Review: Sonographe SC-1 Preamplifier

Category: Preamps

Recently the Sonographe SC-1 preamp came my way via the trade in route. The Sonographe line was Conrad Johnson first foray into the solid state field. Broke into the market in the late 80s with a $695.00 price tag.

The SC-1 is a pure FET preamp and has on board phono section as well as Tuner,CD,Video and Tape 1 line stages. Provisions for two decks. Also has a very nice feature not often found at any price level, is a control for setting reverse stereo,stereo, and mono, very nice touch there. The rest of the controls are balance and volume control using Noble pots.These controls have a solid positive feel to them,and the balance control and volume control are of the non-stepped variety with a smooth silky touch,very well done and high quality. Typical black finish with real wood sides. RCA connectors on back are of the nickel plate variety.Only one set of preouts. Power cord is of the fixed variety,2 prong non grounded 16 gauge. The Sonographe SC-1 does not have an on/off switch,is mean't to be powered 24/7.In fact all solid state preamps should be powered 24/7 for best possible signature and this is typical of all preamps in this range and above.

Was tested with following gear.

Associated Components:

Threshold 400A Class A power amp.

Rega P3 Turntable with RB 300 Arm. Mods are JA Michell Tecno Weight,Deep Groove Sub Platter and Iron Audio Acrylic Platter with Herbies Mat.

Phono Cartridge: Denon DL 160 or Sumiko Blue Point No.2

Onix XCD-88 CD Player(same as Music Hall CD25)with DH Labs Power Plus A/C Cable.

Yamaha T - 1 AM/FM Stereo Tuner

Sony Mini Disc Deck MDS 501

Sony Mini Disc Deck MDS 480

Alon Model 1 Speakers

Alon Black Orpheus Speaker Cable

DH Labs Power Plus A/C Cable

Musical Concepts Super IV Interconnects

Following list of LPs and CDs used in evaluation.


Bob James - Hands Down (Columbia FC 38067)
Hiroshima - Self Titled - (Arista MFSL1-525)
John Coltrane - Blue Train - (Blue Note BST 81577)
Wes Montgomery - Bumpin' - (Verve V6-8625)
Rickie Lee Jones - Self Titled - (Warner BSK 3296)
Wynton Marsalis - Live Blues Alley - (Columbia PC2-40675)
Eric Gale - Forecast - (KUDU Records KU 11)(CTI Records)
Kenny Burrell & Grover Washington Jr - (Blue Note BT 85106)
Earl Klugh - Finger Painting - (Blue Note MFSL 1-025)
Larry Carlton - Friends - (Warner 23834-1)
Sadao Watanabe - Autumn Blow - (Inner City IC 6064)
Doobie Brothers - Minute by Minute - (Warner BSK 3193)
Santana - Zebop - (Columbia FC37158)
Pat Metheny Group - American Garage - (ECM 1-1155)
Frederick Fennel - Cleveland Symphonic Winds - (Telarc 5038)
Paul Desmond/Jim Hall - Complete Recordings - Mosaic(MR6-120)


Ben Webster At The Renaissance (Contemporary Records OJCCD-390-2)
The Royal Ballet Gala Performances (Classic Compact Discs CDSCD 6065)
Peter And The Wolf - Boston Symphony Orchestra (Sony SK 64079)
Jurassic Park Motion Picture Soundtrack (MCAD 10859)
We Get Requests - The Oscar Peterson Trio (Verve 810047-2)
You Won't Forget Me - Shirley Horn (Verve 847482-2)
Sneakers Motion Picture Soundtrack (Columbia DIDP 078100)
On Every Street - Dire Straits (Warner Brothers 26680-2)
Trio Jeepy - Branford Marsalis (Columbia CK44199)
Paris Jazz Concert - Louis Armstrong (RTE 1001-2)
Braveheart Motion Picture Soundtrack - London Symphony Orchestra (London LC0171)
Patriot Games Motion Picture Soundtrack (RCA 07863 66051-2)
Hook Motion Picture Soundtrack (Epic EK 4888)
Highlights From The Plugged Nickel - Miles Davis (Columbia CK 67377)

This is by means all of the material used, but is a reference point to start with.

