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March 2007
Superior Audio Equipment Review

conrad-johnson MV60 Stereo Tube Amplifier
The more things change...
Review By Todd Warnke
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

conrad-johnson MV60 Stereo Vacuum Tube Amplifier

 

  Jerry West was an early idol of mine, but not for his ability to stop on a dime and launch that classic jumper. Nor was it for his unflappable play in the clutch. Rather it was his consistent output that amazed and inspired me. Game after game and year after year, West put up numbers that would have been boring in their repetition had they not also been spectacular. For about 10 years if the Lakers were playing it meant West had 25 points, guaranteed. In the audio high-end, if any company can lay claim to West's mantle, and I am being purely figurative here as Bill Conrad and Lew Johnson are the prototypical white men who cannot jump, much less shoot, it is Conrad-Johnson. Since 1977 they have designed and manufactured gear that is solid, dependable, usually a bargain and unstintingly musical. And it is that last part that is so spectacular. Not to mention unusual. Which is also a tad ironic considering we are talking about the music reproduction industry.

Of course, like West on those famous Laker teams with Wilt, Baylor and Goodrich, the problem with being consistent is that you get overlooked, in this case, most often by those who cover the industry as we gumshoes have a built-in focus on the new wave, the revolutionary and the fashionable. In spite of this, both in and outside the industry, C-J has become one of the most recognizable of all the 2nd generation high-end firms. Excepting only the odd collector with some vintage McIntosh or Marantz gear, I can count on a couple of hands the number of non-audiogeeks I know who own genuine high-end gear, but the number of normal folk I know who own at least one C-J component is more than a dozen. One reason for this is that innate musicality but another is the sheer dependability of the gear. Designed to outlast any current audio fad as well as the one following that one, C-J components have legs. So, combine reliability, consistency and musical sound, plus - let's be honest here, staid looks - and you get an entire company that sells a lot of true high-end gear but also retains a degree of invisibility.

This, however, does not imply that C-J is conservative and that they only take the safe route. For exhibit one, look at the new MV60. While it is the direct successor to their bread and butter, entry level tube amplifier, the MV55, it is also the successor, at least of a sort, to the more expensive and universally praised Premier 11a. A stereo amplifier, the 60 uses two EL34 tubes a side to generate 55 watts a channel in standard, ultralinear mode. And just as both the Premier 11a and the MV55 had triode models, so too can the 60 be wired for triode, in which case the output is 25 watts a channel. With a 6SN7 driver tube and a 12AX7A input tube a side, the design is not radical; rather it is evidence of many years of refinement and as such it is the obvious and deserved heir to both older amplifiers. But where the MV60 differs most from the MV55 and also directly bridges to the more expensive 11a, is in the use of the same transformers that were in the now discontinued Premier model. This change is the one most responsible for the price increase from $1,995 to $2,795 while it is also the change that, according to C-J, moved the performance of the MV60 to such a point that the Premier 11a was no longer viable at its $3,695 price point. Which, considering that the 11a was and remains one of the most sought after amplifiers in its price range, greatly raises both the stakes and expectations of the MV60. So while not a revolutionary design, the MV60 us hardly a safe one either.

Built to traditional C-J standards, the 60 weighs in at 48 pounds, 10 more than the 55 tipped the scales - those transformers again. The 60 also uses the standard C-J bias trim procedure, meaning a procedure so simple that I could talk the long-suffering, highly capable but bias illiterate Robin through it on the phone. Basically, just to the inboard side of each power tube is a bias adjustment screw and just above that lies an LED. After hooking the amplifier to a load (i.e. your speakers) and powering the amplifier up you use the supplied screwdriver to turn the bias screw clockwise until the bias LED lights up. Then, gently, move the bias screw counter-clockwise just until the LED winks out. The directions say to repeat this action after the amplifier has finished warming up, about 30 minutes or so. Over my several months time with the MV60 I found that the bias was very steady, needing only the slightest of adjustments once or twice to stay spot on.

The MV60 is also built with traditional C-J looks. The "champagne" metalwork face is one of those love it or leave it things. Even more in the love or hate mode, the 60 has a flying buttress at the front, left corner that supports nothing but integrates the 60 visually with the rest of the gear coming out of C-J. With the supplied tube cage in place the buttress looks like it has a purpose but with the cage off it is downright odd. My aesthetic advice (and I know you all are waiting breathlessly for it) as well as practical advice for those with pets, children and non-audio significant others is to keep the cage on.

 

The Gang
For this review the MV60 received signal from the, if the world was fair everyone would have heard it by now First Sound Presence Deluxe Statement pre-amp, using either Acoustic Zen Silver Reference interconnects or Audio Magic Illusion. Electrons flowing out of the amplifier traveled through either Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables or Cardas Golden Cross. The rest of the system consisted of a Cary CD-303 as both standalone player and as a transport feeding the Dodson DA-217 MK. II DAC. The digital cable was the Acoustic Zen MC2=Zen and interconnects were Cardas Neutral Reference. Loudspeakers were either my reference Merlin VSM-SEs, the just reviewed Soliloquy 6.5s or the just in for review Silverline SR-11s. Power was conditioned by a Shunyata Research Hydra while most of this stuff stood on DH Labs Golden Sound cones and squares while several components wore Bright Star Audio Little Rocks as hats. Power cords were from Acoustic Zen, ElectraGlide and Shunyata Research.

