". . .a worthy second course to the gourmet meal that is the Premier 350SA?"
am a lover of great restaurants. Its tremendously difficult to serve high-quality food to hordes of picky customers night after night, and whether its a simple barbecue joint or a Michelin-rated bistro, I have enormous respect for anyone who can provide consistently satisfying dining experiences -- the same way I feel about manufacturers of audio equipment with similar track records.
Last year, I was lucky enough to find one of the 200 or so Conrad-Johnson Premier 350SA solid-state amplifiers produced in the mid-2000s. The '350SA is still widely considered one of the worlds great solid-state stereo amplifiers, and from the first day I hooked it up, I knew it was something special. I was struck by how it managed to sound both effortless and powerful. The Premier 350SA is highly resolving while also delivering an incredibly natural, seamless musical landscape, regardless of musical genre. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, with the introduction of the Premier 350SA, the masters at Conrad-Johnson created a product that embodies both the coveted three-dimensionality of tube amplifiers and the control and speed for which the best solid-state models are known. The bar the '350SA sets is very high indeed.
Exactly why C-J ceased production of the Premier 350SA is unclear, but the reasons most often cited were that the overbuilt behemoth was prohibitively expensive and difficult to produce. The Premier 350SA I bought was in mint condition, with very few hours of use. Prior to this find, I had used a variety of stereo amplifiers in my system, including models from Audio Research, Classé, Musical Concepts, Sanders, and Musical Fidelity. So when the MF-2550 SE arrived, I was naturally eager to hear how it would sound when compared with the mighty Premier 350SA, and to learn what the C-J chefs had cooked up this time. Would it be a worthy second course to the gourmet meal that is the Premier 350SA?
Setting up the MF-2550 SE was a snap, although I have one note of caution: before plugging in the power cord, be sure that the power button is not pushed in -- theres no warning about this in the manual. When I plugged in my power cord, the MF-2550 SE immediately came on. No harm was done, but I prefer to turn an amp on when I choose, and not before all cords and connections have been double checked.
Because the MF-2550 SE contains a fair number of Teflon capacitors (see sidebar), C-J recommends extensive break-in -- 300 hours, to be exact. Although my sample had already logged some hours of use with a previous reviewer, I noticed that its handling of the upper registers became decidedly more natural and grain-free after two weeks of day-long operation.
he first thing I noticed was how quickly -- and seemingly from out of nowhere -- the MF-2550 SE delivered the first drum beats of "Mack the Knife," from Jimmie Dale Gilmores One Endless Night CD [Rounder Select ROUCD 3173]. It reminded me of one evening in a French restaurant many years ago, when a waiters lighter appeared under my cigarette, before I could reach for my own -- an unexpected but nice touch. This was one fast amp. Gilmores voice also had a decidedly "Jimmie Dale" quality as delivered by the MF-2550 SE -- his Lubbock twang was even more nasal than I remembered it from previous listenings. This time, I was hearing his nose and his throat. The MF-2550 SEs delivery of microdynamics was stunning, and made me want to dive deeper into my music collection.
As I put on the 24-bit/96kHz HDtracks download of Becks latest release, Morning Phase [Capitol B0001983802], I was struck by the rich details in "Morning": in the background are layer upon layer inside of layers of electronic toggling and tweaking and phase shifting that Id never fully noticed before. The MF-2550 SEs transparency was a bit like hearing everything deconstructed in a way that enabled me to still appreciate each individual element. It was fascinating. It was interesting. But something was missing, and I struggled to put my finger on it. I found myself getting lost in the luxurious detail of the sound, but not so much in the music as a whole. The MF-2550 SEs transparency had me paying far more attention to individual leaves on the trees instead of what was going on in the rest of the forest.
Next up in my many listening sessions with the C-J were selections from Citizen Steely Dan, the boxed set of remastered CDs of the groups albums [MCA MCAD 410981]. The MF-2550 SE brought out some subtle guitar fills Id never noticed in "Babylon Sisters," but the background singers sounded a bit overemphasized compared to what I remembered from my reference. Donald Fagens voice seemed diminished in the mix -- or was I just hearing the recording fully exposed and stripped of coloration? The sax solo in "Deacon Blues" is always strident and harsh, but through the MF-2550 SE I found myself reaching more quickly for the volume control. Truth or overemphasis? Im not sure anyone who hasnt heard the master tapes would know for sure.
I invited over a friend whom I consider to be an audio master chef. His ability to put a wide variety of high-end systems together and troubleshoot problems is well known among the audiophiles of our area. Whenever one of us is stumped, someone will usually pipe up with, "Ask Blackmore. Hed know." A music teacher by trade, Blackmore is very analytical, not prone to hyperbole, and always willing to offer the unvarnished truth about what something sounds like. We listened to a wide variety of music, from orchestral works to rock and jazz.
After much brow furrowing, foot tapping, and seat shifting, the first words Blackmore uttered during our initial listening session were, "Wickedly transparent." He also said he heard a slight stridency in what he believed was the "5 to 8kHz range."
