Right out of its well-padded plywood-reinforced shipping box, Conrad-Johnsons Premier 140 power amp begs the question, "Where am I gonna put this?" Inside the box is a 19" square by 8" high clean-lined retro/industrial-looking beastie whose lopsided weight distribution expects you to bend at the knees and approach it from the side of its covered transformers. Decide where youll set the Premier 140 down before you pick it up -- it weighs 85 pounds. I have no rack or amp stand to meet its dimensions. After wresting the amp from its box, it went on the floor between my speakers, up-reared upon a set of Mod Squad Tiptoes.
Once past the grunt factor, setup is simple. Packed beneath the black slotted cover are tube boxes with labels to match their installation positions. Using a long-neck screwdriver I removed the cover from the chassis, placed the tubes in their sockets and left the cover off to discourage our feline heatsinks. Besides, the sweet glow of eight naked power tubes in a darkened room will warm the cochleae of many an audiophiles heart. Two silicone damping rings that can withstand high temperatures fit over the small driver tube to reduce microphonics.
As with other C-J amplifiers, you manually bias the Premier 140's output tubes using a non-conductive wand to rotate a trim pot next to each tube. With the amp warmed up and the music off, turn the wand clockwise so a small red LED next to the tube just turns on, then back it off counter-clockwise so it just goes out. Simple -- and it obviates the need to buy matching quads in case a single tube fails. During operation, the red LEDs will flash when a tubes output exceeds 5 watts.
A large power switch adorns the Premier 140's 3/8"-thick champagne-colored faceplate. On its backside, the amp is laid out cleanly, albeit tightly. A pair of sturdy gold-plated RCA inputs resides on the far left. (The label on the leftmost RCA is R -- probably for proper orientation while peering over the amp from above.) Fuse holders for each channel contain 600-volt fast-acting fuses. The Premier 140 is one of the first C-J amps to sport an IEC power-cord connector. This mates to a generous 10' 16-gauge power cord with a translucent hospital-grade plug. While the IEC connector invites experimentation, dont be quick to pull that plug. My experience swapping power cords on the Premier 16LS preamp suggests youll need to climb the quality ladder a bit before bettering the stock C-J power cord.
Sandwiched between the IEC and the fuse holders are pairs of five-way binding posts for connecting speaker cables. Gold-plated, with knicely knurled knobs, these are the beefiest output connectors yet on a C-J amplifier. The posts for each channel sit close to one another, with the power cord immediately to their right, which means cable connection is a wee bit awkward. Attaching spade lugs from the left side of each binding post worked best for me.
The circuitry inside the Premier 140 is heir to the three-stage topology successfully deployed in Conrad-Johnson's Premier Eight and Premier Twelve amplifiers. According to the company, the Premier 140 delivers 140Wpc from 30Hz to 15kHz. A single Sovtek 6922 dual-triode amplifies the input signals. This is direct-coupled to a pair of 6N30 cathode-coupled phase inverters that provide low-impedance input to four Svetlana 6550C push-pull output tubes per channel. Though unlabeled, the 6N30 -- sometimes called a 6H30 -- also comes from a Sovtek-owned factory.
The 140 is the first Premier amp voiced from scratch with an all-Russian tube lineup. An obvious rationale is that the Svetlana 6550C is in production and available, while the GE 6550A -- C-Js power tube of choice for the predecessor Premier Eight and Twelve -- is not. Sonically, the 6550C is known for tighter bass, superior resolution, and grainless, extended highs. Implementation based on listening is key to avoid the Svetlana sounding lean and mechanical. Happily, these issues play to Conrad-Johnsons strength for design execution.
Operating in ultralinear configuration, the power tubes couple to custom-designed wide-bandwidth transformers that are winding-optimized for 4 ohms. Conrad-Johnson can configure the amp for 2, 8, or 16 ohms, and should you desire, they can provide you a pair of monaural Premier 140s, each wired to deliver 280 watts. Whoa. A 12dB negative-feedback loop reduces distortion while offering a damping factor sufficient to control reactive speaker loads. The Premier 140 is a straightforward design whose success reflects decades of refinement and attention to detail in execution.
