The final Act in a study in preamps the ART 3

Tom Cruise is rescuing a female agent he trained in Mission Impossible 3. He finds her alive but weak . He needs her to jump up and save the world with him so he shoots her in the chest with a jolt of adrenaline . She was alive technically but now she instantly becomes superwoman..... for while anyway. Thus goes the saga of my latest personal occupation . The study of a few remarkable preamps.

I did an "impression" of the CJ Act 2. I then did a follow-up on the replacement , the Act 2.2. The 2.2 was the superwoman injected with the adrenaline to be sure. It certainly was capable of conquering the world with Tom but alas, the story takes another Hollywood twist : Enter the Conrad Johnson ART 3 .

This again is an impression piece and this starts a series of posts dedicated to resolving this work of ...." Art".

There will only be 25 made , half are already sold and at 25k , doesn't fit into many audiophiles budgets. I am lucky to be without kids , with an incredibly understanding wife and have the time, passion and patience to address this study competently. It has about 50 hours on it , hardly enough to press a key but what needs too be stated are a few obvious differences between the Act and Art series of valve preamps from Lew and Bill.

The system it is being evaluated in is as follows. Aerial 20 T main speakers , 2 Aerial SW 12 subs , Conrad Johnson LP 140 Monoblocs , APL Hi Fi NWO 2.5 Universal player , Kubala Sosna Emotion cables . Sound Application RLS conditioners , Sistrum stands.

The Art starts deeper in the Yin region initially than either Act siblings. The Acts ability to settle comfortably inside itself is really interesting to watch... or listen to. The Act fidgets around moving up towards neutral as it fleshes out its unique sonic character and strengths . Then it emboldens the midrange blooming luxuriously as the Teflon caps mature into something that draws you inside its world of color and speed. This phenomenon seems to settle it back into the yin where the midrange takes you ... " body and soul . " It never however loses its grip on transparency , immediacy , leading edge definition and ambience retrieval. The 2.2 however continues the evolution and struts its sonic wardrobe in unimaginable directions and leaves you passionately involved with your beloved music library.This is the moment we wait for : the connection to the music that literally moves you and keeps you glued to your seat for hours on end. It is simply what CJ is famous for. Whether I regret losing the 2.2 over the ART 3 will remain to be seen as the Act 2.2 was the best sounding preamp I have ever encountered by a wide margin . We will also see if the adrenaline pumping superwoman will be overcome by this intimidating newcomer that is threatening to bump her from Toms side . This will be interesting indeed . Stay tuned for progressive follow-ups to the final chapter in a 3 part series of preamplifiers from one of the most beloved audio companies ever formed . Conrad Johnson.

Brent Rainwater

Hi Brent,

I was not even aware that CJ was making a ART 3. Whats the
difference between the ART 2 and 3? Is the ART 3 still using
the 6922 tubes? Keep us updated. Both the ACT 2.2 and ART 3
are way out of my reach but its nice to hear real world
reviews about them.

hi Brent,
What other preamps have you compared the CJ preamps against? Thanks.
Does it still make that silly clicking noise when the volume is changed, how about the look of it ? Does it have those cheep plastic rings still?
Not that I have any idea what's being talked about here...but I did at one time have a 16LSII and actually liked the soft clicking sound. Found that pre-amp too cloudy and uninvolving, though.
Cmach ,The difference between the Art 2 and 3 is the use of teflon caps , a new and improved power supply as well as a new circuit board layout. There are also improved rear connectors. Yes , 6922 tubes .
Hi Nickt , the preamps I have used have been the ARC Ref 2 and 3. Classe Omega , Aesthetix Callisto Sig , Hovland HP 200 , Cary spl 98 , Spectral DMC 30 sl and Vac Phi 2.0 .
Tomryan . The new designs employing the teflon caps and new topologies have bridged the gap between the lush romantic CJ gear of old and the detailed sound of say ARC Ref 3. In my view , its the best of both worlds.
I am extremely impressed well beyond the point of mere envy with your experience with top tier preamps. Your impressions of CJ's new quintessence are appreciated but it does have a tough ACT to follow. I have always thought that splitting the difference between ARC's and CJ's voicing would be sublime. But in keeping with your TC/MI3 analogy, don't you think it would have been brilliant to call the new device the "Thetan". Then you'd have VIII levels of upgrades before you had to change the name to the "Xenu 4" and show those Krell people a few things about science fictionology.
I Just purchased a Superphon Rev 3. Boy is it good. No op amps inside. Very quiet and clean, Super detailing. It is a Buffer so no gain but it sounds like it has gain.
Khrys thats great , thanks for the heads up. Im still laughing!

