Audio Valve Conductor preamplifier Page 2

The Conductor operated flawlessly during its tenure here, as I would have expected: my Audio Valve Eclipse has proved to be the most reliable piece of audio electronics I've ever owned.

The hearing is believing
As I fired up the Conductor for the first time, I had a thought. Given this preamp's lofty price, it would be nice to be able to say that it was completely uncolored, and had no sonic shortcomings whatsoever.

A few days of listening later, it had become clear that, without equivocation, I could say just that. Three months of listening later, having found no flaws whatsoever in the Conductor's sound, I thought I'd focus on what it did unusually well.

If you read my Follow-Up on the Audio Valve Eclipse preamp in the June 2008 issue, you might recall that I was very impressed with its quick, uncolored, kick-slamming, solid-state–like bass performance. The Conductor shared that trait in the bottom end, but seemed capable of even more. I have known every component in my reference system for many years, and it seemed that, with the Conductor in place, my system was capable of far deeper bass than I'd ever realized it was. I don't necessarily mean some technical lower-limit extension per se. It just seemed that with every well-engineered recording I played that had significant bass content, every instrument seemed to have a more authoritative presence below 60Hz that suggested live music.

I listened to Jon Hassell's latest album, Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street (CD, ECM 2077), one week after I'd heard the entire CD performed by Hassell and his group at Carnegie Hall. This quintet, consisting of electronically manipulated trumpet, violin, and bass guitar, as well two musicians retrieving sampled sounds from laptops, create delicately atmospheric yet powerful soundscapes that are both intellectually challenging and accessible. On "Time and Place," the lower register of Peter Freeman's bass as it filled Carnegie Hall created an "air of thunder" more reminiscent of pipe-organ pedal notes in a great cathedral. The Conductor perfectly reproduced this effect from the CD, with a sound so arresting I held back a bit on the volume—I was worried about damaging the woofers of my Alón Circe speakers.

What you might expect from a preamp with such a massive—some might say overengineered—power supply is impressive dynamic range. This was indeed one of the Conductor's greatest strengths, best illustrated by Helmuth Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival's recording of Krzysztof Penderecki's Credo, a blockbuster work for chorus and orchestra (CD, Hänssler Classic 09.311). When, in the opening passage—very difficult to reproduce accurately—the full-throated chorus breaks out, there was no hint of congestion or coagulation, no trace of distortion. I flinched when the bass drum kicked me in the face, and lower-level passages were equally impressive. When bass Thomas Quasthoff entered in Credo in Unum Deum, his holographically reproduced body appeared midstage, and it was easy to "see" his vocal phrasing technique.

The Conductor brought out every little subtlety in the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival performance of Tomiko Kohjiba's The Transmigration of the Soul, from Festival (CD, Stereophile STPH007-2). In the opening passage, I could hear clearly when the melodic lines of soprano Kendra Colton and flutist Carol Wincenc "de-linked." I could also clearly follow the slightly enhanced downstrokes of cellist Peter Wyrick's bowing. From my notes: "pinpoint staging, gobs of space and air, flawless timpani, shattering dynamics."

The Conductor's dynamic range was so wide that I sometimes had trouble deciding where to set the volume control. I began "Mansour's Gift," from my jazz quartet Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2), at a level at which I could comfortably follow every subtle, low-level electronic effect in bassist Chris Jones's introduction, while marveling at the subtle dynamic envelope of Mark Flynn's Korean tuk drum. At this level, however, the crashing fortissimo in the descending passage for piano, bass, and drums near the end of the track was so loud that my wife demanded I turn the volume down.

That's not to say that the Conductor didn't excel at delicate jazz passages. "Tears Transforming," from the Tord Gustavsen Trio's The Ground (CD, ECM 1892), enveloped me in a warm, delicate bath of liquid piano sound. On "Original Faubus Fables," from Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (LP, Candid 9005), the Conductor presented Mingus's warm bass lines as a clearly defined bedrock for trumpeter Ted Curson's biting, brassy, burnished solo.

I also cued up the great rockabilly version of Duke Ellington's "Caravan" from Santo and Johnny's eponymous first album (LP, Canadian American CALP 1001, footnote 1). As I noted how tightly and tunefully the uncredited studio bassist and drummer churned through this tune, I was able to study every lick of Santo Farina's (then a teenager) masterful upper-register lap-steel solo, as the Conductor reproduced every nuance with pristine splendor.

