Conrad Johnson Premier 17 LS Stereo Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers Stereo Preamps
Written by Bryan Southard   
Sunday, 01 July 2001

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.

The Music
After adequate break-in and warm-up time of over 50 hours, I loaded the vocal delights of David Sylvian’s Dead Bees on a Cake,, (Virgin). In the opening cut "I Surrender," the vocal textures immediately captured my imagination. Sylvian’s voice seemed to take on a life of its own. The vocals had a very silky three-dimensional sound. When compared to how the song played on my similarly-priced reference, the Sonic Frontiers Line 3, I found the vocals to possess less leading edge detail, yet the Premier 17LS version sounded more natural in many ways. There was a distinct sweetness that lured you into the music. For the first several days, I felt that perhaps the Premier was compromising available reproduced information when compared to the Sonic Frontiers Line 3. I found myself focusing on information that I would have otherwise heard with the Line 3. Soon thereafter, I was focusing on the larger picture and was inspired by the 17LS’s truly palpable midrange and its ability to involve me.

I next delved into a recent favorite from Matt Nathanson. His recent release Still Waiting for Spring, a pop/folk compilation that provides a great mix of acoustic guitar, vocals and cello. The 12-string guitar had terrific body and a decisively warm tone. The results were similar to previous findings. The Premier 17LS lacked fine details, such as string resonance and high-frequency decay that I experience in the Line 3, but it had an overall presence that was unmistakably engaging. In the cut "Little Victories," the cello had a warmth and naturalness that I favored over the Line 3.

When compared to the previously-reviewed Audio Research LS15, a lower-priced tube preamplifier that has since been replaced by the LS16, I found the Premier 17LS performed at a considerable higher level in every respect. The Premier 17LS has a much more refined presentation than the LS15, providing greater detail and additional transparency. It must be noted that the Audio Research LS16 retails for considerably less at $3,000. For a direct comparison, you would want to consider the similarly-priced Audio Research LS25 at nearly $5,000.

The Downside
The Premier 17LS has extremely high output impedance. This makes cable selection and length of cable runs critical. The fact is that high-capacitance cables will have negative sonic interactions with the Premier 17LS because of this condition. I would recommend that you discuss this issue with your audio/video retailer before purchasing either of these items.

Many indications suggest that the high-end two-channel industry is all but dead, with the emergence of multi-channel music and, of course, 5.1 home theater. Even with the Generation X’s attraction to multi-channel entertainment, manufacturers continue to produce two-channel gear and many are prospering with it. I personally run a high-level multi-channel A/V system, as well as continuing to run a high-end two-channel preamplifier because I am simply not willing to compromise my music for my movies. However, there will be a day in the not too distant future, perhaps one to two years, where multi-channel music will be the dominant format. When this happens, high-end manufacturers will be forced to provide solutions for this format. You need to consider this inevitability into your investment decision.

In the meantime, if you consider two-channel music to still be the best solution for high performance, think about the Conrad-Johnson Premier 17LS, a preamp that performs at the top of its price class. It produces a richness that will remind you of why you love live music. Instruments can lack some of the finest transient details and can sound a hair on the relaxed side of neutral, but on the other hand the 17LS reproduces 3-D images with great realism. The Premier 17LS has a truly realistic instrumental timber and the ability to provide long listening sessions without fatigue. For those of you who are fans of tubes and those considering a preamplifier purchase, you’ll want to give this piece a listen. It just may knock your socks off.
Manufacturer Conrad Johnson
Model Premier 17 LS Stereo Preamplifier
Reviewer Bryan Southard

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