Gato Audio AMP-150 Integrated Amplifier and CDD-1 Compact Disc Player
Although I generally concur with Rega’s Roy Gandy that audio gear is best viewed as a tool for enjoying music, I also appreciate the fact that beautiful industrial design and superior craftsmanship make a fine watch something more than a device to tell time by, a beautiful chair something more than something to sit on, or a luxury car something more than a vehicle to get us from Point A to Point B.
The Danish-made gear from Gato Audio, which Michael Kelly at Aerial Acoustics is importing to the States, is not only strikingly beautiful-looking in a retro-modern kind of way—the swoop of the curvaceous chassis, fetching rounded sides, large centrally placed meters, and minimalist controls—but is built to jewelry-like standards that speak of this company’s ambition and pedigree.
The company’s dual pathways began in the 1950s, when the father of Gato’s Paul Rossing started a radio-manufacturing firm where young Paul learned the basics of amplifier and speaker design. As high-end audio began to blossom in the late 1960s and early 70s, Paul Rossing began importing to Denmark now-iconic brands such as Audio Research, Luxman, B&W, and Fidelity Research. Soon thereafter Rossing started the speaker company Avance, which crafted enclosures of a fiber-reinforced concrete material.
Fast forward to the mid-nineties, when two other key players now at Gato, engineer Frederik Johansen and designer Kresten Dinesen, met at a small audio company called Holfi, which earned a reputation for battery-driven power supplies, cherry wood front panels, and handmade speaker drivers. The pair would join forces again at Thule, when Rossing took over to revitalize the struggling GamuT brand and recruited Johansen and Dinesen to help. In 2007 that pair teamed with another engineer, Rasmus Holm, to found Gato, a company dedicated to highest-quality workmanship, design, and sound reproduction, and in 2009 their paths converged when they convinced the then-retired Paul Rossing to join the group as managing partner.
As Michael Kelly wrote in an e-mail, “What attracted me initially to Gato was the combination of top performance, European build-quality, and fresh, beautiful design. What made me want to import Gato was the solid personal character of its energetic founders, Frederik Johansen and Kresten Dinesen, and their long-term vision.”
Of course, such qualities come at a price, the AMP-150 integrated amp and CDD-1 compact disc player sell for $7990 a pop, which may not be crazy compared to ultra-high-end components but for most of us still counts as fairly serious money.
With a power rating of 150Wpc into 8 ohms, and 250Wpc into 4 ohms, the AMP-150 ranks as one of the more powerful integrateds on the market. Sure, it’s got muscle, but as I’ll describe shortly this is a very refined beast.
But then Gato’s stated design goal for the 150 “was to create the best-sounding integrated amplifier possible inside a compact exterior. Secondly, we wanted to create a line of components where design was not simply a question of a good-looking faceplate, but a more complete product that is beautiful from every angle and expresses a classic electro-mechanical look.”
I’ve quoted Gato’s philosophy for two reasons. One is that no matter how striking these components may appear in photographs one needs to see and operate them to fully appreciate the design and finishing work. Another is to underline the thinking behind team Gato’s approach to creating what are remarkably holistic products. The Gato gear seems completely thought through to a degree rarely seen, and this applies to the sound, too. The Amp- 150 and CDD-1 are notably alike in their sonic signatures.
Internally, as one would expect at this level, component-parts selection is very high; many hours are spent on final voicing; and the pre- and power-amp sections are mounted on their own double-sided, copper-clad-fiberglass circuit boards, each with its own regulated power supply. The linear supplies are wide- bandwidth, which Gato claims is a key to the sound quality. The power amp’s input stage employs JFETs, while output devices are MOSFETs, which Gato believes provides the best of both worlds—high power with a “vice-like grip [and] the softness and transparent sound of a good tube amplifier.”
I found this last statement curious because, while the Amp 150 does indeed have a “vice-like grip,” the last thing I would call it is soft. Transparent? Oh, yes, but there is nothing (at least) traditionally tube-like about the sound of the Amp 150. I say that with no negative connotation. Like current tube designs from Audio Research, which are anything but traditionally tubey— overly warm, golden, soft, etc.—the Gato is neither cool nor dark in timbre, but rather a highly refined expression of the shared “neutral” and “musical” schools of thought that have been defining the modern high end for these past many years.
