My Dad had a hi-fi he got while he was in ‘Nam. I’m certain that he still has it, stuffed somewhere in his house. My Dad’s hi-fi was pretty rudimentary stuff, and by the time I was a teenager, he didn’t play it much. I suspect my Mom had gotten thoroughly sick of Kingston Trio or the Everly Brothers, or something, and that was pretty much that. Stereo = off. But I had this friend … his Dad loved his hi-fi. And my buddy, being the swell fellow he was, let me make tapes off his Dad’s records while skipping class. That was a nice rig — I must have made 50 different mixed tapes during my senior year alone!
In 1987, I had just graduated high school when my friend’s Dad upgraded his hi-fi. He bought an amp, called a Sonographe SA-120, from a company called Conrad-Johnson (or is it, “conrad-johnson”?). This was 1987 (or so). This was the first time I’d ever heard of CJ. And as we all went off to college that Fall, it would be the last time for almost 20 years.
Fast forward to 2007. I had a customer meeting in Falls Church that just happened to be in the building next to the now-closed Sound Images store. After that meeting, I was kicking around and killing time, so I went into the store and, among other things, I got to hear a wonderful pair of Focal speakers, the Alto Utopia Be. The were being driven by a CT5 pre and an ET250 amp from CJ. I don’t remember ever making that second customer meeting.
Later that year, I was there again, after another customer meeting, and this time I got to hear that same amp/pre combo driving a pair of Gallo Reference 3.1 speakers. Both times, I recalled my friend’s-Dad’s amp as I sat there, wondering what had happened to all those mixed tapes while admiring the sound, the look of the gear, and the weight of that all-metal champagne-colored remote in my hand. I remember this clearly as I also remembered that to afford either piece (then $8500 each for the components and something like $20k for the speakers), I would have had to rob the place. I remember being tempted to do just that.
Lust. It does funny things to you.
But it was during one of those long listening sessions, daydreaming about gear I couldn’t afford but wanted so very dearly, that I learned that Conrad-Johnson was actually a local company, with is offices just a few miles up Route 50 from Sound Images.
Today, I finally went over and visited.
I was back in the area again, like I am every couple of months, visiting customers and talking about my company’s products, regaling them with stories of how those products would transform their lives and the way they thought about their business. This morning, I’m pretty sure that they rolled their eyes at me. Well, okay, no they didn’t, but it sometimes feels like customers do. Or maybe that’s just me. Whatever.
As I might have mentioned, I’ve been seriously considering getting a tube amp to add to my collection, partly for review and partly just because I want one. Recently, CJ has come up in those discussions, specifically, their new KT120-based Classic Sixty SE amplifier. So, CJ was on the brain when I booked this client meeting, and when I found out that the CJ office would be only a mile away, I gave them a ring too and set up a walk through of the facility.
It helps, no doubt, to be able to say that I write for an online review magazine, which I guess is what this blog is. Sort of. Not that they cared. Ed was very kind and courteous when I called and inquired, and then he himself steered me through the building during the lunch hour. In the two photos above, you can see the assembly area. The little brown things lining the walls are parts bins, all very meticulously labeled. Conservatively, there are about 500 million of those little bins in this facility. Each one holds only one kind of thing. Like a specific kind of screw. Or a washer. Or a capacitor, resistor, wire, elf, squirrel, bag of pixie dust, whatever it is that the assembler might need to pull together a brand new C-J component. But whatever it it’s going to be, all Conrad-Johnson gear is assembled here in the USA, right there, on those benches.
This shelf has all the face plates for past and present gear, just stacked and ready to go. That’s it. Just face plates. Just in case. I mean, you never know. Old gear that gets refurbed might have a plate yanked from this stash.
Transformers! I think these are all vintage, kept here just in case someone needs a new one, something comes in for service, or whatever. There is a lot of little bits all strategically stashed in here. It’s like that warehouse, at the very end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the dude is carting away the Ark of the Covenant. I bet that damn thing is in this room, somewhere, like a Where’s Waldo surprise. Bet that would me a helluva an amp, don’t you think? Ahem.
Ed told me that this is a PV-1, the first product CJ ever attached a product number to. It’s a pre, obviously, and this one is in for a refurbishment. I think it’s almost 30 years old. Still works! Apparently, a lot of folks will send their gear in for this kind of service. For the cost of parts and a (truly) nominal fee for service, the C-J crew will not only service a vintage component, they could even upgrade it with the latest caps or whatever. A couple-hundred bucks for such a service is way cheaper than a brand new whatever. Questions? Give Ed a call.
Test bench! A prototype reference-class stereo amp is being assembled here and put through it’s paces. I’m not sure it has a name yet, but its the stereo version of the ART monos that Scaena used at the AXPONA show in Jacksonville. Call it the “Stereo ART”. It should be hitting the webpage shortly. Pricing is still TBD.
Like many of their current products, this Stereo ART is stuffed fully of Israeli Vishay resistors and custom-made-for-CJ Teflon caps.
On the opposite side of the spectrum (and immediately outside the workbench where I saw the prototype Stereo ART, is a product that never actually shipped, an MV70, used now as a tube-tester.
Not so much a listening room as a subjective testing/break-in room (those caps will take forever to break in), the team maintains a sweet little space that I got to hang out in for a bit. Wilson Sophias (Version 1) were putting some sweet tunes out.
Driven by the top-of-the-line $20k GAT preamp …
… and the hybrid ET250s, the sound was ballsy, delicate, and altogether lovely.
Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t able to see either an ET3 SE or a Classic Sixty SE, which are the pieces I’m actually considering picking up. Another time. I mean, hey, they’re local!
I have to say, the crew over at CJ are just decent folk. I even had a quick, unscheduled, chat with founder Lou Johnson as I was ushered past his door. As much a gentleman as my host Ed, Lou entertained my questions about the change they’d made to the new KT120 tubes, and he expressed quiet, proud enthusiasm for the changes that they’d bring to the lineup. I wish I’d had better questions or more time, okay, actually both, because I got the feeling that Lou would be quite happy to chat about the marvelous run that they’ve had so far and what the future holds for his company.
In tough economic times, it’s very cool to see American entrepreneurship alive and thriving. Running an audio business like an actual business is, perhaps, an odd way to think about the high-end of audio, but it’s worth noting that its something that CJ has managed to rather ably do at a time when many of their competitors and resellers have not.
They’ve made a mark on the industry, and on me. And I can still feel the weight of that remote in my hand!