Review: Conrad Johnson CA200 Amplifier
I purchased my Conrad Johnson CA200 “Control Amplifier” this weekend from the Audiogon.com classifieds. I wanted an integrated amplifier because of space limitations and the reduction of interconnects and power cords. I was also considering seriously the Jeff Rowland Research Concerto.
Friday evening I got a wild hair and decided to look on Audiogon.com and found two CA200s and one Concerto priced similarly and all with low hours. All three sellers answered my questions quickly and I discovered that one of the CJ sellers lived close to me and is a top rated Audiogon.com seller. That made the choice easier and I found myself with a CJ CA200 with a little over 100-hours of use less than 24-hours after starting my search.
I know lots of people like to live with a piece for months before writing a review. I’m from the opposite camp, finding that my initial impressions are clearest. I spent 17-years as financial auditor and learned to trust and respect my instincts and early reactions from that professional experience. So, I put in about five-hours of listening on Saturday and four-hours on Sunday. Conditions were ideal, because I was alone in the house, except for the sleeping dog, and the weather in the Denver area was ideal this weekend, not too hot or two cool. This really helps in critical listening because neither the heater nor air conditioner ran at all during my listening sessions. I live in a high rise apartment with 10” concrete floor and ceiling and no neighbor on a side wall, so I have great isolation, up on the six floor.
I should give a little background as to my music and audiophile experience. I’m a financial consultant by trade, with over thirty-nine years experience, but I’ve got over fifty-years experience as a “serious” musician. I’ve played trumpet since I was nine and jazz guitar since I was forty-two. I write equipment reviews (amps, guitars and speaker cabinets) for Just Jazz Guitar, play rhythm guitar in a big band and play trumpet regularly in churches, regional symphonies, brass bands (cornet of course) and even did a multi-year stint as lead trumpet in a funk/rock/soul band in the Dallas area. I hear live music all the time in tons of different contexts. For instance, on Thanksgiving eve I played trumpet with a large choral group and then had the pleasure of sitting there right next to a harp/oboe/flute trio accompanying the same choir. I’ve been really blessed to play in some incredible groups, including just recently, the Colorado Brass Band, one of the premier bands of the genre in the USA. I’ve played orchestral trumpet sitting with my back against the wall hiding a 32-foot organ pipe that massaged my whole body as I played. So, I feel and hear the music regularly.
I’ve really been serious about audio since my college days, when I bought my first Garrard/Scott/Jensen system. I moved to Time Windows/Bryston in the 1970s and 1980s and replaced the DCMs with Celestions in the 1980s. I’m just now finishing the first major system update since the 1980s. I’ve gone back to serious analog, recently adding a Pro-ject RM10 with Sumiko Blackbird through a Pro-ject Tube Box phono pre-amp. (I’ll do a review of the RM10 baby soon, including DVD-Audio samples, but that’s in the works due to technical challenges that I’m working through). This August, the Celestion SL-6 speakers were replaced with 4 ohm, floor-standing Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand.
My primary reference amplifier for this review was my Bryston 1B/2B amp/pre-amp combination that’s served me well since about 1982. The Bryston’s is rated at 50 watts into 8 ohms and about 90 into 4 ohms and this was adequate for most of my listening to the VAs, but when I wanted to crank things up to realistic volumes, they would strain, particularly in the upper overtones of really hot trumpet tracks. The Bryston surprised me with its control of bass, but I thought there was likely even more control available with a more powerful amplifier. The Bryston pre-amp is fine, but in direct comparison to the Tube Head, it showed itself to be slightly veiled and not as open. If that was so, then I assumed that with an “upgrade” I could find even more resolution from my system. Hence, I was looking around for an upgrade.
