Conrad-Johnson CT5 line preamplifier Page 2

Not really. I'm supposed to report on the differences I do hear, and with the CT5, for the most part, there weren't any. And that is news, especially at a little over half the price.

The only problem with feeling that you've heard it all before is that you begin to fear that you're repeating yourself. But even at the risk of doing that, I feel I should describe the sound of the ACT2—er, CT5. Essentially, it took me places—wherever a performance was recorded, to be specific. From the studio funk of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street (CD, Virgin 47864) to the wide-open acoustic of David Russell's Renaissance Favorites for Guitar (CD, Telarc CD-80659) to the barroom clatter of Hot Tuna's eponymous debut (CD, RCA 66872), the CT5 immersed me in the recording venue. Not, I hasten to point out, in a hi-fi-ish "pay attention to me" way, but in a way that informed and authenticated the music.

The CT5 was all about the music. Of course I could hear how David Russell's technique allowed him to craft the dance rhythms of Dowland's "Piper's Pavan," but it wasn't about the technique. Of course it wasn't—it was about the dance.

The CT5 wasn't wimpy, it wasn't heavy-handed, it wasn't delicate, it wasn't bombastic—except when it was. It didn't have "a sound" so much as it enabled recordings to sound more like they do than just about any other preamp I've encountered. Except, of course, for the ACT2.

Which sets up the inevitable side-by-side comparison with the ACT2: Were there differences? If so, which did I prefer?

Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple
Almost inevitably, once I get past the getting-acquainted phase of an equipment report and start in on the comparisons, I discover that my initial impression of a component suffers from some degree of error. I'm not wrong, exactly—I'm just not as right as I thought I was. This, of course, is why we do comparisons.

My first A/B, with the David Russell disc, taught me that level-matching the two preamps wasn't the slam dunk I initially thought it might be. Turns out that that difference in output impedance really does affect how a preamp drives an amp—so thank goodness for multimeters. However, once I got a handle on that, the ACT2's and CT5's 0.7dB-step volume controls made all successive comparisons a piece of cake.

Through the ACT2, Russell's guitar chimed out of a slightly dry acoustic with velocity and shimmer. It rang. Oh my, I thought. My lute-playing buddy, Ruben, is going to hate this record! Its very guitarness would affront him on these pieces written for the lute. I, on the other hand, was wallowing in it.

I switched over to the CT5. Huh? It sounded the same. I tried listening to the entire CD and then switching. Same. Switched after one track. Same. Listened at different volumes. Same. Attempted really fast switching. Same. Same. Same.

Dang. I switched over to Exile on Main Street and cranked it.

Man, it's amazing how raunchy you can make a $13,500 preamp sound—if you're lucky. Powerful stuff, with lots of overcranked tube geetar-amp sound and Sir Mick's patented upper-crust, working-class mumble. But I like it. I switched over to the CT5, expecting minimal differences after the David Russell debacle.

Huh? If anything, the CT5 was punchier. It sounded gutsier, in fact. So I switched between the two preamps track by track. I preferred the CT5 consistently. It had a bit more body and punch. It had a bit more drive. It had a bit more R'n'R rrrumble. I definitely liked it.

Hmmm. I put on my thinking hat.

If there wasn't any perceivable difference on a solo guitar recording, and a rock'n'roll disc revealed one preamp to sound rockier than the other, what type of music might reveal more differences? Well, we could always pull out the Mahler.

Bernstein's second recording of Mahler's Symphony 2 with the New York Philharmonic, to be precise (CD, DG 433 395-2). The recording has dynamic extremes that seemed almost too extreme when I attended the 1987 Avery Fisher Hall performances captured on the CD, but somehow the intervening years (or perhaps just familiarity) have been kind to Bernstein's late-life readings of this masterpiece. And indeed, the recording told me some interesting things about the ACT2 and the CT5.

To begin with, the CT5 really did have a touch more slam than the ACT2. It presented the opening thunderclap chords with more grunt, not to put too fine a point on it. This is different from dynamics, a point brought home forcefully (as it were) by the ACT2's handling of the silences that occur after those power chords.

The ACT2 let me hear the air sizzling in the music's aftermath—the floor flexing, the dust settling. For all of the CT5's power and forceful presentation, the ACT2 let me hear even deeper into the recording. True, I was hearing details at the very limit of my ability to discern suchlike, but the information was there.

The ACT2 did have a fuller palette of dynamic shadings than the CT5, not that the CT5 lacked dynamic range. Would I want the ACT2's range combined with the CT5's wallop? Sure! While I'm wishing, I could use a full head of hair, too. You can't always get what you want.

While I'm mentioning things about the ACT2 that work better, I should touch again on those issues of power-amp and cable compatibility. The ACT2 was less picky about what it was connected to than the CT5. This may not be an issue for most consumers—heck, given the price difference, it wouldn't be one for me, if I didn't have a job that required constant flux in the Associated Equipment department. If I could settle down with just one preamp (which sounds like paradise to the man who isn't allowed to), it would be the CT5. However, given my day job, I may have to make do with the ACT2.

Simple pleasures are the last refuge of the complex
All kidding aside, there's not much I'd change about the Conrad-Johnson CT5. It's an expensive preamplifier in its own right, but it's comparable, if not completely indistinguishable, from models costing twice as much. If you can easily and consistently distinguish between the CT5 and a more costly preamp, you have the sort of standards that really expensive hi-fi was created for. If you're lucky, you'll also have the budget that goes with them.

For the rest of us, it's hard to imagine a better bet than the CT5. You can't just drop it into any system, but if you're careful about cables and power-amplifier synergy, you'll be stunned at how good recorded music can sound. Which, I keep reminding myself, is what this hobby is supposed to be about.

Actually, if you're anything like me, while you're listening to the CT5 you might forget that hi-fi is a hobby. I kept getting sucked into the music and forgetting about prices, comparisons, and connections other than the ones I was making with the performers. That's when you're humbled into realizing that you haven't heard it all before. Life doesn't get much better than that.

Neither does hi-fi.

Conrad-Johnson Design
2733 Merrilee Drive
Fairfax, VA 22031
(703) 698-8581