JE Audio VM60 Mono Amplifiers
by Roy Gregory | December 13, 2012
© www.theaudiobeat.comThere are a lot of tube amps coming out of China these days, many at very attractive prices and built to specifications supplied by their destination markets: Prima Luna, Pure Sound and VAS just to name a few. At first glance, you might (mistakenly) slot the JE Audio amps into the same category -- that is, if you failed to notice the rather superior fit and finish they sport. In fact, the external appearance is only the most obvious clue that here you have a fish of quite a different flavor. Chinese-sourced brands have a deserved reputation for delivering outstanding value -- sometimes at the cost of questionable reliability or consistency. But sooner or later the home market must grow and become more sophisticated. Once Chinese audiophiles can afford better quality, thats exactly what theyll want -- a situation further complicated by the existence of the vibrant Hong Kong high-end market right on their doorstep, a market that offers every high-zoot brand available from the West. The aspiring Chinese audiophile knows just what he wants because he can see it in the Hong Kong dealers and read about it in the magazines. The only problem is affording it.
The result is a clear opportunity to take home-built products upmarket, offering higher quality to Chinese (and overseas) consumers at prices that still sit well below the US or European competition. Seen in that light, its no surprise that the JE Audio amps offer a prettier face to the public than a lot of Chinese-built product. No bent-metal casework or ostentatiously CNC-machined front panels here. Instead, the clean, classy plate-to-plate build with its extruded corner posts is reminiscent of Wadia products, while the surface finish and simple elegance evoke warm memories of those classy Luxman products from the '80s -- and nobody did silver like Luxman.
Thats partly because the JE Audio amps are designed and assembled in Hong Kong -- although many of the subassemblies are sourced on the mainland. That keeps critical construction and quality control under one, tightly managed roof, helping explain the impressive fit and finish -- as well as the tidy internals. But flash styling and high-end ambition dont necessarily deliver the sonic goods. Talking the talk is one thing; walking the walk -- thats quite another. But its also where the JE Audio VM60 suddenly becomes very interesting indeed.
Not just another Chinese amp, not just another balanced amp either
Now, you dont need to be a seer to guess that the "60" in the amps designation indicates the rated power output. Nor do you need a degree in physics to take one look at those four, fat KT88s and figure out that thats a lot of glass, given the power rating. Of course, they could deliver 60 watts of pure class-A power -- but they dont. What you are looking at is a fully complementary, mono power chassis, balanced throughout from input to output. Its a topology that is becoming more and more popular in US high-end audio, although generally only at more elevated price levels. VTLs MB-450 Mk III is a good example, its substantial chassis delivering in excess of 400 watts -- and attracting a UK price tag of £8750 each. In comparison, the VM60s output power seems like small beer -- but then so does its £4500 ticket, and thats for a pair.
There are no silver-bullet solutions in audio, and a differential topology doesnt guarantee good sound. As always, its not what you use but how you use it that counts -- but going fully balanced is a definite statement of intent. Nor is this just any complementary circuit. There are some very interesting aspects to its implementation, while the combination of vacuum tubes and balanced topology offers certain inherent advantages. JE Audio have developed their own patented dual-feedback arrangement for the amplifier, a layout that employs one feedback loop around the first two stages, used in conjunction with a separate global feedback loop. The result is a lower overall level of global feedback, but perhaps more important, the balanced layout also corrects for any nonlinearities in those critical first driver stages. Its a solution that neatly sidesteps the perennial Achilles heel in push-pull tube designs: inaccuracies suffered in the phase splitter. A second patent applies to the auto-sensing circuitry that maintains perfect DC balance in the driver stages for even greater accuracy across the two sides of the audio circuit. Meanwhile, auto-bias circuitry keeps the output tubes running at optimum settings without the listener burning his fingers -- or worrying about doing so.
So here we have an amplifier that is both carefully constructed and genuinely innovative. It promises a slice of the high end at a rather more real-world price -- and it promises to deliver it in a practical and consistent package. Does it back up its technical and physical credentials with a musical performance to match?
First, lets take a closer look at the VM60s physical attributes. Each amp is compact and, as previously mentioned, beautifully finished. Six inches tall, just over a foot wide and 15 1/2 inches deep, its front panel sports a central power switch and an LED indicator that flashes red on switch-on until voltage stability is achieved, whereupon it turns blue and the amp will pass signal. The back panel offers a 15A IEC input and nicely mounted sockets for balanced or single-ended connection, a small slider switch selecting between the two. I particularly like the positioning of the speaker terminals (two pairs, one for 4-ohm and one for 8-ohm loads). These are mounted on the top surface of the rear deck, behind the output transformer, making cable dressing particularly easy. Tube complement consists of a pair of 12AX7 twin-triode input valves, a 6922 twin-triode driver and a quartet of KT88 output tubes, two for each half of the circuit. In the review pair, these tubes were of the Russian Genalex brand -- one Im not familiar with, although they behaved perfectly throughout the review period.
