cannot totally decouple my reviews of the Futterman OTL-3
and the Conrad-Johnson Premier Fives, although both deserve
individual attention. Both are superb mono tube amplifiers
and both are definitely luxury items at roughly $6000 a
mono pair. They directly compete with the best competing
tube amplifiers such as the Audio Research D-250 and D-160B
(also $6000), and with more limited production items like
the Berning 2100M ($2800). They also compete head-on with
the best transistor amplifiers (Thresholds, Krells), and
compete for the title of best power amplifier around.
like both the Futterman and the Premier Five a great deal,
just as I like the new Audio Research amplifiers and the
Berning 2100M. My nod, however, goes to the Premier Fives.
To my ears, they are the best power amplifier yet. In fact
they are as musically exciting a power amplifier as is the
new Audio Research SP-10 (modified) in the preamplifier
realm. They may not have the most innovative technology,
but they represent a new level of refinement in pure musicality.
briefly for the technology, each mono Premier Five provides
over 200 watts into 4, 8, or 16 Ohm load. It uses all triode
voltage amplifiers and eight EL-34s in an ultralinear output
stage. EL-34s have proved more durable than 6550s, and are
driven well below their limits. C-J estimates about 1500
hours of life per set - an estimate I lacked the time to
verify with a statistically relevant sample!
Premier Five has reasonably extended bandwidth - about 60-70
kHz, but is a classic tube power amplifier with the output
transformer the Futterman rejects. The Premier Five does,
however, use specially chosen proprietary capacitors and
a low impedance power supply. The space and power provided
by a mono chassis for each channel allow the provision of
an exceptionally stiff power supply and more consistent
use of polystyrene capacitors (which are significantly larger
than alternatives) than previous C-J designs, but the magic
is more in the execution than any fancy new circuitry. It
also is in the size: each amplifier weighs 81 pounds and
measures 20½" by 19" by 8". Controls consist of slot-headed
speaker cable terminal connection cerifiers and an extended
binary power shunt control with a user adjustable analogue
power protection system. (There are screw speaker terminals,
an off-on switch, and fuses.)
for what counts - the sound. The Conrad-Johnson Premier
Five power amplifiers are not all things to all men, the
best in every category, or clearly above the competition.
The are, however, one of those very few audio products that
come in for review which emerge from record after record
with the kind of sound one expects from music, and which
become more impressive with each record. It is their listenability
and realism in countless small details which make them outstanding.
It is their overall balance or synergy which makes them
worth the luxury-class price tag of $6000 per pair.
Premier Five is not as sweet as the Futtermans. It is not
quite as detailed as the Berning 2100M. It is not quite
extended and flat in the highs as the Audio Research D-160B
or the Berning. It cannot deliver the kind of tight control
over the woofer, complex crossovers, or drive networks that
you find with the Krells, nor the deep bass and upper octave
extension you find with the Krells. Yet, it is the least
tube-sounding amplifier that Conrad-Johnson has ever made.
This may not please tubaholics that are looking for warm
and syberetic sound, but it will please anyone that listens
to music. It also means that the Premier Five's other virtues
can shine with only a few minor areas of inferiority.
take imaging. Many amplifiers have more dramatic imaging.
Many etch or place the instruments more firmly, particularly
in the top two octaves. Many give you a more holographic
sound. The Conrad-Johnson keep exposing more detail in terms
of musically natural imaging than in any other amplifier
I have yet heard.
soundstage size and depth have this same exceptional character
and provide a special synergy with the placement and spread
of instruments. These characteristics have to be heard with
really good source material and speakers, but they make
the Premiers much better than the Berning 2100M in this
regard, and somewhat better than the Futtermans and Audio
Researches. This superior soundstaging combines to provide
the best overall soundstage I have yet heard on a very wide
variety of music. This is coupled to superior dynamics.
power handling capability of the Premier Fives (and they
will go way over 200 watts) shows up in a much more effortless
ability to provide musical transients and power than smaller
amplifiers. It joins with the Fives; imaging power to free
you from the consciousness of listening to a recorded performance
which prevents you from enjoying the overall movement and
activity that is essence of live music. Once again, the
Premier Fives slightly outpace the Berning 2100M, Futtermans,
and Audio Research in this regard.
Fives function superbly into a wide range of loads. It is
the first Conrad-Johnson amplifier that is fully comfortable
with my Quad ESL-63s, with my cone speakers of the month,
with some of my trick loads like the Spendors, and anything
else I can borrow. They are much superior to the Futtermans
in this regard and probably about equal to Bernings. The
Audio Research amps also excel in compatibility, and the
Krells are just a bit better than either ARC or C-J in this
area. The latter superiorities, however, are minor in terms
of practical impact. The key point is that the Premier Fives
are considerably better than the C-J's Premier One and Four
in this regard.
Premier Fives have excellent highs. They will often be unfamiliar
highs because they provide a unique blend between transistor
and tube amplifier, and I must caution you that this gives
them a unique character. They don't sound like "tube" or
"transistor"; they sound like music.
hear all the highs that are musically natural when the highs
are present, but you hear the hardness or analytic quality
of the highs when the source material has these problems.
