Review: Joule Electra Marianne Electra Memorial Edition Tube preamp

Category: Preamps

I've been looking for a tube preamp to complement my Spectron mono-blocks for over a year. My top choices were the BAT REX, Audio Research Ref 3 and Conrad-Johnson ACT2. That was until I found out that Jud Barber at Joule Electra was developing a top-notch preamp. The Marianne Electra Memorial Edition preamp was developed in honor of the memory of Marianne Barber, who sadly passed away in 2007.

The Marianne Electra Memorial Edition preamp is based on the LA-150 MkII circuit. However, its signal path is coupled with Mundorf Gold/Silver/Oil and V caps Oil and Teflon capacitors. Internal signal wiring is designed specifically for this preamp by David Elrod of Elrod Power System. The gain stage is DC-biased with a pair of small batteries. Resistors are Vishay. The remote control offers volume and balance controls.

The power supply is fully dual mono with tube regulation (6EM7, dual triode) and 1200 mf of capacitance for each channel. Also the B+ voltage is supplied to the top 6350 (one for each channel) which acts as a constant current source. Thus the B+Source is fully decoupled from the signal path. My particular unit is the Marianne Electra Memorial Edition, 150ME , differing slightly from the 300ME  in the power supply and in the output stage. I  plan to upgrade it to full 300ME soon and then I will provide a follow up.

The first thing that hit me was how quiet this preamp was. I first turned it on and, with no signal passing through, I then turned the volume all the way up. There was no noise whatsoever with my ears up against the speakers. I thought something was wrong so I played some music and this preamp is simply utterly dead quiet. I just can't understand how a preamp that connects directly to the electrical grid and has tubes inside can be more quiet than a passive unit. My guess is that the gain stage being DC-biased by the small batteries has a lot to do with this golden silence . With this preamp, music does not come from a black background but from a black-hole. The sound explodes and decays with absolute and uncanny control.

Another lasting impression is how fast the sound is. I'll try to explain this using a cube and a teardrop object as a reference. To my ears, many audio devices that sound fast sound like a cube going fast. This means that the cube can go as fast as the teardrop object, but the cube does so with lots of artifacts around it. The tear drop object is fast and smooth at the same time with no artifacts. With the Marianne Electra Memorial Edition, sound comes out with the same smoothness and speed as a teardrop object effortlessly cutting through the wind. This preamp simply sounds as if there is little or no effort while processing the audio signal.

The most impressive aspect of this preamp's performance is how it defines a different form and space for each instrument. In the case of a drum for instance, this form and space changes according to the place the musician hits the drum. Whether it is at the center or toward the edge, it is easy to tell. This is something very easy to perceive from live music, but it easily gets lost in reproduced music. With live music, it is not difficult tell the form of each sound and the shape of the spaces formed in between instruments. This has a lot to do with the fact that most instruments are three-dimensional objects and that they tend to emanate sound in all directions. There is also to take into account the speed at which the sound waves propagate and decay. I became aware of these sound propagation characteristics after I first read The Film Sense by Sergei Eisenstein more than two decades ago.

In a live musical performance, it's practically impossible to disassociate the musician from the performance. In reproduced music, at times is sounds like a machine is producing the music. The Marianne Electra Memorial Edition preamp is capable of exhibiting all the nuances that make it to the recording. The fingers hitting the valves of a trumpet, the breathing of a singer while singing, the sound of the wake created by a hand hitting the drums, these are the nuances that make live music sound the way it does. I get to hear all these details through the The Marianne Electra Memorial Edition preamp. All these are qualities that are not easily associated with reproduced music, but they are just so easy to perceive from a live performance. The Marianne Electra Memorial Edition preamp presents music with all the good qualities of live music and without any of the artifacts of reproduced music.

I am absolutely stunned by the fact that this preamp can faithfully recreate the sound qualities of a live musical performance. I've been an audiophile since I was 7 or 8 years old. I grew up being exposed to live music on a regular basis and I still go to live performances a few times a month. I never thought it was possible for an audio gear to convey the soul and emotion of a live musical performance.   When I listen to a good recording, it really feels and sounds like live music. On a more esoteric note, with the Marianne Electra Memorial Edition preamp, it also feels like I'm listening to the mind of a genius.

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Ag insider logo xs@2xisanchez
"...I don't ever remember going to a live performance and thinking if the highs are smooth or not, or if the bass is tight, etc...."

Hi iSancez, Actually I do it time-to-time. Just do it as "funny" experiment. Go to live concert and close your eyes and imagine that you attend audition of new "stereo" system (or 5.1 it 7.1 ..) in your freind's house.

Every time when I do it I am shocked by three things.
a) Transerency of this stereo system. There is nothing bettween me and soundstage. No electronic noise what so ever. Very clean, very, very clean
b) Texture - this stereo represnt music as sweet sound sometimers more sweet (e.g. Kimmel Center in Philly) sometimes less sweet (Academy of Music in Philly - but with what a detail this hall produces !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!).
Texture is exactly as I remember listening live instrument
c) Dynamic range - In no other system I did experience THIS dynamic range, this depth of the bass, this tightness of the bass, this viceral furious creshrendo

Later on I go home to my own stereo system and I am trying to if not re-create then approach what I heard a few hours ago. I experiment with this and with that. Sometimes very frustrating sometimes (raraely) immesnely rewarding.