The corner columns are top and tailed with cosmetic caps, the lower ones finished off with a trio of small silicon-rubber dimples to provide a modicum of isolation and protect the supporting surface. In practice, I suspect they are more effective in the latter role than the former, although they can easily be unscrewed and replaced with something superior -- as long as whatever you use is available with an M10 thread. I listened to the amps with both their own feet and quartets of Stillpoints Ultra SS feet installed. The Ultras certainly raised the price significantly, but then they improved the performance pretty dramatically too -- even if they did leave the amps looking a little stilt-like in appearance. You also get a set of tube cages that are held in place by the increasingly common expedient of four banana plugs and chassis-mounted sockets. Its a simple and elegant solution I thoroughly applaud, especially as you may well want to leave the cages in place for safety or protective purposes, while the amps sound rather better without them when it comes to serious listening. This way, everybody is happy.
Inside, construction is extremely neat, closer inspection revealing a smattering of audiophile components, from the C-core choke to the Mundorf caps. The specially wound balanced output transformers are sourced from the US, while the power transformers originate in Japan. Clearly, JE are cutting no corners here when it comes to component cost and quality, with ultimate performance being the sole decider. In numbers terms, each amp weighs in at 54 pounds, while input impedance is a sensible 47k for single-ended, 94k for balanced. All pretty run of the mill. The only unusual aspect of the amps electrical specs is a higher-than-average input sensitivity, with 1.0V being all that is necessary to drive the amps to full output. In part I suspect this reflects the increasingly common trend of running amplifiers direct from the outputs of a DAC, but it does mean that you may well need to be a bit careful with the volume control on first acquaintance, especially if you are dropping the VM60s into an existing system.
Turning on and tuning in
There seems little point in running a fully balanced power amp in anything other than a balanced system, so I paired the VM60s with either JEs own VL19 line stage, the Aesthetix Janus preamp or VTLs TL-7.5 III two-box flagship. The latter might seem a little over the top, certainly in terms of price, but boy did the amps lap up the quality of that input signal. Running the amps single ended reduces the overall gain (by the customary 6dB), and the drop in sound quality is far from subtle, with a significant loss of transparency and dynamic jump, clarity and immediacy -- so much so that you shouldnt actually consider the JE Audio amplifiers unless you intend to use them in a balanced system.
The first thing that you are going to notice about these amps is just how quiet they are. On moderately efficient speakers youll need to have your ear right up against the drive units to hear any kind of background noise. Even hooked up to the 101dB-sensitivity Zu Definition Mk IVs, there was virtually no noise to speak of -- and that from an amp that according to the speaker manual is well to the top of the "large room -- concert levels" power range; I dont think theyre talking chamber music, either. In fact, what looked like a mismatch on paper worked surprisingly well in practice, and I spent a fair amount of time listening to the JE/Zu combination, with never less than entertaining results.
Before that, most of my listening was done with the deceptively demanding KEF Blades, a speaker that asks a lot of partnering electronics, both in terms of load tolerance and musical quality. I was surprised by just how capably the VM60s rose to the challenge. Push things well beyond the reasonable (in terms of material and muscle) and you could propel the JE amps into clipping, but they held it together far longer than I had any right to expect, demonstrating the control and stability inherent in their topology. When they did finally fold it was gradually and with good grace, so that I had plenty of time to retreat and reduce the volume level accordingly. But everything from Mozart symphonies to the dynamic demands of Elvis Costello were handled with aplomb, clearly revealing the amps other great strength: their rhythmic integrity. These amplifiers latch onto a 4/4 tempo with all the grip and alacrity of a PRaT aficionado going into toe-tapping overdrive in a mid-'80s Naim demo. Feed them the pile-driver beat that propels "Pump It Up" (from This Years Model [IMP Fiend 18]) and the VM60s drive the track with an energy and unrestrained gusto that leave you in no doubt that youll be giving up long before they do. But its not all about slab-sided bass and bottom-end weight. Move on to the more melancholy, hesitant and intricate tempo of "Little Triggers" and the JE amps are just as explicit, just as sure-footed, just as revealing of the songs structure and the rhythmic underpinnings that make it tick.