There is no comforting or enfolding warmth or sweetness
that was common in both C-J's Premier One and the old Audio
the Futtermans have sweeter highs, and the new Audio Research
amplifiers and the Bernings and Krells have more extended
and analytic highs. I would argue, however, that the Premier
Fives have highs which sound more consistently right with
the vast majority of high quality source material than anything
else around. Appreciating their balance is a little like
appreciating the best white wines. You are seeking clarity
and assessing the quality of the after-taste rather than
seeking bouquet or body. The Premier Fives give you the
balance of the French white wines without the sweetness
or fruitiness of most German wines or the extension and
lack of character of most California whites. If this comparison
sounds a bit stained, the point is that the highs in the
Premier Fives don't. They strike a balance of qualities
in the highs that I feel will support more prolonged listening
to music than any competition now available.
midrange is the ultimate test of any piece of high-end equipment
and here the Fives again have a slight but important edge.
Most tube amplifiers do best in the lower and middle midrange
(I can barely refrain from referring to the middle midrange
as the ultimate test of audio quality; it determines whether
a product is middle class! Or maybe the class of the
middle - in the middle.), and show warmth in the upper
midrange. The new Audio Research amplifiers and the Berning
2100Ms avoid this warmth, but are slightly dry and distant
in the case of 2100Ms and vary from a bit bright to slightly
hard in the case of the Audio Researches. There is a very
fine line between the Bernings, CTs, and Audio Researches,
but the Premier Fives seem to have it almost right.
for bass, I would argue that the Premier Fives combine power
and control with flat and extended bass to an extent that
no other tube amplifier can do. Once again, this will be
load dependent. A Futterman is superb with the right load.
The Berning and Audio Research can "lock in" with a given
speaker and outperform the Premier Fives. But, the Premier
Fives are the first Conrad Johnson amplifier I have heard
that worked well with every full range speaker I could find,
including complex loads like the Quad ESL-63s.
provide both power and control. Past CJs have tended to
have more power than control and to vary in the lower octaves
according to the load. The Fives again fail to call attention
to themselves. They deliver the best bass I have yet heard
from the speakers I really know well. They work superbly
with the Quads, Fuseliers, Vandersteens, Thiels, and Celestion
choice may be more complex, however, if you multi-amp. I
have spent a fair amount of time listening to various amplifiers
on a friend's multi-amped Magneplanar Tympani IVs, and on
the Infinity IRS?s at Excalibur Audio. In the process I
have become aware that amplifiers change character when
you shift the bass load, just as they do when you change
speaker wires and interconnects. I will stick to my previous
generalizations about the Premier Fives on the basis of
what I have heard on these two multi-amped systems, but
the Premier Fives were not quite as good with the IRS's
as they were with most speakers. I?d make sure to borrow
before I bought if I owned a complex multi-amp and crossover
system. We are talking nuance here, and such a system can
alter the balance of an amplifier in many subtle - or no
so subtle - ways.
leads me to close this review with a more general caution.
I have discussed my feelings about four sets of amplifiers;
the Conrad-Johnsons, the Audio Researches, the Berning 2100Ms,
and the Futterman OTL-3s. I find the Premier Fives to be
a truly exciting product, and I have made a personal choice
in favor of them. My preference for the Premier Five, however,
is based on a very fine balance of qualities that come together
only after careful system adjustment, and are the result
of prolonged listening.
choice is not made on the basis of order-of-magnitude differences.
I could easily live with the Berning, the Audio Researches,
or the Futtermans. On some material I prefer each of these
competitors, and on some days I might prefer any one of
them on all material. It is a very close thing, and I cannot
quite ignore the fact that the Berning 2100M is competitive
in virtually all respects, and yet only (only?) cost $2700.
I realize no audiophile cares about $3300 - it's the sound
that counts, but?
advise you, therefore, to do a lot of listening to see if
your taste really matches mine. For the privilege of dropping
$6000, you should be able to borrow the amps and try them
on your system - or at least have a right of return. When
you do try them, I can promise you will get fine sound out
of the Premiers right out of the carton. I would advise
you, however, to let them burn in for at least 20-30 hours,
and spend a lot of time with interconnects, speaker cables,
and cartridge VTA to ensure you get the very best the amplifiers
can deliver (this would of course be true for the competition
as well). Remember too that my preference is based on my
conclusion that these amplifiers sound natural and accurate
over a very wide range of material, and not on their ability
to sound exciting or tube-like.
I can promise you music if you buy, but not the audio equivalent
of the "raid over macho Grande." If you only want today's
certified best and most expensive status symbol, you should
probably keep buying magazines and reading reviews ? don?t
ever actually buy an amplifier. The high-end is as competitive
today as it has ever been. There may be a Berning 2100N
or 220 by the time this review comes out, I have been told
there will be a new Krell stereo 100-watt amplifier, and
a new Futterman with a regulated power supply. I'd be amazed
if Bill Johnson didn?t have another improvement to his D-250
somewhere in his circuit board or back pocket.
your money where your taste is, and listen to the music.
The Premier Fives will reward that set of values for years.
They will do so long after some other amplifier has won
the Rave Review of the Month Club, or provided the illusion
of six more inches of apparent depth.