Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

the thin end of the wedge
pinenut
member
member
Posts: 220
Joined: 30 Aug 2017 16:52

Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by pinenut » 25 Jul 2019 03:50

Hey folks, I’m wanting to pick up a nice, tube pre from mid to late ‘80s to mate with a big, class A SS amplifier. I think I want either Conrad-Johnson or ARC. Any recommendations? Not looking at line stages, but pre’s with a good MM/MI phono in them. Want good accuracy but still a rich tube sound (not gooey tubey). Any fans of either brand who’d like to recommend a specific model?

Thanks. ^_^

pivot
long player
long player
United States of America
Posts: 4990
Joined: 27 Dec 2002 14:31
Location: Albany, NY USA
Contact:

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by pivot » 25 Jul 2019 13:30

Depends on your ears and system. The 1980s vintage Conrad Johnson and Audio Research had very different sounds. I worked at a shop that sold Audio Research. The SP-6 was the preamp in our "high end" system. Reviewers sometimes complained that the SP-6 tried too hard to "sound solid state". It did not have the overly warm sound and loose bass many vintage tube hi-fi aficionados valued. The design emphasised low coloration and, for a 12AX7 based circuit, low distortion.

I owned a couple CJ preamps in the period, not sure of exact models. Conrad Johnson preamps at the time were reviewed as tending toward a "romantic" sound with a tendency toward "warmth" and "tube bloom" (whatever that meant). I found I got tired of the CJ "tubeish" sound and moved on. Others loved it.

I recall the Audio Research sound from my salesman days fondly. The CJ sound from ownership ended up striking me as "meh". Different matching components and different listener taste could reverse that. You really need to hear for yourself. YMMV as always.

NewOldVinyl
senior member
senior member
Posts: 368
Joined: 22 Nov 2006 19:42
Location: Oregon

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by NewOldVinyl » 25 Jul 2019 15:22

In the 80s I had a Conrad Johnson PV5 mated up to an Audio Research amp. That combo made wonderful sound.

jc3
member
member
Posts: 158
Joined: 26 Mar 2012 16:44

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by jc3 » 25 Jul 2019 16:27

I had both a Conrad Johnson PV2 and *have* an ARC SP3a.

The CJ to me had a very 'clinical' sound - not at all tubey. To me, at that time - 'upgrading' from a Marantz 2240, I was markedly underwhelmed. I found myself wanting to go back to my trusty Marantz receiver. Nicely put together unit, very well laid out, and very easy to work on. No tone controls (as with most models of either of these brands), so just be aware of that. The CJ was very flat in terms of response, and definitely could have used a bit of a bump on the bottom end. I found the bass to be frustratingly lacking. So much so that I unloaded it within about 2 months.

From there, I sourced an ARC SP3-a1. I wanted a more tubey sound, and from everything I had read, the SP3 should fit the bill. It also had a contour control, so I could add a bit of a bass bump if I wanted to. Turns out that I didn't need to. I'd say within about 5 minutes of adding the SP3 into my system I knew it was the one. With the tone controls 'out', the SP3 just has a lovely sound with the Mullard 12ax7's in there. It is VERY sensitive to tubes in a couple locations - so you will have to get ***GOOD*** tubes to keep it as close to silent as possible. I think I tried 4 different tubes in the center location before I found one that gave me a silent background. Jim McShane recommended some new production 12ax7's as being quiet, but in this preamp, they were noisy as hell. Had a bunch of nearly NOS Mullards laying around and just kept switching them out until I found the one. Keep meaning to pick up one of the low noise substitutes to give a try in that middle spot - like a triple spacer JAN 5751, but prices have gotten out of hand.

I have put a lot of work into that preamp now - rebuilt the power supply and replaced all of the electrolytic and coupling caps. Made a nice improvement in sound quality. Rebuilt the phono board, and that made a nice improvement as well. I think there was a noisy resistor in there before.

YMMV, but to me, with my ears, in my system there was ZERO comparison. The SP3 laid the PV2 to rest with ease.

pinenut
member
member
Posts: 220
Joined: 30 Aug 2017 16:52

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by pinenut » 25 Jul 2019 19:30

Thanks for the replies, folks. I’ve heard from a few people now, that the C-J’s can sound too gooey so I think I’ll be looking for an ARC - not sure yet which model. Suppose I need to study up on their features and specs. I’ll likely use a SUT for moving coils, so just want the pre with a MM/MI gain stage. I do want some different loading options though.

