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S a m Te l l i g

ElEctronically rEPrintED FroM octoBEr 2011

Conrad-Johnson's ET3 SE preamplifier

"I undervalue the things that I possess, just because I possess them, and attach a higher value to things that are not mine, but belong to another and are beyond my reach. This habit of mind is very widespread." --Michel de Montaigne, "On Presumption"; from Essays, translated by J.M. Cohen (Penguin Books, 1958: p.192)


nd that was in 16th-century France. Human nature doesn't change. I want a killer preamp and envy those who have one--like Mikey Fremer, who bought the darTZeel NHB-18NS ($29,500). Call it preamp envy. Maybe I should get a GAT, Conrad-Johnson's flagship preamplifier, for $20,000. If I got the GAT, I'd have to get a new wife, too. Other than the occasional borrowed sample, I've scraped by without one--a preamp, that is, not a wife. I use integrated amplifiers, like LFD's Mk.IV LE ($3695), and passive attenuators, like the George Hi-Fi Lightspeed attenuator ($490), from Sidney, Australia. For a line stage, sometimes I use a headphone amp, like my Musical Fidelity HPA1 ($799). With the George or MF, I'm limited to one pair of RCA inputs (and, with the MF, a USB DAC). Integrated amplifiers are a great way to avoid preamps. The line stage is built in, depriving the wire bandits of added revenue. With some integrateds, like the aforementioned LFD, all gain is in the power-amp section. Some "passive" devices use transformers that can supply gain. Music First Audio's line of passive devices use transformers that offer a switchable 6dB of gain. (You can check them out at Lately I've been listening to the Amtrans APCG01S "passive controller" from Japan, whose Lundahl transformer offers 6dB of fixed gain. That may be all the added oomph you need. These devices are green, baby. Usually, you don't even have to plug them in. Don't tell Conrad-Johnson, but pas-

Conrad-Johnson's ET3 SE is a souped-up version of the basic ET3 with lots of pricey parts inside.

sive devices, with or without transformers, can be a good way to go--especially those that use transformers to offer gain. Without transformers, you may experience pain instead. That's because each source component must provide all the voltage and current to drive two sets of interconnects, the passive device itself, and the power amp. Tough job, especially if the interconnects are longer than a meter or so. There are two problems with simple passive attenuators: insufficient voltage (maybe), and a relatively high output impedance by the time the signal gets to your power amp, with not just volume attenuated but the high frequencies as well. So there's much to be said for a proper preamp: a line stage that actively amplifies each source component, providing gobs of voltage gain and a lower output impedance than your CD player or other source component can. An active preamp literally takes the load off the source components so they don't have to drive the power amp. (A passive transformer preamp does this, too.) As Bill Conrad, of Conrad-Johnson Design, once told me, a line-stage preamp allows each source component to perform at its best. The result is an easier, more dynamic sound that's also

usually more open, with better spatial resolution and greater high-frequency extension. I talked with Bill again recently and he told me what he's said before: A preamp is the heart of a system. It sets the stage and the tone for the power amp. "Not that the power amp doesn't matter," he hastened to add. "Everything in the signal chain matters, including the interconnects and cables." Perhaps nothing matters more than a preamp, which is somewhat ironic--one can, in theory, dispense with a preamp entirely. With a nod to Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson, you can look at this in terms of economics. (More than three decades ago, the two young economics PhDs met while working for the Federal Reserve. More on this later.) A preamplifier is a good asset to overweigh in terms of your total investment portfolio--er, in your hi-fi. You may not realize how good the rest of your system actually is until you own a proper preamp. Upgrading a DAC, for instance, might be a waste of resources if you haven't first attended to the preamp. Active preamps have one hitch. Money. Unless you're the Federal Reserve, you can't tell the Treasury Department to print it. On the other hand,

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Conrad-Johnson Design, Inc., 2733 Merrilee Drive, Fairfax, VA 22031. Tel: (703) 698-8581. Fax: (703) 560-5360. Web: www.

