The conrad-johnson TEA2 phono preamplifier, excuse me, the TEA2 Triode Equalization Amplifier, as its acronym denotes, is a lower priced alternative to their two-input twice-the price (and rather opulent) TEA1. I must admit that at first I was disappointed that I did not obtain a sample of the pricier model, but I was quite taken aback by both the impressive internal features of the TEA2 (and more importantly) its excellent sound very shortly after it took up residence in my system. Spoiler alert: Although it might not suit every LP loving audiophile out there, I proclaim this phono preamplifier to be both a sure-fired way to elegantly amplify the feeble output of a phono cartridge and a relative bargain in the world of high-end vacuum tube phono preamplification.
Two different versions of the TEA2 is available, one with a gain 55 dB for use with Moving Coil (MC) phono cartridges with a rated output of 1.0 mV or below, or a low gain 40 dB version for high output MC cartridges and most Moving Magnet (MM) cartridges. Both use a pair of 12AX7 tubes for the input stage that use the two triode sections connected in parallel to minimize noise. The high gain version (which is the subject of this review) uses a third 12AX7 for the second gain stage, while the third tube in the low gain model uses a 12AU7. Since these tubes behave (and are designed) differently, the two versions also have different resistors associated with these tubes. Both versions offer switch selectable resistive loading which of course allow users to fine-tune the setting for their particular phono cartridge in their set-up. Seven different impedance loads (from 130 Ohms to 47 kOhms) are set via a pair of DIP switches mounted on a pc board inside the cabinet located near the input connectors. After some experimenting I found that the default setting of 47 kOhms sounded best with my cartridge, the Lyra Helikon. The Helikon was mounted on a Tri-Planar Ultimate VII tonearm on a Basis Debut V turntable, and the ‘table's AC was hooked up to a dedicated PS Audio Power Plant P300 AC regenerator which provided the steady alternating current sine wave. The analog rig sat atop an Arcici Suspense equipment rack where the conrad-johnson TEA2 and the majority of the rest of the gear also took up residence on its lower shelves. The TEA2 and other front-end equipment were hooked up to a P600 Power Plant. For most of the review period I used a Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) VK-3iX line-stage preamp and a Krell KAV-250a power amplifier, and speakers were the Sound Lab DynaStats augmented by a Velodyne HGS-15b subwoofer. Cable was mostly by MIT and Virtual Dynamics.
After I let it burn it for quite some time, I gave a very clean copy of Procol Harum's 1970 album Home a spin, a record I finally added to my collection late this past summer from a local used record shop. The TEA2 clearly demonstrated why many would (or rather, should) prefer this inexpensive slap of vinyl over the CD version. Its ability to separate all the instruments in the mix by distances that seemed like they could be measured with a yardstick, yet each instrument was appropriately sized in relation to the others. This was patently evident on "About To Die", a Robin Trower composition (with lyricist Keith Reid) at the end of side one, the grinding distortion of Trower's guitar was isolated from Chris Copping's Hammond B-3 organ which played a similar melody alongside it. Despite some arguing that this tune sounds as if it is too derivative of The Band (even though I can hear the resemblance, I suppose there is a good chance that this is coincidental), the morbid message of the song, both musically and lyrically came through crystal clear. On similarly themed track on the LP, "The Dead Man's Dream", again, the piano is clearly heard as a separate event, completely distinct from Copping's concomitant organ.
Despite the fact that this is the Unite States pressing on A&M, B.J. Wilson's cymbals still have a relatively natural ping, and the TEA2's tube birthright adds an almost organic energy whilst staying true to the source. At the other end of the frequency spectrum the kick drum and bass guitar have the requisite muted "thud" that is typical of studio recordings from this era, and especially others that were also recorded at AIR Studios in London (case in point are the Brian Eno albums and many artists signed to Chrysalis Records around the same time period). Of course I would be remiss in not mentioning the star of the show – the midrange – that shines through the conrad-johnson, with the sweet benefits of tubes without any blatant euphony. Its midrange bloom was especially noticeable in the way it effortlessly pushed Gary Brooker's lead vocals in out in front of the rest of the mix, easily creating a mental picture of him singing into the microphone in the padded vocal booth. In fact, both male and female vocals from the tons of records I played through the TEA2 sounded fabulous, and this quality was definitely the TEA2's strong suit. Whether a voice was accompanying small ensembles, such as Johnny Hartman's smooth baritone on the John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman album, relatively raucous affairs such as Black Francis on my original UK pressing of the Pixies Doolittle LP, or PJ Harvey's sometimes dark, sometimes sultry, but always expressive vocals on her 1995 release To Bring You My Love.
