A Tale of Three Phono-Stages - The Conrad-Johnson TEA-2 – In All Its Guises (Hi-Fi+)

Conrad Johnson TEA-2,
Conrad Johnson TEA-2MAX,
Conrad Johnson TEA-2SE
A Tale of Three Phono-Stages - The Conrad-Johnson TEA-2 – In All Its Guises (Hi-Fi+)

When it comes to cars, the concept of a shared platform is both widely accepted and understood: you can buy a Volkswagen Golf with an 85hp/ 1200cc engine, a 105hp/1600cc Blue Motion turbo diesel injection engine or a 270hp/2000cc petrol injection. These cars are all built on the same body pan and all look pretty similar from the outside, but neither the general public nor the insurance companies think that they’re the same thing. Drive them and you quickly realize that despite the common DNA, these are three very different vehicles indeed – and that they exist to appeal to very different customers.

It’s a developmental culture that the hi-fi industry has been slow to adopt. Many companies have produced ‘breathed-on’ editions of their products, but generally speaking, these have simply superseded the donor unit, rather than augmenting it and spreading its appeal. Perhaps the one real exception to this rule has been Marantz, with their KI Signature special editions – although these tend to be tweaked versions of the original rather than wholly new products. Power amps have appeared in stereo and mono versions that share the same metalwork, but that’s about as far as it goes.

But here we have three outwardly identical units from conrad-johnson that straddle a price band from £2,695 to £5,995. And when I say identical, I do mean identical. You need to look at the small, stamped product identifier plate on the rear panel to tell them apart – unless you take the lid off, that is. Inside, you’ll find identical circuits and tube complements, but the components differ markedly; about as markedly as the engine in a 1.2 Golf and the motor you find under the hood of a GTI. These products take the concept of a shared platform pretty much as far as they can, with common casework, circuit boards and principal power-supply components.

“So what?” you might well ask. Well, when it comes to performance and what you have to pay to get it, those shared parts reduce build costs significantly, meaning purchasers get a lot more music for their money. But just as interesting, at least on an academic level, is the opportunity that the ‘Tea-2 three’ provide to compare and contrast the influence of and benefits to be had from component quality as opposed to circuit topology or the size of the power supply. The audible differences here – and they are extremely audible – are purely down to the quality of the components populating the PCBs. Given the amount of advertising ink (and review column inches) that have been expended on the subject of audiophile components, it’s too good a chance to miss, especially given the presence of this year’s fashionable must have parts – Teflon caps – in the SE model and top-price Tea-2MAX. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Perhaps we should start by examining the basic product architecture – and what changes c-j have made to produce the more expensive versions.

The Tea-2 was first reviewed by AS back in Issue 70. It costs a pretty approachable £2,695, given that this is a fully active tube moving-coil phono stage, delivering 55dB of gain from a pair of cascaded 12AX7s for the input with another 12AX7 split between the two channels to provide a second gain stage. A mosfet output buffer provides a suitably low output impedance. The circuit is global feedback free and employs passive RIAA equalization. Two small banks of dip-switches placed inside the casework, adjacent to the single pair of input sockets, allow for user selectable load resistances in seven discrete values ranged between 130 Ohms and 47 kOhms – and that’s all the adjustment you get, although you can order a low-gain (LG) version of the TEA-2 that uses a 12AU7 in place of the second-stage 12AX7 to deliver 40dB of gain that’s more appropriate to medium and high output cartridges (moving-coils though, rather than full-fat moving magnets, with their even more robust signal levels). This isn’t just a case of swapping tubes, so although a high-gain unit can be switched to low-gain or vice versa, it requires a trip back to the factory and some component changes. In other words, don’t think you can do this at home…

The first thing to say about the TEA-2 is that by avoiding the use of input transformers to deliver low-noise gain, c-j has decided to challenge the performance envelope of their chosen active devices exactly where they are traditionally weakest. If that seems like an odd choice, the thing you need to bear in mind is the superior phase performance and linearity of active amplification over transformers. In a phono stage that means pushing tubes about as far as they can comfortably go – but no further; hence the modest 55dB gain. Not so long ago, low-noise and heaps of gain where top of the phono stage priority list, but nowadays things have got a lot more sensible. Cartridges with an output level below 0.4mV are few and far between, meaning that the TEA-2 will comfortably accommodate all but a select few cartridges currently on the market (and most of those come with a firm recommendation as regards a matching transformer). Interestingly, c-j’s own TEA-1 phono stage offers purchasers a choice of 54.5dB of all-tube gain, or 63dB if you opt for transformers, but it’s an option that’s been deemed unnecessary at the TEA-2’s price point(s) – and I can understand why. Running a range of different Lyra and Clearaudio cartridges I never suffered noise or gain problems, so I think it’s safe to say the c-j has called this one right.

