Conrad-Johnson PV10 preamplifier Sam Tellig PV10B January 2002
The PV10B preamp, too, is a reprise of history. A direct descendant of such earlier C-J preamps as the PV1 and PV2, it's plain and simple, with no frivolous features. It's relatively cheap, has been upgraded over the years, and the phono-stage version is an especially good buy.
Despite dumping on me the entire contents of his car's trunk when he visisted to install C-J's MV60 power amplifier, Tor Sivertsen knows not to overload me with gear. He was more interested in my auditioning the PV10B preamplifier, which for many years was a Class B staple of Stereophile's "Recommended Components." "We'd love for you to listen to the PV10B and see it back in 'Recommended Components,' " he explained. "Come this March, it will have been 13 years since we introduced the original PV10."
How could I refuse?
The PV10B, now Conrad-Johnson's least expensive preamp, comes two ways: as just a line stage, for $1295 (aka the Premier 10BL); or as a full-featured preamp, with phono stage, for $1595. That's just $300 extra for the phono stage—or $400, if you buy the line-stage-only version and later have a phono stage retrofitted. A good deal.
The phono stage has gobs of gain—possibly a little too much for my Shure Ultra 500 moving-magnet cartridge. Tor tells me the phono stage will accommodate most moving-coil cartridges—down to about 0.5mV of output. (The ideal would be around 0.8 or 1.0mV.) The PV10B inverts phase, by the way, which means you'll need to reverse your speaker wires on one end.
Here's the good stuff. I found the PV10B's line stage to be very quiet for a tube preamp, but I heard somewhat more noise through the phono stage (a low-level hum that didn't intrude on the music, at least not with the Shure Ultra 500). It delivered full, rich, dynamic sound to the MV60 power amp—and to the McIntosh MC2102, for that matter. Not surprisingly, as I could hear through both power amps, the PV10B lost out to the much more expensive 17LS line stage—I lost some resolution, and I could have done with even more dynamics, more bass control. But considering the price, I'm not complaining.
For kicks, I replaced the PV10B with a passive preamp—the Purest Sound Systems P500—with both the MV60 and the MC2102 power amps. Sure enough, I heard more resolution from the Rega Jupiter CD player with the passive preamp. But the PV10B gave me a richer, more dynamic sound, and exceptional soundstage layering—the PV10B's main strengths, it seemed to me.
I noted, however, a slight upper-midrange emphasis with the PV10B, compared to the passive preamp or the Premier 17LS line stage—not exactly the ideal match for the MV60 power amplifier, I thought, which itself seemed a bit on the lively side. (The Premier 17LS seemed just perfect.)
When Corey Greenberg (now a TV personality on NBC's Today show) reviewed the PV10A for Stereophile, way back in June 1993 (Vol.16 No.6), he said, "the Conrad-Johnson PV10A would be my first choice in a full-featured preamp for under a thousand dollars."
But the PV10B's price is $1595 with phono stage, and for me, that poses a problem. What was a bargain in 1993 seems less of a buy at the end of 2001, even though the PV10B's power supply and audio circuits are significant improvements over the PV10A's.
Note, too, that the PV10B is a bare-bones preamplifier: no balance control, no mono switch (a drawback for those of us who listen to old monaural LPs), and, of course, no tone controls. And despite upgrades of its internal parts, the PV10B has a captive power cord. And its power supply is internal—perhaps the reason I heard some low-level hum with the phono stage cranked up.
I really do love Conrad-Johnson gear—I think I'll have to buy that 17LS—but now, in what will soon be 2002, the PV10B just didn't do it for me. It lacked the exceptional resolution and the killer low price necessary for a current recommendation. Go passive, if you can (I'm sure Bill Conrad would advise you otherwise). Better yet, perhaps, go up in the Conrad-Johnson line—if not to a Premier 17LS, then to a PV14L.—Sam Tellig