Conrad-Johnson ACT2 line preamplifier Follow-Up, December 2005
To give the Viola Cadenza a thorough test, it occurred to me that I ought to compare it to a top-rated preamp—such as Conrad-Johnson's ACT2 ($12,000), which I reviewed in the March 2005 issue—as well as to a perfectly ordinary mass-market design. In one of those ironies that typify the life of a Stereophile reviewer, getting my hands on a cheap'n'cheerful preamp—not the ACT2—proved to be the sticking point. I just didn't have one, so I decided to use my reference preamp, the decidedly real-world Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista, which cost around $2500 when last available. No, it isn't mass-market, but as much as I like it, it sure ain't perfect either. Besides, isn't that what a reference is for?
While I did feel that the Cadenza exhibited a particular synergy with its Viola Labs stablemate, the Symphony power amp, my use of two single-ended preamps in the head-to-head comparisons meant that I couldn't use that balanced-input-only design. Level-matched comparisons were made using the Ayre V-5xe amp, which accepts both SE and balanced inputs.
Remembering the revelations wrought by the ReBirth Jazz Band's "You Move Ya Lose," from Do Whatcha Wanna (CD, Mardi Gras 1003), I listened to it again. Sure enough, the Cadenza made it hard, if not impossible, to listen sitting down. The music was rooted in my body (I probably don't need to tell you where). I just had to get up and move, not to mention groove. Time for the Conrad-Johnson ACT2.
Time for another Whoa! I hadn't listened to the ACT2 for far too long—what a great-sounding preamp it is. And how phenomenally different-sounding from the Cadenza. Sort of.
ReBirth had me jumping. Frazier's tuba was slamming and Tabb's snare line was skittering all around and under and ahead of the brass's second line. Oh, wait—that's pretty much what I heard from the Cadenza. But they didn't sound alike. Not at all.
The difference wasn't timbral; both preamps were quite convincing tonally. And it wasn't dynamic range; again, each had more shades between soft and BLAM! than I have adjectives. (I once worked it out: infinity minus one.)
For lack of a better word, the difference between the Cadenza and the ACT2 was in their presentations. The Cadenza had an in-your-face physicality that reminded me of being in the front row at a concert. Yes, the music is all around you, but it's what's in front of you that's so overwhelming. The ACT2 also partakes of that physical immersion in the sound, but is perhaps less direct. Not gentler, not softer, just...different.
This became more apparent with Martha Argerich's Ravel Piano Concerto in G, with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic (CD, DG 447 438-2). The Cadenza made me more aware of the attacks of her Steinway, while the ACT2 more completely integrated each attack into its bloom. That's not quite right, because it sounds as though I'm saying the Cadenza shorted the bloom, which it didn't. It was still there, but the ping of hammer on string seemed more important than the rest of the note. No, even that sounds too black-and-white, which it wasn't. These were subtle differences, and I got different things out of each presentation, which means that while they were minor, they might also mean everything.
I went back and forth, convinced that I had to prefer one to the other. But each time I'd start to think I did, I'd rest, then start over, and...No. They were different, but I couldn't call one "better." I moved on to Pentangle's "Willie O' Winsbury" (from Solomon's Seal, CD, Castle 555).
I thought I'd had problems with piano! The two preamps both delivered Jacqui McShee into my living room in holographic solidity. Perhaps the Cadenza had more facets in its crystalline clarity, but the ACT2 gave me ever so slightly more glamour on her voice. Maybe.
One thing was instructive: My long-dormant need for a remote control asserted itself while I was listening to "Willie." I grabbed the ACT2's remote to savor the laird's declaration: "If I was a woman as I am a man / My bedfellow you would have been."
That's it? That's all I can say? The ACT2 has a remote? Well, no. There are fundamental differences between the sounds of the Cadenza and the ACT2, but they don't relate to quality. I can't honestly say that one is better than the other, but I also can't say that you won't prefer one to the other. You may well—or you may end up as confused as I am. It might come down to something as simple as how you feel about remotes. Or color. Or Whoa!—Wes Phillips