Conrad-Johnson ART Preamplifier Page 3

Alone of all the arts, music moves all around you

But just because the ART offered such precise delineation of small details, don't assume that it slighted the big picture. It most certainly did not. Among the many jewels freshly rediscovered in my vinyl collection, Classic's reissue of Bart—k's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (RCA/Classic LSC-2374) stands out as most revelatory. Neither suite nor symphony, the work is more like a large-scale baroque set of variations on the same theme. It's scored for two separate string sections: the first consists of the first and second violins, first violas, first cellos, and first double basses; the second comprises the third and fourth violins, second violas, second cellos, and second double basses. Both of these sections are set against a percussion section that includes a piano, celesta, and harp in addition to the more conventional drums, cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum, timpani, and xylophone. (I list the instrumentation because the ART made me so acutely aware of each component's contribution to the total sound of the work.)

The Andante tranquillo is slow but intensely passionate---and very much a fugue that, after reaching a fortissimo (rendered with exquisite slam by the ART), is repeated in mirror form (upside down, as it were). As the muted instruments hand the melody off from one section to another, the celesta enters with an insistent ostinato that adds a brilliant, ringing, and most striking touch of tonal color to the proceedings, before the movement gasps to its conclusion in a recapitulation of the solo A with which it began.

Do I go off on a tangent by describing the mechanism of the music? Well, yes---but, as with the instrumentation, the ART made me do it. None of the mechanics are obscured when listening to any superb preamp, but the ART seemed to possess a singular ability to let me grasp the gestalt of any given piece, while also laying bare the components that contributed to the effect of the whole---while, on the third hand, allowing me to just revel in the sheer voluptuous beauty of the sound itself. Listening to that first movement of the Bart—k, I wasn't focusing on the piece's architecture; I was caught up by the sweep of the fugue and was passed headlong from instrument to instrument along with the melody. Yet the structure that informed the piece, planted there so carefully by the composer, was never less than apparent.

How is this an indication of the Conrad-Johnson's superiority? I liken it to the way the clarity and stability of a DVD image reduces fatigue when watching videos. The ease with which every sonic attribute comes through the ART is a sign of how little sonic processing is taking place in the brain itself. If interpretation is, as Susan Sontag claims, the intellect's revenge on art, then I hold that the ART's revenge on interpretation was precisely the way in which it bypassed the intellect by manifesting music without artifact.

Having said that, there's not much I can add by saying how transparent it was---it was supremely so. Or how perfectly it constructed a soundstage---it showed me what was captured on the tape. Or how it reproduced the frequency extremes and everything in between---again, if it was on the tape, the ART revealed it.

Other than the fact that only 250 very wealthy audiophiles can own one (and I'm not one of them), was the ART without flaw? I can't say. I never heard its flaws: On the few occasions I thought I had, changing another component in the system revealed them to be resident in other parts of the chain. Let's just say that I haven't heard its equal, and certainly not its superior.

The height of art is to conceal art

How do I even begin to assess the ultimate value of Conrad-Johnson's ART? Fifteen thousand dollars is a lot of money by any reckoning. But the ART belongs in that very small class of products without peer, and the best of anything does not come cheap. If you must have the best, and if the rest of your system also exists on that exalted plane, then you will be very---exceedingly, even---happy with the ART. It is without compromise. And as for the rest of us, well . . . we can always dream, can't we?