Operating the Amp 150 is simplicity itself, either from the faceplate or the unusually slick and rather macho-looking remote wand. The remote, machined from aluminum, features a thumb wheel for volume adjustment rather than the usual up/down buttons. In addition to Standby, in which only the microprocessor and LEDs are powered up, the unit also offers something called a pre-heat mode, which shortens the amp’s normal two-hours- to-full-warm-up time to around 15 minutes. The display meter’s light intensity is adjustable on the rear panel, and the meter features a series of graphic icons to indicate the source when the pre-heat stage is complete, as well as the input selection. The meter’s needle indicates volume attenuation from -∞ to +10dB, with a 0dB middle point.
As I wrote earlier, the AMP 150 is among the most powerful integrated amps I’ve encountered. And its 250Wpc output into the Maggie’s 4-ohm load brought a comforting sense of power-to-spare plus effortless control to these notoriously power-thirsty speakers. Deciding exactly how much power your speakers “need” is an interesting exercise that has little do with a manufacturer’s often-vague recommended power rating. The reason I say that is not just because our rooms vary in size and so forth, but also because our musical tastes and preferred volume levels also differ, not to mention the tradeoffs one is willing or otherwise needs to consider based on sonic criteria, budget, and a host of other choices we all make as we build a system.
As an example, I also have the very different and likewise fine Audio Research VS160 integrated in-house for review. Rated at 50Wpc at both 4- and 8-ohms, the VS160 is quite a lovely- sounding unit that I will report on in another issue. Yet even in my small room the VS160’s power output is barely enough for the 1.7s, and there are moments, especially with large orchestral or rock music, when I wish I could push it just that one notch higher. I have no such reservation with the Amp-150. This baby has juice to spare. So, for instance, if I’m in the mood to blast out with Led Zeppelin’s recently released Celebration Day [Atlantic], from the 2007 tribute concert for Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, or otherwise play a favorite recording of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre de Printemps to recognize its centennial year, this Gato integrated delivers enough drive, control, and dynamic pop to out-distance the Magnepans, whose Mylar membranes can of course “bottom-out” when pushed beyond their limit.
Housed in the same basic chassis, the CDD-1 is arguably an even sexier machine: a top-loading CD player/DAC with an exposed drive that’s protected by a machined clamp when playing a disc as well as at rest. With a disc in place the clamp is lowered over the drive spindle and rotated into the Play position by turning the clamp either left or right. And because the clamp locks into place at eight different positions, one needn’t worry whether it’s being applied the “right” way. It’s that intuitive. Digital inputs include asynchronous USB and coaxial SPDIF. The CCD-1’s meter works somewhat like a multi-function speedometer. Once a disc’s contents have been scanned, a numeric display lists the number of tracks, and the needle pegs far right. When a disc begins to play the numeric display starts at 1, and the needle reverts to its far-left starting position. As the disc plays the needle advances around the dial until play stops. When the CDD-1 is functioning as a DAC, the meter measures sample rates up to 192kHz. The digital readout in the center of the meter reads bit- depths up to 24 bits.
The transport is the fine Philips CDpro2LF, which is fixed to a kilogram block of solid machined aluminum suspended in a tripod of Sorbothane to minimize mechanical and environmental resonances. All inputs (CD, USB, SPDIF) are upsampled to 24-bit/192kHz, and Gato takes obvious pride in its mix of technology—gentle filtering, dual-mono 192/24 Burr-Brown DACs, low-noise, wide-bandwidth, short signal paths, and the like.
The end result with both of these Gato designs is most impressive. As I touched on earlier, the Amp-150 and CDD-1 share essentially identical sonic characteristics, and to a degree I’m not certain I’ve heard from any gear in my experience, outside of MBL.
