Conrad-Johnson ET3 preamp (Hi-Fi+ 75)

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Conrad Johnson ET3
Conrad-Johnson ET3 preamp (Hi-Fi+ 75)

I’ll be honest, here. The conrad-johnson ET3 preamplifier is a remarkable preamp, but I had trepidation about the way it’s being promoted. It’s down to the ‘baby GAT’ thing – the ET3 is being touted as an affordable version of the company’s GAT flagship pre. That, I feared, is setting the ET3 up for a fall; the GAT is so damn good, it’s like calling someone the ‘mini Mozart’. Trouble is, the ET3 is a baby GAT.

The ET3 uses a single Russian-made Electro Harmonix 6922 double triode voltage gain with MOSFET follower circuit acting as a buffer – designed to give the preamp a strikingly low output impedance – and a similar solid-state DC voltage regulator. This is very much in line with the GAT’s circuit. Once again like the GAT, the low impedance means you can use the preamp with long cables between it and the power amplifier.

Functionally, the two are similar. There are six line inputs, a tape and a home cinema loop – all single-ended – all of which are selected through relay switching. The relays are all placed on a stand-alone board to limit their switching clicks from reaching the tubes. The volume control is a discrete, relay-driven design once again similar to the GAT, although lacking balance adjustment (even though the LED read-out has separate left/right levels). This can’t be altered even on the remote handset, even though there are buttons marked out for the task. The remote this time is a slim black plastic unit instead of the thick metal one supplied with the GAT.

Like the GAT, it’s a physically big preamp, right up to the 19” rack limits. The standard, gold front with black crackle cover has been unchanged for decades and the big central display/IR receiver has become a standard feature for some time. The overall fit and finish is very good, and the whole device sits on four thick hard-rubber feet. While not the cutting edge of footer technology, this more than suffices.

The GAT and ET3 preamps do differ – given one costs more than eight times the other, so they should – they share more than you might expect. Things like the separate power supply for the filaments of the valve, a microphony-reducing suspension system and a parts list that reads like a Who’s Who of the best in audio components are all missing from the ET3. That being said, the audio-chain caps are all polypropylene and all the resistors are high-quality metal-film types, but the special Teflon by-pass caps and the field full of Vishay resistors seen in the GAT are what help keep the ET3 price in check. Like all c-j preamps, you need to phase invert the signal at the speaker terminals if you want to keep the sound in absolute phase.

The review sample came fully loaded. Along with the IR remote handset, it also included the built-in and retrofittable high gain phono stage, based on the reference TEA-1, which is has enough gain and low enough noise to be good for moving coil cartridges of 1mV and below. The resistance loading of the phono module is adjustable thanks to two small covered DIP switch arrays. Factory set of 47kOhms, the ET3 board can cope with 9.6kOhm, 1.9kOhm, 200 and 500 ohm loads. The addition of this section adds to the component count on the circuit board, and adds three more tubes – Mullard 12AX7’s – to the roll call. It’s worth pointing out that modern Mullard is also made in Russia, but – like the 6922EH – tube rolling isn’t mandatory, because these standard tubes are pretty damn good in their own rights.

My initial dread about the ET3 was entirely unfounded. I did receive a sample with more than 50 hours on the clock, so I have to take the early break-in sound as hearsay, but that hearsay suggests there’s a magic point at around the 40 hour mark when the ET3 goes from lightweight to wonder-pre. I just got the wonder-pre point.

There are two schools of thought in good preamp design. Both follow the path of ‘first, do no harm’, like some electronic version of the Hippocratic Oath. Where they differ is whether they strive to do no harm to the recording, or the music. The two should be alike, but there seems to be a difference. The ET3, like the GAT before it, manages to make the music come to life whatever the recording. Others are faithful to the recording but the entertainment suffers in the process. This is the big bonus of the GAT, of course, in that it manages to make everything sound right without being sweet, where the ET3 makes everything sound right without being too sweet.

