Another aspect that I really enjoyed about the GAT was the silkiness of the sound. The tube complement brings to music the breath of life. I’ve been listening a lot lately to a Channel Classics recording of Telemann concerts played by Florilegium. While recently reviewing a pair of hybrid monoblocks from Frank Van Alstine, I noted how the tubes added a welcome bit of pulchritude to the Florilegium’s woodwinds and strings. The GAT had the same effect on flute and recorder, allowing the full resonance of the instruments to come to the fore, an effect that defines them more clearly. On Mavis Staples’ album One True Vine, the GAT’s noise floor was so low that you could hear her (and the backing choir) take a full inhalation of breath before launching into the song “Holy Ghost.” The GAT’s excellent decays also helped to create a more measured sense of pacing. The full poignancy of a slow movement in a Bach concerto comes through with remarkable fidelity. You never have the feeling that one instrument is being shortchanged at the expense of another.
What about dynamic slam? The GAT’s whopping gain will allow you to crank up the volume to levels that at sustained intervals are probably less than salubrious for your hearing. This is a longwinded way of saying that you can really play your system loud with this preamp (provided that your power amplifier can also deliver). I had a go with it on Jimmy Smith’s famous live album Root Down, recorded in Los Angeles in 1972. With a good system, it’s possible to get a real sense of the venue as well as the energy and drive that Smith brought to the performance. On cuts such as “Root Down (and Get It),” I was mightily impressed by the GAT’s ability not only to present extremely dynamic music without becoming discombobulated, but also by the sang-froid with which it delivered rimshots—they emerged from the XLFs with a real weight and heft. In addition, I would be remiss if I failed to point out the swanky new Ypsilon Hyperion monoblock amplifiers also played a role here. With their approximately 800 watts at 4 ohms going into the Wilsons, the sound levels could—and did—reach prodigious volumes. But the GAT drove the Hyperions beautifully, keeping a tenacious lock on the bass lines while adding a bit of extra power to the rimshots.
While the TEA1 Series 2 phonostage is also a powerful performer, I must say I was slightly less smitten with it than I was with the GAT. While it provided real punch and sock, I found the phonostage to lack some of the GAT’s tonal purity and finesse. However, on the great jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham’s performance of “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” on the Parkwood Records label, I was floored by the way the combination of the phonostage and GAT—with a Continuum turntable with Lyra Etna SL cartridge on the front end—projected the trumpet’s bore into my listening space. Still, on this and other cuts I couldn’t help feeling that the sound wasn’t quite as refined as with the GAT sans the TEA1. On the Angel LP of Jacqueline du Pré with Daniel Barenboim conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, the overall sound was a bit drier, particularly in the treble region, than I recall with a variety of other phonostages. However, the TEA1’s ability both to convey the ambiance of the original venue and to allow the instruments to soar in space was pretty darn compelling.
Although I’ve mentioned the capacity of the GAT to play at loud SPLs, blasting you out of the room has never been at the heart of the CJ sound. On the contrary, what most riveted me was the GAT’s ability to seduce you. It’s the English gentleman of preamps—unobtrusive, unflappable, and unerring. The lack of grain, the clarity of sound, and the punctiliousness of reproduction are beguiling indeed. I’d imagine that if you have the patience, it’s possible to push the GAT even further with some judicious tube rolling. So if you’ve been hopscotching among different preamps over the years, this is the one that might do than more than tug at your heartstrings. It might even win your undying loyalty.
Specs & Pricing
GAT Series 2 Preamplifier
Type: Vacuum-tube linestage preamplifier
Tube complement: 6922 (2x)
Inputs: Line-level (5x), tape loop (2x)
Outputs: Main (2x), tape (2x); all inputs and outputs on RCA jacks
Output impedance: <100 ohms
Dimensions: 19" x 4.81" x 15.375"
Weight: 35 lbs.
TEA1 Series 2 Phono Preamplifier
Type: Vacuum-tube phonostage
Tube complement: 12AX7 (3x)
Gain input: 54dB (low); 66dB (high)
Output impedance: <200 ohms
Dimensions: 19" x 3.315" x 15.5"
Weight: 23 lbs.
Price: $15,000 (available as the TEA1s2b with no step-up transformers for $12,000)
CONRAD-JOHNSON DESIGN, INC.
2800K Dorr Ave.
Fairfax, VA 22031