Conrad-Johnson Premier Twelve monoblock amplifier Page 2

The Twelves always sounded confident and in control—tonally, spatially, and temporally—particularly at the frequency extremes. On the bottom, both acoustic and electric bass sounded tight yet supple, and totally "in character" tonally. On top, the Twelve's transient performance was faultless, portraying cymbal crashes with the crisp, splashy shimmer you hear live. On good recordings, strings bristled with energy, yet never sounded hard or unnaturally edgy.

Along with exemplary top-to-bottom "attack," the Premier Twelve portrayed decay with equal propriety, resolving low-level information that, before disappearing into the ether, seemed to travel farther in space and time than I've experienced with other amplifiers. The combination of fast attack and slow decay gave the Twelve a sense of limitless resolution and luxury, suffusing the sound with an overwhelming sensation of musical authority.

In my experience, the only product to rival the Twelve in this regard is the limited-edition, hand-built, ultra-expensive Connoisseur phono preamp (an improved version of which is about to be introduced by Scan-Tech, the Japan-based cartridge manufacturer).

The Twelves roused music from both the Virgos and Sonus Fabers with a vigor and confidence that seemed to both slow the sensation of time and increase the music's meaning—phenomena noted by many reviewers when auditioning exceptional audio gear.

Before surrendering the amplifiers to Santa Fe for measurement, I spent days just listening to favorite LPs and CDs, and pulling out some oldies I hadn't played in years. For instance, I played Neil Young's "I Am a Child," from Buffalo Springfield's Last Time Around. I was surprised by how much more the record had to offer sonically than I remembered it having. Young's double-tracked acoustic guitar had both pick-on-string sparkle and wooden-body glow, and Young's voice sounded both focused and natural—not bright, as I remembered it being. Minute changes in his inflection, previously glossed over, were now revealed, giving each word importance—even individual syllables seemed imbued with previously hidden meanings. And the simple drum kit—just a kick and snare on the left channel—crackled with forward propulsion, each pop of the snare leaving a long trail. And no, I was not on acid at the time.

Speaking of acid tests, I auditioned the Clash's London Calling, Led Zeppelin II, an original German pressing of the Stones' Exile on Main Street, and other demanding rock titles. The Twelve neither softened nor rounded the essential rhythmic and transient edge needed to convey this music. And the bass line—even with the Audio Physic Rhea subwoofer shut down—was taut and ballsy. The Twelve can rock!

I moved to classical, beginning with Gershwin's Cuban Overture, featuring Earl Wild and the Boston Pops (RCA/Classic LSC-2586), a superb recording by the late Anthony Salvatore. The Twelves put Wild's large but well-focused piano in front of the orchestra stage right, reproducing the instrument's transient, harmonic, and dynamic impact better than I've ever heard it through my system: convincing transient attack, woody afterglow, and long hall decay.

A "fast"-sounding tube amplifier? Yes, and one that sounds far more powerful than its rated output would suggest. The bias-setting LEDs flash when the amp puts out in excess of 5W. Hard to believe, but I rarely saw them flash, and when I did it was usually on wide dynamic swings like orchestral crescendos. Even when the LEDs lit up, the Twelves always seemed to be coasting along—in control and effortless in their presentation of all kinds of music.

The comparison you demand
Whenever I switched to the Twelves from the far more powerful VTL 450s, I never felt as if I was losing dynamics, authority, or control. In fact, the C-Js sounded faster, tighter, and punchier overall, particularly on the bottom—like bouncing a quarter on a bed made with hospital corners instead of one whose sheets have merely been tucked in. The Twelves elicited the best bass I've gotten from the Virgos.

The VTLs created a bigger soundstage and did a better job of giving the listener the sense of being in a large space—when that was the venue. The C-Js excelled at focusing images throughout the soundstage, and at delineating them from the reverberant backdrop. Overall, the 450s sounded warmer, riper, and more laid-back, particularly in the midbass—which may account for much of the difference in soundstage size. The Premier Twelves were faster, tighter, and more forward, but never sounded edgy or bright.

Both amps sounded accomplished, and neither committed any serious errors. Neither suffered from grain, etch, or electronic artifacts of any kind. Both are likely to please most listeners, but in different ways. The Premier Twelve clearly had the edge in excitement and rhythmic drive. The C-J and VTL don't sound alike, but the differences aren't in the same league as the differences you'll find between speakers or phono cartridges.

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