Conrad-Johnson CAV-50 Integrated Amplifier
by Steven Rochlin
During many years of enjoying music, both live and reproduced, you learn which jazz groups, orchestras, and musicians you find delightful. The same can be said in some ways for the equipment of certain manufacturers. Usually, but not always, there is a "family" sound throughout a manufacturer's entire line of products. Over the years I seem to be getting more pleasure from music reproduced through equipment that uses yummy vacuum tubes. Not that solid-state gear is bad. In fact, it can be very gratifying too!
As just about everyone knows, Conrad-Johnson manufactures some of the best tube gear (they also make a few solid-state products as well). Their limited-edition Art preamplifier, for example, has won worldwide acclaim for the way it allows the sheer joy of music to transcend into the soul of its owner. While the Art preamplifier might be financially unobtainable to most of us, Conrad-Johnson also offers some very high-quality budget-priced gear too. At the CES last January I had my first look at the CAV-50. In the Conrad-Johnson room was a beautiful piece of equipment that I just knew I wanted to review. Within a short time the unit arrived at my doorstep, and the music played on.
The Conrad-Johnson CAV-50 is a single unit that easily handles all the normal preamplifier duties, with five inputs and a tape or equalizer loop, plus an amplifier too. C-J refers to it as a "vacuum-tube control amplifier," but we know it as an integrated amp. Like C-Js MV55 stereo amplifier, the amplifier section in the CAV-50 uses two EL34 tubes per channel in ultalinear mode to achieve 45Wpc. One 12AU7 is used for the preamplifier line out (and is therefore not in the signal's path unless you use the tape/EQ loop). The other tubes used are one 12AX7 per channel for the input-stage amplifier to power amplifier section, and lastly one 6SN7 per channel for the inverter stage, which helps support the EL34s. My feeling has always been that manufacturers should use the highest-quality parts they can while keeping the signal path as pure as possible. You see, if you keep the signal path short and use very high-quality parts, there is less of a chance for a unit to mess up the sound. This is one aspect that an integrated amp like the CAV-50 really excels at. High-quality precision resistors, polypropylene and polystyrene capacitors, discrete voltage regulators, oversized power-supply and output transformers -- this is just a small list of ways Conrad-Johnson refuses to compromise the quality in their products, including one that is among their lowest-priced offerings.
Various components were used during the review period to ensure that there was no one-and-only-system dependence, as can happen with some pieces of equipment. Here is the listing of equipment I used: Voyd turntable, Audio Note AN-2/s-V silver-wired tonearm, Audio Note AN-S6c silver-wired step-up transformer, Audio Note IO/2 cartridge, KEF 104/2 speakers, Royal Reference 3A speakers, Genesis Technology APM-1 speakers, M&K MX-2000 subwoofer (with the Royal reference 3A) Audio Note AN-Vx all-silver interconnect, Kimber Select KS1030 all-silver interconnect, Nirvana S-L speaker cable, and Monster Cable Sigma biwire speaker cable.
One of the qualities I have always admired about Conrad-Johnson products is that they seem to have a heart of gold. What I mean here is that the entire line seems to reproduce music in a way that makes me love playing recording after recording on my humble system. From the very first note until the last, there is something truly special happening. The CAV-50, while not costing as much as some of my other gear, still has many of the endearing qualities offered by the top-of-the-line Conrad-Johnson units. For instance, while enjoying Sara Ks Hobo [Chesky JD115], I noticed that her voice came though with a playful seductiveness, just as when I heard her live in concert. During the song "Brick House," it was ever so easy to allow myself to be bathed in not only the glorious music, but also the feeling of being within the actual performance hall itself. This is a great recording that when reproduced with elegance just fills my soul with happiness. During the title song "Hobo," you can feel the sorrow in Sara Ks voice.
Chesky is known to many audiophiles as a company that uses minimalist microphone techniques while using very high-quality recording equipment. Just as with the CAV-50, Chesky believes in using few parts in the signal path and keeping them as high-quality as possible. While every last nuance might not be as easily discernible as with higher-priced gear, the CAV-50 still lets the artist's feelings shine through. This is something I demand of my music-reproduction system. If the music doesn't move me, then it doesnt matter how much resolution or subtle nuances are recreated. Time and time again the CAV-50 shows these same attributes no matter what music is played through it. Even compared to my favorite Wavelength Audio 300B-based amplifier/Legend Audio preamplifier combination, the CAV-50 performed very well. Yet in the end my over $13,000 USD reference combination had more resolution and greater soundstage depth.
Another great example would be the great Miles Davis Quintets The Great Prestige Years five-record boxed set by Analogue Productions [Analogue Productions 35]. While I did need to use my own phonostage along with the CAV-50 (the Lehmann Audio Black Cube, which in my book qualifies as great budget product) there was still a feeling of oneness with the music. By "oneness," I mean that the CAV-50 is another one of those great products that brings a very high percentage of what an ultimate product can do yet at real-world pricing. Some pieces of equipment allow the listener to hear every subtle nuance, while others allow a more enjoyable reproduction of the music. While I have heard these great recordings in higher-resolution systems, the CAV-50 is capable of getting the essence of the music right. Again, if the soul of the music is lost, no amount of resolution matters. Properly reproduced, music should first be capable of conveying feelings. Without the feelings, music is just a gathering of sounds, while the art of music is, well, art.
One of my favorite songs is "My Funny Valentine," on which Miles unique trumpet sound is extremely evident. With some equipment, that trumpet can quickly get overly bright and harsh, whereas with the CAV-50 it was marvelously portrayed -- not just Miles signature airiness, but also just the right balance of that glorious brass tone many trumpet players and music lovers have admired for years. Meanwhile, the classic piano sound as well as the acoustic-bass work is exceptionally balanced, which, in turn, allows the artists feelings to shine through. This type of musical enjoyment can be found in not just the CAV-50, but also the many other systems in which Conrad-Johnson products are used. In fact the upper echelon of C-J equipment will display what I have previously mentioned and give a more resolving musical picture too. All I can do is urge you to try the CAV-50 in hopes that you too enjoy the music it reproduces.
As for how the CAV-50 can reproduce the lower frequencies, when used with speakers with a sane rating of 88dB/W/m or better, you should experience full, rich, defined bass. Stringed bass as well as electric was fully fleshed out in my humble abode when using KEF 104/2, Royal Reference 3A (to a lesser extent due to the small bass driver), and the Genesis APM-1, which has a built-in self-powered subwoofer. With all of these speakers, with a small exception to the Genesis APM-1, the dynamics were great even when played at louder-than-live volume levels. The APM-1 speakers seem to demand a very high-current/wattage amp, and therefore the CAV-50 was very impressive until I got a bit too carried away, crankin' up the jams beyond any sane level.
Among their many merits, integrated amps eliminate the possible problems with matching a preamplifier to an amplifier while also eliminating the need for a separate high-quality cable connecting the two. In the end, the Conrad-Johnson CAV-50 is a wonderfully balanced piece of equipment that offers a great amount of super hi-fi glory at a price more people can afford. In fact, the CAV-50 is so good that I can understand why someone might buy it over a set of more expensive separates, especially because its circuitry is in essence that of C-Js MV55 amplifier and PV10 linestage. All of this debate aside, what really matters is that you...enjoy the music.
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