you could just borrow it and dig yourself deeper into a hole. Remember John Maynard Keynes, who in 1923 said, "In the long run we are all dead." What, me worry? I'm American. It costs money to make a good preamplifier, and tons of money to produce a great one. You're dealing with low-level signals--not as low as the signals in a phono stage, of course, but low compared to a power amplifier. Quality parts count. Power supplies matter, as do circuit designs: keep them simple. Roy Gandy, of Rega, in the UK, once told me that if you want greater reliability, lower the parts count. Or, as Lew Johnson told me years ago, a design is finished when you can't delete any more parts. Unfortunately, some manufacturers stuff their products with cheap parts as a way to cover up mistakes. Simple circuits and a low parts count leave a designer exposed. Conrad-Johnson has been making preamps for more than 30 years. I owned a PV-2 before I started scribbling for Stereophile, and I have heard probably more than half of their preamp models since then. I owned a PV5. Most recently I reviewed the CT5, in July 2008 (Vol.31 No.7; Wes Phillips gave it a full review in July 2009), and the Classic in February 2009. I coveted the ART preamp, and now the current-production GAT. Because I didn't own the ART or get the GAT, I lusted all the more. Then I reread Montaigne. Once you actually possess something, you value it less. Montaigne helps me hold on to my wallet. Conrad-Johnson ET3 SE preamplifier The ET3 comes in four versions: regular (basic) and three Special Editions (SE), each with or without a factoryinstalled phono stage (for low- or highoutput cartridges). To avoid confusion, I'll mention the phono stages later. I didn't have a chance to try them. At Bill Conrad's suggestion, I did try the Special Edition of the line stage. It retails for $4000, vs $2500 for the basic version. From the front panel, the two look identical. The dimensions are

the same: 19" wide by 3.315" high by 13.125" deep. "You can't let a component run naked," a manufacturer once told me. Indeed. But if you finish a component like an expensive watch, it's as much for show as for the sound. One thing I've always admired about Conrad-Johnson is their allocation of resources, and in the ET3, C-J offers you an austerity package. These gentlemen are economists, after all: Much more money goes into building the inside than the outside. The gold-toned faceplate is a mere 1 /4" thick. The top cover is sheet metal. Speaking of economy, the ET3 linestage uses a single 6922 input tube. The tube, made in Russia, is a dual triode: one side for the left channel, one side for the right. There are just two stages: the input stage, with the single 6922 tube, and the FET output buffer stage. "The tube is all we need for voltage gain," Bill said. The FET buffer stage supplies the current. As in all C-J preamps, the power supply is solid-state. This means there's only one tube to replace, which you will have to do from time to time. And do not, by the way, leave the ET3 on all the time. This is uneconomical. Standby mode is good enough; the ET3 comes on song after a half hour or so. Why use any tube at all? Because tubes excel at voltage amplification. This single 6922 input tube may be the only tube you need in your system; everything else, including your source components and your power amplifier, could be solid-state. Still, that voltage amplification at the preamp's input can impart a "tube sound" to one's entire system. Most previous Conrad-Johnson preamplifiers have used a cathode-follower stage instead of a FET buffer stage. This meant using more tubes. It also meant that the output impedance was likely to be higher than the ET3's 100 ohms-- which is low enough for the ET3 to be able to drive long runs of interconnects. Still, it's always best for the sound to keep interconnects and speaker cables as short as possible. Not to mention economical. The FET buffer stage also means that the ET3 should be compatible with virtually any power amplifier, including those solid-state amps that don't block DC. Some tubed preamps can send some solid-state power amps into oscillation. I've encountered this myself. The ET3 uses the same type of volume control as the ET5 ($9500) and the

GAT ($20,000): a series of stepped resistors to provide attenuation. The ET3 SE employs Vishay resistors here; the basic version, something else. The 99 steps make possible very fine volume adjustments. You'll probably use the remote control. Which brings us, once again, to economics. The supplied remote is a very cheesy stick that looks like the remote for my $32 Philips DVD player from Walmart. What's there to say? It works as well as Conrad-Johnson's more substantial, metal-clad remote--which, in any event, can scratch delicate furniture. I'll take the cheesy plastic, thanks. The balance control buttons on the remote don't work and aren't supposed to. You can push them if you like. All inputs are single-ended RCA. Once again, economy takes charge. Here's Bill: "Going balanced is a solution looking for a problem. The problem doesn't exist in home audio, but it's very real for medical equipment or in the recording studio. Balanced just complicates the design, and we adamantly don't believe in complications." If a preamp is fully balanced from input to output, it necessarily has more parts: twice the parts in the signal path. "There is no such thing as a part that has no sound." Bill Conrad sounding off, on a previous occasion. The ET3 line-stage versions offer four line-level RCA inputs--or five, if you use the tape input. In addition to the tape loop, there's an external processor loop and a Home Theater output. With the latter, the ET3 SE's magnificent array of Vishay resistors is disengaged, and your surround processor controls the volume. Go ahead, spoil the sound you paid for. The ET3 has no onboard digital processing, no DAC, not even a cheap'n'cheerful USB DAC. Bill and Lew believe in taking your digital business off the premises. "You don't want that high-frequency hash under the hood of an audio component if you can possibly avoid it," Bill told me. And it's easy enough to avoid it by using an external DAC. While you're at it, try to keep some distance between the DAC and the ET3. If you're playing LPs, turn off the danged DAC. Like other C-J preamps, the ET3 inverts the phase. Not inverting phase would add more parts. If your power amp, too, inverts phase, connect your speakers the normal way. If it doesn't, reverse your speaker-cable connections at the amp or at the speakers so that you

