CH Precision I1 Universal Integrated Amplifier

Upending Expectations

Equipment report
Integrated amplifiers
CH Precision I1
CH Precision I1 Universal Integrated Amplifier

I also had to adjust to the I1’s dynamic range. Goldmund components are famous for being highly dynamic, but the I1 is off the charts. For example, through the I1 the kettledrum that kicks off that third movement of the Mahler Second came through so forcefully and unexpectedly—from the dead-silent background—that it gave my heart a real start. Then, throughout this movement, the I1 delivered dynamic peaks and valleys that couldn’t have had more contrast: The big sections were huge; the delightful measures in which various instruments take turns in the spotlight were infinitely delicate.

Through the I1, Neil Young’s voice on “Old Man” was every bit as sonorous and realistic as it is with the reference gear, but I also heard—as I did on other music—more rhythmic propulsion with the CH Precision. Similarly, the I1 reproduced Prokofiev’s stage and instruments in all their previous glory, but that amp also made it even easier to follow the interleaved musical lines.

Throughout my listening to sources entering the I1 via its analog inputs, I heard nothing to suggest that there was an extra ADC and DAC stage (can I just abbreviate this to “ADAC”?) in the signal path. Obviously, though, you can’t insert two digital conversions without some sonic ramification. I wanted to know what price was being paid for the added flexibility and space-saving of using a quasi-digital volume control. To that end, I concocted an experiment.

First, I played a track from the Rossini DAC’s analog outputs to the I1, going through the latter in normal fashion—that is, with the ADAC in the signal path. I listened to the Prokofiev. Then I played the same track again, but this time with the I1 input in bypass mode. As I’ve already mentioned, you can only use this mode if the source component has its own such control. Handily, the Rossini does. In this configuration, I was listening to the Rossini straight through to the I1’s power amp, bypassing the ADAC. What differences did I hear? Amazingly, I heard absolutely none. 

Perhaps, I thought, a more “naked” track would better illuminate the ADAC’s sonic effect. I spun up Michael Wolff’s 2 AM. In bypass mode, with no ADAC, the recording’s piano was absolutely ravishing; high notes tinkled like a real piano’s, and the instrument’s decays and overtones—which in this recording have nowhere to hide—simply sounded right. Meanwhile, the upright bass proved solid and chesty. This was a tour de force.

So what happened when I reverted from bypass to normal mode, thereby inserting the ADAC? This time I could hear a difference, but it wasn’t much. The ADAC made those top piano notes a hair less airy and tinkly than they’d been in bypass mode. Other than that subtlety, which would never have been noticeable without a direct comparison, everything else was the same.

From this test I concluded that, while physics dictates that CH’s ADAC approach can’t be done with complete impunity, the I1 comes astonishingly close to that ideal. The penalty for going through the ADAC is so subtle and limited as to be inconsequential. That said, if you have a source component with a volume control as good as the Rossini’s, and you want to get the very most out of that source, you can always run it through the I1 in bypass mode.

The bypass gave me a window into the sound of the purely analog elements of the I1, which were every bit as impressive as I remembered them from my original A1 review sessions. Now, it was time to get a bead on this integrated’s DAC performance. Since both the I1 and the Rossini have digital inputs, line-level analog outputs, and a volume control, it was easy to wire them both up as DACs driving my Goldmund linestage. As source material, I used various hi-res files hosted on my Synology NAS.

While the two DACs sounded different, they both proved wonderful in their own way. I would have no qualms with owning either. The main difference: The CH is airier—and its tonal balance lighter—than the Rossini. Also, reflecting their respective countries of origin, the dCS evinces a more laid-back “British” sound, while the CH is squarely in the more assertive Swiss school. The choice comes down to personal preference.

In putting the I1’s DAC through its paces I found, as is often the case these days, that streaming sounds best. Of all the inputs, it’s the most open and dynamically unbounded, with nice, tight imaging. USB, once you get the settings right—on my PC running JRiver, the XMOS wasapi [Windows Audio Session API] driver proved best—very nearly matches the outstanding streaming mode. Coax SPDIF also proved up to snuff.