Michael Wright, The StereoTimes (06/2010) concluded:
“…the Conductor was extremely well behaved during its time residing in my system. There were no pops, hums, nothing micro-phonic, no tube noise, and no transient thumps when I turned it or anything else in my listening room on or off….The Conductor made listening to music pure joy in my system. It has an uncanny ability to musically retrieve all of the information that’s loaded inside of your music media and make you feel that you’re at the recorded event. Because of those areas of performance I value that tube preamps provide, I felt that the Conductor outperformed my Klyne in most aspects of music that I tend to judge music by, though the Klyne wasn’t far off. Those virtues that tubes bring to the table caused me to feel I would give the edge to the Conductor. I also had access to an Audio Valve Eclipse, with NOS RCA “Clear Tops”, during the time I spent reviewing the Conductor. The Conductor is in a different class from the Eklipse, and it should at $7-8K more in cost. They are two entirely different preamps that have different topologies, different power supplies, different parts, and use different tubes. In my opinion, there are no tubes on the planet that you can put into the Eklipse that will allow it to perform as well as the Conductor. There is a reason why the Conductor costs more than the Eklipse and if you have the opportunity to compare the two, you’ll hear the sonic increases that I’m talking about. The Conductor compares favorably with the likes of preamps from Audio Research, Atma-Sphere and Convergent Audio based on what I have heard of these other fine preamps in other systems. I never felt the urge to try and change the tubes in the Conductor because I felt it was already sounding good with the factory tubes. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Conductor and was sad to see if go after it allowed me to enjoy and rediscover some of my musical treasures. The Audio Valve Conductor certainly gets my highest recommendation…”
Handmade Refined Supercar
Written by Liu Mingcheng
Audio Art Magazine
It adopts the design of two boxes of power splitters, and the dual-mono design beginning from the power supply, with full-balance amplification but without global feedback. Input impedance: 47kΩ; output impedance: 300kΩ; frequency response: 5Hz – 200kHz; gain: 14dB; input terminal: two sets of XLR and two sets of RCA; the used valve: 6H30×4 and 6922×4. Dimension: 480×140×380mm (main unit) and 480×80×380mm (power supply), weight: 25kg. Import general agency: Dean-Lin (03-2127378).
In the past we always conducted the audition at the place of the audio dealers or the agents, but this time the audition arrangement is quite special in that it’s held at the home of a audio fan and the subject is not a very large machine but a two-piece pre-amplifier. Why we take so much effort to try a pre-amplifier only? Is there any problem to bring it to our place? Actually, there is no. But the question is that this new flagship AudioValve Conductor is truly of hot sale, so such products are always sold out just upon the arrival. It will take quite a long time to wait for the dealers to have some spare machine for display and audition. To convey the information about this machine to the readers as soon as possible, I have no other choice but to appreciate it in the user’s house.
Wait, how does the dealer sell it if no machine for display? That’s exact the interesting point. Almost all customers bought it without audition, just due to their confidence in the AudioValve brand. Another question is: what’s matter with this AudioValve company? Can it manufacture the machines at a faster pace, so the dealers are able to have some goods in stock? If you have studied its website, you must have the idea that this company is a “family handicraft” which is under the management of a couple for several years and recently their son has also been involved as an accountant. Think about this: how fast can a company with three people deliver goods to the whole world?
Charm of Blue-Ray Words
The first sight of the Conductor’s appearance makes you hard to believe it is manufactured by AudioValve. The glass panel in the center certainly attracts the focus of attention, because the frosted words AudioValve in the middle, as lighted by the beneath blue LED, turns to be blue words floating in the windows, embodying a quite innovative idea. What surprises me more is that on the right panel there is a color LED with quite high resolution.
Does AudioValve use advanced technologies like digital volume controls and digital logic operations? No.
The operation of Conductor is still an extremely “analog” task, because its volume control still relies on the left wheel, and the signal source switching and output switching are also achieved by lever-type switches. Well, is this beautiful screen merely a gimmick? I have thought so. Later during the audition I accidentally pressed the power switch of its remote control, and as the Conductor was rebooting, I found on the screen the heating status of the valve, with graphical representation showing the temperature increase. When the chart reached the peak, the equipment stepped into the normal operation state. This type of display is also different from those of all traditional valve equipments, from which we can see AudioValve is not a conservative manufacturer that uses only traditional technologies.