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hear your music in the correct polarity. I do wish that the ET3 SE had a mono switch. But that, too, would mean more parts. Just having more wire in the signal path can affect the sound. I detest features--and, above all, anything that complicates the sound of a system, especially surround-sound processors and active room correction. I never heard the basic ET3. Had Bill and Lew sent me one, I would have been dissatisfied anyway, wondering what the ET3 SE was like. The SE version of the ET3 is about minimizing the number of parts while maximizing their quality. "I don't know where it is written in nature that something with superior dielectric properties must cost more, but it sure seems to," said Bill Conrad. "Polypropylene capacitors are substantially more expensive than Mylar. Styrene caps cost more than polypropylene and are more problematic to deal with. Teflon caps get even more expensive and problematic. Winding speeds have to be slower and tensioning has to be more precise to get a good part." That's what you get with the SE: Teflon caps in relatively key places in the line stage itself--the signal path--and in the power supply. I mentioned earlier the ET3's all-Vishay volume control. There are additional Vishay resistors in the input and output stages. The RCA jacks are silver- rather than nickelplated, and Cardas wire connects them. Bill: "All this, unfortunately, becomes costly." Not as costly as an ET5 for more than twice the price ($9500). With still more Vishay resistors and Teflon caps, the ET5 helps "further close the gap with the GAT," Bill told me. I installed the ET3 SE in my system without hassle. I didn't have to insert the single 6922 tube. I used my aged, flawlessly running Denon DCD-1650 CD player with Musical Fidelity's M1 DAC, a pair of Quicksilver Silver 88 tubed monoblock amplifiers, and my references from Audio Art: IC-3 interconnects and SC-5 speaker cables. I began with the Epos Epic 2 standmounted loudspeakers (soon to be reviewed by Robert J. Reina)--a fabulous bargain at $795/pair, but, alas, not as resolving as I thought I needed. I had at hand a pair of Devore Fidelity Gibbon 3 XL speakers ($3700/pair). Now I went ape over the sound. I needed that finesse, that refinement to better appreciate the swellness of the ET3 SE. There are reviewers who insist that

a great preamplifier, even a so-called passive design, should have no sound of its own; that it should just be. I can't go along with this. Every preamp has a sound. Every preamp presents its presence. The question, for me, is this: Does that presence enhance or detract from the sound? Before installing the ET3 SE, I'd been using Musical Fidelity's HPA1 headphone amplifier ($799) as a line stage into the Quicksilver monoblocks. Not a bad sound at all. The amps performed more dramatically, more dynamically with active as opposed to so-called passive preamplification. As one might expect for five times the price, the ET3 SE performed considerably better than the Musical Fidelity HPA-1. It presented its presence with a wider, deeper soundstage and a richer tonal palette. One of my favorite conductors is/ was Carlo Maria Giulini, whose 1989­ 1991 cycle of Brahms symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic has been reissued (CD, Newton Classics 8802063). Amazon recently offered this four-disc set for $20.81. The sound varies from performance to performance and can be somewhat opaque, a situation most definitely not made worse by the ET3 SE. The C-J preamp minimized the sonic shortcomings while allowing the music to blossom and bloom. The Vienna Philharmonic sounds ravishing even when the tonmeisters have a bad day. I reached for some vintage jazz, including Miles Davis's Complete Savoy & Dial Recordings, featuring Charlie Parker and recorded between 1945 and 1948 (CD, Definitive DRCD11158). I was aware of the rough recording quality but not bothered. Not that the ET3 SE smoothed over the performances-- it definitely did not. But it did not set the recordings, or me, on edge. For me, that's one test of a great line stage. Of course, I listen to new recordings, too. I love Midnight at Nola's Penthouse, with tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and pianist Rossano Sportiello (CD, Arbors ARCD 19415). Dig, especially, "A Garden in the Rain," by James Dyrenforth and Carroll Gibbons, and "All My Tomorrows," by Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen. It's the tonality, man. There's no tougher test than a tenor sax. With the ET3 SE in my system, the sound simply expanded. Bass response improved, too. With its FET output buffer, the ET3 could kick butt. Above all, the ET3 SE had a relaxed, almost living, breathing, organic quality.

