Conrad-Johnson LP125sa Power Amplifier (Hi-Fi+)

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Conrad Johnson LP125sa power amplifier
Conrad-Johnson LP125sa Power Amplifier (Hi-Fi+)

Back in Issue 95, AS reviewed cj’s ARTsa power amplifier, a 140 W/ch stereo chassis, loaded with eight KT120 output tubes and enough planes and angles on its casework to qualify as modern architecture. He was mightily impressed by both its technical and its musical performance – as well he might be; the ARTsa costs a sobering £19K (all but a fiver) so it damn well should be good! Sadly, it’s a price that places it well beyond the means of most of us. We can enjoy the read and dream the dream but few if any will get to own this undeniably special amplifier…

Which makes the LP125sa a fascinating prospect. Far more than just the next amp down the range or the ARTsa’s little brother, this really is a Real World version of the flagship. You’ll notice that I hesitate to use the term “poor man’s”, partly out of deference to the amplifier’s performance (there’s nothing poor about it) and partly because, even though it costs less than half the price of the ARTsa, eight grand is hardly beer budget. Having said that, as a cost-cutting operation that’s pretty savage, making one wonder about the state of the patient coming out of the other end. If history tells us anything about what happens as you move down a range of valve amplifiers, it is that you need at least 100 Watts for that amp to be a keeper and that the first casualty of cost savings is generally output power. In fact, the standard way to structure a range of tube amps is to double the number of output devices at each step. We saw it with Jadis, but perhaps the classic example was the ARC D70, D115, D250 series, mirrored in the current Reference series to this day, albeit with a graduation to mono-blocs at the top of the line. Back in the day, the D115 was always the sweet-spot in that particular family, easily eclipsing the D70 and avoiding the reliability and sonic pitfalls that bedeviled the D250. No coincidence that this was the 100 Watt stereo chassis in the range; no coincidence that it remains one of ARC’s most warmly remembered products.

We first saw cj’s revised approach in the guise of the TEA-2 phonostage, reviewed in Issue 89. Available in three different, outwardly identical versions, with identical facilities and circuit topology, they were differentiated by component quality – and a substantial increase in performance with price. Now we see the same logic applied to power amps. Once you’ve defined the technical specification required by the amplifier to do its job, it seems crazy to dilute that to achieve a more affordable device. Instead, keep the paper specs constant and implement qualitative increases through better components in key locations – especially if that’s the approach that has underpinned your products’ performance over the years anyway.

So, compare the ARTsa to the LP125sa and you discover the same tube complement, circuit topology, simple manual bias system and a remarkably similar paper spec: not quite as quiet and not quite as powerful (125Watts plays 140Watts for the ARTsa) but in most other regards, these two amps are – at least electrically speaking – twins separated at birth. So what happened to the extra £11K invested in the flagship version? Well, internally you won’t find any Vishay resistors or Teflon caps, not that the Polystyrenes taking their place are something to be sniffed at. Lift the lid on the casework and you are presented with un-shrouded transformers, devoid of cosmetic niceties built on to a chassis that is most charitably described as basic. In fact, the most obvious cost cutting has been applied to the exterior, with casework that’s fully compliant with the George Osborne school of austerity – and like George, there are those who will question if this is a cut too far. Frankly, this is quite the flimsiest bit of bent metalwork I’ve seen in quite a while. The amp cannot – and I really do mean can not – and isn’t intended to be used without its cover. The latter item is not only so devoid of structural integrity that it bends in the breeze, it’s fixed in place by six of the long despised, sprung-loaded machine screws, two of which are placed next to the transformers and are almost impossible to fasten, especially as the flapping cover itself offers no guide to location. The unreinforced rear edges are alarmingly flexible and I’d complain about this chassis if it were wrapped around a £1,000 amplifier, let alone one costing eight times that. I’d also like some indication of status on the on/off switch, which isn’t actually labelled, even if an illumination is out of the financial question.However, what you can’t complain about is the impressive weight of the unit – or its sound. This is a seriously substantial amplifier (which only adds to my concerns over the physical integrity of the chassis) and it delivers a suitably authoritative musical performance. Sonically speaking, the corners that have been cut pass all but unnoticed. Compare the LP125sa to the ARTsa and they become obvious enough, but as funds and opportunity exclude that option, in reality the question ceases to be “what’s missing?” and becomes quite properly, “What does it deliver?” The short version is, “An awful lot!” but as usual, the devil is in the detail.

