CJ tube preamps are known for their warmth, forgiving nature and musicality. I don't have any insight about the AI.
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Audible Illusions M3A is an extremely musical preamp. Bass, mids and highs are all excellent as well as excellent soundstage. The AI M3B is even better, more resolving and quieter. I have both. The M3A has been in my system since 1996 and I just got the M3B a couple of months ago. The build quality on an AI pre is second to none as well. Both have an excellent phono stage and both have 5 high level inputs, a tape loop and a phono input with very high quality jacks. There are also 2 sets of preamp outputs. The power supply is in a separate cabinet and very beefy.
I prefer the AI sound to the Conrad Johnson.
I just got my Modulus 3B. While I waited for it much longer than expected, I can only praise its pure presentation. Extended frequency range from low to high. Wide, deep soundstage. Quiet. Awesome MM phono stage. My record collection is transformed.
It blows my former 3A away (but that was an older unit; I cannot comment on current 3A's). The most common knock on CJ gear is that it sounds "dark." Dark is not a word you would ever use in conjunction with the 3B or 3A.
The M3 is a fine preamp. I know it's sound well and I have used two different AI preamps over the years. My comments are not meant to suggest that the preamp is anything but very good; it obviously is, given it's success. But, to answer the OP's question, I will try to offer some impressions of it's sound compared to the CJ sound, and here is why it gets tricky to describe sound in a way that is meaningful to another listener.
I will preface my description by simply saying that, to me, a PV11 or PV12 sounds more like what live music sounds like than the AI A3. The CJ sound is often described as "dark"; whatever that is. I disagree. If anything, I find the AI sound darker. With the CJ's, individual images have more natural color ("darker?") vs. what I hear as absence of natural color from the AI. To my ears, the CJ has a more refined sound. I hear more grain in the AI sound. The AI presents larger images with greater stability (reach out and touch). But, the CJ's give superior rendition of dimensionality with less grunge in the empty spaces. I think the AI's images are too large, and the bass is a little too thick, and then there is that somewhat "bleached out" tonal quality; while the CJ's may sound a little too "golden" for some. If I had to choose, I would choose a little too much color over NO color. Music has A LOT of natural color. Lastly, I find the AI sound dynamically polite compared to the CJ's naturally lively quality. The AI is quieter with less background noise.
Night and Day difference... The CJ is like driving in the rain at night, where as the Audible Illusions is like a driving a convertible on a sunny day.
I owned the CJ Premier 14 for severial years and replaced it with the modulus 3. When I upgraded to the 3A I was able to comparing it directly to the CJ 17 LS, and for my taste the AI won hands down.
IMHO the CJ's while very nice, tend to have a very dark tube sound, where as the AI is more honest to the source. The CJ also sounds contested in my opinion. FWIW, I'm the happy owner of the new AI 3B which feeds a nice set of EL34 amps....
I want to attempt a description of the "dark" sound. The sound is slightly rolled off in the upper registers and the all round treble energy reduced. If you have ever heard what a real British Mullard 12AX7 does to the sonics you get a decent idea of what dark is . In addition it is a full sound but not airy sound. That sound is typical of many older tube amp designs but are not what modern tube designs offer. So depending on your age you might conger up your Fathers 1960 EL-84 amp, if you have ever heard one you would have a good idea of what people are saying, when they say dark. Well I tried!
Its been awhile since I listened to a CJ Pre or AI-m3a. Many years ago a friend of mine and I brought his VAC amp
and CJ Pre to Advanced Audio on a Sunday afternoon in Tacoma and listened to the AI m3a with an Ayre amp and a Wadia CD player through a large pair of Genesis loudspeakers. We never switched the amps, just the Pre-amps. No contest. The AI m3a was breathtaking. Through the m3a, Aaron Neville's voice floated out of those speakers with such majestic elegant grace and 3D imaging that we just sat their hypnotized. The only negative with AI m3a is they are known to burn up tubes in a short span of time. If you were to pick up a used AI m3a I would highly recommend buying Psvane tubes since they have a very long burn life due to their heavy filaments and thick glass envelopes and the best place to buy the tubes from is Grant Fidelity who is the premier vendor for North America. Grant Fidelity has the tubes shipped directly from the Psvane warehouse in China to your home so they arrive very qucikly by air so you don't have to go through a long waiting period with other vendors who receive the tubes at their business location first in the States then to your home.
They will burn through tubes which are NOT recommended for them. For 240.00, you can buy 4 matched, very low noise tubes from Audible Illusions. I have also had good luck at The Tube Store. I bought 6h23neb tubes, graded and matched for less than 100.00. It's when you try to use the nos mullards, ampex, ect tubes where you can run into trouble.
The only tubes that Audible Illusions recommends fully are the Sovtec 6922's or the Russian Military 6H23EB's. Most all other brands they recommend with reservation which will result in a shorter tube life. They do not recommend you to buy at all the China 6DJ8H, the Sylvania 6DJ8 or the Philips 69J8. The Psvane tubes as I mentioned, are built to the standards of tubes 50 years ago and tubes from that era would last an average of ten years or longer due to their heavy filaments and thicker envelopes resulting in a higher heat threshold.
>>so they arrive very qucikly by air so you don't have to go through a long waiting period with other vendors who receive the tubes at their business location first in the States then to your home.<<
I know that Audiogon member Trelja stocks these tubes in the United States and in most cases they arrive much quicker than any shipment from China.
Why pay for inferior service and/or risk damage that may occur from long distance shipping?
Audiofeil, I noticed that as well.
On the AI issue, I've been running a 2B for close to two years now with no tube issues. Probably not the best preamp if you like to roll tubes but sounds great with the recommended tubes provided by AI. For me if it sounds good and is reliable, no problem one less thing to fuss about..
OMG!!..inferior service and risk damage that may occur? How shocking!! Grant Fidelity is the only Premier Vendor listed on the Psvane's website for North America. And I'm certain since the order is placed via internet to the Factory in China, that Psvane will make certain their tubes are packaged well enough to ship safely. Besides, it would take a MAC truck to run over the wood box the tubes come in to damage them, since they are built like the heavy duty type of tubes were 50 years ago. Inferior service is a false accusation against Grant Fidelity. They have their own blog made up of many Audiophiles that are very pleased with their service. Grant will also price match any other vendor's prices as long as you provide a web link or a price sheet and can prove the vendor is an authorized dealer.
Attempting to damage Grant Fidelity as a company providing inferior service is a low blow to get members to buy from Trelja. Nice try "Sandbox".
RE: the original question, let me put in a good word for c-j. I have not heard the AI.
The PV-11 and 12 are long discontinued budget preamps. You will generally find the current production c-j preamps in Class A in Stereophile and recommended in TAS. c-js Statement preamps (currently the GAT) are considered state of the art.
Does that mean you will like a c-j preamp better than the AI? No. But c-j does build fine preamps that are not dark or rolled off. They are not hard on tubes and the sound can be tailored by rolling a variety of tube brands.
I would listen to some more recent c-js before writing them off.