The Conductor's upper-register purity went hand in hand with its rapid and undistorted transient abilities to make it a spectacular showcase for percussion recordings. The wide, deep soundstage of Charles Wuorinen's recording of his Ringing Changes for Percussion Ensemble (LP, Nonesuch H71263) placed every instrument in its appropriate space, each on its own bed of air. The entrancing low-level pianissimos leading into "barking and crashing" fortissimos presented a similar challenge in volume control to what I'd faced when playing the Attention Screen disc.

I won't go into detail about the countless familiar recordings with which the Conductor's resolution of inner detail let me hear, say, woodwind countermelodies under a dense orchestral passage, bassoons doubling choral baritones, or bass-synth countermelodies—none of which, at the risk of using an audiophile cliché, I'd ever heard before.

And don't let the Conductor's name fool you into thinking it's only for lovers of classical and jazz. Playing the title track of Hole's Celebrity Skin (CD, Geffen DGCD-25164) at about 97dB, as I twitched around the room to the slamming drum and kick-ass bass lines, I was still able to clearly follow the lyrics sung by the backing vocalists over the din of distorted guitar.

The comparing is revealing
I had no other preamps on hand that were anywhere near the Conductor's price to do a fairer comparison, and it's been some time since the Reference 3 was sent back to Audio Research. However, readers can refer to my comparison of the ARC and the Audio Valve Eclipse in my Follow-Up on the latter in the June 2008 issue.

It was fascinating to compare the Conductor with the Eclipse with a wide range of recordings. The two preamps, clearly cut from the same sonic cloth, both had ultra-low levels of coloration. However, there was a slight difference in their midrange perspectives. The Eclipse seemed a bit more forward, the Conductor a tad laid-back. With the latter, it was as if I'd moved 10 rows back in the orchestra section of a concert hall. Although one of the Eclipse's greatest strengths was its tight, clean, deep, kick-ass bass, the Conductor, as mentioned above, seemed even better in this area. The high-frequency characteristics of the two preamps were virtually identical.

One area in which the Conductor bettered the Eclipse: No matter how densely modulated the music, the Conductor never sounded as if it was working hard to produce its effortless, pristine, crystal-clear sound. With some of the more demanding orchestral works and recordings, the Eclipse never sounded congealed or congested, but I sensed it was giving all it had to ensure a realistic reproduction of the music. By comparison, the Conductor always sounded effortless: for all it cared, it could have been reproducing a string quartet rather than an orchestra.

These characteristics were directly related to the preamps' reproductions of soundstages. While the Eclipse presented detailed, pinpoint images on a wide, deep soundstage, the Conductor's stage was even wider and deeper. But the differences went further than that. There was an openness to the Conductor's soundstaging that I hadn't heard before from a preamp. Although the Conductor's superb presentation of detail rendered ambience and hall cues perfectly, I never had the sense that it was reproducing music that had been recorded in a confined space, as I felt with the Eclipse. It was a paradox: The Conductor sounded so open that it seemed to almost make the walls of concert halls disappear, while simultaneously rendering ambience cues that made it easier to hear those walls.

The Eclipse's wide dynamic contrasts were bettered by the Conductor's. A case in point: With the Eclipse hooked up, I cued up Attention Screen's "Mansour's Gift" and began listening at the same volume level as I had with the Conductor. But this time, when the cacophonous fortissimo crash came near the end of the piece, my wife did not tell me to turn the volume down. I could say that, while the Eclipse is capable of ppp/fff dynamic contrasts, the Conductor is capable of pppp/ffff.

While this comparison clearly revealed the superiority of the Conductor over the Eclipse, it also reaffirmed what a rare bargain the Eclipse is.

Sadly, the Conductor is leaving the podium
Without exception, the Audio Valve Conductor produced stunning, flawless sound during the three delightful months it spent in my house, and exceeded the performance of my Audio Valve Eclipse—no easy task. I unhesitatingly recommend its consideration to anyone able to spend $13,995 on a line stage. Unfortunately, I am not a member of that club, so it's back to the Eclipse for me.

I also strongly recommend that, given the Conductor's unusual size and appearance, you see the preamp in the flesh before buying—and take your significant other with you. But still—at no time during the Conductor's tenure here did my wife comment on its appearance or the amount of space it occupied in our living room.

Well done, Herr Becker, and keep up the good work!

Audio Valve
US distributor: Ray of Sound
390 Cheerful Court
Simi Valley, CA 93065
(805) 444-6130