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Conrad Johnson Premier 18LS and MF2500A

This Is Not Your Father’s CJ                                            Michael Wright

February 2004




Enjoy Now, Debate Later


This is not the same Conrad-Johnson your father or big brother would have handed down to you. The Conrad-Johnson Premier 18 line stage and 2500A power amplifier shows the new direction that they’re going in with their electronics. For those of you who are new to Conrad-Johnson (CJ), they have long been a leader in the home audio world of tubed electronics. From the early 80’s to the mid 90’s, CJ and Audio Research were America’s most prominent manufacturers in the tubed audio field. Thankfully, competition from other companies such as VAC and Cary Audio stepped in, and CJ and ARC aren’t the only games in town any more. For audio consumers, the competition was been a welcome one. Conrad-Johnson has answered the challenge and still sets the standard for other companies to aspire to. At one time or another, I have owned the CJ PV-5 and Premier 3 preamps, Premier 5 mono amps, and had extended experience with their brilliant Evolution Series EV-20 preamp and EV-2000 amplifier. The local CJ dealer in my hometown of Chicago was, and still is, Joe Galanti of Superior Audio Systems. He spent a lot of time explaining the differences between high-end tube gear and solid-state gear and I have grown to appreciate his meticulous set up skill. It was always easy to hear how the equipment evolved over the years. I don’t want to get into the tubed versus solid-state debate, which in my opinion, is not as prevalent as it used to be. But however you spoke about CJ, you had to say that it was musical. Looking back on the CJ sound, though it was very musical, it did not have the transient response or midbass slam of the comparable Audio Research (ARC) pieces of that era, and it was not quite as detailed either. What you did get was a full bodied, warm, tubey sound that tended to be very slightly on the dark side of neutral. The stage was breathtaking, with width that extended well past my Magneplanar MG-2s and depth that made musicians at the rear of the stage, sound as though they were 5-10 feet behind my speakers. There was also that seductive tube noise that made live recordings sound as though you were actually there, and always with a musicality that made listening to your albums an event. I felt the bass was deeper with the CJ, but better bass definition and impact was to be had with ARC. By the same token, you did miss those things that ARC did so well in terms of musical detail and percussive dynamics. Even so, my die-hard solid-state friends had to conclude that the bottom line, when listening to CJ equipment, was an enjoyment of the musical experience. The debates as to which was better, tubed or solid-state, would pick back up after we finished enjoying the music.

The last few years have been remarkable for Conrad-Johnson in terms of the direction of their electronics. This new age of CJ gear still retains the strengths of the old (the musicality, stage width, depth, and presence) but adds a greater level of detail, musical information, transient response and dynamics, with deeper, tighter bass. The days of stereotyping the “CJ sound” as being slightly dark or rolled off in the highs are gone. The current offerings, to my ears, sound not as warm as before, but much more neutral, with an extended high end. Their equipment has always been solid and well made, but the direction of the “CJ sound” has been something that I have been observing with great interest. Now please don’t think I’m just being predictable, but their new solid-state gear truly does sound like tubes (staging, presence, dimensionality), while still adhering to the strengths of solid state (detail, extended bass, transient response). The same can be said of their new tube-based electronics, possessing the strengths of solid-state equipment while maintaining everything a tube-lover likes about tubes. Give the splendid Premier 140 a listen and you’ll hear what I mean.



CJ's Premier 18 Line Stage


The Premier 18 is a well-constructed, solid-state line stage that has that newer CJ, hi-tech look and feel to it. Their circuit features the use of FETs for the active devices and zero loop feedback. CJ has been a leader in the area of FETs (solid state devices which act like tubes and produce no odd-order harmonic distortion, to oversimplify things) since the late 80’s. Also, the 18 uses no feedback. Their first foray into the solid-state realm was the highly respectable Motif MC-8, which even tube-lovers liked.