Its interesting you say :

" I have always thought that splitting the difference between ARC's and CJ's voicing would be sublime."

On one hard its the most interesting to compare and the one I spent the most time doing. The other side is that they sound nothing alike so its fairly easy to acomplish. Im my view , from the preamps i studied , these two were my favorites but this is a personal choice as all of the others were extraordinary in their own right. I tried to get a DarTZeel and Burrmester and maybe an MBL as well but didnt have any friends willing to part with theirs for my "mad audio scientist mentality" study.
Brent, I chose the HP 200 over the Ref2 but I have been much more impressed with the Ref3 but find still it a very slight tad lean. I have had little experience with the top tier CJs and again while most impressed found them to a tad lush. If the ART 3 finds the middle ground, sign me up. Keep us posted.

On another note, since getting my new W/P8s I have been auditioning new amplification and cables and just spent the weekend with the new Ayre MX-R SS monoblocs. They are very worthy of consideration and I think they would match extrordinarily well your Aerial 20Ts (I am not a dealer, BTW).

On the cable conundrum, I would be most interested in your impressions of the K-S Emotions and alternatives you considered. I put some Audioquest Sky IC and Everest SC and was astonished by the detail if not ultimately satisfied with the long term listenability. I'm wondering if K-S is one of those perfect middle grounds that I crave.

Too bad TC/KH were limited only to "silent birth". I hear the new "cryo" option substantially reduces "cri du chat" without the need for duct tape or tone deaf obstetricians.
Sooner or later they'll learn to turn the Antikythera device in the right direction and enter the 1st century BC.
Brent, I chose the HP 200 over the Ref2 but I have been much more impressed with the Ref3 but find still it a very slight tad lean. I have had little experience with the top tier CJs and again while most impressed found them to a tad lush. If the ART 3 finds the middle ground, sign me up. Keep us posted.

On another note, since getting my new W/P8s I have been auditioning new amplification and cables and just spent the weekend with the new Ayre MX-R SS monoblocs. They are very worthy of consideration and I think they would match extrordinarily well your Aerial 20Ts (I am not a dealer, BTW).

On the cable conundrum, I would be most interested in your impressions of the K-S Emotions and alternatives you considered. I put some Audioquest Sky IC and Everest SC and was astonished by the detail if not ultimately satisfied with the long term listenability. I'm wondering if K-S is one of those perfect middle grounds that I crave.

Too bad TC/KH were limited only to "silent birth". I hear the new "cryo" option substantially reduces "cri du chat" without the need for duct tape or tone deaf obstetricians.
Sooner or later they'll learn to turn the Antikythera device in the right direction and enter the 1st century BC.
CJ's innovative composite triode architecture began with the ART and trickled down from that 20th Anniversary release of 250 to all subsequent CJ Premier level preamps, and beyond to the ACT2 and CT-5. The ART III, issuance capped at 25, effectively commemorates CJ's 30th anniversary! I hope it has a little plaque on its backside.

And what a marvelous 30 years its been. Even today CJ and ARC - two titans of the high-end - the Yin and the Yang - remain locked in mortal struggle for the very soul of the modern audiophile. With the advent of their current line - and most particularly the REF3 and PH7, ARC has taken their largest step yet (imo) toward the neutral. This is the same journey CJ has been on since the ART, with the ACT2 being their most neutral preamp to date. I can remember how shocked and awed were folks at the sound of the 16LS - so radically different from what had been CJ's trademark bronzey/chocolate sound. It has been fascinating to listen across the years to these companies coming closer and closer to one another - yet never touching - as each maintains their unique house sound.