To be candid was not expecting much from the SC-1 based upon its starting price and the current re-sell price. Cosmetically a very attractive, but unassuming black box, that is well built,although not to the standards of Pass Labs,Threshold,Krell,Levinson or Spectral. But the build quality is on par with Bryston,Classe,Marsh,Sim Audio and is better built than Adcom,B&K,Arcam and NAD to mention a few of that ilk.

Let the unit power on for 24/7 for 3 days before starting the evaluation process. All functions of the SC-1 were evaluated and all performed as intended, no surprises.

First of all this is a very quiet preamp and the phono section is definetely one the better ones I have used. Not suprising as it comes from Conrad Johnson, whose phono sections are some of the best in the business. Conrad Johnson knows how to build phono sections in preamps and the Sonographe SC-1 is decidedly one of their better efforts. All of the LPs used in the evaluation were played as well as some not listed.

I cannot find a fault with the phono section. Although not in the exaulted class of phono preamps. The SC-1 phono section is one of the most musical I have heard. The Denon DL 160 phono cartridge is a great match and the two together give one of the most musical presentations I have heard in sometime. A very smooth and liquid siganture with just enough bass response,without the boom. Nice and well defined lower extension. The mid range and above have a warm signature that reminds one of the Conrad Johnson tube preamps, but in my opinion a wider sound stage, with excellent layering in of the instruments. All in all a very fine phono section, most of us could get easily spoiled with.

The line stages of the SC-1 are impressive as well,particulary the CD section. This section handles the input from the CD player with total authority, and did not once have a harsh signature. One of the better CD inputs I have used of late. In fact the budget Onix XCD 88 never sounded better than with the SC-1. Totally on par with my Threshold preamp there,big surprise there!

The tuner and tape inputs are of high quality and induce zero noise and let the associated components come through with their signature and not those of the SC-1.

Overall I am more than impressed with the sonic excellence of the Sonographe SC-1. My expectations have been clearly exceeded by a wide margin. The Sonographe SC-1 is not a mega buck reference preamp, nor is it in the leaque of a Pass Labs,Krell,Spectral or Levinson. With that being said the SC-1 far excells the Adcom,B&K,Hafler and NAD preamps,all of which I have had here at one time or the other, which I felt at the time did not warrant an in depth review. The Sonographe SC-1 far exceeds those preamps in overall sonic siganture. Not even a fair comparison really.Not to disparage those preamps, but to my ears the SC-1 is head and shoulders above them.The SC-1 has a way of layering in the various instruments that is all so subtle yet very pleasing. Wide soundstage with very good depth a most convincing musical presentation.

Now here is the good part. The average resale on the SC-1 is a paltry $250.00. Good grief at its introductry price of $695.00 when it was new, was a total bargain for a preamp of this caliber. At its now used value it is a outright gift from the audio gods. There is nothing and I mean nothing out there as a pre owned preamp, that can come close to the overall excellence of the Sonographe SC-1, for its pre owned value. Why a preamp of this quality sells for so little in the pre owned market place is a mystery to me. After 48 years in this hobby/business, one does not often find a performance value such as the SC-1.

And even better as well, Conrad Johnson remains in business today so service will not be an issue. I am beginning to think of its performance level with some upgrades such as black gate caps and so on. But as it is now, it is a pure joy one does not often find in pre owned audio today.

Conrad Johnson produced four preamps in the Sonographe product range. Next was the SC-22 followed by the SC- 25 and finally the SC-26. I have not heard the SC-22 or SC-25. However a few years did get to listen to the SC-26,which was a line stage preamp, with remote. Now that I have had the opportunity to listen to the SC-1,I have to give the edge to the SC-1. It is more musical than the SC-26. And thats what this is all about, the music, we as audiophiles all enjoy.

