Conrad-Johnson Anniversary Reference Triode Series III
The third-generation of c-j’s ART is here, and just about in time for the company’s thirtieth anniversary. It was introduced a decade ago to celebrate the occasion of 20 successful years for c-j’s founders, Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson, former Federal Reserve economists, who fell for the musical magicks of tubes long before they decided to make a business out of their designs.
The ART grew out of an experimental linestage the men kept in the lab as a reference by which to measure the quality of their work. It is a product from which I have learned how to listen more deeply into the soundfield. In its first two iterations, I found I was able to define two fundamental aspects of reproduced sound for the first time. One was the key concept of continuousness, itself slippery and difficult to describe for those who haven’t encountered it. The other phenomenon, still not widely understood in my opinion, is the relationship between a component’s dynamic envelope and its character.
A word, first, about the dynamic envelope. Think, if you will, of the entire frequency spectrum that can be reproduced by a component, especially an electronic one. Music, especially the unamplified kind, is capable of expanding and shrinking dramatically—hence the designations from the softest to the loudest (the p’s the softest, as in pppp; the f’s the loudest, as in ffff)—and capable of doing this in any portion of the frequency range. The first-generation ART did not have much in the way of bottom bass and almost no contrast down yonder, but what it did have was a significant expansion in the upper middle bass (where there is considerable musical energy, not by coincidence). In this respect, the c-j had a “golden glow,” not unlike that to be found in Boston’s Symphony, which has its own resonant patterns in this very same range. That original ART also exhibited audible tube rush at the lower frequencies, which intermodulated with the music signal. But there was no denying its midrange magic and lack of distortion.
I think all of us guys who review gear (and we are mostly guys) have a sobering experience when we hear significant improvements to gear we earlier vigorously applauded when we hear in them the future. Which leads me back to one of the basic HP Audio Principles: You cannot imagine how a great component can be bettered until you hear it bettered. Looking back now upon the first ART (reviewed for Fi magazine) and the second generation, I wonder, given the strengths of the latest ART, if I was too forgiving. Of course, I wasn’t, at that time.
In the second-generation ART [reviewed in Issue 129], the tube noise was reduced to a figurative vanishing point, and the frequency response extended, with much definition and impact, into the 30Hz region. This also changed the dynamic envelope and shifted the emphasis on dynamic swings further down the spectrum. This had the effect of changing the “character” of the c-j house sound, reducing the euphonic golden glow, and allowing something closer to the individual character of different halls to shine through more clearly, and at the same time, allowing this reviewer to wrestle with the concept of continuousness, which was now more obvious and less ambiguous. The fact that the noise reduction and some other circuitry improvements extended the response and dynamics of the upper octaves allowed me to hear the fact that sound was of a whole cloth. Sallie Reynolds, in that issue, likened continuousness to a waterfall (where the water seems or is of one flow).
I wouldn’t be giving this product a Golden Ear if I didn’t think the third generation was another significant improvement, one that moves the ART into the category of elite gear that, while not sounding real (nothing does), sounds less unreal than all but a handful of the best of today’s design work. So what has been wrought here?
First, the price has gone up. No surprise there, given the pressure on the individual components that made up the workings of electronic (and other) gear. Part of this, sez Lew Johnson, comes from the increasing competitiveness of the burgeoning Chinese industry and part from recent developments in Common Market countries where lead in audio gear has been banned, forcing designers to look for alternative, and more expensive, materials. The original ART was priced at just under $15,000; the second generation, introduced four years later, was a thousand dollars higher. The III will set you back $25,000. It includes both parts and circuit upgrades.
Some of Lew Johnson’s notes: All of the polystyrene capacitors have been replaced with Teflon CJD capacitors, and “this accounts,” he says, “for nearly all of the price increase in the unit. Do a web search on 2.0 microfarad Teflon capacitors and you’ll find them retailing for more than $300 each.” The ART III contains 32 of that value, and smaller ones, too.