If I recall, a major part of the ACT2.2 upgrade is a new power supply. It would not surprise me if this same PS is shared with the ART III. Anyone know?

Brent you are one lucky hombre. Thanks for the titillation! I'm looking forward to your report on the ART III.

Dear Brent: I never had the opportunity to heard the CJ one but I already heard the Omega, Callisto, Hovland, Spectral and Vac, all of them very good units.

I own a self design Phonolinepreamp named Essential 3150 that maybe could challenge the CJ one, you can see it at:

Regards and enjoy the music.
Hi Tim , nice little history lesson , thanks! My door is always open should you want to swing down South for a listen!! Raul , incredible system . Im humbled my friend. Excellent review of the preamp you own . I am sure its fabulous. Thanks for taking the time to say something. Brent
It passed 100 hours a day ago . I do not run tubes in 24-7 to achieve break in . I will do 10 on 4 off and so on till 300 plus hours is reached. With both the Acts I didn't notice a magical change at 100 hours . {This is the theoretical number of hours needed to begin breaking in the Teflon caps}. With the ART 3, I did. There was and is a interplay between sound and source that is at once rock solid and assuring. You feel from the very first listen that you are in the presence of something powerful and wise. With so many other products you audition , you struggle to find its strengths, character and motive. Its place in the hierarchy in audio of what you have experienced.

I mentioned that it starts deeper in the yin region . It clearly does but that is not to present it without attributes in the upper frequencies. Quite to the contrary. It in fact reminds me of my first experience with Kubala Sosna Emotion cables. A refinement and sophistication is evident throughout the bandwidth. Slightly recessed into the soundfield , you are luxuriously drawn into its spiderweb of Sonics and trapped. Cymbals float in space and seem to hang forever as subsequent notes pass and fade past it while you still are able to hang on to that last faint trail of golden shimmer of the cymbal as it vanishes. The ART 3 is like this in many ways . Compared to the ACT preamps, the ART 3 has a deeper presentation , a greater sense of space all throughout the field, better presentation of the midrange and better focus . Let me digress a bit.

Dimensionality , presence and midrange density are the three blindingly obvious improvements I hear. This was hinted at from the start but at 100 plus , the window cleared and what I heard was not in debate .

Dimensionality : Patricia Barber , Live from France has been in rotation in this study. Track 5 is nice and clean, a recording with punch , space and balance. It is as if someone rearranged the players in my room by spreading them out an extra 4 feet . It was a touch disconcerting at first. I had to gather my wits to appreciate its effect. It separated so much that I almost felt disoriented. As I re experienced the album again , I took notice of the myriad of instruments at play within this group and the tapestry of sounds that effortlessly flowed thought the sonic spectrum laid bare before me. Its something you have to hear to appreciate.

Presence : I have heard this magic twice . First at the Nugget in Vegas with the Avalon Spectral Mit set up and another time with Wilson 7 s at an audiophiles home in NY when I was buying a pair of ESP Concert Grands {which I loved btw.} When you nail it , its startling . The whole image lifts and suspends itself in the air as it becomes a whole holographic entity into itself. You clearly hear the boundaries of the recording and the positions of the players within the field. The voice has an eerie "presence " that fools you into thinking its real. That is where you separate the great audio systems from the very best IMO. I always assumed it was a magical combination of acoustics and system synergy. Hell, I thought it may have been a touch of luck... I see now , it might originate in the preamp. Its trite to say " my speakers disappeared" and I have struggled in how NOT to say this but as redundant as it is to say , they were gone last night.

Midrange density is the one characteristic that this preamp has that will enamor the old guard of loyal Conrad Johnson followers. Bow strings being pulled fill the air with a weight that is captivating to those that favor a richness and complexity to their instrumental palette. The afterglow of percussive resonance's that fill the air with distinctive character give you a clear view of the size of the tom tom . Try Dean Peers " Its All Good " for a tasty dish of unique percussion sounds on the many creative tracks on this brilliant album.

