Conrad-Johnson MF 2275 Amplifier – Preview

Wrapped in the same champagne front panel that every CJ component has come since their inception, the MF 2275 is a compact, solid state amplifier. As company founder Lew Johnson assured me at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, “Yes, we make excellent solid-state amplifiers too.”

Rated at 135 watts per channel into an 8-ohm load, the MF 2275 features a no frills approach to delivering great solid-state sound. Those familiar with their other solid-state designs will immediately notice a family resemblance. Newcomers to the world of CJ will immediately be impressed. Rob Johnson’s review coming soon!

Conrad-Johnson MF 2275


Conrad-Johnson MF2550 SE Amplifier

The generally accepted wisdom is that tube amps display a warm sound while solid-state amps offer more punch and control. But those lines are blurring, with great designs in both camps that defy past assumptions—and this is where Conrad-Johnson comes to mind. Compared to the company’s legendary valve-based gear, its MF2550 power amp takes a different approach—namely the fact that it’s solid state. The amp is available as a standard or special-edition (SE) version, the latter of which is priced at $7,800 and includes CJD Teflon hybrid capacitors and precision foil resistors. We did not have the opportunity to test these two versions side by side, but considering the outstanding performance of the SE version, it’s likely that the standard version is no slouch.

The MF2550 is rather nondescript and traditional in its appearance. The black metal chassis, which measures 16.25 inches deep, 19 inches wide, and 6.125 inches tall, features a faceplate made of thick aluminum with gold anodizing and a brushed-matte finish. Among my other black and silver audio components, the amp’s gold color—a signature of CJ—certainly stands out. The only feature interrupting the smooth faceplate is a power button the size of a quarter on the lower right corner. A gentle yellow LED halo illuminates the button when pressed. The only thing distinguishing the special-edition amp from the standard version is a small plate on the back of the unit that notes the serial number and the SE designation.

Connecting the amp could not be easier, with a set of RCA inputs and the requisite speaker binding posts; it takes only two minutes and a little finger strength to get the amp up and running. I appreciate the amp’s five-way metal binding posts, which effortlessly handle a post wrench. The posts easily accommodate two-banana adapters and offer plenty of space to connect spades and even bare-ended wire.

Pushing the gold-colored button to reveal the sonic prowess within, I first wonder if the amp is on, since it is silent. Even the ribbon tweeters in my Piega P-10 speakers do no hiss at the visiting power source.

Hidden Treasure

Much of the amp’s 52-pound weight comes from the hefty power supply fueling 250 watts into 8 ohms, or 500 watts into 4 ohms. On paper, the MF2550’s power output is a dead-ringer for my Mark Levinson reference amp, so it’s exciting to swap in the CJ. There are indeed many similarities between the two amps, as well as a few key differences.

Three-dimensional presentation is a dramatic strength of this amp. Music appears independent of the speakers and audible in all directions. Left-to-right imaging extends the music well beyond the speaker boundaries, with a very convincing central image. The amp also pinpoints other musical elements across the soundstage. Front-to-back layering leaves the vocalist up front, while allowing ambient background sounds to extend beyond the rear wall of my listening space. There’s no perceived vertical limitation either, as the music extends from floor to ceiling. On Lyle Lovett’s song “Church,” from his Joshua Judges Ruth album, the background vocalists are rendered well behind Lovett, who appears front and center. While my reference amp is quite good in its ability to layer musical elements, the CJ exceeds it.

The MF2550 takes command of my speakers with deep, rich and robust bass. Compared with my reference amp, the MF2550’s bass response is not quite as tight and punchy. Rage Against the Machine remains one of my guilty pleasures. The band’s song “Bombtrack” provides a good reference point for bass. Through the CJ, the bass portrayal is not loose or lacking depth, though there’s just a touch less immediacy and excitement compared to my Levinson.

Throughout my listening experience, there’s a very slightly warm tendency to this solid-state amp, which I wasn’t expecting. To be clear, the CJ does not overly romanticize the sound; it’s just a bit more forgiving than I’m used to. There’s a slight gentleness when listening to recordings that usually prove overly revealing. I’m able to turn the volume up higher for an immersive music experience without any hard-edged notes piercing my eardrums. At first, I wonder if some higher frequencies are rolled off, but after testing several frequency sweep tracks, all the highs are there. The CJ’s design just manages to somehow take most sting and vocal sibilance out.

Some live instruments can have an inherent bite. During live performances, it’s never pleasant to be in the blast zone of a trumpet, saxophone, snare drum, or cymbal crash. Nevertheless, that experience is the reality of the music. Through the CJ’s portrayal of music in my own system, while subtle, there’s just a touch less detail and realism. For instance, the sonic decay of the cymbal on the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” subsides more quickly than I’m used to. At the same time, the Civil Wars’ “Dust to Dust” on vinyl proves an utterly opulent experience. Minute sonic details aside, it’s easy to find oneself immersed in the emotion and beauty of the song.

