It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed a conrad-johnson component, but back in the seventies and eighties I owned as much c-j gear as I did Audio Research. Indeed, there was a time when I wouldn't have dreamed of owning anything but these two marques—and certainly nothing with transistors in it.
But…times change. Nowadays, the best solid-state preamps and amps—like the Technical Brain TBC-Zero EX and TBP-Zero EX, the Soulution 720/700 and, quite possibly, the Spectral, Constellation, and Ypsilon electronics that I heard in Munich—compete with tubes in those timbral, textural, and dimensional areas where glass audio has traditionally reigned supreme, while the best tubes have made inroads into solid-state’s home territory of low noise, high bandwidth, and superior transient speed. It is almost as if the ground on which tubes and transistors have traditionally perched has begun to collapse, and both gain strategies are slowly sinking into the divide that once stood between them.
The way I see it this is a good thing. High fidelity is what we’re after (or at least what I’m after) in a stereo system—and anything that increases transparency to sources by lowering noise, raising resolution, and disappearing as a sound source gets my vote, no matter how it goes about doing it.
Which brings me to conrad-johnson’s latest flagship products—the $20k, Class A-triode GAT linestage preamplifier and the $35k (per pair), 275 watt, push-pull pentode, 6550-based ART monoblock amplifiers.
Before I talk about the sound of either, a confession. In spite of what I said about owning and using c-j gear back in the day, I rather fell out of love with conrad-johnson in the late 80s and early 90s. Unlike ARC preamps and amps, which tended to the light, bright, airy, non-tubey side of neutral (the “high-definition” transistor-like side, if you will) and have progressively moved closer and closer to a colorless mean, vintage conrad-johnson components were anything but colorless. Warm, ripe, forgiving, and famously “golden” brown in timbre, they flouted their old-school tube heritage unmistakably. There are those—HP among them—who have always preferred that tubey c-j warmth and richness and gilded tonal palette to ARC’s leaner, brighter, higher-resolution presentation. All I can say is that, as time passed, I did not. For all its beauty and undeniably lifelike presence (particularly on well-recorded voices), the vintage c-j presentation was, for the most part, not the way music sounded to me in life or on record. Although both ARC and c-j imposed a sonic template on LPs, the fact was I could always hear more of the mix through ARC gear than I could through conrad-johnson and, when that mix was good, more of the sound of the real thing. Despite its comparative leanness of timbre, ARC was just that much more colorless, that much more transparent to sources, that much lower in tubey artifacts and higher in fidelity.
As a result, from the late-90s on I’ve stuck almost exclusively with ARC, and although I did review the c-j ART preamp and a c-j phonostage many moons ago (both of which I liked, in spite of the fact that they still had vestiges of vintage c-j coloration), I have not reviewed anything from the company since.
This was a deliberate choice. I both admire and like Lou Johnson and Bill Conrad, and I didn’t want to put myself (or them) in a situation where I had to call one of their babies ugly. Indeed, I was more than a little leery about reviewing the GAT and the ART, even though I’d heard both sound startlingly lifelike at CES 2011. Secretly, I suspected that, even today, the ripe, gilded, too-gemütlich-for-my-taste c-j sonic template wouldn’t have disappeared completely enough to win me over.
Well, not for the first time or (trust me) the last, I was wrong. I am pleased—and more than a little surprised?--to report that neither the GAT preamp nor the ART amp sound anything like c-j gear of yore. To my ear, save for one area that I’ll come to by and bye, they don’t really sound much like the impressive two-box ART preamp, either, although c-j says they both grew out of the ART circuit.