It did not sound electronic in any way. This puts me in a pickle. The ET3 SE might be the sweet spot at which the law of diminishing returns kicks into high gear. It is easily the finest Conrad-Johnson preamplifier I have heard in my listening room in the past 30 years. Remember, I haven't heard the ART and I ain't got the GAT. I haven't heard the ET5, either, which Bill Conrad says offers even more Teflon caps, more Vishays, an even greater sense of ease. Ease, that's the word. If I heard the ET5, I'd probably want it. So I won't. Meanwhile, the ET3 SE offers me a sense of ease that makes my entire system more listenable. It does what I want an active preamp to do at a price that makes sense--which is to say, it does something rather than nothing. Yes, a passive device might be slightly more transparent, but at what price? Dynamics? Tonal richness? Making older recordings sound more threadbare? If you want a factory-installed phono stage, the basic ET3 retails for $3350, the SE for $5500. Take your pick: high gain (for low-output moving-coil cartridges) or lower gain (for movingmagnets and high-output MCs). The phono section adds four more tubes. As you recall, nothing tops tubes for lowlevel voltage amplification. Duke Ellington once told jazz critic Nat Hentoff that "the sound of a musician is his soul" (quoted in Hentoff's liner notes for Midnight at Nola's Penthouse). I find this to be true for any kind of music, and it's why so many performances and recordings of classical music these days strike me as sterile and unsatisfying. The notes are there. The passion isn't. The sound of a hi-fi component, too, is its soul. If a preamplifier does what some people say they want a preamp to do--have no sound of its own--it follows that such a preamp has no soul. A preamplifier should step up, not just step out of the way--which it should do as well. Sort of. If Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson had stayed on at the Federal Reserve, one of them might be in Ben Bernanke's seat right now, tweaking Fed policy instead of hi-fi circuits. Even if not still at the Fed, they could be working at a hedge fund, inventing reality with intimidating models and statistics. I asked Bill why he went into hi-fi instead. "I am not politically adaptable enough," Bill told me, with that palpable sense of ease that comes from not

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being the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. "That was one of the things that got me out of economics: the religious dogma that one had to believe. For instance, that economic information is widely and freely available. And that all markets are efficient, that all probabilities and risk factors are already rolled in, so you can predict the future. It's already been discounted. "In real life, getting a grip on things is the hardest part. "There were too many things I had to tiptoe around, key elements of the real world that were assumed away because they were inconvenient. Economists talk about stable variance, and for short periods of time, things may be stable and predictable. But conditions can change dramatically and suddenly, and there is no guarantee that variance will be bounded. If you assume that economic conditions are fixed and bounded, you are headed for disaster." Is there another disaster around the corner? "There always is," Bill said. "We seem to be working assiduously to promote a few." Shortsighted and narrow-minded

Another austerity package from Conrad-Johnson. Nothing austere about the sound, however.

EvEry PrEAMP hAS A Sound. EvEry PrEAMP PrESEnTS iTS PrESEnCE. ThE quESTion, for ME, iS ThiS: doES ThAT PrESEnCE EnhAnCE or DETrACT froM ThE Sound?

leaders. I wonder what Montaigne would make of this. I don't think he'd be surprised. In 16th-century France, Catholics and Protestants slaughtered one another, much as today's Democrats and Republicans might wish to do. Montaigne was appalled. The malaise in America right now makes me all the more appreciative that Drs. Conrad and Johnson (sounds like a company that sells pet meds) exited economics to instead pursue truly useful work. What could provide more real value than to reproduce music not only accurately, but with soul? Duke was right. Sound is soul. I know this is an ad slogan, but . . . the Conrad-Johnson ET3 SE just sounds right. nn

Posted with permission from the October 2011 issue of Stereophile ® Copyright 2011 Source Interlink Media. All rights reserved. For more information about the use of this content, contact Wright's Media at 877-652-5295



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