Co-existence of Technology and Tradition
Having the courage to embrace new technology, why it still manufactures all the audio-signal-related circuits of Conductor in so traditional way? For instance its volume control adopts the six-section variable resistor for attenuation, which is even installed directly behind the panel and through a long internal wire connected with the circuit board. Why not to use a connecting rod to shorten the signal path? AudioValve gives the following explanation: variable resistor is still the best volume attenuation method that is, in their opinion, of the best sound quality.
Able to present the width of a large stage and the first-class sense of the scene.
Relaxing and charming, without the slightest pressing feeling even for the grand-scene music played in a large system.
Having the unique warm, stereo and thick features of valve equipments.
? Neutral and non-rendered sounds.
There is still room for improvement in details and enhancement on the aspects like signal sources and wiring.
It’s better to work with the speakers with high resolution and open sounds.
It’s safe to work with large systems, without shrinking the sound.
Each album of The Chieftains has wonderful recording effect, often leading fever recommendation lists. This “Tears of Stone” is a result from their cooperation with quite a strong team of artists, with guest performers ranging from Joni Michelle, Bonnie Raitt, The Corrs, Diana Krall to Zhu Zheqin. It can also be seen from such a combination that The Chieftains has transcended the traditional Irish music, and integrated different music genres such as folk, rock, jazz and even world music. More valuable is that though each song is recorded in different conditions, it’s still of great acoustic effect. (BMG 09026-63442-2, Sony Music)
Illustration: Twenty Factors of Audio Equipments
01 Tone quality
03 High frequency, sweetness of
04 Medium frequency, thickness of
03 Low frequency, solid degree of
06 Sound stage
07 Weight and Density of the sound
10 Orientation of sound
11 Vitality of music
12 Imaging and dimension
14 Speed and transient response
15 Strength contrast and dynamic contrast
16 Instrument sounds and human voices: proportion
17 Instrument sounds and human voices: texture and air sense
18 Reproduction of details
19 Sense of space
20 Overall equalization
The above is a kind of subjective moving index of the reviewer for a single equipment, and the indicated results will vary due to the coupled equipments, spatial conditions and the mental state of the reviewer. It will be biased to use this to compare two equipments.
Five-element Diagram for the Audio Equipment
Metal: open, lively, bright
Wood: warm, modest, amiable
Water: tender, neutral, mild
Fire: swift, passionate, striking
Earth: thick, full, solid
1. The most distinctive feature of Conductor must be the 2.1-inch LCD control panel. Its left lever is responsible for the switch of signal sources, the right lever for output switching or mute operation, and the bottom panel for standby or shutdown switching. The scale of volume will be indicated on the topmost part too. On boot up the display will show the heating status of the filament of the valve. 2 Two gold-plated volume knobs are exclusively added for the special edition in Taiwan. On the back remains a traditional variable resistor, which is regarded by AudioValve the best way to improve sound quality. But you can use remote control and it can memorize the positions of each set of volume control. 3. The AudioValve trademark of the “window” on boot up will generate bright blue light, which seems to be floating in the glass. It is a pity that such special visual effect cannot be revealed from the photos here. 4. On the top left backplane there is written “Special Edition for Taiwan R.O.C”. This proves that the edition is specially augmented for Taiwan market. All the metal parts are gold-plated. Why there are two low-cost wires like computer cables on the right? They are used to connect the power supply case. Since the control circuit and amplifier use separate power supply, two cables are needed. 5. Only these components can be seen through the roof window. You can see although AudioValve is in heavy use of hand-made manufacturing, the circuit board layout is very beautiful, and assembly quality and cleanliness are very good. This reflects the essential skills that the high-class valve equipment is supposed to satisfy. AudioValve even customized its own dedicated capacitor for Conductor, so it can be said to be the most luxurious model since the foundation of AudioValve. 6. Baldur 300 now also uses a golden plate in its front, which further underlines the nobleness of the high-power valve equipment.
It is even a little bit more spacious than the house of Liu Ming Cheng, the consultant of our magazine. Genesis loudspeakers still can produce large and solid sounds. The charming of such a large system is what the most audio fans can hardly have a taste of.