I love movies. If I really like one , I will go as many as 15 times to the Theatre , There is a brilliant albeit polarizing film out now called The Fountain. I find it the most unique, visionary science fiction film since 2001 . Heads up.... Spoilers to the movie coming ...... Its the story of a brilliant surgeon that desperately loves his wife and is violently working new drugs and technologies in an attempt to cure her cancer. His radical method of uncovering new drugs accidentally leads to the cure for aging. He plants a tree over her corpse so she will live within the tree when it grows .He takes the tree into outer space in a bubble to reach a place in the cosmos that the Mayan culture believed prolongs life forever. Together they can reach immortality . The movie never fully explains this and jumps hundreds of years into the future and past but you can follow it by assuming his discoveries cure death thus his ability to achieve his goals. He carries the Tree-Wife with him and eats her flesh-bark as a way to prolong his own life . There is an analogy here in case you are wondering. I have had a fruitful life in audio and have been so lucky to have been able to experience so many wonderful audio components and to share my observations with so many. Audio is my Tree .

See you at 200.
340 hours and I feel the Art 3 has started leveling out. I could be wrong however , time will tell. The ART 3 was growing in all directions. Steady and sure however. The Act 2 and 2.2 evolved in a more radical fashion . The Art 3 led you on a path that was always lit and relaxing. I retained a series of digital playback software that stayed in rotation so I could stay focused on this. The APL Hi Fi NWO 2.5 Universal player was my source and I feel its extended frequency response , linearity and resolution made the job of evaluating this preamp quite simple. As noted above , this preamp is already highly regarded by me so I will not belabor this issue.

The character was revealed at 100 hours as this was indeed a magical moment. 100 - 300 was characterized by a refinement in all aspects of the audio spectrum . Not unlike the Act 2.2 , after 100 hours , the frequency range from the upper midrange to the top octaves dramatically increased in focus, resolution and transparency. At first , I was somewhat relieved as the initial impression made me want for some of the dynamic impact and upper octave clarity that the 2.2 brought to the table. The ART 3 seemed to be far more relaxed and comfortable in its role of spotlighting the nuances of the midrange exuding a liquidity and rich harmonic glow to brass and strings in its initial phase of growth. This wonderful characteristic never faltered nor lessened at the expense of this newfound clarity and open window that was unfolding. Density of the upper octaves became apparent. The striking of metal , bells and cymbals now had not only a revealing presence that surpassed the 2.2 but also had a lingering sweetness that invited you into the field . This made listening to many various genres of music a newfound delight. I began bringing out Indian , New Age and Celtic recordings. I spent myself into the audio grave with . I was doing what i needed to do : get lost in the experience of music rather than being focused on the gear. That's harder to accomplish than it seems for audiophiles.

The depth continued to recede. Space from the front of the stage to the rear was expensive and layered. Bass control was without question superior to anything I have owner or auditioned. I simply cannot find fault with this preamp.

I will make a final addendum at 500 hours
I wanted to put this to rest with a final word that would capture this experience . Tie it up nicely , leave it open for others to enjoy and move on . I do not wish to come off as melodramatic in my gushing of praise and enthusiasm. I do on the other hand love what I am in the middle of and must explore with you the evolution a bit more.

I was wrong, it has not stopped improving and I am at 420 hours. I have in rotation a few discs I will list in my wrap up of this study but in particular , I am focused on Live From France , Patricia Barber. I play this disc in its entirety every night to begin the rotation and every night it sounds different. Emerging from the myriad of instruments that the band utilizes is a "stain of character " to each unique sound. The trite verbiage is "fleshing out the character " of the instruments as they become what they will be ultimately presented as from a given chain of components. What I mean by staining is that with this preamp, the nuances are so uniquely delineated and presented that they portray such a bold , identifiable texture that it becomes an indelible imprint you cannot mistake.... like a stain . Every spin of the disc unearths more of this and I cannot contain my admiration . As good as the ACT 2.2 is { and it is extraordinary } , the Art 3 is in another league.

