January 2001Conrad-Johnson Premier 17LS Preamp
by Todd Warnke
After a most bizarre wait and endgame, it looks like the United States is again poised to jump into trickle-down economics, and perhaps history will eventually combine George's and Dubyas terms, absolving Senior of being a one-term president. Regardless of how you voted on trickle-down as economics, Messieurs Conrad and Johnson, former Federal Reserve economists, certainly believe in trickle-down manufacturing, with proof of that being the Premier 17LS preamp.
The story of the Premier 17LS begins back in 1996, when, for the corporate 20th birthday, C-J launched their all-out on the state of the art, a two-chassis dual-mono preamp called the Anniversary Reference Triode, or ART. At $14,995 USD, it was priced out of the reach of the masses, but not without reason. Built using the very finest parts and with maniacal attention to detail, it was and remains a true statement of the audio arts. But art for arts sake is a difficult way to make a living.
So, in 1998, C-J released the "affordable" ART, or the Premier 16LS. Where the ART is a true dual-mono preamp, the Premier 16LS is, according to C-J, "an ART compressed into a single-chassis stereo unit." And that is the difference. Parts quality is the same, but the stereo layout means fewer of those expensive parts are needed. Using a single chassis also reduces manufacturing costs. The end result is a preamp that has at least 90% of the powers of the ART at almost half the price. Still, $7995 is not exactly affordable, and this brings us to the Premier 17LS.
Like the Premier 16LS, the Premier 17LS is a single-chassis, stereo unit, and it is built using the Premier 16LS as a blueprint, but to a price point. Cost savings in the Premier 17LS relative to the Premier 16LS have to do mainly with mechanical issues (e.g., the main PC board is not suspended) and the fact that the Premier 17LS uses four tubes while the Premier 16LS uses six. With the exception of the input and output connectors -- the Premier 17LS uses a high-quality PC-mount connector instead of the OFC hand-wired connectors used in the Premier 16LS -- the parts used in the two units are the same. The Premier 17LS just uses fewer of them. Of course, the slavish attention to design detail and build quality are all there, and C-J thinks that most of the sound is as well. If theyre right, then the Premier 17LS, at $4495, less than a third of the cost of the ART and just over half the 16LS's price, reckons to be a bargain.
Inside and outside
The pictures of the Premier 17LS dont do it justice. First, its wider, deeper, and heavier than it looks. Its also more handsome than the photos convey. The customary C-J champagne finish establishes the family pedigree, as do the machined push buttons that control power, source selection, external processor loops, volume, and mute. The remote, also in champagne, offers the same controls as the faceplate, plus balance.
Around back the Premier 17LS has five sets of RCA inputs jacks labeled Phono/Aux 1, Tuner, CD, Video, and Aux 2, and two processor loops: the first labeled EPL1 and the second EPL2/theater. The first loop is a conventional tape/processor loop, while the second sets the volume to unity gain and thus allows for integration of an external surround-sound processor, with volume control being ceded to the external processor. There are also two sets of RCA output jacks to easily accommodate bi-amping or a line-level-driven subwoofer along with the main amp. An IEC power jack finishes off the back.
Inside, the active gain stage of the Premier 17LS uses four 6922 tubes in a zero-feedback, "composite triode" circuit. Rather than reiterate what C-J says about the circuit, Ill refer you to the C-J website for a detailed explanation.
Volume is set using a microprocessor that chooses the appropriate resistor combination from an array for the desired level, and is set in 100 steps, with about .7dB between each. This fine control allows for precise volume levels, and the LED display (showing volume for each channel) is bright and easy to read from across the room. On the other hand, the little orange lights that show which source is in use are decorative only, unless you happen to sit right next to the preamp. A final usage point: The Premier 17LS inverts phase, so I reversed the leads on my speaker wires at the speaker whenever I used the unit with a non-inverting amp.
Even warming up in the office system (JVC 1050 as transport, Assemblage DAC-2, Assemblage ST40 amp, Silverline SR15 speakers, and Analysis Plus Silver Oval speaker wire) the Premier 17LS made serious music -- captivating, in fact. So much so that rather than risk upsetting the synergy of the system I found reason after reason to keep the Premier 17LS in the office. But, responding to both the feline side of my personality and the nagging voice of guilt, I eventually moved the C-J preamp to the big room. There, in the august company of the Dodson DA-217 DAC, Blue Circle BC6 amp, Merlin VSM-SE speakers (with battery BAM), Cardas Neutral Reference and Golden Cross wiring, PS Audio P600 Power Plant, and powered with an Audio Magic Illusion power cord, the real personality of the Premier 17LS came through.
In a word, that personality is graceful. Think Peggy Fleming, the Parthenon, or the way a French woman wears a Hermes scarf. From the first note to the last played through the Premier 17LS, I heard nothing but smooth control, attention to subtle detail, and refined dynamics. No grandstanding, boastfulness or coarseness.
