Conrad-Johnson Premier 17LS line-stage preamplifier Page 3

I don't mean to suggest that the 17LS wasn't dynamic or lacked impact, but that it achieved its impact via precision and clarity rather than absolute power. "Delicate but powerful" is how I described it in my notes during a listening session that included Steve Forbert's live CD Be Here Now: Solo Live 1994 (Rolling Tide). I noted that the C-J reproduced the leading edges of the guitar extraordinarily well, and that the impact of pick against strings and their initial vibrations were particularly clear. In fact, Be Here Now sounded truly amazing on the Premier. The details of Forbert's guitar—the pops, squeaks, and twangs—were incredibly alive, and the vocal subtleties—the nuances of his inflections, his breathing, his moving around the mike, even the air moving through his throat—made it a true goosebump experience.

I wrestled with the C-J's tonal balance as well, trying unsuccessfully to fit it into my paradigm: soft at the frequency extremes, overly ripe in the mid- and upper bass, maybe a bit forward in the upper midrange.

Wrong again. The C-J did sound a touch down at the very bottom, but its detail, pitch definition, and temporal precision were sufficiently good that it really didn't matter. There was a slight lack of weight in densely anchored orchestral pieces, but it never detracted from the music. The Premier's upper-bass/lower-midrange area was a surprise as well. Instead of being elevated and slightly thick, it sounded clean and flat—if anything, slightly recessed. With the C-J, Steve Forbert's guitar sounded like a Gibson; with the VAC, a Martin. And no, I don't know which it actually was—he plays both.

Similarly, the C-J's top end didn't sound completely neutral, but it didn't get in the way of the music. If I had to guess, I'd say that it was maybe down a bit at the very top end, and that the lower treble was maybe a touch elevated with respect to the upper midrange. Cymbals were incredibly sweet and clear, and their overtones seemed to go on forever, eventually fading breathily into the hall's far reaches. On the other hand, perhaps their metallic shimmer wasn't quite as airy as it can be, and didn't permeate the surrounding air to the same degree as I have heard—but that's a minor, anal reviewer quibble. Overall, the C-J's top end was lovely.

I'm proud to say that not all of my preconceived notions about the Premier 17LS proved false. I just knew that it would have a glorious midrange, and boy oh boy, did it ever. Sweet, luscious, clean, defined, detailed, coherent, clear—my notes are full of page after page of audiophile superlatives, hoping, I guess, to achieve amplification through repetition. The Premier's midrange proved to be one of those standard-setting entities that makes a reviewer regret having used up all his or her superlatives on lesser components. The C-J's midrange was so sweet, so detailed, so...everything, that every other preamp I threw in my system sounded a bit crude, or pale, or confused in comparison.

Comparisons and Contrasts
As I reviewed and reflected on my notes on the Premier 17LS, I found myself comparing it to the best of the preamps I've auditioned in the last few years: the Audio Research Reference Two, the Sonic Frontiers Line-3, the VAC CPA1 Mk.III, and the Adcom GFP-750 Gold.

The Adcom is perhaps the most tonally neutral of the group but by far the least sophisticated. It's a dynamite-sounding unit and a spectacular bargain, but the Premier was far more sublime, and its reproduction of transients, details, and tonal colors was much more vibrant and engaging.

The Sonic Frontiers Line-3 is considerably more detailed than the Adcom and very neutral—more neutral, in fact, than the Premier, which sounded sweeter and not quite as flat. But again, the Premier's reproduction of tonal colors and dynamic subtleties made it much more engaging and alive.

The VAC, on the other hand, is wonderfully alive and engaging, with vibrant details and dynamics and rich tonal colors. The Premier, however, matched it goosebump for goosebump, but was subtler and a bit more refined. The C-J's images were more detailed and better-defined, its tonal palette more varied. Shifting my original paradigm, it's the VAC that has the bigger, warmer, more vivid, and slightly less sophisticated sound.

The ARC Reference Two is a truly superb preamp that combines the neutrality of the Sonic Frontiers with the subtlety and vibrance of the VAC. It's more neutral than the C-J and outperforms it at the frequency extremes, but it didn't match the C-J's engaging detail, to-die-for midrange, or rich, luscious tonal structures.

Overall, it was a tough call—I could be happy with any of these designs. On a tight budget, I'd opt for the Adcom and never look back. If I had a bit more fiscal flexibility, I'd opt for the VAC, ARC, or C-J. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and a music-lover won't go wrong with any of them—but if I had to pick today, on purely sonic terms, with my current system and in my existing room...I'd opt for the Premier 17LS.

Summing Up
The Conrad-Johnson Premier 17LS is a superb preamplifier, and one of the very best I have ever used. It did a beautiful job of reproducing the tonal richness and subtleties of live music. Its resolution of detail was excellent, and it re-created performers and their surrounding ambient environments with a three-dimensional, nearly holographic solidity. It might have been slightly soft at the frequency extremes and a bit sweeter than reality, and though its dynamics were precise and clean, they were perhaps a bit less powerful than those of some other units.

But the reality was that, once the lights went down and the music came up, everything—strengths, weaknesses, audiophile criteria, reviewer nitpicking, even my long-held paradigms—it all vanished, leaving only the music. The Premier 17LS is very highly recommended.

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