Conrad-Johnson ET3 Valve Preamplifier $4499
Conrad-Johnson Classic Sixty Valve Power Amp $6799
Conrad Johnson’s classy pre/power combo wows Andrew Baker
American high-end audio company Conrad-Johnson was formed in the 1970s by two audiophile buddies, Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson, hence the name. Economists with no background in electronics, they decided they could probably make better audio equipment than most other companies by ignoring the trend towards transistors and sticking with valves. And they were right.
In ‘77 Conrad-Johnson released its first product, the PV-1 preamp, to much acclaim. Since then the company has produced valve and solid state amplifiers, CD players, DACs, phonostages and even loudspeakers. Employing just 18 technicians in its humble factory in Fairfax, Virginia, the products are hand made using high quality components, which are individually tested for quality and performance. In the case of preamps, they are burnt in for 100 hours, and then re-tested before being sent out into the big old nasty world.
On review here are the entry-level ET3 valve line stage preamplifier and the brand new Classic Sixty valve power amplifier, which is so new that at the time of writing, it isn’t even on the Conrad-Johnson website.
The pre- and power amps are solid and beautifully built, looking every bit worth their respective price tags. Both units are adorned with a matt-black metal chassis with a splendid champagne coloured thick aluminium face panel. The ET3, measuring 13.125D x 19W x 3.315H inches and weighing nearly 6kg, is the entry level version of Conrad-Johnson’s flagship GAT preamplifier. A single triode valve provides voltage gain while the zero-feedback circuit and DC voltage regulators are similar to those of the GAT. The ET3 also uses a “relay operated discreet stepped attenuator” volume control.
Despite its low-in-the-pecking-order status, the ET3 boasts top-quality componentry, including metal-film resistors for low noise performance and polypropylene capacitors in the audio circuits and voltage supplies. An optional phonostage is available, in a high gain version (54dB) and low gain (40dB). The review unit came sans phonostage. (The ET3 and Classic Sixty are also available in SE form at $7199 and $8999, respectively. The SE versions feature upgraded caps and resistors and the Classic SixtySE uses KT120 valves instead of the standard model’s EL34s. The standard Classic can be upgraded to SE, the ET3 cannot).
The ET3 has a handsome circular volume display window in the centre of the faceplate which shows the volume level, lit up in orange-yellow in numeric LCD form, for each channel, from 0 to 99. There are six buttons, evenly spaced, three either side of the display window, with LEDs to indicate the selected source. Two of the buttons are for volume control (no knobs here, or for that matter, tone or balance controls or a headphone jack; I didn’t miss any of it) – one for volume down, one for volume up (the levels go up or down in approximately 0.7dB increments, and I didn’t feel the need for anything in between). You can hear the relays clicking when adjusting the volume but I didn’t find it annoying at all; in fact there was something quite reassuring about it. The other buttons operate power-on/off, source select and theatre/tape select. There’s also a mute button and it comes in handy. There are six line-level, single ended inputs, including a tape loop and a theatre loop to incorporate a home theatre system. A remote control operates all functions and here is my first, and probably only, bugbear. The remote is a small, thin piece of plastic which in no way emulates the beautifully built preamp it controls. However, it works perfectly and is still a luxury that many audiophiles forsake (along with tone controls), so I shan’t dwell on it.
An important thing to note is that the ET3 is phase inverting, so if your power amp, or any other component, does not also invert phase (the Classic Sixty does not) you may need to do so at the speaker end, by reversing the polarity; you’ll be able to hear if something isn’t quite right and it is explained pretty well in the manual.
The Classic Sixty power amp (13.375”D x 17.375”W x 6.625”H), like the ET3, is a thing of understated beauty. The front of the unit has a black on/off switch, a red power on light and four screws holding the faceplate in place. The lovely matte black valve cage is held on by four spring loaded screws which can be undone by poking the supplied tool down strategically placed holes. The tool is also used to adjust the voltage bias which is indicated by four red indicator LEDs, one for each EL34 output valve. When an indicator lights up you simply turn the adjuster screw anticlockwise until the light just goes out. Easy. As well as the aforementioned EL34s, the Classic uses two 6922 valves – one per channel and a single 6189. Right behind the valves, two huge transformers flank a hefty power supply and there are two more LEDs to indicate blown fuses.
At the rear are found the line-in inputs, the power cable input and two pairs of good quality speaker binding posts, which accept banana plugs, spade lugs or bare wire. The amp is rated at 60wpc into 4 ohms but if you wish, you can change the loading to 8 or 16 ohms.
