conrad-johnson ET6SE preamplifier

Tubed preamplifiers
Conrad Johnson ET6SE

The ET6 comes in two guises; standard and ‘SE’ version, but in typical c-j style, it doesn’t shout too hard about being a special version, even if it does have a lot to make it really special. Important signal path capacitors are replaced by CJD’s own Teflon devices, and metal film resistors of super high tolerances replace the standard resistors on the PCB. This is not a retrofittable option, and such is the cost of these components, the ET6SE closes the gap between the basic ET6 and the ET7-S2.

Price aside, there is only one real problem with having all those PTFE capacitors in a preamplifier; they take an age to bed in. There are c-j users who report hundreds, even thousands of hours before the preamp really comes into its own. OK, it gets most of the way there in a few dozen hours and the amplitude of the roller-coaster effect of sounding good, sounding bad is reduced. But it’s worth bearing in mind that if you play it for a couple of hours a night and power down after use, you could be a year or more from hearing just how good it can get. I think I’m working at about 8/10 in sonic terms.

Even this early in, it asks big questions of the listener. And one of those questions is ‘just how much more do you need’? That ‘baby GAT’ title is more apt than ever, and while the E`T6/ET6SE is perhaps more evolution of the ET3 rather than revolution, the GAT-like presentation is so beguiling and downright enjoyable in so effortless and naturally musical an approach that it makes you wonder if spending that bit more on the ET7-S2 or even the GAT-S2 is worth it in absolute terms. Of course, if you have logged any time with the bigger models you begin to understand the importance of a floating suspension system in the GAT-S2 and a more intricate power supply makes a big difference, but the ET6SE closes the gap.

In preamps starting about the time of the ART, c-j began to change its tone, from a rich and always pleasing if slightly majestic tone, to a more modern and inherently neutral sound. It still represents a more easy to listen to presentation than the forward and bright amps that spring up almost everywhere, but now the sound is one of precise and seemingly limitless soundstaging, ‘in the room’ solidity, and coherence that makes this and other c-j’s so authentic sounding.

I played the ET6SE into a Chord Étude power amplifier (inverting phase at the speaker terminals) into a pair of Wilson Duette S2s, with a VPI Prime and the EAT Jo No 5 cartridge as a vinyl front end, and the awesome Lumin X1 as a digital source. And I played a ripped version of Jimmy Scott’s ‘Nothing Compares 2U’ on his Holding Back The YearsCD [Artists Only!]. The little old guy with the high-pitched voice nailed that track and the emotion in his voice could stir the coldest of hearts, but with the ET6SE in the mix, it’s impossible not to be torn apart by the track. I don’t play this too often because its so special, but there’s a sort of gentleness and pathos to his voice undercut by an excellent arrangement and some very sensitive recording. I knew all that, but I didn’t expect quite the outpouring of emotion the ET6SE parses. It’s one of those ‘I can’t turn this off because it would be a crime against music’ moments. After hearing that and getting that pervasive grit that seemed to have lodged itself in my eyes causing them to water, the rest of the review is little more than a series of tick boxes. All of which the ET6SE passes with flying colours. Of course it is detailed and dynamic – put Kleiber’s Beethoven Fifth Symphony [DG] on and enjoy the ride, or put the Solti Mahler Eighth [Decca] and be prepared to be pinned to a wall. But you also have that wonderful articulate sense of musical flow, both in terms of interplay of instruments as well as that of harmony. The structure of a piece of music is extremely easy to spot here, as each musical theme is teased out; not forensically examined, but savoured and enjoyed.

This applied universally. The phono stage is a bit of a honey for an on-board design. Not only does it have provision for a wide range of cartridges, it’s extremely quiet in use, and deeply musically satisfying. It’s a lot more than simply an afterthought, and a separate phono preamplifier this good costs thousands in its own right.

Overall, the performance is best summed up as ‘intelligent’. It’s not the immediate and forward sound of high-priced, low-brow audio, or the too soft rose-tinted view of the past. It is – like so many conrad-johnson preamps before it – poised and balanced in sound, and that makes it so endlessly satisfying and music played on the ET6SE infinitely fascinating.

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