Conrad-Johnson PV10 preamplifier Page 3
The PV10A's most striking weakness is its lack of detail in comparison with a top-ranked preamp like the Melos SHA-1. While the budget C-J is no slouch in this area, I heard a distinct reduction in the amount of recorded detail when switching between the PV10A and the Melos. Things like the air riding on top of brushed cymbals, space between and behind instruments and voices, and subtleties in complex mixes were consistently less clear with the C-J than with the Melos. On rich sonic tapestries like Los Lobos' Kiko and Jimi Hendrix's "1983: A Merman I Should Turn To Be" from Electric Ladyland, the always-musical PV10A nevertheless failed to resolve information that was clearly obvious with the identically priced but phono-stage-less Melos SHA-1.
The PV10A also fell quite short of the Melos's rendition of depth and soundstaging, which is the best I've heard from a preamp and a cruel comparison for preamps at any price. As good as it was, the C-J just couldn't give that sense of "reach out and touch the performers" that I regularly hear from the Melos.
The unbelievable new Ry Cooder/Vishwa Bhatt CD A Meeting by the River (Water Lily Acoustics WLA-CS-29-CD, reviewed in April), a Blumlein-miked Kavi Alexander special that will utterly blow you away, is one of the most yer-room-disappears recordings I've ever heard. Through the Melos, with my eyes wide open and staring over at the ProAcs, Muse, and VTLs, I could clearly picture Ry and Vishwa and their slide guitars, as well as Ry's son Joachim on dumbek and my homeboy Sukhvinder Singh Namdhari on tabla; I kid you not; the recording is that scary!
With the PV10A, though, the recording's startling sense of space was lessened. The acoustics of the chapel in which it was recorded sounded much smaller and seemed drier, with less apparent ambience surrounding the instruments. The sound seemed "rounded-off," with a loss of the living, breathing air that surrounds the musicians and their instruments when heard with the Melos in the chain.
"Rounded-off." That's as good a one-word description of the PV10A as I can muster. Even though it does absolutely nothing in the world to irritate, bore, or fatigue, the C-J rounds off the sound here, there, and here again until the net result is a smaller, less alive overall presentation.
But really, is it strictly fair to compare the sound of the PV10A to that of the Melos when the C-J is a full-featured preamp with a tape-monitor loop, balance control, and phono stage, while the SHA-1 has none of those things, and only two (now three) inputs to boot? Shouldn't the PV10A be compared to something more, well, comparable? According to Gary Galo in Stereophile's "Recommended Components," the "best under-$1000 preamplifier" on the market is Adcom's Class C-ranked $800 GFP-565, so I borrowed one from dealer Audio Systems of Austin, Texas, to compare with the PV10A in both my He-Man and Real World rigs.
What the PV10A does right
Since the PV10A's line stage is inverting, I swapped the phono cartridge leads when listening to the C-J during the comparisons with the polarity-correct Adcom; for digital playback comparison, I flipped the polarity-inversion switch on the Theta Basic II. Listening to the PV10A and the Adcom GFP-565 back-to-back at matched levels, it was immediately obvious which preamp I'd rather own: the PV10A. The C-J doesn't have the line-stage performance of the cool-man Melos SHA-1, but in the much more relevant comparison with the GFP-565, the PV10A was clearly the more musical preamp.
For analog playback, the C-J had it all over the Adcom. While the $800 solid-state GFP-565 is a nice preamp for the bucks, the $995 PV10A brought me a lot closer to the kind of sound I normally hear from my reference system. Phono playback through the C-J was significantly warmer and fuller through the low end than through the Adcom, which tended toward a lean, understated character through the bass range. Compared to the Exposure XVII preamp I'm using as a phono stage with the Melos SHA-1, the Adcom erred on the lean and analytical side, while the PV10A swang to the warm and fat end. Given my druthers, I prefer "juuuuust right," but I'll tell you all about it when I write about the Exposure.
The C-J's low-end warmth gave it a much more musical and involving character with groove-heavy music than the Adcom preamp. "Angels With Dirty Faces," off Los Lobos' Kiko (footnote 3), sounded faster and more dynamic with the PV10A. While the Adcom's bass was tighter, it sounded a bit pinched and colder in overall comparison. In addition, the C-J's sense of space was markedly better than the Adcom's, which tended toward a more distant presentation and a more recessed midrange. Listening to the Allman Brothers' cover of Muddy's "Trouble No More" from their very first LP (Allman Brothers Band, Atco SD 33-308), I heard the same things I'd heard on Kiko: The PV10A had a much warmer sound, with better rhythmic drive and bounce, and the sense of dimensional space was clearly better than the Adcom GFP-565.
Footnote 3: Good luck finding this on LP; no domestic vinyl was pressed. I had to wait for weeks before Waterloo Records got a Dutch pressing in, and I paid 20 clams for it once they did. Maybe Chad "Pusherman" Kassem at Acoustic Sounds will get hold of a stash.—Corey Greenberg