Very useful if you can place recording of the same piece, some orchestra, same consuctor, same hall you hears live a few hours ago. Usually you can find more then one criteria i.e. the same piece and same orchestra....

It is my absolutely clearest colnclusion that the best component which is the closest to live music is Joule-Electra LA-300ME preamp. PERIOD and nothing comes even close

Thank you
LA-300ME just now got Harry Pearson "2010 HP Editor Choice Award" (TAS, issue March 2010)for being "most romantic" ...yet without euphonic coloration.

I love this preamp, really bring to into the music, "grabs" you and do not let you go... The BEST I ever owned.

I have owned the LA-300ME for about 5 months and it certainly has tansformed my system. I agree with all of the other posts. I enjoyed the LA-300ME when I first inserted it in my system but it wasn't until a few months later maybe around 700 - 800 hours I suddenly realized as Dob says "grabs you and does not let go." Great preamp!

The Marianne Electra 300ME preamp has no ceased to amaze me since being upgraded from the 150ME. The upgraded power supply in the output stage seems to have improved an already excellent preamp. I'm still impressed by the fact that with everything turned on and the volume all the way up, there is no sound whatsoever from the speaker drivers, including the tweeter. Only when I put my ear totally against the tweeter, I hear the faintest sign that the unit is actually turned on. This seems to be like a minor upgraded, but it has yielded a kind of Butterfly effect on how the sound was improved.

The 300ME is more transparent and refined than the 150ME. Both units produce life-like sound, but it's just that the upgraded unit has more control over the position, space, attack and decay of the instruments. Not all life performances are the same. A lesser quality musical instrument will not yield the same sound than a higher quality one performed by the same musician. They both sound real of course, but the better instrument is always more consistent throughout the sonic spectrum. This same phenomenon applies to audio electronics. The same electrical circuit with low grade components will not produce the sound refinement that can be achieved with higher grade components. In the case of the 300ME, this sound refinement is quite apparent from the first note. The sound is simply as relax as I've ever heard, from either life or recorded performance.

Since I'm so naturally aquatinted with life music, my goal has been to acquire audio gear that, when introduced into the audio chain, completely disappears. I certainly don't enjoy much listening to a piece of wire, amp, turntable, etc. I want to just listen to the music. Over the years, I've listened to some amazing audio gear, but they always remind me that I'm listening to the sound throughout some piece of electronic gear. The 300ME preamp completely disappears from the audio chain and presents a sound experience only comparable to the best of life performances.

I have some classical musician friends that have a few recordings of their own. I've attended most of their local performances and I can attest that their recorded music played through my system is sometimes more engaging and emotional than some of their life performances. This is how good the 300ME is. It really gets out of the way and just transfer all that was recorded. Emotion is something that is difficult to transfer via sound reproduction. And this is what the 300ME does so well. It totally engages you with all aspects of the performance.

A few months ago I built a recording studio consisting mainly of Neumann TLM 49 Large Diaphragm Cardioid
Condenser microphone, Millennia STT-1 Twin Topology channel strip (preamp, EQ and compressor have SS and Tube switchable stages each) and Apogee Duet Digital Interface. I chose these particular pieces of recording gear because they presented my own spoken voice in the most natural way. I record my voice with just the tinniest bit of EQ and compression, just to compensate for room acoustics. When I played these recordings in my own system, I'm totally blown away by how accurate the pitch is, which by the way makes it for quite a spooky experience. For me, this is the ultimate test to find out if a piece of electronic can actual sound "organic".

I've heard many systems that sound "fast". Well, life performances aren't "fast" or "slow". In some ways, life music is a presentation of instrument and musician becoming one. The 300ME is fast just in the context of achieving the right sound speed, and without the intent to present a fast "hi-fi" sound. I've heard many "fast" systems actually sounding as if each note has been truncated. In these systems, everything about the musical presentation if fast, which essentially translates into musical notes with no decays. This way of presenting music can be impressive, but it never sounds natural or organic to my ears. When I hear music via the 300ME, it totally sounds natural. Bass notes have the attack and decay that real bass notes have, no less no more. Bass is potent of sublet when is required. The mid-tones are to die for. There is this sense that what is producing the sound are actual lungs pushing air via the vocal cords, not an electrical signal passing by. The highs are as clean was it was recorded. The overall tonality is just very life-like.

After all this, I think this is truly a masterpiece. For me, having the Marianne Electra 300ME is like owning a fine musical instrument you can never grow tired of listening to. Every masterpiece in art is surrounded by very specific circumstances. I feel that whatever drove Jud Barber to produce such refined preamp is simply unique and I, in my opinion, simply cannot be replicated by another designer.
How many steps does the volume control have, and what is the gradation between steps (if you know or can judge subjectively)? Thanks.