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.