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Conrad-Johnson GAT Series 2 Preamplifier and TEA1 Series 2 Phono Preamplifier

Conrad-Johnson GAT Series 2 Preamplifier and TEA1 Series 2 Phono Preamplifier

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.


Another aspect that I really enjoyed about the GAT was the silkiness of the sound. The tube complement brings to music the breath of life. I’ve been listening a lot lately to a Channel Classics recording of Telemann concerts played by Florilegium. While recently reviewing a pair of hybrid monoblocks from Frank Van Alstine, I noted how the tubes added a welcome bit of pulchritude to the Florilegium’s woodwinds and strings. The GAT had the same effect on flute and recorder, allowing the full resonance of the instruments to come to the fore, an effect that defines them more clearly. On Mavis Staples’ album One True Vine, the GAT’s noise floor was so low that you could hear her (and the backing choir) take a full inhalation of breath before launching into the song “Holy Ghost.” The GAT’s excellent decays also helped to create a more measured sense of pacing. The full  poignancy of a slow movement in a Bach concerto comes through with remarkable fidelity. You never have the feeling that one instrument is being shortchanged at the expense of another.

What about dynamic slam? The GAT’s whopping gain will allow you to crank up the volume to levels that at sustained intervals are probably less than salubrious for your hearing. This is a longwinded way of saying that you can really play your system loud with this preamp (provided that your power amplifier can also deliver). I had a go with it on Jimmy Smith’s famous live album Root Down, recorded in Los Angeles in 1972. With a good system, it’s possible to get a real sense of the venue as well as the energy and drive that Smith brought to the performance. On cuts such as “Root Down (and Get It),” I was mightily impressed by the GAT’s ability not only to present extremely dynamic music without becoming discombobulated, but also by the sang-froid with which it delivered rimshots—they emerged from the XLFs with a real weight and heft. In addition, I would be remiss if I failed to point out the swanky new Ypsilon Hyperion monoblock amplifiers also played a role here. With their approximately 800 watts at 4 ohms going into the Wilsons, the sound levels could—and did—reach prodigious volumes. But the GAT drove the Hyperions beautifully, keeping a tenacious lock on the bass lines while adding a bit of extra power to the rimshots.

While the TEA1 Series 2 phonostage is also a powerful performer, I must say I was slightly less smitten with it than I was with the GAT. While it provided real punch and sock, I found the phonostage to lack some of the GAT’s tonal purity and finesse. However, on the great jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham’s performance of “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” on the Parkwood Records label, I was floored by the way the combination of the phonostage and GAT—with a Continuum turntable with Lyra Etna SL cartridge on the front end—projected the trumpet’s bore into my listening space. Still, on this and other cuts I couldn’t help feeling that the sound wasn’t quite as refined as with the GAT sans the TEA1. On the Angel LP of Jacqueline du Pré with Daniel Barenboim conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, the overall sound was a bit drier, particularly in the treble region, than I recall with a variety of other phonostages. However, the TEA1’s ability both to convey the ambiance of the original venue and to allow the instruments to soar in space was pretty darn compelling.

Although I’ve mentioned the capacity of the GAT to play at loud SPLs, blasting you out of the room has never been at the heart of the CJ sound. On the contrary, what most riveted me was the GAT’s ability to seduce you. It’s the English gentleman of preamps—unobtrusive, unflappable, and unerring. The lack of grain, the clarity of sound, and the punctiliousness of reproduction are beguiling indeed. I’d imagine that if you have the patience, it’s possible to push the GAT even further with some judicious tube rolling. So if you’ve been hopscotching among different preamps over the years, this is the one that might do than more than tug at your heartstrings. It might even win your undying loyalty.

Specs & Pricing

GAT Series 2 Preamplifier
Type: Vacuum-tube linestage preamplifier
Tube complement: 6922 (2x)
Inputs: Line-level (5x), tape loop (2x)
Outputs: Main (2x), tape (2x); all inputs and outputs on RCA jacks
Gain: 25dB
Output impedance: <100 ohms
Dimensions: 19″ x 4.81″ x 15.375″
Weight: 35 lbs.
Price: $24,000

TEA1 Series 2 Phono Preamplifier
Type: Vacuum-tube phonostage
Tube complement: 12AX7 (3x)
Gain input: 54dB (low); 66dB (high)
Output impedance: <200 ohms
Dimensions: 19″ x 3.315″ x 15.5″
Weight: 23 lbs.
Price: $15,000 (available as the TEA1s2b with no step-up transformers for $12,000)

2800K Dorr Ave.
Fairfax, VA 22031
(703) 560-5360

By Jacob Heilbrunn

The trumpet has influenced my approach to high-end audio. Like not a few audiophiles, I want it all—coherence, definition, transparency, dynamics, and fine detail.

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