If you have the slightest interest in all things audiophile—and given that you're reading this, it's a good bet you do, you will have noticed the steady influx of Chinese made audiophile products to our shores in recent years. One such company is JE Audio, and the JE Audio IS250 Integrated Amplifier is the subject of this review. Founded in Hong Kong in 2007 by John Lam, the company has a strong commitment to audiophile quality products and innovative design with a minimalist approach, meaning that they make serious kit, rather than lifestyle, feature laden, mass produced appliances.
The IS250 is a fully balanced high performance stereo integrated amplifier offering a solid-state power amplifier, a tube preamplifier and a 32-bit DAC.
The power amplifier employs a new topology combining independent voltage and current amplifying stages, optimized individually before being put together to form the power amplifier. In addition, a patented high current buffer amplifier is used. The result is a power section capable of 250 watts per channel into a 4 ohm load. More about this can be learned in a detailed description available in a white paper on the JE Audio website.
The tube preamplifier employs an all tube, pure class A single stage fully balanced design, implemented with four 6922 tubes in a differential cathode follower configuration. No global feedback is used.
The DAC inputs include USB 2.0 signals up to 32-bit 384kHz sampling rate, as well as DSD64 and DSD128 formats and SPDIF up to 24-bit 192kHz sampling rate. There is one SPDIF output up to 24-bit 192kHz. A USB driver is included for PC connection.
There are two sets of balanced analog inputs on XLR and one single ended input pair on RCAs as well as one set of balanced line level outputs and one set of balanced preamplifier outputs. All this is implemented with premium grade parts including very low noise power transformers and precision DC regulated power supplies beautifully constructed and weighing in at 70 pounds.
The front panel features a centrally located motorized volume control and a row of five round buttons for power/standby and input selection. The rear panel features an IEC power input and main power switch in the lower center; all input connections and SPDIF output on the left; the line and pre- outputs to the right of the inputs; and a line of large high quality multiway binding posts at the upper right. Construction and build quality are superb. The unit includes a small remote control made from a solid block of aluminum with six buttons providing Input, Power, Mute, Volume Up, Volume Down controls. The remote control also has a button marked Option which is not currently used.
Being an integrated design, the IS250 didn't lend itself to inclusion in my big rig, all separates, reference system. I decided, therefore, to use it in what I think will be the more likely scenario for a product of this type. I have a small system in a spare bedroom used primarily for video and movie viewing, and here, I connected the IS250 to an Oppo BDP103 disc player and Newform Research R8-2 loudspeakers. The R8-2 utilizes a 30 inch ribbon driver coupled to a sealed box alignment with two 8 inch bass drivers. Later in the review process I did put the IS250 in my main system, where it was used only as a preamplifier and DAC so it could be compared to another DAC I had on hand.
In my small video setup the IS250 settled right in. During dialog it drew no attention to itself, neither adding nor subtracting anything. Speech articulation was excellent. Then, when soundtrack info kicked in, the result was delightful. The IS250 did a superb job not only with blockbuster soundtracks like The Lord of the Rings, but also provided very pleasant surprises in unexpected places. The soundtrack to the recent The Man From UNCLE is a good example. The IS250 had a knack for finding the heart of the music and inviting you along for the ride, and it was always a fun ride.
Unlike some tube products, there wasn't an excess of romance. Now, when I say romance, I'm not taking about wooing your sweetheart with a bottle of Chianti and a Yani CD. I'm referring to the added warmth that, at its worst, makes even the Sex Pistols sound warm and fuzzy. The IS250 was definitely at the other end of the warmth equation; the end with dimensionality and good harmonic saturation, but with no detail obscured.
