Conrad Johnson Premier 18LS AV Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps
Written by Ed Masterson   
Thursday, 01 May 2003

Introduction
Over the last 25 years, Conrad-Johnson has earned a reputation for its mastery of the art of tube-based amplifier design. Many of their amplifiers and preamplifiers have received considerable praise from music lovers and AV industry professionals alike. As a statement piece, Conrad-Johnson’s ultra-expensive ART preamplifier has earned its way into some of the world’s absolute finest music playback systems.

Until now, if you wanted a reference quality preamplifier from CJ, you had no choice but to deal with the maintenance and cost associated with tubes. Conrad-Johnson has released a new solid-state preamplifier, the Premier 18LS, in an attempt to satisfy those in love with CJ’s sound who simply are not willing and/or able to deal with the unavoidable hassles associated with owning a high-performance tube component.

At $3,495, the Premier 18LS is the least expensive preamplifier in the Premier series. Even so, CJ spared no expense. As with all of the Premier preamplifiers, CJ uses a single-ended zero negative feedback circuit design, full of the highest quality parts available. These include polypropylene and polystyrene capacitors, as well as laser-trimmed metal foil resistors. The amplification circuit in the 18LS is based on field effect transistors (FETs). Conrad-Johnson believes that FETs sound more like tubes because they also tend to produce only even-ordered harmonic distortion. CJ puts great emphasis on an optimized power supply, which is said to minimize impedance at even the highest frequencies. CJ also employs a discrete resistor-ladder volume control with 100 incremental steps of 0.7 dB each, instead of the typical potentiometer, which is inherently noisy.

The 18LS is a line-stage-only preamplifier, so a separate phono stage will be required for those with turntables. Otherwise, the 18LS has inputs for tuner, CD, video, aux/phono and aux 2. In addition, it has two loops for external processors (EPL), such as theater processors or equalizers. Only a single pair of main line outputs is provided. Additionally, a full function remote control is included. The 18LS measures 15.25 inches deep, 19 inches wide and 3.31 inches high, weighing 16 pounds.

The look and feel of the unit is just what you’d expect from an audiophile electronics manufacturer. The component is built like a tank, with looks to match. I personally feel that although this look is solid and professional, it has become dated. Those wishing to integrate this piece into modern décor may have issues with its appearance. The unit is constructed with a combination of black powder-coated extruded aluminum sides, black semi-gloss heavy gauge steel top, bottom and back, and a gold anodized machined aluminum faceplate. The faceplate has two distinct textures. Approximately one-fourth of the faceplate on the left side has a brushed finish, while the remaining three-quarters have a matte finish, slightly recessed. The two areas are separated by a machined groove that curves in an arc pattern from top to bottom. The display consists of a pair of circular two-digit gold numerical LEDs to indicate volume level, and individual LEDs for each source to indicate when they are selected. Controls on the front panel include buttons for source, mute, level up and down, theater loop, and EPL. The rear panel carries gold-plated, machined single-ended connectors for inputs and outputs, as well as a receptacle for a detachable power cord. The Premier 18LS provides single-ended I/O and does not provide balanced connectors. The remote is made from a machined aluminum block and has a simple layout with durable feeling buttons. Did I mention that it is built like a tank?

Set-up
As you might expect for a two-channel preamp, set up and operation are pretty straightforward. I used the 18LS mostly for two-channel listening, but I also ran my theater processor through it. I connected my Muse Model II/ Theta Data Basic combo to the CD input of the 18LS. I ran the main outputs for the theater processor into the video input on the preamp, without using either of the processor loops that were available. I used both the Linn Twin and Classe CA150 for amplification; my Revel F30s played the main speaker role.

The Music
The fun started with the Cerulean CD (Reprise) by Ocean Blue. Track Three, “Marigold,” has a great bass line, along with a powerful kick drum. The 18LS communicated this beautifully. The kick drum is deep and tight, while being conveyed with more power and authority than through most other preamplifiers that I have heard. Unfortunately, the rest of this recording has a sort of bad digital sound. This digitized sound can be quite irritating when played on systems that tend toward being dry or analytical. The 18LS neither emphasized nor softened this effect. Once a bad recording is in the “grooves,” perhaps it is there forever. I had held out hopes that the tube-like sound of this preamp could save the bacon, but my expectations were set to unfair levels. On the better-sounding track, the CJ got the work done with finesse and musicality.

Basia’s The Sweetest Illusion CD (Epic) has some soothing music with a combination of involving bass lines and beautiful female vocals. Track One, “Drunk on Love,” has a bass line that gets my toes tapping and knees bouncing. Through the 18LS, the bass was involving, almost to the point of being addictive. The 18LS exhibited tight control over the bass region and easily exposed every nuance of the bass guitar notes. On Track Seven, “Perfect Mother,” Basia’s sweet voice filled the room. Basia’s chest could be heard resonating with her voice. In fact, the 18LS had more detail in this lower midrange than many other preamplifiers that I have heard in this price range.