I would not call this amp euphonic, but it leans to the side of forgiving musicality, as opposed to pure realism. Is this a bad thing? No. On a sunny day, many folks prefer to tame the glare with sunglasses, right? Similarly, if your system is a bit bright for your taste, or if you just prefer a portrayal that’s a tad relaxed, the MF2550 may provide the balance you’ve been looking for.

The Golden Ticket?

I thoroughly enjoyed the month I spent with the MF2550 SE in my system, as did several of my friends who regularly come over to listen. The MF2550 SE is something I could enjoy happily for a long time. On vocally driven performances, jazz and orchestral pieces, the CJ leaves little to desire. For those who prefer rock music with all its inherent aggression and vigor, the CJ stands more toward the polite end of the spectrum. In all cases, though, the musicality of the performance shines though.

With plenty of power and a non-fatiguing presence, this amp will likely pair well with many speakers and components. It certainly plays nicely with all my test equipment. Given its $7,800 retail price, the amp represents a long-term investment for many audio fans, but many rewards come with it.

Combining great sound with substantial build quality and a three-year warranty on parts and labor, the MF2550 SE could be something that you find at the end of your quest for sonic treasure. If these benefits sound compelling to you, definitely make a run to your local Conrad-Johnson dealer and hear for yourself what this amp can do.  

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

While so many audio enthusiasts think of Conrad-Johnson as a strictly vacuum-tube company, the brand has made some very impressive solid-state amplifiers over the years. The benchmark that comes to my mind is its Premier 350, which served as my reference amplifier for years. So when Lew Johnson told me about the MF2550 SE, this was the immediate comparison floating around in my head. But Johnson was quick to point out that the MF2550 SE is a “completely different amplifier” that would really surprise me.

And surprise it does. Thanks to a bevy of CJD Teflon capacitors, the ones that have been highly influential in the sound of CJ for the last 10 years or so, the MF2550 SE has a thoroughly modern sound. Bringing back my Premier 350, along with CJ’s ACT2 Series 2 preamplifier, makes it easy to compare and contrast the two amps.

Overall, the MF2550 SE has a very dynamic, extended sound. Those of you who remember the company’s early solid-state amplifiers and who did not experience the Premier 350 will be stunned at just how spectacular this new amplifier sounds, especially considering how well CJ is known for vacuum-tube amplifiers. The overall tonality is highly natural, with barely a hint of warmness. It’s not quite as neutral as, say, the top-of-the-line Simaudio Moon amplifiers that we’ve listened to or the Premier 350, but it’s not as warm as my Burmester 911 MK3 or the Pass XA series amplifiers.

Running the MF2550 SE through its paces with a wide range of speakers, including the Focal Maestro Utopia, Dynaudio Evidence Platinum, and even my old Acoustat 2+2s, reveals that this amplifier will drive any speakers comfortably, with power to spare. Whether rocking out with AC/DC, or relaxing with a string quartet, this amplifier presents a wide, deep soundstage and a level of nuance and control usually associated with a much more expensive amplifier.

As with the Premier 350, Conrad-Johnson’s MF2550 SE’s simple, elegant, and understated design delivers breathtaking musical performance in a compact package. And, as someone who has owned quite a few CJ products over the last 35 years, I will say that the Champagne-colored faceplate is just fine by me.

MF2550 SE amplifier

MSRP: $7,800


Digital source JRiver Media Center 19    Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC    Audio Research CD3 MK2
Analog source SME 10 turntable     Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Preamplifer Coffman Labs G1-A
Power amplifier Mark Levinson No. 335
Cables Jena Labs interconnects and Twin 15 speaker cable
Power Running Springs Audio Haley    RSA/Cardas Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC Tube Traps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels    Mapleshade Samson racks    Coffman Labs footers

Conrad Johnson ET3SE Preamplifier

“It just sounds right.” Conrad Johnson’s longtime motto is simple and true. After all, the company counts a loyal following and a 30-plus-year history of producing some of the audio industry’s top amplifiers and preamplifiers. C-J’s ART, ACT 2, and GAT preamplifiers have won almost every award the press bestows, and many of the world’s top audio journalists agree that these preamplifiers are the best in class.  Considering how infrequently we all agree on anything, that is high praise indeed.

Of course, the C-J sound has changed a bit over the years. ART preamplifiers have always had a huge, three-dimensional soundstage with boundless weight to the presentation, while the 6H30 tube-based ACT 2 (my personal reference for many years) is slightly more dynamic and arguably more tonally correct. The current GAT offers the best of both worlds. It has the size and weight of the ART with the speed of the ACT 2, and is a hybrid design, using a composite triode gain stage (via one 6922 tube per channel) and a MOSFET buffer stage.

