Conrad-Johnson Premier 16LS preamplifier Series 2 Premier 16LS
Conrad-Johnson's Premier 16LS preamplifier and Premier 15 phono stage were recently upgraded to Series status. Like the Series 2 Premier 15 that I reviewed in our March 2002 issue, the changes to the 16LS include the use of faster diodes in the main power-supply rectifier and the main regulators are replaced with higher-current jobbies with a quarter of the "on" impedance, according to C-J's Lew Johnson. In addition, resistors that C-J had felt to be "noncritical" with respect to sound quality were found to be of sonic importance after all, and have been upgraded. The 16LS retails for $8295, the upgrade to Series 2 runs $500 plus shipping.
When I wrote last month's "Follow-Up" on the Series 2 Premier 15 phono stage, I concluded that that unit sounded slightly quieter, cooler, faster, and more extended, with slightly less bloom, than the original version. Now while the Series 2 16LS also sounds slightly more quiet and cool, and perhaps a tad less lush in the midrange, it's actually less changed in its overall sonic character than the Series 2 Premier 15. But whatever—the two revised C-J units sounded fantastic together. Bottom line: The Premier 15 S2 is a phono stage with a rather cool cast, more precise and detailed than the earlier version. Match that with a very slightly warmish preamp like the 16LS S2, revealed in every detail by the Linn Komri that I reviewed last month.
To get the ultimate in transparency, speed, air, openness, and surprise-factor dynamics from the 16LS/15 combo, you'll want a quick and fast turntable/tonearm/cartridge combo. The Forsell Air Force One with a tweaked van den Hul Grasshopper IV GLA cartridge worked perfectly. As did the Koetsu RSP—nice stiff cantilever.
Duke Ellington's Blues in Orbit (Columbia CS 8241) reminded me of how vast a good LP can sound. The layering was amazing, the width and depth astounding, along with a wonderful, joyous swing. And an old LP of the Bill Evans Trio's Trio '65 (Verve V6-6613) reminded me of what "intimate" means. It made me shiver with pleasure.
If you're strictly digital, then, again, something slightly fast and rich in transients might be called for—the original 16LS could be a tad Victorian and somewhat polite at times without ever overcooking it, and more so than the 16LS Series 2.
The 16LS S2's full-toned richness was without excess, and on the Linn Komris I heard every speck of it. On the Utopias, I enjoyed it all, specks notwithstanding—an important distinction. The 16LS S2, especially with the Premier 15 S2 and one of today's high-performance cartridges, could deliver a real thrill.
Back to listening. The piano tone on the SACD remix of Thelonious Monk's Straight, No Chaser (Columbia CK 64886) is magnificent, and Monk's presence behind the keyboard is palpable. Lay a lot of that at the feet of the outstanding clarity and transparency of the 16LS Series 2. Or play Debussy's First Rhapsody, from Florent Héau and Patrick Zygmanowski's hybrid SACD/CD of French Music for Clarinet and Piano (Lyrinx LYR2195), for lushness of tone and harmonics along with space and air. Gorgeous music played as alive.
Naturally playing some of the same music I used during the "Follow-Up" on the revised Premier 15, I found the bass even deeper and tighter on Air's 10,000 Hz Legend (2 LPs, Source/Astralwerks 8 10332 1). The midrange was in fact a tad less textural on Schubert's Trio 1 in B-flat, Op.99 by the Stern/Rose/Istomin Trio (Columbia Masterworks MS 6116), but exquisitely detailed. And the upper midrange and treble were even more extended and linear listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet's The Last Concert (2 LPs, Atlantic SD2-909). Like the Series 2 Premier 15, the 16LS S2 was obviously more linear and more detailed than the previous version—during The Last Concert, Milt Jackson's vibes died out into an acoustic space that gave me fewer goosebumps on the SE version but knocked me out with its clarity and duration.
Is the upgrade worth it to you? Depends on your taste and what you're looking for. You might be surprised and find, on careful listening, that you already have what you want—in which case, be happy. But if you're still looking for sonic nirvana, the combination of the Series 2 versions of the Premier 15 and 16LS might be just the ticket. The latest Conrad-Johnson front-end products are more accurate, with slightly less bloom and more detail. The best components continue to move toward each other in sound.—Jonathan Scull