The accountant in me requires that I always get “value”. In audio, “value” to me includes a high resolution-to-price ratio. If I can get 99.9% for $100, then I’m not going to pay $1000 to get that last basis point (a basis point for you non-financial people is .1%). I think we can all agree that there’s a point of diminishing returns in audio. I’ve got some $100 Bose speakers on my desktop that sound pretty good, for what they are, but I’m willing to pay 35-times that in my “serious” system. I get to hear really majestic, beautiful music all the time, sitting in the middle of the band. That perspective will NEVER be equaled by ANY system, so I’m happy if I can get 99% of the experience, occasionally. (BTW, my new system has raised that achievement level from around 90%, given the frequency limitations of the Celestions).
I still DO make compromises. For instance, I had my heart set on Vienna Acoustic’s Strauss speakers, but finally realized that I’d probably stay in my high rise apartment for another year or two and I was tired of not upgrading my system, so I went with the Beethoven Baby Grands because they match my room better. Also, speaking of compromise, the Baby Grands look great in my room AND sound good. In deference to my wife, I will not buy an ugly speaker (we argued about whether the Time Windows were ugly or not). The Strauss would not have worked in my current room.
Speaking of my room, it’s actually a large, multi-purpose living/dining room. It’s around 20’X’40’ with 12’ ceilings and a 10’X12’ offshoot for the dining area. Now you’re thinking, the Strauss would have worked fine in there, maybe even the Mahler, but the problem is the combination of uses and furniture layout. This is our main living area, so there’s a 46” Sony Bravia HDTV to one side (no surround), a fireplace opposite the Sony, four relatively large couch pieces and a large armoire that houses the two-channel turntable and associated electronics. One side is all widows, looking out at the Rocky Mountains and the other side has a large entry way and a pass-thru to the kitchen with bar stools. Despite the tight confines at one end, there are about 175 square-feet of wasted space at the other end. In a few weeks, I’ll post some pictures of the system and room.
I will NOT dwell on the technical characteristics of the CA200 because there are several well written reviews by people that spoke with the makers about the design philosophy and circuit architecture. I have nothing to add and would only be able to repeat what is well documented. I will say, however, that the CA200 does in fact invert phase and I had to switch the speaker cables at the amp end of the cables. I then confirmed correct phase with an old test record that I dug up in my archive. CA stands for Control Amp, which eliminates the line stage of an integrated amp. A key design feature is zero feedback. It’s 185 watts into 8 ohms and, I suspect, about twice that into my 4 ohm load.
Now, to my impressions of the CA200. My first reaction was, “Man that’s dark!!” Ok, you’re thinking, “Not a good beginning.” I hate to dredge up the old Yin and Yang thang, but that’s where we are with the CJ. If the Bryston is Yin, then the CJ CA200 is Yang. If the AKG K701 headphones are Yin, then the Sennheiser 650 is Yang. If a Schoeps mic is Yin, then a Neumann mic is Yang. If vanilla is Yin then chocolate is Yang. All are good, valid choices, but different. Is there such a thing as an “accurate” audio component? I’m not so sure, but if you want to place the CJ someplace on the spectrum, its impression to me is dark, as compared to my Bryston, my AKG K701s and several other systems that I’ve heard.
Musically I tend to be a Yin person, wanting to hear every detail, but with no added edge and no unnatural “hardness.” The Bryston did a pretty good job in this respect. When I added my Pro-ject RM10 to the system and the Blackbird still wasn’t broken in, I was questioning my thinking, because I was hearing EVERYTHING. Crudely engineered recordings for the 1950s and 1960s were close to excruciating. Fortunately, the Blackbird is about broken in and the details remain, with good recordings sounding much better than bad recordings, but it’s easier to listen through the extra details and hear the music. I’ll soon work on the Blackbird’s VTA to optimize things further.
The switch to the CA200 wasn’t subtle. There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow, as they say in Oklahoma. At least that was my first reaction. The next thing I ask myself, “Did a lose resolution?” So I settle down to listen to music.
