I first would like to thank Constantine for inviting me into his audiophile- virtual commune and for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and views on all things Hi Fi on these pages; and also thank all of the warm well wishes I received from my fellow staffers. While I have written several equipment and music reviews in the past, they have been limited to our local audio society’s journal and on various online forums. When Constantine interviewed me for this position, I shared my history and views of audio, and more importantly, the configuration of my current system.
I believe he was quite surprised to learn that the only component in my system that is actually “current” is the Conrad Johnson CT5 line stage. I explained to Constantine that although I’m as rabid an audiophile as the rest of them, I have never been one to be in a particular hurry to change out components or succumb to the sickness of upgrade-itis. Nor do I find it necessary to be a member of that exclusive audiophile darling-of-the-month-club. It’s simply not part of my DNA. Instead, I carefully consider a well rounded and balanced system that achieves the highest possible performance the expenditure allows and I sit back and enjoy! So replacing a component in my system is much like adopting a new family member or getting a new dog after a previous dog has passed on.
That said, I must explain that the Conrad Johnson CT5 replaced a highly regarded linestage for its day, which occupied that very important position in my system for more than 10 years. Sure, there were upgrades, updates, and even repairs along the way, but the core linestage was the same. Faced with the prospects of there no longer being any convenient support available for this linestage and problems in the form of noisy pots and failing switches, I knew it was time to begin the search. That search began 18 months ago and took me to some very interesting corners of the audiophile world, but in the end, the decision was disarmingly easy. After highlighting my audio journey to Constantine, it became self-evident that my first review would indeed be the Conrad Johnson CT5. Thus the stage is set for my first review on these pages.
Conrad Johnson has been around for most of my adult life. Back in their earliest of days, the very first all-tube preamplifier I ever purchased was in fact, a Conrad Johnson. A PV- 10A to be exact. That turned out to be a very short-lived relationship. To this day, I remember that preamp as the component that managed to lose entire musical lines in its prodigious noise floor. Now I find myself some 20 years later, no only reviewing one of Conrad Johnson’s latest works of the preamp art, but also actually owning one.
Now let’s be clear, there has been a lot going on at chez CJ over this long stretch of time, The Premier Series of amplifiers and preamplifiers gained much notoriety and a couple of models were even proclaimed to be products of the decade in the 80’s and 90’s. The familiar golden-faced electronics were finding their way into many, many homes and audiophile hearts.
In the late 1990’s, CJ designed and built what amounted to be their 20th anniversary statement piece, the Anniversary Reference Triode (ART). To my ears, the ART was and still is CJ’s breakaway product. The ART introduced the world to the uniquely Conrad Johnson “Super Triode”, otherwise known as the Composite Triode. It set the stage for the greatness that was yet to come in the years that followed. After a decade of award-winning fame, the Limited Edition ART gave way to the equally rare and sonically wonderful replacement, ACT2. The ACT2 was a further refinement of the Composite Triode design made famous by the ART. After several small iterations or incremental releases of the ACT2, it too was discontinued. Enter the CT5.
The CT5 is indeed the great-grandson of the ART. It continues the tradition of the now very familiar gold faceplate with the tubes exposed and surrounded by a stack of polycarbonate plates. While the ART and ACT2 were two-chassis designs, simplification of the “super triode” circuit has allowed Messrs. Conrad and Johnson to cram all of that audiophile goodness into a single, albeit taller and heavier, chassis. This level of simplification has allowed CJ to price the CT5 at a small fraction of the cost of its predecessors making the CT5 the ART for the masses, so to speak.
I know what you must be telling yourselves right now. Since when is an $8,500 linestage considered to be priced “for the masses”. Well, at $15,000 and $18,500 respectively, the ART and ACT2 were indeed very pricey for their time. By comparison the CT5 is very, very reasonable.
Ergonomically, the CT5 is first rate. The remote is straight-forward and simple to use and it contains the usual remote functions such as volume, balance, mute, and input selections. One unfortunate omission is a phase inversion switch. The front panel display is clear and bright enough to read the volume level under most lighting conditions. Having a digital readout is a wonderful convenience when level-matching after swapping, source components, cables and power cords. As is the case for all CJ components that I am aware of, the CT5 inverts phase, so you need to reverse the speaker cables when using it.
