Conrad-Johnson ACT2 line preamplifier Page 2

"Polypropylene caps have about [1%] the dielectric absorption of cheap capacitors. Polystyrene caps are two or three times better than that—and the Teflon parts we use in the ACT2 are fractionally better than polystyrene, although at a substantial increase in cost. The same is true with resistors—the off-the-shelf models used in mass-manufactured products cost fractions of a cent, whereas the Vishay resistors we use cost several dollars each. We use 24 in the volume control alone, and another 40 throughout the circuits. That adds up. But they're worth the price, because we haven't found anything that lets more of the signal pass through unaffected. And that translates into greater detail and more transparent sound."

Oh. I figured it was something like that. It all makes sense—except for one thing: Why does it take 100 hours of signal coursing through them for the capacitors to blossom sonically?

"I told you I wished physical capacitors acted more like theoretical ones," said Johnson. "I have no explanation for why it happens, but it clearly does."

It is easier to act than to think
I was consistently astounded by the amount of musical detail the ACT2 delivered. You're probably expecting me to rave about image specificity and holographic soundstaging and all that rot, but I won't—other than to say that the ACT2 did all those audiophile tricks extremely well.

But that kind of obsession with details runs counter to the ACT2's real strength, which was presenting music as a whole. Yes, it delivered details without fuzz, blur, overhang, or smearing. I heard deep into the soundstage, and it delivered the locations of instruments with scary precision. That sort of thing is definitely pretty cool, but it's all just details.

What the ACT2 presented was music—the whole schmeer, not just the room the music came in or the breath that propelled it or the sound of rosin flaking off a bow as it dug into a string. Of course, any really good audio product allows you to focus on the performance or on the piece itself rather than on the component parts of the sound; the ACT2 took that up a level.

Valentin Silvestrov's Silent Songs (CD, ECM New Series 1898/99) could almost have been written to showcase the ACT2's strengths. Silvestrov requests that the vocalist perform these 24 songs—settings of texts by Pushkin, Baratynsky, Shevchenko, Mandelstam, Lermontov, Tyutchev, Yesenin, Zhukovsky, Keats, and Shelley—as softly as possible. Baritone Sergey Yakovenko complies with a performance that never rises above a sigh, and that with a lesser preamplifier would probably have me reaching for the volume control. Through the ACT2, however, soft does not mean "lacking in character or fullness"; I heard Yakovenko's strength, made even more impressive by his restraint. Yakovenko's voice sounded flat-out gorgeous, and filled the room as substantially as sunlight or warmth. Not bad for something that's just so much air.

The ACT2's way with voices was a source of unalloyed pleasure. The human voice is something for which the species has a particularly refined BS detector, so when I find an audio component that does it justice, I know its designer is really on to something. Bill Conrad has shown in the ART a remarkable flair for this particular test, but the ACT2 constitutes one heck of an encore.

My old friend Barry Carl sent me his The SoLow Project (CD, Bare Ink Music) just as the ACT2 was starting to cook. Barry, a Juilliard-trained classical bass singer and french-horn player, is the former bass of Rockapella. He also plays electric bass guitar, with which he accompanies himself on Seven Spirituals for Two Basses on The SoLow Project. (Do the titles start to make sense now?)

On "Steal Away," the power of Carl's voice is cloaked in velvet. Once again, the ACT2 delivered the sense of power and restraint while also emphasizing the sheer size of Carl's instrument—his voice, I mean. (Barry's a big guy who plays a regular-sized bass.) That deep voice and the velvet burble of Carl's bass accompaniment contrast with the somewhat small acoustic of the BassMint StewJo, which I've never seen, but which sounds similar in size to my listening room (12' by 25' by 8.5'). There's not a lot of resonant support there, but it doesn't sound overly dry either. In fact, it sounds like a nice room to listen to music in—or to perform it in, for that matter. My point is that the ACT2 put me there, in a room quite distinct from my own, listening to basses electric and human. When the music is as compelling as Barry Carl's is, that's not a bad place to be at all.

A different room, very different music, and a completely different set of challenges were presented by Till Fellner's traversal of Book I of J.S. Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–869 (CD, ECM New Series 1853/54), which was Stereophile's "Recording of the Month" for June 2004. On these discs, the room is larger and harder—you get a hint of ringing in the acoustic, though not enough to distract from the lean textures and effortlessly spun lines of these preludes and fugues. Even more compelling was the ACT2's dynamic resolution—or, perhaps I should say, Fellner's command of dynamic shifts and shadings as revealed by the ACT2.

This is great Bach—clear and clean but deeply emotive. Fellner obviously loves Bach, and leavens the bleakness of the fugues with brilliant flashes of warmth. The ACT2 laid both emotions as bare as it did the lively acoustic of Vienna's Jugendstiltheater. That balance was one I never tired of.

Sow an act; reap a habit
There's no question the ART was a giant step forward, but Conrad-Johnson's ACT2 preamplifier forges a new path. Yes, at $12,000 it is a hideously expensive preamplifier that I could not afford to buy. However, my brief is not to review the audio products I can afford, but those that merit scrutiny—and there's no question that the ACT2 raises the bar for tube preamplifiers.

The ACT2 is physically gorgeous—a work of art as beautiful to behold as it is to listen to. And once it had burned in those crucial hundred hours, it was a revelation—as was every recording I listened to through it. In that, the ACT2 is like the ART, or like art itself: I may not know what it is, but I recognize it when I hear it. And to hear it is to want it.

I'm sure glad I'm not Conrad-Johnson, though. This will be a tough ACT to follow.