Conrad-Johnson Premier 18LS line preamplifier Page 3

The 18LS's lack of a phono stage also required a workaround. I used my trustworthy John Dunlavy MX-10 moving-coil head amplifier to boost the signal from my Spectral moving-coil cartridge, and fed the MX-10's output to either a Margules Magenta FZ47 phono stage or to the phono section of my Mark Levinson ML-7 preamp. I found it more convenient to use the Margules, but the ML-7's phono section was more transparent and provided a broader, more three-dimensional soundstage.

Finally, I had to correct for the 18LS's inversion of phase. As stated on p.8 of the owner's manual, optimal listening requires that the owner reverse the speaker wires to the front-channel speakers, which I did before doing any listening.

A good preamplifier must be musical, dynamic, and neutral. And because it acts as an audio system's control center, I believe a preamplifier also must be easy and convenient to use. This means it must have a remote and be controllable from the listening chair.

The Conrad-Johnson Premier 18LS excelled in both areas. Its remote trounces any other I've used—it's intuitive in use, responsive, uncluttered, and, best of all, was able to trigger the 18LS's IR receiver from any spot in the room. I could sit 10' away from the 18LS in my listening chair and get an instant response. This remote was highly addictive; I'll find it hard to return it to C-J.

The sonic report is just as positive. The good news began with the 18LS's strong bass response. It delivered solid, subjectively smooth bass down to 30Hz through the Quad ESL-989 electrostatics, with excellent extension, control, pitch definition, and speed. I heard this time and again, whether it was the synthesizer on Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy (CD, Circa WBRX2), the taut, driving electric bass on the soundtrack of My Cousin Vinny (CD, Varèse Sarabande VSD 5364), or the distant but massively forceful drum and bass synthesizer in "Silk Road," on I Ching's Of the Marsh and the Moon (CD, Chesky WO144). I was surprised at the solidity and depth of the bass drum reproduced by the Quads with Owen Reed's La Fiesta Mexicana, from Fiesta (CD, Reference RR-38CD).

The 18LS also rendered solid and tuneful bass from my vinyl LPs. Firm, solid bass seemed to rise from my room's foundations when I played "After Anthem," from the Glory soundtrack (LP, Virgin 91329-1). The C-J produced bass of wide dynamic range, set against powerful orchestral rhythms, from my LP of Shostakovich's Symphony 6 (Leopold Stokowski, Chicago Symphony, RCA LSC-3133). Similarly, the 18LS equaled the ML-7A in reproducing the rhythmic drive of the double basses in Bart;aok's Concerto for Orchestra (LP, RCA/Classic LSC-1924).

The 18LS's midrange reproduction excelled in its clarity, openness, and ability to convincingly render instrumental and vocal timbres. Take the ease and precision with which the tenors, baritones, and basses of the male vocal ensemble Cantus are rendered on ...Against the Dying of the Light (Cantus CTS-1202): Described as a "musical and poetic progression from grief and sorrow to consolation and joy," the selection of these works was inspired by the emotions churned up by the World Trade Center disaster. The subtle timbral differences, microdynamics, and colors of the voices contrasted with the massive dynamics of a huge gong that invokes the attack in Veljo Tormis' Varjele, Jumala, Soasta.

Other recordings excelled in dynamic contrasts when played over the 18LS. The sudden rim shot that ends Harry Connick, Jr.'s, "I Don't Get Around Much Anymore" was stunning (CD, When Harry Met Sally..., Columbia CK 45319). Macrodynamics were clearest listening to the title song from Steely Dan's Aja (LP, VIM 4039). The sad, involving, self-destructive sentiment that powers "Aja" through a slow buildup in the song's level came through with the all the pressure I've come to expect. Dynamics and good transient response were also heard in the opening movement of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, from the original direct-to-disc LP (Sheffield Labs 8). In "Romeo Resolves to Avenge Mercutio's Death," the 18LS conveyed the music's stunning dynamics, totally involving me.

The Conrad-Johnson 18LS captured the timbres of strings on a favorite recording of mine, the third movement of Haydn's String Quartet in d, Op.76 No.2, "The Quinten" (CD, ASV CD DCA 622). This movement includes a canon with two violins playing together in octaves, followed three beats later by the viola and cello. Its distinct rhythms have won it the nickname "Witches Minuet." The 18LS conveyed its rhythmic pace, as well as the resonances of the viola and the tonalities of wood and bow. The C-J placed the cello far to the left, while setting the other instruments in their own spaces. The violin string tone was unusually sweet-sounding.

Although its sound was effortless, nonmechanical, and with a strong ability to resolve low-level detail, the 18LS was less transparent with some recordings than my Mark Levinson ML-7. This was most apparent with recordings of small jazz groups. The vibraphone on "Limehouse Blues," from Jazz at the Pawnshop (LP, Proprius 7778-79), sounded more lucid and transparent through the ML-7. This may have been a result of comparing the ML-7's internal phono stage to the external hookup required to run an outboard phono stage through the 18LS.

The 18LS and Quad ESL-989s created an enormous, enveloping soundstage. This was evident listening to the wide circle of male voices so brilliantly depicted on the Cantus disc. When I listened to John Atkinson's voice move around the church during the "Microphone Techniques and Soundstage Maps" track on Stereophile's Test CD 3 (STPH006-2), his voice and the sound of the stuck cowbell illuminated the church acoustic, moving smoothly and easily from behind the left loudspeaker, across stage center, and out behind the right speaker.

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