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March 2007
Superior Audio Equipment Review

conrad-johnson CA200 Stereo Control Amplifier
An amazing deal from one of high-end's most respected companies.
Review By Todd Warnke
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

 

conrad-johnson CA200 Stereo Control Amplifier  "Hey, psst, Bud. Wanna smokin' deal on a C-J Premier 350 power amplifier? Ok, what I got for you only has 185 watts per channel while the 350 has, uh, well, 350 watts a side. So how's about I make up for that disgustin' lack of power by throwing in the control section from the Premier 18LS linestage pre-amplifier? And no, this ain't no stinkin' "integrated amplifier". Let's call it a control amplifier, because that's exactly what it does — it controls volume and source but without that nasty ol' pre-amplifier gain section to muddy things up. I promise you'll get all the goodies that the 350 and the "diez y ocho" have — metal foil resistors, polypropylene and polystyrene capacitors, stepped attenuator level control, remote control, machined connectors — but in a single chassis, and without all that unnecessary wiring that goes along with a two chassis setup, and that just gunks up the sound anyway. So, wadda you think?"

Alright, that's not exactly what Tor Sivertsen, Conrad-Johnson's head of Marketing told me at CES 2006 Being a proper Norwegian I doubt he can even read what I just wrote, but it certainly is the gist of what he said. And in case you too have problems deciphering what I wrote up there, in English here it is. The newish, integrated amplifier look-a-like Conrad-Johnson CA200 is not an integrated amplifier in the classic sense as it lacks a linestage gain section. Rather all amplification happens where the control/volume circuit directly feeds a power amplifier circuit — a circuit whose layout is lifted almost completely from the $9500 Premier 350. To moderate the final price (and, I would guess, to avoid cannibalizing sales of the 350 as well) power output has been cut just about in half from the Premier 350, but at 185 watts a side it is still far brawnier than just about any competing product. Not to mention that it offers more power than any sane audiophile will ever need. The control section — source switching, volume level, muting, external processor loop — likewise is a near duplicate of the design found in the $4000 Premier 18LS. The resulting "Control Amplifier", also melds the Premier 350 and 18LS in that it from the front the control panel makes it look a whole lot like 18LS, but at 38 pounds feels a lot more like the 350.

Yet another way that the CA200 splits the difference between the Premier 350 and the 18LS is in price. With a combined retail of $13,500, the separates are beyond the reach of many, and while at $6500 the list price of the CA200 places beyond most folk's lunch money (mine included) considering the power rating, the stuff inside, and that it is a very versatile integrated... uh, "control" amplifier, on paper it likes it could be a bargain. Of course we do not listen to specs or to paper, so on with the review to find out of it is a bargain.

 

The Box
At 4 inches tall, 19 inches wide and 16 inches deep the CA200 is a solid but svelte chunk of metal. The faceplate is finished in the by now standard C-J two-tone champagne colors. With a beautifully sculpted arc cutting through the left side of the faceplate, the look belies the weight and, along with the circular volume indicators, remote receiver, faceplate screws and control buttons the CA200 is both more elegant and curvaceous than pictures lead to believe. In spite of being a functional piece of audio gear, I find it wonderfully attractive.

conrad-johnson CA200 Stereo Control AmplifierAs for features, the CA200 has five line-level inputs — enough to accommodate just about any sane audiophile. But because there are no sane audiophiles the CA200 also offers two external processor loops. The first is a set of line-level inputs and outputs and can be used as either a tape loop, a sixth source or to hook up a line-level tone or parametric equalizer. The second processor loop, labeled "Theater", locks the volume level on the CA200 at unity and thus cedes volume and balance control to an external surround sound processor. There is also a set of "pre-out" RCA jacks on the rear panel which can be used to send a line-level signal to such things as a powered sub-woofer. The rear plate also hold two sets of heavy-duty, gold-plated speaker jacks as well the IEC power cord receptacle. Finally, the CA200 comes with a hefty metal champagne-toned remote control that has source selection as well volume and balance controls. In all, the build quality of the CA200 is simply wonderful with fit and finish details that would make a Swiss watch company proud. For example, the heat sink fins are cut so precisely that I actually cut a finger on them while moving the CA200 in to place (nothing like bleeding for your art).

 

Partners in Crime
While listening to the CA200 I ran through my normal list of reference gear. Primary digital sources were a Cary CD-303/200, a Berendsen CD1, a Blue Circle BC501 as well as my extremely customized Assemblage DAC1. The reference pre-amplifier as always was my First Sound Presence Statement. Reference power amplifiers were an Art Audio Carissa and my Blue Circle BC6. Loudspeakers were my reference Merlin VSM-Ms, Audiophysic Scorpios and Devore Fidelity Gibbon Super 8s. Cabling was from Cardas, Acoustic Zen, Audio Magic, Stereovox and Shunyata Research — the last of which also supplied power conditioning.

