POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 19
the CAT-777 and PAT-777 - an Aristocratic Sonic Landscape
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
First, the CAT-777
Temptations have been great, but I've managed to be faithful over the years. The objects of desire, like the tubed Lamm L2 Reference and the solid-state Gryphon Prelude and Linn Klimax pre-amps have had me, calculator in hand, running the numbers. These reference level pre-amps cost anywhere from eight to fifteen thousand dollars. Certainly there has been much to admire. Through it all, though, none have compelled me to sideline my trusty two-chassis von Gaylord Audio L2 tube hybrid. The vGA L2 pre-amp has always come up to the mark with its superior musicality—it tickles my cochlea in a special way. I imagine this is because for most designers the Holy Grail lies in the realm of perfect test-bench specs; to engineer in a musical voice, something readily heard but that can't be measured, isn't the priority. The vGA L2 has kept pace with upgrades from the stock model ($4,500), to L2 Signature then to L2 Signature Plus ($7,500). (I keep telling the vGA guys this last is really deserving of an L3 designation). And this is how things stood when the CAT arrived.
The Reimyo CAT-777 pre-amp, or control amplifier, makes such beautiful music that I hesitated before unpacking the matching PAT-777 power amp just so I could get a handle on it before introducing another variable. I waited the better part of a week. The all-tube CAT is gloriously rich and full-bodied. It gives instruments a burnished glow (maybe a QRT glow? We'll get to that later), and a definite acoustic patina, making things like classical string tone just to die for. This device delivers the musical message in a way no pre before it has.
Bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff projects into my room like I imagine he would at Carnegie Hall, excepting his voice is bigger, louder, darker and more dynamic (A Romantic Songbook, DG B0002192-02). He has exceeding refinement and subtlety with the CAT in the system, but don't confuse this with effeteness, because his image has actually become more substantial, more palpable and more present. What the CAT has done is loosen up musical lines—they now dance about with rich, wet, saturated colors. Then it throws in some characteristic Harmonix tuning effects, enhancing the "pleasing" overtone frequencies and reducing the perceived "unpleasant" ones, and imparting instruments with great dollops of weight and body. (Harmonix and Reimyo are divisions of Combak Corp. Wires, footers and accessories are marketed under Harmonix; components under Reimyo.)
This is a room-filling presentation with commensurately larger images. I would say fatter images, but there isn't any—fat, that is. Soft and big, yes certainly, like a cumulous cloud without discernable edges. But there aren't fatty deposits of the resonant, lumbering kind; the kind one can chalk up to a lack of control somewhere. Au contraire, PRAT is enhanced—and the whole thing moves fairly fast and very together. The increases in body and image size along with the fluidity and soft borders somehow don't put a drag anchor on pace. It has a very desirable mix of fluidity and beauty conjoined with abundant low-end and robust dynamics, a mix of physical presence and natural musical expression that I find intoxicating.
The upshot of all this is you feel several more levels distant from anything mechanical. And that's key to the CAT-777—In no uncertain terms did it subdue the perception of underlying mechanical or electrical process at work while it promoted the more humanistic aspects. Why, ‘twas only yesterday that my reference pre stood its ground. Well, all the power conditioning is the same, the footers and wires too, but in comparison, the vGA L2 is a bit stiff, lacking fluidity, too controlled, and—Yikes!—mechanical.
I was curious to hear what a tenor voice would sound like after Quasthoff's bass-baritone. On went Schubert: Winterreise, Ian Bostridge's much acclaimed recital disc (EMI 7243 5 57790 2). Lovely—relaxed, strong, expressive, full-bodied and satisfying, Ian's voice now goes a little deeper, grabbing a few notes from the baritone range, and has the same enhanced mix of expressiveness and physicality as Quasthoff. I note both voices appear left of center, with piano accompaniment right of center. Ian is a smaller image and doesn't waver about like Thomas, and his accompanying piano sounds less bloomy, darker. In some quiet whisperings of low notes he seems to excite the microphone to make little flapping noises.
To complete the vocal experiment, I put on Airs Baroques Francais, a splendid showcase for soprano Patricia Petibon (Virgin Veritas 7243 5 45481). This veteran of Wm. Christie's Les Arts Florissants ensembles has a big voice coming from a petit body, if one can judge from the liner note photos. Here she appears in front of and dominates the ensemble—surely a case of engineering sorcery. Her direct, dynamic, pure and immediate high soprano will rattle your tweeter in a wicked torture test, and yes, there was slight breakup and roughness at times. But then, this CD has always done that, so I can't blame it on the CAT. Like Thomas and Ian, she's big; in this case, however, the voice is more colorful than the real thing, more beautiful than life—the CAT's tuning and sweetening effects can be too strong, depending on the CD.
In quiet passages the CAT has a tendency to be less dynamically agile. All of the info is present in the quietude, but it may come across a little recessed, maybe even a little veiled. With medium and higher-level signals the sound came forward and was more alive. Dynamic outbursts from low-level signals were often startling. You could be enjoying a quiet passage, and then WHAM, the CAT pounces just as soon as anything dynamic comes along. Low-level or high, the sound always maintained a smooth surface and avoided sharp, pointy edges.
