Parsound’s JC3 Jr. Phono Preamplifier

With 30 minutes on the power up clock, unable to resist the temptation any further, a new copy of Crowded House’s Together Alone is dropped on the current Technics SL-1200G with Hana SL cartridge, and magic begins pouring through the latest offering from Parasound.

If you’re new to the analog game, the JC3 Jr.s designer, John Curl is a legend, having a hand in some of the world’s finest preamplifiers and phono preamplifiers. We reviewed their $2,400 JC3 about five years ago, finding it an incredible performer and an incredible bargain. Since then, Parasound has gone on to build an improved JC3+ (at $2,995) and the Jr. you see here for $1,495.

Not a complete dual mono, dual shielded chassis design like the more expensive 3+, Jr. still gets the job done. It’s quiet, quiet, quiet; paints a big soundstage and is incredibly dynamic. Like the more expensive models, you have balanced and single ended output options and the choice of a fixed 47k loading or a variable 50-500 ohm MC setting, with three gain settings; 40, 50, and 60db. (6 db more if you use the balanced outputs).

Got your interest piqued? Watch for Eric Neff’s full report. I’m off to FedEx to blast it his way. Oh yeah, it comes in black too…

Parasound Halo CD 1 Player

As I dislodge the packing material from the shipping box containing the Parasound CD 1, it’s easy to have a positive first impression of the flagship of the Halo product line.  I set aside the cardboard and Styrofoam layers to find the player carefully wrapped in a bag of blue velvet.  I can’t help but recall the lyrics that Bobby Vinton made famous:  “She wore blue velvet.”

Physically, the CD player complements the Parasound Halo product series.  As one might expect from name of the collection to which it belongs, the CD 1 sports blue LEDs that cast lighted halos around the buttons flanking the red power indicator in the center of the player’s faceplate.  The CD 1 is built from the ground up to play only Red Book CDs and CD-Rs, plus the standard CD layer on SACDs.  I have to admit that my own digital collection is about 95 percent Red Book CDs, but I prefer to have the ability to play SACDs or DVD-As without needing a second player.

Users have a few options in the unit’s setup menu.  One function worth noting is the “CD eject” option.  The default is to eject a disc when the unit is powered off, but overriding this is a good idea if the player is behind a cabinet door with limited clearance.

The provided Halo remote facilitates access to common features, many of which apply to the CD 1 only, while the others apply to the Halo JC 2 or P 7 preamplifer.  The remote allows users to select a CD track by number, or by the forward or back buttons.  Fast-forward and fast-reverse are also nice touches, should you want to relive a particularly striking musical passage.  The remote also offers a polarity switcher for phase matching as well as a display dimmer.  While the remote has very accessible and practical functionality, it’s very utilitarian and made of a light, somewhat flimsy-feeling plastic.  For a unit of this build quality and price point, I’d prefer to see a more elegant metal remote.

Ours a [CD] I held tightly

Connecting the unit is simple and flexible.  The CD 1 offers both RCA and balanced XLR analog outputs, as well as three digital output options—BNC, coax and optical—for those who might want to use it as a transport.  The Halo’s software takes 20 seconds to load before it’s ready to play a disc.  When the desire for a music fix strikes, this boot-up time feels much longer.

The CD 1 is a slot-loading player, and discs require a fair amount of pushing before the player decides to accept them.  When about an inch of the disc remains outside the player, the CD is sucked in with startling grip and speed.  Once the CD disappears, the player ponders for 10 seconds while evaluating the disc’s contents, and then plays the first track automatically—giving you just enough time to reach the listening chair and catch the first few notes of the song. While it’s pondering, the CD 1 is actually buffering the first 30 seconds of disc data, helping to reduce the error correction associated with a more traditional CD player.  The end result – a less digital, less fatiguing sound.

As I sit down for my first listen, I notice that the display is too small to see any information from my listening position.  This isn’t too much of an issue if you’re familiar with the disc being played, but if you’re not so familiar with the material you might need to use binoculars, or wait for the chorus, to determine which track you are hearing.

