CH Precision I1 integrated amplifier

Integrated amplifiers
CH Precision I1

To this end, CH has also chosen to go down the Android route in its app design. There are good reasons for this, but I can’t help but feel this laudable one-sided approach will disenfranchise some who are seemingly wedded to Apple’s products. There are people who simply don’t ‘get’ Android, many of whom are in the target demographic for a very high-end device like the I1, and having that option denied them might make them skip over what is an excellent device at the short-list stage. I would hope that is not the case and those reading this review would rather explore the world beyond the iDevice in order to sample the many joys of the CH Precision I1, than simply turn the page, but human nature is what it is! 

The app itself is extremely stable and robust. Like all such systems, there is a learning curve, but it’s more ‘gentle sweeping curve’ than ‘sheer cliff-face’ and you quickly come to a point where it is intuitive in use. Like Linn’s Kinsky app, it’s more about creating on-the-fly playlists than instant playing gratification, but I find myself preferring this option more and more. The CH app’s great advantage is it can control almost every aspect of the I1 in use, from input settings to naming: although this can be performed on the knob-within-a-knob front panel selector, things get a lot easier from the comfort of a chair. It’s other great advantage is it scans through music about as fast as the device to which it is connected: we used it with a Melco N1Z streaming storage server system (with built-in alliteration control!) which is itself one of the fastest moving digital devices around, and the CH Control app positively whipped through the back-catalogue.

It’s also worth mentioning the front panel interface. Or rather the excellent front panel display with the occasionally frustrating twin dial combined volume control, source selector, menu access and controller. This is excellent as it makes an extremely clear and large display or the I1’s status. This is frustrating because the two concentric dials take some time to master and in the early stages might result in some random swearing as you end up locked in a sub-menu. On balance, I’d prefer this to a panel festooned in tiny buttons that might get used once in a decade.

Because they have distribution links in many places, the CH Precision I1 is an obvious partner with Wilson Benesch loudspeakers, but it also got an airing with a number of loudspeakers and the character of the amplifier shines through throughout. 

I want to look to this amplifier without calling upon CH Precision’s bigger hitters in the amp stakes; specifically the A1 power amplifier we tested in issue 120 and the L1 preamp and M1 mono amp combination we tested more recently in issue 159. But I can’t; much of what makes these outstanding amplifiers sound so good also applies to the I1; not so much ‘trickle down’ as ‘rushes down in a torrent’. So many of the properties of CH Precision’s separates amplifiers make it to the I1, it almost makes you question whether the bigger options are worth the extra. And like all top-notch audio brands, that voice is heard right up until you hear the big guns, and it then falls silent. 

The same core sound of ‘impressive understatement’ remains uppermost. The amplifier is not the kind that draws attention to itself and doesn’t even draw attention to the sound it makes; there is just a gradual dawning that you are listening to something really natural and well-designed. It’s more a drawn-out ‘aha!’ than an ‘eureka!’ in listening: a slow and gradual seduction that becomes increasingly impossible to resist. 

You also begin to discover (pretty soon into the listening, in fact) that the ‘Precision’ part of the name ‘CH Precision’ isn’t just there for show. It is an extremely precise and accurate performer. Music played here is tautly controlled, yet with more than enough dynamic punch and energy. Although this is the kind of presentation that lends itself to torch song singers and 1950s jazz, the CH Precision I1 is so good at portraying these well-recorded works that it makes it almost academic in discussing them at length. Far better to point to something with more textures and layers, like The Race for Spaceby Public Service Broadcasting [Test Card]. This clever slice of ambient music blends samples of speech from the 1960s with an almost Mogwai-like aesthetic. It can either sound like boring chill-out music or make you want to join Trump’s Space Force, and here that precision and dynamism made me reach for my space helmet! Flipping through the different sources from different card inputs also made clear another aspect of the ‘Precision’ part of the name: consistency. There was no functional tonal change as you moved through the inputs, whether analogue or digital. This is not something you normally notice, but once heard, you become aware of its absence in other devices. If accuracy is king, then consistency is the power behind the throne.

In a way, the CH Precision sound is inherently Swiss (hardly surprising; apparently the people from CH Precision, Nagra, and Soulution are all pretty tight with one another) and the CH Precision sits comfortably in the centre of that firmament. They seem to be on a continuum from the delightful and slightly lush-sounding Nagra to the detailed and almost surgical precision of the Soulution. CH Precision finds a middle way, one that keeps music as attractive as possible, yet also keeps it precise, detailed, and accurate. It’s a bit of a high-wire act, and the CH Precision walks it perfectly.

The criticisms of the I1 hold even after listening. It’s a necessarily complex device (in terms of selection criteria and installation) that is best used with an Android tablet. And, let’s not shy away from it… in its full specification the I1 is one of the most expensive integrated amplifiers on the market right now. While it more than justifies its place (and its price) in that highest of high-end firmaments, those with pre-gnashed teeth will play judge, jury, and executioner without ever having listened to it on the basis of price alone.

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