The Jadis System: A Load of Orchestras

When a company’s catalogue includes – typically – a £16,000 pre-amp and a £9000 CD player, well…is it any surprise that the brand is perceived as ‘expensive’? Jadis, the legendary French valvistes, have been fighting this image, the past few years seeing prices creep ever downward.

Whether it’s a response to their home market for high-end – so flat that it’s nearing the concave – or to a global trend, the company has issued its ultimate nod to the impoverished: The Orchestra System. And it even features the endearing detail of identical pricing for the its three constituents: an integrated amplifier, a CD player and a pair of speakers at £1099 per. Or, unbelievably, a complete Jadis system for £3297.

Equally endearing is the decision to name them, simply, the Orchestra Integrated Amplifier, the Orchestra CD Player and Orchestra Speakers. It’s matter-of-fact, it avoids the usual pitfall of companies from non-English-speaking territories embarrassing themselves with bizarre model names like Glowy or ProFeel, it’s crystal-clear and it’s probably Parisian-chic.

Remember: the Orchestra products come from a country with a capital city which once boasted an ultra-hip watering hole known simply as Le Bar. But the general feel is – ironically – British because of the minimalism and the overall concept.

At the heart of the Orchestra system is a all-valve integrated amplifier which, on its own, could have been sold for the £3k ticket in the days when high-end manufacturers didn’t have to worry about a dearth of wealthy clients. Measuring a non-inconsiderable 530x270x200mm (WDH), it looks classically Jadis, with its gold front panel, loads of chrome and wooden end-cheeks. Another nice touch, since they’re exposed, are finely-finished black covers on the mains and output transformers. The only tacky touch is the quartet of exposed capacitors, next to the caged valves. Perhaps Jadis could extend the cage by four inches?

Five line inputs are provided, and the front panel controls deal with source select, volume and balance. Another tip for Jadis: make the volume control, which has been placed in the middle, a bit larger. More than once I went to alter the volume and ended up swinging the balance. At the extreme left is a seriously robust on/off toggle, accompanied by a green lamp to indicate power on.

Around the back are multi-way binding posts, gold-plated phono connectors for all sources plus tape, an AC fuse holder and a captive mains lead. The unit arrives with the valves packed separately, so you’ll have to remove the cage, fit the valves and then replace it. But note that the thing weighs 20kg, so expect to exert some effort.

Rated at 40W/ch, courtesy of four EL34 output tubes and two ECC83s in the pre-amp section, the Orchestra drives all manner of speakers from 4-8 ohms without complaint. The rating itself doesn’t tell the customer that the El34 is a plucky little number, capable of all sorts of feats of strength. In the context of the Jadis system, it hardly works up a sweat because the speakers are a breeze to drive. OK, so 90dB/1W ain’t the highest sensitivity on offer, but these speakers seem to open up with the ease of a Pigalle hooker.

Measuring a substantial 520x275x220mm (HDW), the Orchestra Speakers work best on 18in stands. Nicely finished in walnut, they contain a 6.5in woofer (with nipple-like centre-plug) at the top, a 1in soft-dome tweeter below it and a large port below the tweeter. Although this would suggest the possibility for near-wall positioning without compromising the port, they do sound best placed well into the room, by at least a meter, and with a fair bit of toe-in. The veneered cabinet is made from 19mm high-density MDF, and it sports a cloth grille on a rigid wooden frame, sculpted to surround the drivers and port without interference.

At the back are gold-plated terminals, but a single pair only; bi-wiring addicts need not apply. The crossover operates at 3.5kHz, with a slope of 12dB/octave. Frequency response is said to be 48-20kHz and the impedance is generously spec’d at 4-8 ohms. The only thing which puzzles me is why the woofers made my fingers turn black when I touched them to determine the material.

Lastly, there’s the CD player, a large beast measuring 455x95x370mm (WHD), chrome cabineted and with wooden end-cheeks. A Bitstream player, it features the full complement of programming facilities, remote control, silky-smooth operation and – possibly to appease the purist – coaxial-only digital output. The front panel contains press buttons for only on/off, open/close, stop, pause, play and scan, while the remote handles the subsidiary operations via a numeric keypad, as well as shuffle, repeat and – blessedly – volume control as per the Marantzes.

Admittedly, the best sound came from the player with the volume set at one mark from maximum, so I did my listening with it that way and used the amplifier’s volume control, but the option of using the remote for volume control does come in handy.

Now, a brief interlude about styling and perceived value. On their own, each Jadis Orchestra component suggests a bargain purchase just by virtue of weight and size alone. Furthermore, the build quality is something which inspires confidence, and I soon forgot all of those tales of Jadis amps of yore, which often behaved as though they were positioned under Joan of Arc. But I have to say that this is the ugliest melange I’ve seen in years, the baffling thing being that it’s a one-make system; I’ve seen mix’n’match set-ups using five brands which offer greater visual harmony.