 

The Sound
I've spent most of the last half dozen years using either low-powered, class A solid-state amplifiers or low-powered tubed amplifiers as my references, since, when properly mated to room and partnering components, I find that they just get out of way of music easier than higher powered amplifiers do. So I approached the review of the CA200 with a bit of trepidation. It's not that power rating of 185 watts is a scary prospect, but far too many high powered solid-state amplifiers fall into one of two camps — the Brawny Brute, all about power at the expense of finesse or the Steely Edge Definition Master, full of detail and bite but signifying nothing. Oh sure, there is the mythical perfect solid-state amp, the fabled steel hand in velvet glove, the amplifier with massive power reserves but nuanced and subtle responsiveness However, I gave on that amplifier about the same time I gave up on the Easter Bunny. Back in the real world, C-J has a long-time reputation for making musical if slightly warmish solid-state amplifiers and clean, detailed solid-state pre-amplifiers and that gave me hope enough to put my pre-conceptions aside and to taste the stew that is the CA200. Still, to exorcise the any potential solid-state demons, after warming up the C-J I cued up "Black Dog" from the live How The West Was Won Led Zeppelin album [Atlantic 83587-2].

 

Wow!
Alright C-J, you got my attention. Massive power, of course. But the ultra-suave CA200 also has a deft and delicate touch with detail, space and percussion, and all without throwing brittle sheets of metal at your ears. This is really good stuff. But since we know no self-respecting audiophile would review any component with Led Zeppelin, after I had properly exorcised and then completely exercised the solid-state demons I turned back to more sane music.

Well, sort of. I love Lucinda Williams' music, and who can blame me. She's the real deal. Literate, poetic, whip-smart, dynamite voice and adventurous. Plus, her recordings are pretty interesting, if not always fully audiogeek worthy. Anyway, I have become addicted to her World Without Tears album [Lost Highway 088 170 355-2], and considering the narcotic relationships she explores on the album, addiction may be the right way to approach the album. Recorded using her road band in place of the studio musicians she used on previous works, the collection is tight and sounds nearly live — which is both good and bad. Good if you like music, bad if you are an obsessive audiodweeb. Since I'm (usually) not, I turned to it right after the Zeppelin album and from the opening acoustic guitar, bass and drums that start off "Fruits of my Labor", and even before her naked vocal jumps in, there was no doubt that I was hearing something special. Immediate, tangible, accurate, full-range and scary real, the band was laid out in front of me, and Lucinda was there too, wearing the same faded jeans and hippy-chick blouse she's taking off on the album cover. In slightly less emotional terms, the detail that the CA200 pulls out and the way it does it is so rich, complete and effortless that the mental gap between listening to a recording to believing in real musicians was reduced from the standard Grand Canyon size to something my three year old can jump across.

Speaking of jumping — jumping to the second track of the Williams album helps define my point. "Righteously" is a heavily electric and processed track with a tight and in your face recording. With standard audio gear this track can sound, if not a bit harsh, then certainly a bit artificial. With the CA200 in the system this track was biting, propulsive and extremely tight. But the C-J also brought a deft and delicate touch to the frequent sound of fingers on electric guitar strings, adding a vivid, human and almost acoustic element to the track. Indeed, that is how the entire track sounded — vividly real and human. The details of this track are simply and completely there. Not too large and aggressive, nor too small and hidden. Not too bright and edgy, nor too dull and flat. Not etched nor bleached. Just there, all over the place, but very effortlessly and completely natural — sort of like the way Willie Mays played centerfield. Or if that reference is too old for you, just like Derek Jeter plays shortstop. Heck, the C-J is (in all the right ways) so smooth, relaxed and detailed that even the very audible sound of the microphone clipping on Williams angered vocal shards on "Atonement" sounded natural.

Ok, I know some of you are going to read that and say, "Yep, typical C-J rolled off treble, and he fell for it". So let's address that right now. Going back to the Zeppelin disc, the age of the recording shows through clear and absolutely bright, sounding like a well done, but nonetheless early ‘70s live set. Moving on to a certified audiophile favorite of mine, the hall echo on the I Fiamminghi recording of Arvo Part's Fratres [Telarc CD-80387] uses deep bass to define the size of the room, but depends upon the system's high-frequency skills to give the room a solid and reverberant structure — and in a system lacking skills at the top the room sounds like mush. With the CA200 driving the Merlin loudspeakers said treble was extended, detailed and very real — as was the recording hall. If pushed I would say that in absolute terms the treble might be down a small fraction of a decibel, but no more than that. And most assuredly the treble is not dark or rolled off. More important, the treble it is completely and solidly musical.

