of storage capacitors and 12 pairs of Sanken power transistors. For technical details see the website, but it all looked very neat and well put together to me and though the case is huge there didn't seem to be a square inch wasted. The amp ran pretty hot, which is a sure sign that the bias is heavily towards Class 'A' – many 'Pure Class A' amps only provide a handful of real 'A' Watts before switching to AB, this is an amp you could use to keep your take-away warm...
So – beautifully made, easy to use, good looking in a Stealth Bomber way, certainly it ticks all the boxes in this particular category...
Which of course drags me back to my rambling preamble. Oh yes I remember – I'd just plugged the sucker into the squat forms of the M15's.
Nothing that had gone before prepared me for what happened next, but for the first time my listening room became a place of real music. All the bloom and wallowing disappeared to be replaced by a tight punchy bass which allowed the rest of the spectrum to breath in the space it so obviously lacked before. The M15's were obviously capable of filling the room, but powered by the (excellent) valve amp they didn't have the capacity to control the room. The Jungson JA-99D seemed to just grab hold of the music and punch it into the room – not letting a molecule of air vibrate out of turn.
That an amplifier can control a room as well as a speaker is obviously rubbish – what must have been happening was that the Jungson JA-99D was simply controlling the 15" drivers far better and so reducing all their misbehaviour re resonance and damping. But the subjective effect was one of total control.
I'm not over exaggerating this effect. Remember that my 'reviewing' room had been a huge disappointment with several speakers and that despite some pretty drastic room treatment I'd almost come to the conclusion that as a venue for comparing high-quality Hi-Fi it was a complete write-off. More importantly it wasn't somewhere where I particularly liked listening to music!
The transformation is so complete that it's hard to now try to get down to the actual characteristics of the amp, as their low/mid and upper bass control and speed opens up the midband so much it's hard to judge it's quality in isolation. Having said that, the fact that the mid is now so much more audible does expose it to serious scrutiny and as a comfirmed valve nut you'd expect me to be hyper sensitive to this (and I am:-)...
For all it's attributes, a failing here would still damn the amp for me – but the midband is just gorgeous. It reminds me very strongly of my old Audion EL34 monoblocks, slightly warm, devoid of harshness but very open with it, call it grace if you like, though grace with an iron fist. Dragging the Jungson JA-99D into my living room to be plugged into my Loth-x Polaris (a case of a sledgehammer to crack a nut if there ever was one!) put this in perspective. Facing a pre-power pairing many times it's cost, running the 300b's in single-ended mode, still showed the sheer magic that SE amps have over all comers. Nothing in my experience is as transparent in the midband, and here the Jungson JA-99D just sounded like you'd taken a step back from the music. This was totally expected, and the truth was that the JA-99D did better in this missmatch than I'd expected and still gave that EL-34 effect which was more than pleasant to listen to – but it's a test like putting something under an electron microscope. If you run 100+ dbl horns you need SE amps to get the best out of them – end of story.
Satisfied, and with the aid of my son (what you have kids for) I lugged the Jungson JA-99D back to it's natural home and got back to more reasonable and serious reviewing.
Which brings me to tonight. Michael Jackson died today, my son came back from school and said "Dad, let's listen to all your Michael Jackson' records tonight".
So here I am listening to Thriller – side two (the better of the two) and 'Billy Jean' (the best on the album).
Whether you like Jackson or not, if you don't hear this quirky power-pop-soul ballad about a paternity suit as pure genius then there's something seriously wrong... The producer Quincy Jones, a man who's middle name is 'Delight' – was half that genius and his contribution manifests itself in the whipcrack fast kickdrum and doubled, pedal bass that dominates the track. I have never heard leading edges on a kickdrum like this. The amp just fires those 'pro' 15" drivers out, stops them and drags them back in a millisecond – probably a synthesised drum sound but no less impressive for that. And because it's all so fast and dry the rest of the mix has so much more space around it, the lyrics are more intelligible, the timing so much better – the syth keyboard's bell-like overtones more to the fore.
Detail is no problem – multitracked vocals particularly well handled. The tinkly bits clear, sharp and well defined without being irritating (one big failing of many transistor designs).
It's unfair to review a component through one disc, and a heavily processed one at that, but the fact is that most of the characteristics that jump out at you are perfectly illustrated in this way. Of course lots of other music got played (and is being played as I write) – Michel Shocked at this precise instant... Overall the character of control and grace combine with with speed and power – it's a formidable combination. On some - Joe Jackson's 'Night and Day' for example – the amp pulled imaging capabilities well beyond anything else in this room, again mainly due to the control of that bass area allowing an acoustic to form naturally. In the living-room system again the SE amps 'open-window' gave even more space, but as those amps were a non-starter in the review room it was a pyrrhic victory...
