Review: Conrad Johnson CT5 Tube preamp

Category: Preamps

I wrote a review of the CT6 preamp from Conrad Johnson last November. It has been a source of great musical pleasure and will continue to serve as such in my audio system. I suggest you read that review as well.

In a followup post, I described a very brief comparison that I did to the costlier CT5. I have since had the opportunity to do a more lengthy comparison,
which led me to write this review.

As vast as the soundstage of the smaller CT6 is, the CT5 is even wider and deeper. It has a presentation I would term wide open. There is a rooted-to-the-earth quality. This quality is at least partly due to the
incredible control the CT5 exhibits, particularly in the lower reachs, where it seems to descend to the center of the earth. It is also due to the seemingly limitless dynamics and punch the CT5 tosses around with the greatest of ease. This quality reminds one of a high-power amp that takes charge of the speakers.
There may be other preamps that can do this, but this is the first preamp in my experience that has this charactertistic.

What places this preamp in a truly rarified league is how it is able to do this, and at the same time, is capable of great delicacy and highly-refined finesse.
The high end exhibits the finest filigree of detail in a sweet and delicate manner. Yet it has no problem raising the roof and sounding like a power house.
I have not heard any preamp capable of doing this, not even a $15,000 unit I recently listened to. To be fair to that unit, I did not do a direct comparison, however.

I believe the 6H30 tube, at least in this implementation, is partly responsible for some of this. The 6H30 can sound sterile in some designs, and it has different sonic characteristics than, say the 6922/6DJ8. There are many staunch supporters of the 6922, which is interesting, because it was such a criticized tube in past years. The 6922 does not have the guts, the balls, the legs, the dynamics of the 6H30. It is a thinner sounding, lighter weight sounding, less dynamic tube, that tends to have a sonic spectrum with more emphasis on upper mids and highs, and a weaker bass. The 6922 family has a more upfront
presentation that some people equate with a more tube like sound. This is interesting, because this family of tubes was often criticized for being too harsh, too thin, too opaque, too grainy by many who defended the 12AX7 and other designed-for-audio tubes as more musical sounding than the non-audio intended

I believe the more bright and forward balance of the 6922 gives the impression of more air and sparkle in the high end, and can fool some listeners on that
basis alone.

DETAIL. The CT5 unravels each musical thread to a degree and level I have never heard before. I was able to hear much more deeply into the mix, revealing
instrumental timbres and details other preamps, including the CT6, were incapable of delineating.

Guitars sounded more like guitars, with the pluck, vibration, guitar body, and overtones all integrated into one coherent, continuous flow.

Vocals sounded more natural, yet more detailed. More at ease; less hi-fi. Diana Krall's voice sounded so right and real on the CT5, that I had to switch between all preamps several times to substantiate to myself that the other preamps just couldn't do the same thing. They couldn't. I listened in awe at how Ms. Krall's lip and mouth sounds flowed with the resonance of her vocal cords and cavity resonances in perfect synchronization.

Cymbals, high hats and brushes had a coherency that was in another league from the CT6. Every element of their complex percussive character was clearly
delineated, and presented in a natural and holistic totality. The individual characteristics and unique sounds of percussion instruments were fully unraveled, yet presented as a totality, not as a disconnected and imperfect collection of sonic elements.

My listening tastes cover a wide range from classical to jazz to vocals. In each genre, I heard the same positive characteristics, whether it be a violin, a voice, a trumpet, or a sting bass.

As real as piano sounds on the CT6, it sounds even more real on the CT5. One can clearly hear the pianist move from the bottom of the piano to the highest keys,
and there is no disconnect, only a coherency and totality of the instrument.

In Big Band jazz, massed brass passages don't sound like a homogenized mass of instruments. I was able to hear clearly each instrument's own place and space
within the total ensemble. And clearly hear the ndividual characteristics of that instrument separated from those of the other instruments in the ensemble.
This is one of the hardest feats for a piece of electronics to achieve.

This is consistent with Conrad Johnson's perpetual striving in their designs to recreate 3-D images that sound more like the real thing. Where you can hear the
air and space around each instrument, not just in a flat, frontal arc, but around the sides and to the back of the instrument. Overtones flew out freely into space in a coherent manner that was true to the character of that
instrument. The brain didn't need to 'rearrange' things to make it decipherable. The coherency was already there.

As with the CT6, the very different sound of the Premier 11 and the Levinson 432 amps did not prevent the CT5 from improving upon the end result with both combinations. The traditional tube signature of the Premier 11 bloomed to its finest, providing palpable, full images that were rich, but not overweight. Again, the Levinson 432 exhibited its finely-detailed and delicate treble at a new level of refinement; its slightly cool, yet beguiling and natural midrange more immediate and appealing than usual; its immense soundstaging abilities expanded even further, and its powerful bass more dynamic and impactful than I thought this amp capable of.