This rhythmic integrity sets the JE amps apart, not just from the tube-based alternatives but from their price peers of any persuasion. Their temporal clarity and musical organization tell you both exactly where a note is placed and also why it is there. Play familiar tracks -- really familiar tracks -- and it is remarkable how things suddenly seem to have fallen into place. Even a track as familiar as "Perfect Day" (from the Speakers Corner reissue of Lou Reeds Transformer [Speakers Corner/RCA LSP-4807]) seems to breath a sigh of contentment as it settles down into its familiar groove. Its a quality that stems from two things: the inherent sense of timing and placement that informs the amplifiers presentation, and also the sheer substance with which they portray instruments and voices. So the piano part on "Perfect Day" is solid and present, without ever getting strident or brittle, the strings swell convincingly from well down in their range, while Reeds voice is full of expressive shape and the poignant sense of longing that makes the song so effective.
But what I really like about the VM60s is that they do all this without being obvious about it. Yes, they lock onto a rhythm -- but only if its there. They dont take the music in hand and impose their will on it, the way some systems do. Instead, they get behind the music, pushing it forward, making the most of its natural pace and shape. Likewise, the substance they bring to instruments and voices is about solid energy, not about "Look at me. Arent I big? Arent I pretty?" theatrics. Listen to "Walk on the Wild Side" and youll hear exactly what I mean. The bass line is tactile and mobile, especially once the tempo picks up. Its a dramatic contrast from the wooden and one-note presentation of so many setups. Theres a real sense of its shape and, as Ive already said, of where the notes fit and why. It is the rock on which the whole song is built, and rendering it more clearly, with greater shape and substance, has a profound effect on the track as a whole. Heres a trick: next time you are at a show, play this track in half a dozen rooms. Now, you will hear the notes and youll recognize their shape and timing -- but how much of that is down to the fact that you know what is there and you can fill in the blanks? Now, ask yourself -- what does each system tell me about the pluck and release, the way the player acts on his instrument? Few musical notes are as tactile as those emanating from bass, upright or electric, but how much of that information is really present and how much are you filling in yourself? Listen on the VM60s and theres a certain shock of familiarity -- you suddenly realize that the notes are whole and intact; you dont need to add any interpretive input.
Nor is this effect limited to the bottom-end. Just listen to that wonderfully subtle guitar line on "Walk. . ." and youll see what I mean. Likewise, the backing vocals are more easily separated, each voice with its own distinct identity.
The real beauty of the VM60s lies not in their ability to pluck detail or instruments out of the whole, but the way they allow that individuality and separation to exist within it. On first hearing these amps you might well conclude that they have a compelling sense of rhythm and substance (youd be right), but they could do with greater transparency and separation (which is where youd be wrong). The JE amplifiers dont pull music apart or offer some exaggerated, exploded view of events. Instead, they arrange everything as it all should be, tightly tied to the skeleton and structure provided by the rhythm and tempo of the piece. Rather than firing information at you, or spotlighting instruments or singers, they simply let you listen into the music, discovering layers of previously unsuspected subtlety.
This combination of rhythmic integrity and musical substance, combined with an unflappable load tolerance which seems to keep what might become wayward frequency extremes well and truly in line and in check, makes the VM60s a natural for smaller speakers. I achieved superb results pairing them with the Audioplan Kantatas, where the amps made the most of these speakers ability to bring scale to a performance and let it breathe. Id expect similarly spectacular music from the Focal Diablo Utopia or the Wilson Duette, speakers that major on musical expression and generosity. The JE amps simply reinforce those traits, giving you more of what makes these speakers so attractive in the first place. But back to the little Audioplan and its ability to step away from the music. Throw the shape and substance, the timing and organization that come from the VM60s into the mix and you really do have something that is musically pretty special. The Lou Reed tracks outlined above were strutting their stuff on this setup, and it was equally effective on classical music and jazz, displaying an almost uncanny ability to expand or contract according to the demands and scale of the music.