Looking at our checklist, so far the CA200 has dynamic impact and a superb and detailed treble, so what about the bass? As you'd expect from an integrated … ahem … from a control amplifier using the guts of the solid-state Premier 350, this beast has grunt courtesy of Peterbuilt. Feed it something like fun and funky like "Life is Sweet" from The Chemical Brothers Exit Planet Dust [Astralwerks ASW 6157-2] and the breakbeats will break your lease. Deep, propulsive and full of drive and snap, this is bass to dance to. On the other hand, drop the Rob Wasserman audiogeek classic album, Duets [MCA 42131] on the CD player and when the walking bass line on "Stardust" wafts up from the dark side of the universe, all the tonal beauty of the most human of stringed instruments cuddles up and takes you away to a far better place than your listening room.

So, impact, treble and bass all check out fine. Now, what about the middle stuff, you know, the part the that C-J is famous for? Good news, they got that part just right too. Listening to the first several live KBCO Studio C disks — which are so much less polished, so much more acoustic and so much better than the later disks — the swirl of vocals, strummed guitars, acoustic bass and gentle piano was emotionally riveting. Take the David Wilcox cut from disk 1 [KBCO-C-01], "Chet Baker's Unsung Swan Song", as exhibit one. Wilcox's voice on the spoken work introduction is reedy and slightly nasal, just as it should be. But when he starts to sing his body resonances are distinctly, clearly and naturally projected into the room. Beautiful. Truly beautiful.

Covering the rest of the audiogeek range, the CA200 images with the best of ‘em. The soundstage is broad, deep and squares up nicely in the corners. On the stage players had a stable and solid image. And while for some the stage may be a bit laidback as it did not project much past the front plane of the loudspeakers, I prefer the deep and stable viewpoint of the CA200.

Summing up, the CA200 breathes modern C-J from its every pore. It excels at communicating essential and deep emotions. Whether pounding out arena rock, hypnotic trance-dance, classic jazz, orchestral or small group classical, vocals or acoustic folk the CA200 always seems to be able to get to the heart of the style and piece. It does this by emphasizing musical line over raw detail, but it also does this without shorting detail in manner. With a deep and extended bass, the typically rich and detailed C-J midrange, an extended and detailed treble, superb slam and a great stage, a bunch of features and controls, and a superb build quality the CA200 leaves little, if anything to be desired.

 

Others
So, perfect, right? Of course not. Putting it up against some of the other great gear I have laying around reveals some minor seams in the fabric scattered here and there. For example, let's look at the the Art Audio Carissa, which shares many things with the CA200 starting with price. With the optional integrated volume control, it is within a couple of hundred dollars of the C-J. Also, both are built to exacting standards and both are visually stunning. More significantly, both are highly musical but go about it from opposite directions. The Carissa uses 845 tubes and has 16 watts a side, while the CA200 has solid-state devices and almost twelve times the power. Oh and the Carissa allows you to use as many sources as you want, as long as you want one while the C-J gives you five or six plus two external processor loops.

Sonically, the Carissa has a bit more sparkle up top — perhaps extending the treble by about the same amount the CA200 drops it. Down below the Carissa also has a bit of a bump, while the C-J is flatter and more extended. This combination gives the Art Audio a more vibrant, if slightly over-saturated presentation as compared to that of the CA200. If I could average the two out the result just may be perfection.

Compared to my Blue Circle BC6 amplifier (running through the over 10 grand First Sound pre-amplifier, so yes, I know it's not a 1:1 comparison), the BC6 has a slightly more see-through stage, cleaner transients and a touch more harmonic resolution. On the C-J side, the CA200 has a bit more slam, more bass and offers a slightly different but just a musical viewpoint as the Blue Circle. Again, an average of the two would get you a slightly different take on perfection.

 

Sanity?
So, after listening deeply, intently and enjoyably to the CA200 I have come to this conclusion — if the audio world were filled with sane people, the CA200 would take over the high-end portion of that planet. It has all the input and output options any rational person could ever use, it looks superb, is solidly built and is backed by one of the true iconic audio firms. For life on this sphere, that should be enough, but then we all know we are far from a sane group. Fortunately so does C-J. So while it the CA200 squarely hits all the rational buttons, it also hits all emotional ones as well — and just as squarely. It has a nicely flat and truly broadband frequency response, dynamic power, a solid stage, and offers up a deeply satisfying, subtle and detail rich inner view. Put another way, when that inevitable day comes that my long-suffering wife says, "Enough! Walk away from the stereo and spend time with the family!," I'm calling C-J as the CA200 will satisfy the sane Robin, and the (slightly) insane me.

 

Specifications
Type: Integrated stereo preamplifier and amplifier
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz (+0/-.5dB)
Power: 185 watts per channel, two channels
Sensitivity: 0.32 Volts rms to rated power
Input Impedance: varies with level control setting, 12kOhms minimum
Hum and Noise: 102dB below rated power output
Phase: speaker output is phase inverted, preamp output is phase correct
Dimensions: 15.5 x 19 x 3.315 (DxWxH in inches)
Net Weight: 38 lb net
Price: $6,500

 

Company Information
conrad-johnson design, inc. 
2733 Merrilee Drive 
Fairfax, VA 22031

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

 

 

 

 

 

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