For several years, the main pre-amplifier in my stereo system was a conrad johnson PV 10. I bought mine in 1990 or so, and used it with a conrad johnson MV 50 power amplifier as well as a B&K 202. Speakers used with my PV 10 included Vandersteen 2Cis, DCM Time Windows, Spica TC-50s, and Snell EIIIs.
The PV 10 has evolved since its introduction in 1989 or so: the version shown here on Epinions, the PV10A, came into being in the early '90s, and the latest version is actually called the PV 10B.
The design and tube complement have changed slightly over the years (and the price has increased), but the sonic signature of the PV 10 has remained quite similar.
First, the basics: The PV 10 is a no-frills tube preamplifier. Mine had only a selector knob, a balance knob, and a volume knob on the front panel, as well as a tape monitor button and a "balance out," the latter of which removed the balance control from the circuit entirely.
In later versions of the PV 10A (as well as the PV 10B) the balance control was done away with completely. The version shown on Epinions is an earlier PV 10A, similar in appearance to my basic PV 10.
What matters is the sound. Audiophiles know that tube pre-amplifiers and power amplifiers reproduce music with a "naturalness" that even the best solid state equipment can not match. Solid state equipment generally produces deeper, tighter bass, and perhaps more extended highs, but in the critical midrange, tubes sound more natural and effortless. Imaging is more three-dimensional with tubes, and the music seems to have more life to it.
The PV 10 is not perfect, but it DOES have some of what makes tubes magical. Especially if mated with a good tube power amplifier, the PV 10 can provide a very satisfying musical experience.
What are its sonic characteristics? First of all, the midrange is quite lush and beautiful. Especially when mated with the conrad johnson MV 50, musicians sounded like they were in the room with me. The sense of each musician being a three-dimensional entity, rather than a "cardboard cut-out," as audiophile reviewers like to say, was also really good.
Overall imaging is also really good. The PV 10 can generate a wide and deep soundstage with good speakers (a PV 10 might work well with Thiel .5s, which I recently reviewed).
Clarity and detail are NOT as good as with the best tube pre-amplifiers. In fact, I think that the presentation of the little Jolida 102 tube integrated was a bit more delicate and detailed, and a tad clearer, than that of the PV 10/MV 50 combination, though the Jolida was lacking in heft and warmth, relatively speaking.
Bass through the conrad johnson PV 10 is good, but it was not as firm and authoritative as when I switched to my passive solid state pre-amplifier. The highs may have been ever so slightly rolled off as well, though this didn't detract from the musical experience for me. I believe that the high end roll off is less pronounced with the PV 10A and PV 10B.
A minor problem I had with my PV 10 was that I had to tweak and re-tweak my phono ground wire to minimize hum. Even at its best, there was slightly more hum when playing records than with my passive pre-amplifier. But the sound through the phono section was excellent. Phono gain was also quite high; I only used the first 110 degrees of my volume control when listening to records. The PV 10 was quiet with other functions, though there was a barely audible hiss present if I put my ears right up to the speakers with the volume turned up.
Tube microphony was also a minor problem. If you have tube equipment, you want to isolate it as well as you can. The PV 10 runs fairly warm, but it didn't burn up tubes particularly quickly. I generally re-tubed every couple of years or so, ordering my tubes directly from conrad johnson in most cases.
As for human engineering, I really like the way the conrad johnson PV 10 looks and feels. The unit is very attractive, and the three knobs and two buttons operate smoothly. The back panel is laid out logically, and the thing has a simple elegance that is really pleasing. All versions of the PV 10 have auto-mute, to supress noises that might occur as the unit warms up. It takes about 30 seconds to warm up (no sound during that period), though the sound improves the longer you have it on.
To summarize, the conrad johnson is a solid tube pre-amplifier. The most liquid and musical amplification I've had in my system was the PV 10/MV 50 combination. Female voices in particular sounded wonderful through this combination. I ultimately returned the MV 50 (but kept the PV 10) because the MV 50 could not control the woofers of the Vandersteen 2Cis I was using at the time, and acoustic guitars (which HAVE to sound right in my system) sounded too bloated. With the PV 10 and B&K 202, things were much better in this regard, though the 202 is not as liquid through the midrange as the MV 50.
The retail price of the conrad johnson PV 10 was about $1000 when I bought mine more than ten years ago. I think I paid about $800 for a demo. conrad johnson products are not heavily discounted, but you can find vintage units an the used market for pretty good prices. The retail of the latest version (with phono) is about $1600, which is getting up there. According to Sam Tellig, in a 2002 Stereophile article, the characteristics of the latest PV 10 (the PV 10B) are quite similar to the earlier versions, but he warns of a slight upper-midrange emphasis, meaning that a power amplifier with similar characteristics should be avoided.
If you are trying to put together a system based on tube amplification, I might try to find an older PV 10, and mate it with an older conrad johnson or VTL tube amplfier. You can save some money this way, and though you'll give up a bit in resolution and deep bass relative to the best out there, you'll have that magical tube midrange at a decent price. Older PV 10s can be had for between $300 and $400 on the used market.
For those who are interested in such things, the tube complement of my older PV 10 was as follows:
V1 & V2: 12AX7
V3 & V5: 12AT7
Replacement Tube Set RT10
For the PV 10A, the model listed here, the complement is as follows:
V1 & V2: 12AX7
V4 & V5: 12AU7
Replacement Tube Set RT10A
If you want to experience the sound of tubes without having to buy a separate pre-amplifier and power amplifier, check out the Jolida 102 and 202 integrated amplifiers. If you like the idea of separates, or if you happen to have a tube power amplifier on your hands, and are looking for a suitable mate in a pre-amplifier, the conrad johnson PV 10 is one of the most cost-effective options. Given the rise in price over the last 10 years, I might check the used market before diving into a new PV 10B, but I invite comments about the latest version.
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