The reason for the use of six-set control is: the equalization and amplification need four sets of volume controls, and the additional two sets are used in the server circuits, allowing Conductor to remember the volume of the input of each signal source, and to reach its position automatically after switching. How is the wiring? After the input of signals, Conductor first uses buffer to amplify them, and then apply volume attenuation, so the signal is strong enough to overcome the attenuation even if it traverses along a range of the wire.
Replacing FM Acoustics
The speaker used by this AV fan is Genesis I.1 and the signal sources are MBL 1611/1621 turnplate and digital analog converters. The power amplifier, certainly an AudioValve product, is the Baldur 300 I reported several years ago. I have evaluated some audio equipments before in this audition room, and at that time we also used this pair of speakers which impressed me deeply. The owner must love very much the sound characteristics of valves, because when I made the visit last time, what he used is a 300B valve equipment too. However, this time I saw again in the audition room other idle equipments, which even include the pre-amp and power-amp of FM Acoustics! Although the owner has famous Switzerland equipments, after hearing the news that AudioValve pre-amp and power-amp are introduced to the market, he decided to obtain them too. However, his major audio system has been based on AudioValve equipments, and the pre-amp and power-amp of FM Acoustics are used only when he is at the whim of the equipments. Does it mean the sound of AudioValve pre-amp and power-amp outperform those of FM Acoustics? No, I believe FM Acoustics definitely has its own charm, or it would not enjoy such a high position in the industry. However, it indicates at least that for this set of system AudioValve sound is more attractive and delightful than that of FM Acoustics.
Magnificent and Relaxing Momentum
What is my first impression on Conductor? It is a feeling of magnificence and relaxation. In the past I always thought the feeling of magnificence and relaxation can only be achieved by high-class crystal equipments. Particularly it will be very obvious that the equipment with the 4-set giant speakers cannot produce magnificent and relaxing sound. It’s quite amazing that Conductor can give me a sense of broad space and huge sound that is not bloated. How hard is it to achieve magnificence and relaxation? I can say that after appreciating audio equipments for so many years, I have never heard of any system capable of using inexpensive equipments to produce a characteristic of magnificence and relaxation. Many audio fans probably have no chance to hear in their lifetime so magnificent and relaxing sound I heard here, which is a realm only achievable by large speakers coupled with really expensive equipments, as well as careful adjustment.
Authentic and Rich Sound
At first I played my recent favorite album, “Tears of Stone” of The Chieftains. Its first song, a chorus on the background, has already been very charming, which precisely conveys the gentle stir of the group members and apparently it’s recorded differently from the foreground poem recitation, leading to a very clear expression of the front and rear levels. The second song, an electric guitar blues by Bonnie Raitt, with the company of bass, is also full of charm. The glissando of the pipe casing on his left-hand fingers brings out a strong feeling of metal friction, and the deep, low and plump bass sound is also extremely good. It was my first time to listen to the album in such a large system, and the impression of the huge and plump sound was “temporarily saved” in my mind for several days before I can get rid of it.
With the replacement of the album “Dialogues with Double Bass”, at the early beginning a cello and a double bass are staged on both sides, also having the huge audio effect. Even the finger movements, string wiping and the breathing of musicians during the performance are clear to hear. I originally had the concern about the imperfectness of a huge system in reproducing the sound of simple instruments, but at the end I found the set of system still performed quite well. Further play the New Moon Daughter of Cassandra Wilson. The drum at the beginning of its second track is not very low and deep, but it has a huge and flexible form, demonstrating that the sound of Conductor will not drag feet, and has very good transient response and impulsive force.
Co-existence of Truth and Beauty in the Sound
How about playing symphony? Try the selection of Pentatone. In the waltz segment of Tchaikovsky no. 6 as conducted by Seiji Ozawa, .when the string music flows out like a waterfall, beneath there is the demanding pizzicato performance of double bass. With the smooth and sleek playing of the string music, we feel the real proportion. The not particularly exaggerated pizzicato of the double bass is also of great flexibility and is not submerged in the playing of the bass string section. And then when the album is replaced with Leopold Stokowski’s “Rhapsody”, the orchestral unison at the beginning has a great sense of tone and luster, which also proves that Conductor can very vividly render the original recording. The more I listened to recordings, the more precious I found the natural and non-exaggerated qualities of Conductor. It can not only present the features of recordings in a real and direct way, but also is able to faithfully convey the intrinsic flavor of the music. Its performance capabilities of combining truth with beauty really makes itself live up to the honorable status of a flagship model.