If you’ve been lucky enough to own or sample the GAT, you know it’s a truly spectacular preamplifier, albeit with a hefty $20k pricetag. The big news is that, for those wanting high performance on a lesser budget, the ET3SE offers much of what C-J learned with the GAT. During a recent factory visit, Lew Johnson showed me the internals of the ET3SE and pointed out all the similarities to the main circuit board of the GAT, which he had on-hand for direct comparison.

“As you can see, there is a lot of shared technology here. The ET3SE is sort of a baby GAT,” he said, with budding enthusiasm. “Here’s what’s really special. The phonostage is essentially the TEA-2SE that you just got done reviewing, and it’s all on one chassis. And, as you can see, we’ve incorporated a healthy dose of our CJD Design Teflon capacitors.” The main differences between the top-of-the-line GAT and ET3SE? The size of the power supply, the complexity of the stepped attenuator controlling the volume level, and the sophistication of the composite triode stage.

In a sense, the ET3SE offers about a quart and a half of the GAT’s sound for less than a quarter of the price. It lists for $4,000 without phonostage and $5,500 with a built-in phonostage. The high-gain version features 54db of gain, and is suggested for cartridges with an output of 1.0mv or less; the low-gain version features 40db of gain and is optimized for cartridges greater than 1.0mv, though most high-output moving coil and moving magnet designs usually fall in the 2.0–5.0mv range, which should be perfect. We reviewed the high-gain model.

It should be noted that non-SE versions are available for $2,500 and $3,350, respectively, but lack the high zoot capacitors. Johnson mentions that while the GAT preamplifier uses 23 massive 2.0uF/350v CJD Design Teflon capacitors (at a retail price of about $250 each), the ET3SE uses a handful of 4.0uF Polypropylene capacitors bypassed by .15uF Teflon capacitors.  This arrangement has the bypass capacitor dominating the sound of the main cap, but “there is no free lunch, the pure Teflon arrangement remains audibly superior.”

If past C-J phono and linestages we’ve heard are any indication, you can expect the non-SE versions to have a somewhat warmer tonal balance with less extension at the frequency extremes; more of the “Classic C-J sound,” if you will. Should you purchase a non-SE model, you can always send it back to the factory for the upgrade, but it will end up costing a few hundred bucks more than the cost of a normal SE model. While I’m spending your money, I highly suggest going all the way and purchasing the SE version. You won’t regret it.

Clean Design

The front panel is free of knobs, utilizes the same round numeric display for volume as past C-J preamplifiers, and comes in any color you like, as long as that happens to be classic C-J champagne anodized aluminum. Like all C-J preamplifiers, the ET3SE is a single-ended design, complete with RCA jacks for inputs and outputs. For 99% of ET3SE owners, this should not present a problem, as the model had no issue driving a 25-foot pair of interconnects without signal degradation. (I’ve had similar luck with my ACT2.)

On top of the splendid aesthetics, the ET3SE is extremely flexible, boasting five high-level inputs as well as the phonostage. It also has a tape loop, or as C-J likes to call it, an “external processor loop.” If you have a tape recorder or outboard equalizer, this is a great way to switch it in and out of the amplification chain when not in use. I employ a Manley Massive Passive studio equalizer when working on restoring my vinyl collection, so this is one of my favorite features. My only complaint? I would love to see a second pair of main outputs for those who use a powered subwoofer.

The only downside to the SE model with all those Teflon capacitors is that it really does take 500 hours to sound its best, just like my ACT 2. But once it’s finally broken-in, the ET3SE opens up and offers a surprising amount of performance for a preamplifier in its given price range. At first glimpse, the ET3SE sounds slightly compressed, with a constricted soundstage. It begins to come out of the fog at about 150 hours, with the presentation making a big jump right around the 300-hour mark before showing further improvement between 300 and 500 hours.

Mix and Match

Most of my listening was spent with the recently upgraded MV-50C1, a unit that last summer went back to the C-J factory to have a full complement of CJD Design Teflon capacitors and similar power supply upgrade. While Johnson pointed out that my “new” MV-50 does not possess the last bit of frequency extension offered by its current tube amplifiers, it’s still damn good, retaining all the magic that the MV-50 had in its day, with a lot more bass grip and high-end clarity that it did when brand new.

I also made it a point to drive a handful of other amplifiers, both tube and solid-state, all with excellent luck. Nelson Pass’ First Watt M3, a single-ended, class-A solid-state design, proved to be an awesome combination with the ET3SE. I’ve been using C-J vacuum-tube preamplifiers with solid-state power amplifiers to great success since the late 70s when I first mated the C-J PV2 with a Threshold 400A, another of Pass’ fine designs. Nothing has changed; it’s still a great pairing.

