Conrad-Johnson CAV45 S2

Here is an amplifier that, like the McIntosh 225, has made me seriously reconsider my preconceived notions. This is Conrad Johnson’s current (2021) integrated amplifier, what they call a “control amplifier”, and it is a stunning performer.

The CAV 45 S2 is a 45 watt per channel EL-34 based amplifier with three inputs and a smooth action volume control. A large and robust amp, the CAV 45 is well built and solid feeling with Conrad Johnson’s signature champagne faceplate and matte black coating. The amp employs the 6922 tube as an input and the somewhat unusual 5965 tube as phase splitters. The 6922 allows a very wide range of flavors to choose from with so many outstanding selections available and I am always happy to see this as the driver choice. One interesting feature of this amplifier is that, unlike most other integrateds there is no active preamp section, it is passive, and perhaps that is one of the keys to the superb sound quality. And it is probably the reason it's called a control amp.

This is the first Conrad Johnson product I have owned. I’ve read of many people being happy with their CJ amps and particularly their preamps, but I have largely avoided mainstream products like this in favor of small boutique builders. In fact, this is one of the only times I have owned and reviewed a current production amplifier of any kind, so that in itself is a bit of a departure for me. Part of the reason I picked this one up was that I found out that Conrad Johnson is headquartered in the Dunn-Loring area of Fairfax VA, not too far from where I live now. In fact they are little more than a mile from where I went to middle and high school, so it feels good to support a local product. And I’m so glad I did.

I bought this amplifier for use in my living room system, a large space with a high ceiling and where Lance Cochrane’s PP EL84 has reigned supreme pretty much forever. I’ve had a lot of amps in that spot competing with Lance’s modest creation, but until now, Lance has always won. I’m seriously wondering now if the Conrad Johnson will be unseated, it is hands down better able to fill and energize the big room, and with its user friendly integrated functionality it is an easier to live with solution for a system that has many users, not all of whom appreciate the minimalist approach to things. Simply stated, unlike many of my other prized hifi machines, this is an amp that no one will have trouble figuring out how to turn on and off, how to switch inputs on, and how to raise and lower the volume.

So how does it sound? In a word, riveting. Majestic even. The CAV 45 S2 has a richness of tone that is compelling, and a purity to its sound that makes you stop what you are doing and just listen. Voices are superb, imaging is also very, very good and overall this amplifier has a wholeness and coherency that is among the best of anything I have owned. Its sound has a lot in common with a good single ended amp, but with the authority and drive of 45 watts of EL-34. I’m sort of surprised to be saying that about a mass produced circuit board amp, but it is true. Keep in mind, in this space we are listening to this amplifier while cooking, doing the dishes, digging in the refrigerator and just sitting on the couch talking. It's the amp that guests hear when they are in our home, and it's the sound that travels into my wife’s office and up the stairs into the bedrooms. In short, its often background music, but on so many occasions the sound from this amp cuts through that distraction and makes you stop what you are doing, pause and listen. Unlike a formal listening session where intently listening is your purpose, this one calls out to be heard. This amp fills our home with music.

One odd thing we have all noticed is that my vinyl rig sounds better through the CAV 45 than it usually does. I love records, and have a few thousand of them, but I often have to work a bit harder to get the most out of my analog gear. For some reason the CAV 45 and my antique Rek-O-Kut with a Denon DL160 and a wooden Weathers arm fit together like peas in a pod. I’m finding that I play records a lot more with the CAV 45 than I used to.

The Conrad Johnson CAV 45 S2 is an amp that has really surprised me. I’ve had a few EL-34 push pull amps in the past and have been happy enough with their performance, but this one is a step above. I can’t see myself passing this one on, even though it is a bit more money than I usually have tied up in an amplifier. This one works so well at what it does, and I’ve experimented enough to know that I will have a very hard time matching this performance, much less surpassing it. If you are in the market for a big and powerful push pull tube amp that can be the heart and soul of any system, I can say that I do not think you will be disappointed by this elegant, functional and supremely good sounding “control” amplifier. Highly recommended!

Nice clean lines and really just classic Conrad Johnson. This exudes attention to detail and quality engineering. As an American, I’m so happy to see a product like this; well made, true to its roots, but still modern and relevant.

This amp is driven by the 6922 and here I’ve placed one of the very best, a Siemens CCa. The two rear tubes are phase splitters, and are 5965, an interesting choice from Conrad Johnson. The 5965 is basically a slightly lower voltage 12AT7 and most of them were made for the early computer industry. As such they are a very stable, robustly constructed tube with a long lifespan. These are the RCA that shipped from CJ but at some point I’ll try some Burroughs and IBM labeled versions from my stash and see if there is a difference.

I have a few quads of nice vintage EL-34 and this is one of the best. Made in Holland is always a good indicator of quality! These sound very good in the CJ amp and are an easily identifiable step up from the made in Russia re-issue “Mullards” that arrived with the amp (and they aren’t bad either!)

This amp does require bias adjustment, but it has been made very simple. Using the provided plastic flat head screwdriver, the bias can easily be set for each individual tube, confirmed by the led light next to each tube. This means that you do not technically need a matched quad of tubes for this amplifier, which is nice for those of us who prefer to run vintage tubes. Once set it is good for 6 months, but can easily be checked and updated in 30 seconds or less.

Apparently the first generation CAV 45 had some complaints about the binding posts, and that was addressed in the S2 version pictured here. These are robust and do their job well, but lack the hole in the middle that you normally see, and that would have been nice for me as I am running bare wire in this system.

This room is large and long, and is a challenge to light up with the stereo. With no throw rugs in place it is a very live space and unforgiving. The Telefunken cabinets are seen here loaded with the wonderfully articulate Visaton B200 and do a great job, but the Lii Audio F-15 open baffles are a bit better in this space and are a near perfect match to the CJ CAV 45.

The CJ is hooked up to a Mac Mini, the Rek-O-Kut and a Scott 350B FM tuner.

I couldn't be happier with this amplifier. It’s a perfect living room, family-friendly tube amplifier. It ships with a tube cage, but since my little ones aren’t little anymore, I can’t see a reason to install it. Thanks Conrad Johnson, for all of the good family music memories!