Finally we played the new album “Quiet Nights” of Diana Krall. Since it sounds very plump and grand even in ordinary systems, will it be too huge to keep unbroken in such a system? Fortunately, what I heard was still the performance by a big orchestra, with the sound being very healthy and of a great spacious sense, while the layer and hierarchy of human voices and other instruments are kept with a good sense of separation, without any bloated effect. Many people do not agree with the huge sound, but I always remember what a president of a German manufacturer said to me: the least commendable equipments are those which make the sound shrunk when they are put in the audio system, just “like making people become a Mickey Mouse-like”. Please rest assured, Conductor definitely neither produces the “Mickey Mouse effect”, nor transforms all into the Hulk.
Be Rich and Patient
Preamplifiers of million-dollar price may be a fantasy a decade ago, but in nowadays audio equipment market, it is not really difficult to find pre-amp of this price level. Is the capability of AudioValve Conductor comparable to these fantastic equipments? I think it has no problem in performance, and in the preciseness of tone and sound quality it is also of a very high achievement. In particular, the characteristic of plump and warm medium frequencies possessed by the valve machine allows it to satisfy the requirement of pleasing sound at the same time achieve high performance, and avoid the issue of producing any annoying sounds. During the telephone conversation with the owner, he also believed that this set of equipment overthrows his traditional impression on valve machines and makes him discover such a valve machine can also achieve such high performance. Hereby he decided to keep it as the major system.
Conductor deserves to be called the flagship pre-amplifier of AudioValve. It has a special design, and implements many advanced technologies that will not adopted by a number of small factories, and produces comfortable and unrestraint sound which can work with huge systems. It’s like a handmade super sports car of AudioValve, the possession of which needs a bit more patience in addition to money and vision, because under its strategy of handmade manufacturing in original factories, the number of persons in the world who are lucky to own Conductor is for sure not too many!
|Audio Valve Conductor Preamplifier
|Taking the baton and running the show
The maestro has entered the building
Periodically, I like to get around to some of the area audiophile salons and hang out with the pals and see what’s going on, locally, in terms of who’s carrying what lines. On this particular weekend I found myself visiting Mike Kay, the Audio Archon, checking out the latest and greatest from Martin-Logan. He also mentioned something to me about the Audio Valve Conductor being on display and operating in his reference system. I felt that this would be worth the hour long drive out to Mike Kay’s, especially after my experience with the Audio Valve Eklipse a year earlier. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m really enjoying the demo Mike is putting on with the Martin-Logan CLX’s, but I’m really studying the Conductor intently. After a couple of hours of listening to different system configurations, and not being able to hold back any longer, I broach the subject of an Audio Valve Conductor review. Mike seems keen to having the Conductor reviewed and promises to follow up with Ray Lombardi the upcoming week to make sure everything is a go and let me know when we can get the ball rolling. I hear back from Mike the following week and we make plans for me to pick the Conductor up from him.
Getting to know the Conductor
The Conductor is a class-A vacuum tube preamp that uses eight tubes in its circuit. Four of the tubes are 6922s while the other four tubes are 6H30s. The very first thing you notice about the Conductor is how big it it is. Not in terms of its height or depth, but its width. Both the preamplifier and the power supply are 20” wide and 14.8” deep. The preamp is 5.5” tall and the power supply’s height is 3.1”. You need to make sure you have extra wide shelf space in your equipment stand otherwise you’ll be placing these two boxes on the top shelf. The combined weight for the preamp and power supply is at 55lbs. That’s pretty substantial for a preamplifier so care should be taken where you place it. The weight of the Conductor’s power supply can rival that of many medium sized amplifiers and with its 100K microfarads of capacitance, would rival the output power of a lot of amplifiers as well. With the preamplifier and power supply having similar dimensions most users will have a propensity towards stacking the units on top of each other. The corner posts for each unit are covered with a felt like material which allows you to slide the two pieces around without scuffing up your equipment rack shelves. This is a particularly nice touch but also raises a caveat here. If you stack the two units, one on top of the other, the felt under the corner posts can cause the unit being placed on top to slide off. Be very, very careful of this as it almost happened to me a couple of times and even though the preamp and power supply are very solidly built,, I have a feeling that being dropped from the top of an equipment rack is not what the preamplifier section was designed for. I would even go so far as to recommend to the manufacturer to put anti-skid pads on the bottom of the preamplifier corner posts so there won’t be any concern about it accidentally sliding off from on top of the power supply. The other side of that is that the power supply cable is at least six feet long and you are by no means limited to placing the preamplifier on top of the power supply. I find it to be a nice touch to be able to separate the two as there will surely be some installations that will require the two to be separated.