So far so good, and as AS’s review will attest, the TEA-2 in stock form delivers plenty of musical bang for your bucks. It’s essential honesty is underpinned by excellent musical coherence and the sort of expressive rhythmic articulation that will leave PRaT aficionados scratching their heads at the revelation that not ALL music times out at 4/4. Soundstages are broad and deep where appropriate, with excellent instrumental spread and separation. More importantly, they clearly position the orchestra or band in a single acoustic space. Despite the glowing hot bits in the circuit, don’t assume that the sound of the TEA-2 will be overly warm, sweet or romantic. Music is delivered with a crisp clarity, presence and emphatic dynamics where called for. It’s a balance of virtues that makes the most of vinyl’s enduring appeal, with a sense of musical communication and flow that those rediscovering record players will quickly recognize as what they have been missing, while those new to the format will greet with a mix of wonder and amazement; so that’s what the parents were into!

Let’s take Ida Haendel’s recording of the fiendishly difficult Sibelius Violin Concerto as an example, both of what the TEA-2 can do in standard guise, and what happens when c-j up the component quality. Performed with Berglund at the height of his astonishingly fruitful sojourn with the Bournemouth Symphony, this is a disc that captures a heartfelt and technically excellent solo performance, balanced by dramatic yet perfectly contained orchestral support. Haendel’s mastery of instrument and score is clear from the opening bars of the first movement, the c-j clearly revealing the almost plaintive sense of dark anticipation in the music. Berglund’s crisp orchestral punctuation is perfectly placed and makes perfect sense. That might seem like an odd comment, but having heard the piece played live a little over a week ago, it’s remarkable how its overall mood and almost mesmeric development can be destroyed by an overly muscular or prosaic performance. Haendel’s beautifully poised almost hesitant shaping of the solo melody sets the scene, Berglund fleshes it out without swamping the violin (Messrs.’ Sokolov and Petrenko please take note).

It’s this ability to step aside, to pass the fragile phono signal through without stamping its own character or interpretation all over it that makes the TEA-2 such an engaging and worthwhile performer. By refusing to strip away harmonic colour in the pursuit of detail and definition, or add padding in search of some misguided romantic notion of musicality, it succeeds in delivering what was put on the record in remarkably unadulterated form. Indeed, unless you heard something considerably better, you’d be more than happy with this. Which brings us, I guess, to the unimaginatively named TEA-2SE…

The sidebar spells out the physical difference between these two units, but a simple list of components doesn’t prepare you for the gulf in musical performance. If you are expecting TEA-2 with frilly bits, think again. The holistic quality and sheer musical integrity are there, but both the overall presentation and the degree of musical insight on offer make this an all-new product. At £3,995 the SE is bigger, bolder and far more dramatic. It offers greater substance, a more defined sense of space and focus on individual instruments. It’s tonally richer with a greater sense of instrumental texture and as a result it is musically (even) more expressive. Backgrounds and the air within the soundstage are blacker, making for wider dynamic range but also better micro-dynamic definition. The result is a more immediate, more intimate and more purposeful presentation that, whilst it isn’t more forward than the basic TEA-2, places you closer to the band. Instrumental separation is significantly better, both spatially and tonally, so when Sibelius uses quiet bowed bass in tandem with muted timpani rolls below the solo violin, rather than just a moody rumble, now you can pick the instruments and place them too.

This is a big step up in performance and musical impact. Impressive as it is on the Sibelius, with its measured balance of delicacy and outright power, where it really scores is with more modern music. Jazz horns get real punch and trumpets rip, while the added authority and control at low frequencies separates out plucked bass and drum lines, keeping them locked to the rhythm. Art Pepper swings just the way he should, and grooves groove, whether it’s Ray Brown or Roger Waters defining the shape. But where the SE leaves the basic version for dead is when things turn visceral. Orchestral tuttis have real impact (and impressive texture and instrumental separation) whether it’s Berglund and the Bournemouth or Barbirolli’s Mahler 5. But step up the angst control to 11 and The Falling, a collection of P.J. Harvey B-sides and you’ll be shocked and impressed by just how much anger and aggression one woman can extract from an acoustic guitar. The SE adds real power and impact to the mix, built out of its wider dynamics, quieter, blacker background and broader palette; The TEA-2 delivers the recording, the SE puts flesh on the bones and walks them right into the room. It’s a neat trick given the £1,300 premium you’ll be paying over and above the basic version.

