One of the most famous scenes in the film The Third Man, which is set in Vienna in 1949 and based on Graham Greene’s novel of the same name, comes when Harry Lime, who is played by Orson Welles, tells his old pal Holly Martin that all five hundred years of democracy and peace in Switzerland ever produced was “the cuckoo clock.” This is a devastating putdown, but no one listening to the latest audio gear emanating from Switzerland would make a similarly caustic claim today. Quite the contrary. Nagra has been a standout performer for many decades, and its devices were used during the Cuban Missile Crisis to record the thoughts and arguments of the top military brass and civilian leaders. In more recent years, however, there has been an efflorescence of products from Switzerland vying for top-dog status.
One such company is CH Precision, which boasts a full product line of solid-state front-end equipment and amplifiers. Its P1 phonostage in particular caught my eye because it relies on current amplification rather than traditional voltage amplification. This means that you get a better transfer of energy, at least in theory, than with a voltage input and a higher signal-to-noise ratio. Given the dizzying array of cartridges that are available, this seemed like a very enticing feature, indeed. CH makes available plug-in cards with various equalization curves other than RIAA. The P1’s design, like other CH equipment, is modular. You can run it in true mono configuration with two X1 power supply units and two front amplification units. I used its more modest stereo configuration—P1 plus XI power supply.
As you might expect from a Swiss company, the P1 displays quite a bit of other technical prowess. First and foremost, the design is balanced and can swing up to twenty volts, which is a staggering amount but helps supply tremendous dynamics. If you like, you can run the phonostage in true mono configuration with a power supply for each of its two separate phono-signal-amplification modules. By using the front control panel you can insert or remove a subsonic rumble filter—I found it to sound better without using the filter. (Just say no, as Nancy Reagan used to advocate.) Gain can be adjusted in six steps, from 35dB to 70dB. CH believes that you want to dial in as much gain as you can as early as possible for best dynamics and lowest noise. There is also what CH calls a Loading Wizard, which relies on a built-in spectrum analyzer. You access it via the front panel. CH supplies a 7″ record with frequency sweeps that you play and can then identify the flattest frequency response for optimal loading of the cartridge. The cartridges that I have used in recent years include Dynavector, van den Hul, Lyra Etna and Atlas, Miyajima, and Ortofon.
Enough technical folderol. What did the darned thing sound like? Among the initial things that I noticed were the enormous dynamic swings, cavernous soundstage, and transient fidelity of the P1. It simply has an unrelenting grip on the music. On an album that I picked up last summer in Los Angeles by the Philip Jones brass ensemble I listened to the Basel March, which is named after a city in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. I’ve spent a bit of time in Basel as some of my relatives live there, but I must confess that I never had the pleasure of hearing the town song, or was even aware of its existence, until I procured this LP. Listening to it on the Continuum Caliburn turntable and Lyra Atlas SL cartridge with the CH Precision, however, was a real treat. The control of the P1 meant that it set up a vast soundstage from which the tuba sounded like a foghorn emerging from the misty depths. It was possible to distinguish fairly easily between the various trumpets arrayed from left to right. What the CH delivered was a sense of great reserve power that supplied the instruments with the ability not only to soar into the ether, but also to pack a real sonic punch.
The depth and scale of the P1 also came home to me on an Angel pressing of the French trumpeter Maurice André playing baroque trumpet concertos. The tenacity of the P1 in the bass region meant that the orchestra emerged as a bigger ensemble than I was accustomed to hearing. There was a grandeur and sweep to the sound, a propulsive quality that was quite addictive. The timbral fidelity of the CH unit also meant that the little pop, or explosion, that emerged from the bore of André’s piccolo trumpet on rapid passages was very accurately rendered. I hasten to add that this pop is not the result of any vulgarity in his playing but, rather, the product of his well-nigh unbelievable tonal accuracy.
The same fine-grained qualities were abundantly in evidence on another oldie but goodie, an album by the Swedish trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger on the Philips label. This digital recording of such Teutonic worthies as the composer Johann Stamitz displays the virtuosity of Hardenberger, who became something of a legend at a tender age. On the Stamitz recording, the CH rendered his playing—the little flourishes, accents, and dynamic emphases he produces on this baroque concerto—more finely than I believe I have ever heard. There is a crispness and alacrity, all done with a supremely light touch, that the P1 captured. On the Haydn trumpet concerto, the flutes sounded like the sonic equivalent of butterflies briefly flitting above the string instruments.
The filigreed playing of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields ensemble was also beautifully captured with a purity of timbre that was enthralling. On the Haydn concerto, you had a real sense of the sections of the orchestra and the way they were accenting the passages, as well as the rise and swell of the music. On the cadenza of the Stamitz, you could hear Hardenberger’s piccolo trumpet resounding to the back of the hall. In some ways, you feel that you hear the instrument itself producing the sound as much as the efforts of the performer himself, which is to say the CH created the sensation that you could hear the air whizzing through the trumpet. To a greater degree than any solid-state phonostage I have heard, the CH simply nailed every nuance—the octave jumps, the gliassandos, and the sheer verve of the performance.