One of the features that’s readily apparent, and is pretty cool to look at, is the 2.1” “Micro Controller Display” window which, among other things, allows you to, watch the warm-up phase the Conductor is in when warming up, select the source mode and output mode, mute mode, standby mode, has an analog volume bar graph, allows you to set the volume for individual inputs, among other goodies controlled here. The remote control will allow you to access all of the preamps features from your listening position and there is also a motorized ALPS potentiometer volume control on the right side of the face plate.
The other feature that truly stands out on the Conductor is the picture window in the middle of the front plate that allows you to see inside of the preamp from the front, or your seated position. The Conductor has an acrylic top plate with the two vents in it to help keep the tubes cool, and also allows you to see inside of the preamp. The Conductor has six inputs which can be independently configured for balanced or single-ended operation, and two sets of outputs which also can be used single-ended or balanced.
How does it sound?
The first thing that came to mind when I began listening to the Conductor was that this is not just an Eklipse on steroids. This is definitely a step up performance-wise. Describing the sound of the Conductor is not easy. The Conductor has a wonderful ability to reproduce recordings and give the illusion that you’re at the performance. Listening to music through the Conductor is like watching a video of your vacation at home, then watching it at a movie theater. By that, I mean that it feels as though you have become more immersed by the sights and sounds that the experience, seemingly, is that much more real. Tonally, the Conductor’s sound is slightly to the warm side of neutral. It would be unfair to call it tubey sounding but you will not mistake the sound of this preamplifier with your stereotypical solid state piece. The rub comes in that the Conductor’s ability to retrieve information and detail is noteworthy. I don’t mean this to say that the Conductor is not involving or lacks excitement because that is far from the truth.
Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean. I am pretty sure that most of either own or have heard the Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue. I have two vinyl copies and two digital copies of this album. I am comfortable in saying that I know this work fairly well. On more than one occasion, while playing the red book CD version of this album, I was startled to hear information from the album I had not noticed previously. Whether it was a breath I had not noticed Miles take previously, such as on “Blue in Green”, or the the creaks and sounds coming from the drummer’s seat near the end of “All Blues”. Probably the most telling, for me comes from listing to Paul Chambers playing the bass. I have a co-worker buddy, from New York who is a jazz aficionado and swears that he has not heard a bassist that plays with better technique than Paul Chambers. This statement has led to many a lunch time debate concerning what we consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of jazz bassists, as though we are experts, neither one of us being able to play the bass. Well, I had to admit to my friend that I was wrong about Paul Chambers because when I listened to his playing, with the Conductor in the system, I could actually hear how busy his hands are when he plays. He wasn’t just strumming but was actually bending the strings, slapping chords, sliding up and down the bass and was generally a lot busier playng music than what I had given him credit for. These were the types of things I noticed with the Conductor in place in my system.
The Conductor is very quiet and does not have any added tube noise or sonic artifacts sometimes associated with tubes. Imaging is a Conductor strong suit and provides the listener with a presentation that is seemingly three dimensional. The Conductor throws a very wide, deep, layered sound stage, in my listening room, and is pretty much what one would expect from a tube preamplifier of this quality. In that respect, the Conductor did not disappoint and, in fact is one of the better preamps I have encountered in that aspect of its performance. The performers at the rear of the stage were just as distinct and easy to follow as those toward the front of the stage. The transient response is very good and actually better than a lot of solid state preamps in this respect. The attack and decay on solo piano recordings is breathtaking and it was easy to distinguish the tonal differences between a Steinway and Bosendorfer. The high frequency performance of the Conductor is good, as it should be for a preamplifier at this price point. The bass performance is very good, thanks to the Conductor’s robust power supply, which rivals my reference Klyne 7 pre and is a bit fuller in the nether regions where the Klyne seems a little leaner. I won’t say which is overall better but can easily say that the Conductor satisfies. The Conductor’s midrange has a palpable feel to it and has that magical ability to take you to the recorded event. I will share with you some of my findings while listening to my music references.
