The standard reason for buying an integrated amp is to save money and space—if not with total sonic impunity, then at least without incurring a major sonic sacrifice. Integrateds enable this by merging a linestage and power amp into one unit, reducing by half the required number of power supplies and chassis. That may not sound like a big deal, but those are two of an audio component’s most expensive parts. Of course, having two functions share a power supply is going to entail some sonic penalty, but integrateds at least partially compensate by eliminating a set of interconnects, which exact their own toll on sound.
Thus goes the eminently logical case for integrated amps. But does that logic still hold when the unit in question’s price is deep into separate-component territory? The answer is yes, but only if that amp sets new standards for the genre and is so unlike other integrateds that it effectively creates a new product category. That’s the charter of CH Precision’s new I1, an integrated amp that upends nearly everything we’ve come to know about these components.
Justifying the Price
The first expectation the I1 shatters is price. Take a trip through a TAS Buyer’s Guide issue and you’ll find that most integrateds cost well under $15,000. In contrast, the I1 sells for a lofty $38,000—and that’s just for starters. Like a Porsche, the I1’s sticker climbs steeply as you option it out. Fully loaded, this integrated peaks at over $50,000.
But it doesn’t take long to realize that the I1 resembles a traditional integrated about as much as a modern Leica takes after an old Instamatic. Consider, for instance, the basic matter of inputs. Standard integrateds accommodate only line-level analog sources. Lately, a few have sprouted a digital port too. In contrast, the I1 can handle those line-level analog sources, plus moving-coil cartridges, NAS-based music streamed over an Ethernet network, PCs, Macs, and smartphones via USB, and digital transports using SPDIF, AES/EBU, TosLink, or the proprietary CH Link HD.
The upshot of this orgy of inputs is that unlike normal integrateds, into which you end up plugging ancillary electronics such as phono- stages, DACs, and streamers, the I1 is truly self-contained. CH Precision, it turns out, had good reason for dubbing the I1 a “universal” integrated amp.
Another way in which the I1 deviates from—and improves upon—other members of its species is through modularity. Standard integrated amps have set hardware configurations. That is, they support a fixed number of inputs and outputs, each of which is of a pre-determined type. The I1 has no such restrictions. Its back panel is not so much an array of connectors as the open end of a card cage into which you insert boards of varying functionality. In this way you can customize an I1 to fit your specific needs, both now and in the future.
Even in its base configuration, the I1 is, as the auto industry would say, “nicely equipped.” The unit comes standard with an analog I/O board that supports three sources, each of which can be either single-ended or balanced. Also included is a digital input board with SPDIF, AES/EBU, TosLink, and CH Link HD ports, as well as an Ethernet Control board that enables remote control. To these the buyer can add any combination of additional digital boards, plus phono- stage, network streaming, USB, and SYNC I/O (for external clocking) boards. Fully decked out, the I1 is a DAC/streamer/linestage/phono- stage and, of course, a stereo amplifier.
Another distinction of the I1 is the price and pedigree of the components that comprise it. For instance, when configured comparably to the I1 base system, CH’s stand-alone C1 DAC/controller costs $32,000 all by itself. Similarly, the company’s P1 dedicated phono- stage runs $31,000. And the A1 stereo power amp, which is nearly identical to the I1’s power amp section, comes in at $37,000. For those not keeping score, that totals up to over a hundred grand of donor componentry.
If you’re having trouble believing that, for instance, a $37,000 A1 power amp can reside essentially intact within the $38,000 I1, which also includes a lot of other stuff, well, you’re not alone. But that is indeed the situation. The two amps have the same circuit, the same output, the same self-regulating bias that adjusts itself automatically based on the amp’s operating temperature, the same vibration-reducing “silent block” mounting of the massive transformer, the same 450kHz bandwidth, and the same ability to optimize global feedback for any speaker. True, the transformer in the I1 is “only” 1000VA compared to the A1’s 1200VA. Something had to give. Still, the A1 is representative of the extent to which the leading-edge technology from CH’s separates made its way into the I1.
Furthermore, as pricey as those separates are, I’m here to tell you that they’re worth every penny. The C1, A1, and P1 are among the best of their kind in the world. Each of these Swiss-made components has been showered with international accolades, and each has won a Golden Ear Award. In the I1, you get the heart of all three of them—at half the price. The inescapable conclusion is that although the I1 shatters the integrated price ceiling, one expectation it doesn’t upend is value. The I1, like all integrateds, still saves its buyers money.