SMR logoConrad-Johnson CAV-50 Integrated Amplifier Review

Man can't survive on home theatre alone, sometimes that itch for audiophile two-channel music reproduction has to be scratched. John R. Potis Jr., a two-channel audiophile if ever there was one turns his attention away from loudspeakers and elopes into the sunset with conrad-johnson's newest integrated tube (valve) amplifier.

Many thanks go to Mr. Lew Johnson for his help and for providing the review sample.

Conrad-Johnson CAV-50 Specifications
Amplifier power (ultra linear operation) 45 watts per channel from 30Hz to 15kHz at no more than 1% THD, both channels driven into 4, 8 or 16 ohms.

Built Features: Six line level inputs, including one tape loop, built-in LED bias indicator for easy instrument free biasing of output stage.

Sensitivity: .50 V to rated power
Gain: (PRE OUT) 20 dB
Phase (speakers outputs) Phase correct (non inverting)
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz, +/- 0.5dB
Hum and Noise 98dB below 45 watts

Hum and Noise (PRE OUT): 94dB relative to 2.5V output
Input Impedance: 50 Kohms

Tube Complement:
1 12AU7
2 12AX7
2 6SN7
4 EL34

Dimensions 14" D 17.5"W 7.25"H
Weight: 44 lbs
$2,500

(All specifications as per manufacturer)

Conrad-Johnson Inc., CAV-50 Integrated Amplifier

 

A lesson in Economics

Conrad Johnson CAV-50 Integrated AmplifierWhen I requested a review sample of the CAV-50 integrated amplifier, I expected good things. After all, Ive been a cj owner for years. But my expectations were tempered by the fact that the CAV-50 is very much a budget-priced piece of gear by cjs usual standards (it costs $500 less than my cj power amp did 9 years ago.) Surely there were some serious cost-cutting measures that would reflect in the sound of the unit, right?

Wrong! But yes, there are cost-cutting measures. Start with the fact that you get both pre-amp and power amp on one chassis. Thatll save you some serious dough. Mr. Johnson tells me that many audiophiles are afraid to use their balance control, which I too have found to be the case, so he omitted the balance adjustment. Aside from that, I couldnt tell you where else he made cuts.

I can tell you one place where he could have cut! He could have kept the tube cage! Gee-whiz, whats the use in owning tubes if you cant display them with pride! OK, I jest a little here. I know that people have children, dogs, cats, spotted owls, etc, all of which need protection from hot tubes, not to mention that perhaps the tubes could use some protection themselves. But the facts are that this is a beautiful amplifier when left au naturel and you can just take the tube cage off, if you desire. Sonics aside for a moment, part of the charm of owning tubes is their warm glow. I know I sure enjoy it. There is just something so tranquil about listening to music in a room dimly lit by the soft glow of tubes. If the CAV-50 sounded only as good as the competition, the added ambiance would be enough to cause me to recommend that you check out this amp. The good news is that there is much more to love about this amplifier. Much more.

The CAV-50 is a passive version of the PV10A mounted with an MV55 power amp on the same chassis. There is an inverted pre-amp output, which does have added gain in order to drive whatever is at the end of a set of interconnects. Lew Johnson of conrad-johnson elaborated:

"The CAV-50 is essentially an MV55 with selector switches and level control (the same pot used in PV10A and PV12A). There is an added gain stage in series with the pre-amp output (but not in series with the amplifier circuit) for use with sub-woofer amp, and other special applications."

Conrad-Johnson CAV-50The Good Stuff!

The very first thing I noticed about this amp was the treble. The highs were so smooth, so sweet, so liquid, so lush that I wondered if the extreme highs had been sacrificed to that end. At first I wondered if this was a throwback to the classic tube amps of yore, where some of that richness was the result of a rolled-off treble. Further listening proved that indeed the treble was there in full measure. There was plenty of treble extension as evidenced by excellent imaging, sound stage depth and lots of perceived space. Ultimately, the CAV-50 proved to have one of the sweetest trebles Ive ever heard. For me, this is the finest feature of the amp and the reason Im completely and totally smitten with it. I will offer a word of warning, though. The virtues of this presentation may not be immediately apparent. Like I said, at first I wasnt convinced of this amps high-frequency extension. On first audition, it may sound somewhat dark and dull. But dont give up on it. Keep listening and allow your reference to adjust. Soon the natural and rich character will come shining through as you wonder why so many other amps are so bright and brittle in comparison. I wish this amp had been on the market two years ago when I was hunting for an amp to use with my Sonus Faber Concertos. I think that would have been a match made in heaven. It certainly complemented several speakers I have in the house.

Over a pair of Dzurko Acoustics "Jaguars" the CAV-50 gave an extremely smooth presentation with lots of air, space and reverb on Neil Youngs "Unplugged" (Reprise 9362-45310-1). His voice floated in space between the speakers and was surrounded by the audience whose presence wrapped well behind the sound stage. All that stage-amp hum caught on "Helpless", as well as the microphone "thumps", made me feel as if I was part of that audience. His voice never sounded edgy or shrill as it has on numerous other systems. As a matter of fact, it was one of the smoothest presentations of this recording Ive ever heard. Credit, I suppose, to be shared between this excellent amp and the Jaguars. This is what synergism is all about!