Perhaps it goes without saying in this day and age, but build quality is top notch -- just what youd expect for eighty bucks a pound, $7000 USD in total.
A pilgrims progress
As this is my debut SoundStage! review, let me take a little extra space to describe my system and setup so youll have context for my listening descriptions. And let me be right up front -- it has been a long time since my system did not include a component from Conrad-Johnson. The classic PV-5 preamp replaced a PAS Dynaco and was in turn replaced by its younger brother, the PV-8. A Premier Eleven-A amplifier spent an audition period in my listening room, as did the Premier 17LS preamp. And I spent time listening to the mighty Premier Eight monoblocks in a dealers showroom.
A musical quantum was leapt last year when the Conrad-Johnson Premier 16LS preamp took up residence -- my precious, a preamp with soul. It provides its signal through seven feet of FMS Zero interconnect to a duet of Conrad-Johnson Premier Twelve monoblocks, whose 140 watts drive Audio Physic Avanti Century speakers via the revelatory Shunyata Research Lyra speaker cable. The Avanti Centuries take their stance about ten feet apart in my 18' x 22' listening room in the well-known Audio Physic nearfield configuration.
Each Premier Twelve amp sits on its own custom-made maple amp stand from Mondo Designs. The 16LS is supported by Lloyd Walkers Valid Points. Cables ride on homemade teepees built with wood shish-kabob skewers.
For this review, I used two different turntables. A months worth of listening was done with my 18-year-old SOTA Sapphire (version 1), Sumiko Premier MMT tonearm, and high-output Grado Sonata cartridge. The majority of audition time was spent with my Teres 255 turntable, SME V tonearm, and Shelter 901 moving-coil cartridge. A battery powered Camelot Technologies Lancelot Pro phono stage makes impedance and capacitance matching a breeze for moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges. Tonearm phono cable is a trusty FMS Blue II. The Lancelot Pro connects to the Premier 16LS preamp via a three-foot run of FMS Zero interconnect.
My CD player is a belt-drive Parasound 2000 that rides on Symposium Rollerblocks. It gives it up to the line stage via Shunyata Aries interconnects.
An original Shunyata Hydra normally hosts all electronics; however, for this review, the Premier 140 went straight into the wall outlet.
There is something in the air besides the atmosphere
Pushing the front power switch of the Premier 140 yields, well, nothing -- until its tubes begin to glow. Somehow that was reassuring -- no electrical hiccups or burps. My Premier Twelves sound best after a 30-minute warm-up period. For critical listening, I always extended the same courtesy to the Premier 140. Once up and running, the 140 emits the faintest hum from its transformers. This never intruded and was most noticeable by its absence when the amp was powered off.
From fiddling with VTA to rolling tubes, we audiophiles can be a tweaky lot. The Premier 140 proved a worthy component for evaluating such variations. Throughout my time with this amplifier it gave me firm confidence in its ability to reveal changes elsewhere in the delivery chain and to reflect the capabilities and limitations of whichever source materials I chose to offer it.
How does it sound? Let me just blurt it out: glorious! Who would have guessed this large but unassuming golden box is really a sonic time machine capable of delivering listeners close to the point of musical origination? In a scene cut from the final version of Peter Schaffers film adaptation of Amadeus, a young soprano (Michele Esposito) auditions for Salieri by singing the Italian baroque aria "Caro Mio Bene" by Giuseppe Giordani. Its a rhyming love song with single piano accompaniment (found on the complete original soundtrack for the movie [Fantasy 3FCD-4403-2]). A soprano and a piano -- two contrasting instruments, each a challenge for any piece of audio gear. The Premier 140 rendered both in precise three-dimensional relationship to one another, with the piano to the back right of the standing vocalist. The Premier 140 easily caught the faintest quavering nuance of nervousness in the young girls voice as the audition begins and her growing confidence as it proceeds. Beautiful.