I have friend that is a highly respected member of the audiophile community and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Iowa. John Lediaev is a man of dedication . He treats is body and mind like calibration instruments. His commitment to exacting the performance of his audio system is astonishing. His relentless pursuit of audio perfection is lead by his laser like focus on the accurate presentation of instrumental timbre. He attends live unamplified musical events often and he punctuates his fascinating stories of audio with analogies to his own experiences with his system . For the first time , I understand completely what he is so tantalized with.To listen to a musical passage that is dense with various unique and well recorded sounds and experience the lack of homogenized instrumental character is humbling .

The Teflon caps are maturing and the clarity , focus and separation of the space is evident. The result is a startling ability to walk through the space of the recording. Holographic and stable , the bodies , bells, cymbals ect ect are locked in a vacuum in front of you in your room . Each recording displays a completely different picture and its amusing to be able to easily hear the recording engineers purpose.

I am not sure I will conclude this soon as I am clearly in the presence of something that must be respected for what it is : a benchmark product.

Good to see you enjoying the ACT3.
I luved my pre 16, but did not care for ACT2 or CT5. Good to see CJ have dumped that 6h30 and gone back to some tonal warmth and musicality they are so famous for coupled with transparency
Hi Downunder. I know your feelings regarding the Act 2 and Ct5 , we have conversed before in private . I also respect you and your experiences with CJ.
I personally feel that that direction was a needed evolution and brought clarity and detail to the table. I also like the 6h30 and what it brought to the table. The balance however was a tricky one and the Act 2 was not successful at bridging the gap. The Ct5 was a move in the right direction as it brought dynamics and a solidity to the lower midrange and is a superior " best buy " IMO. The Act 2.2 however was a milestone achievement and is a musical , involving instrument of reproduction . Had I not heard the ART 3, I would have ended my quest there. I could never have imagined that the ART 3 would be this good .
Downunder , I wanted to expand on my comments above. I personally feel the direction is a positive one for specific reasons . The added clarity and resolution was an important step in the right direction IMO. The use of teflon caps and new topologies of the new CJ gear allows us to dig deeper into the music . We have all of these fabulous recordings to listen to and they are full of detail that must be dredged up to be appreciated. To lose this ability to see the entire sonic landscape at any expense isnt worth it to me. Fortunately , musical involvement is alive and well in the Act 2.2. The ART 3 strikes the perfect pose of maintaining staggering detail , rich midrange density, and frequency linearity from top to bottom . Add to this the ability to spotlight the minute color shadings of the instrumental timbre . This cannot be deleniated without this added resolution and cleaning of the sonic window. The trick is the balance.
Conclusion and final thoughts.

I rotated discs from my Redbook , SACD as well as DVD A collection .Initially I treated my system with the Purist Audio Design , System Enhancer Rev-B disc . Discs used in this evaluation were as follows:

1: Best of Mickey Hart . DVD A
2: Dead Can Dance . Spiritchaser both for percussion . Redbook
3:Rachmaninoff . Eiji Oue . Vocalise . Minnesota Orchestra Reference Recordings . HDCD
4:Copland . Eiji Oue . Fanfare for the Common Man . Minnesota Orchestra Reference Recordings . HDCD
5:Diana Krall . Steppin Out . Redbook
6:Al Dimeola . Flesh on Flesh . SACD
7:Patricia Barber. Live a Forthnight in France . Redbook
8:Kraftwerk . Tour de France . Electronica . Redbook

Passing 500 hours of break in I sensed a complete picture coming together. The attribute I admired most of this preamp was its grip on its own purpose. It began as an unassuming yet exuded its presence of direction from the opening note. It slowly blossomed in all directions starting at the center of the frequency response: the glorious midrange . This is what many buy Conrad Johnson products for and this is their ultimate statement on the subject . From this perspective , I would have been completely satisfied if it offered nothing more . I knew better as I had experience with the Teflon caps .

