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Conrad Johnson Sonographe SC26 Stereo Preamplifier Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 October 2000
ImageAs I received the Sonographe SC26 preamplifier for review, I admittedly looked upon this assignment with great uncertainty, knowing little what to expect. Like many of you, I respect for the creator and parent of the Sonegraphe SC26, Conrad Johnson. Few intimately familiar with fine electronics are unaware of the success and respect that CJ has amassed, with better than 20 years of experience in creating fine electronics. One of Conrad Johnson’s latest, the highly touted ART preamplifier, is considered by many to be the finest preamplifier ever made, priced as such at a crisp $15,000. However, Conrad Johnson has long been known for their tube amplifier and preamplifier products and although they have produced solid-state electronics, they are much better known for tube products such as the Premier Series amps and preamps.

Unpacked and ready for hook-up, the Sonographe SC26 looked much like many of the Conrad Johnson pieces with which you may already be familiar. The CS26 comes dressed with a gold anodized front panel and front interface similar to the Premier Series preamplifiers. It’s a safe assumption that the name Sonographe was intended to differentiate it from Conrad Johnson’s higher-priced products. That’s certainly understandable.

The SC26 measures 17.5 inches wide, 11.5 inches deep, and two-and-three-quarter inches tall. This petite chassis weighed a mere 11 pounds. The connections on the SC26 are pretty simple, with options for CD, phono, video, aux and tape loop. All connections are single-ended RCAs. The SC26’s face has push button controls for volume, which gives you 80 dB of attenuation and 20 dB of gain in 200 steps. This is important when you are dealing with step-attenuated volume and like finite volume control. In addition, there are balance controls, input selectors, tape loop and mute control. The remote control, although a simple plastic OEM design, provides full function. I have been critical in the past of very expensive pieces having cheap plastic remotes because I feel that when I pay $5,000 for a product, I want the interface to feel like it’s worth more than five dollars. In this case, I feel the opposite - at $995, I would rather that money was spent on sonic improvement, and personally applaud any company’s attempt to bring us high-quality performance in a sub-$1,000 price range, provided its performance is exemplary. Conrad Johnson provides a five-year limited warrantee on this product to its original owners.
The Music
I admitted earlier that I was initially a tad apprehensive about what to expect from the Sonographe SC26. Auditioning it meant that I had to disconnect my Sonic Frontiers Line 3 preamplifier, which I, as many, consider to be the among the highest level of reproduction available The Sonic Frontiers’ two-box setup has a stand-alone power supply that is twice the size of the entire SC26.

I decided to open the SC26 top cover to inspect its contents; the interior gave me little additional confidence. Inside was a small PC board that shared the power supply and signal electronics, a PC board for the front panel and a very modest power transformer. However, I have seen many components in the past of varying sizes and levels of complexity that have performed like champs.

I started with one of my favorites, Counting Crowes’ "Across a Wire," Live from the Story Tellers VH1 Concert, (Universal). I have used this piece in reviews before and continue to use it as a reference, because this recording is very clean, pure, a solid standard of mine.

I immediately found the performance of the SC26 to be at a high level that I hadn’t expected. The highs were detailed and decisively grainless, an unusual attribute in lower-priced gear that can often by plagued by artifacts. Vocals were very liquid and rich with transient detail. The midrange of the SC26 is surprisingly neutral and natural-sounding. The guitar had very nice texture and was reasonably focused in the stage.

Next I summoned the sweet riffs of Dr. John from his latest, Duke Elegant (Blue Note). I found this recording was reproduced nicely with solid dynamics on such cuts as the opener, "On the Wrong Side of the Railroad Tracks," where the bass and drums were taut and, for the most part, very focused.

Although the SC26 is not going to give you the urge to sell your Audio Research Ref 2, it is a champion in its own category. You have to applaud a company that has made an affordable product of this sound quality. Although the images were well defined, they were certainly not in the category of my Sonic Frontiers nor would I place them at the level of my Audio Research LS15. However, let’s be honest, these products cost $3,000 and $5,000 respectively. I can tell you that for $995 for the SC26 preamp and $995 for the SA-250 amplifier (not reviewed), you can’t go wrong. This package brings you real-time performance at a working man’s dollar ("working man" being, of course, a figure of speech and not a reference to actual gender).

I would sum up the sonic characteristics of the SC26 as very musical, especially for a solid-state product. Its sound was absent of the aggressive and sometimes abrasive nature of many solid-state preamplifiers. On the other hand, it wasn’t lush and infinitely warm like a tube product either. Overall, it has a good balance of quickness and finesse and provides a quite enjoyable presentation.

If you are the shopping type and would like to know what competes with this product, the Adcom GFA750 at $1,100 would be first to mind.

The Downside
At $995, a product that performs as well as the SC26 should have few downsides. It’s always hard to pick on something that is overachieving. I did have a few gripes. The input connecters on the back are so close together that it was hard to connect one of my higher-end cables. Also, the power cord is not removable. So, big deal? It wouldn’t be if the hard-wired cable provided was of a reasonable gauge. My feeling is, "Put a connector on the back and provide a real power cable, I’ll pay the difference." Oh yeah, how could I forget, there is no off switch. Plug it in and it’s on for life. Not a bad thing, as a component’s highest risk of failure is at start-up. Prior to owning tubes, I never shut down my systems. For practicality, though, give the owner the choice. Can I overlook these shortcomings to own a very nice-sounding product at a great price? Most likely.

As with all products, there is a point of diminishing returns, this being the point where a little more money no longer gets you a lot more performance. We all know this fact, yet for many of us who can afford it, any improvement is worth its weight in gold (and in many instances, costs as much as well). But some buyers have a great sense of value and common sense, and find the right level of performance to be the one most easily justified. I find this piece to be just such a value. For those looking for a reasonable entry to the higher level of musical reproduction, the SC26 is a great choice. Simply a great value!

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