Besides getting a good deal, saving space is the other primary reason audiophiles go for integrated amps. A traditional integrated lets you replace two bulky chassis with one. The I1 goes even further since, in an impressive feat of engineering, it consolidates three packed chassis. To do this required some creativity. In fact, CH had to re-think entirely certain areas of the I1’s architecture to make possible this extreme level of space compression.
For instance, the idea of transplanting the analog volume control from the stand-alone L1 analog linestage was a non-starter. That control alone, with its dense array of laddered resistors, would have occupied a fourth of the I1’s precious space. Needing an entirely different approach, CH decided to lean on its digital expertise by designing a hybrid digital/analog volume unit. In this scheme, large volume changes are handled in the analog domain, while the fine-tuning is digital. The benefit of this approach, besides being much more compact, is that even though volume is partially adjusted in the digital domain, there is none of the usual loss of low-level resolution.
The I1’s hybrid volume control had a ripple effect throughout the rest of its design. In particular, the decision necessitated that any source needing volume adjustment has to be in the digital domain. Of course, that’s not an issue for sources entering the I1 via one of its digital inputs. But what about analog sources? Well, if they need volume attenuation, then the first thing the I1 does is convert them to 384k/32-bit digital. This happens for sources such as a DAC that doesn’t have its own volume control. On the other hand, if that DAC does have a volume control—and many do, these days—its I1 input can be set to bypass mode, which sidesteps the amp’s digital elements entirely. In this way, the I1 enables suitable analog sources to pass through in pure analog.
Preserving the CH Precision Sound
Having discussed the architectural changes necessary to cram all this componentry and capability into one chassis, it’s important to recognize what wasn’t changed. As already noted, CH transplanted the guts of its various separates to the I1 with minimal changes. Meanwhile, the overall design reflects CH’s twin preoccupations with vibration reduction and ultra-wide bandwidth. These two imperatives, both hallmarks of the “Swiss sound,” are just as elaborately executed in the I1 as they are throughout the CH lineup.
Of course, these are all academic observations. None of it would matter one whit if the I1 didn’t sound like a true CH Precision product. This is where the I1 sets a standard unreachable by mere mortal integrated amps: It’s every bit as sonically and musically revelatory as its prestigious stablemates.
I did most of my auditioning through the exceptional Wilson Benesch Resolution speakers. For linestage, phonostage, and power amp reference points, I used my Goldmund Mimesis 22, PH01, and Mimesis 8, respectively. Rounding out the reference setup was dCS’ Rossini DAC and the equally impressive Lyra Etna cartridge mounted to a Graham ’arm on a Goldmund ’table. As you might imagine, this is a very fine-sounding reference system. Above all, it is highly musical; but it’s also detailed, dynamic, fast, airy, and rich.
On this system, for example, Neil Young’s voice and guitar on the Live from Massey Hall CD are palpable. Also, the spatial depth on Mercury’s recording of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is eerily real, and the third movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony on Decca’s LSO/Solti LP moves thrillingly from pianissimo solo turns to instrumental grunts to full-blown orchestral assault. In short, the I1 that was soon to stand in for the reference electronics had a lot to live up to.
I expected the reference and CH-based systems to sound similar. After all, some of CH’s founders come from Goldmund. Further, both companies, like most of the Swiss audio industry, adhere to the core strategies of vibration evacuation and wide bandwidth that Goldmund pioneered decades ago. However, surprisingly, the two setups didn’t sound the same at all. In fact, when I swapped in the I1, I needed a considerable adjustment period, since so many things were different.
First and foremost, the tonal balance of the I1 isn’t as overtly rich as that of the Goldmund components. At first, I deemed this an I1 deficiency. But once I got through the adjustment phase, I realized that the CH is by far the more neutral, and that the Goldmund’s sonic richness is actually a lower-midrange tubbiness. By avoiding such coloration, the I1 is free to reveal all kinds of things that the Goldmund obscures. There is, for instance, a nice little bass line on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” from the 45rpm Analogue Productions pressing of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I never heard it until I hooked up the I1; then it was perfectly distinct.
Besides tonal balance and extra detail, the next thing I noticed was that I was listening to entire albums rather than individual tracks. I traced this to the I1’s significantly lower distortion and along with it, greater ease. Greater clarity and greater ease don’t often come in the same package. When they do, the engagement factor takes a major leap forward.