One thing that cj haven’t skimped on is the rubber damping rings for the driver and phase-splitter tubes, or the isolation grommets under the power transformer; small things but they matter. AS commented on just how ghostly quiet the ARTsa is; well, the LP125sa comes from the same school – the one where a product should be neither seen nor heard, unless it’s making music that is.

This amplifier is all about substance. Whilst 125 Watts isn’t exactly a massive power output, what the LP125sa has in spades is the power to satisfy. If 100Watts of push-pull tube power is an essential ingredient of a great all rounder, this cj takes that to a whole new level. It’s not just about how many Watts but how those Watts arrive and in the case of the LP125sa, the answer is pretty much on demand. For an old rocker, Neil Young manages to ‘out-heavy’ the young pretenders with ease – partly because he cares about his recordings and partly because he understands both musical substance and music of substance. Listen to “Driveby” (from Sleeps With Angels) on the LP125sa and the solid presence and impact of the drum, the almost physical presence of the characteristically nasal vocal and attack on the guitar place the band right in the room. Despite the sparse arrangement there’s no escaping the bleak menace and desolation of the song, a feeling that’s only enhanced by the cavernous, empty space around the chorus vocals. This combination of musical impact and delicacy, the effortless ability to fasten on the sense of the song and deliver it makes this a special amplifier.

So, turning to the Reiner/Chicago performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, the massive scale and impact of the opening should come as no surprise, the ability to locate the solo violin and harp so precisely in space, to track the warm, rising swell of the strings. What is surprising is the bottomless quality to the amplifier doing the driving. Musical demands, no matter how seemingly outrageous, are met with an unflustered aplomb, a lack of apparent effort or strain that keeps the system firmly in the background, preventing its intrusion into the music.

One thing that might surprise listeners whose experience is limited to older cj products is the lack of the traditional golden glow. It’s been slowly but steadily eradicated from the marque’s flagship products, but that absence is apparent in the LP125sa too. There is a slight darkness to the overall tonality, but this has more to do with a (very) subtle grain that underlies the sound.

What do you get with the ARTsa? A lower noise floor: greater harmonic, spatial and dynamic resolution; a richer tonal palette and more immediacy. A bargain at only an extra £11K! Now turn that equation on its head. What the LP125sa does (and with considerable effect) is give you the structure, scale and impact of the music and considerably more colour, separation and dimensionality than most amps at or near its price. Yes, you can find an amp with more resolution and one that offers more extension, but none that I have heard can match the sheer substance and impact, or match the musical authority of the cj.

In part, the exemplary musical performance/price balance of the LP125sa is both a function of and must be weighed against the corners cut in its construction – particularly that flimsy cage. But it is hard to argue with the effectiveness of the unit in use and, once installed, I’m guessing that out of sight may well be out of mind. With a performance that manages to combine the muscular with the delicate, solidity and purpose with agility, it really could be all things to all men.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Push-pull valve amplifier
Tube Complement: 2x 6N30P, 1x 6189, 8x KT120
Inputs: 1pr RCA/phono
Input Impedance: 100 kOhms
Sensitivity: 1.1Volt to rated output
Outputs: 1pr 5-way binding posts/ch
Rated Output: 125 Watts into 8 Ohms
Dimensions (WxHxD): 482 x 205 x 482mm
Weight: 37kg
Price: £7,995

Manufactured by:
Conrad Johnson
URL: www.conradjohnson.com

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

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