Because the ET3SE is a model of simplicity, it warms up quickly and uses a basic remote to change functions and volume. The attenuator “clicks,” just like the one on my ACT2; it’s a friendly, familiar sound. The remote is a stripped-down plastic model—cheaper when compared to the billet aluminum remote that higher-end C-J preamplifiers use—but it helps keep the cost more reasonable. If you must have the billet remote, the folks at C-J can sell you one as an accessory.

That Big C-J Sound

Once the break in period was complete and I got down to serious listening, I became amazed at how much this preamplifier is capable of delivering! During casual listening sessions, and when using less than the most pristine software, it was easy to get fooled into thinking I was listening to one of C-J’s top preamplifiers.

The size of the soundstage instantly caught my attention. Left to right, images extended beyond the speakers’ boundaries, and there was an abundance of front-to-back depth as well. Not as much as with the ACT 2, but much more than I expected. And thanks to that ever so slight warmth to the ET3SE’s character, its extra tonal body goes a long way with digital playback, especially on discs that sound less than perfect.

The Motorhead concert set Better Motorhead Than Dead: Live at Hammersmith features a somewhat flat recording of Lemmy Kilmister’s voice. But through the ET3SE, his timbre on signature tracks such as “Love Me Like A Reptile” and “Ace of Spades” had extra presence that was both pleasant and welcome. The ET3SE is just one of those preamplifiers that makes your music collection come alive, especially after it gets an hour or two to fully warm up.

Moreover, the preamplifier’s hybrid design strikes a perfect balance, offering a punchy sound that will have you clamoring to try and define. Whereas some hybrid designs end up representing a compromise, the C-J blends the best of both worlds—extremely quiet, providing healthy tonal contrast, yet powerful and controlled, with weight and accuracy at both ends of the tonal spectrum.

For example, Trey Gunn’s recent I’ll Tell What I Saw features a ProTools-heavy mix, and its massive bass riffs can get muddy in a hurry. Yet the ET3SE sailed right through, keeping the bottom solid and on track, while maintaining the integrity of the powerful percussion. I was equally stunned when enjoying a 24/96 high-resolution copy of Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, a fairly dense album that exposes the beginnings of bandleader David Byrne’s obsession with Brazilian rhythms. Again, the ET3SE did an outstanding job of keeping the pace tight and maintaining the dynamic impact.

Phono Fantastic

For audiophiles that long for the good old days when preamplifiers contained a great phonostage, the ET3SE comes up roses, especially if you don’t want a rack full of gear and cables. On analog, I used the Oracle Delphi V/SME 309/Lyra Dorian combination for a majority of my listening. But even when I experimented with cartridges in the $2,500 range, they never made me feel as if the ET3SE’s internal phono stage was outclassed.

To get a read on more budget-conscious cartridges, I tried the Rega P3-24 with a Dynavector 17D3, but the relatively low output (.3mv) pushed the noise floor of the ET3SE’s phono section. The higher output (.6mv) Lyra Dorian proved a better match. Even the additional .1mv of the Shelter 501II offered superior results when compared to the 17D3, which seems to fare better with phonostages offering at least 60db of gain.

One of the most pleasing aspects of a great internal phonostage is that one need not worry about synergy between phonostage and linestage, or the optimum interconnect cable. Given that the TEA2SE outboard phonostage is $4,000, the ET3SE’s level of phono performance is amazing.

Suffice to say, it was easy to get lost listening to records for hours on end with the ETSE3. When used in conjunction with the MV-50, Oracle turntable, and B&W 805Ds that reside in System Three, the C-J caused me to always come away highly impressed at the quality and amount of true high-end sound available at a price that won’t force you to make your kids attend community college.

Extra Credit

Those who can’t stand to listen to anything in its stock form should consider rolling the tubes in the ET3SE. The phonostage uses three 12AX7s and the linestage one 6922. While I was able to get a significant jump in performance by using the EAT tubes reviewed in this issue, three add $775 to the price of the ET3SE, and they burn away, whether or not you are using the phono input. A more cost-effective upgrade can be had from purchasing one premium 6922 tube for the linestage (again, I suggest the EAT tube). As good as the ET3SE is, it goes to 11 if you swap the stock tube for the EAT.

True Value

I am proud to award the Conrad Johnson ET3SE a 2011 Exceptional Value Award. For many audiophiles, this preamplifier will be all you ever require, offering great sound, top build quality, and immense flexibility for $5,500. I defy anyone to find a more musical combination of preamplifier and phonostage for this price.

