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July 2017
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
World Premiere Review!
conrad-johnson Classic 120SE Vacuum Tube Stereo Amplifier
Conrad-johnson's CL120SE is a truly spectacular and emotionally engaging amplifier.
Review By Rick LaFaver

 

conrad-johnson Classic 120SE Vacuum Tube Stereo Amplifier Review

 

  We have all been drawn to the seductive allure of a silky smooth tube amplifier, and if you haven't it is just because you haven't heard the right one yet. I know some people question acoustic memory, but I swear sound is tied to memory just like smell and taste. That perfect music system can trigger a memory and an emotional response. Furthermore, it may put you right back into that moment in time. It doesn't have to be an expensive system to hit that sweet spot, but the guys that make the expensive stuff know just what to do to trigger those feels.

My first time was back in 2009 in Columbia Missouri, it was a dark bedroom, with acoustic treatments all over the multi-faceted wall and ceiling, it was very sweet and gentle. The system was a Jolida fx10, modded and tube rolled to the edge of its life. The speakers were a modded pair of Aurum Cantus Leisure II SE2 (reviewed here), the song was Counting Crows, Round Here everything else was a blur. We were listening to vinyl and lossless FLAC off his music server (yes before the lossless streaming days, way before) at my good friend Judd's house. Dan Laufman was there (Emotiva CEO) and so were about 30 other high end audio enthusiasts, the Emotiva RV was showing off their wares at Judd's bachelor pad.

The wine flowed like beer, but regardless of what the factors may have colored this experience (two beers makes for great acoustic treatments,) every single soul at that place, including Dan agreed this was one of the most haunting listening experiences any of us had ever had. Planet alignment? Judd's attention to detail in this meticulous setup? Good beer selection? Whatever it was, this system had it.

I sat glued to the sweet spot for hours on end, when I stepped out and Dan got his chance in the spotlight he listened the way an engineer/entrepreneur does. He didn't know what "IT" was, but he wanted to replicate it, he did everything shy of licking the amplifier to store as much sensory information about the experience he could to try and replicate it in a lab later or whatever his scheme was. Besides the point, these types of bone chilling experiences are few and far between, when that system synergy, of equipment selection, music, and circumstance delivers that sweet spot. This was a real formative experience for me in my listening life.

On to the matter at hand, I have heard conrad-johnson's gear at several shows in the past, but that is like saying you like Italian food after going to Olive Garden. I liked their stuff, I admired their stuff, but this was my first time experiencing conrad-johnson in the comfort and familiarity of my own listening room. This was one of those experiences.

 

conrad-johnson Classic 120SE Vacuum Tube Stereo Amplifier Review

 

After, I must admit, an extensive break in period, and several intermediate listening sessions, the conrad-johnson Classic 120SE really came into its own ('SE' denotes upgrading the output tubes to KT120s and incorporating CJD Teflon Capacitors and metal foil resistors in strategic applications in the circuit.) Paired with the conrad-johnson Classic ET3 SE (in this case the SE denotes CJD Teflon capacitors in all critical circuits, upgraded metal foil resistors [including ALL resistors in the stepped attenuator level control], upgraded machined input & output connectors, and an upgrade power cord.) It did more than just reproduce breathtaking audio, it connected with me emotionally, it created an experience. Every note was just so organic, it didn't just reproduce the music, it put you somewhere. Results like this in my experience come from either extraordinary luck, or painstaking listening and prototyping with a vision (sound?) of what they aim to achieve, I suspect this is the latter.

 

conrad-johnson Classic 120SE Vacuum Tube Stereo Amplifier Review

 

Listening Experience
The experience was Nirvana, power delivery of the Classic CL120SE is effortless and delivers exactly what you would expect from an amplifier of this caliber and then some. There is no frequency where it does anything less than deliver an acoustically thick, interesting, and engaging experience. With 120 watts per channel it is never left wanting for power, I imagine its little brother the CL62SE would even pair very well with more efficient speakers as well sharing an almost identical design. The circuit has very low self noise for a tube amplifier, with an almost imperceptible noise floor to allow for the true space of a recording to reveal itself.