Of course, the good stuff doesnt end there. My next favorite characteristic is this amps ability to paint a three-dimensional picture. Images were stunning and I heard an incredible amount of space, depth and width from the CAV-50. But what really struck me was the holographic layering of images. With the Dzurko "Jaguars", I heard (saw?) startlingly delineated layers of depth. Instruments were clearly outlined in space, one in front of the other. The Neil Young disc was a good example, and Joe Jacksons "Night And Day" (A&M CD-4906) was another. On the opening track "Another World", each drum in the kit occupied its own distinct place in space. On "Breaking Us In Two", Jacksons voice had true three-dimensionality to it, while the percussion was exquisitely portrayed off stage right, surrounded by lots of stage "presence." Bass lines throughout the disc were firm and powerful.

Conrad-Johnson CAV-50 Integrated AmplifierMidrange was nothing less than Ive come to expect from conrad-johnson-- clean and liquid with no hint of opacity or congestion. Upper mids were perfectly in step with the treble-- completely free from glare. For me, it was pretty much beyond both reproach and meaningful description. I mean, how much can you say about something so neutral and transparent?

Bass? Well, that depended on what I was driving. While bass was clean and articulate with plenty of punch with the Jaguars and the ACI Sapphire IIIs, the NHT 2.9s presented too tough a load on the CAV-50. With the 45 watts per channel, the bass on the 2.9s became a little weak, a little loose and a little disappointing. Clearly the NHTs require more juice in this large room. But hey, thats why cj makes larger amps and its also why NHT offers their sub-woofer amps. Its also why the CAV-50 has a preamp out! Feed NHTs SA3 sub amp from the "preamp out" on the CAV-50-- being careful to observe the outputs inverted polarity-- and have the best of both worlds: solid state bass slam and articulation with the smooth richness for which tubes have justifiably gained a reputation. And given the escalating prices of amplification, you still havent broken the bank. Further, speakers with built-in powered sub-woofer sections are becoming more and more common. The CAV-50 is a perfect companion to these speakers.

But dont let the 45- watt power rating fool you! In my Genesis APM1 review, I spoke about the fact that infrasonics were shutting down my 100-watt Classe CA100 where my 90- watt conrad-johnson MV100 just cruised along. More and more Im coming to realize how bullet-proof some of these tubed designs are. While I didnt try the same infrasonic-rich subject matter over the CAV-50, I spent a lot of time with the CAV-50 on the APM1s. With their powered woofer sections, the cj did a better-than-admirable job with them. Is it nuts to spend $9,500 on a pair of speakers and only $2,500 on an integrated amp? Maybe it looks that way on paper, but you should check it out before drawing conclusions. Given your tastes in music and your requirements for volume, the CAV-50 may just make a lot of sense.

Conrad-Johnson CAV-50 Integrated AmplifierGetting back to the bass, I dont want to give anybody the impression that this amp cant drive a pair of speakers with bass-rich material. Paul Simons "You Can Call Me Al" from "Graceland" (Warner 9 25447-1) exhibited excellent rhythm and pace. Bass lines were powerful, clean and eloquent over the Jaguars. Percussion sounded sharp and articulate. The voices on the all-male "choir" maintained their individual identities and suffered little or no smearing. Soundstage width was fantastic: the chorus line went wall to wall. As good as that presentation was, it didnt hold a candle to "Under African Skies". First, you will need a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way out of the cavernous sound stage! Bass lines were, again, exemplary. But the fluid midrange here was to die for. The duet between Simon and Ronstadt was about as good as it gets.

One of my favorite discs for demonstrating bass power and transient speed comes on the Telarc recording, "The Very Best of Eric Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops" (CD-80401). Track 13, "Chiller" with the Jaguars, gave me all the immediacy Ive come to expect from a quality system but sometimes dont get. The thunder-crack was sharp and as powerful as the Jaguars 6-inch woofers are capable of reproducing it.

Conclusion

Not being an engineer or electronics designer, I wont say that the CAV-50 is far greater than the sum of its parts, although I will continue to think it. What I will say is that its more than one may reasonably expect for its asking price. Due to my lack of a poker face, I let on to the fact that Im smitten with this amp very early on in the review. Given the fact that Im particularly sensitive to high frequencies, easily irritated by poor treble, and that Im an imaging freak, not to mention my affinity for listening in the dark by the warm glow of tubes, it was inevitable that I would be. Add to that the extremely reasonable price of only $2,500 and this integrated amp is a no-brainer in my book. For someone setting out right now on the road to good, high end music reproduction, I cant recommend highly enough the CAV-50 with a pair of monitor speakers such as the extremely affordable ACI Sapphires. Add an ACI Titan sub-woofer and you have a truly musically satisfying system that wont break the bank or dominate your living space.

What else can one ask for?

Good luck and listening,

1998.

 

Associated Equipment:
Sota Jewel turntable, Premier FT3 tonearm, Sumiko Blue Point Special cartridge, Bryston BP-1 phono stage
Yamaha/Theta TLC/Meridian 563 CD playback system
Genesis APM1, ACI Sapphire III, Dzurko Acoustics Jaguar speaker systems,
Vibrapod Isolation Pods under all electronics and turntable

conrad-johnson design, inc
2733 Merrilee Drive
Fairfax VA 22031
United States of America
Telephone: 703 698-8581

Text John R. Potis Jr.; HTML SMR Home Theatre and Images John R. Potis & SMR Home Theatre cannot be reproduced without permission.  The images on this page are digitally watermarked: Digimarc http://www.digimarc.com/

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Last updated 17 August, 1998

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