I gravitate toward female vocals and trumpet, so one of the first cuts I audition is “Blame It On My Youth” from Eden Atwood’s “The Ballad Sessions” 45 rpm disk. It starts with a capella vocal, and then adds double bass and then finally, Tom Harrell joins on flugel. Eden’s voice has attractive sibilance and rich body. This cut is amazingly silent (great vinyl) and every last nuance of her voice comes through. The bass is big, fat, rough-edged and full-bodied. Harrell’s flugel tone is purposefully full of puffy air and horn sounds as he plays as softly as possible. This cut is an interesting mix because Eden and Tom are playing ppp while the bass is playing at a relatively full volume. Each is in their own distinct space. I suspect that they played this live, but each was isolated in the studio. Anyway, it’s an absolutely lovely cut through the CA200. The vocal wasn’t too dark. I listened and thought I heard more positioning cues and the dynamics of the bass were better than with the Bryston.
Nora Jones was up next. She went to high school with my middle daughter and my youngest daughter is 100% Texan, so I have an affinity for Nora's beautiful Texas dipped voice. The girl doesn’t seem to have a bad album, but I really like “Feels Like Home”, so I put that on the RM10. At one point my wife was listening with me to “Creepin’ In” which has Nora and Dolly Parton trading off and singing harmony. Their voices blend nicely in timbre, but Dolly’s “warble” is undeniable. My wife had never heard the cut and said immediately, “That’s Dolly.” When they sang together without harmony, you could easily separate the two voices. “Feels Like Home” is sparsely recorded with exceptional playing of piano, guitars and assorted percussion. The CA200 did an incredible job of revealing front-to-back positioning of the various players with steady, unmoving, palpable images.
Imaging in a sparsely recorded studio recording is one thing, but how would the CJ do with something more challenging I wondered. I brought out my old D2D Sheffield Lab recording of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra playing Wagner favorites. It’s not the greatest performance in the world, but it’s one of the best recorded symphonic performances that I’ve ever heard. “Siegfried’s Funeral Music” displays all parts of the orchestra, both side-to-side and front-to-back. The added bonus is that it’s incredibly dynamic, with cymbal crashes, tympani bashes, brass explosions and symphonic POWER equaled few places in my collection. Early on, there are quiet tympani calls that came through crystal clear and at the back row, left of the orchestra. Woodwinds were blended a couple of rows up, in the middle, yet I was able to separate each instrument from the others. Brass was another row back and each trumpet and trombone player had a separate seat. Wow! I’d heard good placement with my Bryston, but this separate seat for each player was new to me.
Was it dynamic, you ask? OMG, both ends of the spectrum were tested, with double basses, low brass and tympani rumbling and shaking my body as cymbal overtones that CRASHED into my listening space. The perspective wasn’t equal to sitting on the brass row, but it was more like being the conductor than sitting in the audience. Through it all, the image never broke down. Oh, and there was never the slightest sign of strain from the system, turntable, cartridge, amp and speakers.
BTW, I’m a Kimber Kable kind of guy, with 15’ of Kimber 8PR to the speakers and Timbre interconnects between the Tube Box and the amp and my Oppo universal player to the CJ. I also have a Korg MR1000 for archiving much of my vinyl. The Korg’s 1-bit 5.6MHz sampling rate is useful for AB-ing components, with resolution so incredible that you can hear the interconnect changes in the recording. When I get more time I’ll put the CA200 between the Tube Box and the Korg and then compare that with nothing between except the interconnects. I’ll be curious to see hear the color added by the CJ, if any. I’ll also put the CJ between my headphone rig (Woo Audio WA6 headphone amp with AKG K701s) and the Tube Head to see what color I hear. Remember my first impression? I suspect that this sort of A-B will confirm. I’ll add an addendum to this review when I complete that, but expect it before the New Year. Maybe I’ll throw together some DVD-Audio discs so that others can hear.