The SC-1 in my opinion is very close to the Conrad Johnson PF-1 and PF-2. In fact so close,I see no need to spend more for the CJ solid state preamps. The differences to my ears are quite marginal. In the late 90s the Sonographe line was discontinued and some products folded into the CJ product range. The Sonographe SC-1 can be the genesis of a very good 2 channel system and one certainly does not have to make an excuse for owning it. By all accounts in my evalaution it is a stellar performer and ranks with some of the best that have come through here. Yes you can do better than the Sonographe SC-1 in a preamp. But you will dig very deep into your resources to do so. Combine the SC-1 with a good amp,speakers along with a good turntable and CD player and your set. This is a musical performer by any standard one would judge. One could almost call this an entry level reference preamp, it is that good.

This is one of the few items that came my way, that totally impressed this jaded audiophile. I would say if a preamp is on your short list and resources are a little thin, then find a Sonographe SC-1 and be prepared to be wildly impressed. I do not believe that the current re-sale price on the Sonographe SC-1 at about $250.00 will stay there very long. As more of these enter the pre-owned market place and once word gets out on how good they really are, expect prices to move further upstream. As a final thought on the SC-1,it is staying here. One of the few non Threshold/Pass Labs products I really like. While not in the same leaque as the Pass gear, it is not that far off the pace and when price is factored into the equation the SC-1 has few peers. I have spent a lot more, and got a lot less in this area of preamps.

Associated gear
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Thanks for letting the rest of us know about your Sonographe discovery.
Coming from the writer of so many informative vinyl listings on Audiogon, this review demonstrates again the enthusiasm and thoroughness permeating your enjoyable postings.

Nice review, I am presently using a DR-5 Classe pre-amp with excellent results. I will in the future be on the lookout for this piece of gear.

great review. I couldn't agree with you more. Guess what i have in my closet? An SC-1. Just can't see myself selling it for $250. The phono stage is worth more than that.

I stumbled upon an SC1 about 2 years ago for I think $175. I too was blown away with the unit, not so much the line stage, but the phono was top notch. Bettered my Musical Suuroundings outboard unit. I liked it so much I found a 2nd SC1 and purchased it. Unfortuntaly, the seller was not very honest and did not mention the unit was not 100% balanced, meaning at dead center on the balence control, the signal was higher on the left. I ended up selling this one on Agon for $100, with disclosure of this issue. ...

But, yes, the SC1 currently is a steal and holds it own with many current offerings......and this is coming from a die-hard tube guy.
Many thanks for the kind words. It is appreciated. It is indeed refershing to find from time to time high value products that deliver the promise of high end without breaking the bank. Of course with unlimited resources one can acquire some of the worlds very best audio gear. Thats a given.One can easily throw say 100K or more and buy FM Acoustics gear,and have them build exactly what you want, that's a no brainer,just money. But to find components of extraordinary value that offer 90 to 95 percent of the best,takes a site such as Audiogon and its membership to report on these values.

As far as the DR line of components from Classe, in my opinion are some of the best in audio. Years ago before Audiogon had a DR 5 preamp here. That is one killer preamp and does exceed the sonics and build level of the SC-1.

Friend of mine has in his system a DR 7 preamp and DR 8 power amp,along with a Oracle turntable and Wadia CD setup and the Dahlquist DQ 12 Speakers. A great system system to listen to. Recently he found some Allison Model 2 speakers at a garage sale for $10.00! Even as old as these are they are spectacular. Not many of you remember the Allison speakers, but they were some of the best ever. For those of you not famaliar with Roy Allison he was President and Chief Acoustic Engineer at Acoustic Research until 1972 and started Allison Acoustics. Trying to find Allison Acoustics in the pre-owned market is next to impossible. Audiophiles just never gave them up. But should one ever be lucky enough to find any Allison Acoustic speakers - get them!

Back to the DR line from Classe, I have always been impressed with Dave Reichs designs and the phono sections in the DR preamps are some of the very best out there.
this is my 2nd DR series pre that I have owned in the many yrs. I started out with a DR-6 with gold handels, and with a DR-5.I did a little comparison and after many hours I did walk away liking the DR-5 not by much, but it was less dark in the mids even though the 6 was slighly more open and a little deeper in the bass. I have never had a chance for a listen to the DR-7 and would love to know from you Ferrari what your opinion is of this DR-series pre?
The DR 5, 6 and 7 are outstanding preamps. Excellent build qaulity with way above average parts used,mil spec circuit boards and good design.

