CH Precision I1 Integrated Amplifier Review Page 3

Listening

If I had to describe the I1’s sound in brief, it would be one that leans far more to high-fidelity than any association with tube-y harmonics; It possesses an airy, uncompressed top end with incredible decay to piano notes and shimmer on cymbals and high hat, a muscular, dynamic midrange with a well-toned bottom-end and bass control along with the ability to throw a sound stage well beyond the boundaries of my loudspeakers or front wall, which it consistently punched through to create the aural illusion of a deep 3D space from which the music sprang forth. It possesses an accuracy to reproduction where resolution seems to trump all, yet still manages to be emotionally engaging – seemingly through the sheer forcefulness of its sonic presentation. This is not a a streaming DAC/integrated amp that you put on for background listening, it demands – and gets – your attention because of the ultra high-definition to playback that I associated with its sonic performance.

In my ongoing effort to avoid quotidian tracks for review purposes I turned not to Bruce Springsteen’s more sharp and unsweetened The River which seems popular among audiophiles, but instead to his 1984 juggernaut homage to many of the things hypocritical of American patriotism in Born in the U.S.A. which was recorded in multiple sessions at both The Hit Factory and The Power Station studios. Born is laden with a staggering seven Top-10 hit singles and sold more than 30 million copies by 2012 further leaving no doubt with critics and fans alike about his singing, guitar playing and songwriting abilities. The production value on this LP is tonally/timbrally rich, powerful in the sonic punches it lands and emotionally-charged with a dense instrumental and vocal landscape that producers Jon Landau and Chuck Plotkin made full use of populating with a propulsive, rock heartbeat that pushes the album forward with an inexorable drive. The title track opens with the syncopated pounding of rack Toms being beaten into submission by Max Weinberg along with the hurdy-gurdy glockenspiel noodling of Danny Federici and hard-felt synthesizer hammering of Roy Bittan before Weinberg unleashes a percussive barrage with gated-reverb that shook the walls of my listening room as Springsteen raspily grinds out the lyrics “Born down in a dead man’s town/The first kick I took was when I hit the ground…”

The I1 unravelled every thread of closely-tied instrumentality without ever blemishing the cohesive whole which the track is relentlessly glued together with. I’ve heard this track on the car radio, in malls over PA speakers, on hefted, shoulder-balanced boom boxes as I’ve walked down the street and every time it’s reached my ears I’ve felt connected to Springsteen, but through this CH offering, it sounded more like I was worshiping at an altar of sonic intensity as Springsteen tore the lyrics from his throat and chest “I had a brother at Khe Sahn/Fighting off the Viet Cong/They're still there, he's all gone/He had a woman he loved in Saigon/I got a picture of him in her arms now.”

I could go on about how the amp perfectly distilled the deafening ragged edge of Springsteen’s screaming voice, the intensity of bass plucking and fret work by Garry Talent on bass, or Steven Van Zandt’s acoustic guitar strumming with the size and weight of each instrument’s body presented with clarity and defined form, but suffice to say it was the manner in which the amp pulls all these disparate sonics into an organic whole that left the greatest impact upon me.

Iceland has always held an allure for me, perhaps it’s the country’s resemblance in some of its more remote reaches to how Middle Earth is described in The Lord of The Rings, perhaps it’s my teen pop-music memories of seminal Icelandic alternative-rock bands like The Sugarcubes and the breakaway success of its former member Björk into her hyper-experimental electronica. Whatever the reasons, Avant-garde rockers Sigur Ros forge a musical connection with my brain that translates beautifully through the I1. The band’s haunting, ethereal vocals and penchant for instrumentation like the toy piano, bowed guitar, synthesizer, glockenspiel, tin whistle and oboe (to name but a small sampling of the instruments the group has committed to tape over the years) resonates with the vibrational frequency of the sinew, bones and muscle that are part of my organic makeup.