Setup and Listening
The ET3 went nicely into my rack. It is light and easy to handle, yet looks and feels extremely sturdy and well constructed. The power amp, also exceptionally well built, is very heavy. If you’re not rippling with perfectly formed and tanned muscles as I am, you may find it a bit difficult to manoeuvre the amp into your rack. Okay, I’m kidding about the muscles – they’re not perfectly tanned. The amp actually weighs 41lB (about 18kg), so it’s not that heavy, but heavy enough to be reassuring.
I connected everything up – my Well Tempered turntable with Benz ACE MC cartridge via Trichord Dino phonostage, Rega Apollo CD player and my Spendor SP2/3 speakers. A comparatively humble mix for sure but I was confident that greatness would ensue. Finally I connected the pre and power amps with some Wyre Wizard Dreamcaster interconnects, kindly lent to me by the boys at Turned On Audio in Onehunga: you’ve just paid a lot of money for some high quality amps, don’t skimp on cables, it can make a difference. When you turn it on, go and do the dishes or wash the cat or something for a good half hour so they warm up just right. Then you’re ready to settle in to the listening chair for the rest of the day/night/week.
I started out by spinning a few CDs in my Rega Apollo, just to get a feel for things and see which albums would be best to use for the purpose of this review. This proved to be rather difficult because everything I played sounded so darned good. Jazz, rock, electronic, acoustic, female vocals… where to begin?
It was while I was playing ‘Mineral Wells’ by Amanda Shires (from the album West Cross Timbers) that my wife walked into the room. “Holy shit!” she exclaimed (she swears like a sailor). “It sounds like she’s in the room!” And maybe I had been thinking it’d be nice if she was in the room and maybe I hadn’t… But anyway, Ms Shires was projected, holograph like, seemingly onto the mat on the floor between me and the speakers. The valves revealed the slightly fragile nature of her vocals and I could even hear her tongue moving in her mouth as she sang. Her accompanying fiddle sounded natural with the tone of the instrument’s wooden body fully realised.
Next up was ‘Red Right Hand’ from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Best Of CD from 1998. Blixa Bargeld’s bass thundered into the room while Cave’s organ was cavernous, filling the space from wall to wall and up to the ceiling, the amplifiers presenting a three dimensional quality that rendered his voice all the more ominous. Shakers flitted creepily in front of me and the timpani sounded like sharp shots of distant thunder, its unique sound resonating and decaying convincingly in the background. It was truly gorgeous; sound filled the room effortlessly.
On the 40th Anniversary edition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Cosmo’s Factory on CD there were clearly four individuals performing in front of me. Each individual performer was isolated from the others, no one instrument drowned out another but they worked together to create one dynamic whole. Even during a blazing guitar solo with crashing cymbals and thundering drums I could still focus on little details I hadn’t noticed before, like little percussive flourishes or a ripple of piano. I usually find this slightly bright recording to get a little grueling at high volume levels, but not so with the Conrad-Johnsons. I found the album utterly electrifying and my heart was actually pounding during the eleven minute epic “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”. The ET3 and Classic Sixty were presenting shimmering highs, tight, agile bass, a gorgeous smooth and detailed midrange and a “Wow! They’re in the room!” sound.
Playing the Grateful Dead’s ‘Ripple’ from American Beauty, Jerry Garcia was in my living room at last. And for the first time ever I heard someone, possibly Phil Lesh, singing backing vocals directly behind Jerry. Guitars sounded crisp and I could hear the plectrum (okay, pick) hitting each string with every up and down stroke and the strings rang out long after being strummed. The mandolin in the song sounded so delicate and beautiful that it almost brought a tear to my manly eye. It was really like being at a live concert where one can sit or stand (preferably sit; I’m getting old) and look to any band member and focus on what they’re doing without losing the momentum of the song.
Before delving into my vinyl collection, I pondered the fact that I was finally hearing what my Spendors are capable of and I was, quite honestly, blown away. I have never heard my speakers sound so fast, open and lively and I’d had no idea they could produce such deep, hearty bass. The Conrad-Johnsons produce a sound that is natural, free and effortless with sublime tonal accuracy and a vast soundstage in which instruments are precisely placed, and you can hear what each musician is doing, whether it’s plucking a thunderous bass line or tapping a triangle. There’s truckloads of headroom, the room being filled with unfatiguing, untainted sound. The valve sound is fat and warm, though not as warm as I’d expected (probably the warm side of neutral – just how I like it) and the EL34s produce a lovely midrange.
