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.