The Conrad-Johnson ET3SE Preamplifier

MSRP:  $4,000 without phonostage, $5,500 with


Digital source dCS Paganini Stack    Sooloos Music Server
Analog source Oracle Delphi V/SME 309/Lyra Dorian    Rega P3-24/Shelter 501III
Power Amplifier Conrad Johnson MV-50C1    Octave MR130SE
Speakers GamuT S9    B&W 805D    Verity Finn
Cable AudioQuest SKY
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Duke

Conrad Johnson ET5 Preamplifier

Conrad-Johnson exudes stability. The look of its equipment never seems to radically change. The black top, the champagne face, the little silver buttons: All attest to a company that’s not fretting about its looks. Instead, it’s confident. But content and resting easy in the saddle? Not a chance. What’s taking place inside the box, of course, is what counts. And here, Conrad-Johnson makes some big changes. Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson, stalwarts of the high-end audio industry, are doing anything but resting upon their laurels. Instead, they seem intent on demonstrating that C-J remains on the cutting edge.

The new ET5 preamplifier offers a case in point. It is the latest expression of C-J’s quest to refine the sound of its product line. Over the past decade, C-J has taken numerous steps to improve its preamplifiers and amplifiers, the heart of the company. It has made occasional forays into producing CD players, but tubed gear is its bread and butter.

Best of Both Worlds

C-J never abandoned the tube, and its traditional house sound has always emphasized musicality—a warm and fairly lush presentation, anything but coarse or grainy. But in recent years, the trend at C-J and elsewhere has leaned toward a more transparent sound. It used to be that musicality came at the expense of transparency, and vice versa. But that’s far from the case today. Very far, in fact. The truth is that improvements in capacitor technology have allowed audio companies to lower the noise floor to levels that might have seemed difficult, if not impossible, a mere decade ago.

After a series of highly regarded (and expensive) ART and ACT preamplifiers, C-J recently broke new ground with its GAT preamplifier, which is loaded with Teflon capacitors. It also employs a circuit design that for gain relies on the venerable 6922 tube. It seems that C-J, for reasons of sound or practicality, abandoned the Russian 6h30 tube that was introduced with much hue and cry, but which is no longer as easily obtained. C-J likes to use a single gain stage and mosfet buffer at the output with the ET5. In theory, using a mosfet is quieter and more reliable than employing a tube. (Although some tube lovers will always swear by the glowing bottle regardless of its position in the circuit.) C-J also makes a big deal about the fact that it doesn’t use electrolytic capacitors anywhere in its preamps—not even in the power supply. It’s a different approach. Electrolytics give you a lot of storage capacity, so they can be useful in power supplies.

That said, few companies disdain them to the extent that C-J does. But C-J feels they degrade the sound, and there’s no doubting that, if possible, electrolytics are best avoided. In addition, the single gain stage in the company’s preamplifiers means that it inverts phase, which, in turn requires reversing the polarity of your speaker cables if you are not using a power amplifier that also inverts phase, as C-J amplifiers do. C-J has always preferred the simplicity of a single-ended design as opposed to the complexity of a fully balanced design. Moreover, all C-J gear is single-ended, which means no doubling of parts, as in a balanced design. C-J’s attitude: Why complicate the gear more than necessary?

Hence, the ET5 is the lineal descendant of the much-extolled GAT. But does it sacrifice too much to be even mentioned in the same breath? Not way. And it weighs in at the much more affordable price of $9,500.

Covering the Bases

The ET5’s winning qualities are immediately apparent. For its price, you deserve transparency, rock-solid imaging, and beauty. The ET5 delivers them all. It does a great job of balancing a somewhat mellow sound with transparency. And that mellowness comes through beautifully on instruments such as flute. Vide, MA Recordings’ stellar CD featuring Diana Baroni playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s flute sonata. This might sound like another fusty, old baroque recording, but believe me, it isn’t. And through the ET5, it truly sounds alive. The ET5 brings to the table a wonderfully rich shower of harmonic overtones. I could practically hear the flute vibrating, every breath that the performer took, all the details that take a performance from the mundane to the sublime. Pure artistry.

Ditto for another of my favorite flute recordings, this one featuring Joshua Smith on a Delos CD. I could practically see Smith’s fingers whizzing up and down the flute as they hit the keypads. The ET5 suffused my room with music, drenched it with harmonics, buzzing sounds, and plangent cellos. The amount of air it produces around instruments? Nothing short of sensational. One easily gets the feeling that the concert stage is right there in front of you.

The ET5’s ability to nail the timbral signature of an instrument equates to another strong point. Many have been the times that I have listened to a recording of multiple trumpets called—what else?—“Baroque Trumpetissimo.” It features an all-star cast, including Raymond Mase and Edward Carroll. These guys can pretty much do anything on the horn, and the ET5 really let me hear how they strut their stuff. Particularly impressive is the facility with which the ET5 allows the initial intonation to come through; that silvery pop signals that a master trumpeter is at work.

