Conrad-Johnson Premier 15 phono preamplifier Jonathan Scull March 2002
Like the Series 2 Conrad-Johnson 16LS line stage and the mighty ART 2 preamp, C-J's Premier 15 Series 2 phono stage contains faster-acting rectifier diodes in its main power-supply and improved DC regulators. These "significantly higher-current" units have a quarter of the "on" impedance, according to C-J's Lew Johnson. In addition, certain "noncritical" resistors were found to be sonically important and were upgraded. The "captured" AC cord and connector have been uprated to hospital level, and the internal wiring is now "an even better-sounding type," according to Johnson. The Premier 15 Series 2 currently retails for $4795. Original 15s can be upgraded to "2" status for $575, which includes a set of fresh tubes.
The Series 2's sound was more clearly revealed as I rotated cartridges, preamps, amps, and cables around it in my system (see my Balanced Audio Technology review elsewhere in this issue). Its bass was deeper and tighter than the original Premier 15's, as I could easily hear on Air's 10,000 Hz Legend LPs (Source/Astralwerks 8 10332 2). The midrange was more detailed and textural, as heard on Schubert's Trio 1 in B-flat, Op.99 (Stern/Rose/Istomin Trio, Columbia Masterworks MS 6116). And the upper midrange and highs in the MJQ's The Last Concert (2 LPs, Atlantic SD2-909 1198) were more extended and linear. The timing was right on the button, I thought, listening to Charles Mingus on Ah Um (Columbia/Classic CS 8171). No one could call the Series 2's sound "sweet," but it clearly laid out the music entirely unmolested by man or beast.
The Series 2 was somewhat more detailed than the original Premier 15—in The Last Concert, the length of the decay of Milt Jackson's vibes in the venue's acoustic gave me goosebumps. Each bar was struck so distinctly, creating a bubble of acoustic information that billowed out, then passed very naturally into the noise floor. Complicated passages were perfectly presented, with no confusion or smearing.
No question about it, the Series 2 was more accurate, and isn't that what everyone wants? No embellishments, just the unvarnished truth of what's on the vinyl? Well, the price of such accuracy was a slight lack of bloom from top to bottom in comparison to the "Series 1," but despite that there was plenty of gain, and the Series 2 was just as quiet as its progenitor. High gain, low noise—just what you want in a phono stage, tubed or otherwise.
I tried getting back some of the bloom by running the Premier 15 into the 16LS line stage I had on hand, but that design, too, has been transmogrified into its own Series 2, and showed much the same tonal tendency. (I'll offer a full report on the 16LS in a future issue.) The Lamm L2 sounded no warmer, but that preamp's presentation is anything but warm. I wound up getting the best sound from the 15 in a system comprised of the supremely competent Mark Levinson No.32 Reference preamp, the van den Hul GLA IV cartridge mounted to the Forsell Air Force One turntable/tonearm, and Linn Klimax power amps on Linn's Komri loudspeakers.
The articulation of Mingus's powerful hands plucking his bass sailed right through this system, just as Percy Heath's bass had on The Last Concert. But overall, the Series 2's bass was ever so slightly dry in comparison to the original Premier 15's—tighter, more articulated, more harmonic, more palpable. But the acoustic tailback died out faster than with the original 15, which perhaps was what created that impression of tight but slightly dry. I noted the same in the midrange and highs.
Which is "better": a more accurate component when your system already sounds analytical and dry, or a unit that might warm things up just a hair, with a touch more acoustic bloom? We are supposed to be enjoying ourselves, after all.
Every little quibble I had with the original Premier 15 has been addressed in the Series 2. But I'd spend my own hard-earned cash on the first Premier 15, for its slightly more lush presentation. At least the way I have my system balanced at the present. After all, through careful choice of components, stands, wires, and all the requisite audiophile effluvia one does voice a system to something, we hope, pleasing to the music-loving soul in all of us.
It seems to me that the sounds of the very best components are moving so close to each other that it's getting harder and harder to tell whether you're listening to a tubed or a solid-state unit. It's all a balancing act anyway. If your system is a bit dry and analytical, if you're in need of a "wet" rather than a dry phono stage, forget the Series 2 Premier 15. If, on the other hand, your system sounds wet and bloomy and could use some precision and directness, well, buddy, it's Miller time!—Jonathan Scull