Where the ET3 scores highly is its soundstaging. The preamp – like the GAT before it – presents the listener with an enveloping sense of dimensionality that draws you deeper into the music. This will invariably bring up that great “yes, but is it accurate?” canard from those who will never hear or want to hear the ET3. Those who have and do just don’t care… they love the sound of the preamp, and would do so regardless.

In some respects, this is a return to conrad-johnson’s heyday, like a PV12, rather than a more recent PV15. There was a time when a c-j preamp drew you into the music in a way that no other preamp could. That was c-j’s strength, but somewhere down the line, that got pushed to one-side to make products more in line with the clean, detailed – and some would say bloodless – sound of the early 21st Century. It must be said, the top line of c-j preamps never quite lost the way, but somewhere the romance went out of the relationship at the lower and middle end. A move back began with the ET2 and the Classic preamps, but it’s here that the return to romance really kicks off again.

If there’s one word that sums up the ET3 it’s ‘sumptuous’. Sound is full-bodied and natural sounding, enveloping the listener in the musical event in the way the c-j preamps always used to. You’d naturally expect this to shine playing smooth jazz combos and string quartets - the sort of music that benefits most from a touch of sonic ‘beautification’. And yet, strangely the album that became the standard bearer for what the ET3 does best was the least likely of all – Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is considered the worst casualty of the Loudness War, with horribly clipped and compressed ‘peaks’ (it’s actually all peaks). The ET3 doesn’t reconstruct or repair the album and it doesn’t soften those clipped drum beats and power chords. But it does make them more listenable than most systems.

A word about the phono stage, and that word is ‘fantastic’. You are really going to have to fork out some serious coinage to replicate – let alone eclipse – the performance of the ET3’s turntable section.

The nearest thing to a fly in the ointment is the need to be careful in choosing a good power amp to go with the ET3. Mix this in with a very warm and soft sounding tube power amp and the result could be too much of a good thing. The old classic combination of valve preamp and solid-state power amp works wonders here, and an Edge power amplifier (see next issue) made an absolutely perfect partnership.

Looking back over my notes for the GAT, there was one album that surprised me because of how good it sounds – Lateralus by Tool. The GAT managed to deliver the drive and energy of the band (and it is an excellent recording, just not for everyone) with an uncanny dynamic freedom. The ET3 approaches that dynamism, but just falls short of nailing it. Hardly surprising really, given the price differential. I suspect most would not struggle with the compromise, and instead enjoy one of the most harmonically rich and sweet sounding preamps you can buy for the money.

This is no small achievement. The GAT was one of the very best preamplifiers I’ve heard, ranking up there with the best of the best. Expensive, yes, but justifiably so in performance terms. And the ET3 gets a good way toward achieving the same performance, but at a fraction of the price. No, it’s not so good at being a ‘baby GAT’ that it will undermine GAT sales, but it does bring rediscovered elegance, sophistication and refinement back to preamplifiers at this price. Balance control aside, the ET3’s ‘baby GAT’ description is far closer to the truth than the price differential suggests.

SPECS & PRICING

Line preamplifier with optional phono stage
Five RCA line inputs (four with phono stage)
Processor and Theatre RCA inputs and outputs, Line Stage
Gain: 25dB
Maximum Output: 20Vrms
Bandpass: 2Hz-100kHz
Hum and Noise: 98dB below 2.5v output
Distortion at 1.0V output: less thn 0.15% THD or IMD
Output Impedance: 100ohms
Optional high-gain phono stage
Gain: 54dB
Hum and noise: 80dB below 10mV input
RIAA equalization: within ± 0.25dB of RIAA specification
Dimensions: (HxWxD): 8.5x48x33.3cm
Weight: 5.9kg

Price: £2,450 line-only, optional phono stage £795

Manufactured by Conrad Johnson Design Inc
www.conradjohnson.com

Distributed by Audiofreaks Ltd:
www.audiofreaks.co.uk
+44(0)208 948 4153

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