By comparison, the Audio Research LS25 sounded sterile, anemic, and disjointed. The soundstage was much smaller, and instruments were not separated well. There was a thin shrillness to the upper frequencies. The midrange lacked body and
cohesiveness. There was grain in the mids and highs. There was a certain coarseness that made itself present quite often.

The Macintosh C2200 was more pleasant sounding than the LS25, but had a loose bass. It pushed the midrange forward, which I found to be a noticeable
coloration. The midrange was not nearly as detailed or resolved as the CT5, and it had an added texture that some might find pleasant. The highs were less
shrill than the LS25, but still quite unrefined compared to the CT5. Soundstaging was better than the LS25, but there was no comparison to the finely-resolved and detailed CT5 imaging ability.

Physically, the CT5 preamp is robust and striking. A 32 pound beast that combines retro with modern. The subdued gold, curved portion of the front panel
is highly attractive and picks up a subtle glow from the 6H30 tubes mounted within its cradle.

Operationally, I found the heavy metal remote to work perfectly, as did the preamp. The relay clicks that occur with volume changes are not objectionable to
me at all, and I am used to them with the CT6. These are sealed, gas-filled, gold-plated, silver contacts that should last forever.

Internally, the immense size and shear number of polystyrene, polypropylene, and, yes, the famed expensive Teflon capacitors are awe-inspiring. These caps are absolutely huge. I have seen the internals of many preamps in this price range and above, and none of them have this quality and quantity of capacitors.
CJ is at the top of the heap in this regard. It appears no one wants to spend the money to do it this way. It is actually shocking to see the cheap red Wima caps in BAT preamps; the mediocre REL caps in ARC and Aesthetix; worse yet, the cheap electrolytics that so many far-from-cheap preamps use in abundance.

In Wes Philips' Stereophile review of the CT5, he found minimal difference between the $13,000 ACT2 and the CT5, even finding the CT5 superior in some areas. This prompted CJ to revise the ACT2 to the Series II. They could not sit on their laurels with this type of performance from the CT5.

In the CT5, Conrad Johnson was able to greatly expand upon its signature sound of musicality, naturalness, body, and, most importantly, capturing the heart and
soul of the music. At the same time, CJ achieved notable refinements in accuracy, detail, soundstaging, authority, power and bass quality. Few tube preamps will provide bass at this rarified level.

Hearing a product that sounds this good leaves you in awe of how far our quest in recreating the absolute sound has come. This leaves me to reflect on how much I am willing to spend to get to that goal. Certainly the CT5 is near the top of the heap in that passionate pursuit to achieve the highest fidelity that is possible, and is at, or near, the state of the art.

Associated gear
B&W 802 Nautilus
Conrad Johnson Premier 11 amp
Mark Levinson 432 amp
Northstar transport and DAC
B&W N802
Various cables

Similar products
Conrad Johnson CT6
Audio Research LS25
MacIntosh C2200
Great review. I would like to add the preamps used in your comparisons are not of the same price range. The CT5 is $3000 (67%) more than a C2200. This is not negligible! The CT5 is $2000 more than the LS25 when it last retailed so in this case, it sounds like the C2200 is the best bang for the buck. That is a parameter I try to keep in mind because, afterall, cost does make a difference.

What would be even more interesting (and fair) comparisons would be to the McIntosh C200, ARC LS26 and BAT VK51.

One thing I have disliked with CJ gear in the past (owned and auditioned) is that the sound is a little dry for my tastes. But from the recent reviews, it sounds like CJ changed that with the lastest crop. I'll have to give them another try down the road. Thanks for your review!

I am currently an owner of the CT5 and I am auditioning the VK51SE in my system. I have BAT 150SE amps and I was using adapters. I am thinking of going to a balanced system. My Ayre unit sounds much better balance than Se. I have to agree with the above review, the CT5 is really is a special piece of gear. The best way for me to explain the difference between the BAT and cj is the CT5 gave me the huge wall of sound but I didn't see into the sound stage as well and the images were not as sharp as I am getting with the BAT preamp. I do feel the tonality and the midrange of the cj is very well done. It is fast and dynamic and good for all music. I am actually waiting for the VK52SE to become available after hearing the REX.

Sorry, but I don't have access to preamps other than those I used. That said, the house sound of Mac and ARC was discernable from these still expensive units. I would certainly have chosen my CT6 over these two units in a heartbeat, yet alone the superior CT5. From your system, it is obvious that you are a Mac fan. I don't think the C2200 is a 'bargain' as you state. It was pleasant to listen to, but had colorations that got in the way of the music, particularly the forwardness it has in a certain frequency band somewhere in the midrange. This was pervasive in any recording. For a piece that retails for $5100, I don't consider this a bargain.
do you ever compare your piece to the PREMIER 16 LS2 ???
I too have N802s and have wondered how the CT5 sounds with them. I appreciate your review. I also own older c-j gear and should I ever find the money, the CT5 is the current model of my choice in their lineup.