The top opened up and painted a crystal clear window that excelled in lighting the back of the recording. This attribute of gear is fast becoming a critical necessity to my own listening preferences. Cables can choke this off so never neglect proper cabling.
Diana Kralls Steppin out is a favorite of mine as well as Pat Barbers Live in France in this regard. To hear this phenomenon come to life before your eyes is to understand one of the sonic roots of our obsession we share.

Bass response is one of the most difficult areas to accurately reproduce in a system. So many factors can contribute to its effect that to ascertain the role of a particular component is most difficult. I used Kraftwerks Tour de France to get a handle on its low bass support but ended up with Al Dimeola as the final barometer. The articulation of upper bass notes as they pass to lower midrange is where I was able to discover the nuances and shadings this preamp was capable of. Clear clean and fast yet possessing weight and density , bass and lower midrange percussive notes stood out from one another in its own space which left you with the ability to follow whatever note you wanted within the soundscape with surprising ease .

Finally , its all about the music . Music can be alluring in that you feel a part of something larger than a song. You want to move and groove and share it with others . You want to sit forever and never leave your listening chair. Music can also be a portrait. It can be the most perfect arrangement of notes with dynamic contrasts, lightning leading edge transient notes and crystal clear top end extension . It can even be made to measure almost perfectly . The difference is that one is musically rewarding and makes you forget about the electronics. The other is beautiful , seemingly perfect yet the connection with your soul is somehow lost. This preamp grips you and draws you inside the music .

This preamp is the kind of product that can define a company . The Conrad Johnson ART 3 should certainly hammer its legend in stone for decades to come .


This review was a labor of love for me. I am so fortunate to be able to have had this unique opportunity to share my journey with some of you .

Hi Brainwater

How is the cj ART3 going now??

I have to tell you & Tim if you are viewing that cj is back in my life baby!!.

I just bought a pre luved ART. number 56 in fact (thanks Jimbox) It sounds just wonderful. Music just seems to float in a huge 3d soundstage sounding as natural and unforced as I have ever heard.

AS you know the ACT2 and CT5 did not really float my boat, however I always luved my prem 16 and regretted selling it 3 years ago on my grass is greener over the next hill tour. Sometimes you must look back to move forward.

I have had the ART since Monday and enjoying my music more than ever, which is the point isn't it.

I even feel privilaged to have one of the 250 ART's ever made. In the future if I feel the need or desire I can upgrade to series 2 or heaven forbid series 3.

Yes the ART is truely one of the great pre amps.

Congrats Shane - that is great! The 16LS is the 'baby ART' so its father should take you to just the right spot for your sonic preferences. Now all you need are some nice Amperex Orange Globe 6DJ8 or 7308s. :-)

Thanks Tim

the ART seems to be a lot quieter than the LS16 ever was, however I think most of that is from the Mac 2102's. They are a lot quieter than my old prem8a's.

What do the Amperex Orange globe's bring to the musical equation?.
I am sure they are expensive and buying 10 should be fun.

The stk electro harmonic's sound prety good at the moment
I mentioned Amperex Organge Globes because they seem to be out there, are not the priciest, and are a reasonable representative of what early (NOS or near NOS) tubes can do. But there is a variety of manufacturers: Telefunken, Siemans, Mullard, etc. You don't need all ten of the same manufacturer , but they must all be of the same type (6DJ8, 6922 or 7308). I've found that mixing manufacturers can yield the best results. I'm guessing that two or three per channel would make an improvement.

So what do less than contemporary tubes bring? Typically more extended highs, much better harmonics, and often a deeper more dimensional souundstage. Their sound tends to be less 'mechanical' or analytic - but I don't want to over-generalize. And NOS usually will last quite a bit longer. That was certainly the case with my 16LS. There simply was no point listening to the stock CJ 6922s (typically Sovtek) when there were easily better choices. Price is all over the map - anywhere from $35 a tube up to several hundred. Depends on the seller and the tube.

Tube rolling is one thing I miss w/ the ACT2.

I just picked up an ART series 3. Out of the box it sounds wonderful. It has about 100 hours on it now and is just getting better and better while maintaining all the strong points of the original ART.

Just a magical timeless music making machine and I am very lucky to own one.