But one disc really stays in my mind; George Benson's White Rabbit [CTI 6015] is a monument not only to Bensons subtle skill, technique and expressive range (this was made in 1971, long before he slid into that MOR comfort zone) but to the complex elegance of Don Sebeskys arrangements. Lets start with the band: Hancock, Airto, Klugh (sadly only on a single track), Cobham, Berliner, Carter and Laws -- plus vibes, harp, chorus brass and woodwinds. Throw in Latin rhythms and all that percussion and youve got the potential for a real mess -- or at least music that many a system will struggle with. But the JE/Audioplan combination kept things clean and clear, organized and integrated -- all without your even noticing its presence. Just listen to the standout track "El Mar." The relationship between Klughs acoustic and the finger painting of Bensons electric guitar is beautifully captured, Airtos percussion is atmospheric (rather than intrusive, which it can all too easily become on some albums and systems), while the dynamic jumps and shifts elevate this well above the salon jazz that many a setup will flatten it into. This is multi-faceted and spectacularly complex music, rhythmically, dynamically and instrumentally, which the JE amps managed to open up before you, seemingly without effort, allowing the sheer excellence of the players to engage and amaze.
I have a strictly limited tolerance of virtuosity for its own sake, yet the VM60s driving the Kantatas never allowed any one musician to pull away from or sit above the whole. Its this musical coherence and absolute subservience to the whole that makes these amps so special and shows their top-to-bottom linearity and continuity. In many ways they dont sound as hi-fi spectacular as some -- but thats the point. It is the music that should impress. Pair them with like-minded speakers and youve got yourself the next best thing to a musical time machine, so easy is it to forget or ignore the mechanics of reproduction, sit back and simply enjoy the performance.
The JE Audio VM60s are far from perfect (isnt everything?) and not for everybody (you cant please all the people all the time). There are those who will wish for a bolder or more explicit presentation, more separation, focus and transparency -- all of which are fair enough criticisms. Then there are those who will want (or need) more power, wont want (or need) to fuss with tubes, or cant accommodate even fairly compact monoblocks. In fact, there are a good many reasons why you wouldnt buy the VM60s. But before you turn the page and consign them to the audio memory banks, consider this: The JE Audio VM60s are that rarest of beasts, a genuinely unique proposition in a world of me-too products. They combine a novel balanced topology, auto biasing and a relatively affordable price tag with casework of fantastic fit and finish. They also combine the quiet operation and the often-undervalued sonic stability and linearity of well-executed complementary circuitry, with the presence, color and expressive qualities of good tubes and the agility of single-output pairs, all built on the firm foundation of a natural rhythmic integrity that informs and impresses with equal ease.
I cant think of any other amps at or near this price point that combine the VM60s specific blend of virtues to such impressive musical effect. You can have more explicit, more powerful or higher-resolution alternatives. You can have more compact and certainly more physically massive models for your money. Or you can have a rated output in single figures and a lot of wood on the casework. You can choose to lean your listening and system in one direction or another. JE Audio delivers its own particular perspective on the multi-faceted and complex world we call music -- a viewpoint that has very definite merits. Whether you choose to share this vantage point or not, whether you open your wallet in their direction or offer its contents somewhere else, take a moment to appreciate the effort, not just for daring to be different, but for doing so with such style and attention to detail. If these amps are harbingers of a more sophisticated and more ambitious Chinese audio industry, then things could be about to get very interesting indeed.
Price: $6300 per pair.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor (90 days for tubes).
Unit L, 5/F, Block 1
International Industrial Center
2-8 Kwei Tei Street
(852) 3543 0973
93 Havenwood Place
Whitby, Ontario, L1N-9V6 Canada
Analog: Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement turntable, Lyra Dorian Mono and Zu 103D cartridges, Connoisseur 4.2 and Aesthetix Janus phono stages.
Digital: Wadia S7i CD player.
Preamplifiers: Connoisseur 4.2 and Aesthetix Janus.
Power amps: Jadis JA30 and Berning 12-watt monoblocks.
Loudspeakers: Audioplan Kantata, KEF Blade, Zu Audio Definition Mk IV.
Cables: Complete loom of Nordost Odin from AC socket to speaker terminals. Zu Event interconnects and loudspeaker cables. Power distribution was via the QRT QB8, with a mix of Qx2 and Qx4 power purifiers and Qv2 AC harmonizers.
Supports: Racks are 26" wide Stillpoints ESS (current and original versions) and Leading Edge modular designs. These are used with equipment couplers throughout, either Stillpoints or Nordost SortKones. Cables are elevated on Ayre Myrtle wood blocks.
Accessories: Essential accessories include the Feickert protractor, a USB microscope and Aesthetix cartridge demagnetizer, a precision spirit level and laser, a really long tape measure and plenty of masking tape. I also make extensive use of the Furutech anti-static and demagnetizing devices and the VPI Typhoon record-cleaning machine. The Dr. Feikert PlatterSpeed app has to be the best ever case of digital aiding analog.