Years ago had the DR 5 here for a few months and thought that it was one of the finest preamps I had heard. I did listen to a DR 6 with the small outboard power supply. But it was only here for 2 weeks, before it sold. To me it was a slight improvement over the DR 5, but not enough to warrant its extra cost.

However the DR 7 is a reference preamp. And when it broke onto the market at $4,895.00 was out of the reach for most audiophiles. It still commands a high price in the used market as re-sell is usually around the 2K level.

As menetioned earlier a friend of mine has one,and I guess over the years I have listen to it for about 50 hours or so.

The DR 7 is no doubt in my mind as one of a handful of preamps that can be called reference without any reservation. For years it was the music or component reviewers preamp of choice, and rightfully so. This is as liquid and seamless as it gets in solid state, although the Klyne preamps could possible hold an edge over it, but only slightly so. But with preamps such as this, one has to actually hear for themselves, because all the superlatives,fail to accurately describe the listening experience. Have only heard the DR 7 with his DR 8 power amp. So not sure how it would react with other power amps.
But from what I have heard from it, the lower registers are clearly there and well defined, but not in an analytical vein. It surely excells at the mids and highs.

If I wasn't already deep into Threshold gear, I would have the DR 7 on my short list.
I enjoyed this review. It does seem hard to beat this model. At a used price this seems like a no brainer if you are lucky to find one.
I purchased one of these on eBay after reading your review and really love it. You were right on target. I'm even swapping out my Goldring 1012 for the Denon DL 160 in the next month of so. I figure if you were that right on the Pre-amp you are probably right about the match up with the Denon. I'm lucky to work 10 miles from the CJ factory and was able to take my unit in and have their technician look it over. He had to do something to the balance pot to get it spot on and the rest of the unit checked out perfect. All for 40 bucks. And they even gave me a tour of their facility. Very nice people and an amazing outfit. No wonder this unit is still so good.
Very nice to hear that other members have embraced this venerable performer from CJ. And when the company remains in business makes the purchase more than worthwhile, very nice to have factory service on vintage gear from the folks that made it.

The Denon DL 160 is a giant killer among high output moving coils. However I recently heard a Benz Micro Silver, which is a high output moving coil. Although somewhat more than the Denon price wise, it is in my opinion more than worth the additional money to acquire. Great Benz signature.
great review of an 'unsung' product. sonographe was actually cj's second stab at ss gear. motif being the first.
Ferrari, I have a Sonographe SA-120 amp paired with a Sonic Frontiers SFL-1...but I have the opportunity to buy SONOGRAPHE SC 1. I am wondering if you could tell me which would be the better combination. The SFL-1 is wonderful esp with the Mullard tube but I am curious if the SC 1 would mate better and be more palatable & with more presence.

My speakers are Thiel CS1.5 and my source is a Monarchy Audio 18b delux DAC that is connected to a computer. The CJ SS did a lot to warm the sound of the 1.5's but I am wondering if the SC 1 pre could do more than the SF pre. I know SF is known for being pretty neutral and not really "tube" sounding tube gear whatever that means : )

I always enjoy your intelligent and thoughtful reviews...thank you.
I am not famaliar with the SFL-1 preamp or that companies line of products, so not much help there. The Sonographe SC-1 is one of those giant killers among affordable entry level preamps and is a match to the amp you have. While it was here it continued to impress on a daily basis. Keep in mind that it is not in the lofty company Krell. Levinson, Spectral,Coda or Threshold. If you use vinyl the phono section is MM only and is a very decent phono section.

I would say give it a try, certainly the used value now makes this over achiever a big time player in solid state preamps. Plus Conrad Johnson remains in business and parts and service just a phone call away.
How do you feel about the Motif or Sonographe SS amps?
Not that up to speed on the Sonographe lime of amplifiers. However I have had pass through here the Motif line in both Amplifiers and Preamps. Most impressed with the Motif line of products, why Conrad Johnson discontinued the Motif line remains a mystery to me. Just spectacular gear.
Just posted on eBay is a Motif MC8 Preamp. FWIW