|Conrad Johnson Premier 17 LS Stereo Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers Stereo Preamps|
|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Sunday, 01 July 2001|
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Many audio/video enthusiasts find themselves in a position where their desire for the ultimate A/V system exceeds their actual budget, finding themselves perhaps an inheritance or two short of the money to actually purchase their "perfect system." For those of us in this category, we must carefully build our ultimate systems one piece at a time. There has long been debate as to which product is best suited to build your system around. If you don’t have a good power amplifier, you likely can’t build your system around the speakers, as your dream speakers might need more and better power. I don’t think anyone would dispute the validity of building your system around your source equipment, such as a CD player, but with imminent change to the digital format (DVD-Audio, SACD), this might not be your best option right now. What the next digital format will be is anybody’s guess. In my opinion, the preamplifier is currently the most important product to build your system around. It defines your entire sound system. You have choices, such as whether to limit yourself to two-channel music or whether to prepare for the very near future of multi-channel music. Do you want to have an audio/video system and integrated theater? These considerations will strongly influence your decision in selecting the right preamplifier for you.
The Premier 17LS is the next evolution from Conrad-Johnson Design, one of the industry’s most respected and enduring high-end audio companies for close to 25 years. Conrad-Johnson has produced a large number of audio gems over the years, which many people consider to be the best available in their respective categories, starting with their first product release in 1977, the PV1 preamplifier. In 1996, Conrad-Johnson reminded the industry that with age comes knowledge by releasing of their widely respected ART preamplifier, a two-chassis preamp retailing at an astonishing $15,000. The ART remains one of the most respected two-channel preamplifiers available on the planet.
At $4,495, the Premier 17LS is Conrad-Johnson’s third most pricey tube preamplifier (after the $15,995 ART-Series 2 and the $7,995 Premier 16LS). The Premier employs many of the ART’s advances at a much more affordable price. The Premier 17LS is essentially a simple single-ended triode design distributed across four 6922 tubes, conveniently mounted underneath a separate tube access cover. The 17LS has a sleek form factor, measuring 19 inches wide, 15.5 inches deep and three-and-three-eighths inches tall. Those with a standard 19-inch racks are out of luck.
Conrad-Johnson provides a unique solution for controlling volume on the 17LS. Rather than use switching circuitry in the signal path, the Premier 17LS incorporates microprocessor-controlled analog relays driven by their own separate power supply, and provides 100 incremental steps of adjustment. This approach unquestionably provides sonic benefits. However, I never warmed up to the often distracting and distinct clicking sound of the relays, which were audible over music at lower to moderate volumes.
The rear of the unit has a sparse but for the most part adequate array of input and output options. There are inputs labeled for most source selections, as well as a tape and outboard processor loop. For those who don’t want to compromise their two-channel performance in a combined audio/video system by being forced to use the line stage in the theater processor, the 17LS provides a theater loop. When you output the front two channels from your theater processor into this theater input of the Premier 17LS, the volume is set to a unity gain mode. This is merely a connection that presets the volume on the 17LS to a known point. Once you set the volume on your center and surround speakers to match the SPL of the front main speakers, you can control your volume from your theater processor with the push of a button. In cases where line stage preamplifiers do not provide such a mode, you can achieve the same effect by merely adjusting the volume to a known setting that matches the volume of your rear and surround speakers to the front mains.
The Premier 17LS provides only single-ended inputs and outputs. Although it’s not necessarily unheard-of for a preamp in this price range to be without balanced inputs or outputs (Jadis and Sutherland come to mind), most enthusiasts demand the convenience and performance advantage of balanced systems for this type of high-end component. This proved to be very difficult for me, as my best cables are balanced. And why not – the best equipment comes with balanced inputs and outputs, right? Well, not necessarily. There is no questioning the benefit of using balanced cabling, yet there are very few ways to produce a truly balanced preamplifier without sonic compromise. In the case of the Premier 17LS, balanced connections without sonic compromise to the signal path would require a complete duplication of the amplifier stage, nearly doubling the total cost. Sure, there are other ways to accomplish this. Some manufacturers take the simplest (and least effective) strategy, simply terminating the ground wire at the I/O board. Others achieve this effect by adding IC OP amps and transformers, all of which are typically done within the signal path. This system can be implemented very successfully, if done right. You also want to consider that many amplifiers are balanced and perform best when provided balanced signals. With all this in mind, we don’t want to lose focus of what really matters – the sound of the preamplifier.
The 17LS possesses the same look that has defined Conrad-Johnson for decades, with its signature gold face and round control buttons. I personally felt that the overall outer packaging was less-than-par for its price. On the review model, the top cover rattled when tapped and felt like very thin, stamped metal. I am generally not overly critical about the packaging of lower-priced units, but I feel that manufacturers of components costing as much as $5,000 can squeeze more budget into the packaging of their products. I have many times heard the common refrain, "We don’t want to put an extra dollar into the packaging that could otherwise be spent on making the product sound better." I buy this claim about as much as I believe that O.J. is looking for the real killer. It is my opinion that the package should match the sonic performance of the product. The remote control for the 17LS is packaged well, machined out of aluminum and finished in matching gold anodize, but it falls short in comparison with the sexy and weighty remote that comes with the Mark Levinson No. 380, a balanced solid state preamp costing about $1,000 less than this CJ.