1999’s Ágætis byrjun (A Good Beginning) was probably the breakout LP for the band and most likely propelled them to the worldwide recognition they enjoy today. “Svefn-g-englar” is the second cut on the album and at 10 minutes and four seconds long it wraps your mind in a tapestry of imagery that could only be described as desolate. The initial deep church-organ like notes and minor-key composition of the track saturates the listening space with a huge sound stage of regret, sadness, despair and melancholy that makes me want to reach for a beer every time I hear it. While the I1 takes the more cerebral path to playback here, with every note laid starkly bare at 352.8kHz of upsampling from the original 44.1, there is nowhere for any one part of the whole to hide or take respite from. You are hit with the a sonic wall of overdubs, gated vocals, brush strokes on drum skin, wailing, tortured guitar chords, multiple strings (violin, viola) resonating amid electronic samples and Jón Þór "Jónsi" Birgisson’s relentless, keening lamentations which had me leaning ever further and farther forward in my seat to hang upon every word as it was expelled like his last breath.

Some artists that you end up loving come at you from oblique angles of approach. Maggie Rogers (Margaret Debby Rogers) was one such singer/songwriter and it was her song “Alaska” (which debuted as a single off her album Heard It in a Past Life) that I stumbled across via a Guardian UK article that mentioned her rise to fame after meeting multi-Grammy award winning uber-producer, performing artist and raconteur Pharrell Williams during part of a “Masterclass” which took place at the Clive Davis Institute of Music at NYU in 2016. There’s a Youtube video of the encounter and in it Williams seems in shock after hearing Roger’s rough cut of “Alaska” and appears off-kilter in his back-and-forth with her following the listen. I found watching the whole scene play out on my laptop utterly captivating. I immediately found, bought and downloaded her 2014 EP Blood Ballet off Bandcamp.

While “Alaska” hooked me to Roger’s sound and songwriting ability, it was Blood Ballet’s opening cut “Resonant Body” that reeled me in like a caught fish. The track opens up with Roger’s banjo and Jeff Fettig’s guitar panned in stereo separation being proffered with timbrally-rich, tonal allegories that transported me with its high-resolution spatial cues to the 3-D recorded space of the studio. The incredibly-black background and ultra-low noise floor being offered forth by the I1 allowed for crisp, hyper-detailed reproduction where one could hear fingers individually plucking strings and pressuring fretboards as Rogers aching, heartfelt voice eases in through multiple verses and builds up to drummer Dan Drohan’s deep percussive salvo creating a pivot point in the song which allowed me to exhale, as I had unknowingly started to hold my breath while listening to the metaphoric choruses that play out Roger’s body as musical instrument: “I'm a resonant body/with/knuckles and lungs/beat me with cymbals/play chords on my tongue – I'm a resonant body/with elbows and toes/drum on my rib cage/release my dissonant tones…” Here the I1’s ultimate transparency to source again left no quarter for instruments, interplay or overdubs to hide from the listener and each member of Roger’s trio was presented in clear, concise contrast to one another: uncoloured, with drive and a linear presentation which I have come to associate with the CH “sound.”

Conclusion

Not an integrated amplifier for everyone – but what integrated is? – the CH Precision I1 integrated amplifier is an integrated for those looking for the most practical éntre to the ultra high-end of high fidelity that also allows for practically every configuration for most any end user’s needs. A true Swiss Army knife in high-fidelity. It is designed and built to exacting technical and mechanical standards with a modular approach to both digital and analog options engineered into its very DNA. It is constructed with a deep understanding to future-proofing your considerable investment for many years to come and to be able to slide into multiple sonic roles within the CH universe of hi-fi with minimal button pushing or module and cable swap outs. It is not a warm, romantic-sounding reproducer of music, nor is it an analytical, cold relayer of absolutes. Instead it lands in the middle with a ruthless bent to resolution and transparency. It ingratiates itself to the listener as more cerebral than emotional in its tenor, but it performs such a delicate balancing act between those two that I often found myself simultaneously wearing my heart on my sleeve during listening sessions for its holistic, cohesive musicality while keenly being able to dissect the minutiae of each instrument or vocal thread wending through every track I played back on it. It is an amp with few peers at any price point, not only sonically, but for build quality and available options. The I1 integrated could very well be the last integrated amplifier you would ever want to buy.

Associated Equipment used in this review

I'd like to thank DVL Audio and Element Acoustics for helping to facilitate this review.

COMPANY INFO
CH Precision Sàrl
ZI Le Trési 6D 1028 Préverenges Switzerland
info@ch-precision.com
+41 (0)21 701 9040
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