Juicy Music BlueBerry Xtreme Pre-amplifier
Direct Purchase: $2,095 for the BlueBerry Xtreme II with Remote
Purchase options: Low Output Moving Coil Cream option: $495 Wood Case: $195
The Designer and Manufacturer of the BlueBerry Xtreme is Mark Deneen of Juicy Music. Mark has returned to us after a career in the Computer Industry. I say returned because back in the mid 70’s Mark owned Paragon Audio, which produced a very fine tube-based power amp, the Paragon 12A. After semi-retiring, Mark wanted to get back into audio and came up with the JuicyMusic plan to own a “true, old-fashioned, craft-based business, recalling the principles and traditions of craft and craftsmanship before the era of corporatism”. Beginning in 2003 and shipping the first BlueBerry in 2004, Mark is back in the tube amplifier business. Juicy Music has a current product line that includes the BlueBerry Xtreme, pCAT Class A Triode mono blocks, Tercel Phono Preamp Kit, Merlin Line Stage Preamplifier and the Peach Dual Mode Line Preamplifier.
If you have gotten past the need to impress your friends with the appearance and price of your latest audio purchase, read on. If value to performance ration is important, you definitely want to read this. If flash is more important that either of those, this probably isn't your ideal preamp. Offering a full function, all tube Pre-amp that includes a Phono stage is an indicator of the Juicy philosophy. Mark describes engineering as “the art of determining compromises which allow you to reach your goal” and the BlueBerry exemplifies that way of thinking. Its fine with him if everyone doesn’t “get it” he will happily produce high quality, high value products for whatever following develops.
Everyone would like to have great sound at a low price. I’m no different, but it is rare when I get what I want; I usually make the common compromise of budget vs. sonics vs. wow factor in that order. The "low wow factor" has led to own some fine products such as Vandersteen 2cs, Audio Research SP-9, Dynaco ST-400 (the kit, many moons ago), AR XA table and VTL Compact 100s. All these products represented excellent value in terms of build quality and the ability to reproduce music. Most do not elicit awe upon viewing. The Juicy BlueBerry Xtreme (BBX) is this kind of component, knowingly designed and built with performance taking priority.
The Xtreme designation is the third iteration of the BlueBerry design succeeding the Mark II. The BBX utilizes Class A Triode operation with an open loop or zero feedback design. The manual states “As with any open loop circuit there are advantages in sound quality, which are at odds with “standardized” measured specifications.” It goes on to state, “However, careful listening has determined that open loop designs have a considerable sonic advantage over NFB [Negative Feedback] designs in the areas of openness, lifelike reproduction and spatial preservation.” This should give you an idea of where Mark is coming from with this Pre-amp. I’ll say right away that the BBX is true to its design goals, having an open, smooth sound of the sort for which triodes are justly famous. I have had a few pre-amps in the same price range in my system and recently one much more costly set up (Audio Research Reference Three and Steelhead). The more expensive rig did deliver more air and dynamic snap, and it was also more revealing of the shortcomings of my system. I was happy to have the chance to have such fine equipment in my system and really enjoyed the experience, but I don’t miss it when listening to music through the BlueBerry.
The Blueberry in black with the Juicy pCAT monoblock power amp ($3,495/pr)
If it looks as though the front panel controls are clustered together toward its center, they are. This is by design as the controls are mounted to minimize the signal paths and reduce the labor required to assemble the units. The time required to build a Juicy component is something Mark is well aware of, partly because additional labor time equals higher costs and prices, and also because Mark builds every unit by hand and it is his time!
On the topic of controls, the BBX front panel contains a power switch, the stand-by and play switch which allows you to keep the unit ready to play without wasting energy and shortening tube life unnecessarily, a source selector dial offering 2 phono inputs (one MM and one MC with the Cream option, two MM without) and four line level inputs, a source / tape switch (the selected source is always routed to Tape Out) and a Stereo / Mono selector. Additionally, at the center of the panel is a Volume Control (motorized for the remote, but hand adjustable as well) flanked by a gain control for each channel. This arrangement offers the ability to balance channel levels and set appropriate gain for your power amplifier(s).
The remote is generic, very generic. I mentioned this to Mark during our interview and his response was that he could not justify spending more than necessary on any component that did not affect the sound. Six buttons, the four laid out in a diamond shape are functional, controlling volume up and down and mute on and off. My manual had the mute buttons shown as reversed, which took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out (my review sample was the first off the “line” with a remote and may have been wired incorrectly, MD will assure it is not an ongoing issue). The remote works fine although it took a little practice to get my thumb in sync with the volume buttons which operate a motor driven potentiometer in the pre-amp. The mute creates a microphonic ping when actuated or disengaged. Mark tells me this is an artifact of his zero feedback circuit design, I got used to it quickly.