 

The Sound
Right out of the box the MV60 showed me that old tube magic, the magic that almost no solid-state amplifier and most certainly none at this price point has. In a word that magic is body. Images were full, round, textured and stood out in bold relief with a deep, wide and luxuriously layered stage. Picking out individual instruments with the 60 was child's play. Robin, who has long confessed to being depth challenged when it comes to audio was practically swooning with delight at being able to pick out the layers in the 1986 Bernstein Mahler 6th [DG 215076].

Of course this is a hallmark of both tube sound in general and of C-J in particular. What would make this a spectacular amplifier would be if it mated this sound to clarity, resolution, extension and control. So let's take a look at clarity and its kissing cousin, resolution.

Bruckner's 8th symphony is my narcotic. I find myself repeatedly and helplessly drawn to it, needing it, craving the release from a weekend long binge of 8ths, played one after another. The work opens by building a foundation of elegant design yet massive proportions, at least when in the hands of a sympathetic conductor. The first movement has deep sonorities that cast anchor for strings and brass that leap like peaks thrusting into an alpine sky, followed by human scaled contemplation of the beauty of creation. From this opening the work flows through a second movement Scherzo that alternates graceful dance and overwhelming power. The following movement, the Adagio, is one of if not the finest slow movement in all classical music, while the last movement concludes by blending the main themes from all 4 movements into a single, massive, heaven-reaching chord. To me this piece approaches "ambient classical", but not in the way that Satie and Debussy are credited as spiritual fathers to the modern ambient movement but rather in the sense that the 8th seems to simultaneously give life to and combine the sounds of 1000 years of religious music. Rather than a work by Bruckner, it sounds as if the very walls of St. Florian, his home church, had been given voice. And, like much ambient music, it casts long lines that flow through subtle changes, reflecting a mind given over to deep contemplation.

Of all the versions of the 8th the one I find most compelling and cohesive is the 1993 live recording by Celibidache with the Munich Philharmonic [EMI 56696]. Long winded it is, but also firm in the way the conductor takes control of the line. At no time is the moment glorified at the expense of the architecture, nor is the architecture solely a skeleton, lacking texture. Rather the structure and the moment work in service of each other, much the way Brother Anton allied absolute, overarching and perpetual faith to the individual actions of obedience required by his belief. To extract this level of feeling, depth and commitment from a recording, especially a live recording and most especially a live Celibidache recording, a given audio component must be able to reproduce the complete orchestra with clarity and it must also extract the setting. Most importantly, it must tie those things together.

Too many audio components get the first part right, or rather they hype detail, forcing you to admit their clarity of image, of individual players and of stage, but they then fail to resolve that clear vision into a cohesive, organic entity. This is rather like defining a poem by the number of letters it uses instead of how those letters are combined into words. Of course you need to be able to read the letters, but unless they form words which in turn form phrases that interlock and elucidate, what good are the letters? Fortunately, the MV60 has the clarity to reveal all the letters in Bruckner's massive orchestration, but also the resolution to combine those letters into the long, deeply thought-out lines that make the work transcendent. Ultimately, in my system the Manley Neo-Classic SE/PP 300B I reviewed several months back was more faithful to both the letter and the spirit of this work, but this is an amplifier that costs almost three times as much as the MV60. However, when placed in and judged in context that is appropriate to the MV60, such as driving the Silverline SR11 with a source like the Cary CD-303, the sound was so far beyond what I had expected that all comparisons to the far more expensive Manley faded away as the balance between detail and resolution was natural and, well, musical.

If your tastes run more to jazz, take a listen to the second great Miles Davis Quintet re-invent themselves and in the process start the endgame of the classic jazz era on The Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel, 1965 [Columbia]. While far from a perfect recording, the music is mesmerizing. Seven sets over two nights with 39 tracks but only 20 different songs. To hear this talent spend nearly an hour playing four different takes on "I Fall In Love Too Easily", is to peak into the creative process itself. Through the C-J/Silverline combination the balance between detail and resolution was at the very limit of what this recording allows. The sounds of the audience (through any gear) are a frequent intruder, but in this setup the audience was more an actual distraction than annoyance as they took on a palpable presence. Fortunately, the music had even greater presence. It was easy to pick out when the band would lock on to a new idea, or to hear them jump at a new twist to the largely standard rep that Miles was running them through. Not just details, but entire flows of thought, some slow, most quick, hard and driven, were thrown at me. Once again, other, far higher priced gear teased a few more details from the recording, but the verve with which the C-J handled this task was such that, seriously, I could live with this sound quite comfortably.

