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.