Warmer than May Her Tender Sighs

Any quibbles with the user experience quickly fade from mind once this player starts singing.  For analog playback, the Parasound offers a toggled choice of discrete or op-amp analog outputs.  In the discrete setting, the sound is produced from the transistor output stage.  In the op-amp setting, the signal is sent directly from the op-amp output stage.  The different options impart subtle changes to the overall sonic signature.  While the settings are similar, the op-amp setting lends a bit warmer feel, with a slightly more relaxed presentation; the discrete setting offers a bit more perceived detail, but on poor recordings this sonic edge proves more obvious.  Experimentation for your own preference on each disc is encouraged and there is no right answer, so it’s great to have both options.

Music from this player sounds smooth and natural, with all the nuance and subtlety one could hope to coax from a CD.  Bass, mids and highs complement each other wonderfully, and no particular region of the audio spectrum appears to stand out from the others.

I seek out my best CD source material to put the CD 1 though its paces, and Mobile Fidelity recordings prove a great starting point for evaluation.  It’s exciting to experience the player’s portrayal of Beck’s Sea Change on the MoFi disc.  The triangle strike in “Lonesome Tears” offers a beautiful, natural-sounding ring and very long decay rivaling the best I’ve experienced.  Beck’s vocals are equally beguiling as the lyrics and emotion spill from his voice.  The Parasound does a stupendous job of layering front-to-back musical elements, even when they may overlap in the perceived left-to-right stereo image.

During “On the Run,” from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (MoFi), it’s easy to pick out a man panting and running from right to left, as well as his 90-degree turn to run away from the microphone, thereby fading into the background.  “Us and Them” offers a similar experience, as gentle echoes pan and spiral around the perceived source of David Gilmour’s vocals in the center.

Madonna’s “Candy Perfume Girl” starts with a synthesized, pinpoint sound bouncing left and right.  The CD 1 manages to put that element in front of the speakers, rather than being recessed between or behind them.  I have not experienced this effect to the same degree with very many pieces of equipment.

“Song for Olabi,” from Quiet Letters by Bliss, combines vocals with drums, shakers, rain sticks, flutes and synthesized notes.   Not only does the CD 1 present these instruments with sound that is surprisingly organic, but it also places them on the stage so that a front-row listener can both hear the instrument and visualize it.  I find myself looking for a musician “behind” the person at the front of the stage holding the shaker.  While many pieces of audio equipment tend to blur and compress sonic elements together into a more two-dimensional space, the CD 1 stitches together all the subtle sonic queues in a recording to extend and separate the musical experience into three dimensions.

On Dirty Martini’s “House on Fire,” the CD 1 renders the glockenspiel with more realism than I have heard in a recording.  Okay, there aren’t a lot of songs in my collection that include glockenspiel, but you get my point; the delicacy and decay of the notes sound both lively and lifelike.

Lower quality CDs, like Sisters of Mercy’s First and Last and Always, proves a little bright-edged, as I’d expect, but the Parasound still manages to encourage the vocals to come closer to the front of the soundstage, instead of being recessed within the mix.  The CD 1 does not sugarcoat the CD experience, but it does make the most of the material provided.

As a transport, this player offers equally stellar experiences.  It manages to chisel out each and every digital bit on the CD before sending it to an outboard DAC.  Several experiments confirm the capability of the DAC within the CD 1, proving itself competitive with my reference digital processing gear in many ways, though the musical presentation is not quite as wide with the CD 1.  I find myself wishing the Parasound included a digital input to allow experimentation with its interpretation of other digital sources, like a computer.  But for those needing only CD functionality, this player is sublime.