I enjoy listening to female vocals because when done right, I get the feeling that she is singing just for me. The fascinating thing about listening to vocals through the Conductor is its ability to not only replicate the song, but the emotion behind the words. When Cassandra Wilson sings the melancholy “Crazy” from her CD Glamoured [Blue Note Records], it sort of touches you in the pit of the stomach because she sings that selection like she knows what she’s signing about. The same can be said for Jane Monheit when she sings the sentimental, “Haunted Heart” from her CD In the Sun [N-CODED MUSIC]. I really felt moved by these performances, more than I normally would have, when listening to them through the Conductor. Any fellow wanting to express his physical attraction to his significant other would do well to listen to Andy Bey sing “Speak Low” from his American Song [Savoy Jazz] CD. This track starts off slow then picks up in intensity and really starts to swing by the time he’s a half way into it. The Conductor made it easy to toe tap and sway with the music.
The Conductor also does a wonderful job with brass instruments. The thoughtful “Midnight Waltz” from Bjorn Johansen’s CD Take One [Odin NJ4021-2] is a good example of this. Mr. Johansen’s richly toned tenor saxophone is presented as smooth and articulate with just a touch of an airy quality that’s pleasing to the ear. The same can be said for John Handy’s engrossing, passionate saxophone playing on, “My One and Only Love,” from his CD Excursion in Blue [Quartet Records Q-1005CD]. Like Bjorn Johansen, John Handy plays tenor saxophone as well but has a completely different tonal quality to his sound. The differences in these two sax player’s technique and tone were easily identifiable and nuanced through the Conductor.
The Conductor does an excellent job with classical music. Its exceptional imaging, ambiance retrieval, dynamic capabilities, and strong, extended bass line, all added up to a wonderful listening experience with the CD of Ivan Fischer leading the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor [Channel Classics]. This is a powerfully dynamic disc and as with a lot of well recorded classical music, goes from being very quiet to being quite loud, and with tremendous crescendos, power and drive, in the blink of an eye. The Conductor has things well in hand and was spot on with the dynamic swings in the music.
Winding things up
The Conductor was extremely well behaved during its time residing in my system. There were no pops, hums, nothing micro-phonic, no tube noise, and no transient thumps when I turned it or anything else in my listening room on or off. Conductor has a nice remote that’s responsive and controls all the facets of the preamplifier you would want control over. You could always wish for a larger display, but that would probably add to the cost of the Conductor. Getting used to the different screens and menus may take a little while to get used to but are well worth the effort. I got the best of what I felt the Conductor had to offer using cables from Dynamic Design but also felt that Stealth and Argento cables did a fine job as well. The Conductor worked well with solid state and tube amplifiers. It mated well with the XLH M-2000 mono amps as well as with a pair of Thor TPA-30s tube mono amps. I had in-house for a couple of weeks. The Conductor made listening to music pure joy in my system. It has an uncanny ability to musically retrieve all of the information that’s loaded inside of your music media and make you feel that you’re at the recorded event. Because of those areas of performance I value that tube preamps provide, I felt that the Conductor outperformed my Klyne in most aspects of music that I tend to judge music by, though the Klyne wasn’t far off. Those virtues that tubes bring to the table caused me to feel I would give the edge to the Conductor. I also had access to an Audio Valve Eklipse, with NOS RCA “Clear Tops”, during the time I spent reviewing the Conductor. The Conductor is in a different class from the Eklipse, and it should at $7-8K more in cost. They are two entirely different preamps that have different topologies, different power supplies, different parts, and use different tubes. In my opinion, there are no tubes on the planet that you can put into the Eklipse that will allow it to perform as well as the Conductor. There is a reason why the Conductor costs more than the Eklipse and if you have the opportunity to compare the two, you’ll hear the sonic increases that I’m talking about. The Conductor compares favorably with the likes of preamps from Audio Research, Atma-Sphere and Convergent Audio based on what I have heard of these other fine preamps in other systems. I never felt the urge to try and change the tubes in the Conductor because I felt it was already sounding good with the factory tubes. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Conductor and was sad to see if go after it allowed me to enjoy and rediscover some of my musical treasures. The Audio Valve Conductor certainly gets my highest recommendation.
Tubed line preamplifier with separate power supply and remote control of volume and source selection
Tube complement: four 6922, four 6N6P/6H30.
