Product: Response Audio RAM 301 Integrated Amplifier
Manufacturer: Response Audio - USA
Approx. List cost: $ 1000 USD
Reviewer: Scott Faller - TNT USA
Published: March, 2003
For some time, I've been surfing into the Jolida website and looking around just for curiosities sake. Nels and his reviews of the Jolida gear have always intrigued me. After seeing the truly affordable pricing of the gear and hearing that Mike at Jolida wants to bring affordable gear to the average consumer, I decided to probe a little deeper.
You guys know me and cheap, so I first started looking at the JD 301. This little gem retails at about $350. The stock unit is a modest 30 watt Mosfet hybrid integrated amp. It uses a 12AX7 tube in the preamp section. If you know me well, you also realize that I like my solid state warmed up a bit by tubes. So here we have an interesting little integrated. It's cheap and it has tubes to warm it up. Ahhh, a match made in heaven.
I thought seriously about contacting Mike at Jolida to review a stock unit, but Nels let me know about company that was doing some pretty serious mods to this amp. Response Audio is the name of the company. I had heard these guys mentioned in other conversations with a few other people so I decided to surf on in. After looking around for a while, I decided to give the owner, Bill Baker, a call.
Bill and I talked for a while about the products he carries. Our conversation ended up on the RAM 301. The RAM 301 is a heavily modified version of the Jolida JD 301. Bill told me that he and Dan Wright of ModWright had teamed up and got approval from Mike at Jolida to offer a souped up version of the Jolida hybrids. Interesting, to say the least.
Well, I started asking him about the pricing. After he let me know what the RAM 301 was going to run, it blew my whole theory of cheap. That's not to say that the $1000 he is charging is hugely expensive, it's just that it's a fair whack higher than the $350 of the stock unit. The real question here is, are the mods made to the unit worth the extra bucks.
After talking at length with both Bill and Dan about the mods they've made to the stock Jolida, I decided to get one for review.
Not to bore you with the technical aspects of this amp, I feel quite a bit of explanation is in order. What exactly makes this thing worth more than $600 over the cost of the stock amp?
Lets take a hard look at some of the mods. To save some space, I'm going to list them straight from his website.
I have several different tube preamps that I use. Quite honestly, the 12AU7 with no negative feedback is my favorite of the bunch I have here in my house. Especially compared to a straight 12AX7 with feedback. In my case, the Korato KVP 10 is a 12AU7 design with no feedback. If memory serves, its called an MU follower design. The 12AU7 presents itself as a far smoother operator, so I can see why they chose this mod especially considering the elimination of the feedback on the tube.
Replacing the signal path resistors with Dales are a no brainer when it comes to mods. That's not to say it's (necessarily) easy, just that this is one of the very first places to start. Dale makes a damned fine sounding resistor that isn't overly expensive. Replacing these almost always results in lifting veil after veil on an amp. I have done this on repeated occasions. Good choice.
Next, replacing the caps in the preamp signal path with AuriCaps can lead to nothing but a distinct improvement in the presentation. Richard Smith at Audience and his little elves have come up with some great sounding caps that don't carry those heavy Boutique prices.
Replacing the coupling caps and increasing their capacity in the amp with Black Gates is always a great idea. Again, this is something I do on a regular basis. In my last instance, it was an Adcom GFA 545. In small values (which is what you usually encounter in the amps PC board) Black Gates aren't hugely expensive. They do run every bit of about $8 for a 50uF @ 100v compared to $.35 for a standard cap. Are they really worth it? You bet, every last cent in my opinion. The Black Gate cap has a unique sound quality, very warm yet revealing, if that's possible. They treat bass with the authority that a Krell amp does.
Next up is the replacement of the bridge rectifier with superfast FRED's. Again, in concert with the increased coupling cap capacity, this does a nifty number on your bass response. A nice by-product is it also helps (slightly) to improve the smoothness of the presentation of the music. Making it more fluid and seamless.
Bypassing the power supply caps, all by itself in any amp, is a worthy stand alone tweak. It dramatically smoothes the highs and eases glare and grain. The choice of AuraCaps is well made. It would have been nice to do a cascading bypass (a 4.7 uF and a .47uF in parallel) but they ran out of room inside the amp.