What can I say? Two months ago I had a beautiful reviewing room that frankly wasn't fit-for-purpose. A week ago I had the new SME V12 arm arrive for review – I guess I'm the first reviewer in the world to get one as a stand-alone review - previously that arm would have had to go to the living room system for evaluation. Right now it's mounted on my Opera LP 5 turntable and blasting out 'Beat-it' in the reviewing system – Eddie Van Halen's virtuoso solo impossibly crisp and fast. The transformation is totally down to the JA-99, to undertake such an important review in this room would have been inconceivable prior to the 99's arrival. Changing the arm cable from my own to the supplied SME item showed a huge difference – far more open and detailed – the Jungson laid this bare, this sort of insight is a gain a tribute to the midband openness of the design. It's certainly no one-trick-poney...
This'll be short... The buttons on the review sample had slightly confusing silk-screen logos on two buttons – 'mode' instead of 'input' and 'display' which though if you hold it down does cut the lightshow, in fact acts as a more useful 'mute' when pressed – Big deal... The amp runs hot, not scarily so – this an inevitable result of being so heavily biased to class A but a point nevertheless. It's too big and heavy for most Hi-Fi stands so needs to be sited on something very substantial – like the floor... Lastly the amp doesn''t help some of the more clattery modern studio recordings, they can be wearing but it's hardly the fault of the amp.
Er... That's all Folks...
Yea I know – you're all saying "he'd have got the same with any high-current amp – the clot just been playing with valves too long". But then that misses the point – the reason I abandoned transistors was primarily that I found their midband compromised and grey, and all to often the top-end blighted with grain. As my valve adventure progressed this gap widened to a point where I really has ceased to consider transistors for my own use. But the Jungson JA-99D grafts the grunt and control of a big class 'A' amp onto the ease and flow of a good EL-34 amp, that it does this without a valve in the signal path is a surprise, and a very pleasant one.
Is this the end of my love-affair with valves? No. In the right circumstances, room and correct matching speakers nothing comes close in their purest form. Rather it's made me a bit more tolerant of those who champion transistor amps and see where they are coming from, because the JA-99 is simply a really good amp regardless of situation, partnering equipment or room, it'll drive just about anything, anywhere. All-rounder can be a rather back-handed compliment, but in this case it's entirely appropriate...
Which of course leaves me up a creek without a paddle... How on earth am I going to keep he review room working when it's gone...
About the manufacturer: Jungson Audio is today China's premier high fidelity audio manufacturer and is best known for its Class A design. Jungson Audio was started by two audiophiles in 1993 in a small town in southern China, Taishan, where 90% of the families there have ties with North America through their ancestors who went to North America to build the rail roads starting from 1860s. The two founders, one were then teaching electronics at a college, the other one was his student, started the business out of their passion to audio and music. Their start-up stage is like many stories we heard in the western world - self financing, limited space and no brand recognition. They took their first product - 30kg+ solid state amplifier, on the train and went to Guangzhou (it's China's Hi-Fi capital) to look for interested customers. Just while they were exhausted by lugging such a heavy amp without a vehicle (in 1990s, majority of China is still on two wheels - bicycle) from shop to shop but no one paid attention to them, and they were about to return home, a foresighted vendor welcomed them into the shop for a demonstration. Not to mention that the store owner is so impressed by the product and decided to carry the product. From then on, Jungson started to prosper. The real take-off of Jungson happened when China's national radio station took on one of their amps for studio monitoring. Since then, Jungson has been continuously bringing out excellent products, from mighty power 200W monoblocks to smaller integrated amps. Jungson Audio is also one of the handful manfuacturers in the world who makes full line of audio components, from wall out to the ears. Today, as we speak, Jungson is building their now premise in Taishan with 6 buildings on 15 acres of land. The down-to-earth owners told me: "Many audio companies choose to located in major cities but we decide to stay in Taishan. We like where we started and we would like to stay focused on making great audio, rather than be enticed by money and greed." I have personally visited Jungson twice in the past two years - they have a great team of designers, all young in their 20s and 30s, except the owners are in their 40s, plus a dedicated production team who are mostly from Taishan.
Grant Fidelity teamed up with Jungson Audio in 2007 starting with distributing Jungson tube amplifier under Grant Fidelity brand, and today Grant Fidelity has earned the trust and faith from Jungson since then to now exclusively representing Jungson Audio in North America. Although distributing 'made-in-China' products involves many challenges especially gray market issues, both Jungson and Grant Fidelity are very optimistic in building up Jungson's reputation worldwide, because their products are simply too good to be missed by many music lovers and audiophiles worldwide.
A sad news about one of the Jungson owners - Mr. Huang Shuxiang, who was the design brain for Jungson since inception, passed away in a car accident in March this year. I did a memory article on AudioKarma.org (an audio forum) about him. Here is a link: http://www.audiokarma.org/forums/showthread.php?t=239540
The JA99D is one of his past works. Sad ending for such a talented life. May his legacy lives on through his creations.
© Copyright 2009 Geoff Husband - www.tnt-audio.com