At the risk of appearing as if I hate the Fro-, er, French, I cannot resist pointing out that it is a nation which thinks it’s the most stylish on earth, when everyone else knows that title belongs to Italy. The French gave the world the 2CV and are stuck, heh, heh, with the ludicrous Pompidou Centre (a rare case of the British finally getting one up on ’em). Whatever, the facts are as follows:

The amp has a matte-gold front panel. The CD Player? Gloss black. The CD player shares no dimensions with the integrated – not height, not depth, not width. Even Linn learned that lesson long ago. None of the woods match those on the other components; the speakers, the CD player and amp appear to have been trimmed by someone eligible for colour-blindness disability payments. And how do you make a conventional box speaker ugly? Simple: add a glossy stick-on badge below the grille, the size of a playing card and bearing script in a font too boring and elderly to come free with even a bundled word-processor.

Why do I belabour the point, beyond my obvious delight in insulting the French? Because it detracts from what still remains one of the niftiest bargains yet presented to the high-end novitiate. Quite simply, the Orchestra system illustrates in spades why a single-make system often has an edge over a mish-mash of brands. I suppose the sheer ugliness is the sacrifice you make for the price saving. And believe me, there’s no obvious cost-cutting anywhere.

Although I tried each component on its own because plenty of customers for Orchestra kit will have existing systems and may only require one component, my main concern was with the system as a whole. Individually, though, the amp is a robust performer – definitely the star of the Orchestra range – and it has the grunt and spirit of a Radford ST25.

It’s nowhere near as polite or refined, and it’s far more in-your-face, but it shares the warmth and robustness. Quite simply, it’s one of the new valve amplifiers unafraid of promoting vintage values, without going the gutless, single-ended route and without throwing away low-end control, transparency or detail for, say, a 300B’s midband excesses.

The CD player, like many Bitstream units, trades digital edginess for a different kind of coarseness, but the sound is, like that of the amp, musical as hell despite being unrefined. If anything, the CD player emulates a variety of vinyl playback sound which was exemplified by suspensionless British turntables, Japanese S-shaped tonearms and cheap high-output m-cs. Great for rock’n’roll, but please spare Frank, Ella, Dino and Nat.

The speakers? You’d be forgiven for thinking that they were horns because they place excitement above all other virtues. But the tube amplification keeps them from turning rowdy, and the CD player pulls the sound out of your lap and back in line with the speakers themselves.

To discover this mix of virtues, I had to commit all manner of atrocities, like using a budget solid-state integrated amp with the Orchestra speakers to access their potential for shouting and feeding the digital output of the CD player into a Theta Chroma, a Musical Fidelity X-DAC and a Theta Pro Gen Va to expose its rawness.

But put it all together and, like escargot or steak tartare, it’s worse on paper than in practice. Whatever the prestidigitation, whatever feats of juggling were required to force each component to accent, enhance, complement or compensate for the others, it really does work. But it is very much a specific type of sound, as much as are big solid-state amps plus huge dynamic speakers, or electrostatics with valves, or horns driven by 300Bs. (You don’t think that the S.E.T. crowd uses horns just because they’re sensitive, do you? Hell, no: shouty horns can add a bit of life to reticent amps.)

Provided you position the speakers with care – and you should use Sonus Faber-like toe-in, with the baffles aimed at the listening seat – the Orchestra produces a wide and deep soundstage reminiscent of the system’s name, with a large arc at the back, fanning out across the room. This is a big-sounding system, with clearly discernible image height and a spread beyond the edges of the speakers.

If you insist on having the speakers fire directly into the room, the price you’ll pay for acknowledging the B.W.F.H. will be a reduction in the front-to-back dimension, but with a slight increase in stage width. And you really don’t need any more of the latter.

But back to the matter of the system’s penchant for brashness: it’s all a matter of degrees. I found that the system responds beautifully to tweaks including changing cables, positioning flux dumpers on top of the transformers, placing the amp of special feet, ad infinitum.

It was possible to refine nearly everything, including a slightly lispy sibilance and a tubbiness in the bass, with a recipe including Discovery’s ‘purple’ interconnects, A.R.T. speaker wire (the stuff which looks like it came off a steam iron), Sorbothane feet under the amp and ceramic cones beneath the CD player, and Foundation stands under the speakers. OK, so the latter were taller than you’d prefer, but the positioning of the woofer above the tweeter makes it just about allowable.

What that tells you is not that the Jadis package needs all sorts of band-aids; just about every system benefits by degrees from such housekeeping. Rather, it shows that the Jadis package is aimed at audiophiles prepared to harness its capabilities. At it’s worth the experimenting, because – despite its sheer ugliness – the Orchestra system is a whole lot of fun. It’s never less than ‘interesting’ even when cold. Let it warm up for a least an hour, and the system conveys emotion, rhythm and, yes, even joie de vivre.

But I suspect the biggest smiles it will elicit are those on the faces of Jadis wannabees who, up until recently, were excluded because of the unconscionably high tariffs. What’s most remarkable of all is that the savings have little or nothing to do with a strong pound/weak franc. Quite simply, Jadis struck on a way to give us a whole lot of sound for the money. Without sacrificing one iota of ‘Jadisness’.

© Ken Kessler 1998