I can't really comment on the redesign of the circuitry since I don't have the original and revised schematics sitting in front me. When it comes to re-biasing your amp, give this article a read. Dejan wrote it some time ago and anyone who has re-biased their amp can fully attest to how much better it now sounds.
Replacing the signal path wiring with better hookup wire is nearly always a good option. In Bill and Dan's choice, they went with Jena Labs hook up wire. This stuff doesn't come cheap. It's about $4.00 a foot. Now, I've yet to find any wire that is worth that much but they are only using small quantities here so the overall cost is relatively insignificant.
Next, they traded the balance pot and stereo volume pot for a pair of nice, smooth, dual mono pots. This usually lifts veils from the critical midrange
Then they have upgraded the stock Chinese 12AX7 tubes with ElectroHarmonix 12AU7 tubes. These are a very nice sounding tube. Absolutely nothing wrong with this choice. You may have a personal preference for one of the NOS or other after market tubes but the EH sounded just fine for our evaluations.
And finally, Bill at Response ships each of these units with his own offering of power cords he call the RAM PC2 Standard Power Cord at no extra cost. As you can see from the pic, this is a pretty serious power cord. It's a fully shielded cord that has three runs of number 12 AWG stranded wire. Bill uses hospital grade Marinco male and IEC connectors. At his sell price of under $70, there's not much reason for the average audiophile to look any further.
When we step back and take a look at they mods Bill and Dan have chosen, they represent just about everything (and then a few) that the hard core tweaker would chose to do to their own amp. It's almost a complete rebuild rather than a tweaking session in my books.
In fact, here's a quick (after) pic of a future article here on TNT-Audio. It's that Adcom GFA 545 that I have completely rebuilt top to bottom. I've incorporated every tweak that Response has (plus a few (that shall remain secret until I publish it) right down to the Black Gates and AuraCaps. End results.........astonishing, to say the least.
So let's see how the little Jolida fairs.
First lets talk about the stock Jolida amp. As you can see from the picks above, it's a really compact unit, about the same size as cigar box full of Partagas Maduro's, one of my favorite stogies. It boast's 30 wpc at 8 ohms and less than 0.1% THD at the full 30 W output, 25Hz to 18Khz. Not too bad considering those specs are at rated output. The input impedance is 47Kohms with a S/N of - 90dB at rated output. Again for inexpensive hybrid tube gear, not bad at all.
Bill at Response was nice enough to provide me with a pair of amps so I could do a side by side comparison between the two. One stock Jolida JD 301 and (obviously) the RAM 301. After letting the amps go through a decent break in period of about 80 or so hours I decided to give them a listen. For all of my listening sessions I used my Upsampled Njoe Tjoeb as a source. The main reason, it has a variable output and a remote control. No doubt I could have used one with a fixed output and adjusted the volume pots manually but I'm a lazy sod :-) For the bulk of my listening, the speakers I used were DynAudio Audience 42's that I have here for the Speaker Shootout.
One thing I like to state up front, the 30 watts provided by this little amp are probably adequate for the average listener. If you are a hard rock fan or looking for concert level volumes and want to connect a pair of low efficiency speakers and play it loud, you should look elsewhere.
As it stands, the RAM 301 driving the Dyn's (at 86dB efficient), would push to a little over 90 dB (in room) without too much trouble. Much past that and the amp started to run out of gas. Not at all unexpected considering it's rated wattage and the low efficiency of the Dyns.
I listened to all kinds of music on the RAM 301, Tjoeb and Dynaudio 42 combination. When I did a side by side comparison of the stock Jolida to the RAM 301, the 301 was far better top to bottom. You get better bass definition. It tightened up a fair amount. Several veils were lifted in the midrange region which cleared up the congestion and helped out the soundstage and placement quite a bit. The treble as far smoother and more refined too. The one limiting factor to this combination was the Dyns low efficiency mated to 301's 30 watts. This is just me though. I probably play my music a fair piece louder than the average listener.
On the other hand, I hooked up my 15" Goodman's which are rated at about 103dB efficient and this little amp began to sing. It had all the volume you could ever want. So much so, I was afraid I was going to cook the Goodmans. It really took me by surprise how good this little amp sounded in front of these big old speakers. See, I'm used to listening to the Goodmans behind my Midwest Audio 2A3 SET. That setup has an unbelievable presence and sound quality to it. When I plugged in the RAM 301, I really expected to hear much less sound quality, but I didn't. That's not saying that the RAM 301 is near as fluid, refined or open as the 2a3 by any stretch, but the RAM sure wasn't too far off. This is a combination that a person could easily live with for a long time.