Besides the sound, the one thing that I feel is under appreciated about c-j gear is the lack of electrolytic caps. It's a comfort to know that the sound of a unit is not likely to deteriorate over time because of caps.

Relax, have a New Glarus Coffee Stout and listen to King Crimson.....
Your characterization of the sound of 6922/6DJ8 tubes is way inconsistent with
how they sound in my CJ Premier 17LS2 and, in fact, they certainly don't all
sound alike or anything near it, at least in my system. My current favorites are
Mullards and there is nothing thin or lightweight about the sound of the preamp
with them.

In fact I briefly auditioned a CT5 against the 17LS2 in my system, and both a
friend and I preferred the latter, perhaps because the CT5 wasn't fully broken in,
and those teflon caps definitely take a while. He had also brought over a CT6
(he had both of them on loan from a dealer) and it was almost laughably inferior
to the l7LS2. Both the CT5 and 17LS2 use the teflon caps, by the way. The CT6
doesn't. Just my (our) impressions. Dave
I can definatley see how with your amp and speakers, the CJ would have the midrange more in line with the rest of the spectrum. Choosing the right component is so system specific, and human centric, that it makes the validity of reviews questionable but it is still cool to read opinions. Thanks

Dopogue, I looked at your postings, and it's clear you've made a consistent crusade on this site of trumpeting the virtues of your LS17-2, while denigrating CJ's newer products. I don't know of any owner of the CT5, CT6, or ACT that agrees with your assessment, and I've communicated with quite a few.

First off, you are using highly expensive NOS Mullard tubes in your LS17 which made for an unfair comparison to the other CJ preamps. It is curious that in your comparisons to the CT6, you didn't take the 2 minutes to swap your tubes in the CT6 to see what the CT6 would sound like then. Further, you admitted that you listened to a CT5 that wasn't fully burned in.

Does it make any sense that a company with the design and listening abilities of CJ would come out with products that sound inferior to their old models?

I stand by my statements on the 6922/6DJ8 tube family. CJ is one of the few companies that has been able to design around the inherent qualities of this tube, but its characteristics are still there to some degree. And the weight, bass, and dynamics cannot compare to the 6H30, regardless of design.

The CT5 has received consistent high praise in both reviews and in the audiophile community, with the exception of a few owners of older CJ preamps, which, frankly, are not in the same league.

I stand by mine too. For a little more balance, I should mention that my
17LS2 has a major problem -- it mutes if I touch it or just about anything
else in the system, this time of year, and I've gone to extraordinary lengths to
minimize the problem. This is a thoroughgoing pain in the neck, and only its
sound quality keeps me from giving it the heave-ho.

I suggested that break-in was the issue with that CT5. Okay, I should have
replaced the tubes on the CT6, but there was such a gulf between it and mine
that it didn't seem worth the effort. And comparing original list price --
$6,000 for the 17LS2 and $4,500 for the CT6 -- there's no earthly reason
why mine SHOULDN'T sound better, especialy given their teflon caps.

As to the whole 6DJ8/6922 issue, I was commenting on your characterization
of these tubes. The EH 6922s that came with mine aren't bad tubes at all, but
until you've bit the bullet and paid for Old Stock ones, you simply don't know
what can be achieved with these tube types. But I don't blame anyone who
chooses not to make the "investment."

One final note: I've had CJ preamps in my system conmtinuously since the
late 1980s. I've loved them. I haven't heard the top-line ART and ACT
models, but I've heard everything else in their upper echelon (say $3K to
$7.5K) over the past 18-20 years. I think I know what they sound like. You
disagree. That's fine. Dave
Dave, the CT6 has been $5,000 since last fall. Still, that is $1,000 difference in the price from your LS17MKII. I believe you stated in one of your posts that the CT6 was not broken in, similar to what you said about the CT5.

Yes, many people don't want to pay the tube sharks the $100+ per tube you probably spent on your Mullards. Imagine if you wanted to do this in a 10 or 12 tube preamp! And then the tubes don't last forever.

I find it hard to believe that your LS17MKII would have the dynamics, the bass, and the authority of the CT5, even if you had the best tubes in the world in it. If the CT5 didn't blow your preamp away in these areas, then it wasn't broken in. I must again emphasize that the control and authority the CT5 has gives results similar to that of a super-wattage power amp. It just grabs the speaker's woofers and controls them. I've never heard bass and control like that from a preamp before except, perhaps, the $15,000 VTL. I will admit that there are many preamps I have not heard, especially in the highest price ranges.

