Tube amplifiers sound different, and in many ways better than solid-state amps. Describing what better sound sounds like is a highly subjective call. But you can't argue the fact that tubes are still being manufactured, legions of guitarists use tube amplifiers, and a fair number of audiophiles crave tube sound. The catch? Tube designs are more expensive to build and sell than solid-state components.
The Jolida FX10 tube amp ($450) breaks that rule and sells for less than your average mid-price receiver. Jolida was founded in 1995, and has been a budget audiophile favorite right from the beginning. One of my closest audiophile pals bought an early Jolida amp, and he still uses it on a daily basis. So in terms of value, the FX10 will likely be a better long-term investment than most receivers (I get e-mails every week from people asking about dumping their five- or six -year-old receivers).
The FX10 is prettier than Jolida's old designs. Blue LEDs light up the Russian-made EL-84 power tubes and 12AX7 small signal tubes in the glass case, so the FX10 looks especially cool at night. The brushed aluminum chassis and safety glass tube cover are a big step up from what you find on similarly priced receivers. My sample was finished in sky blue, but the FX10 is also available in silver or black. Build quality feels substantial, and the solid-metal, gold-plated speaker wire connectors are a good indication of that. There are two RCA inputs on the rear panel and a 3.5mm input upfront.
The amp comes with a remote control and an iPod hookup cable. The 12-pound unit measures a trim 8x7x7 inches; so it's small enough to fit on a desktop.
The FX10 is a 10-watt-per-channel stereo amp, but don't worry, it can play pretty loud. Bass-heavy reggae music from Ras Mek Peace played nice and loud over my Zu Essence speakers. The little amp wasn't lacking in power or oomph, so yes, 10 watts can drive the right speaker to a remarkably loud volume. Soundstage depth was really good, so each instrument and vocals sounded fully present. This is an extremely well-recorded CD, without dynamic range compression, and the FX10 handled that sort of demanding music without raising a sweat.
Duke Ellington's "Blues in Orbit" SACD had the sort of rich, fully developed tone that I've come to expect from high-end tube amps.
The Zu speakers are extremely efficient (they can play really loud with just a few watts), so I also tried a lower efficiency speaker, my Dynaudio Contour 1.1s. The sound with the Ellington SACD was richer than what I heard from the Zus, but dynamic punch was scaled back somewhat. The full-bodied quality was still there, but the FX10 sells for a fraction of what most tube components go for.
Summing up: the FX10 sounds like a tube amp, so if ultimate accuracy is your goal, buy a solid-state amp. But if you'd like something that brings music to life, and can sweeten the sound of today's hard-edged, massively compressed music, the FX10 is worth a listen. The FX10 would also be a great amp for a stereo home theater system.
The FX series will be expanded in 2011 to include a tube phono preamplifier, a tube headphone amp, and a tube digital-to-analog converter. Prices haven't been set just yet, but each new FX component will be less expensive than the FX10.
Have you owned a Jolida amp? Tell us about it in the Comments section.