For the last decade, high-end audio has been on a seemingly inevitable trajectory, its controls set for the heart of the luxury market sector, propelled by the twin impetus of soaring prices and the influx of Chinese casework and computer technology. Those CNC faceplates that used to be a sure-fire indicator of a quality chassis aren’t quite ten-a-penny these days, but it seems that way, driving flagship products down the path of ever flashier appearance and more ‘imaginative’ facilities, along with the colour configurable displays, wireless connectivity, and control apps that go with them. It’s a trend that has seen audio’s basic raison d’etre risk being swamped in the trappings of style and convenience, yet for every rule there’s also an exception: ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the conrad-johnson GAT Series II, a preamplifier that wears its performance credentials on its sleeve. And which might very well stand as audio shorthand for “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
When it comes to style, c-j has always ploughed its own, unique furrow; its champagne fascias and black crackle casework as instantly identifiable in their own way as a Mont Blanc pen or a Chanel handbag. Whether the resulting aesthetics compare with those design icons is in the eye of the beholder, but one thing is certain – nobody is going to accuse the GAT of over-egging the stylistic or operational pudding. On paper and in the flesh, the GAT is about as prosaic as a top-flight product can afford to be. Luxuries and fripperies are non-existent and there’s nothing about this product that isn’t strictly business. But then that too is very much a part of c-j’s distinctive, performance orientated ethos. If you are looking for clues, there’s a big one in the title – Series 2. This is an updated version of the original GAT, a fact that hints at c-j’s evolutionary approach. If the GAT’s casework (along with the metalwork shrouding c-j’s other products) has barely changed in the last four decades, the insides – and particularly the individual components – have been through a selection and assessment process that makes Darwin look like a creationist. What other company produces three outwardly identical products (the TEA series phono-stages) with identical facilities and circuits, at vastly different price points – in which the only differences are the type and quality of the components populating the circuit boards? Yet listen and the sonic and musical steps between them more than justify the price hikes. In one sense it’s a truly backward looking policy – the sort of ‘marketing strategy’ that would drive venture capitalists insane with frustration – but in another it recognises an essential fact: things (music) really have stayed the same. What has changed and been refined isn’t the outside of c-j’s products or even the circuits used, but the ability of what’s inside to respond to the challenges with which it’s presented. Don’t be fooled, disappointed, or surprised by the single box, the basic facilities, or lack of up-to-the-minute connectivity you might take for granted in any other product with a £24,500 price-tag, because when it comes to THIS product the real story (the only story) is how it sounds – and how it sounds is remarkable.
Listen to the GAT and it’s impossible to miss its lucid sense of natural clarity, perspective, and separation. There’s an uncluttered quality to music, a lack of the confusion and congestion that passes almost unnoticed (or is tacitly accepted) with other pre-amps. Opening the window onto the performance is an over-used cliché in audio reporting but that’s exactly what the c-j does. In fact, mixing metaphors with motoring, it’s not just like cleaning an insect spattered windscreen, it’s like shifting from the driver’s seat in an original Mini to the elevated perch and expansive vista offered by the latest Range Rover: the sense of being able to see further and see more, to grasp more easily just what is happening, should have school run mums queuing round the block – oh, they are already. But you get the drift: it’s the same view, just clearer and, crucially, more effortless.
That ease is central to what makes the GAT a standout performer. All really great products have at least one standout quality – that one thing that they do. With the GAT, that thing is to pass unnoticed – to pass the signal without adding its own fingerprints or baggage, or shaving off its own musical tax and duty. It’s an ability founded on the combination of a genuinely low noise floor and the lack of additive or subtractive tendency. If you are looking for ‘traditional’ tube sound, redolent with warmth or romance, best look elsewhere: the GAT is musically truthful to a fault, with no padding, no rounding, and no added sweetness. Of course, combine that with the vitality of its micro dynamics (thanks to that low noise floor) and you have a performance that’s delivered without slurring, exaggeration, accent, or undue emphasis. Which means that it’s also a performance of uncanny, almost preternatural coherence and articulation. Instruments and phrases fall into natural patterns, spatially, rhythmically, and expressively as the music’s inner voice emerges, blinking into the daylight. You’ll notice it in the ease with which you can identify individual instruments, appreciate arrangements, and the niceties of production. You’ll notice it in the fluidity and agility of great players, whether it’s the quicksilver bowing of Heifetz in the Mendelssohn concerto, or the poise and perfectly judged restraint of Pollini playing almost anything. But perhaps where you’ll notice it first and most is in vocals. We are more familiar with voices than any instrument and the GAT has an almost spooky ability to capture the diction, articulation, emphasis, and overtones of a singer, the character of their voice, and their individual identity. Again, whether it’s the ultra precision of Zinka Milanov or the more down-home delivery of Neil Young, the words and song take on a new immediacy and directness of communication, sense of identity, and purpose. And it’s not just individual voices: when Young sings ‘Are You Ready For the Country’, Crosby and Stills’ harmony vocals are both beautifully separated and distinctive. It’s clear not just who these singers are, but just how much time they’ve spent singing together. When it comes to the acid test that is vocal delivery, I’ve not heard anything that matches the GAT Series II. This is among the most genuinely natural and is definitely the most neutral pre-amp I’ve ever used – with none of the pinched, lean, or mean associations that term normally evokes.
