At one point I wondered whether this should be a pre-amp review, relegating the power amp to a supporting role. That reflects the sheer quality of the ET2, a classic, full facilities pre-amp of the kind that c-j built so much of their reputation on. The fact that in the end we gave the LP66S equal billing reflects the fact that, in practice, these two are very much a team; every Zidane needs his Didier Deschamps.
Conrad-johnson has been one of the front-runners in high-end amplification for decades, but of late it has lost some ground, especially when its closest rival – Audio Research – has been really delivering the goods in recent years. There were always excellent products in the c-j portfolio, but the price of admission was high and getting higher. The ET2 pre-amp is different; not only does it re-establish c-j’s (once peerless) reputation as the benchmark for highend entry when it comes to valve preamps, it has all the elements that first made c-j so attractive to audiophiles (that sensuous, sonorous, rich and detailed sound), but married to more modern sensibilities (cleaner, clearer, a remote control and a performance that fits more snugly into 21st Century audiophillia).
Common to most c-j pre-amps (whether line or phono, valve or solidstate) it’s a zero-feedback design. Its line-stage uses a high current 8080 valve per channel with a directcoupled buffer stage to deliver low output impedance, and that’s pretty much it. This simplicity means that it leaves little musical imprint on the sound, but it also means – again like most c-j pre-amps – that it inverts absolute phase.
On the face of things, the LP66S power amp is a natural partner for the ET2, if only because both cost £3,500. It’s a simple 60 Watt per channel device, with just seven valves in total. A 6922 double triode is used in the input stage of each channel, direct coupled to another 6922 acting as a cathode-coupled phase inverter. The output stage comprises a pair of push-pull 6550s per channel. Sensibly, limited negative feedback is used to reduce distortion and boost the damping factor. Biasing uses c-j’s standard, simple LED system, while plate fuses protect the circuitry against tube failure. Both products tick all the audiophile boxes when it comes to internal components, with audio circuits and their related power supplies sporting precision metal film resistors and polypropylene capacitors, with carefully selected internal wiring and connectors. Famously, Queen’s early album covers proudly proclaimed “No Synthesisers were used on this Album” – and until the band capitulated in the early 1980s, the No Synthesisers… stance was almost a mantra. C-J has a similar mantra – “No electrolytic capacitors were used in the audio circuits or in the related power supplies.” OK, it’s not as pithy as Queen’s proclamation, but it has the same air of zero tolerance about it. Proprietary wide-bandwidth output transformers seal the deal.
As I’ve already stated, this combo makes a powerful statement. And it’s a two-fold one. First it shows what c-j can do, especially in the pre-amplifier stage. The ET2 sounds not far off the performance of a CT5; like four-fifths of the performance for about half the money – and the CT5 is one of the jewels in the c-j crown. The LP66S is similarly excellent, but there’s still a jump in transparency and dynamic range between this and the LP70S. The deal is, you’d expect there to be a jump in performance between the two; what’s surprising is how small the jump is between the ET2 and CT5.
Perhaps more importantly though, this duo shows just how good American iron can be. Plus isn’t xenophobic and where a product springs from is immaterial, but recently the valvophile market has been swamped by cheap products – and some, it must be said, have been very good, acting as a wake-up call for manufacturers the world over. Some were – are – awful, but were praised (elsewhere) simply because they had valves and were cheap. This pairing shows that c-j has not been slumbering; these products have both risen above their price peers and are (just about) affordable enough to show what you’ll be missing if you buy the cheap stuff.
So what exactly will you be missing? First impressions of the c-j pair are of a sumptuous dynamic range, something that teases out the inner detail of any good recording in a nanosecond, and can even work some kind of magic on lesser fare. No, they cannot save dynamically strangled music, but if the recording has even the slightest dynamic range on it, the ET2 and LP66S will bring it to the fore. There’s something else that hits you almost instantly; lyrical beauty. This articulate 63 and enjoyable sound gets behind the lyrics and forces you in there. Play something breathy and ethereal (like Feist for example) and those seductive tones flow over you with a touch of magic. The same happens – to a lesser extent – with any instrument, but it’s the well-recorded almost unaccompanied voice that has some near atavistic force behind it.