As a percussive stringed instrument, pianos are tough to get right. Having played for several years, I know how a piano sounds close up. In audio reproduction, too often the leading edge of a note is rounded off in the transition of decay from the strike of the preceding key. The Premier 140 renders the truest, most lifelike sound of a piano Ive heard from any amplifier. This held true in recording after recording. In the piece at hand, the amp accurately captures the bite of a felt hammer against metallic strings and their individual subsequent decay. The overtones of each key adeptly blend into a sonic whole -- notes and chords are clear, not blurred.
On the same Amadeus soundtrack, in Pergolesis Stabat Mater, the sweet-voiced choristers of Westminster Abbey are easily individuated within the context of a reverberant hall. I heard air shifting past valve registers with each organ-pedal press.
Music delivered by the Premier 140 enjoys the immediacy of its creation -- whether you label this in terms of lower noise or higher resolution: It refuses to allow grain or hash to come between music and truth. It was easy to distinguish the decay of an acoustic instrument in space versus reflections off the back wall versus a producers added reverb. But in no way consider the 140 analytical. To the contrary, it yields forth a supple naturalness wherein harmonic overtones and timbral shadings reveal differences in instruments and reflect the artists intent. Its that time-machine thing -- this amp gets you closer to the moment of musical creation, closer to the sonic waveform emerging from an instrument, closer to the meaning of the music. The Premier 140 carried me to the intent of the composer and helped me gain a greater appreciation for the differences in conductor interpretation.
The soul of Bachs Brandenburg Concerto No.4 is the dialogue between the two recorders. In the version from the Bath Festival Orchestra conducted by Yehudi Menuhin [EMI ASD 328] the Premier 140 reveals the recorders played by Christopher and Richard Taylor to be of slightly different timbre. The breathy sound of air through each instrument is sweet and full bodied. These delightfully dimensional woody tones conjure up the image of two musicians having a musical conversation -- playing together with clarity and distinctness in each voice. Subtle shifts in dynamics and emphasis are obvious -- just as in a conversation between two people.
Alas, the time machine wont fix lousy production values or make whole great performances that are taken apart and put back together again. On Dave Alvins King of California [HighTone HCD 8054], in the title track of the same name, the absence of air around instruments and voices -- even though they are positionally well locked in space -- makes clear the sonic suckup that happens when recording in a heavily baffled studio and with the supposed sonic fix of production-added reverb. Great song nonetheless.
Even on less-than-stellar recordings, when musicians bring joy and verve to their playing, the Premier 140 delivers. Listen to Boppin' the Blues as Carl Perkins and NRBQ work the title cut [Columbia CS 9981]. Yep, this amp passes the "if you aint dancin you dead" test. Im off the couch shakin like an old fool. In the mood to pogo? Try "Lucky Number" on Lene Lovichs red-vinyl Stateless [Stiff Records SEEZ 7]. Rhythmically tight, the Premier 140 propels the music forward with zest and pop. It rocks!
Nobody snaps off an electronic transient like Ralf und Florian mit den kling-klang boys. Consider "Telephone Call" from Kraftwerks Electric Café [EMI EMD 1001] Together, the Premier 140 and the Avanti Centuries demonstrate how easy it is for this pairing to stop and start on a dime -- and do so at any point across the speakers bandwidth with drive and energy. Full stop. Silence. Fast attack. Voices and electronic ephemera pop and crackle instantaneously into and out of black three-dimensional space. This is an area where lesser tube amps can blur the edge and lapse into a flubbery pace. Not the Premier 140. Yet all the while, the sense I had was of music in control of the amp, not the other way around. I love equipment that doesnt draw attention to itself.
On recording after recording the Premier 140 enhanced my appreciation for the artistry of the musicians. In the Allegro of E.J. Moerans Sonata for Cello and Pianoforte [Lyrita SRCS 42] you hear the musicians bowing technique against strings affixed to a hollow, resonating box. The detail and harmonic richness are gorgeous. I could not help but think if a cello with a different wood-grain structure were swapped mid-bar, the difference would be immediate. Solo piano passages were beautifully clear and articulated -- again, the best rendering of a piano Ive heard from my system.
