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Positive Feedback ISSUE45
as reviewed by Larry Cox
I've had a tube preamp of one sort or another for 19 years. It's hard to imagine not having a tube somewhere in my system. There is a liquidity to the presentation, richness in the color of music, fullness of timbre and physicality to the sound that makes tubes eclipse whatever other treasures solid state gear offers.
I cannot imagine an audiophile with tubes in his or her system for a lengthy period of time that hasn't had to deal with a tube failure or two or three. I've been relatively lucky over the 19 years I've had a tube preamp (Audible Illusions Modulus 2D - 5 years; E.A.R. 802 6 years; and E.A.R. 864 - 8 years) in my system as I've only had to replace four tubes, half from the Modulus.
Sometimes the failures are hinted at for a couple of weeks as tube rush that sounds like a "shoooshing" sound that gets louder. Other times, like last week for me, it sounded like the epicenter of an earthquake in my house. You should have seen the woofers going nuts! Scary stuff. Fortunately, none of my tube failures have damaged any associated equipment, so I have little to complain about on that front. More annoying to me was trying to figure out which of the five tubes in my preamp had failed - it took a couple of hours. I thought the failing tube had to be in the circuit to do the damage it was doing, but I was wrong. It was a phono tube that failed while I was playing a CD.
Why put up with tubes? Well, it seems to me that it's hard to get a thoroughly musical system without a tube somewhere in my system. I'd like to quit using tubes, even though I've had very few failures over a long period of time. In part I'd like to segue to solid state, because as the father of a young child, I have less and less time for audio. On occasion, I find myself leaving my preamp, with five Mullard (that means expensive) tubes burning away for days on end. In part, as audio moves from the front burner to an occasional treat, I just want to remove possible threats to the significant investment that my stereo is.
But the problem I've had with going to solid state preamps is and has been that I lose much of the liquidity of the tube sound as well as the color of music while “gaining” a leaner less robust sound. Like the proverbial insane person, doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result, I've tried a few solid state preamps over the past two years, choosing not to report on the experience.
Solid state preamps tend to be obviously thinner or leaner in timbre and come up short next to their thermionic cousins in the realm of tonality as well as the physicality of sonic images. Yes, many solid state preamps tend to reach frequency extremes better than most tube offerings, but, in my mind that's like having more of something you don't really want than having a dollop of just what's wanted.
I did and do like the GamuT D3i. Visually it's an elegant piece. The display is just about perfect in size and legibility for my eyes, and the display can be set at full bore, dimmed, and off (though there is a small single pixel blue light to indicate that the power is on.) It's clear that a good deal of time was spent on the aesthetics of the D3i. My wife was put off by the size of the two control knobs, and while they're perhaps disproportionately large, it's a small sacrifice.
I'll get to the sound of the D3i in a minute, but first here's the practical stuff. This is a line stage. If you look on the back of the D3i, you'll see a phono input and a place to ground a phono interconnect. You'd think that meant that the D3i had a phono section and you'd be wrong. If you also thought, Oh! the phono section is coming later, you'd again be wrong. This is a line stage and that's that. The US importer says GamuT has no intention to provide a phono card, at least at this time.
The D3i is also a dual mono preamp, there's a transformer for each channel, and the channels share only a power cord. It's also a large preamp at 4.4" x 17 1/4" x 16 3/4" (H x W x D). It nearly swallowed the top of my Lovan rack with nary an uncovered inch. Though large it's not terribly heavy, tipping the scales at 26.5 lbs. Did I mention it's really nice looking?
The switch is on the underside of the preamp, so it's intended to be on all the time. The D3i runs cool so there should not be issues with other equipment being heated or the preamp itself overtaxing its parts. There are five inputs; one balanced (marked CD) and four single ended (RCA) inputs, and it includes a home theater bypass option. The D3i has three outputs, including one unbalanced and two balanced connections, as well as a tape output. Volume is controlled by an ALPS dual logarithmic potentiometer, which was really easy to use increasing and decreasing volume exactly as I expected. It seemed to balance getting the volume up quickly enough but not so quickly that I found myself with way more volume than I anticipated.
Accompanying the preamp is a really nicely shaped remote control that provides control of GamuT's CD player, too. Thus, in operating the D3i, there are some surplus buttons, but from my seat I could easily and without much thought find the right controls for volume, source selection, and muting as well as dimming the display. The absence of back lighting on the remote wasn't a problem for me.
GamuT has had a couple of preamps in their 10+ years of existence; previously the CR2 and the D3. As I understand it, the D3i differs from the D3 primarily, if not exclusively in new case work and the display. More on this, later. As I mentioned, the changed aesthetics are beautifully rendered. The front panel features LEDs to show source selection, muting and volume.