The Newform Research speakers in the system have never sounded this good. Bass articulation and flow were always just right, never bloated, never anemic. Bass clarity was consistently good. Midrange and treble clarity no matter the content were completely natural, allowing an excellent window into the recording. The soundstage and imaging were finely balanced, providing useful width and depth when the recording allowed it. The scale and scope of the music were quite good, especially given the limitations of the small room. The Oppo BDP103 is not only a Blu-ray player, but also a DVD-A and SACD player as well, and the IS250 took full advantage of the extra resolution be it on Diana Krall, Ray Charles, or The Doors. I also fed it a few XRCDs with exceptional results.
I connected the Oppo BDP103 via its single ended outputs and via its digital SPDIF output to the built-in DAC. My biggest regret was not being able to use the balanced inputs in this setup. The DAC was noticeably louder than the single ended analog inputs, probably level matched more to the balanced inputs. Both sounded entirely pleasant but, over time, I gravitated to the DAC, which is, by the way, an option. The IS250 can be purchased for $800 less without it, but I'd go for the whole package. It was an outstanding performer at this price point.
The IS250 spent a couple of months in this small system, and I was sad to see it go when it was time to try it in my main system.
The Big Rig
In order to install the IS250 in my main system, I removed my preamplifier and used the balanced preamplifier outputs of the IS250 to drive the system. I was also able to use the balanced analog inputs as well as the DAC, allowing me to compare the built in DAC to external digital devices.
It might be worth mentioning that my first encounter with JE Audio was reviewing their excellent VL 10.1 linestage preamplifier a few years ago. I enjoyed that product so much that I gave it a Reviewer's Choice award. The preamplifier section of the IS250 is not as good as the VL 10.1, which costs more than the IS250 when including the DAC. But at this price point it exceeds expectations. In my main system, its sound was consistent with my earlier description, but I suspect that it performs its best in the context of the integrated unit where it can be ideally matched to the power amp section. Since all the front end components of my main system are off to one side of a large room, I connect from the preamplifier to the active crossovers and amplifiers via a balanced pair of 35 foot interconnects. That's a lot of cable to drive. I did not see a specification for the output impedance of the preamplifier section but, unless it is very low, which is not always the case with tubes, it could impact performance.
Given the caveats above, the IS250 did admirably well in this larger context. For example, playing The Ray Brown Trio – Live At The LOA, Ray's bass was round and resonant as usual. Crowd noises were realistic, giving the sense of the live event. Jeff Hamilton's drum sound, something the VL10.1 excelled at, was well presented by the IS250. Cymbals were crisp but not splashy, grainy or sizzly. Gene Harris' piano sound was well balanced across the range, melodic and engaging.
On another example, Keb' Mo's first album was presented with clean vocals and realistic guitar sound. The National Steel guitar retained its characteristic ringing tone and bass lines were lively and engaging. Again, the IS250 finds its way to the heart of things and draws you in.
I compared the DAC section of the IS250 to my Esoteric universal disc player and to a recent purchase, the Gustard X20, an $800 DAC that has generated a bit of buzz on the internet. It's a bit unfair to compare the $800 DAC section of the IS250 to the $800 Gustard which for the money has to include a case, power supply, display, output stage and more digital input options and, in truth, I did slightly prefer the IS250 DAC sound to the Gustard X20. The IS250 DAC had a more balanced, even handed sound across the spectrum, whereas the X20 sounded slightly more forward, dynamic and technicolor by comparison. I still preferred my Esoteric player to either but, again, there is a big difference in price.
My only real criticism of the IS250 could be easily solved with small changes to the owner's manual. The controls on the front panel and the remote are all push and release, except the power button which must be held down until you hear a relay click. This caused some minor confusion upon first using the unit, and might be worth a mention in the 'power on' description in the manual.
I enjoyed the IS250 tremendously. You would be hard pressed to find a better value at this price point. The IS250 could be the core of a nice sounding small system and its line level outputs would easily accommodate a subwoofer or two. I also find that the JE Audio design aesthetic aligns well with my own. I am a big fan of fully balanced designs and see it as smart to use tubes and solid state. combining the magic of both in a superbly built product. This is another real winner for JE Audio.
IS250 Integrated Amplifier