The SS amp I’ll be pairing it with is a Krell KSA 100, if that gives you some idea on the sound. Hoping to have the system not sound too cold and sterile, but not too tubey either.

pivot
long player
long player
United States of America
Posts: 4990
Joined: 27 Dec 2002 14:31
Location: Albany, NY USA
Contact:

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by pivot » 26 Jul 2019 02:31

Remember you said "1980"s specifically. Also remember I said you have to hear for yourself. Have not heard C-J or Audio Research of 1990s or later vintage so YMMV.

Hanuman
long player
long player
Posts: 1454
Joined: 12 Jun 2007 07:59
Location: Bangkok

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by Hanuman » 26 Jul 2019 08:47

It seems to me that the SP10 or SP11 are the appropriate candidates from that era. ARCs are relatively dense & complicated amps and after 30+ years they need overhauling. Take that into account. Back in the day it was pretty common to see ARC preamps running MC cartridges directly, without a SUT.

Agrippa
senior member
senior member
Norway
Posts: 264
Joined: 17 Oct 2003 01:07

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by Agrippa » 26 Jul 2019 12:14

I vote for the ARC SP-10 MkII (design revision 6 and 7), which is surely THE vintage ARC pre-amp to look for. In particular for a vinyl lover. It had one of the best integrated phono stages of the time (or any time really) and a max phono gain of 72dB, although noise became a problem with particularly low output cartridges. Not an issue if you're only going to use it with MMs and MIs of course.

Lots of tubes though (15 of them), so tube rolling gets real expensive real fast, and it's a delicate beast as the tubes can easily develop microphony. Still, when everything works as it should it sounds really, really lovely. To better its mid-range and treble purity and insight will take quite some searching and a lot of money even today.

I've no idea how easy or hard it is to find these days, but the SP-10 is the one I'd look for if I wanted a vintage full-function tube pre-amp.

cafe latte
vinyl addict
vinyl addict
Australia
Posts: 11344
Joined: 11 Oct 2009 04:27
Location: Cattle property near Ravenshoe Qld Australia

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by cafe latte » 26 Jul 2019 13:19

pivot wrote:
25 Jul 2019 13:30
Depends on your ears and system. The 1980s vintage Conrad Johnson and Audio Research had very different sounds. I worked at a shop that sold Audio Research. The SP-6 was the preamp in our "high end" system. Reviewers sometimes complained that the SP-6 tried too hard to "sound solid state". It did not have the overly warm sound and loose bass many vintage tube hi-fi aficionados valued. The design emphasised low coloration and, for a 12AX7 based circuit, low distortion.

I owned a couple CJ preamps in the period, not sure of exact models. Conrad Johnson preamps at the time were reviewed as tending toward a "romantic" sound with a tendency toward "warmth" and "tube bloom" (whatever that meant). I found I got tired of the CJ "tubeish" sound and moved on. Others loved it.

I recall the Audio Research sound from my salesman days fondly. The CJ sound from ownership ended up striking me as "meh". Different matching components and different listener taste could reverse that. You really need to hear for yourself. YMMV as always.
Not true the CJ has anything but a tube sound not sure what you had, I have a premier 4 and it has a massive slam with great detail.
Big problem with CJ 80's valve amps is they run stupid HT Voltages and they are known to get valves. Possibly the best valve amp I have ever heard but the fantastic comes with cavates ..

pivot
long player
long player
United States of America
Posts: 4990
Joined: 27 Dec 2002 14:31
Location: Albany, NY USA
Contact:

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by pivot » 27 Jul 2019 02:02

cafe latte wrote:
26 Jul 2019 13:19

Not true the CJ has anything but a tube sound not sure what you had, I have a premier 4 and it has a massive slam with great detail.
.....
I think C-J PV-6 and PV-5 came and went. I also think a PV-4 was around briefly. Of the lot, the PV-5 was most to my taste. A buddy and I were fussing about with Dynaco PAS mods, mostly based on David Curcio's work, and we thought our best hot-rod PAS was better at the time. Note I say "I think", I could have the wrong models. They were not the top of the line models.

