When I recently mentioned to a longtime friend that I was reviewing the Conrad-Johnson GAT Series 2 preamplifier, he responded, “Back to your youth!” Well, yes. As it happens, I began my audio odyssey with a Conrad-Johnson PF-2 preamplifier, which now resides in my father’s system and which, by the way, has never once failed to perform over the years. But unlike my old man, who is a cautious soul and only rarely makes upgrades to his system, I’m a more impetuous type. Over the years, I’ve used everything from Audio Research to Convergent Technology to Ypsilon. There was even a phase when I suspended use of a preamp altogether, instead relying on an Audio Aero CD player with volume control, but somehow it never seemed quite as satisfying as having a preamp in the system.
Through all of these audio peregrinations, however, I’ve always retained a warm memory of my CJ days and recall that the founder of this magazine, Harry Pearson, regularly reviewed the company’s new gear with a vigilant eye (and ear). CJ was always legendary for having a very burnished sound. Many years ago, when I was an editor at the New Republic magazine and wrote what was then called a diary about my nascent audio foibles, Lew Johnson was kind enough to invite me to visit the CJ factory in Virginia, and I accepted. When in 2011 my TAS colleague Jonathan Valin reviewed with high praise the first iteration of the GAT along with the ART monoblock amplifiers, my curiosity was more than piqued about the sonic direction the company was taking. Six years have elapsed since then. So after Bill Conrad left a message asking if I might be interested in assessing both the latest version of the GAT and the new TEA1 Series 2 phonostage, I was eager to listen to them.
One thing that will immediately reassure CJ fans: The cosmetics have not changed. In a world of turbulent and constant change, it’s nice to see that a few things are staying the same. The classic champagne-golden faceplates remain de rigueur—as do the tubes: The GAT uses a pair of 6922s; the TEA1 Series 2, three 12AX7s. As near as I can tell, no tube in existence is without its champions and detractors, and once upon a time there was even a nifty magazine for enthusiasts devoted to the glowing glass bottles called Vacuum Tube Valley (I have a full set). The rap on the 6922 is that it is not an audio tube and can sound a little tizzy. By contrast, the 12AX7 is sometimes said to be on the dark side. CJ has in the past flirted with the Russian high-transconductance 6H30 tube, but then there are complaints about that tube sounding a bit hard. As with everything in audio, you can always find something to complain about if you try hard enough, whether it’s wiring, plugs, or tubes.
When it comes to the guts of its new preamp and phonostage, CJ appears to have spared no expense. The company has moved to Teflon capacitors and continues to employ no electrolytic capacitors at all in either the signal path or the power supply. All relays are sealed and have gold-plated silver contacts. The gain is a very robust 25dB—it’s hard for me to imagine anyone needing more than that. The volume control has 100 steps at 0.7dB increments, which means that you can fine-tune sound pressure levels to your heart’s content. One important point: The preamp inverts absolute polarity. The phonostage has high and low input stages, and a number of options for loading settings. Neither unit is dead quiet, but I had to put my ears up to the tweeter of the Wilson XLF loudspeaker to detect any tube rush. That’s perfectly normal and shouldn’t bother anyone not wholly wedded to solid-state equipment.
For all the strides that CJ has made toward a more neutral presentation, the performance of the GAT makes it clear that at its heart the company remains a lover of the tube sound. And the clarity and transparency that audiophiles are so enamored of is also there in abundance. But right from the outset it was clear that what makes the GAT a special preamp is its ability to extract details in a holistic manner. If anything, I often had the impression that the preamp was caressing the notes. The what—the sheer resolution of musical detail—is less important to CJ than the how—recreating a refined and suave performance. I found the GAT to be a ravishing performer capable of revealing the small nuances that deliver a real emotional connection with the music. Its performance is truly mesmerizing.
One of the things that I most admired about the GAT is its ability to unravel complex musical lines. Take Andreas Staier’s recording of the Bach harpsichord concertos with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra on the Harmonia Mundi label. Staier has made a real name for himself as a harpsichord exponent, and the GAT helped more fully realize his performance. On the third movement of the second concerto, for example, the harpsichord and orchestra have often sounded slightly blurred. Not here. The GAT displayed true command over the transient attacks so that it was possible both to locate the harpsichord in relation to the orchestra and to hear just how articulately Staier was playing it. For the most part, I tend to play this kind of music at quite low sound pressure levels to try and emulate what you would hear in an actual concert of baroque music. The GAT’s delicacy and refinement allowed it to render every passage with great precision. If you have relative or perfect pitch, the GAT makes it a breeze to discern the notes. The results are nothing less than exhilarating—less fatigue on the ear, more enjoyment of the music.