The Tea-2MAX ups the ante again, by a not inconsiderable £2,000, bringing the asking price to £5,995. With more Teflon on board than a top-flight speaker cable wrapped in James Murdoch’s raincoat, (and a price-tag that would finance quite a few phone hacks to boot) then if the hype is to be believed the MAX should deliver something special. It doesn’t disappoint. Instruments and voices step back slightly when compared to the SE, but that’s a function of greater focus and definition. Each source of musical energy is more concentrated, more precise in its contribution. Depth and darkness both increase, the acoustic is more palpable, the colours more vivid. But the big difference lies in the way the added resolution, detail, texture and micro-dynamic finesse are bound together, bringing that indefinable sense of human agency to reproduced music. Polly Jane becomes a living, breathing (and more than slightly frightening) presence, each sardonic curl of her lip, each wrung out emotion laid bare. The anger, hatred and pain communicate much, much more directly – and while that might not seem like fun, it’s exactly what an album like The Falling is all about, lifting it from curiosity value to diamond in the rough, with a strangely addictive power and core beauty. These often unpolished tracks deliver their emotional content in raw and unadulterated form; the TEA-2MAX has the emotional range to get right out of the way and let the message through – in all its painful glory, in the same way that it tells you just how good a violinist Haendel is, just how bound she is to the music and how listening to her and Berglund (as opposed to Sokolov and Petrenko) brings home what it’s like to live in the stark beauty of the Finnish landscape, deep in the shadow of the Russian behemoth. As the third movement’s insistent opening drums out, you can almost feel her gathering herself for the climactic release of the solo response. It’s this level of connection and musical insight that sets the TEA-2MAX apart from the SE – and most of its peer group.

The MAX mods reveal the humanity in recordings, whether its pop-corn pop or the intensity of Coltrane’s "Love Supreme". This is what high-end audio is all about: access to the original event, seeing past the system and into the presence of the performers. The TEA-2MAX puts you on firmly on the shortest path possible – and it does it without pulling recordings apart. Surface noise is separated so effectively, presented in its own distinct plane, that even quite badly damaged records are playable, the music emerging from even the most unpromisingly noisy surfaces. In the same way, it allows performances to overcome the strait-jacket confines of poor recording quality. But as impressive as it is, it’s an ability that comes at a price, and that’s what makes the TEA-2 series such a boon. Those looking for a first step on the high-end vinyl ladder will not be disappointed by the basic model: It’s more than capable of demonstrating just how much music lies in the grooves of a vinyl record. The SE model is a cat of a different colour, able to show both the benefits of bigger, better cartridges and bigger, better systems. It’s command of both frequency extremes and its purposeful dynamic delivery will win hearts and minds amongst those who always seem to be asking their system for more. The MAX plays in a higher league altogether. I’d be intrigued to know just how close it gets to the flagship model TEA-1, because on this showing, if you are in the market for a no-frills, no-fuss phono stage then the TEA-2MAX needn’t fear the competition at or anywhere near its asking price.

But in sonic terms, what’s really interesting is just how much of the difference I’ve described between these three units is down to the quality not of the music, but of the space around and behind the instruments that are making it. Judged in absolute terms (and even within the frame of reference of this group) the basic model paints its pictures on a dark grey background, with a discernable grain and texture. The SE has an almost velvety blackness, that possibly heightens colour, but like velvet, it too has a texture. The really impressive difference is when you move to the MAX. There is no quality to the space, just space itself. Even on recordings that fall below the basic, this ability to give convincing shape and body to instruments is exceptional. With the MAX, the P.J. Harvey four-tracks are stunningly lifelike and present, not just because of the sheer detail and harmonic resolution that set out the guitar as a three-dimensional thing, but because of the clear separation of what is guitar and what is not. As an object lesson in the nature and importance of true transparency in the reproduction of recorded music, it’s startlingly effective.

So, three great products at three different price levels. They may well look the same but there the similarity ends – other than the fact that they all offer superb musical value, irrespective of their asking price. But what’s really interesting from a more academic viewpoint is just what this tells us about the critical impact of component quality on audio performance. If anybody tells you that one resistor sounds just like any other, or there’s no difference between capacitors of different types but the same value (a bit like all cables sound the same and mains leads can’t possibly make a difference) then all you need to do is ask them whether they’ve heard the difference between these three phono stages… The implications as regards shared chassis development are even more interesting. Whereas there are plenty of ranges that share casework components, I’m not aware of any product family (outside of an upgradeable CD player like the older Micromegas) that takes things this far. How much would a TEA-2MAX cost if it used its own boards, transformer and unique chassis parts? By taking this route c-j have managed to deliver more performance for what is I suspect, quite a lot less money. The evidence is clear to hear – all you need to do is listen.

Technical Specifications

Conrad-johnson TEA-2, SE and MAX
Type: All-tube phono-stage Tube Complement –
High Gain (55db): 3x 12AX7
Low Gain (40dB): 2x 12AX7 and 1x 12AU7
Inputs: 1pr RCA/phono
Input Impedance: User variable, 130 Ohms to 47kOhms
Outputs: 1pr RCA/phono
Output Impedance: Less than 200 Ohms
Dimensions (WxHxD): 19” x 3.625” x 13.625”
Weight: 14lbs (TEA-2)
Finish: Champagne facia/black body
Prices: TEA-2 £2,695; TEA-2SE £3,995; TEA-2MAX £5,995

Distributed by: Audiofreaks
URL: www.audiofreaks.co.uk
Tel: 020 8948 4153

Manufactured by: Conrad-Johnson Design Inc
URL: www.conradjohnson.com

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