Inputs: 6 pairs, independently configurable for balanced or single-ended operation.
Outputs: 4 pairs (2 XLR, 2 RCA), one Tape Out pair (RCA).
Input impedance: 47k ohms.
Output impedance: 300 ohms.
A few days of listening later, it had become clear that, without equivocation, I could say just that. Three months of listening later, having found no flaws whatsoever in the Conductor’s sound, I thought I’d focus on what it did unusually well.
If you read my Follow-Up on the Audio Valve Eclipse preamp in the June 2008 issue, you might recall that I was very impressed with its quick, uncolored, kick-slamming, solid-state–like bass performance. The Conductor shared that trait in the bottom end, but seemed capable of even more. I have known every component in my reference system for many years, and it seemed that, with the Conductor in place, my system was capable of far deeper bass than I’d ever realized it was. I don’t necessarily mean some technical lower-limit extension per se. It just seemed that with every well-engineered recording I played that had significant bass content, every instrument seemed to have a more authoritative presence below 60Hz that suggested live music.
I listened to Jon Hassell’s latest album, Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street (CD, ECM 2077), one week after I’d heard the entire CD performed by Hassell and his group at Carnegie Hall. This quintet, consisting of electronically manipulated trumpet, violin, and bass guitar, as well two musicians retrieving sampled sounds from laptops, create delicately atmospheric yet powerful soundscapes that are both intellectually challenging and accessible. On “Time and Place,” the lower register of Peter Freeman’s bass as it filled Carnegie Hall created an “air of thunder” more reminiscent of pipe-organ pedal notes in a great cathedral. The Conductor perfectly reproduced this effect from the CD, with a sound so arresting I held back a bit on the volume—I was worried about damaging the woofers of my Alón Circe speakers.
What you might expect from a preamp with such a massive—some might say overengineered—power supply is impressive dynamic range. This was indeed one of the Conductor’s greatest strengths, best illustrated by Helmuth Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival’s recording of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Credo, a blockbuster work for chorus and orchestra (CD, Hänssler Classic 09.311). When, in the opening passage—very difficult to reproduce accurately—the full-throated chorus breaks out, there was no hint of congestion or coagulation, no trace of distortion. I flinched when the bass drum kicked me in the face, and lower-level passages were equally impressive. When bass Thomas Quasthoff entered in Credo in Unum Deum, his holographically reproduced body appeared midstage, and it was easy to “see” his vocal phrasing technique.
The Conductor brought out every little subtlety in the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival performance of Tomiko Kohjiba’s The Transmigration of the Soul, from Festival (CD, Stereophile STPH007-2). In the opening passage, I could hear clearly when the melodic lines of soprano Kendra Colton and flutist Carol Wincenc “de-linked.” I could also clearly follow the slightly enhanced downstrokes of cellist Peter Wyrick’s bowing. From my notes: “pinpoint staging, gobs of space and air, flawless timpani, shattering dynamics.”
The Conductor’s dynamic range was so wide that I sometimes had trouble deciding where to set the volume control. I began “Mansour’s Gift,” from my jazz quartet Attention Screen’s Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2), at a level at which I could comfortably follow every subtle, low-level electronic effect in bassist Chris Jones’s introduction, while marveling at the subtle dynamic envelope of Mark Flynn’s Korean tuk drum. At this level, however, the crashing fortissimo in the descending passage for piano, bass, and drums near the end of the track was so loud that my wife demanded I turn the volume down.
That’s not to say that the Conductor didn’t excel at delicate jazz passages. “Tears Transforming,” from the Tord Gustavsen Trio’s The Ground (CD, ECM 1892), enveloped me in a warm, delicate bath of liquid piano sound. On “Original Faubus Fables,” from Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (LP, Candid 9005), the Conductor presented Mingus’s warm bass lines as a clearly defined bedrock for trumpeter Ted Curson’s biting, brassy, burnished solo.
I also cued up the great rockabilly version of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” from Santo and Johnny’s eponymous first album (LP, Canadian American CALP 1001, footnote 1). As I noted how tightly and tunefully the uncredited studio bassist and drummer churned through this tune, I was able to study every lick of Santo Farina’s (then a teenager) masterful upper-register lap-steel solo, as the Conductor reproduced every nuance with pristine splendor.
