Conrad-Johnson Premier 3 preamplifier J. Gordon Holt, May 1985
Conrad-Johnson's top-of-the-line preamp the Premier Three ($2895), is equipped with tubes that C-J claims have been chosen for the best possible sonic qualities. The manufacturer specifically advises against trying other brands (a popular pastime among tube enthusiasts) lest they degrade the sound.
The control lineup on the Premier Three is identical to that on most high-end preamplifiers except for the tape monitor provisions, which are more flexible than most. There are two tape loops and a front panel switch to select the output from either deck. Both decks are fed from a common Tape Out point, but the source selector can be used to select the output signal from either deck as the input to the preamp, thus permitting cross-copying in either direction, that is, deck 1 to 2, or 2 to 1.
This arrangement has one drawback. It is possible, by setting the selector to a deck that is passing signal through it (as when recording or monitoring its own input), to throw the system into full-level oscillation which is quite capable of damaging the loudspeakers. The instructions warn the user to avoid this, but they do not spell out how to cross-copy the correct way. Audiophiles may be intelligent, but it takes more than a little braininess to scope out the logic of CJ's tape switching! It would make more sense to eliminate the tape settings on the selector and use the Tape 1/Tape 2 switch to rearrange the order of the loop connections. With the Tape Out receptacles isolated, you could not inadvertently throw the system into oscillation.
For the benefit of those who own a Premier Three, or a PV5 which uses the same odd arrangement, here are instructions on how to cross-copy from Deck 1 to Deck 2. First, turn down the record level on Deck 2. Set the Selector to Tape 1, to feed Deck 1's output into the preamp. This will deliver the Tape 1 signal to both Tape Out connections and then to both deck inputs. Adjust Deck 2's record level and copy away! The Tape Select switch determines which deck's output signal you will hear when copying. For example, Tape 1 monitors Deck 1's output, Tape 2 monitors Deck 2's output. In most cases, you'll want to monitor the output of the deck that you're copying to.
Like all tubed components, the Premier Three should be turned off when not in use. It utilizes a relay that keeps warm-up and turn-off bangs from getting through, but I cannot understand why there must be a 90-second warm-up delay. I have never known a tubed preamp to make plops after 30 seconds, and while 90 seconds doesn't look like much time on paper, it seems interminable when one is itching to play a record,
So how does it sound? Superb! The Premier Three combines all the things I like abow tube sound with very little of what I don't like! It has the silky sweet, textureless high end and startling, almost palpable aliveness and immediacy so typical of tubed components, but has virtually none of their high-end dullness, mid-bass heaviness, and extreme low-end sparseness. Its rendition of depth and front-to-back perspectives is simply amazing, and inner detailingthe ability to separate individual voices in a choir, and to place each in its own space73151;is as good as I have heard from any preamplifier. It is quite the equal of the Klyne SK-5.
Also, it is very quiet. At full gaina level at which it will easily fill the room with sound from a moderate-output moving-coil cartridgethe phono stage produces only a muted rushing noise that is readily masked by the surface noise from non-dbxed discs (footnote 1).
In all fairness to the competition, however, I must admit that there is still some of that ol' tube coloration. The midbass is not quite as controlled as that of the Klyne SK-5, and neither is the deep bass quite as solid or deep. While the C-J's extreme high end is more open and airy than that of any tubed preamp Fve heard (I've not heard the Audio Research SP-10), it is not equal in either respect to that of the Klyne. Also, I have heard more broad and deep scundstage presentation. In terms of accuracy, I would have to rate the Premier Three a notch or two below the Klyne. But oh, what a gorgeous sound the C-J makes!
Footnote 1: The C-J's hiss, incidentally, has a peculiar quality to it. With the gain cranked way up so the hiss is clearly audible (at a control setting that would blow everything apart if you tried to play a record, there is a distinct feeling of spaciousness from the speakers. It is almost as though you are listening to a crossed pair of mikes in an empty hail, one with no particular character. This would seem to end support to speculation from some quarters that the superior rendition of low-level ambience from analog tape may in fact he an illusion, caused by the randomness of the tape hiss whose spectral content is quite similar to that of the CJ's phono hiss.J. Gordon Holt