Conrad-Johnson Premier Four power amplifier

66cjp4.jpgIt says something for the state of technology that, after a quarter of a century, there still is no authoritative explanation for why so many high-end audiophiles prefer tubes. Tubes not only refuse to die, they seem to be coming back. The number of US and British firms making high-end tube equipment is growing steadily, and an increasing number of comparatively low-priced units are becoming available. There is a large market in renovated or used tube equipment—I must confess to owning a converted McIntosh MR-71 tuner—and there are even some indications that tube manufacturers are improving their reliability, although getting good tubes remains a problem.

These trends have passed long beyond the cult stage. While tube amplifiers still cannot provide the high damping factors or woofer Control that is possible With transistor amplifiers, no one still claims that they soften highs or somehow romanticize recorded sound (footnote 1). There is a consensus among high-end magazines that the best tube units are exceptional in the areas of transient and harmonic detail, high frequency information, and imaging and soundstage data. Further, there is a similar consensus that the days when tube units provided superb midrange at the expense of the frequency extremes are long gone.

The Premier Four is Conrad-Johnson's attempt to provide the same or better sound than their Premier One at less cost and with less herniating size and weight. The amplifier has easily adjustable bias, with an internal LED readout, but you must use a long screwdriver. The Premier Four uses EL34s which have very few problems; even with the 6550s on my Premier One, the tube and its fuse went out, nothing else.

Sound Quality
I tested the Conrad-Johnson amplifier using top-quality turntables like the Goldmund and SOTA-Sumiko arm combination, top quality cartridges, and speakers like the modified Quad ESL-63s, Thiel CS3s, Spica TC-50s, and Fuselier 3.3s. Preamplifier was the Conrad-Johnson Premier Three. I have used them with Compact Discs and a wide range of FM Tuners. I have mixed and matched cables, including the Straightwire, Petersen, Discrete Technology, Audiosource, and Monster Cable Interlink Reference.The Discrete Audio cable works well with the ARC amplifier, but not with the C-J.

Let me begin this review with how the Conrad Johnson amplifier differs from most transistor equipment I listen to. Let me also make the caveat that I have not had the chance to listen to the latest Threshold, Krell, and Mark Levinson equipment in my home, and that I can only generalize about tubes versus transistors-tubes versus the ultimate highend transistor units will have to wait for another issue.

The best transistor equipment tends to be surprising in the highs. Even when it does not produce long-term listening fatigue, it tends to provide detail that you literally never heard before—in a concert hall, in a studio, or standing next to a musician. Certain aspects of the highs are emphasized relative to others, passages of music acquire unusual high frequency emphasis, a triangle will triple in size, the cymbals change character, or the female voice acquires new sibilants.

This can be fascinating—and even musical—but far too often it is not natural. Audiophiles raised on electronic sound may not be as impressed by the virtue of the natural highs heard on tube equipment—since they may have grown up listening to nothing but transistor equipment—but the best tube units have highs that do not surprise you when you come back from listening to live music.

I should hasten to add, however, that the best tube and transistor units have been converging in their virtues, and that both the Conrad-Johnson and Audio Research equipment I review in this issue share two important sonic limitations. The first is in the bass. Tube amplifiers have less ability than transistor amplifiers to provide the mix of output impedance and power that best controls a speaker in the deep bass. This is true simply with cone speakers; electrostatics and most planar speakers also perform much better in the deep bass with those transistor amplifiers that combine high damping factor, high power reserves, and the ability to drive low-impedance loads.

I don't mean to imply that the C-J Premier Four's bass isn't good. It is remarkably real in the mid and upper bass, and provides a realism and transient detail in the upper bass that are missing from most transistor units. There is less bloom, less tendency to emphasize a fixed part of the bass spectrum, and the amplifier does not make the trade-off between tightness and dynamic power that is common in many transistor units. The deep bass is one of the major thrills of the High End, however, and here the better transistor units walk away with superior performance. They have power and control in the deep bass; tube units do not.

If Conrad-Johnson and Audio Research seem to represent different sonic philosophies in preamps, their respective sounds are converging in amplifiers. The Premier Four is flatter and more extended in the highs than my Premier One was. Even though the Four is cheaper and has less power, I feel it is definitely the better amplifier.

This amplifier provides exceptional transparency, imaging, dynamics, air, and musicality. It doesn't sound precise to say that it will consistently provide new levels of natural musical detail on record after record, but it's true. That is why it is worth the extra money. You pay for superior resolution in a highly enjoyable form, and not for the name, the technology, or the extra heat.

Compared with the Audio Research D-160B, the Premier Four again is strongest in the midrange but not in the highs. The differences I described in my C-J and ARC preamp reviews again emerge, but to a much lesser degree. If both amplifiers are given about two hours to warm up (the ARC is much more sensitive in this regard than the CJ), and are biased exactly as specified, the similarities are more important than the differences.

I will, however, give the D-160B a slight edge in controlling bass and in low-bass accuracy (although this may simply be a function of its greater power), and the highs are more linear and detailed. The Premier Four gets the edge in the midrange, and in the aspect of imaging that gives the best hall effects and centerfill. The differences are not so great, however, that I would throw another 200 words at them.

Like the Audio Research D-160B, the Conrad-Johnson Premier Four is an example what the High End is all about. It belongs to that elite group of equipment which leads the way towards filling the awkward gap between live performances and reproduced sound, and which allows you to explore nearly 100 years of recorded sound to its best potential. Like virtually all high-end equipment, it is a luxury and not a cost-effective investments. While some of the best things in life may be free, none of them are cost-effective.

Footnote 1: For a somewhat different point of view, see "As We See It" in this issue.—J. Gordon Holt