The CL120SE has plenty of power, speed, and nuance to deal with almost any genre of music, there is no reason to limit this versatile beast to classic operato recordings and small acoustic sets, it more than capable to deliver the goods and further engage you with even the most out there experimental stuff.

There is no secret as to why this amplifier shines, its superbly engineered yet simplistic network clearly allowed for extensive voicing and trial and error with component selection, no one phoned it in on this one, it is evident that hours were spent with this combo with several speaker combinations to deliver a designed experience. Amp circuit design like speaker crossover design is much more of an art than a science, the circuit that work, and the strengths and weakness of the various possible designs are well understood. At this stage in development it all about achieving an acoustic signature beyond a flat response curve through painstaking component selection. While it is possible to voice more complex networks, the many "assumptions" of "known" values and complexity in the circuit can hide the acoustic signatures of the high quality components within the network and make finding that musical sweet spot a virtual impossibility.

 

conrad-johnson Classic 120SE Vacuum Tube Stereo Amplifier Review

 

Conrad-johnson's Classic 120SE features 6922 twin triodes in single-ended gain and inverter stages feeding an output stage comprised of four KT120s output tubes per channel. The input and inverter stages feature discrete voltage regulators for rock solid stability. All of this is fed by super beefy power and output transformers (this thing has a curb weight of over 70 lbs.) The provided tubes are high quality Tung Sol throughout which takes out the complexity of tube rolling the drive tubes since Tung Sol basically invented this modern tube, you may find benefits tweaking the 6922 output stage, may be difficult to find three NOS matched 6922s though.

 

Album Recommendations
Fink - Fink's Sunday Night Blues Dubs - Hour Golden... I normally provide you with three listening recommendations, but this time to make sure you listen to this new Fink album, I "Fink" I just going to give you two. If you have not heard Fink yet, do yourself a favor and give this man a shot. Fink started his career as a house DJ and producer, but he wanted more. In 2006 Fink released Biscuits for Breakfast (a man after my own heart, wait biscuits are cookies in British aren't they...) and I was hooked.

Fink's latest studio album, Fink's Sunday Night Blues Dubs may not be much for substance, but it is a recording and musical masterpiece. My favorite track Hour Golden makes you want to pull up to a rough roadside bar and ask for a whiskey neat anticipating a flying bottle at any time. The floating disembodied blues guitar and harmonica give a visceral feel that most artists aren't experimenting with anymore.

The dutiful dynamic peaks and valleys in this track are reproduced masterfully by the CL120SE allowing the depth of the created stage to shine. The amps dig deep with the buzzy bass track, and effortlessly move from quiet to dynamic passages allowing the texture of the track to hit you instead of sounding flat and compressed. The natural reproduction of places you somewhere and allows you to create the space in your mind.

Samuel Barber and the St, Louis Symphony The School for Scandal Overture Op. 5 1989… I have become deeply obsessed with my local orchestra lately...there are far worse obsessions in life than good live music. I have been studying the history and past performances of the orchestra and found this lovely performance from 1989. The scale and dynamics of this recording are what an orchestral recording should sound like. The only thing letting down my system here was the capability of my speakers to deliver a large vertical sound stage (uh oh, upgraditis is kicking in finally).

The dynamic peaks and dips are accentuated by the huge amount of organic power the conrad-johnson CL120SE delivers. The peaks have all the drama of a live orchestra lush with acoustic information. You can pick out every instrument even during crescendos; nothing is flattened out or lost with sloppy power delivery. Another check in the box for this lovely amplifier.

 

conrad-johnson Classic 120SE Vacuum Tube Stereo Amplifier Review

 

Fit And Finish
The champagne faceplate on the CL120SE and ET3 are a classy and timeless way to harken back to classic component design (please no one bring back faux wooden sides). The CL120SE is let down ever so slightly with the unsightly Allen bolts coming through the faceplate, but overall the look in understated and tasteful. The black powder coated case and tube cage are not distracting but do not add anything to the cosmetics of the package. The tube cage is so deep to fit over the KT120s that most standard screw drivers will not reach the slot head screws holding it down to change out the tubes (something to think about I suppose.) The unit carries a three year warranty and conrad-johnson has a history of standing behind their products.

