Review: Conrad Johnson PV-9 Tube preamp
I bought this fine preamp second hand about five months ago from a friend who was upgrading to c-j's current top of the line. Since I already owned the very sweet sounding c-j MV-50 power amp (which, incidentally, is upgradeable to an MV-52), I jumped at the chance to get a well-matched tube preamp at a second-hand price. Though the model designation PV-9 suggests the preamp is of the same lineage as the more recent PV-10 and higher-numbered PV's, the PV-9 was much more a high-end unit, selling at $3,000 in its day, about twice the price of the PV-10. The PV-9 has no electrolytic capacitors, and the balance control is a stepped attenuator rather than a pot. The superb phono section uses five tubes, and is able to drive many moving coil cartridges with no step-up device. Provision is made for connecting two tape decks, there are several convenience outlets and a grounding screw. The unit is finished in c-j's traditional champagne gold with black lettering and handles. While larger than most preamps today, the unit is very attractive and functional as well. This is a full-featured reference preamp for the audiophile who wants the highest level of sound quality together with a high standard of functionality.
My listening tastes run to classical, acoustic jazz, rock from the 1950s through 80s, and bits and pieces of everything else. I seldom buy metal, rap, house or hip-hop CDs, though I listen occasionally to these genres on FM. Given my tastes it is not surprising that I value definition over impact, and though I like to play loud, I don't play so loud as to make amp power output or speaker power-handling an issue.
Having grown up in the tube era, I was surprised the first time I heard a modern tube amp, which was in fact a c-j MV-50 such as the one I now own. An MV-50 became the first modern tube component in my system. Modern tube amps, even from c-j, are considerably brighter and more detailed than vintage tube gear from the likes of Fisher and Scott. Nonetheless, when I added the MV-50 to my system I obtained a more nuanced sound, with greater sweetness and warmth, surprising zip and definition in the treble, and a bouncy, "tuneful" bass, as compared to the Rotel power amp I had been using. The MV-50 seemed especially effective in bringing out the potential of the Synthesis LM 210 speakers, two-way floorstanders that were manufactured by c-j in the late 80s and sold for $1200 a pair, attaining a high class C rating from Stereophile (they are no relation to the current company called Synthesis.)
With the MV-50 already in my possession, adding the PV-9 gave me, for the first time, the ability to put together a fine audiophile system, with every component having received favorable comment in the audiophile press. The first setup I tried was with Celestion 700s and the Quad 405, a much under-rated solid state amp with great low-level detail and fine musicality, at the expense of some grain. The 700s are a respected British two-way design with elaborate matching stands and a unique aerolam enclosure. They are known for their tight bass, soundstaging and neutrality, were once rated in Stereophile's Class B. Listening to Stravinsky's Firebird, a rock'em-sock'em orchestral score with massive textures and dramatic tympani and brass, the PV-9 revealed more detail, a larger soundstage, fuller bass, and yet a little less subjective extension at the bottom than with the solid-state preamps. The sound noticeably improved over the first hour as the pre warmed up and stabilized. I noticed that in addition to smoothness, detail and soundstaging, the sound had taken on a refined, balanced quality that is hard to put into words. The music just seemed more alive and more natural, more "in the room," though, at times, just a little extra warmth seemed to have been painted over the sound. With the Synthesis LM-210 speakers the impressions were the same, except the expansion of the soundstage in comparison to what had been there before was even more dramatic, as was the precision of the imaging. This reflects the synergy between the two c-j components, and I noticed it with the MV-50 amp as well. With the two C-J components forming the amplification chain, the sound was delectably warm and sweet, yet with exciting dynamics when called for. Bear in mind, my room is not large, and I was not plumbing the limits of the MV-50's power output. With the Synthesis speakers replaced by the 700s, the most accurate sound was achieved, while maintaining the sweetness and warmth experienced with the 210s. I tried the phono section on several lps, including some old Brubeck, some vintage rock, and a Haydn cello concerto, using a vintage AR Turntable with a good Shure V15 cartridge. The phono section impressed me even more than the rest of the preamp -- it is just superb, bringing out oodles of detail while creating a huge and palpable soundstage, with fine dynamics when the volume was nudged a bit. In fact, the first lp that really drove the message home was Led Zeppelin I. This has always been a favorite of mine and so I turned it up a bit and was really overwhelmed by the combination of tube liquidity with excellent definition and powerful dynamics. There was a 'live' sense to the reproduction even though this is not a live recording. The rendering of vocals was particularly distinguished, with fine points of articulation easily noticed for the first time. For the first time I felt I was experiencing the qualities that allowed Celestion to charge $3000 a pair for the smallish, two-way 700's back in 1990.
I will mention one annoyance: The gain stages are such that switching from phono to another source causes a dramatic change in the volume. I am told this is a consequence of c-j designing enough gain into the phono stage to handle MCs. On phono I was able to achieve normal listening volume with the knob set to less than 9 o'clock --I pity the fool who sets it to 12 o'clock on FM and then pops over to phono -- you'll be too startled even to notice that your ears and tweeters are both emitting smoke. When switching signal sources, always turn down the volume to zero, then readjust it to the music. And, I suppose it is an annoyance to have to replace tubes, though preamps don't eat tubes like power amps do. One set should last several years if you don't leave it on all the time. The cost of a replacement set from c-j is quite reasonable -- I think about $150, which is not bad for seven tubes.
Main weakness: No remote control. There's no way around this one kids, except to set up your stack at arms length from your favorite listening seat. And here a warning is called for: Don't rely on the volume control on your CD player to adjust volume, since in most (all?) cases they drop the volume by lopping off the least significant bits, and you lose information as you lose volume. Besides, CD volume controls usually default to maximum volume and that could cause a surprise similar to the above one if you leave the preamp volume at a setting that makes sense with the CD volume control set mid-way, and then turn the CD player on. Consolation: It's nice to handle those sturdy gold c-j knobs, half-way between ornamental beauty and utilitarian functionality. What dignity does a row of tiny plastic buttons have? Something there is that likes to turn a well-machined knob. I even like the "sproing" sound it makes when snapping into place. Dr. Freud, keep your comments to yourself!
To sum up, I suspect you can get even better sound quality if you are on an unlimited budget, and you can most assuredly get remote control! If I were on such a budget, the first model I would audition is the c-j's current top of the line pre, the model my friend upgraded to. But I'm tickled to have THIS level of quality in my system and my faith in the high end has been considerably restored by the undeniable superiority of this component to mass market gear and average high-end as well. If you value the tube difference, as I do, it would be hard to go wrong with this reference quality, well-made and elegant design. And by the way, I recommend the c-j MV-50 too!
Program sources: Marantz CD-63se CD player, AR Turntable w stock arm and Shure V15 III cartridge, Adcom GTP 450 tuner-preamp for FM.
Power amp: conrad-johnson mv-50 tube power amp, Quad 405 ss power amp,
Speakers: Celestion 700s, Synthesis LM-210s, AR M4 "Holographic Imaging Series", KLH Model Six vintage speakers
db Systems 1b preamp with separate power supply, SAE Mark 30 Preamp, Adcom GTP 450 Tuner-Preamp