After the Goodmans, I swapped over to a pair of AAD C-800s I have here as part of the speaker shootout. These are rated at about 91 dB and pose a 8 ohm load. These were much easier to drive into high(er) sound pressure levels. Though the C-800's aren't the most refined speaker out there, they were loads of fun to listen to behind the RAM 301. Thoroughly enjoyable, especially on Rock and Roll. The taught bass of the RAM 301 coupled with the enhanced bass of the C-800's, really helped make so much of the poorly mixed Rock music of the 60's and 70's come alive.
In the end, the RAM 301 performs dramatically better than the stock Jolida JD 301, as it should. The mods Response has made are well chosen and implemented.
The question you have to ask yourself, what are my listening habits? Do I listen at moderate volume levels? Or if I do like the music cranked pretty hard, do I have fairly efficient speakers (93dB or greater)? Do I need an integrated that doesn't take up much space at all? And last but not least, what is the size of my room?
Well ,depending on how you answered those questions, the RAM 301 could be right up your alley. One of it's best characteristics is it's clarity, especially in the midrange. So many amps stab music right in it's heart, the midrange. Not the RAM 301, it's clear and concise without being analytical in the least little bit. It has a very nice musical presentation that is warm and inviting as music should be. I like this amp, a lot.
It's a tad pricey, but not too bad considering the fine job it does. By no means do I want you interpreting that as me saying this is over priced. Because I didn't say that. I'm just saying that when you are as frugal as tend to be (I think tightwad is the proper term here), I'd like to see it a little less expensive. But when you take in to consideration all the work they have done, add that to the base price of the amp, it's probably priced right about where it should be.
Finally, could I live with this amp for a long period of time? Well, I think I could (providing). First, the sound quality is good enough for the most discerning ears. Second (and the proviso for me), I'm rapidly getting into single drivers and high efficiency speakers. This amp undoubtedly will drive these type speakers into ear bleeding volumes. See, I like my music loud ........ really loud in fact. I'm that closet Rocker who likes to play (almost) everything at concert level volumes. So, the RAM 301 mated with the right pair of high efficiency speakers could make me very happy.
I'd like to thank Bill Baker at Response Audio for the use of the amps for this review, and for the extended use of the amps during the Speaker Shootout.
Well, Scott, I would like to start by thanking you for taking the time to evaluate the smallest of our RAM Signature amplifiers.
Our goal with this project was to start with an already nice sounding amplifier and take it to the extreme in terms of detail, resolution and control while still maintaining value. As you nicely pointed out, this was not an upgrade but rather a complete redesign of circuitry.
Choosing the Electro Harmonic 12AU7 tube for this amp has it's merits. I have found this tube to be one of the better current production tubes for this application. I am hopeful that tube rollers will keep me and others posted on their experimentation with some of the fine NOS tubes out there.
As you mention throughout the review, this amp may not be the a proper choice for those looking for concert volume levels and window rattling bass with inefficient speakers. (We have other amps for them.) We have found that the RAM 301 is capable of driving most speakers at "normal" listening levels. OK Scott, maybe not your normal listening levels. I have been driving my pair of Totem Tabu speakers, very difficult load, for some time with this amp with excellent results. No, I do not get the fullest bass potential these speakers are capable of but then again, I have different listening habits. Our 100 watt RAM 501 would be better suited for those looking for extreme levels or have difficult speakers to drive. Personal taste and listening habits must obviously be considered when looking into any 30 watt amplifier. With Scott's forthcoming speaker reviews here on TNT, it will give consumers an idea of how the RAM 301 will interact with a variety of speakers.
Now for a quick comment on the price of the unit. The $1k price tag on this amp is our list price. The selling price on this amp will fall at $899US which includes our RAM Standard PC-2 power cord, Electro Harmonix tubes and optional real wood face plate in place of the black aluminum found standard on this amp.
I would like to thank Dan Wright of ModWright for coming up with the design for the RAM Signature products, Mike Allen of Jolida for allowing us to utilize his Hybrid units as the platform for the RAM amplifiers, and Scott Faller for taking the time to audition and review the RAM 301.
© Copyright 2003 Scott Faller - http://www.tnt-audio.com