Take a simply recorded but natural-sounding disc such as Stephen Stills’ Just Roll The Tape [Atlantic], a solo session from April 1968 that contains demos of tunes later made famous by CSN. Though certain moments suffer from overload distortion, the way Stills’ vocals and brilliant acoustic guitar playing are captured has made this one of my favorite recent acquisitions. (“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is an emotional revelation.) Throughout, the Gato pair brings a notable feeling of tangibility, detail, and soft as well as driving dynamic swings to this music. The sense is of a solid balance between an uncolored presentation and one that nevertheless remains tonally rich. Details are simply “there” and never spotlighted. And, as it should be— though this can be hard when wearing a reviewer’s beanie—one quickly becomes absorbed in the music while forgetting the gear.
Playing the classic EMI recording of Barbirolli’s Mahler Fifth Symphony only underlined the obvious. Brass choirs sounded rich and throaty, strings wonderfully rich and resinous, and percussion explosive while still retaining the entire range of available timbre. Dynamic range cruised from nearly hushed whispers to full-on, seemingly limitless orchestral climaxes. And here one can argue that, at least power-wise, more is indeed better. These Gato designs made these well-known passages thrilling.
As to soundstaging and depth layering, unlike some components, which seem to add their own layers to most every recording—which, can, I realize, be a neat and enjoyable trick—the Gato designs morph from disc to disc. Big, rich, engulfing as a wave with Barbirolli’s Mahler, less tall, more spread out, leaner, yet with great air on the Argerich/Abbado/Berlin Philharmonic recording of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 [DG].
This naturally extends to all types of music, from the intimacy of the Stills demo tapes to the raucous, grinding, distortion-laden party of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Psychedelic Pill [Reprise], where the sound crushes you like a steamroller. I must admit that I had the Maggies rocking harder than I once imagined possible.
I hope it’s clear, but with all this talk of the Gato’s impressively controlled power let me emphasize that these components are equally capable of great delicacy and beauty. Favorites from my oft-cited Argerich Gaspard de la nuit [DG] to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” [Columbia/Legacy] to Sinatra’s Only The Lonely [MoFi] displayed great expressiveness, lilt of phrase, and emotional impact.
No gear is perfect, and I don’t want to imply that Gato’s is. There are far costlier components that may elicit higher resolution, throw larger stages with greater depth, deliver greater tonal richness, or place more air around individual players than these products do. But the overall balance of strengths heard from the Amp-150 and CCD-1—their exceptional musicality and ability to draw listeners into the music played combined with an exceptional beauty of design and delightful operation—makes it hard for me to imagine anyone, excepting the most diehard lover from the romantic school of music reproduction, who wouldn’t be delighted by what Gato has achieved. I’m excited to see what’s next from this still-young company.
SPECS & PRICING
Power output: 150Wpc into 8 ohms, 250Wpc into 4 ohms
Inputs: Four pairs RCA (unbalanced), one pair XLR (balanced)
Outputs: One pair RCA (unbalanced), one pair XLR (balanced), two pairs 5-way binding posts
Dimensions: 12.8″ x 4.3″ x 14.8″
Weight: 30.4 lbs.
Inputs: Digital, RCA, USB type B
Outputs: Analog, one pair RCA (unbalanced), one pair XLR (balanced); digital, one RCA
Dimensions: 12.8″ x 4.3″ x 14.8″
Weight: 22 lbs.
TW-Acustic Raven One turntable; Tri-Planar Ultimate VII arm; Benz Gullwing and Transfiguration Phoenix moving-coil cartridges; Sutherland 20/20 and Simaudio Moon 310LP phonostages; Audio Research VS 160 integrated amplifier; Magnepan 1.7 loudspeakers, Tara Labs Zero interconnects, Omega speaker cables, The One power cords, and BP-10 Power Screen; Finite Elemente Spider equipment racks
By Wayne Garcia
Although I’ve been a wine merchant for the past decade, my career in audio was triggered at age 12 when I heard the Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! blasting from my future brother-in-law’s giant home-built horn speakers. The sound certainly wasn’t sophisticated, but, man, it sure was exciting.More articles from this editor
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