Installation – The Ritual
Inserting the CT5 in my system and optimizing its compatibility with the rest of my components was fairly straight-forward and very predictable. I first simply swapped preamps and allowed the unit to burn-in with the aid of my favorite burn-in track for a period of roughly 300 hours (14 days continuous operation). It is well-known that the fabulous and proprietary CJD Teflon and polypropylene caps utilized in current Conrad Johnson amps and preamps require extensive break-in time. Once broken in, I then evaluate image size and focus as well as bass response. On hand for the task, I have various plates, feet, or platforms of various materials to place underneath components. Sometimes, the standard MDF shelf in my Billy Bags rack unit is good enough, but there are times that resonances fall into a zone that renders a component less-than-musical or slightly out of focus. In the case of the CT5, I found it necessary to evaluate various footers and platforms in order to improve bass focus and tautness. After trying a few different solutions, lightening struck when I used a delrin plate. The bass response literally popped to attention and the slight image haze disappeared. Next, was image size. I noted that images were still rather shallow and the width did not extend past the outer edges of my Martin Logan CLS IIz 20th Anniversary electrostatic panels. While I had 3 different well-regarded reference quality power cords ready and available for insertion, I already knew instinctively that this was a job for the “imaging king” of the bunch. A quick swap and a 1-hour warm up confirmed that the Zu Mother Mk2 power cord absolutely did the trick. The CT5 was now ready for some extended listening sessions.
Having a rather stressful full time job, my listening sessions are mostly conducted in the late evenings and Sunday afternoons. My first extended session with the new family member inserted in the system was a Sunday afternoon.
With the CT5 I found myself forgetting about taking notes or even the review altogether. I just simply sat back, allowed the music to flow in toe-tapping goodness. In one particular CD, Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen, I cued up the title track and found myself immersed in a simple musical experience that really captured the true nature of the CT5. This preamp has a very distinctive musical perspective. The soundstage is deep and very wide as was my previous reference preamp. However the CT5 places the entire performance at a plane equal to the CLS panels and behind. It is a presentation that can initially be mistaken as being somehow less detailed. However, this is simply not the case.
Lower level detail, spatial cues, even the soft brush of a bare arm against the body of an acoustic guitar are all reproduced beautifully, but it is not in your face nor distracting. In fact, nothing I have heard to date through this preamp ever gets to the point where it is annoying, tainted with distortions or high frequency artifacts, or in your face to the point of distraction. It is just plain NICE, but I digress. Getting back to GoTJ, I was particularly floored when Bruce started to play the harmonica. The recording is very dynamic and delivers lots of spatial cues. When the harmonica playing begins, I am used to tensing up and bracing myself for the sharp and distorted “crackle and bite” that always characterized it in my system. Not true this time around. Yes, the harmonica was breathy, had a brashy bite as it should, but it no longer separated itself from the rest of the sound space nor was it presented in a harsh or distorted manner. Instead, it was very focused and present and very much together and in tune with the acoustic guitar. Rolling through disc after disc, I was struck with the ease and purity of the sound and sound space I was getting from everything I played.
Live recordings in particular such as the very well recorded Dave Matthews Band had an effervescence and liveliness to it that gave the illusion of being there. Yet again, the perspective was decidedly pushed back from what I was used to with my previous line stage, but far more musical and enjoyable. Yes, all I could do was sit back and enjoy the show; and enjoy I did, until all of a sudden the music simply stopped. I quickly looked over at the preamp, it was still on, then looked to the Sunfire amp and it had indeed gone dark. It was only then that I realized that I had gotten so involved in the musical experience that I had failed to notice that my room temperature had climbed to nearly 80 degrees and I guess the power amplifier just couldn’t take it any more. With somewhere around 2,000 watts per channel on tap into 2 ohms, my CLS’ can be stretched to their limits in highly dynamic passages of music with clean and stable power. Alas, the amp just simply couldn’t take the heat and the demands of the CLS’ 1 ohm impedance and popped a fuse.
This is the first time this has ever happened and I lay all of the blame on the CT5. I was so relaxed and immersed in the musical performance that I didn’t pay any attention to the tell tale signs such as my being drenched in sweat and stuck to my leather listening chair, for instance. The listening sessions that followed only serve as further confirmation of the impressions I noted in each previous session. My playlists covered a lot of territory from Allison Krause, Diana Krall and Kate Bush to Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Cousins, to various folk, rock, jazz, and classical works. The fundamental impressions all held true.
The CT5 is capable of delivering an arrestingly beautiful musical presentation. It does so without ever losing its composure. Clearly this is a product that can only be designed by a true lover of music. Messrs. Conrad and Johnson are to be commended on their achievement in the CT5. It is now a highly valued integral part of my home system. I expect that the coming months will be filled with new discoveries as I make my way through my CD and LP collection. There is yet one very troubling fact I can’t seem to wrap my head around. The CT5 is the second best line stage in the Conrad Johnson lineup. The new GAT is at the top. What additional wonders could the GAT possibly deliver over and above the stellar CT5???
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