I am sure I did not hear anything from the Premier models and that may be the difference.

Associated gear may make a big difference too. We were using Grado and Grace cartridges and perhaps a bit more "zing" in the top response sounded "better" to us. As always the end users ears are the final arbiter. Not saying the C-J stuff was bad. YMMV

cafe latte
vinyl addict
vinyl addict
Australia
Posts: 11344
Joined: 11 Oct 2009 04:27
Location: Cattle property near Ravenshoe Qld Australia

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by cafe latte » 27 Jul 2019 02:31

pivot wrote:
27 Jul 2019 02:02
cafe latte wrote:
26 Jul 2019 13:19

Not true the CJ has anything but a tube sound not sure what you had, I have a premier 4 and it has a massive slam with great detail.
.....
I think C-J PV-6 and PV-5 came and went. I also think a PV-4 was around briefly. Of the lot, the PV-5 was most to my taste. A buddy and I were fussing about with Dynaco PAS mods, mostly based on David Curcio's work, and we thought our best hot-rod PAS was better at the time. Note I say "I think", I could have the wrong models. They were not the top of the line models.

I am sure I did not hear anything from the Premier models and that may be the difference.

Associated gear may make a big difference too. We were using Grado and Grace cartridges and perhaps a bit more "zing" in the top response sounded "better" to us. As always the end users ears are the final arbiter. Not saying the C-J stuff was bad. YMMV
The premier 4 is stunning, but they achieved this with crazy HT voltages which makes valve choices limited. Also as when valves let go on the premier 4 they normally take out bias resistors too, I keep a very close eye on my valves and swap them out at the first signs of trouble. Stunning amp, but not cheap to run and not stress free either.
Chris

pinenut
member
member
Posts: 220
Joined: 30 Aug 2017 16:52

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by pinenut » 28 Jul 2019 19:22

Agrippa wrote:
26 Jul 2019 12:14
I vote for the ARC SP-10 MkII (design revision 6 and 7), which is surely THE vintage ARC pre-amp to look for. In particular for a vinyl lover. It had one of the best integrated phono stages of the time (or any time really) and a max phono gain of 72dB, although noise became a problem with particularly low output cartridges. Not an issue if you're only going to use it with MMs and MIs of course.

Lots of tubes though (15 of them), so tube rolling gets real expensive real fast, and it's a delicate beast as the tubes can easily develop microphony. Still, when everything works as it should it sounds really, really lovely. To better its mid-range and treble purity and insight will take quite some searching and a lot of money even today.

I've no idea how easy or hard it is to find these days, but the SP-10 is the one I'd look for if I wanted a vintage full-function tube pre-amp.
I think the SP-10 is what I’ll be looking for, but if a clean SP-11 comes up, I’ll consider that too.
Just need to save up now so I can pounce when I find it.

Thanks everyone!

Agrippa
senior member
senior member
Norway
Posts: 264
Joined: 17 Oct 2003 01:07

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by Agrippa » 28 Jul 2019 21:01

Nothing wrong with an SP-11, it's a competent pre-amp. Purely in terms of phono performance however, it was a step backwards. Not a big one, but nevertheless. IMO of course.

BillWojo
member
member
United States of America
Posts: 148
Joined: 29 Dec 2014 00:55
Location: Southern NJ

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by BillWojo » 22 Aug 2019 21:20

I recently put a Audio Research SP8MKII in my system and the phono section is fantastic. It has a nice warm sound to it, easily the best I have had yet. Rolled some Amperex 12AX7 tubes into the first section of both the line and phono stages.
Those SP10 and SP11 look nice but they sure are pricey.

BillWojo

criolf
Posts: 2
Joined: 19 May 2018 15:06
Location: Singapore

Re: Preamps - Audio Research Or Conrad-johnson ?

Post by criolf » 29 Aug 2019 07:00

I was recently in OP's position, looking to upgrade my preamp, and I've made a list of local available options on the local sh market and asked for users opinion on another forum.
Between the options I had a CJ PV7, ARC SP9, LS7 and SP9MkII. It was unanimity for ARC SP9MkII (which also has a really good phono), so, although the highest priced option I had, I went for it, and I'm ecstatic I did so. It may be an option if you're still looking and can get it.

Post Reply