Tonally, this manifested itself with an accurate and detailed midband, grainless highs and an extremely articulate if not quite subterranean bass. A superb disc to show off this well-developed tonality is the newest by the overlooked master of the tenor sax Charles Lloyd, The Water Is Wide [ECM 1734]. A quintet, with Brad Mehldau on piano, John Abercrombie on guitar, Larry Grenadier on bass and the redoubtable Billy Higgins on drums, the recording captures the full range of acoustic bass, the various combinations of wood and string by Abercrombie and Mehldau, the brass and reed of Lloyd, and the power of stretched skins accompanied by burnished sheen of Higgins drum kit. In short, The Water Is Wide a top-to-bottom workout with emphasis on the mids. The album, a collection of gentle but deeply felt traditional and modern spirituals and love songs, is amazing, and is also perfectly suited to the Premier 17LS.
Taken at close range, the bass of the Premier 17LS has superb richness without becoming fat or bloated, although it does have a slight power roll-off in the last octave or so. It is also ever so dynamically soft, at least as compared to that of the First Sound Presence Deluxe Mk II. The highs are clear, extended, refined and grain-free. The combination of refined treble and articulate but slightly laid-back bass puts the focus of the Premier 17LS squarely on the midrange, but without shorting the extremes. This is an extremely savvy balance that serves music making and enjoyment exquisitely, as well as rewarding long-term listening.
Dynamically, the C-J pre-amp is lightning quick in the ebb and flow of subtle musical drama, if a tad constrained on large swings. As Ive commented many times before, to these ears, getting the microdynamics right is by far the harder and the more important task. The massive swings can be a joy ride, but if they come at the loss of the micro details, they rob music of its soul for the sake a brief bang. Lets leave that tradeoff for the fans of loud TV, which has no soul to begin with.
Detail retrieval is first-class, with superb layering of instruments but also excellent separation. Whether playing dense ambient/electronica mixes by Autechre, or more conventional massed music by Bruckner, the Premier 17LS never failed to deliver a full measure of musical information, but also never allowed the musical ingredients to degrade into mush. That final piece, the ability to retrieve individual information while keeping it both musically significant and yet distinct from the other lines and instruments being played at the same time, is a primary reason that the Premier 17LS is so graceful and full of music. This clarity of expression, coupled with a strong musical soul, is remarkable, especially considering that the Premier 17LS ships with current-production Russian tubes rather than exotic NOS types. In fact, the manual states that besides the tubes being chosen for their reliability, C-J, "know(s) of no vacuum tubes available which will improve the sonic performance of (the) Premier 17LS." While I didnt tube roll to test this statement, it is comforting to know that when it comes time to swap out the factory tubes, replacements are readily and cheaply available.
Finally, the overall experience of listening to the Premier 17LS is, as I said earlier, one of supreme fluidity and grace. What the Premier 17LS really has, and what is missing from most of our workaday lives, is class and style. This does not mean that it has a strong character that is imposed on all recordings, quite the opposite in fact. While the Premier 17LS is not free of character, what character it does have is gracefully bent toward returning a rewarding, involving and relaxing musical experience. The refined sense of real people playing real instruments is extremely rewarding. Sure, in my ideal world the Premier 17LS would posses a tad more power on the bottom and a slight bit more detail. But, like all preamps in this price class, it simply cannot cover all bases, and so chooses to make a strong musical rather than audio statement.
Yes, there is a lot of competition out there for the Premier 17LS. My personal favorites in this price range are the recently reviewed Lamm LL2 and the First Sound Presence Deluxe Mk II, both of which are within several hundred dollars of the Premier 17LS. While their prices are close, each of these preamps has a unique skill set.
The Lamm, like the Premier 17LS, is very even tonally, and slightly soft on dynamic contracts. On the other hand, it goes deeper in the bass and so seems to be a bit more laid-back than the comparatively brighter Premier 17LS. And where the Premier 17LS has a presentation that follows the music making flow with perfection, the Lamm LL2 seems to dig a bit deeper into the emotional subtext, if not quite as surely into the music making, as the Premier 17LS.
The primary strengths of the First Sound preamp lie in its unmatched bass response, powerful sound, quietness, and resolving ability. Each note it plays sounds utterly unique, expressive and vibrant. On the other hand, it also gives a system and recordings absolutely no place to hide their flaws. It never becomes amusical, but neither does it gloss over. For its part, the Premier 17LS doesnt gloss either, but its resolving skills lag a tad behind those of the Presence Deluxe, so it reveals slightly less of the flaws in systems and recordings. And its unerring sense of musical flow makes it easier to ignore the flaws it does expose.
I love the Mercedes S class, but since it starts at $70,800, there is no way Ill ever get one. On the other hand, the new C class, with a base of $29,995, is within my reach. And side by side with the S class, it looks very much like a 7/8s model of the more expensive car, with the same angles, lines, and even similar headlights. While it doesnt drive or luxuriate exactly like an S class, its close enough, and considering the price, it may be even more the bargain.
So, too, the Premier 17LS. It has the ART pedigree, and not just on paper. And while it cannot duplicate the ART, or the Premier 16LS for that matter, it gets so close that at $4495 it is a more surprising product than the ART, which had no design or price limits imposed. Yes, it faces cutthroat competition in what I think is the most fiercely contested price and product category in all the high end -- namely, preamps between $3k and $5k, but in that crowded market it firmly establishes itself with a distinct personality and charm. I would venture to say that it is not a preamp for an audiophile, although it certainly has the skills, but rather is for the music lover who truly appreciates the skill of a highly resolving, graceful preamp, and is in it for the long haul. Placed in a music-making context, this preamp really is an affordable work of ART, and one to which I give a hearty must-listen recommendation.
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