I should note here that there is some noise which is audible through the speakers in the form of a low hiss or “rushing” sound. It does not get louder or softer when I adjust the volume and it definitely does not interfere with the music. With no music playing, I can just hear the hiss from my listening chair. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest but I think it is worth mentioning.
It Just Sounds Right
I hadn’t heard ‘Take Five’ from The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out LP presented on such a huge soundstage. The piano was bang smack in front of me and it sounded beautiful, Brubeck striking the keys in 5/4 time while Paul Desmond belted out those distinctive saxophone notes, filling the room with their magic. Having a wife who is a piano teacher has enabled me to give special attention to recorded piano and I have to say that these amps deliver a performance that is damn close to the real thing. The timbre of the notes and the way they decay believably is extraordinary. And the drum solo on ‘Everybody’s Jumping’, despite its brevity is a thing of beauty on this gear (I’m a sucker for a good jazz drum solo). I could hear the sticks hit the skins, the sound resonating in the drum cabinets and the cymbals shimmering with every crack of the snare and pounding of the toms.
Sticking with jazz and on went Count Basie’s brilliant Basie Jam LP from 1975. This recording was blown wide open. In fact, if I may use the hi-fi cliché about open windows, then I climbed through the window and joined the band in the studio; this wasn’t recorded 36 years ago – it was happening now. Basie’s piano definitely had more presence than usual and I could almost see him grinning as he caressed those notes out of the keys. Brass sounded sharp and focused, particularly with Harry Edison’s trumpet – I could hear his breath, his spittle and the beginning and, right through to the end of, every note. The rhythm section of Louie Bellson (one of my favourite jazz drummers) and Ray Brown on bass was fast and lively, especially on “Red Bank Blues” which ends with a terrific drum solo – I could easily distinguish the snares, the toms, the bass drum and the cymbals in full life size scale – and it’s a real heart-stopper.
Radiohead’s ‘Reckoner’ from In Rainbows has never sounded so big, bold and real in my room. The sound simply shimmered from wall to wall and I could hear the echo of the recording environment with every strike of the cymbals. The cymbals sounded spot-on realistic, they actually sounded metallic and took ages to decay. The string section filled the room with a lovely smooth quality that wasn’t overwhelming. Thom Yorke’s vocal was well clear of the music, hanging in the air between the speakers as though he was singing only for me.
Next on the platter was Beirut’s excellent album The Rip Tide. The rhythm section sounded lively and uplifting, in a pleasant contrast to Zach Condon’s somewhat plaintive vocal. Snare drums sounded realistic with the short sharp whacks and the click-clacks of the drum sticks; again, cymbals were crisp and metallic sounding. String and brass arrangements throughout the album stayed controlled and sharp, never becoming overpowering and muddled as they can do in my room. Ukulele was particularly notable in the mix, with the unique sound of the strings resonating within the little instrument’s wooden body.
The Conrad-Johnson duo performed superbly with rock music too. With the Doors’ LA Woman and The Cure’s Three Imaginary Boys (both 180gram re-issues) I could sense a raw, live-in-the-studio sound with buzzing amps and off-mic talking, slamming, full-bodied drums and individual bass notes being plucked. Overdriven guitar riffs attacked my living room while Jim Morrison’s gruff vocal delivery had me convinced that I wasn’t listening to a forty one year old recording but to an actual live session. That’s the thing. It isn’t so much that the performers sound like they are in the room (they do, and dramatically so), it’s this strange sensation of being an eavesdropper, sitting-in surreptitiously on a live performance – whether it be in the studio or in front of a crowd.
I know my humble components would not have got the best out of the Conrad-Johnsons, but they undoubtedly got the best out of my humble components. The ET3 and Classic Sixty are wonderfully insightful and involving with a pure, clean and open sound. They provide a massive soundstage with amazing tonal accuracy and deep powerful, perfectly formed bass, and they are highly revealing of minute details, even at low volumes. The fact that they handle rock music as admirably as they do jazz, acoustic, electronic make these amps real all-rounders. Of course you don’t have to use these two together, you can have one or the other with a different pre or power amp but this duo work together remarkably well and I reckon you’d be hard pressed to find something better for the price. I can’t recommend these amplifiers enough, for, as their slogan goes: “It just sounds right”. A.W. BAKER