In My Heart There’ll Always be…a Memory

At $4,500, the Parasound CD 1 is a significant financial commitment for a device that plays only Red Book CDs.  At the same time, the sonic portrayal of music is every bit as good as many transport plus DAC combinations I’ve heard over the years.  The discrete and op-amp settings provide the ability to do some sonic tailoring to match your system—and being able to switch on the fly is a bit like having two CD players in one.  For those in the market for a dedicated CD player in this price range, the Parasound CD 1 offers exceptional sound and a very rewarding musical experience.

Parasound Halo CD 1 Player

MSRP: $4,500



Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Parasound’s JC 3 Phono Preamplifier: Heavy On Heritage

If you aren’t old enough to know about John Curl, suffice it to say that he was responsible for more than a handful of legendary designs and one of the world’s greatest phonostages, the Vendetta Research—a product still held in great esteem by many audiophiles. Don’t believe me? Try and find a used one. I still regret selling mine from the early 90s; it’s like that vintage sports car you always wish you still had. And Curl hasn’t stopped to rest on his accolades, instead continuing to work on interesting designs, many of them available as Parasound products.

Thanks to his association with Parasound, Curl’s designs take advantage of Parasound’s economies of scale. His latest attempt, the JC 3, doesn’t cost as much as it might if it were, say, a boutique product. At $2,350, the JC 3 is by no means an entry-level phonostage. Contrary to the size suggested by the photographs, the actual unit is larger than you might expect and takes up a full shelf on an audio rack.

Opening the case reveals two aluminum boxes, each marked “Single Channel Phono Stage.” The JC 3 does not utilize hand picked FET’s like the original Vendetta, relying instead on op amps.  Those pooh – poohing this approach need look no further than the excellent ASR phono stages for vindication.  Richard Schram of Parasound put it in perspective, “We’ve used the IC’s with other devices in a unique way that Curl developed to maximize their performance, operating more class A with less noise, both measured and subjective.  A Vendetta today would cost over $8,000 if it could be built at all – there are no FET’s made today that are as quiet as the ones used in the original.”

While aural memory is tough to maintain for minutes let alone hours, quietness is the one thing I remember about the Vendetta. (At the time, I was using the legendary Audio Research SP-10 mk.2 preamplifier, which had one of the best phonostages of its day. With vinyl on the way out the door, it seemed pretty wacky to spend almost $2,000 on a phonostage. Yet it made a major difference in my system’s presentation.)

With only three loading options, all from the rear panel, the JC 3 easily integrates into any system. There’s a pair of RCA jacks for a single input and a pair of RCA and XLRs for the output. The front panel sports a power button and a mono button, which will thrill those with more than a few mono records in their collection.

The Sound

Today, $2,000 won’t buy a pair of shoes in some places, so with that thought in mind, the JC 3 is already remarkable. It shares the ultra-quiet presentation of its older sibling as well as an expansive soundscape. And yes, the JC 3’s tidy layout and shielded amplification modules significantly contribute to the final result.

I didn’t start serious listening tests until about 100 hours of signal had passed through the unit. Once the break-in period concluded, I was immediately impressed. Having logged countless hours with the AVID Volvere SP/Triplanar/Denon DL-103R combination (which just happens to sound its best when loaded at 100 ohms) with numerous phono preamplifiers, I had this combination burned in my head. I admit: The Denon is one of those rare cartridges that performs way better than its modest $379 price tag suggests, and when good synergy is achieved, makes for a spectacular sonic marriage.

Another combination with which I had excellent luck was the Shelter 501II mounted on an SME 309 arm, and fitted to the AVID Diva II SP. Thanks to the 47k/high gain setting, the JC 3 also made an excellent showing with my older Grado Statement moving iron cartridge. The latter requires 47k loading, but only has an output of .5mv, like a moving coil cartridge. It’s slightly on the warm side of the tonality scale, but possesses great inner detail, a characteristic that perfectly mated with the JC 3’s speed and low noise.