Back to the music, here are some other records that I played in my first nine-hours with the Conrad Johnson CA200:
Nora Jones – “Come Away With Me” and “Feels Like Home”
James Taylor – “JT” and “Gorilla”
Harry James – “King James Version” and “Still Harry After All These Years” D2D
Tony Bennett and Bill Evans
Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass
Richard Murray and the Atlanta Brass – Crystal Clear D2D “Bach Toccata & Fugue in D minor”
Eden Atwood – “The Ballad Sessions”
The Carpenters – “Carpenters”, “Now & Then” and “Close to You” (Karen ‘s voice, incredible)
Count Basie – “88 Basie Street”, “Jam” and "Farmers Market Barbecue”
Finzi – “Cello Concerto” Yo-Yo Ma, on Lyrita
Bach – “Complete Cello Suites” Janos Starker
Chet Baker – “Chet”
Rob Wasserman – “Duets” and “Trios” (the only CDs I listened to)
Ok, now’s time for an overall impression. Perhaps most important, was I tired after listening sessions of five-hours straight and four-hours straight? The answer is a resounding no. I only stopped because I had other things to get done. I listened another two-hours with the music in the background. Couldn’t get enough was the feeling that I ended each session with. So that shows you that I was “involved” and stimulated by the music, not worn down by a fatiguing listing “test.” That’s why it’s going to be weeks before you see the results of the A-B testing through the Korg. I’ll be too busy enjoying music on my system when I’m not spending every other spare minute practice or playing the five or six trumpet performances coming up in December. Oh yeah, I’ve got to make a living sometime.
After the initial “Oh crap, did I make a mistake” moment when I realized the CA200 was dark sounding, can I live with its coloration? The answer is a resounding “yes.” In actual listening I didn’t miss a thing. No vocal was too rich or no trumpet was artificially dark, no dynamic was muted and all details were revealed. Additionally, the CA200 incredibly quiet. (So is the Bryston). When Eden Atwood’s voice rises up, it rises out of total silence (the vinyl is incredible on my copy).
I didn’t pay retail, but I still spent ten to twenty-times what I’ll get from selling the Bryston amp and pre-amp. So, did I gain anything in my resolution vs. cost formula. Realizing that we’re into the land of diminishing returns, the answer is another “yes”. I made palpable gains in dynamic range and absolute control over my speakers. Also, imaging was improved such that symphonic players now each have their own seat. Front-to-back imaging is as good as I’ve ever heard. All this is done with excellent micro and macro dynamics.
The remote control is a big plus. It moves volume in .7 dB steps (00 thru 99) and balance is controlled in one-step increments. Each recording has its own “best level” and I find it VERY convenient to do that from my listening chair. BTW, I found myself listening at slightly higher volumes than with the Bryston. I can’t pinpoint why, but I suspect it was because things are cleaner, or the tip-down in high frequencies encouraged me to make things louder so that I could hear the details as well. I did most of my listening between 55 and 70. With the level at a fairly loud 57, my wife was listening to Nora Jones without ever questioning the volume (she would with the Bryston) so I suspect there’s less distortion coming through, even though I didn’t identify it as such with certainty.
Oh, the short comings of the Oppo became clearer. It’ll be off to Ric Schultz for beefing up and isolation. It sounded good, but compared to the Pro-ject, there was an opaque veil and a very slight hardness. I couldn’t have listened to that for five hours straight. Of course, that was there with the Bryston, it just became more evident.
Will I be embarrassed if some “tweak” comes to hear my system and says “Wow, that’s dark, how can you stand it”? Absolutely not. The turnabout question is, does it make great music and the answer to that is, yes. I’m looking forward to my next chance to listen and not thinking about another system change.
I can afford to spend several times what I did for this amp, but I have no desire to.
Now that that’s out of the way, I’m looking for more new recordings to buy.
Pro-ject Tube Head
Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand
Bryston 1B/2B amp/preamp
Jeff Rowland Research Concerto