Yes, the Premier 18 does invert phase, so don’t forget to switch the negative and positive leads at the speaker terminals. It comes with a remote that appears to be machined from the same aluminum as the line stage’s faceplate and has a solid, confidence-inspiring feel to it. It’s the kind of remote that your audiophile purist friends, who don’t have a preamp with a remote, and accuse you of being lazy, would approve of. As for controls, there are no knobs, per se, on this preamp. There are three 1-inch diameter digital displays that are a contrast to CJ’s trademark champagne gold finish. Two of these displays are the level indicators for the left and right channel and the third is the IR receptor for the remote control. I found it very easy to set the sound level by the remote and each step was small enough that there never seemed to be any large or annoying jumps in volume when searching for a comfortable sound level. I also found that sitting off to the side, in my listening room, still allowed for good interface between the remote control and the receptor. Next, there are two rows of five LEDs: One row for the source selection and the other for the mode of operation. Finally, there are six pushbutton selectors for Mute, Level Up, Level Down, Source, EPL, and Theater.

A word on the EPL and Theatre switches is in order here. Per CJs well-written and informative manual, pressing the EPL button will toggle the unit between External Processor Loop and the selected source. When the source is selected, the input selected as source will be passed directly to the volume control. When EPL is selected, the selected source will first pass through the external processor loop before being routed to the volume control. As for the Theater switch, selecting this button will toggle the unit between the theater input and a selected source. When source is selected, the input selected as source will be passed directly to the volume control. When THEATER is selected, the selected source will first pass through the THEATER loop before being routed to the volume control and the level for both channels will be set and locked to unity gain.

The rear panel features gold plated connectors with easy-to-read labeling. There are five pairs of line level input connectors and three sets of output connectors (one is for the tape). As mentioned previously, this unit does invert phase at the outputs. There are two sets of connectors that bear mentioning here. There is an External Processor Loop, otherwise known as EPL1. This is a set of line level inputs and outputs provided for connection of external signal processors (e.g. parametric equalizer, tone controls). These can also be used for the connection of a tape recorder. In this case, connect the EPL OUT to the recording input of your tape recorder and the EPL IN to the output of your tape recorder. The EPL IN connection can also be used as an additional line level input. The THTR/EPL2 input is an external processor loop designed to conveniently accommodate the addition of a surround sound processor (SSP) to a high-quality two-channel system without compromising two-channel performance. Simply connect the front left and front right channel outputs from your SSP to the THTR/ELP2 input. You can also connect the processing on selected two channel sources. When this THTR loop is selected, the level controls are set to unity gain. Level and balance control is then accomplished via your surround sound processor.

                         The CJ MF2500A Amplifier                                            The MF2500A is a 240-watt per channel amplifier that is a fairly straight-forward design. The amp is built solidly, weighs in at 60 pounds and has no handles. Great care needs to be taken when transporting. This amp has its own dedicated power cord attached to it (more on this in a moment). Also, the heat sinks are all on the left side of the amp and are a little edgy. Despite its power output the amp never got hot while driving my Martin-Logan Quests (4 ohm load) and only got warm after hammering it with movies that have made many a lesser amp verge on meltdown (Stargate, Pitch Black, Hunt for Red October, Gladiator). It has a large black power on/off switch and gold plated binding posts in the back for speaker connection. One note I should make here: when I first connected the amp, it did hum a little. I checked all of my connections and everything was tight. Instead of experimenting with cheater plugs, which I don’t like to use, I put a Shakti Stone on top of the amp, center towards the rear. The hum went right away and all of my listening was done without a trace of hum.


                           Let The Listening Begin!
Every time I bring a new piece in the house, I have a habit of making sure that it is at room temperature before hooking it up and playing music through it. I do this just to ensure everything is working properly, not to do any serious music listening. Well at least I usually try not to do any listening while the equipment is still cold, but my curiosity always gets the better of me and I end up giving things a cursory listen anyway. This is usually done sometime after 11:00 at night when I find myself nodding off as I’m playing something soft. On this particular night, I followed my normal routine and started to nod a little when, all of a sudden, I was brought out of my slight slumber by the subtle nuances in the music that I hadn’t noticed hearing before. I was playing Patricia Barber’s Café Blue [Blue Note] when bassist, Michael Arnopol, started to move and breathe with a palpable presence that I had not previously experienced in my listening room. Before I knew it, it was 1:00 a.m. and I had to get some sleep. But at least I drifted off to sleep thinking about what I had just heard. I waited a few days before I listened to any more music, and a good week before I got down to serious listening. I went back to Café Blue and listened to the disc again to make sure I hadn’t been imagining things. The first thing I noticed was that the sound came from a dead-silent background. This brings me back to the power cord. I don’t know if this quiet background was the result of the fact that the power cord is hard wired to the amp or not, but I suspect it may have some positive affect. I discussed this point with a friend at CJ who told me that they put considerable effort into the power cord and felt it negated the need for an after-market cord. Cut after cut benefited from that improved quiet background.

