Conrad-Johnson ART Preamplifier Page 2

Music is the art of thinking with sounds

Of course, very few people buy any product simply because it's well built. The only true justification for a $15,000 preamplifier is that it sounds great. Which the ART does. Kind of.

I don't mean that the ART sounds kind of good. My system has never sounded better than it has since I've had the Anniversary Reference Triode. Even though I've changed just about every other component in the system at one time or another, one thing has remained constant: The sound has been involving, rich in timbre and nuance, and staggeringly clear. What I'm struggling with is the concept of the ART possessing a sound of its own. It must, of course (I've just described several of its attributes), but as with the Krell FPB 600 and the Mark Levinson No.33H---the two other most highly evolved audio products with which I have experience---it is far, far easier to describe what the ART doesn't do to sound than to describe any character it has.

This is even more baffling because you'd think that, in the age of the line stage, a preamplifier is a vestigial component. When almost all CD players have a high enough output to drive power amplifiers directly, why do we even need a preamp? Yet it seems we do, because even the Krell KPS-20i and the Levinson No.39, with their high-quality onboard volume controls, consistently sounded their best, in my experience, when matched to a high-quality preamplifier. With most preamps, I could hear some tradeoffs, it's true, but at the end of the day I found myself preferring to use them.

But all those were just your run-of-the-mill Class A preamplifiers, not the ART. The ART's a whole new ballgame.

How so? First, I probably should describe what the ART didn't do---except that's almost too broad a category. It doesn't make coffee and it can't core an apple---okay, I'm being silly---but even the list of audio attributes it lacked is too long to enumerate. It didn't add any haze or blur or warmth of its own. It didn't limit dynamics. It didn't make a crappy record sound like a good one---and it sure didn't make a good disc sound any less so. I could go on, but I've had the ART in my system long enough now that I've forgotten some of the ways that other preamps editorialize the signal.

This doesn't mean that music through the ART lacked character---at least it doesn't if the recording has character to begin with. But it does mean that records I thought I knew well took on a different aspect when I listened to them with the ART in the system. They sounded the same, only much more so.

Take the performance of Mozart's Flute Quartet in D, K.285, from Serenade (Stereophile STPH009-2). Between the mixing and mastering of the disc, I must have listened to K.285 several hundred times, and it found its way into my CD player quite a few times after coming back from the CD plant, as well. But listening through the ART, I was overwhelmed by the sense of being in the acoustic of Santa Fe's St. Francis Auditorium. Of course, capturing that sense of music taking place in a real space is one of John Atkinson's prime directives in making his recordings, but the ART's effortless presentation of all the minute cues that re-create the original venue was unprecedented in my experience.

We recorded K.285 and the Dvorák Serenade, Op.44 in 1996, but we'd recorded the accompanying Brahms Horn Trio in E-flat, Op.40 the previous year, using a slightly different recording chain. Even though we tried to match the microphone positions from one year to the next, we made minor changes in them during the rehearsal stage of the project---these changes and the differences in tonality wrought by the use of the Manley Reference A/D converter and Forssell M-2a microphone preamp compared with the Nagra-D's own electronics were startlingly audible with the ART in the system. They'd always been there, of course, but never as palpably, to my ears, as through the C-J.

Normally, when reviewers speak of such differences being made manifest, it's by way of calling a component some kind of a sonic microscope to be trained upon recordings---a lab tool, of sorts. That's not my intention. The ART didn't highlight the differences between the recording dates, it just presented each event as itself: The similarities predominated, but the differences were not obscured or minimized. "I yam what I yam, an' that's all I yam," quoth Popeye, echoing the burning bush; recordings played through the Anniversary Reference Triode could claim the same.