The Conductor’s upper-register purity went hand in hand with its rapid and undistorted transient abilities to make it a spectacular showcase for percussion recordings. The wide, deep soundstage of Charles Wuorinen’s recording of his Ringing Changes for Percussion Ensemble (LP, Nonesuch H71263) placed every instrument in its appropriate space, each on its own bed of air. The entrancing low-level pianissimos leading into “barking and crashing” fortissimos presented a similar challenge in volume control to what I’d faced when playing the Attention Screen disc.
I won’t go into detail about the countless familiar recordings with which the Conductor’s resolution of inner detail let me hear, say, woodwind countermelodies under a dense orchestral passage, bassoons doubling choral baritones, or bass-synth countermelodies—none of which, at the risk of using an audiophile cliché, I’d ever heard before.
And don’t let the Conductor’s name fool you into thinking it’s only for lovers of classical and jazz. Playing the title track of Hole’s Celebrity Skin (CD, Geffen DGCD-25164) at about 97dB, as I twitched around the room to the slamming drum and kick-ass bass lines, I was still able to clearly follow the lyrics sung by the backing vocalists over the din of distorted guitar.
The comparing is revealing
I had no other preamps on hand that were anywhere near the Conductor’s price to do a fairer comparison, and it’s been some time since the Reference 3 was sent back to Audio Research. However, readers can refer to my comparison of the ARC and the Audio Valve Eclipse in my Follow-Up on the latter in the June 2008 issue.
It was fascinating to compare the Conductor with the Eclipse with a wide range of recordings. The two preamps, clearly cut from the same sonic cloth, both had ultra-low levels of coloration. However, there was a slight difference in their midrange perspectives. The Eclipse seemed a bit more forward, the Conductor a tad laid-back. With the latter, it was as if I’d moved 10 rows back in the orchestra section of a concert hall. Although one of the Eclipse’s greatest strengths was its tight, clean, deep, kick-ass bass, the Conductor, as mentioned above, seemed even better in this area. The high-frequency characteristics of the two preamps were virtually identical.
One area in which the Conductor bettered the Eclipse: No matter how densely modulated the music, the Conductor never sounded as if it was working hard to produce its effortless, pristine, crystal-clear sound. With some of the more demanding orchestral works and recordings, the Eclipse never sounded congealed or congested, but I sensed it was giving all it had to ensure a realistic reproduction of the music. By comparison, the Conductor always sounded effortless: for all it cared, it could have been reproducing a string quartet rather than an orchestra.
These characteristics were directly related to the preamps’ reproductions of soundstages. While the Eclipse presented detailed, pinpoint images on a wide, deep soundstage, the Conductor’s stage was even wider and deeper. But the differences went further than that. There was an openness to the Conductor’s soundstaging that I hadn’t heard before from a preamp. Although the Conductor’s superb presentation of detail rendered ambience and hall cues perfectly, I never had the sense that it was reproducing music that had been recorded in a confined space, as I felt with the Eclipse. It was a paradox: The Conductor sounded so open that it seemed to almost make the walls of concert halls disappear, while simultaneously rendering ambience cues that made it easier to hear those walls.
The Eclipse’s wide dynamic contrasts were bettered by the Conductor’s. A case in point: With the Eclipse hooked up, I cued up Attention Screen’s “Mansour’s Gift” and began listening at the same volume level as I had with the Conductor. But this time, when the cacophonous fortissimo crash came near the end of the piece, my wife did not tell me to turn the volume down. I could say that, while the Eclipse is capable of ppp/fff dynamic contrasts, the Conductor is capable of pppp/ffff.
While this comparison clearly revealed the superiority of the Conductor over the Eclipse, it also reaffirmed what a rare bargain the Eclipse is.
Sadly, the Conductor is leaving the podium
Without exception, the Audio Valve Conductor produced stunning, flawless sound during the three delightful months it spent in my house, and exceeded the performance of my Audio Valve Eclipse—no easy task. I unhesitatingly recommend its consideration to anyone able to spend $13,995 on a line stage. Unfortunately, I am not a member of that club, so it’s back to the Eclipse for me.
I also strongly recommend that, given the Conductor’s unusual size and appearance, you see the preamp in the flesh before buying—and take your significant other with you. But still—at no time during the Conductor’s tenure here did my wife comment on its appearance or the amount of space it occupied in our living room.
Well done, Herr Becker, and keep up the good work!