John Coltrane’s, The Stardust Session [Prestige PCD-24056-2] was the next disc I played. There was a wide, deep stage that extended past my speakers and beyond my rear wall. Coltrane, as always, is just such a pleasure to listen to and I have yet to hear this disc in a system and not enjoy it. You’d be correct if you guessed that rendered through this CJ system, this disc was as enjoyable as I’ve ever heard it. What a great way to enjoy my favorite saxophonist of all time! He seemed to have a greater presence in my room through the CJ gear and I felt myself being drawn deeper into his performance, especially on “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” and one of my favorite renditions of “Stardust.”

While on the saxophone theme, I decided to play Gene Ammons’, Bossa Nova (Prestige OJCCD-331-2). This disc is special to me because my dad used to play it to death when I was a kid. Whenever our folks threw a card party he’d play it to death and I just hated it. But in my adult life, it is one of my favorites. Go figure. Mr. Ammons plays tenor sax with a drive and passion that I have come to appreciate. Track 2, “Ca`Purange” may be a fine vehicle for Ammons, but for me, Hank Jones’ slow, locomotive-like melody is the foundation that the rest of this track builds upon. Equally enjoyable performances come from Bucky Pizzarelli on Spanish guitar coming out of one channel and Kenny Burrell playing rhythm guitar out of the other. The sound was always musical and terms like “highs” and “deep bass” weren’t really important because everything was there. Trying to evaluate those things would do nothing but take away from the musical experience afforded by this gear. Okay, okay, for those who need to know, yes, the highs were extended and airy. Maybe not as sweet sounding as say a Klyne SK-5A or System 7, but for all intents and purposes, they were just fine. At no time did I feel I was missing any high frequency information or extension. The bass is tight and extended. It never overwhelmed the room or seemed boomy but it did have a solid grip on my ML’s woofers.

Next up was Frank Sinatra’s Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain [Reprise 9 45219-2]. Here, Sinatra is supported by an orchestra led by the great Robert Farnon. This recording is a gem, not only for the performance, but also because Sinatra, like a true professional, carried on even though his voice was not at its best. In spite of his struggles, which you can clearly hear through the CJ system, he still held it all together and turned out an enjoyable, memorable album. Listen to “If I Had You”, “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” and “London by Night”, and you’ll get a feel for just how good this album is.

To test out the CJ combo’s transient response and low-level detail reproduction, I pulled out Victor Wooten’s, “A Show of Hands” [Compass records]. Wooten is an amazing bass player and gets all kinds of sounds from his bass. He has this mind-boggling routine where he uses both hands to play the bass in a way that makes it sound as though he’s playing two basses simultaneously. He uses his long fingers to bend and stretch notes out of his bass in a manner that is unlike anything I’ve heard before. Through the CJ pieces you can hear this effect immediately. The plucking had loads of snap and detail and the sustained notes Wooten likes to play just hung there, right in the middle of my listening room before gently fading out. Wooten’s bass skills really shine through on “More Love”, “A Show of Hands”, “Medley” and “Classical Thump”.

For those of you who are really into imaging and soundstage presence, it doesn’t get much better than Norah Jones’, Come Away With Me [Blue Note]. This entire disc is wonderful and there’s not a bad or uninspiring track on it. My particular favorite is the soulful, “One Flight Down”. I just love her gospel-tinged piano playing on this track. Through the CJ, all of the performers were in their own space and spread across the stage, side to side and front to back, with each performer occupying their own space.