Then there is image stability. The ET5 excels at it. With this preamp, you can focus on the performers’ position to your heart’s content. And this particular virtue is probably a product of the preamps’ exceptionally low grain. It simply doesn’t smear the images, but opens up a huge and panoramic soundstage.

The Question of Power

Where does the ET5 come up a little short? That’s easy to answer. It doesn’t pack the punch of its bigger brethren. Preamps retailing for $20K and up—which, believe it or not, has become the routine price for top-drawer models—have more sonic power and impact. My Messenger preamplifier claims more heft and grandeur. But go to the GAT, and you’ll get that as well. Why? The secret, as always, is in the power supply. More capacitance usually means more acoustic thunder. If a preamp is going to navigate complicated passages with aplomb, it needs plenty of dynamic reserves. In audio, you get what you pay for, and sometimes, a little more.

The ET5 unquestionably lands on the “more” side of the equation. This unassuming preamplifier is a quietly devastating piece of equipment, one that may force you to rethink the limits of sonic reproduction, particularly at its price. One of the things that tends to get lost in the audiophile shuffle is that recordings to which many audiophiles listen can feature some pretty amazing playing. However, audiophiles often get distracted by sheer sonic effects as opposed to instrumentalists’ virtuosity.

For my money, the ET5 represents a significant step forward for C-J. Without sacrificing the mellifluous sound that is its trademark, C-J demonstrates that its new products can deliver a transparent sound and more. Anyone looking for a high-end preamp that’s linear, musical, reliable would do well to consider the ET5. It does nothing wrong and pretty much everything right.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Having logged experience using C-J’s ACT 2 series 2 preamplifier for a number of years as a reference component, and having spent considerable time with the CT5 and ART series of preamplifiers (series 1, 2 and 3), the ET5 emerges as an entirely different animal. Even when taking the ART preamplifiers into account, my favorite series has always been the ACT 2, because of the combination of tonal accuracy and dynamic contrast it provides.

If you’ve had a chance to experience the GAT, it is truly the pinnacle of C-J preamplifier design—and perhaps the pinnacle of preamplifier design, period. The ET5 comes shockingly close to it for less than half the price and offers a similar tonal rendition. Listeners with world-beater systems will happily belly up for the GAT, if for nothing else than the bragging rights. And, it genuinely is a step above the ET5. But those happy to reside one step down from the true audio maniacs will be equally happy to keep the additional $10,500 in their pocket.

A Quick Comparison

Since I utilized the ET5 in an-all CJ system with a Premier 350 power amplifier and GamuT S9 speakers, it was rather easy to compare the new model to the ACT 2. Of course, there will always be a difference in sound between anything based on the 6922/6DJ8 tube versus the 6H30. The former possesses a slightly softer and warmer sound than the 6H30, which usually offers more authority in the lower end as well as more punch.

The ET5’s hybrid design brings the two preamplifiers closer together in tonal rendition, and offers an even quieter background than the ACT 2—not dramatic, but enough that those enjoying classical and small-ensemble acoustic pieces will definitely take notice. Listening to David Grisman’s Hot Dawg at a realistically live level via the ACT 2 yielded a bit of tube noise in the interludes. There was markedly less of the latter when I played the disc played through the ET5. Advantage, ET5.

Thanks to only one 6922 tube, the ET5 is easier to manipulate than any other vacuum-tube preamplifier going. When you only have to buy one tube, those $300 Telefunkens and $200 Bugle Boys become more interesting. Considering every C-J tube preamplifier I’ve owned since 1978 has been easy on tubes, I’m going to assume the ET5 will continue in that tradition.

While the ET5 sounds just fine with the stock tube, another world awaits you with aftermarket tubes. The EAT ECC88 is quite possibly the best choice since it does not alter the tonality of the preamplifier; it just offers up more dynamic punch and a lower noise floor. After installing the EAT, I went back to the Grisman record and discovered zero tube noise in the background. The EAT tube also threw a bigger soundstage in all three directions and had more bass weight. When listening to the title track from Thievery Corporation’s recent LP, Culture of Fear, the upgraded tube yielded deeper bass beats with more grip.

Swapping the EAT for a rare Telefunken CCa sacrificed some transient speed but gave the midrange an intoxicating opulence, especially with my favorite 60s rock records.  Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? proved a revelation. I now truly was experienced.  Similar sensations came courtesy of Incredible Hog’s “To The Sea,” a track from the band’s self-titled album. It was as if I had x-ray vision and could just see the plate reverb vibrating inside one of the group’s Orange amplifiers.