Lest you think I’m a stick-in-the-mud listening all night to baroque trumpet concertos, this is most emphatically not the case. On a beautifully recorded session called Hollywood Jam that features Shelly Manne, Art Pepper, Monty Budwig, and other LA jazz musicians, I was impressed by the sense of swing that the P1 conveyed. Once again, it captured the nuances of the performances. In particular, I was smitten by the way it reproduced Bill Watrus on trombone. On cuts like “These Foolish Things,” the P1 not only conveyed the grunt of his trombone playing, but also the more evocative and haunting passages. To listen to the resonant and magnanimous sound of the trombone communicated with such accuracy was quite captivating. Then there was the bass region. Here the CH Precision exhibited a relentless grip that allowed you to listen to Monty Budwig independent of the rest of the ensemble if you chose.
This ability to hang on to the notes also gives the P1 a sense of rocket thrust, whether on trumpet or guitar. There was a kind of growl on some of the notes on a Riverside LP of Wes Montgomery on the song “Body and Soul.” Every once in a while I would sit up with a surprised jerk at a plunge into the nether region, an unexpected growl emerging from his guitar. Something similar occurred when I played a Prestige LP called Tenor Conclave (yes, for those of you keeping score, it is a double deep groove pressing) that I purchased in my free-spending youth when I wouldn’t blink at plopping down what now seem like eye-popping sums to me for original jazz pressings. Sadly, they haven’t gotten any cheaper in the interim, but, oh, the sound! Through the P1, the clarity was truly astounding. I’m not even sure that I could say that this recording issued in 1957 sounded appreciably different than a modern pressing, except that, in some ways, it had even more body and impact. The way the saxophones of Hank Mobley, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and John Coltrane weaved in and out on the title number was nothing less than riveting. On “How Deep Is the Ocean,” Cohn’s tenor sax sounded warm, breathy, and pungent, and Paul Chambers’ bass was reproduced with weight and authority while Arty Taylor’s cymbals gently swished in the background. Dynamic gradations were off the charts, from soft to loud. In general, the sound was so clean and vivid that it almost felt like these jazz greats were performing right in front of me. That an album this old can sound this good is downright spooky. The same goes for jazz organist Jimmy Smith’s album Midnight Special on the Blue Note label. There was a real sense of whack from Donald Bailey’s drums on the cut “Jumpin’ the Blues”—you got the sense that he was laying down the law, no if, ands, or buts—not to mention a plangent guitar solo by Kenny Burrell. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that Stanley Turrentine’s tenor sax sailed in with a speed that also caught me by surprise, once more a tribute to the lack of grain and noise that allows the P1 to create the impression of a live instrument soundly entering the mix.
Perhaps the most impressive LP that I listened to was a Direct Metal Master pressing bestowed upon me by the gifted Swedish tonearm designer Marc Gomez. It was a highly prized recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played by the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble on the BIS label. Talk about goosebumps! The massed sound of the strings was electrifying, an effect that I would partly ascribe to the ability of the P1 to dig into the bass region. It was simply that the bass was rich and organic. The P1 also helped to recreate the sense of air in the hall itself, something that the Wilson Master Chronosonic subwoofers can reproduce quite effectively.
By this point, you probably have gleaned that I really liked the CH Precision. My sense throughout was that it removed a layer of varnish from recordings to reveal what’s lurking in the grooves. The presentation was quite different from my Ypsilon VPS 100 phonostage. The P1 had better bass grip and dynamic slam. Just one listen to The Staple Singers on a 45rpm album that was remastered by Analogue Productions re-vealed that. It was also the case that there was nothing astringent or lean about the sound of the P1. But there’s no gainsaying that the P1 did not possess the glamour of the Ypsilon sound, that it did not pass the same amount of harmonic information. I ascribe this difference to the eternal tubes versus solid-state divide. Champions of the CH are going to point to its excellent neutrality, dynamic heft, and ability to peer into the most remote recesses of an LP. Tube lovers are going to find the CH too neutral. It doesn’t add anything to the mix. Rather, it reveals in microscopic detail what is taking place during the performance.
Speaking for myself, I was pretty pumped to get this unit, partly because I always have a hankering to listen to solid-state phonostages. My experience has been that they deliver a level of detail and background silence that tube units cannot. I find it useful, even salutary, to toggle between tubes and solid-state to avoid complacency about how the sound is being reproduced on my stereo. The sheer accuracy of the P1 is enticing in itself. It offers a new window into listening to LPs. It taught me some new things about several LPs that I’ve come to cherish. Anyone looking at solid-state phonostages would do well to consider this remarkable piece of gear, which is a potent testament to Swiss engineering.
Specs & Pricing
MC current inputs: 2x RCA and XLR
MC/MM voltage input: 1 XLR and RCA
Gain: 35–70dB in 5dB increments
Dimensions: 440mm x 440mm x 133mm
Weight: 20kg (P1)
Price: P1, $31,500; EQ card, $1850; X1 power supply, $17,000
By Jacob Heilbrunn
The trumpet has influenced my approach to high-end audio. Like not a few audiophiles, I want it all—coherence, definition, transparency, dynamics, and fine detail.More articles from this editor
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