Saying that the GAT doesn’t deliver traditional tube sound is another way of saying that it confronts and debunks ingrained notions that valves equate to “sweet but slow”. The c-j’s rhythmic grip and drive, elegantly sure-footed sense of musical pace and progress, and utter temporal security will bring a smile to the face of any dyed-in-the-wool ‘PRaT’ advocate – although the equal clarity, transparency, and precision it brings to the soundstage (and just how much that soundstage contributes to the musical event) might give them pause. This isn’t the massive, overblown acoustic space generated by some of the competition, or the larger than life, Michelin-man dimensionality that goes with it. This is a perfectly proportioned and scaled view of events, one that matches the scale of the music itself. What the GAT lacks in terms of physical presence and slam-dunk dynamics, it more than makes up for with intimacy and instrumental texture.
It’s another old adage in audio reviewing that there are those products where it’s all about the musical performance rather than the product itself. “Just listen”, we are implored, “and you’ll understand.” It’s an argument that’s deployed to justify everything from dubious reliability to the complete absence of practicality or domestic acceptability. The conrad-johnson GAT flirts with neither of those extremes: the company builds pre-amps that enjoy a reputation for both reliability and longevity. Nor is it overly large, ridiculously hot, or particularly demanding when it comes to its supporting surface. It offers a sensible remote that controls a sensible range of facilities and a beautifully judged volume law. Physically and operationally, it is almost Franciscan in its modest appearance and absence of embellishment – aesthetic or operational. It doesn’t even run to balanced connections. As sure as I am that these things contribute to the GAT’s stellar musical and sonic performance, they also present it with its greatest single challenge; a genuine flagship performer that has to stand alongside bigger (generally two-chassis), prettier (or at least more ostentatious), and more versatile (more configurable or connectible) competition. The GAT is possibly the most eloquent advocate of the “Just Listen” school I’ve ever enjoyed – and I have seriously enjoyed it. Conrad and Johnson have slowly but surely refined their understanding of their products, their sound, and how they operate to a pinnacle of performance that places the GAT firmly alongside the very best available, offering its own distinct and utterly unexaggerated view of events. I love the GAT. It deserves to be loved by any listener who truly loves music. This is Gielgud’s Shakespeare rather than Olivier’s, a Victoria sponge cake as opposed to Black Forest Gateau.
Truly great preamps are few and far between, confined to those that genuinely manage to put the music first – and this is definitely, unequivocally a great pre-amp. It’s also an endangered species: a product where performance isn’t just the most important consideration… it’s the only consideration. Only time will tell whether – in this changing market – that’s offering enough, but those who ignore the GAT, whether because of the way it looks or what it offers on paper, risk missing out on a pearl beyond price – even if that price is £24,500. Rare in approach and rare in reality, if you are well-healed enough – or committed enough – to consider a pre-amp at this level, c-j’s GAT remains at the top of the audition list.
Type: Vacuum-tube line-stage
Tube Complement: 2× 6922/ECC88
Inputs: 5× line-level RCA, 2× tape/EPL RCA
Outputs: 2× main outputs RCA, 2× tape/EPL RCA
Output Impedance: Less than 100 Ohms
Absolute Phase: Inverting
Dimensions (W×H×D): 19 × 4.81 × 15.37 inches
Weight: 35 lbs
Manufactured by: conrad-johnson design, inc.
UK Distributor: Audiofreaks
Tel: +44(0)20 8948 4153