Conrad-Johnson Premier Eleven power amplifier Sam's Space, February 1994
Sam Tellig wrote about the Premier Eleven in February 1994 (Vol.17 No.2):
The Premier Eleven is not a 300B amp, but what the heck—I have to fit it in somewhere.
Some months ago I was favorably impressed with the Conrad-Johnson MV-125, a 125Wpc stereo amp that retailed for $3995. I had borrowed the amp from Howie Mandel and thought it offered good tube-bang for the buck. What I liked most about it was the same thing Martin Colloms liked in his review (footnote 1): a sense of spaciousness, the presentation of the recorded acoustic. This was a big, rich, generous tube amplifier. But I wouldn't rank it tops in terms of clarity. Also, I was bothered by a certain glare in the upper midrange/lower treble which I've come to associate with the GE 6550 output tube. Like Dick Olsher, I'm not particularly keen on the tube and got very disappointing results when I substituted a quartet of 6550s (from the Premier Eleven) for the KT88s in my McIntosh 275 Commemorative Edition. I lost clarity and got more glare—the sound turned harder, fuzzier.
In this regard, too, I think that the Jadis Defy-7, which uses a total of twelve 6550s, is lacking in subtlety, sweetness, definition, and detail compared to the more costly Jadis JA 80 monoblocks. The Defy-7 is a little crude in comparison to the more raffin' Jadises.
So, what about the Con-John?
I believe the Premier Eleven was originally going to be the MV-70 and was to retail for around $2500. The MV-125 was to stay in the line. But instead of the MV-70, we got the Premier Eleven, which retails for $3295. I'm sure there are changes (especially cosmetic) which have added to the manufacturing expense. The Premier Eleven is one of the more handsome Conrad-Johnson amps. The beautiful, glowing tubes aren't hidden behind a plain-jane faceplate—the glass is on display, where it should be (footnote 2). The power is rated at 70Wpc.
I tried the Premier Eleven first with the Martin-Logan Aerius. Bass wasn't particularly tight or taut. There was a nice spaciousness, or palpability, to the soundstage, but I was not overwhelmed by the amp's ability to come clear with what was being presented. I decided to put the amp aside and try it later with the ProAc Response 1s.
I met more success with these small speakers, perhaps because the amp wasn't being asked to do very much in the bass. The whole sound was very pleasant—nothing to bite me on the ear, none of the dry quality I usually hear from solid-state. The soundstage was spacious, but not to the degree I heard with the MV-125. (Unfortunately I didn't have both amps on hand at the same time for direct comparison.)
When I substituted the Mac 275, I heard a fuller bottom end with the ProAcs—although the Mac doesn't have the greatest degree of bass control. I also heard more apparent detail and resolution, and less glare, with the Mac. In comparison, the C-J sounded slightly veiled, as if a soft-focus filter had been applied to the lens.
The glory of the MV-125 was its big, wide, deep soundstage, which had a great sense of the musicians' palpable presence. The Premier Eleven has some of that too, but not as much. But it sells for 82.5% of the MV-125's price. The bigger amp, with its four output tubes per side (eight total), really filled the room with sound. If it didn't produce the greatest degree of transparency or definition, it was great in its ability to re-create the acoustic and convey atmosphere.
The Premier Eleven sounded smaller than the MV-125. In fact, the Premier Eleven reminded me of another amp I used to have: the Conrad-Johnson MV-50, which used EL34 output tubes and used to retail for around $1500. The Premier Eleven was pleasant to listen to. Vocals had an easy, natural quality to them, and it produced a good sense of air. In these respects, the amp is typically Conrad-Johnson, and fans of this sound will not be disappointed. But for $3250 I found myself wanting more: more detail, resolution, soundstage, focus, tightness of bass...
I know inflation has taken its toll—if this amp was the MV-70 and retailed for under $2500, I could be considerably more positive. Yes, the Premier Eleven is at least 62.5% as good as the MV-125. The trouble is, it sells for 82.5% of the MV-125's price.—Sam Tellig
Footnote 1: July 1992, Vol.15 No.7, p.122.
Footnote 2: A cage is supplied, but most users probably won't want to use it—unless they're trying to protect kids or cats.—Sam Tellig