We agreed that the MF-2550 SEs presentation of voices was stellar. And because its delivery of microdynamics was so impressive, we were able to hear the full emotional impact of a singers intuitive vocal inflections. The MF-2550 SE made it easier to hear a vocalists softening of tone or lilt of phrase, which drew us even deeper into the meanings of many lyrics. Whether it was Chet Baker, Mark Knopfler, Alison Krauss, or a classical choral group, the singers sounded as if they were right in front of us -- we could feel the full force of their performances. The dominant adjectives we kept reaching for to describe the MF2550SEs sonic personality were dynamic, lively, and transparent. As he left, Blackmore turned and said, "I really like this amp."
Two weeks after our first session with the MF-2550 SE, Blackmore asked for another taste. Afterward, he concurred that much of the "edge" wed heard in our initial session was gone and that the amplifier was hitting all of its marks: It was fast, detailed, transparent, and musical. The soundstage was very stable and focused. Bass notes were tight and textures could be easily identified. The tonal differences between, for example, a Fender electric and a double bass were clearly highlighted. The warmth of the uprights wooden tones contrasted clearly with the sound produced by the electronic treble settings on the e-bass and its amp.
These are the sorts of details the MF-2550 SE served up best. The 300-hour Teflon Rubicon had at last been crossed.
mong the amplifiers Ive heard in my system, the Conrad-Johnson MF-2550 SE stands out. Of those amps, its closest competitor in terms of price, specifications, and power is the Classé CA-2300. At $7000, this Canadian anvil delivers 600W into 4 ohms, and was quite capable of handling my Thiel CS3.7s -- and having spent many years with these speakers, I can tell you that, much like their predecessors, the CS7.2s, they will use every watt they can get. The MF-2550 SE produces "just" 400Wpc (confirmed by C-Js Lew Johnson), but not all watts are created equal. The CA-2300 was a bit sluggish by comparison. The MF-2550 SE gripped the 3.7s, handling every curve the music threw with agility and speed, and sounding significantly more transparent and musical (in all of the best ways) than the Classé.
While were on the subject of watts: The time I spent with the Sanders Magtech stereo amplifier ($5000) a few months ago provided an even greater reminder that numbers dont tell the whole story. The Magtech pumps out nearly 1000Wpc into 4 ohms, yet I have never heard a quieter amplifier. However, when paired with the Thiels, the Magtech lacked the Conrad-Johnsons excitement and the Classés subtlety. To my ears, the Magtech failed to provide the MF-2550 SEs "jump factor" and sounded somewhat sterile by comparison.
The MF-2550 SE was addictively resolving, and quicker than any current-model amplifier Ive heard in my listening room. But how did it stack up against C-Js own legendary Premier 350SA? By the end of that second session with Blackmore, I was a bit worried about hooking the older model up -- we agreed that C-Js latest effort would be a tough act to follow.
But while the Premier 350SA ($10,000 when discontinued a few years ago) had lain dormant for more than a month, the differences in character were immediately audible. The first thing Id been missing since the MF-2550 SEs arrival can be described in one word: weight. Through the '350SA, drums and bass were heavy and dramatic again. While it failed to fully convey the subtlest textures the way the MF-2550 SE did, the '350SAs lower midrange was warmer, and its presentation of bass was substantially fuller and more involving. The kick drum on "Mack the Knife" hit my chest very much as the sound of a drum that size actually would if played in my living room. Whether this was a function of the Premier 350SAs extra 200Wpc or some other design decision, I cant say. Because the Thiels are pigs for power, it could be that the MF-2550 SEs 400Wpc might demonstrate more authority with easier-to-drive speakers.
The other major difference between the MF-2550 SE and the Premier 350SA was how the two amps presented the soundstage. Through the MF-2550 SE, performers were more focused between my speakers. By contrast, Blackmore noted that the Premier 350SA "reaches around to hug you." The '350SAs style is more immersive, enveloping, and cinematic -- instruments fall well beyond the edges of my room and are significantly bigger than through the MF-2550 SE. Im not talking about a 15-foot Donald Fagen, but through the Premier 350SA it sounds more as if Steely Dan is up on a stage, as opposed to directly across from me. Its possible that the MF-2550 SEs soundstage is actually more realistic, but I find the Premier 350SAs more entertaining.
istening to the MF-2550 SE during the first two weeks after its arrival was a bit like visiting a stellar restaurateurs new venue. At first, there were some kinks -- some dishes seemed a bit "too much," and I wasnt sure whether everything had the proper balance. But by week three, the review unit was in good form, and all the important elements had begun to come together. Now, everything the MF-2550 SE served up arrived with perfect timing. I lingered over it all, savoring every nuance and twist. The MF-2550 SE kept surprising me with new detail, and I will miss it. Nonetheless, I still prefer the Premier 350SA for its immersive, three-dimensional soundstage, effortless power, and warmer tone.
Conrad-Johnsons MF-2550 SE is an outstanding solid-state amplifier. The Windex-clear window it offers into each piece of music, as well as its ability to deliver lightning-quick transients, are traits that I wish the Premier 350SA possessed in equal measure. Conrad-Johnson is a marquee brand for a reason, and its many accolades are no accident. Perhaps one day the audio chefs of Fairfax, Virginia, will find a way to combine the strengths of their two best solid-state creations into one ultimate masterpiece. Until then, the MF-2550 SE offers remarkable performance and is yet another delight on the companys already impressive menu.
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