Kondo, Zanden, CJ, Ref 5? Pre w/ Pure Tonal Color?

Hi A'Goners! Happy New Year! I am looking for a no-holds barred (second-hand) preamp that can (at least) maintain the transparency, detail, speed of my CJ ACT 2 but really add dramatically more tonal color, purity, harmonic richness.

My system:

Oppo BDP-83 (Upgrade Company modd'd)
Zanden 5000 Signature DAC
CJ ACT 2 Pre (Series 1)
Gryphon Antileon
Wilson X-1/Grand Slamms
Velodyne DD-18 (in parallel...from 35hz downward)
Transp Ref IC/SC
PAD Dominus/Ann Contego & Sablon Audio PCs
Transp Ref Power Conditioner
Nordost QX4

For background, i used to own SF Strads, and have owned Guarneris and CJ equipment for years...but i recently upgraded to the one speaker i have found in 25 years which i preferred. The Wilson X-1 Grand slamms...which far surpasses the Strads in soundstage, dynamics, detail retrieval and rhythm...as well as bass. And I have found it can be intensely musical...when set up right. (super-sensitive to set up.)

With the Wilson's in, my system today is as musical now as it was with the Strads...but i find with the immense increase in detail, soundstage, bass, rhythm, spaciousness, etc...i feel like if i could find a way to add some additional tonal color to the sound...it might go even one level further!!! (As always...a never-ending pursuit!)

i know many feel Pres should be straight wire and gain. in my case, i think the ACT 2 may be "losing" some color along the way. In particular, i think that my Zanden and Gryphon are quite warm with good tonal purity...and i have read that the ACT 2 compared to some well-regarded Pre's is a little too neutral. (hence why the Series 2 came out quite quickly...within less than 24 months).

thus, i am thinking about changing the ACT 2. Here is my current shortlist...but i am truly open-minded:
- CJ ART 3
- CJ Act 2 (Series 2)
- Audio Note?
- ARC Ref 5

These would all be second-hand and therefore "do-able"

meanwhile, for the right deal, i would also look at:
- Wavac PRT-1
- ARC Ref Anniversary
- Kondo M-10

I MUST hear them for myself in my system...i always keep my own counsel. but it sometimes helps to get the benefit of other people;'s experiences to at least draft my "shortlist" of preamps. I have focused on tubes...but if SS gets you there, say so!

Thanks for any guidance!

You should add the Emotive Audio Epifania to your list of preamps to audition.
Based on what you are looking for (tonal color and harmonic richness) I think you should also add Shindo to your preamp list.
I agree with Jan Sib above--Luv ya music by the way!--

Try a Shindo Pre- I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

I've bought and setup Grand Slamms- so I've an idea where your at.

Good listening,

I would add the BAT Rex to your list. There has been much discussion on these forums, but the highlights, in addition to the qualities you list, include no noise, great bass, balanced connections, and no syrup. I think that those qualities set it apart from some of your other choices.
I would upgrade the CJ to the Series 2. It is the most transparent, dynamic preamp I have heard. It is totally neutral and just gets out of the way, while adding absolutely nothing to the signal. The qualities you are looking for will be revealed by the art 2/2 if it is in the recording.
CONRAD JOHNSON ART, serie 2 pre amp will be a nice upgrade
You may want to audition the Einstein preamp.I have recently added to my system.Very musical.
May I suggest you give the BAT Rex a good listen in your system. Good luck finding what you're after.

The BAT REX worked out great for me. Sounds like what your looking for.
Shindo. The best one you can afford.
wow! Such great responses! Thank you and keep them coming please!

To: Sebelius, Team 212 and 4musica44107,

Thank you! Shindo sounds fascinating. Having owned the Zanden 5000Sig DAC for 4-5 years now, i really appreciate what the legends (Yamada San, Kondo San and the Shindo family) do for organic, emotive musical sound!

To: Rtn1, Trcnetmsncom and Tom_hankins,

BAT did not occur to me, but i have read great things about the Rex over the years. i will try to find a way to hear it.

Tp: Cerrot, Rocc1007

Thanks and agree about CJ! i have owned CJ for over 10 years now! Did you both mean the ACT 2 Series 2, or the ART 2 (as in the 2nd series of the limited edition Anniversary Reference Triode...which i referred to in my original post as the ART 3...the current 3rd iteration of this legendary pre-amp).