What do they sound like? Well, that’s a toughie, perhaps best approached by describing what they don’t sound like. First, as noted, they don’t sound at all like vintage conrad-johnson tube gear. There is none of the “golden brown” coloration that tended to make c-j electronics sound the way bronzed baby shoes look, no added aggressiveness in the upper mids, no liquid softness in the top treble, no extra weight or thickness in the mid-to-upper bass, no slight opacity in the midrange proper, no sluggishness on transients, and no blurring of detail at the front of the stage, the sides, or the rear. Second, they don’t sound particularly like ARC tube gear, either, although the differences between the two aren’t as starkly defined at they once were. There is none of the ARC Ref 40 or 610T’s slight forwardness (which tends to make more closely-miked instruments or those at the lip of the stage sound larger and more “present” than those that are less closely miked (or at least mixed in at lower levels); there is none of the 610T’s very soft burr or grain, which tends to make instrumental images just the slightly bit porous (albeit bloomy and expansive), the way half-tone photos look compared to continuous-tone ones; there may be somewhat less upper-midrange and treble brightness, although the c-j doesn’t sound at all soft on top and is not forgiving of mic-preamp clipping (as on certain mid-to-upper-octave sforzandos in Martha Argerich’s fine, fiery performance of the Prokofiev Third [DG]), and the ART may have less bottom-octave weight and slightly more definition and grip than the 610T (although I’m not at all sure of this yet). Other things the c-j doesn’t sound like: It’s not quite as explosively quick and unbelievably detailed and transparent to sources as Technical Brain electronics (nothing I’ve yet heard is). It is certainly much much much faster, clearer, and cleaner than c-j gear used to be, and in overall balance comes much closer to the almost-not-there neutrality of TB than many other pieces of electronics I’ve tested. If you can imagine the TB gear with the warmth and saturation settings turned up a single notch (or the Soulution gear with the warmth and saturation settings turned down a notch) you’ll get the idea.
What the GAT and ART are that none of these other great marques (and just about everything else I’ve heard is) is virtually grainless. Here is where the GAT preamp and ART amp do remind me of the original ART preamp, although I think they’ve taken the ART’s singular virtue a step further. As I said in my reviews of the Maggie 3.7s and Magico Q5, grain (no matter what its source or whether it’s an overlay or a backdrop) is distracting. Ipso facto, it reminds you that you are listening to electronics. It also adds a burr-like quality to transients and upper-midrange timbres, veils ambience, causes (as noted) instruments to sound a bit like half-tones look (as if they were made up of solid dots of tone color and blank dots of noise), and assorted other ills. The GAT and ART have fewer of these deleterious effects that any electronics, solid-state or tube, I’ve yet auditioned. The net result is rather like having the guy who is incessantly rummaging through his popcorn bag in the seat behind yours thrown out of the movie theater. There is simply less noise and distraction, which, among other good things, means that you are free to focus more fully on the music.
This would make for a triumphant “disappearing act” in and of itself—one less (very significant) electronic artifact standing between you and the presentation. But it would be less impressive if it weren’t accompanied by a substantial lowering of other tube-like colorations and a subsequent substantial increase in resolution and transparency to sources. Getting rid of the scrim that stands between you and the stage is swell, but it wouldn’t count for much if the stage were left half in darkness or you couldn’t hear the actors clearly. The GAT and the ART are (by a considerable margin) the highest-resolution, lowest noise, most transparent-to-sources c-j electronics I’ve ever auditioned—fully competitive with the best preamps and amps I’ve heard from ARC (although it should be noted that ARC is coming out with a whole new line of amplifiers that I haven’t heard) and with any solid-state I’ve auditioned to-date (save for Technical Brain, which has a very slight edge in speed, transparency, and resolution over everything else).
I will have a great deal more to say about the ART and GAT when I review them in an upcoming issue of TAS, including some speculation on why they sound so greatly improved in transparency, their exceptionally natural way with timbres top to bottom (provided that instruments are recorded naturally), their transient response and dynamic range, their low-level resolution, their soundstaging and imaging, how they compare with ARC and others, and, of course, any downsides. For the nonce, I can confidently recommend the ART and GAT to high-end aficionados with enough moolah to buy them. These are undoubtedly reference-quality components—the best (by far) that conrad-johnson has made.