Conrad-Johnson Premier 16LS preamplifier Page 4

The fast'n'easy answer: Just terrific. Sort of like the Audio Research Reference Two Mk.I Michael Fremer reviewed last September, before the Minnesota company decided to "upgrade" to the Russian 6H30 SuperTubes. I have no idea how the Mk.II sounds, as I haven't heard it, but I hope it's as sweet a li'l number as the Mk.I was.

The Premier 16LS represented for me the sonic melding of the long-promoted but rarely heard "best of both worlds." Don't get me wrong—it's still a Conrad-Johnson, which should be a relief to the many fans C-J has garnered over the years. And it bodes well for the newer generation of audiophiles who never had the chance of fooling with a PV-5, or who don't even know (or care) what it was and what it represented to an entire generation of ever-more-rusty-jointed Boomer audiophiles.

That was then and this is now. The 16LS is very much in the contemporary idiom, and it's some hot stuff. It didn't actually run all that hot for a tube preamp, so I guess that tube guard did its job fairly well. But the 16LS was a paragon of solid-state and tube sound transmogrified into one whole musical presentation. And that was a beautiful thing.

Some preamps are described as "ruthlessly revealing" and suchlike. The 16LS was nothing of the kind. It did not physically beat up me, my loved ones, or my music. It was, in every sense of the words, a sensitive, romantic gentleman—Proustian, if you will. Think Swann in Love.

The 16LS embodied almost all of today's requirements for Top Honors. It had, in fact, fine extension at top and bottom, good control down deep, a lovely and attractive midrange, and sometimes sweet but never euphonic highs. Good depth, nice air, easeful in presentation—in that way, SACD-like—with tremendous palpability, a certain roundness of imaging usually associated with tubes, and a lovely, slightly smoldering, lit-from-within quality that was less easy to define, but was perhaps best heard on female vocals.

I've painted a charming picture, but the 16LS was a charming line-level preamp. It was not, however, the Lamm L2 or the Mark Levinson Reference No.32, both of which are more focused, have sharper image outlines, and are more neutral, with greater detail. But both cost about twice as much as the 16LS.

So let's ratchet down a bit and note that the 16LS is also quite the opposite of the ca $7500 BAT VK-50SE line-stage preamp, an altogether more stern, tight, precise, and controlled preamp. In fact, the 16LS is more like the Krell KCT, the only other ca $8k preamp lying around here that's as smooth and delightful to listen too.

But whatever the price point I compared the 16LS to, certain sonic elements became clear over time. It threw up a huge but well-proportioned soundstage, yet wasn't the most neutral preamp I've ever heard—once again, the Lamm and Levinson get closer to what I figure is absolute neutrality with all harmonics intact. The VK-50SE is something like that too, if a touch leaner.

But the 16LS was not at all euphonic in the ways the old PV-5 was. Nope, the information was there, deep down toward in the noise floor—which, as mentioned, is mighty low in level.

Popping in the new Sara K. CD, What Matters (Chesky JD210), helped me identify one of the 16LS's many strengths. Recording engineer Barry Wolifson gets it just right here: The palpability of K.'s voice is startling—its naturalness, fullness of tonal color, and trueness of voice all tumble together via the C-J to form a very cohesive sonic whole.

Nor did male vocals take a back seat. One of the most enjoyable discs I came across at the Home Entertainment 2001 Show in May was Freddy Cole's Rio de Janeiro Blue (Telarc CD-83525)—very open, very fast, very focused, and a great-sounding recording on the dCS Purcell/Elgar Plus combo. Turns out Cole is Nat's brother, and he sounds it. Freddy is all dapper ease, as described in the booklet. Try "Delirio" (I would like a title like that!): Once again, the palpability and sense of participation were incarnate before me. That's the kind of playback I love most. In a big way, this track also shows off the Cary's transformers and how low they'll go. (J-10 buries his many chins deep in his neck to intone "and that's waaaaay down!") And the 16LS was passing that signal with no problem. This is a new recording mastered entirely in DSD, so it oughta show off what the new technology can do. It does.

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