We haven’t even touched on imagery yet, in part because the conrad-johnson products do such a sublime job with everything else and it’s hard to stretch the superlatives to yet another aspect of performance. But the c-j duo does not disappoint here, either. The stage is neatly presented, slightly forward and wide of the speakers, but what is exceptionally fine at the price is the sense of height; you feel as if you are on a level with the second row of the orchestra, with the first strings slightly below you and the percussion slightly above; all of which seems absolutely correct and uncannily like sitting in an auditorium. Instruments and voices have a good sense of solidity and presence to them, but this is the one aspect where the limits of the LP66S begin to appear. There’s a thin line between too much and too little image solidity; too much and even ballet music sounds bolted down, too little and Shostakovich sounds like the music from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Here, while the sound is ‘solid’, it’s not ‘rooted’, but then you won’t find ‘rooted’ for less money.
So, should CT5 owners start feeling sorry for themselves? Not really, and this is the reason why this is not simply a pre-amplifier review. The ET2 and LP66S work brilliantly together and make you think you are listening to nigh on twelve grand’s worth of audiophile equipment, when in fact you are hearing what £7,000 can do. And yes, a lot of that comes down to the pre-amp. But partner the ET2 with an LP70S or beyond and you’ll miss the inner details and crystal-like clarity that only a CT5 or better can reproduce. That tired boxing analogy of ‘fighting above its weight’ fits perfectly here; a middleweight boxer might be so powerful against his peers that he should fight as a lightheavyweight, but in reality, put him in that light-heavyweight ring and he’ll get hurt. No-one’s getting hurt here, but the ET2 should be considered among the best in its class, not the class above. And, in that context, it is perfectly partnered by the LP66S, which is also among the best in its class; it just doesn’t have ideas above its station.
What we have here is an example of c-j’s innate understanding and experience in balancing the virtues of their products, getting the quality where it matters. These are fantastic products that work beautifully together, providing a rich, natural sound that should satisfy for decades. There’s a real touch of magic about this c-j pairing; it draws you in and keeps you there, smiling. The control part of the ET2 is more high-tech than the amplifier stages, if only to allow for the precise remote control of volume and balance (in 0.5dB steps) as well as the switching functions. There are seven line-inputs and an optional phonostage. Actually, there are two optional phono-stages – one for high and one for low gain – but Audiofreaks most commonly fits the high-gain (>1mV input sensitivity) version. This can be factory fitted or added later at a cost of £950. Like the line-level amplifier, the optional modules are zero-feedback designs with triode amplifier stages for voltage gain, but add passive RIAA equalisation. Aside from the line and phono-stages, there’s also a Theater Loop, which locks the pre-amp into unity gain and allows your hi-fi system to act as the front channels in a home cinema system. In keeping with other c-j designs, the valves are nestled in a central alcove and protected by Perspex slats. The remote control, is a thin, bluff plastic handset, which is more ergonomically valid, but nowhere near as impressive as the half-brick of gold-coloured metal I’m used to getting from the company.