Conrad-Johnson Premier 15 phono preamplifier Page 2
The Premier 15 was auditioned with a variety of cartridges, including the Grado Reference and Statement, Crown Jewel SE, EMT TU2 (medium-output version), Transfiguration Temper, and Parnassus D.C.t. While each cartridge has its own distinct tonal character, the C-J's sonic disposition shone through.
When you're spending four grand on a phono section, you should expect one that is essentially without sonic character—one that inverts the RIAA curve, and amplifies the signal it's fed without changing it. Unfortunately, that never happens—at least in my experience. Every phono section I've auditioned has had its own particular disposition, but once you reach this economic plateau, there should be no gross deviations from neutral. Tubed phono sections should not be noisy, or noticeably "bloomy" or sluggish; solid-state ones should not sound etched or "mechanical." In fact, the best of both technologies should and can sound remarkably alike.
My experience of tubed phono sections consists of FET "head-amp" stages driving 6DJ8 (6922) MM sections (Audio Research PH3 and PH3SE, Audible Illusions Modulus 3A). Pure-triode 12AX7 sound is different: less analytical and somewhat less detailed, but intoxicatingly rich and creamy in the midband, where most of the musical action is. Some listeners find the 6DJ8 sound a bit thin and analytical, some find the 12AX7 sound somewhat "tubey."
My notes for this review repeat the words "plush" and "liquid." The Premier 15 offered a rich harmonic palette that allowed acoustic instruments to bloom nicely without ripening and rotting. This is no "colored" phono section with soggy bass or syrupy, suffocating highs, but it does have a tonal "character" similar to that of the C-J Premier 12 amps I reviewed last February.
There was a hint of a vivid "glow" in the midrange and upper midrange that enhanced but did not bloat images, and gave them a pleasing, natural solidity—no singing heads without bodies, no ivories without sounding boards. Well-recorded female voices never sounded chesty or congested. While something like Songs of the Auvergne (Vanguard VSD-2090/Analogue Productions APC 0020) is not my thing, I did sit through side one of an original pressing, marveling at the convincing, focused, three-dimensional picture of soprano Netania Davrath standing before me. Her body was intact, but never overwhelmed her head and throat.
The Premier 15 did violins as well as any phono section I've heard, and better than most, getting an ideally rich balance of wood, string, and bow throughout the instrument's range—lush and sonorous, yet with plenty of "bite." In the lower-midrange/upper-midbass region the 15 was exemplary, giving cellos and male voices just the right amount of body and weight. Nat King Cole's Love Is the Thing (DCC Compact Classics LPZ-2029) showcased the 15's strongest suits. The string tone on this Capitol studio recording is luxurious with a slight hint of boxiness, which the 15 delivered perfectly. Cole's voice—close-miked and way larger than life, with an exaggerated chesty emphasis and a slight upper-midrange peak—sounded well focused and tonally correct. While the Premier 15's bass was both extended and well-developed, it was not as clearly defined and focused on the very bottom as some phono sections I've heard. Though there was a slight softening of deep-bass attack, it was still sufficiently authoritative to drive the rhythms of rock music—kick drum and electric bass—without apology.
On top, the Premier 15 was unerringly sweet yet extended, and extremely well focused without "etch." Here's where even modest tube designs have the magic—a balance—that only the best solid-state can approach and, on rare occasions, match. Well, the 15 is far more than a "modest" tube design; its top-octave performance was velvet-smooth and richly detailed.
The 15's handling of large-scale dynamics was just what you'd expect from a phono section endowed with a sophisticated, carefully implemented power supply, and it was equally adept at the small-scale gestures that make recorded music sound "alive." The 15 was the phono section of record for my Sonus Faber Amati Homage review in the June issue—a speaker that portrayed microdynamics better than any other speaker in my experience.
The Premier 15 revealed no serious sonic shortcomings, but, like any tube design—especially one called on to amplify the tiny voltages emanating from a moving-coil cartridge—noise became a factor with such low-output cartridges as the Transfiguration Temper and the Parnassus D.C.t. But even then, I didn't experience the noise as noise per se, but as a lack of background "black." The Premier 15 had sufficient gain for both of those ultra-low-output cartridges (and sufficient headroom to not overload with higher-output moving-iron and moving-magnet cartridges), but with only 53dB of gain, I wouldn't recommend using it with a passive line-stage.
Some listeners will demand a higher level of transparency and greater resolution of inner detail, some of which the Premier 15 sacrifices in favor of a rich, satisfying tonal balance. Some will yearn for greater soundstage depth and the last word in air and reverberant tailing, which the Premier 15 doesn't provide. But the overall performance of this phono preamplifier should make any music lover happy.
Up in the Ayre
Comparisons between the Premier 15 and my reference, the solid-state Ayre K-1, proved fascinating. These two are pinnacles of their respective technologies, so I didn't expect, nor did I get, huge shifts in sound when I switched between them. But there were subtle, significant differences. The solid-state phono section delivered the music on a black bed of interstitial silence, better revealing tiny bits of low-level detail in greater three-dimensional relief. The Ayre's phono section also developed greater soundstage depth, and delivered bass dynamics with somewhat greater focus and authority. But from the midrange up, while the Ayre was neither bright nor thin, the C-J offered both body and, for lack of a better term, a musical "traction" that the Ayre didn't. The tonal balance was not all that different, but the textural difference was.
The Ayre slipped where the C-J gripped—a tiny but compelling piece of the sonic puzzle, but the one that had me staying with the Premier 15 throughout almost all of the review period.
Yes, you'll find some phono sections that are somewhat quieter, some that offer slightly greater transparency, a few that deliver a shade more extension at the frequency extremes or are better able to resolve low-level detail and perhaps yield slightly greater depth—but few will be as well balanced and musically satisfying as the Conrad-Johnson Premier 15. It was neither sluggish nor "speedy," didn't sound syrupy or clinical, and didn't suffer from any obvious tonal anomalies.
What few, minor weaknesses it had were more than overshadowed by its overwhelmingly strong overall performance—especially in the midrange, where it was mesmerizingly good. In the end, if you just sit down and listen to music and forget the little slices of the hi-fi pie, you may very well conclude that the Premier 15 is the phono section you've got to have.