Conrad-Johnson Premier 17LS line-stage preamplifier Page 2

The 17LS's user layout and operation constitute one of best setups I've seen. The front panel is simple: a row of buttons for source (and processor loop) selection, a second row for volume up, down, and mute, and a pair of LED readouts that show each channel's level. Levels are selected by relay switching in a discrete set of Vishay resistors; each click, or level, is a 0.7dB change, from 0 (silence) to 99 (maximum gain). I found the C-J's volume and balance controls an absolute delight to use, permitting precise and repeatable tailoring of levels and fine-tuning of balance. All of the 17LS's functions can be controlled from the remote.

System and Setup
Lew, the Johnson of Conrad-Johnson, cautioned me in advance about the Premier's relatively high output impedance and the possibility of cable interactions: "Avoid high-capacitance cables, and keep your runs as short as possible."

This was sound advice, but I experimented with several different system configurations and cable packages and never encountered a problem. I ended up doing most of my listening with Nirvana S-X Ltd. interconnects, but used Nordost's new Valhalla quite a bit as well, and at the end of the review began experimenting with Goertz Alpha Core Micro Purl Silver.

Although the 17LS had no problem driving my usual 6-meter preamp-to-amp run of interconnect, I reconfigured my system to put the long runs between the source components and the preamp, and only a 1m run between the Premier and the Classé CAM-350 monoblocks.

Paradigms Die Hard
Although I'd spent several months with the Premier 17LS moving in and out of my system as I reviewed other components, I'd never really thought about, or even paid much attention to, what it might be contributing to the sound. I guess I just assumed it was adding a bit of sweetness, and perhaps a touch of lush, velvety texture—after all, it was a Conrad-Johnson—but it never seemed to get in the way of what I was listening to, or for.

It was only during a marathon session of listening and comparing the C-J to a couple of other preamps that the truth dawned on me. I struggled at first, questioning my observations because they didn't fit a belief system that I didn't even realize I had. I went back and forth between the C-J and the other units several times over the course of the next week, and one evening it hit me—the Premier simply was not overly lush, vivid, or forward.

This is not to say that the 17LS wasn't luscious and sweet. It most certainly was, but in the captivating ways that a live instrument is or a wonderful acoustic space can be, with rich, dense tones and exquisitely, intricately layered harmonic structures. A solo instrument, as on Michael Newman's eponymous acoustic-guitar album (Sheffield Lab 10), beautifully showed off the C-J's tonal richness. When Newman would hit a single simple note, the complex tapestry of vibrations and tones—the string, the guitar's top, its body resonance—would build, merge, and move out to fill the surrounding space. I listened to John Coltrane's Ballads (Mobile Fidelity MFSL UDCD 731) three times in a row one night because of how the soft, plaintive sax or complex, cascading piano tones pulled me into the music. No, the C-J was definitely lush.

What the Premier 17LS wasn't, however, was overly lush. Nor was it the least bit syrupy or slow, or at all diffuse in its detail, dynamics, or imaging. In fact, once I got past unconsciously trying to fit the Premier into my paradigm, I realized that it was actually very, very good in all of these regards, and where it erred, it did so in unexpected ways. Rather than being forward and a bit too vivid, for example, it was—if anything—slightly reticent in its portrayal. Its soundstage was very slightly recessed compared to other preamps, beginning slightly behind the plane of the speakers.

Similarly, the perspective the 17LS presented was a bit more distant than that of other preamps I tried, placing me somewhere mid-hall instead of third-row center. Instruments were slightly smaller with the Premier than with my VAC CPA1 Mk.III, for example, their inner detail painted with a slightly finer, more delicate brush. The 17LS didn't have quite the punch and impact of the VAC, but there was definitely more and finer inner detail with the C-J in the system. The Premier also seemed to have better resolution of tonal nuances, or colors, as if its palette had more and more finely varied shades—like a house painter's color wheel with 10,000 shades instead of 1000.

The Premier's edge definition was outstanding as well, with images clearly defined in all three dimensions, but never discontinuous with the surrounding space. Similarly, its resolution of low-level details was excellent, beautifully capturing the subtle noises that define a space. Background voices, musicians' scuffs and shuffles, the soft echoing of notes as they decayed into the background—the C-J did a great job of reproducing them all, and of weaving them into a coherent sense of the original space. On Clark Terry's One On One (Chesky JD198), for example, the space around Terry's trumpet was so well-defined, and the onlookers' voices so well-placed within it, that I felt as if I could walk in to exactly where they were standing and shake their hands.

The Premier's reproduction of dynamic transients upended another of my preconceived notions. Conrad-Johnson means big, bold transients, if perhaps a little vague on the leading edge, particularly in the bass—right?

Nope. The Premier's transients were exactly the opposite: clean, precise, controlled, and, if anything, just a bit smaller than with other super-premium preamps I've used. I often use "Under the Boardwalk," from Rickie Lee Jones' Girl at Her Volcano EP, to test a component's transient reproduction, and I'd say that the Premier merited about an A-. The drum rolls, rimshots, and sharp guitar chops were all clean and extremely well-defined with the C-J, but didn't have quite the slam that they can with other units. It's as if the Premier swung from soft to loud faster than other preamps, starting and stopping more quickly, but that the difference between loud and soft wasn't quite as great. This was most apparent on the bottom end, where bass drums were very fast and clean but didn't have quite their usual weight.

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