To: Salectric and Ramy

you have each recommended pres which i think you own. I have not heard or come across your preamps before other than reading a little about them.

Ramy - I always understood Einstein to be an extremely transparent, quick and neutral pre. If i am "satisfied" (whatever that means!) with what i have on that score at the moment...but am in search of rich tonal colors, is the Einstein still one you recommend?

Sibelius - i will try to find out more...if you know of a review, blog, or post that you could point me too that would be great!

Thanks to all!

Lloyd, I had meant the Act 2 Series 2. I have not heard the ART 2 but can only imagine it's stellar. Good luck with your endeavor.
I have tried a ton of preamps and as I explain in my post I think the PRT1, when connected in the right system, is by quite a distance the most transparent one. This transparency makes the sound so palpable that it is "better" than everything else I have tried, for me. I think Kondo have a special magic but I am not convinced this magic is not the result of voicing. They do make them carefully, by hand, and by making everything at the factory, so you do get that for the price. But I dont think you get the state of the art. I consider CJ and ARC to be well below the league of the previously mentioned preamps. If you still have the Gryphon Antilleon, try the Gryphon Mirage which surprised me as one of the best ss preamps out there.
Hi Mihalis,

Great to hear from you. We should catch up on business via separate email. i'll send you my work details.

I will look hard for PRT1...yours is the one that has made me think hardest about Wavac. I think your quest for transparency, sound, performance, etc has been tremendous and tremendously educational for many people, including me.

To be fair, given my proclivity for warmth and a touch of luxury, i would probably not be averse to a slight bit of inaccurate warmth in the system. but i am intrigued by the Wavac, and will try. these do sometimes come up in these parts of the world.

i will give it a shot for sure. Have you ever tried Unison Research from Italy? while their midfi stuff is nice, i have heard their reference tubes are sensational...agian, possibly romantic, but i have heard quite amazing.

Hope all is well and thanks for popping into the post! great to hear from you as always.

thanks for that. i will give it some thought for sure.

Art Dudley of Stereophile and Jack Roberts of Dagogo have done several reviews on Shindo preamps. Go to those two sites, type in "Shindo" and you should have some reading material. Tone Imports is the US distributor. Pitch Perfect Audio is a dealer out of San Francisco. Both have websites where you can preview the current Shindo lineup. Good listening whichever direction you decide to go.

Given the level of $ you are talking about, you might also want to consider the Doshi Alaap. Nick makes some line stage only units (did not see TT in your gear list). With the current economic woes, I have seen used come up for sale a few times in the last year or two.
to Lloyd,
yes the Einstein has the combination of both tonal richness,very musical and at the same time it does have relatively fast bass. With a good power cord and using the Zanden signature DAC as input the sound is very rich.
Have you ever thought about replacing your Gryphon amp instead of CJ preamp ?

IMO if you are looking to add texture without loosing transparency, you should rather consider changing your Antileon to Lamm ML2.1 (or the new ML2.2) and keeping your CJ pre.

I have heard Gryphon Antileon in several systems, and would never describe the amp as one having 'tonal color, purity, harmonic richness'. Quite on the contrary.
Hi Lloyd, I look upon your system with mixed feelings. The Zanden DAC is a high performer. The Oppo is, well, hifi. You aren't using it for a transport are you? I would strongly suggest you get a 47 Lab Flatfish with it's Dumpty power supply. You can do better with your cables for a lot less money too.

Try the H2O Fire. It has received stellar compliments. I use it in my system. nothing else will do.
Sibelius, Thank you! i have started to read the reviews with great interest. Sounds very interesting.

Swampwalker...i will invesetigate. I have come across the name and heard good things.

Ramy - thanks for that! that sounds interesting given its great reputation. I have seen one in the STates on sale as well.

Elberoth - thanks to you as well. the synergy between lamm and wilson is well documented...if i ever come across s/hand lamm in my part of the world, i will give it a shot if nothing else to learn about this legendary synergy.