So, with that in mind I could only imagine how the TEA2 would perform with a performance of acoustic instruments recorded in a real space, so I turn to an EMI that that I've played countless times since acquiring it so many moons ago. The conrad-johnson TEA2, as expected, demonstrated its strengths on Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto; the1975 recording performed by cellist Mstilav Rostropovich conducted by the composer. The piece begins by Slava playing a "D" at one second intervals, and although due to the way it was recorded his cello sounds larger than life (and quite out in front of the rest of the orchestra), yet tonally it is as faultless -- as one should expect from this label at this period in time. I'm not sure which hall this disc is recorded, although since it features the Orchestre de Paris perhaps it is Salle Pleyel, but the ambience of the hall could so clearly be heard I felt as if I could sense the temperature in the room. OK, that last sentence was a bit of unnecessary embellishment, but in reality, the hall's sound was especially noticeable during the cello's cadenza.
The speakers used for this review were Sound Lab DynaStat hybrid electrostatics, and while they are champs at projecting a huge soundfield vertically and horizontally, soundstage depth is not its strong suit. Even so, less than a minute after the solo cello begins the piece the stuttering horns enter spread across the stage well behind the cello. Later still the various types of percussion arrive, sounding even closer to the back of the stage, as if originating behind the wall of my listening room. The soundstage was dramatically enveloping and at the same time, other than the solo cello, was perfectly scaled. By the time the orchestra makes its entrance and plays its abstract motif it was clear that rather than holding up a sonic microscope to the music the TEA2 draws one into the program material with its profound musicality. Please pardon the cliché, but in all honesty, I had to start the piece again after about five minutes into it because I was distracted and neglected to jot down any listening notes.
Even though the Procol Harum album mentioned above is certainly not demonstration quality it was still able to show off the TEA2's attributes. Still, the album's softened transients were sometimes exaggerated just a bit when played through the tubed TEA2. This vintage rock recording's typical-of-the-era's multi-track tape saturation is actually a sound that many modern rock producers attempt to emulate, a very good example being Loose Fur's Born Again In The USA, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco's side project with drummer Glenn Kotche and producer/multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Jim O'Rourke. I loved this LP ever since it was released in 2006, and it was a great way to show off the TEA2's strengths. The record was recorded at Wilco's studio and at Sear Sound in New York, the later known for combining state-of-the-art analog tape technology with forward-thinking digital techniques. Analog artifacts such as tape hiss is clearly heard as tracks begin and end, yet the entire album's sound has the kind of resolution that is truly modern.
Through the TEA2 the percussion such as the tambourine and cowbell on the opening "Hey Chicken" was slightly buried beneath the rather dense mix but still quite audible and very natural sounding, and on the second cut "The Ruling Class" the melodic whistling in the background was slightly buried beneath the hubbub, what was heard was still very also realistic sounding. Of course both Tweedy's and O'Rourke's vocals were rendered with utmost authenticity, and it was also obvious that there were singing into a high quality microphone, and whenever or not there was reverb applied to their signal the excellent midrange of the conrad-johnson made it apparent that what I was hearing was as the recording engineer intended. In addition, and of course a requisite for a rock album is the excellent bass response of the TEA2. It might not have been the tightest I've ever heard, but the low-end extension was exemplary, laying down a sold foundation for the rest of the band above it. But more importantly, throughout the album the TEA2 was able to communicate the band's intentions. Whether it was the meaning behind their music, the meaning of their lyrics, or just an unexplained sense of connection to the musicians on the album as a whole, the conrad-johnson had this trait in spades.
I hope I'm not implying that this is the perfect phono preamplifier, as it has some idiosyncrasies that might not suit all listeners. First of all, the gain on the supplied MC version of this phono preamplifier is 55 dB, which just squeaked by at having enough gain for my system. The output of the Lyra cartridge is 0.4 mV, and although Conrad-johnson states in their literature that the MC version is designed for cartridges 1.0 mV or below, it doesn't say how much below. I had to push the volume on the Balanced Audio Technology VK-3iX preamplifier pretty high. The VK-3iX is notoriously quite so there was no problem there, but the conrad-johnson TEA2 was not nearly as quiet as the BAT preamp it was connected to. There was a small amount of 60 cycle hum that I wasn't able to totally remove with grounding options or positioning. This hum was not audible under normal listening conditions while music played, but still, the preamp was not totally silent by any means. The other minor quibble I have is its loading switches being located internally. Taking the preamp off the rack, removing the cabinet screws, removing the cabinet, making changes to the DIP switches, replacing the cabinet and its screws, placing the preamp back on the rack, and then listening to the results is awfully labor intensive for a procedure that ought not to be, and it gives (at least to me) the feeling that conrad-johnson thinks that it should be more of a set-and-forget procedure. Don't get me wrong, I certainly enjoy listening to music a whole lot more than I like futzing around with settings, and luckily the factory settings were what I ended up with after trying a few loading options. Still, some users might want to experiment more than others.