Sonically the D3i is charming. And, I don't mean beguiling because it performed in ways that I wanted it to. Swapping it out for my tube preamp didn't make me suddenly realize that the D3i was a typical solid state preamp with a lean dry character.
The GamuT has nearly all of the liquidity and body that I find so compelling about tubes, and EAR's implementation of tubes in particular. Though the GamuT does not sound like the EAR preamps I've owned or listened to, they are comparable in that I hear less of the preamp and more of the music that this hobby is supposed to be about.
Often “high end” preamps, and most especially the solid state variety, magnify or exaggerate the sounds they're charged with replaying, only to distort the listening experience, e.g. putting my ear at the mouth of a cello, extracting decay or ambient information that I never hear live. This kind of exaggeration of detail is very popular to some audiophiles, but to my ears sounds nothing like live music in any venue. To me it would be accurate to state that sort of detail retrieval is “extraordinary,” literally; as in detail retrieved like it is extraordinary and unlike a live experience. With the D3i I heard something really close to music.
Pepe and the Bottle Blonde's vocal acrobatics on "Unnamed" from their debut, Nightlife, were saturated in a realistic timbre, but saturated like a tube preamp at its best. Timbre was rich, more like a milk chocolate than a dark chocolate; tone was clearly communicated in a full-bodied conversation of music. The interweaving of vocals retained the swooping, dancing vocals as I imagine they'd sound live without losing timbre.
I found myself delighted listening to the D3i. I trotted out various audiophile war horses for a little while to get the sense of scale that "Cosmic Hippo" from Bela Fleck's CD of the same name provides, and "Jazz at the Pawn Shop" to hear 3D layering. Reference Recordings' 30th Anniversary Sampler was filled with baubles, trinkets, and other audiophile playthings that I also find satisfying as a music lover rather than a sound lover. Well recorded versions of good music were treated properly by the D3i and as such might be an audiophile's appeal to a music lover to come over to the dark side, er audiophilia, at least for a bit.
My regular “test” records of music, rather than sound, like Israel Kamaka wiwo‘ole's Facing Future, Pink Martini's trio of albums, various Frank Sinatra and Linda Ronstadt were well treated by the D3i. What I got listening to Israel, Pinkage, Frank, and Linda through the D3i is what I sought to get from a stereo when I first started searching for it more than thirty years ago. What's nifty to me is that it's a worthy sound that avoids tubes, and I will not argue with those that don't want to mess with tubes.
Often I find myself looking to put my reference pieces back in place because I prefer them. Not so with the GamuT. It seemed like a nearly seamless transition from the 864. Both preamps are high definition performers, but the D3i was slightly higher in resolution. That higher resolution yielded a bit more of a relaxed and compelling experience than the 864. I'd call the D3i a bit more musically (rather than sonically) transparent than the 864, and I mean that in the most flattering way possible.
Certainly bass was deeper and perhaps the treble was more extended; though perhaps it was not.
Where it was just a bit short of a seamless transition was with timbre. Although slightly less full bodied in timbre than my reference, it was far from the Threshold and Adcom, etc solid-state preamp sounds of the early 1990s. Perhaps, the D3i was a bit less colorful than the 864, and that's strong praise, the D3i was not a washed out or a pastel version of music. There was a dynamic range, if you will, to the intensity of colors, such that performances and recordings retained their DNA when transferred from the 864 to the D3i; and keep in mind that it did that while retaining a more resolving presentation, no mean feat.
Movies were pretty extraordinary through the GamuT. I can't tell you how many videos we watched with the D3i, but I loved being able to cycle volume up, down and mute it as needed. Sure that's a small pleasure, but a welcome one, too. After I'd had the GamuT in for a few months I noticed my mind trying to unravel how I could work the D3i into my system in a surround configuration.
I have one small quibble with the D3i, and it's not really the D3i, but its pricing. If, as reported, the D3i differs only from the D3 in its case work and display, it seems those features add a fifty percent (50%) premium. My search indicated that the D3, when last available, retailed for about $5990 give or take a few beers. The D3i now retails for $9300. Of course, it's only my pocket book that I'm speaking for, but the premium seems out of hand.
Having aired my own financial issues, I'll say that the D3i is an excellent performer. I thought about what it might take to own it, but without a phono section it's too much for me. I will say, however, that with the GamuT D3i the days of choosing tube preamps over solid state to get full-bodied sound are over, if you can swing the dough. If you love the color and fullness that live music brings, the GamuT D3i is a sonic gift. Larry Cox
North American Importer
KY Audio Imports