Muralman1 - i hear you...i used to use a USD$50 Daewoo transport with my Zanden...so my Oppo is an upgrade!!! The reason is because i only spend money on something if i keep it 10 years...given the speed of transport/media technology, i have bought a DAC and spent money on transports only when they break. Once Server Technology improves enough, i will go that way.

As for cables, one might be surprised what i paid for my Transparent REf...cents on the dollar having spend 3-4 years picking up each cable one at a time at unique prices. I do like them and probably would not want to go thru the brain damage of having to switch them out with another set.

I will definitely listen to H20 if i can find them in this country...have not come across.

Thanks everyone!!! All so helpful....lots to read about, and to go listen to!!!!!

One thought about the CJ preamps, with the ART you can roll the 6922's, not much you can do with the ACT and their 6h30's.

I use the ACT 2.2 in one of my systems and love it but I also have the ART and it's been fun rolling the tubes. JJ's had a nice flavor but they didn't last very long. About a month ago I got a set of the Genalex Gold Lions, the stock EH's from CJ work nice in this circuit too. I haven't met a 6922 I don't like. Point is, I can change the flavor to a little more or less of ? depending on my taste.

I'm very happy with the ART but the ACT isn't going anywhere either. The ACT has it's own character and I like it but you can't change it much. Good luck.
You should consider either the Shindo Vosne Romanee or Giscours preamps. The Shindo preamps provide much detail but in a very musical way with great tonal quality and texture.

thank you. that seems to be a very big focus for me at the moment. i have contacted Matthew at Pitch Perfect in San Francisco. Those 2 pres in particular are very interesting, and i am trying to find a way to listen to them where i am.
Lloyd, yes please let me know.
I would then try Kondo. Really worth a try if you are ok with some sonic signature.
Zanden model 3000 for example , i have not heard the arc 5 but i did hear the arc 3 , conrad johnson is rare hear in holland , but zanden whow yhat is nice stuff , by far the best tonal colour i have heard , if something will replace my nagra it will be zanden or,.... ML

Nice system! Thanks for your advice, and that makes a lot of sense given how much i like my Zanden DAC. Aside from good potential for synergies, i have heard very good things about the Zanden 3000 on a standalone basis. That also may be (a little easier) for me to audition here than some of the others.
Hi All,

I have auditioned the Massetto in my home, and also scheduled to hear the Zanden 3000. I have spoken with maker of Tron Syren and am waiting until one is available for audition. I have heard ARC Ref 5...may bring it home for a listen. I have not located Rex, Einstein or Gryphon pre's.

Massetto - In a few words, i understand why the unbelievably loyal following. If you are looking for midrange magic...but wish to have a totally transparent pre, with very, very extended highs, and an extremely high level of detailing, Shindo delivers. And that, as many will attest, is difficult to do.

Many times, if you find warm, music, enriching midrange magic, it comes with a number of compromises...mushy bass, or a little fuzz in the detail area. very hard to get superb detailing and warm midrange in the same sound.

i also very quickly did find i was listening to the music...not to the sound of this or that...because i was focusing on evaluating the equipment, i had to listen to music and to sound...but it was easy to start listening to just music. so i totally appreciate the great appeal of this pre.

Compared to my CJ ACT 2?
I would not trade it, and to be very praiseworthy to the dealer here, he agreed with me. He did not push for a sale. I have asked to hear a V-R or Giscours which i have heard are even better.

Why no trade?
- The Massetto has very, very musical bass with good force...but it felt definitely a millisecond slow compared to ACT 2 which felt more "neutral" and more well-paced on Deep House, Rap. Bass on acoustic instruments was fine though still you could feel that milli-beat of slowness.
- The Massetto midrange was definitely more forward compared to the ACT 2...not in a way that initially made you feel like it was an unnatural voicing...rather, it seemed that your ear was drawn to be more focused on the midrange. (This is the way it seemed...until you went back to the CJ ACT 2 and realized the voices, strings were in fact a touch more forward)
- This forwardness was wonderful on Clapton, and all kinds of music, because so much happens in the midrange, letting it come forward a bit made you enjoy the musical message that so often gets delivered within this band.
- Why do i feel it was midrange forward? Because it did not always work on orchestral. Whereas i expected a more balanced delivery of the orchestra (and i have been going for 20 years)...i felt like i was mainly hearing the violins...very surprising balance.