After a month of enjoying all kinds of music, I got the brilliant idea to pair my Thor preamp with the 2500A. All I could say was wow! I will not compare the Thor to the Premier 18 because not only is it twice as expensive, but also because the 18 works so well with the 2500A that I wouldn’t want to unfairly overstate any sonic shortcomings that may result from a direct comparison. I will say this though, as driven by the Thor, the 2500A went up another notch in detail, warmth, dynamics and musicality. The CJ amp was more than worthy of my Thor line stage and phono stage, a combination that costs nearly $14,000. A truly holographic experience to be had was when listening to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’s self-titled album [Impulse GR-157]. Holy Cripes! That sounded too good (fanning myself), especially the songs “Lush Life” and “You Are Too Beautiful”.

                       
Dare To Compare
A closer comparison to the Premier 18 would be the Klyne 7LX line stage. I am a big fan of Stan Klyne’s preamps and feel they set the standard for neutrality, high-end extension and detail retrieval. I would give the Klyne the nod in the highs and in the low-end extension. The 7LX really plumbs the nether regions and if you have a system that will go below 30 cycles, you’ll see what I mean. The Premier 18 is no slouch here either. It does extremely well and will not leave you wanting. The midrange is very close and really depends on the source material. If the music you’re playing sounds natural and warm, like on most well recorded offerings from Chesky, Mapleshade or Naim, it’s a toss-up, with maybe a slight nod to the 7LX. However, you must keep in mind that all of the Klyne preamps are brutally honest and if you have a recording that’s not up to par, the 7LX will not hesitate to let you know it—and that’s with both vinyl and CD’s. It also makes system matching with a Klyne more of a task, but one you’ll be well rewarded for if you put in the time. The Premier 18 is slightly more agreeable. It’s honest and detailed as well, but will let you enjoy your less than musical recordings more so. It all comes down to personal preference as I could live with either one. Heck, it may even come down to the fact that the Premier 18 has a line of CJ amps you can easily match it with and comes with a remote. Though the preamp will work well with other amps, it sounded its best with the 2500A. The 2500A, on the other hand, is a partner strong enough to fit in a wide range of systems and budgets. It’s powerful, is as comfortable playing rock, R&Band pop as it is playing jazz and classical, and sounds good with tubes or solid state gear in front of it. The 2500A is a really flexible performer.

                           
Conclusion
I never had a moment of trouble with either piece, the connections were always tight and solid and there were no transient spikes or pops. I know this because I did a lot of cable swapping and switching in and out of electronics. Watching movies through this system was also extremely satisfying. The amp never seemed to run out of bottom end and remained tight through some pretty demanding passages, like on “Stargate”, when Ra’s spaceship arrives and lands. That’s 5-10 minutes of an intense low-end workout that I have seen several lesser (and in some cases more expensive) amps just shut down on.

If you’re looking for a system that has all of the musical attributes most people look for, has the ability to drive just about any speaker, is well built, has a solid remote control, and won’t break the bank, you’ll be hard pressed to find a combination that’s better than the Conrad Johnson Premier 18LS and MF2500A. Highly Recommended!

 
Specifications

Premier 18LS Solid-State Line Stage Preamplifier
Gain: 22 dB
Maximum Output: 9 vrms
Output Impedance: 200 Ohms
Distortion at 1.0 v output: less than 0.1% THD or IMD
Freq. Response: 2 Hz to more than 100 KHz
Hum and Noise: line-stage 96 dB below 2.5 V
Phase: inverts phase of all inputs at main out
Dimensions: 15.25D x 19W x 3.315H inches
Weight: 16 lbs.
Serial Number: 3401000

Price: $3,495

MF2500A Power Amplifier
Power: 250 watts per channel from 20 Hz to 20kHz at no more than 1% THD or IMD, both channels driven into 8 ohms
Frequency response: 20 Hz to 20 KHz +0, -.25db
Hum and noise: more than 100 dB below rated full power output.
Input Impedance: 100K Ohms.
Dimensions: 16.375D x 19W x 6.75H inches
Weight: 58 lbs.
Serial Number: 7821485

Price: $3,695

 


Manufacturer Address: :
Conrad-Johnson Design, Inc.
2733 Merrilee Drive
Fairfax, VA 22031
Tel: (703) 698-8581
Fax: (703) 560-5360
Web: www.conradjohnson.com

                                       

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Conrad Johnson