 

 

The break in period was said to be around 100 hours with a signal however, after these 100 hours the amps continued to open up and really hit its stride at around 250 to 300 hours. I think the 100 hours really gets the tubes warmed up and going, but much more in necessary to break in the rest of the internal components. From day 1 hour 1 to day 30 or so hour 250, the character or these amps really changed, but has been stable since.

After extended listening sessions, I have found that a buzz came up in one of the channels sporadically, the first time this ended up being the early signs of a drive tube failure. This gave me an opportunity to utilize the fantastic built in biasing mechanism, not automatic, but not far from it. It is easy enough that anyone could perfectly bias the tube, while giving you the confidence they are all set perfectly. I preferred this technology to any auto biasing tube amp, I just never quite trust those things The second time was right before I finished the review, but I am just making note of this for transparency, I am sure CJ would take care of you just as well as they took care of me.

 

Conclusions
Conrad-Johnson's CL120SE vacuum tube stereo amplifier is a truly spectacular and emotionally engaging amplifier that would be a significant part of bringing out the soul of any system. Some amplifiers let your system sing louder, others have perceptible benefits to certain frequencies, the CL120 immediately calls attention to itself (in a very good way) in allowing your system to get out of its own way and start sucking you into the experience. My time with the conrad-johnson CL120SE now goes into that mental folder as yet another formative listening experience, definitely not my first or second, or 10th for that matter, but hopefully not my last. Having experienced so much, these type of experiences are becoming few and far between.

Good on you conrad-johnson, for putting in the kind of hours, passion, and vision into a product like this, good enough to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

 

Tonality

Sub–bass (10Hz – 60Hz)

Mid–bass (80Hz – 200Hz)

Midrange (200Hz – 3,000Hz)

High Frequencies (3,000Hz On Up)

Attack

Decay

Inner Resolution

Soundscape Width Front

Soundscape Width Rear
Soundscape Depth Behind Speakers

Soundscape Extension Into Room

Imaging

Fit And Finish

Self Noise

Value For The Money

 

Specifications
Type: Vacuum tube stereo amplifier
Power Output CL62SE: 60 Watts per channel from 30Hz to 15kHz at no more than 1.5 % THD, both channels driven into 4 Ohms 
CL120SE: 125 Watts per channel from 30Hz to 15kHz at no more than 1.5 % THD, both channels driven into 4 Ohms (also available connected for 8 Ohm loads)

Sensitivity
CL62SE: 0.6 Vrms to rated power
CL120SE: 0.9Vrms to rated power

Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz (+/- 0.3dB)
Hum and Noise: 96dB below rated power
Input Impedance: 100 kOhms
Included Tubes: CL62SE: Tung Sol three 6922 and four KT120
CL120SE: Tung Sol three 6922 and eight KT120

Dimensions:
CL62SE: 13.375" x 17.375 x 6.625" (DxWxH)
CL120SE: 18.88" x 19" x 7.63"

Weight:
CL62 & 62SE: 44 lb. net
CL120 & 120SE: 75 lb. net

Gain: 25dB
Maximum Output: 20 Vrms
Output Impedance: 100 Ohms
Distortion: Less than 0.15% THD at 1.0 Vrms output
Frequency Response: At unity gain is 2Hz to more than 100kHz
Hum And Noise: 98dB below 2.5 Volts
Price: conrad-johnson Classic Sixty Two/One Twenty SE: $5750 and $10,000)
         conrad-johnson ET3 SE: $5000 ($6500 with phono)

 

Company Information
conrad-johnson
2800K Dorr Avenue
Fairfax, VA USA 22031

Voice: (703) 698-8581
Fax: (703) 560-5360
Website: www.conradjohnson.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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