I also do thank you for responding in a gentlemanly and thoughtful manner.
Nothing much to add except to agree to disagree and say that your description
of how the CT5 sounds fits my preamp to a T. Oh, and if I ever spend $100 a
pop for four 6DJ8/6922s of ANY kind, someone shoot me :-)

2/20 addendum: I just checked and there are plenty of Mullard 6DJ8s like mine
on Ebay selling for under $100 for FOUR of them.
Well, Upscale Audio sells Mullard 6922, branded as National Electronics (!), for $150 each. Some poor soul who paid this much to Mr. Deal is selling them for $175 for one pair. I haven't looked at Vintage Tube Services or TubeDepot or others yet, but I'm sure they want close to $100 each.

Which Mullards do you have? How do you trust buying on Ebay and knowing what you are getting? They could be half-used up, non-matched, noisy tubes, like many have claimed they get stung with there.

By the way, how did you add an addendum to your last posting without placing a new posting? I don't see anyway to do that on this site.
Last item first. If yours is the last post, it will say "edit this post" below it, and you can add to or change what you have posted.

Re tube prices, mine are marked Mullard /E88CC/6922/Made in Great Britain. They have gold pins. Counterfeits? Beats me. Compared to photos of the real thing they look like ... the real thing. I bought them about a year ago. Earlier I bought a foursome of Amperex/Holland 6DJ8/ECC88s for somewhere around $100. I'm sure they were used, but both sets test great on my Eico 667. Sonically I prefer the Mullards. Both sets are also quiet as a tomb (knock wood).

Sure, buying on Ebay is a crapshoot and you can get burned. If you bid blindly without researching the subject and learning as much as possible beforehand, you will be. Kevin Deal provides an important service to folks who don't want to be bothered. I wonder where he gets his OS and NOS tubes :-)
Fo the record, there were three lots of NOS Mullard 6DJ8s (5 tubes per lot) on Ebay that closed last night at between $45 and $105. That's per lot, not per tube. Obviously, the seller should have spaced them out. Obviously, too, I should have pursued these myself :-)
Anyone care to weigh in as whether I go for a new CT5 or a used ACT2 (now replaced by the ACT2.2) at the same price? Background- in my system I had a chance to listen to a CT5 and thought it was spectacular. Therefore, I think it's reasonable to assume that there would be no system dependency issue if I considered the ACT2. Is there any aspect of the CT5's performance that exceeds the ACT2, or vice versa? If I purchase the ACT2, it is very unlikely that I would spend the $5500 to transform it into an ACT2.2.
Interesting review and comments

Zear, I certainly agree with you re the sound of the Mac C2200. the bass was far too light and the forward upper mids/lower treble gave it a tilted balance.

I would have to disagree with you re 6922's and the CT5/ACT2 v prem 16/ART. So I am with Dopogue on this.

I owned the cj prem 16 for 5 years and upgraded to series 2. Never bright, nice deep bass and and organic musicality to die for!!.

I lived with the ACT2 and CT5 for almost 3 months, both had over 350 hours on them and frankly for me they were dissappointing. More hifi sounding and less musical. They had a tighter bass, more extended highs but became muisically boring and for just did not sound rightcompared to the prem 16. 6H30 or teflon not sure??

Sometimes you have to look backward to move forward and I have just bought a s/h cj ART, no 56. I will admit I am back in audio and more importantly musical heaven.

I have been thru a few pre amps since the prem 16, namely Hovland HP200, VTL 7.5, cary 98P, cj ART and CT5, Mac c2200, Mac C-46 and the cj ART is in another class for my musical preferences.

Linkstar/Dopogue - say some money and buy a s/h cj prem 16 or if you can find one a cj ART.

cheers Shane
Up above I noted that a friend had brought over a CT5 and CT6, not yet fully broken in, loaned by his dealer. He subsequently heard them after break-in and bought ... a 17LS2 like mine. I swear this teflon-capped sweetheart is the sleeper of the CJ line. Dave
I hsve the cj et2 preamp, for which i paid 3200 at the local dealer. i am interested in auditioning the ct5, but the dealer doesn't carry it and speaking to the folks at cj there is no dealer within 500 miles (i live in baltimore) that has it for me to audition. the best deal i can get right now is to buy the ct5 from my dealer 10% off list with no return possibility. the questions are: where do the folks on audiogon go to audition their expensive equipment before investing? and should i just go ahead and buy the ct5? is there anything better for $8500?
Don't buy it new. Buy a used one on audiogon and then compare the two. If you decide to sell the CT5 you will proably sell it close to what you paid.
While I agree the CT-5 is a great preamp I am not a fan of the 6H30 tube sorry. I have a new ET-5 again with a 6922 tube replaced the factory tube with a EAT 6922 and it is glorious I think the newer GAT based Pre ET-5 is superior in Bass Treble and Dynamics