Tonally, the sound is chocolaty rich, but difficult to pin down. It’s certainly not thick in the mid-band or rolled off at the top. There’s no obvious bloom and it’s never, ever sickly sweet; just rich – like really expensive, dark chocolate. All of this might suggest it’s ‘rich and a bit…’ something negative, but the downside seems never to appear. It isn’t particularly slow or flat sounding. In fairness, this is not the first choice for speed metal fans… but if you want to wig out to most other musical styles, this amp certainly doesn’t get in the way. There’s just something – something rich – about the sound that is both enjoyable and satisfying. It’s as if someone invented cholesterolreducing eggs benedict; all of the pleasure, none of the downsides. It harks back to Golden Age c-j. This has all the seductive charms of their great pre/power combos of yore, but none of the rosetinted viewpoint. Which makes it ideal for 21st Century audiophiles. We want great accuracy, great insight and all the smoothness and elegance. This is a hard task, and this duo has cracked it brilliantly. Part of that comes down to low-level resolution; you find yourself listening deeper into the mix and pulling out details that would be lost on lesser amps. Like for example where Buddy Whittington uses a Carman Ghia amp or where he plays through a MAZ 38 on his eponymous album; the two valve amps sound very similar (both are from the same company), but one (the Ghia) sounds more ‘creamy’ while the other sounds more ‘gutsy’. This is very, very hard to spot – probably something only those with a penchant for the genre, the instrument and the player might hear. But here it’s as clear as day, and yet this clarity does not rob the music of its entertainment value; it’s still good blues with dreadful lyrics.
We haven’t even touched on imagery yet, in part because the conrad-johnson products do such a sublime job with everything else and it’s hard to stretch the superlatives to yet another aspect of performance. But the c-j duo does not disappoint here, either. The stage is neatly presented, slightly forward and wide of the speakers, but what is exceptionally fine at the price is the sense of height; you feel as if you are on a level with the second row of the orchestra, with the first strings slightly below you and the percussion slightly above; all of which seems absolutely correct and uncannily like sitting in an auditorium. Instruments and voices have a good sense of solidity and presence to them, but this is the one aspect where the limits of the LP66S begin to appear. There’s a thin line between too much and too little image solidity; too much and even ballet music sounds bolted down, too little and Shostakovich sounds like the music from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Here, while the sound is ‘solid’, it’s not ‘rooted’, but then you won’t find ‘rooted’ for less money.
So, should CT5 owners start feeling sorry for themselves? Not really, and this is the reason why this is not simply a pre-amplifier review. The ET2 and LP66S work brilliantly together and make you think you are listening to nigh on twelve grand’s worth of audiophile equipment, when in fact you are hearing what £7,000 can do. And yes, a lot of that comes down to the pre-amp. But partner the ET2 with an LP70S or beyond and you’ll miss the inner details and crystal-like clarity that only a CT5 or better can reproduce. That tired boxing analogy of ‘fighting above its weight’ fits perfectly here; a middleweight boxer might be so powerful against his peers that he should fight as a lightheavyweight, but in reality, put him in that light-heavyweight ring and he’ll get hurt. No-one’s getting hurt here, but the ET2 should be considered among the best in its class, not the class above. And, in that context, it is perfectly partnered by the LP66S, which is also among the best in its class; it just doesn’t have ideas above its station.
What we have here is an example of c-j’s innate understanding and experience in balancing the virtues of their products, getting the quality where it matters. These are fantastic products that work beautifully together, providing a rich, natural sound that should satisfy for decades. There’s a real touch of magic about this c-j pairing; it draws you in and keeps you there, smiling. The control part of the ET2 is more high-tech than the amplifier stages, if only to allow for the precise remote control of volume and balance (in 0.5dB steps) as well as the switching functions. There are seven line-inputs and an optional phonostage. Actually, there are two optional phono-stages – one for high and one for low gain – but Audiofreaks most commonly fits the high-gain (>1mV input sensitivity) version. This can be factory fitted or added later at a cost of £950. Like the line-level amplifier, the optional modules are zero-feedback designs with triode amplifier stages for voltage gain, but add passive RIAA equalisation. Aside from the line and phono-stages, there’s also a Theater Loop, which locks the pre-amp into unity gain and allows your hi-fi system to act as the front channels in a home cinema system. In keeping with other c-j designs, the valves are nestled in a central alcove and protected by Perspex slats. The remote control, is a thin, bluff plastic handset, which is more ergonomically valid, but nowhere near as impressive as the half-brick of gold-coloured metal I’m used to getting from the company.