Extension and control are also related, for what good is extension if deep bass is accompanied by sloppy tonality and drive, and what of that last octave of treble if it is hard, harsh and grainy? The best gear, at least the best, non-statement gear such as LS3/5a, has always understood this and so has offered extension only as far as they could also offer quality. The MV60 strikes this same balance.

As far as bass extension goes, the MV60 gets the full measure of what a pair of EL34 tubes can reasonably offer. That is, the bass is relatively flat to about 40Hz where it begins to slowly roll off with an emphasis on slowly. Up top the treble extends all the way out, at least as far I can hear, but with a very slight softening at the very limit. This gave the amplifier a very balanced sound, with neither frequency edge taking undue prominence. Even better, the MV60 offered excellent control and harmonic texture across the board. Bass was rich, most especially in the mid-bass region, but also taut with excellent attack. Treble decayed smoothly, leaving a graceful sense of space in its wake.

 

For The Lost Boys
So now let us take a look at the MV60 from the port side of the brain only. The frequency response, as mentioned above, did have a slight roll in the last octave, and a slightly softened top end. It also has a very slight touch of mid-bass to lower mid-range warmth and an equally small, extra bite in the presence region.

Detail, most especially for a tubed amp in this price range, is a strong suit of the MV60. I have heard many EL34 amplifier designs and, working from memory, I cannot recall a single one that was able to draw out as many subtle inflections from recordings, at least while still maintaining a sure and steady sense of music. On the other hand, my Blue Circle BC6 amp ($3,750) is able to pull out a few more nuances, but without quite the bass depth and impact of the MV60. Inner detail, to me a significant part of the high-end experience, was extracted with fine touch.

Staging was also well done. The front of the stage hung close to the speaker plane, a presentation I prefer to having players thrust into my room, while the back was waaaayyyyy out there. Those far back corners had a tendency to curve a bit, but I had to concentrate to see it. Even more, I had to care a great deal for it to matter, and I don't, so this was not much of a personal issue. Left to right, the MV60 extended just past the speaker boundaries. Once again, this is of small personal consequence to me, but I mention it for completeness sake.

As for power, the MV60 packed a solid middleweight punch - more speed and finesse than raw power, but more than enough power for a frequent knockout.

About the only other issues I had with the MV60 were an extremely low level hum and the occasional soft thump at turn off. As it turned out, the thump disappeared when I rolled some different tubes in to the amplifier towards the end of the review. As for the hum, I mention it to be thorough, not because I was bothered by it as I needed to be within a foot or so of the speakers to hear it.

 

Perspective
For $2795 the MV60 offers a beguiling set of skills, first and foremost among them is that whole, tubed presence thing. Through this amplifier musicians were more than images… they were real people. Though significant, the MV60 augments this by adding a well-defined tonal control, excellent detail retrieval and a sure sense of resolution. With 55 watts (ultralinear), it also offers a lot of tubed power for the money. Built on a solid platform, the MV60 should be around as long as they are making EL34 tubes. But more than anything, the MV60 is well balanced. It sounds great at both low and high volumes. It sounds great with classical, ambient, jazz and rock. And it presents detail, but never without placing it in context. In short, it's a (relatively) affordable amplifier that delivers across the spectrum and in most any setting. If anything, it is so balanced in what it does that it runs the Jerry West risk of being ignored simply because goes about its job so smoothly and consistently. You and I, however, should not allow this to happen as it would be a true shame if the MV60 were to be damned for being nothing more than another, superb, musical and reliable C-J amp. In fact, if I ran high-end audio, I would be sorely tempted to follow the lead of the basketball. Just as West is the logo for the NBA, so too can the MV60 be the logo for real world, fine audio.

 

Specifications
Type: Vacuum tube stereo amplifier
Tube Compliment: two EL34 per channel, 6SN7 for driver tube and 12AX7A as input 

Power (ultralinear operation): 55 watts per channel from 30 Hz to 15 kHz at no more than 1 percent THD, both channels driven into 4, 8, or 16 Ohms. (when re-connected for the chosen load impedance)

Power (triode operation): 25 watts per channel from 30 Hz to 15 kHz at no more than 1.5% THD, both channels driven into 4, 8, or 16 ohms. (when re-connected for the chosen load impedance)

Sensitivity: 0.8 volts rms to rated power (ultralinear)
Gain: 26dB
Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz (+0/-0.5dB)
Hum and Noise: 95 dB below 55 watts
Input Impedance: 100 kOhms
Phase: phase correct
Dimensions: 13.25 x 17.625 x 7 (DxWxH in inches)
Weight: 48 lbs.
Features: Built in led bias indicators for easy, instrument-free biasing of the output stage.
Price:  $2795

 

Company Information
conrad-johnson design, inc. 
2733 Merrilee Drive 
Fairfax, VA 22031

Voice: (703) 698-8581 
Fax: (703) 560-5360
E-mail: custserv@conradjohnson.com
Website: www.conradjohnson.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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