Lew Johnson and Bill Conrad are primarily classical music guys, yet they may have inadvertently created the world’s most incredible rock n’ roll preamplifier with the ET5/Telefunken combination. And while we don’t recommend using tube swapping as a tone control, it’s nice to know you have the option. (Guitar players have been doing it for years, so why not?) With this being such an easy process, the advantage again goes to the ET5.

In terms of dynamics, the ACT 2 is still the king. Whether I was listening to the Who or Shostakovich, the ET5 didn’t as effortlessly move the big air as did the ACT 2. Via the latter, drum thwacks had more punch and were better defined, both on the leading and trailing edge of the sound.

Ladies and Gentlemen, We Have a Winner

The toughest part of describing expensive audio equipment is the degree of importance one should place upon the gear. To many, the difference between C-J’s best may not be quite as dramatic as it is to those that are somewhat more maniacal. Whether you choose to experiment with the tubes or not, the new ET5 remains an outstanding preamplifier in every aspect. Those well-versed with the C-J of old—with a warmer, more romantic sound—may long for the euphonic coloration those units provide.

Personally, I love the current C-J sound. It offers up almost all of the tonal richness that made the company famous, yet adds the dynamic capabilities of a modern preamplifier. Thanks to the CJD Teflon capacitors and a single tube, the ET5 should last even longer than my PV-1, which is still in service after 33 years. I can only think of about six preamplifiers that outperform the ET5. They all have a price that costs two-to-five times greater, and half of them are C-J designs. If that doesn’t say Exceptional Value Award for 2011, nothing does. Highly recommended.

Conrad-Johnson ET5 Preamplifier

MSRP: $9,500


Analog Source Continuum Caliburn w/2 Cobra tonearms    AirTight PC-1 Supreme (Stereo) Lyra Titan (Mono)
Preamplifier Messenger
Power Amplifier Classe CA-M600 Monos (two more for subwoofers)
Speakers Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 w/Thor Subwoofers    Magnepan 20.1
Cable Jena Labs    Analord Prime Phono Cable
Power Isoclean Supreme Focus    Stage III Concepts

Conrad Johnson GAT Preamplifier

My journey with Conrad-Johnson preamplifiers goes all the way back to its original PV-1, purchased new in 1979. Over the last 33 years, I’ve tried a number of different preamplifiers, yet the CJ sound remains a favorite.

Loyal TONEAudio readers know that I’ve been using the ACT 2/series two preamplifier for many years as a reference component. Just like that PV-1, the ACT 2 has performed without as much as a burp—along with the company’s Premier 350 power amplifier—for upwards of 20,000 hours. During a recent dinner with Lew Johnson, he and his partner, Bill Conrad, laughed and said, “You’ve probably spent more hours listening to the ACT 2 than we have. And we designed the damn thing.”

The ART 3 hit the scene a few years ago, and while I enjoyed listening to it in a few friends’ systems, I was too content with the ACT 2 to let it go. However, the GAT is another story. When I visited the CJ factory last year, Johnson said, “I think we finally have something you’ll want to trade your ACT 2 in on.”

While CJ has always made all-vacuum-tube preamplifiers, the GAT marches to the beat of a different drum. Produced in an edition of 250 units, each $20,000 GAT has a small, stamped serial-number pad on the back face. It is also the ultimate in simplicity. Only one 6922 vacuum tube is utilized as a gain stage per channel, and a low-noise FET transistor serves as an output gain buffer—an alternate approach from models employing the FET as the input stage. The combination works brilliantly, offering low noise and incredible low-level detail.

Under the Hood

Much has been said about the virtues of the proprietary Teflon CJD capacitors transforming CJ electronics from a slightly warm, mellifluous sound that this writer always finds enticing to a current sound that gives up none of the tonal richness from legacy designs, yet now possess a level of large- and small-scale dynamics—along with a transparency unattainable in previous preamplifiers. As they used to say at Weight Watchers, “All the satisfaction with none of the guilt.”

The GAT is full of the aforementioned large capacitors, strategically placed in all critical functions. Those used in the power supply look like emergency road flares, and account for much of the GAT’s explosive dynamics. The rest of the circuit board reveals premium parts; this isn’t an overpriced pretty box.

However, those massive Teflon capacitors take some time to sound their best.  We have experienced the same trait with every component featuring a number of them in their design. Right out of the box, the GAT sounds a little flat and restricted—almost in a haze. But it’s easy to pick up on the exquisite tonality that makes this preamplifier one of the world’s finest.

The GAT exits the fog once 100 hours pass, and makes a substantial jump in clarity around the 300-hour mark. Should you be a jittery, impatient audiophile, resist the urge to abandon the GAT until you get at least 300 hours on the clock, or you will be sorry. Most of this “break-in” finishes at this point; you’ll know it when you power it up and it just sounds a lot “bigger.” From that point forward, it continues to slightly improve over the next few hundred hours.


