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.
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.
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'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.
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.
Fit And Finish
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.
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.
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz (+/- 0.3dB)
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