Since the Denon cartridge is always well suited to classic rock, I loaded up on it like any 70s-loving, meat-eating male should. The drums and plucky acoustic guitars in Dire Straits’ Communiqué literally leapt out of the speakers in a way that I’ve never experienced with a phono preamplifier at this price. Indeed, the Nagra BPS is the only other $2,500 phono preamplifier I’ve experienced with such a level of refinement. Yet its presentation doesn’t possess the JC 3’s size and weight.

The JC 3’s lack of grain also became apparent after a few long listening sessions, and was on par with that of higher-priced phono preamplifiers. On some of my favorite acoustic-based tracks, I noticed an unexpected tonal purity. Groove Note’s The Jung Trio, rapidly becoming a warhorse in the TONEstudio, offers exquisite renditions of violin and piano—deeming it essential for critical listening sessions. The JC 3 passed the test easily, keeping the instruments well separated and sounding as they should.

A quick comparison to two slightly more expensive phono preamplifiers with vacuum tubes under the hood proceeded as I expected, with the ARC PH6 and Red Wine Audio Ginevra (both reviewed in Issue 37) claiming a bit more image depth and palpability. Neither was as dynamic or quiet, yet the battery-powered Ginevra came very close.  The JC3 also had a deeper, more powerful presentation in the lower register. The bass line in Run-D.M.C.’s “Can You Rock it Like This” from King of Rock showed off more grunt than the two tube preamps could muster, offering up the kind of bass I actually felt through the JC 3.

While the JC 3 has “on board power conditioning” that will no doubt aid many users, it nonetheless benefited from an upgraded power cord (a Shunyata Python CX) and being plugged into the Running Springs Dmitri. The effect was palpable, as if going from stock tubes to matched NOS models in a tube preamplifier. So, if you invested in a high-quality power line conditioner, don’t hesitate to plug the JC 3 into it.

Singular in Purpose

The JC 3 offers high performance within a slightly narrow range of parameters. For this writer, that’s a good thing. Another product at this level that comes to mind is the excellent Ayre QB-9 DAC—hardly all things to all people but, for those requiring only a USB input, a superlative DAC for the price. The JC 3 takes a similar approach. Provided you have a cartridge that works well with 100 or 47k loading, the JC3 should check off all of the boxes on your must-have list. Even at the $2,500 level, I’d rather have one input and excellent sound than multiple inputs and functionality with average sound. Your requirements, of course, may be different.

The JC 3 will make a $1,500 turntable/cartridge combination sound much better than it has a right to, yet will keep pace with your favorite $10,000 turntable package— making it a component with which you can really grow. Having both RCA and XLR outputs should help this phonostage survive multiple system upgrades, no matter what direction you choose for your linestage.

If you are already heavily invested in something that requires 500–1000 ohm loading, move on. But if you are willing to first invest in the JC 3 and then find a 100 ohm cartridge that you love, the JC 3 could be the last phono preamplifier that you need—unless you are buying a megabucks analog front end.

High build quality with simple but solid casework from a company you can trust and superlative sound make for excellence in our book. Hence, I am happy to give the Parasound JC 3 a TONEAudio Exceptional Value Award for 2011. Priced under $2,500, the unit is nothing short of a miracle.

Note: Watch for our follow-up article in the coming weeks. One of our staffers still has their Vendetta, and it’s on its way to my office. It will be interesting to compare and contrast the new and the old, with all other variables eliminated.

Parasound JC 3 Phono Preamplifier

MSRP: $2,350

Manufacturer’s info:


Analog source                        AVID Volvere SP turntable w/Triplanar VII arm;  Shelter 501II and Denon 103 cartridges

Preamplifier                          Burmester 011

Power Amplifier                   Burmester 911 mk. 3

Speakers                                 GamuT S9

Cable                                    Shunyata Aurora I/C and Stratos SP

Power                                  Running Springs Dmitri, Maxim and Elgar power conditioners, RSA and Shunyata Power cords

Accessories                        SRA Ohio Class XL platform (under Burmester 911s), Furutech DeMag and Loricraft record cleaning system