There is no mute function on the front panel, other than the Stand-by mode which results in a 45 second delay making it unusable when changing records and such, so I always had to keep the remote at hand to mute and un-mute the system.
A departure from other pre-amps I have experienced is the direct mounting of the RCA inputs to the circuit board. The chassis of the BBX has an opening along the back panel through which the board is visible and the RCA's protrude. This is consistent with the design parameter of short signal paths and reduced cost of production.
I experienced one minor glitch with the BBX during its stay with me. One morning I turned it on and let it warm up for several minutes and then cued up a record and thumbed the un-mute. A high frequency oscillation started building through the speakers and I flipped back into mute right away. It turned out the 12AT7 in the phono section was the cause and replacing it resolved the problem.
I did almost all my listening through the phono section with the exception of a lot of break time using my iPod as a source. This was mostly for speakers under review, as Mark tells me the BBX requires very little burn in time beyond what is done at the factory, stating “beyond that any changes in sonic attribution are very slight and subject to high skepticism”. He also says the unit should be up to full performance in about 60 minutes from full off and 5 minutes from stand-by mode. I have to say I felt the sound of my unit did improve after a couple of weeks of use, but it could be that it was just growing on me.
The BlueBerry produced tight, deep and controlled bass through my system. With the right source material and speakers the high frequencies were produced with impact and clarity. Vocals very clearly reflected their origins, with mic’ing and mixing techniques readily apparent. On a minimalist recording like Cowboy Junkies Trinity Sessions, vocals had presence and could be palpable at times.
I was able to audition the BBX with tube (VTL DeLuxe 120) and solid state (Parasound JC-1) power amps. Inserting the VTL’s resulted in an all tube amplifier package, but did not create anything you might identify as romantic or soft. I played this combination through a variety of speakers (Von Schweikert VR-6s, Vandersteen 3s, Zen Adagio Jr’s, Bolzano Villitre BG780s) listening to mostly rock and some jazz and classical. At no time did the result say “Hey, you are listening to tubes!” To the contrary, this set up resulted in some of the most satisfying listening my system has ever produced, especially using the BG 780s and Adagio Jrs. The BBX delivered dynamic contrasts and slam that were impressive. Mark’s zero feedback Class A design delivers sonics that my listening notes describe as “fast and powerful” and demonstrating “great texture and speed”. Extended listening through the JC-1 / Adagio Jr. combination left me even more impressed than my earlier sessions.
Mark’s design goals for the BBX include clarity and transparency, musicality and naturalness, and a spatially realistic presentation. With regard to clarity and transparency, the BBX could not compete with the very best I have heard in my system, but you won’t have much to complain about. If you want better, go spend more, quite a bit more. I feel that musicality and naturalness is the strong suit of this design. Combined with the Adagio Jrs. and the VTLs, the music felt less hi-fi and more involving than any combination I can recall. This was consistent when the JC-1s were in the system as well. A spatially realistic presentation is an apt description for what I heard in my room on a broad range of recordings. Playing through the omni-directional Bolzano Velitri BG 780s the soundstage was huge, and didn’t fade or get fuzzy at the extremes. The Adagios presented a less voluminous space, but one with perhaps a bit more focus and a sense of more density to the sound.
Mark sez, “Every product we sell is the vision and output of a single person - the owner. We sell these limited production products direct to the customer, and provide the informed, direct, and responsible service everyone expects, but rarely encounters. The phone number listed on this web site is a cell phone clipped to my belt. Service doesn't get any more direct than that.”
You have got to love that.
Of course, all Jucies are made in the US of A in Humboldt County, CA.
Make no mistake; this is not a “bargain” pre-amp. The guts in this thing contain the same components and design features found on much more expensive gear. I already mentioned the zero feedback Class A design. You also get a tube rectified power supply and a bunch of very pricey AuriCap capacitors. The front panel may not win awards for beauty and engineering, but the controls behind it are carefully selected, high quality pieces. Your friends will see a plain looking faceplate with a funny sounding name on it, they will probably not be impressed. They may not even ask how much it cost. But you won’t care because you really are here for the music, you are not a slave to audio fashion and you have chosen function over form!
Look for a new entry-level Line Pre-amp kit and an improved, easier to assemble phono stage kit from Juicy in the near future, as well as an assembled Integrated Amp.