Conrad-Johnson CAV50 integrated amplifier Sam Tellig October 1998
Sometimes Sam isn't always first. Martin Colloms beat me to the punch with a full-scale review of the Conrad-Johnson CAV50 integrated in the August issue (Vol.21 No.8).
The C-J makes a fascinating contrast with the Bryston B-60—one of the finest tubed integrated amplifiers vs one of the best solid-state.
Look at the sizes. While the Bryston is just 2½" high, the C-J is 7" high. You can't slide it into a tight space the way you can the Bryston—you need to give it good ventilation, on a table top or the top shelf of an equipment rack.
The power rating is about the same: 45Wpc into 8 ohms for the C-J, 60Wpc into 8 ohms for the Bryston. But there's a $1000 disparity in price. That's tubes—they're more expensive than solid-state. No remote option is available for the C-J, so this isn't for the couch-potato crowd. And there's no headphone jack—a somewhat more serious omission.
Two Con-Johns conjoined
The CAV50 is nonetheless a bargain.
Consider that the CAV50 is essentially Conrad-Johnson's MV55 power amp perched atop a PV10 A/L line-stage preamp. Together, the two C-J separates retail for $3290. You save $800 by buying the two Con-Johns conjoined.
Actually, you save more—you won't need to shell out $100 or more for an interconnect cable from preamp to power amp. All told, you could shave nearly a kilobuck off the price of your system, with no sonic sacrifice. Or take the money saved and put it into better speakers.
By combining the two units you lose nothing but flexibility. If you like the sound of the C-J MV55, you could use any number of different manufacturers' preamps. But your incremental cost for the CAV50 (over the MV55) is just $500. And you're sure not going to find a good active line stage, tubed or solid-state, for $500. That makes the CAV50 a compelling buy.
It looks nice, too, in the typical Conrad-Johnson way—rather like a tubed integrated amp of yore. As in yore father's day. But C-J has avoided the squared-off look by sloping the tube cage back. If you take off the tube cage (with only four spring-loaded screws, this is easy to do), you'll see that the transformer cover is sloped back too, giving the CAV50 an elegant look that is both classic and modern at the same time. I find it very attractive.
And the sound? Classic C-J.
Here's what I mean. You turn the damned thing on—it takes no more than half an hour or so to warm up—sit back, and relax. At least, I do. So many audio products have a way of putting you on edge: all that resolution, all that detail, all those extended highs. But like other Conrad-Johnson gear, the CAV50 takes you off edge. You enjoy the C-J: the harmonic richness, the sense of body to the sound, the palpable presence of the performers. At least, I enjoy. You may be one of those audiophiles who are into pain.
Bass is one area where solid-state amplifiers like the Bryston beat out the Conrad-Johnson. Sorry, the bass is a little untidy. That's your classic tube amp, particularly one that uses EL34 output tubes, as does the CAV50: two per side, four altogether. The highs, too, seem slightly rolled off compared to the Bryston. As for detail—resolution—Martin Colloms hit this one on the head: There's probably more here than first meets the ear. More detail. More resolution. But in no way does this detail call attention to itself. With C-J, you always hear the music first, the resolution second. That's why C-J is C-J.
Over the past few years I've recommended the MV55 to a number of friends and acquaintances—music lovers, not audiophiles. People like Joe Eckstein of Berkshire Record Outlet have purchased the MV55 on my recommendation and love it. Not only that, they keep telling me how much they enjoy the sound. The CAV50 should appeal to the same crowd—if it is a crowd.
How about SET?
How about single-ended triode? (I knew you were going to ask.)
That's another way to go. But single-ended triode amps tend to be even more expensive than push-pull tube amps like the C-J gear. You get less power for more money. As former economists, Lew Johnson and Bill Conrad say they're not about to take that tack. In general, too, you also get less ability to drive low-impedance or difficult speaker loads with SET amps.
You do tend to get more immediacy with SET, however—more illusion of live. Plus quicker transient response and, paradoxically, better microdynamics—up to the point where the SET amp poops out, that is.
But, as with the Bryston B-60, the sound of the Conrad-Johnson CAV50 is so good, so convincing on its own terms, that you may not care. In fact, after you've bought either amp, you shouldn't care.
Come to think of it, I don't recall the Conrad-Johnson MV55 power amplifier sounding as good as the CAV50. Possibly I didn't match it with the ideal line stage—or interconnect. More likely I'm hearing what happens when you integrate a line stage and preamp: the sound becomes more...well, integrated.
I know that's being facile, but I don't know of any other word. The best integrated amps just sound integrated—together—in a way that separates usually don't quite manage. Manufacturers point out that with a separate preamp and power amp, the two chassis are at different ground potentials. Maybe that's why separates tend to sound a little dis-integrated.
There's more going on. In a well-designed integrated, the line stage (sometimes the line controller is passive) and the power-amp stage are perfectly matched to one another, and no interconnect is needed. No matter how good the interconnect, there may be signal loss, or noise may be introduced through the connectors.
For whatever reasons, all the best integrateds sound very, very together in a way that separates usually do not. Your seestem functions more like a seestem—oops, system. (That's the problem when you tease someone with a foreign accent. You begin to acquire the accent yourself.)
The CAV50 has a pair of preamp-out jacks, so I tried it briefly as a line stage only, again using the Cary 2A3 monoblocks. The sound was less neutral, slightly less resolving than the line stage of the B-60. But the sound had a richer, riper harmonic presentation. It was also quite dynamic, as a good active line stage should be.
Big bang for little bucks
But no one is likely to buy the CAV50 to use as a line stage. What you could do, however, is buy an MV55 and bi-amp. Run the CAV50 into your tweeters, an MV55 into your woofers. (I know—a solid-state amp might seem better into your woofers because of that greater control. But mixing amps—especially different types of amps—never seems to work well, in my experience.)
Bi-amping could be the way to go with speakers that demand more power than 45Wpc. If you're using the CAV50 alone, you'll want to choose reasonably sensitive speakers. And the CAV50, like the Bryston B-60 and most other small amps, probably works best in a small- to medium-size room.
Bi-amping is not a panacea, though. When you add an extra amp, you are dis-integrating. The sound may not seem quite as seamless as with an integrated alone. Sorry.
Both the Bryston B-60 and the Conrad-Johnson CAV50 are superb integrateds, but in different ways. I won't make up your mind for you. In typical Tellig fashion, I could live quite happily with either.
So, I suspect, could you.—Sam Tellig