In some respects, this is a return to conrad-johnson’s heyday, like a PV12, rather than a more recent PV15. There was a time when a c-j preamp drew you into the music in a way that no other preamp could. That was c-j’s strength, but somewhere down the line, that got pushed to one-side to make products more in line with the clean, detailed – and some would say bloodless – sound of the early 21st Century. It must be said, the top line of c-j preamps never quite lost the way, but somewhere the romance went out of the relationship at the lower and middle end. A move back began with the ET2 and the Classic preamps, but it’s here that the return to romance really kicks off again.
If there’s one word that sums up the ET3 it’s ‘sumptuous’. Sound is full-bodied and natural sounding, enveloping the listener in the musical event in the way the c-j preamps always used to. You’d naturally expect this to shine playing smooth jazz combos and string quartets - the sort of music that benefits most from a touch of sonic ‘beautification’. And yet, strangely the album that became the standard bearer for what the ET3 does best was the least likely of all – Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is considered the worst casualty of the Loudness War, with horribly clipped and compressed ‘peaks’ (it’s actually all peaks). The ET3 doesn’t reconstruct or repair the album and it doesn’t soften those clipped drum beats and power chords. But it does make them more listenable than most systems.
A word about the phono stage, and that word is ‘fantastic’. You are really going to have to fork out some serious coinage to replicate – let alone eclipse – the performance of the ET3’s turntable section.
The nearest thing to a fly in the ointment is the need to be careful in choosing a good power amp to go with the ET3. Mix this in with a very warm and soft sounding tube power amp and the result could be too much of a good thing. The old classic combination of valve preamp and solid-state power amp works wonders here, and an Edge power amplifier (see next issue) made an absolutely perfect partnership.
Looking back over my notes for the GAT, there was one album that surprised me because of how good it sounds – Lateralus by Tool. The GAT managed to deliver the drive and energy of the band (and it is an excellent recording, just not for everyone) with an uncanny dynamic freedom. The ET3 approaches that dynamism, but just falls short of nailing it. Hardly surprising really, given the price differential. I suspect most would not struggle with the compromise, and instead enjoy one of the most harmonically rich and sweet sounding preamps you can buy for the money.
This is no small achievement. The GAT was one of the very best preamplifiers I’ve heard, ranking up there with the best of the best. Expensive, yes, but justifiably so in performance terms. And the ET3 gets a good way toward achieving the same performance, but at a fraction of the price. No, it’s not so good at being a ‘baby GAT’ that it will undermine GAT sales, but it does bring rediscovered elegance, sophistication and refinement back to preamplifiers at this price. Balance control aside, the ET3’s ‘baby GAT’ description is far closer to the truth than the price differential suggests.
Line preamplifier with optional phono stage
Five RCA line inputs (four with phono stage)
Processor and Theatre RCA inputs and outputs, Line Stage
Maximum Output: 20Vrms
Hum and Noise: 98dB below 2.5v output
Distortion at 1.0V output: less thn 0.15% THD or IMD
Output Impedance: 100ohms
Optional high-gain phono stage
Hum and noise: 80dB below 10mV input
RIAA equalization: within ± 0.25dB of RIAA specification
Dimensions: (HxWxD): 8.5x48x33.3cm
Price: £2,450 line-only, optional phono stage £795
Manufactured by Conrad Johnson Design Inc
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