The ACT, ART, and GAT all possess their own unique sonic signature, and each appeals to a different listener.  The ACT 2 places you about five rows closer to the musical presentation than the ART 3, yet the latter claims more heft in the lowest register of the frequency spectrum, and possesses more tonal saturation as well. Keep in mind, these are not earth-shattering differences. It’s more like the gradation between high-performance tires on a Porsche or Ferrari, but the preamplifiers do have their own unique flavor.

Regardless of your choice of adjectives, these two models owe as much to the type of tube (four 6H30s in the ACT 2, ten 6922s in the ART) as their inherent circuit design.

Enter the GAT. Imagine an equal mixture of the ART and ACT’s tonality, with greater dynamic ability and a lower noise floor. It’s that basic. The GAT makes for a perfect match for both tubed and solid-state CJ power amplifiers, proving a great dance partner with all the amplifiers at my disposal.

Users Chime In

During the course of the review, a few GAT owners were kind enough to send me their impressions, and we’ve all drawn the same conclusion. Whether previous CJ owners or not, all agree that the price asked for the GAT was “very reasonable” in comparison to other units they auditioned. One user called it a “relative steal.”

The GAT’s high-frequency refinement got the highest marks, with one of our respondents feeling the difference between the GAT and ACT 2 isn’t subtle. “It’s as if CJ has brought back the magic midrange from the Premier 16LS and ART preamplifiers, yet carved away the syrupy part.”

All concurred on the GAT’s superior noise floor and, interestingly, the seven GAT owners/responders all commented on the quality of the stock CJ power cord. One reader sums it up succinctly, stating, “I’ve experimented with a number of power cords, and noticed a marginal improvement. But the stock CJ cord is tough to beat.”

Serves the Music

High-performance audio components are like high-performance automobiles in the sense that they offer overpowering excellence in one area, yet lack in others that are even bested by modestly priced competitors. While the GAT is almost equally good with all aspects of musical reproduction, it is the master at combining high resolution with a complete lack of grain or harshness.

Keith Jarrett’s Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 instantly reveals the nuance, texture, and decay the GAT puts at your disposal. Leading and trailing edges of piano notes sound magnificent—almost fragile, not unlike the multicolored light reflection on a soap bubble floating in the air. Acoustic instruments portrayed via the GAT are incredibly realistic.

The GAT also excels in the pace department. The title cut of Frank Sinatra’s Nice and Easy reveals the component’s prowess, as it keeps Sinatra’s vocals out in front of his orchestra while simultaneously painting a Cinemascope-esque soundstage behind him.  At the end of the track, when he snaps his fingers, this bit of fleeting percussion makes it feel as if the man himself is standing about four feet in front of you—unbeatable.

Anja Garbarek’s “Big Mouth” from Smiling and Waving illustrates how the GAT proves equally captivating with female vocals. In this case, Garbarek’s highly over-processed vocals fill my listening room to the point where, at high volume, the doors need to be opened to let some of them out. Yet, at the same time, all of the cool percussion and electronic sounds hover in space. Crowded House’s Woodface offers the same presentation. Even though it’s another studio album full of processing, and an excellent example of “pinpoint imaging,” the GAT bears fruit.

If you are the type of audiophile that loves the latter effect, the GAT will stun you with its massive soundstage and rock-solid imaging—no doubt because of the GAT’s lightning transient speed and freedom from overhang. It stops and starts without going past the mark, providing fatigue-free sound, even after long listening sessions.

Triumph Over Mediocrity

Like any other preamplifier from the top of the mountain, the GAT breezes through pristine audiophile tracks. But those cues aren’t what separate the best from pretty good. As fine as the GAT is with your best recordings, it will endear you with its ability to reveal more music than you thought possible from less-than-heavenly material.

Favorites from Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and Todd Rundgren (A Wizard, A True Star is particularly nasty sounding) move up from the “terrible recording, but I love the music” to the “sounds pretty good” category. The Rundgren record is particularly splendid when played through the GAT: The bass foundation is better than I’ve ever heard it, along with a few more layers.

I can’t stress the importance of these revelations when it comes to an expensive component. It’s imperative that gear that costs as much as a decent car doesn’t limit the user to five audiophile-approved recordings. This alone justifies the price for this reviewer. Grab a GAT before they are gone.

Conrad Johnson GAT Preamplifier

MSRP: $20,000


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/TriPlanar/Lyra Atlas
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Sooloos Control 15
Phonostage Vitus Audio MPP-201
Power Amplifiers Conrad Johnson Premier 350    Pass Labs XA200.5     Burmester 911 mk. 3     Octave Jubilee Monoblocks
Speakers Magnepan 3.7     GamuT S9
Cable Cardas Clear