Conrad-Johnson CAV50 integrated amplifier Page 2

Sound & System
This may not be a very expensive integrated amp, but it's a serious product and merited serious attention. Avoiding Quad ESL-63 electrostatics in case of an acoustic bonfire (if the lab test is any indication), in the main I used Epos ES12, Spendor SP2-2, Sonus Faber Electa Amator II, and Wilson WITT Mk.II loudspeakers. I also gave the horn-loaded Avantgarde Duos that I reviewed in the June Stereophile a bashing with the C-J before the Duos left for their home in Germany. In the event, it was my ears that got the bashing, so loudly did this combination play!

Remarkably, the C-J's innate character suited this costly horn speaker very well; despite the price disparity, I regard it as a good working choice for the Duo. Excessive praise for the CAV50? Further proof of its appealing performance swiftly emerged as the listening tests unfolded.

Ear appeal is a good way of beginning to characterize this C-J's sound. It wasn't as obviously clear, crisp, and detailed as its august equivalent, C-J's Premier Eleven A, or such a high-end preamplifier as the Premier Fourteen. At first I thought the CAV50 lacked detail and image depth, this impression engendered by a noticeable darkened quality, but I was wrong. This darkening wasn't like smoke, obscuring information, but like a tint that reduced the level of aural illumination. But once I grew accustomed to the reduced intensity, I found that much of the musical detail was still present.

As I became adjusted, it was clear that this was a damn fine amplifier. In fact, it comfortably exceeded my past experience of the equivalent combination of PV10A/MV55 separates. This was as it should be: the merging of a vestigial control section with a sensitive power amplifier should result in improved performance. Since I risk making quantitative judgments in reviews, I would estimate the sonic advantage to be of the order of 20%. In fact, the Premier Eleven A power amplifier would have to be partnered with a very fine preamp and superb interconnect cables to catch the CAV50.

As I continued to listen, an inner glow developed—the soundstage "illumination" was less direct, yet remained focused and well defined. Moreover, the sound grew on me; my initial concerns about the soundstage proved unfounded, as the image continued to develop clarity as I listened.

Some of this characterful glow could be ascribed to the tonal quality, which was remarkably rich and deep-hued. While I would hesitate to compare the CAV50 to the finest zero-feedback SE amplifiers for absolute vivacity and accuracy of timbre, its smooth, sweet, natural harmonic line did a powerful job of reminding me of classic tube virtues.

In fact, the CAV50 had an uncanny knack of disposing of much of its competition in this tonal respect, making the others sound by turns surprisingly brittle, glaringly hard, strident, and tinny. The CAV50 was very nice to be with—like a warm, scented bath, and free from aural fatigue.

The mid's mildly darkened quality was matched by a treble that was free from grain or grit; the upper range did not stick out from the mix, as so often occurs.

Re. dynamic range: the CAV50 provided silent backgrounds, even if there was a trace of power-transformer vibration with the UK's more taxing 50Hz supply. Attainable peak sound levels were louder than expected; subjectively, this amplifier clipped very well, sustaining moderate overdrive without drastic impairment. This places it between zero-feedback SE models and higher-feedback solid-state designs: it sounded more like 75W than its rated 50W.

There was some loss of bass impact when the CAV50 was driven hard, though the rest of the range showed little change. The bass sounded pretty competent up to that limit: a little rounded, a touch warm, and yet tuneful and quite agile, with good extension to lower frequencies—subjectively good to 35Hz, but not performing so well at 25Hz. Acoustic double bass was great, and while super-heavy electric bass was somewhat muted when compared with mondo amps, this wasn't unexpected. What was so appealing was the seamless coverage all the way from the midbass to the high treble—a strong unity and consistency of line that inspired confidence. Nothing stuck out in this amplifier; all was a tad laid-back, and none the worse for that.

Dynamic expression was good, if not of Premier level, yet was somehow more involving than many solid-state amplifiers in this price sector. Rhythm and timing were also quite good: certainly satisfying, and rather better than expected in this range.

The Conrad-Johnson CAV50 did well overall in the lab tests, although I had minor reservations concerning its marginal stability under reactive, simulated electrostatic loading, and that trace of low-level hum. Also, its input sensitivity of 700mV is only average; 200-400mV is more desirable in—and typical for—an integrated amplifier.

Conversely, the CAV50 has a neutral, wide-bandwidth power delivery with quite good load tolerance, combined with fairly low distortion and a favorable, low-order harmonic-distortion spectrum.

While these results suggest that you can trust this amplifier to sound consistent in diverse situations, they don't let you know how good it really sounds. Here you must trust your own listening sessions to discover the CAV50's singularly unfatiguing delivery, and its slightly darkened, limpid yet well-detailed presentation.

That easy-listening quality—combined with good rhythm and drive; a fine, deep soundstage; good, dynamic delivery and load drive; and a sweet tonality that held steady throughout the frequency range—qualifies the CAV50 for my provisional view (subject to review by my editor and colleagues) that the CAV50 is of Class A caliber (or 25 points on my Hi-Fi News & Record Review scale).

Conrad-Johnson: Please consider the reactive question. Also, what about a remote control? You could also lift the input sensitivity a bit, and redesign that unappealing tube cage. Nevertheless, I liked this amplifier; it grew on me during the listening tests. Considering the overall package, I feel the CAV50 is a particularly good sonic value.—Martin Colloms

2733 Merilee Drive
Fairfax, VA 22031-4407
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