That is, of course, until a minute after switching the amp on. Then it’s valves all the way, in all the right ways too. What strikes you first about the GAT is the midrange. It’s got something the classic old c-j amps had and sort of lost in trying to move with the times. That midrange is liquid silk; refined, open, natural, enchanting. The old romantic sound of c-j was made from this, but not like this. Instead, now we have new levels of openness and clarity, like you swapped your drive units for electrostatic panels… only with the dynamic drive of, er, dynamic drivers.
This is where we encounter the first bit of GAT-magic. It exposes more of what’s being played and yet doesn’t make that insight uncomfortable. If anything, it just makes you want to listen more to what’s going on in the music, but not at the expense of the music. This might be the only time in the whole history of all 250 GATs that anyone will ever say this, but it even does a good job of playing Tool albums. Yes, the GAT’s inherent ‘beauteous’ nature might blunt the heaviest of transients, but what you lose at the cutting edge of prog metal, you gain when you listen to anything acoustic.
Play anything with ambience and you are greeted with a soundstage that makes you feel like you were there in the room with the musicians. Move from a small jazz club to the Wigmore Hall and the soundstage resizes itself perfectly. Then you reach for those classic 1950s albums like Ella Fitzgerald’s American Songbook series, and you realise why hi-fi was all the rage back then; the GAT raises the bar and could make the pursuit of quality music replay cool again.
It’s not all Brylcreem and grey flannel suits. The way the GAT articulates sounds is sublime. Normally, articulation is read to mean the way the human voice sounds and whether you can better understand the singer. Here, it not only articulates voices perfectly, it seems to do the same to any instrument you put in front of it. I stuck on ‘Sweet Dreams’ from the eponymous album by the late Roy Buchanan. Being a mediocre Fender Telecaster player, this is one of the ‘set pieces’ I try – and usually fail – to learn to play. Here though, the GAT managed to articulate Buchanan’s signature pinch harmonics well enough that I could almost copy the master, with the accent on the ‘almost’. Never mind, that instrument articulation represents GAT-magic part two.
GAT-magic part three is the discovery of seemingly endless dynamic range. My new classical discovery – The Flight of Icarus by John Pickard (Christian Lindberg/Norrköping SO, BIS CD 1578) – is a perfect example of this endless dynamics in action. The title track (which just about manages not to sound like incidental music from Planet of the Apes) consists of an orchestra playing pianissimo interspersed with a percussionist beating merry fortissimo hell out of his instruments at key moments.
On most preamps, you’d be at the volume control like a safecracker, turning it up and down to get the level precisely wrong at every moment. The GAT just takes this album in its stride. The quiet orchestral passages are not subsumed by any hint of a noise floor, while the headroom of your power amplifier or loudspeakers are the only limits to the musician bashing seven bells out of their tympani. Just remember not to set the volume level too high when listening to the quiet bits, or you’ll be wearing a pair of woofer cones as a fashion accessory.
Finally, there’s the breathtaking coherence of the GAT. You can listen to the most disjointed, angular piece of Acoustic Ladyland/Polar Bear style punk jazz (pazz? junk?) that to most people will sound like someone throwing a saxophone – and the saxophonist – through a wood-chipper, and the GAT will make sense out of the onslaught. You might not think this sounds like an exercise you would wish to repeat (many feel punk jazz albums sound like disco dentistry), but you should hear what it does to less extreme recordings. It’s as if everyone in music had suddenly gone to James Brown school, and started playing in that incredibly tight, close-knit way only ex-JBs (like Maceo Parker) can muster.