Almost two years ago, Conrad-Johnson's Lew Johnson came to Santa Fe while visiting his western dealers. We were chatting about acquaintances in the industry as I showed him the new house I'd barely moved into when he spread a blueprint across a stack of record boxes and showed me a design for a new product.
If you review hi-fi long enough, you get to the point where you've heard it all before. Actually, there are several versions of that point: One is where you've heard all the claims before, and the other is where you could have sworn you've actually heard this component before.
As part of my employer's never-ending attempts to transform me from an engineer into a manager, I am constantly being sent to seminars and courses, some of which are eminently practical—like "Managers and the Law," which taught us how to avoid getting ourselves and our company sued. Others are more esoteric, like a recent seminar on "paradigm shifts." A paradigm shift, we were told, is a fundamental change in the way we look at things, arising from a change in a belief so inherent that it's unconscious.
It says something for the state of technology that, after a quarter of a century, there still is no authoritative explanation for why so many high-end audiophiles prefer tubes. Tubes not only refuse to die, they seem to be Coming back. The number of US and British firms making high-end tube equipment is growing steadily, and an increasing number of comparatively low-priced units are becoming available. There is a large market in renovated or used tube equipmentI must confess to owning a converted McIntosh MR-71 tunerand there are even some indications that tube manufacturers are improving their reliability, although getting good tubes remains a problem.
Conrad-Johnson launched the all-tube Premier 7 in 1988 as an all-out sonic assault on the state of the preamplifier art. A great deal has happened since then. For starters, C-J has gotten a great deal of feedback from customers, dealers, and reviewers. None other than J. Gordon Holt (Stereophile, November 1988, Vol.11 No.11) concluded that: "It appears that nothing which could possibly have improved its sound had been omitted....It is, in fact, about as close as any tubed preamp has come to being perfectly neutral in sound—in nearly all respects." In the now-defunct Sounds Like... (issue 3), Sam Burstein concluded that "It is, with certain reservations, absolutely delightful to one's musical senses." And, speaking of absolutes, even Harry Pearson gave the Premier 7 a rave in the first round of his preamplifier survey (TAS, issue 58). As icing on the cake, John Atkinson (Stereophile, Vol.12 No.8) concluded that the 7 had "the requisite degree of sonic magic to make it a Class A recommended preamplifier."
Whenever an audio high-ender thinks about tubes, he usually thinks about Audio Research. This is only natural, because Audio Research Corporation was almost single-handedly responsible for saving tubes from oblivion in the early '70s when everyone else switched to solid-state. But ARC was soon joined in its heroic endeavor by an upstart company called Conrad-Johnson, which entered the fray in 1977 with its PV-1 preamp, priced at an affordable (even then) $500.
Last September, in Vol.15 No.9, I started my quest for the Ultimate Kilobuck Tube Amp with reviews of the $995 Panor/Dynaco ST70-II and the $1695 Nobis Cantabile. While neither really fit the bill—the Dynaco fell a bit short in terms of sonics, while the Nobis was priced a bit higher than a thou—they got me thinking of the Ultimate Kilobuck Tube Preamp. Because the greatest amp in the world can only sound as good as whatever drives it, and there's no sense looking for a kick-ass affordable tube amp if you're going to play Scrooge McDuck when it comes to the preamplifier.
I must admit that, for a long time, I found it difficult to accept the idea that a major portion of one's audio budget should be spent on the preamplifier. Speakers, yesthey produce the sound; amps drive the speakers, so they're important. And source components? Well, everyone knows it's garbage in/garbage out. But a preamp? Even the name suggests something that's not quite the real thing, like pre-school, pre-med, or premature. Unlike amplifiers, they don't have to contend with loads that sometimes approach a short circuit, and heat dissipation is not normally a problem. What's the big deal?
As I write, it is garage-sale season here again in Santa Fe, and a recent sign near my home advertised "Over 3000 LPs, good condition, low prices." To my surprise, the seller wasn't a yuppie enamored of his new CD player but a true collector discarding the duplicates and dogs from his collection. 30 minutes later, many LPs heavier—including a mint Flanders & Swan At the Drop of a Hat (footnote 1)—and not too many dollars lighter, I returned to a great night's listening courtesy of the black vinyl disc.
It takes more than passing courage to make another assault on building the world's best tube preamplifier. You face stiff competition from well-established firms like Audio Research, Conrad Johnson, and Counterpoint. Such units can't be made inexpensively, and you face the steadily growing problem of tube supply: it is getting harder and harder to get tubes that are stable, have predictable sound and performance characteristics, and are long-lived. And you have to show audiophiles who have been burned before that you will still be around when they need service.
"Are You a Sharpener or a Leveler?" was the title of my "As We See It" in the February 2009 issue. The terms sharpening and leveling come from work in the field of perception by the early Gestalt psychologists, sharpening referring to the exaggeration of perceived differences, leveling to the minimization of those differences.
My opinions keep changing—more evidence of life before death, I suppose—including my thoughts on audio-system hierarchies. I used to think that preamps were among the most sonically influential components, certainly more so than power amplifiers. I'm not so sure anymore (footnote 1).
It doesn't take a genius to appreciate the audacity of naming a company after Albert Einstein, the iconic science and math whiz. Clearly, company founder and owner Volker Bohlmeier knew what he was doingthis German brand of boutique electronics has enjoyed worldwide critical and marketplace success since its founding more than 20 years ago.
When PR guy Adam Sohmer first told me about the Fosgate Audionics FAP V1, I thought that the impressive-looking device would be the first all-tube preamp-processor—heck, the first tube anything—in my multichannel system. Then I looked closer at the user's manual I'd downloaded from Fosgate's website. Hmmm. No Dolby Digital, no DTS—just Dolby Pro Logic. Of course, the FAP V1 is Jim Fosgate's signature expression of Dolby Pro Logic, and I guess that counts for something. But the more I thought about it, the more interesting a prospect the FAP V1 seemed.