And behind all this grace and fluency lies 140 watts of authority and control. The Premier 140 proved a superb match to the Avanti Century speakers (with their quoted 89dB sensitivity) and easily drove them to their 32Hz cutoff. Bass was weighty, fast and taut. Full-bore complex orchestral passages were delivered with aplomb. The red LEDs rarely flashed. Power with delicacy is effortlessly summoned across the bandwidth.
As the new flagship in the C-J pantheon, the Premier 140 is the successor to the Premier Twelve monoblocks ($7390 per pair when available), which were successful and deservedly praised. I was frankly sad to see them leave the C-J stable. I expected to hear differences between older and new amps, but I figured they would be subtle. While the amps share the same lineage -- by whichever sonic touchstone you choose for comparison -- the Premier 140 represents positive evolution from the Premier Twelves. And whadaya know -- it costs less too.
If you are familiar with Conrad-Johnson amplifiers, you may assess, as I did, that there is more going on with the Premier 140 than the mere recapitulation of phylogeny. Let me draw an imperfect analogy. With the advent of the acclaimed ART preamplifier and its "baby ART" sibling, the Premier 16LS, C-J preamps stepped beyond the caramel, yin-like sound that was their hallmark for many years. And thus it is with the Premier 140.
Listen to the London Philharmonic perform John Irelands London Overture with Sir Adrian Boult conducting [Lyrita SRCS 31]. Compared to the Premier 140, the Twelves place you further back in the hall -- not into the loge, but maybe ten rows further back. Each amp is excellent at layering an orchestra front to back and providing a well-defined soundstage in horizontal and vertical dimensions. The Premier 140 does a better job of focusing and localizing images. It lets you see in your mind's eye string sections made from individuals, and presents them whole and blended with a greater sense of air between instruments. Both amps deliver a coherent presentation across their frequency ranges that draws in the listener, and both are so good that you do not naturally think about their sound. Music simply happens.
I heard its greatest difference from the Twelves in the Premier 140s capacity to resolve, to deliver those sonic cues that yield a you-are-there sense of immediacy. In the same London Overture, what from the Twelves sounds like a musically jangly percussion instrument from the 140 becomes the clarity of sleigh bells. Whether you understand it is blessed with shorter signal paths that recuse electronic obfuscation or simply realize it lets you hear deeper into the music, the Premier 140 delineates musical lines in a way that clarifies voices and instruments as their sources, yet without a trace of analytical spotlighting.
This is no more evident than in the midbass and lower bass. Low frequencies from the Twelves are not mushy -- they are taut, fast, weighty and punchy. However, the bass is warmer and less detailed -- more homogenized if you will -- than that of the Premier 140. For example, at times ten cellos sound like five spread wide. Across and within sections of violas, cellos, and basses, the new Premier amp excels at exposing their inner machinations. Bows sweep in unison and apart; high- and low-level dynamic contrasts bloom and fade.
When trumpets, baritones and horns play the same notes at the same time, the Premier 140 lets you hear their timbral differences and the overtones that are the product of their playing together. While each amp conveys cymbals very well, the Premier 140 brings slightly more energy and splash. Above all, it is that heightened sense of realism garnered from low-level information that makes the newer amp a worthy and improved successor to its heritage.
I continue to be amazed at how each new generation of amplifier from Conrad-Johnson advances beyond its predecessors. And, if the future resembles the past, I expect Messrs. C and J to continue pulling aural rabbits from their sleeves. For now, all I can say is the Premier 140 sets a new standard for Conrad-Johnson amplifiers, which says a lot given C-J's rich history, and is the most complete amplifier Ive enjoyed for extended use in my system. The Premier 140 shows extraordinarily high build quality and is simple to maintain and operate. It conveys music in a way that is visceral, natural, and ultimately satisfying.
Some will say the "new" Conrad-Johnson sound of the Premier 140 is more neutral. I say it sounds more like live music. Either way, it deserves -- commands -- your attention.
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