Before anyone gets too uptight...this was what i heard in my system...which i admit is not composed of perfect components (none are)...and there may have been synergy issues...but it is what i heard, and the dealer of Shindo concurred with all of my observations who auditioned alongside me.

In conclusion, no pre is perfect...but i am definitively looking for a pre that introduces a sense of midrange magic that at the moment i have (but wish for more)...yet does not sacrifice detail, extension, dynamics, etc.

i am very impressed by what i heard ...i get that Shindo has a technically very accomplished way of delivering MUSIC...it just that the Massetto did not beat the ACT 2 such that i was ready to trade. what i came away with was...really, really, really wanting to hear the Vosne-Romanee or Giscours!
transport is the weakest link...change it
What was the final outcome of your preamp search?
I traded a Massetto in on a Vosne Romanee and the upgrade is substantial as it should be for the price difference. The Massetto was comparable to other top preamps I have had in my system. The Vosne Romanee is in another league. I can only imagine what the Giscours or Petrus may sound like.
Yeah i m also curious , i have discovered another top contender , convergent audio , a legend with phono is a must audition if you buy in that league imho
Agree with Dmailer. I also traded in a Massetto in for a Vosne Romanee and thought the change was pretty dramatic. I thought Art Dudley's review in Stereophile last November was right on the money in how he described the differences between the preamps. As I've said before, If my house was on fire and I could only save one piece of equipment, the Shindo VR would be it.
Congratulations! I must say I`m not surprised, it was either going to be a Shindo or the Zanden preamp based on what you were looking for. Many folks feel the Shindo preamps as you move up the line seperate themselves from CJ, Audio Research etc.
Best Regards,
Hi Charles1,

i am seriously contemplating a CJ GAT at this stage. i have spoken to some dealers of Zanden, Shindo and Wavac. I also have spoken to a few people who own/sell ARC Ref 40.

Based on my current configuration, the guys who sell the Japanese brands (Shindo, Zanden, Wavac) were (belive it or not) honest enough to say they dont sell CJ, but thought the GAT was the one for me.

I hope to be able to report back about it shortly.
Hi ie,

i agree...the key is i dont like spending money unless i am going to keep something for years to come. So at this point, i prefer to spend much less money and then upgrade i a big way. Specifically, i am thinking: Zanden Transport (S/hand of course!)...or the new MSB Transport...also i2s plus apparently an extremely high quality transfer of digital to solid state memory before reclocking to various digital outs with single-digit picosecond jitter levels.

Normally, i never go for such techno-stuff...everyone has their own marketing spin. But in this case, given the reviews of their DAC's, i admit at least to be extremely curious about the transport.
Add the TRON Syren to your list. Great build and SQ - in the same league as Kondo, but a fraction of the cost. Jeff at Highwater Sound, NYC handles TRON.
So i have finally managed to hear the CJ GAT. Something else...so incredibly transparent, it really feels like it disappeared, and in its place, you get notes, speed, the exact dynamics you honestly can believe were there in life.

The speed of the unit is one key...its transparency is another...it seems invisible...and then finally, CJ managed to leave a touch of its DNA behind. So it always feels natural in its tonality. Quite an achievement.

This feels to me like the Shindo did in terms of that midrange coming forward...but much, much faster, greater extension and far greater evenness across the spectrum.
07-28-11: Sibelius
@Agree with Dmailer. I also traded in a Massetto in for a Vosne Romanee and thought the change was pretty dramatic. I thought Art Dudley's review in Stereophile last November was right on the money in how he described the differences between the preamps. As I've said before, If my house was on fire and I could only save one piece of equipment, the Shindo VR would be it."


I have heard from owners of the Vosne Romanee that they preferred it to the Giscours and did not upgrade(which was once the top reference pre until the Petrus.) I wonder if the Petrus became the new reference (both to keep pace with the current trend of higher and higher SOTA equipment)...but also because perhaps the Giscours did not quite fulfill its expectation of convincingly surpassing the V-R? merely speculation.
Can't comment on either the Giscours or Petrus as I have not had the chance to listen to either. I've heard that others have passed on upgrading to the Giscours as well. Would be interested in hearing how these folks would compare the two.
Yes!...it would indeed be interesting...pls post if you do.