Conrad-Johnson Premier Eleven power amplifier Page 3

Speakers that would logically be paired with this amplifier, such as my reference Martin-Logan Aerius or the ProAc Response 1S, really shone when driven by the Conrad-Johnson. The sound—from top to bottom—was extremely well-integrated and coherent. Timbrally, this amplifier has no presence at all. It doesn't have a romantic tendency—the signature of so much tubed gear. Neither does it exhibit the hardness in the upper midrange and overtone region that distinguishes so many tubed products designed to not sound romantic.

In tandem with speakers that share its lack of coloration and that offer the speed to match it, the Premier Eleven was a startling performer. Its low noise, wide bandwidth, and high resolution enabled it to float a stereo image with the best. It threw a remarkably wide soundstage—on many recordings there were sounds beyond the outside edges of the speakers themselves. And not just on recordings with phase jiggery-pokery—like Roger Waters' Amused to Death (Columbia CK-47127)—either.

Soundstage depth? Lord, did the soundstage have depth! "How Come My Dog Don't Bark When You Come Around?," from Dr. John's Goin' Back to New Orleans (Warner Bros. 26940-2), features—you guessed it—a barking dog in the distance. Not only did the dog appear to be barking on the other side of the wall, 5' behind my speakers, it also appeared to be some 30 or 40' beyond the wall. Simpler locations--and musically more important ones, such as instrumental placement within an ensemble—were well-projected and stable. A non-audiophile friend, after listening to the Premier Eleven, commented, "I just always assumed you were making this stuff up."

Music moves only in time
After listening to this amplifier for the better part of a year and struggling to divine precisely what makes it such a special product, I keep coming back to the way it gets the timing right. Its clarity, its lack of noise, and its performance of the audio verities seem to be reflections of the way it integrates music's most basic tool. A debate could rage, and I suspect that it will, in true chicken/egg fashion: does the C-J sound aligned in time because it gets the low-level nuances right (microdynamics, to use the au courant and distressingly vague jargon)? Or does it portray nuance correctly because it started by getting the fundamentals, the timing, right? Artur Schnabel once said of his profoundly moving Beethoven interpretations, "It is not that I get the notes right. Many people play the notes better. But the spaces between the notes...Ah! That is where the genius is."

The ability to correctly align the complex timing relationships inherent in even the simplest note—the integration of fundamental and harmonic—alludes to another Premier Eleven strength: it's fast. This is where the high resolution of the 6550 tube most obviously pays off. Its ability to sort out low-level detail in complex passages makes it easy to determine exactly what's going on. A perfect case in point is on the Barenboim/CSO recording of John Corigliano's Symphony 1 (Erato 2292-61132-2): the third movement's finale is about as complex as it gets—a relentless drumbeat in the timpani is offset by paired antiphonal chime-sets (at the extreme left and right of the soundstage), gongs crashingly punctuate the orchestral crescendo, and pairs of brass instruments chatter back and forth. Finally, as Corigliano puts it, "the entire orchestra climaxes with a sonic explosion." It's an intense moment—one that overloaded Carnegie Hall when I heard the CSO play the piece there—and a real system-buster, too. It challenges the playback system with almost every type of overtone structure extant—from the lingering harmonics of the chimes to the marimbas' fleeting ones, from the flatulent buzz of the trombones to the piercing clarity of Adolph Herseth's trumpet; and then—eerily emerging out of the cacophony—the sweet sonority of John Sharp's cello. It is a rare system that can capture this sonic madness without blur or confusion; the Premier Eleven sorted it out with panache.

On a more intimate scale, lute music—which I listen to frequently—is deceptively complex harmonically. On the surface, there's not much there, the lute being limited dynamically to "soft" and "softer." But the combination of sharp transient and rapid decay is rarely reproduced realistically. In fact, by losing gobs of information, most systems tend to make lute tones sound much less complex than they are. You end up with a note that doesn't exactly sound colored, it just doesn't sound very interesting. Paul Odette's Robin is to the Greenwood Gone CD (Elektra Nonesuch 79123-1 LP, 79123-2 CD) illustrated the grace with which the C-J portrays this delicate, but not simple, instrument. Elegantly nuanced, as are all of Odette's performances, the subtle swing and dance origins of these pieces emerged intact. As did the sound of the instruments themselves; the Eleven clearly revealed that Odette uses two different lutes in this recording.

So, what's your point?
It should be obvious that I hold the Conrad-Johnson Premier Eleven in high esteem—I've done little here but rave about it. Is it perfect? Of course not. But neither is anything else out there. For my taste, listening to the music that I listen to (primarily, but not exclusively, acoustic) at the levels I listen at (not all that loud), I haven't heard its equal, much less its superior. If your speakers are power-hungry—or represent difficult loads—then a 70Wpc tubed amplifier may not be for you. But, now that I've taken its measure, I can't imagine life without the Premier Eleven, so perfectly do its strengths and my listening prejudices mesh. I've looked longingly at its siblings—the monoblock Premier Twelves—but spend more time fantasizing about how well a pair of Elevens would sound passively bi-amping the Aeriuses. If you've got the bucks, you just have to audition these. You'll thank me for it. Really.