Nina Simone is one of my favorite jazz vocalists. The Jazz Masters 17 CD (Verve) has some of her best work. During the second track, “I Put A Spell On You,” the 18LS gives the instruments and voices a strong presence in my room. This is not the most neutral-sounding recording, but the instruments have rich harmonic textures that make them quite enjoyable. I repeatedly noticed that the lower midrange and bass seem to have greater weight than usual through the 18LS. With other preamps like the Linn Klimax Kontrol, it felt like I was being transported to the original venue, whereas the 18LS seems to put the instruments into my room. Track Four, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” is a love song swimming in sorrow. Simone sings this with an incredible amount of emotion. The lyrics are not in English, so I could not understand the words, but through the 18LS, I felt that I knew exactly what she was saying. Looking at my listening notes, I discovered that I had made positive comments about the sound of her voice on almost every track.

Every since I saw Doug Macleod live, I have been a fan of his classic blues style. Track Two, “Bus With No Destination” from his You Can’t Take My Blues CD (AudioQuest Music), features Macleod and his guitar. The 18LS seems to reinforce the soulful tones emanating from his throat and chest. The guitar in this track has a huge resonant sound that, through the 18LS, is rich and full-bodied. Compared to the now dated Audio Research LS22, the 18LS seems to put more emphasis on the lower midrange. The LS22 has superior definition in the upper midrange and highs, which helps to create a larger, more open soundstage. The 18LS does nothing wrong in the upper midrange, but it just seemed to lack a little detail when compared to either the LS22 or the much more expensive Linn Kontrol. Track Three, “You Can’t Take My Blues,” features a bass and kick drum combo that accompany Doug and his guitar. The bass and kick drum can become smeared together with lesser equipment. The 18LS produces distinctly separate bass and kick drum with tons of power and depth. The cymbals are well focused but do not have quite the detail that I have heard with some of the best tube gear. Again, the 18LS excels in communicating the rhythm of the music without ever becoming overly analytical.

The Original Jazz Masters Series, Volume Two CD set (Da Music) is full of great works by the some of the best jazz artists. Johnny Griffin’s tenor sax is mesmerizing on “Sophisticated Lady.” The 18LS excels in the reproduction of the deepest tones coming from the sax. This is consistent with the sound of the piano played by Thelonius Monk in “Something Blue.” The 18LS puts more emphasis on the sound of the piano than the sound of the room that the piano is in. I could feel all of the tonal beauty of the piano, resulting in an emotional musical experience.

The Downside
It is a little difficult to pick out any real downsides for this product. However, I did note a couple of minor things during my review. The first is the lack of balanced connections, or balance operation, for that matter. I expect that those looking to purchase a product of this caliber are thinking long-term. A preamplifier can be a good long-term purchase because, unlike front-end equipment these days, the technology behind it is not changing rapidly. Having balanced connections available can be convenient if you have to make any extremely long cable runs or if you have any other equipment with only balanced connections. Some audio engineers will go to the mat, saying balanced doesn’t mean anything if single-ended connections are done correctly. I am not an audio engineer, but in my experience, balanced preamps have more value and offer quieter and more convenient operation.

As I noted earlier, no extra set of main outputs are provided. In order to connect an external subwoofer without affecting the main speakers, I had to use splitters off the main outputs. This is pretty disappointing for a product of the CJ’s caliber and price. Difficulties continue for those attempting to bi-amp their speakers, thanks to the lack of secondary main outs.

Finally, due to the location of the balance adjustment buttons, I kept accidentally hitting them when I went to adjust the main volume. This was only a minor annoyance.

Conclusion
The Premier 18LS preamplifier represents a move towards practicality by Conrad-Johnson. Gone is the fear of wasted tube life when you fall asleep listening to Dark Side of the Moon late at night. Conrad-Johnson has a reputation for creating musical-sounding products and the Premier 18LS is no exception. In many audio categories, the 18LS performs with the very best, which is quite a compliment, considering the price of the unit vs. the most expensive stereo preamps out there.

Without direct comparison, the 18LS sounds flawless. Does the 18LS put an end to the debate over tubes versus solid-state? No, nor would I want it any other way. This debate has lead to the development of some of the most exciting audio products ever made. At this performance level, personal taste is more a factor than absolute accuracy. So, if you are in the market for a modestly-priced reference quality preamplifier, the CJ 18LS is definitely worth auditioning. With the convenience of remote control and a zero maintenance solid-state design, the Premier 18LS may be the “end of the road” preamplifier you have been looking for.
Manufacturer Conrad Johnson
Model Premier 18LS AV Preamplifier
Reviewer Ed Masterson





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