With the CAT-777 in the system I wanted to listen to vocal music. It is a single-ended design and offered up a goodly taste of the strengths of that topology. All right, that's enough on the CAT; let's move on to the PAT.
the PAT-777: The Mighty Mite
Endless beauty…. or the Endless Sunset? Pardon my poetic moment, but I'm feeling inspired. How would you describe a grainless, infinitely fluid and supple, powerfully dynamic sonic landscape?
No one was expecting the "puny" 8-watt/channel Reimyo PAT-777 power amp to be strong enough to drive my 89 dB efficient Kharma 3.2s. That's why it was arranged to have the Hørning Agathon Ultimate speakers arrive around the same time, thinking their 99 dB sensitivity would be more conducive of a fair audition. Well, this was the first assumption to bite the bullet. The "weak" PAT with its 300B tubes sounded more powerful with my Kharma CRM 3.2's than anything I've had in since the Mastersound 845 SET mono-blocks, with their "mighty" 40 tube watts/channel. To follow was the crazy notion that dynamic peaks could actually be cleaner, with less break-up than with my 100 tube watts/channel vGA Nirvana MkII amps. This just goes to show that the wattage spec is only a general guide and certainly not the whole story. Things were so good with the Reimyo/Kharma combo, I delayed the arrival of the Hørnings; and then I decided to cover them in a separate review.
The Reimyo PAT-777 has the expected 300B virtues of palpability, midrange sumptuousness, coherency, frequency integration, and exceeding musicality. Then it has some that one doesn't usually associate with that tube. Clean and pure, fast and very quiet for a 300B device, dynamic, extended on both ends—the Reimyo did not suffer from the classic 300B shortcomings. For there are 300B amps and then there are 300B AMPS: the classic 300B sound most of us conjure up derives from the DIY point of view—inexpensive, low-powered, simple circuit designs driving high sensitivity horn-speakers. These have as much in common with the PAT-777, or my fondly remembered Mastersound 845's, as a Dynaco Stereo 70 has with the current top-of-the-line conrad johnson or VAC amp; they all may be push-pull designs, but you can't lump them together; the generalizations don't scale upward that readily.
The Sound So Far
When you think of classic Single Ended Triode sound, you imagine small ensembles and warmish, romantic atmospheres. Aficionados are likely to play vocals, as the human voice is conveyed with incomparable intimacy and expression. The luscious midrange is the focal point and much is forgiven to attain it, like treble extension and bass control. No one ever claimed SETs were accurate.
While the PAT shares the luscious midrange, intimacy, warmth and the low wattage, that's all it has in common. The PAT has a great deal of low-end and, for a 300B, a tight leash on it. You shouldn't expect it to do what powerful push-pull tube or solid-state amps do in that region. It was certainly looser than my 100-watt push-pull vGA amps. And yet it had pitch and was more musical. The treble fits more into the classic 300B model and is a bit shelved down. The overall voicing is slightly dark. This was a blessing with the Kharma 3.2s, ‘cause it offset their lightness down below, but became problematic when paired with the Hørning Agathon Ultimate speakers and their abundant low-end (coming up in a separate review). Nothing serious, and I don't want to overstate it, as it just required swapping interconnects or power cords (that's exactly why I keep a small inventory of diverse wires on hand).
Sure there was some degree of beautification going on. However, it didn't obscure differences in source material. LPs from RCAs Golden Age were indeed deliciously warm, bloomy and romantic. The soundstage of vintage Mercury's was clear as a bell—there's nothing quite like them for high-specificity, crisp imaging. The last gasp LPs of the early eighties showed themselves much thinner and multiply miked. These differences take some getting used to before one can fully enjoy a tasty desert like the Love For Three Oranges Suite (Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the LAPO, Prokofiev, CBS Masterworks M36683). The stage on these last gasps is patently artificial. Instruments are kind of piled on top of each other in a post-production pastiche, nowhere near resembling anything natural. Then there was the Brahms Serenade #1 in D Major, with Stokowski and the Symphony of the Air, on American Decca (DL 710031), a 1961 release. Great performance but, man, I've never heard the grit and grain so apparent before. Dynamically compressed to boot, and the bad choices of spot microphone placement quite obvious—it sounded worse than ever.
Naturally miked orchestral recordings put you in a mid-hall seat or even the balcony. Even with a back-of-the-hall acoustic there was an ever-present intimacy with soloists—spot-lit or not, you still felt that connection. Better recordings presented a stage that was both forward and back at the same time, with a depth in space like it would occur naturally. But it was a very round sound—none of those pointed facets you commonly hear in the treble—and quite smooth. Hi-fi type imaging fell off a bit.
On source material like Luzia, Paco de Lucia's Flamenco guitar showcase (Mercury 558 165-2), the Kharma's speed was the perfect complement to the Reimyo's soul, the mating resulting in flash dynamics with warmth, body and passion. The guitar on track two is obviously coming through a mic and an amplifier—you can tell because each string is too distinct, too clear, the bandwidth is too wide for it to be an acoustic guitar, and there isn't enough blended sound. Track three confirms what an acoustic guitar should sound like—he must have switched instruments. In both cases, this is the kind of playback that makes you wish you were present at the performance (even if this was a studio recording).
The PAT/CAT seem highly sensitive to changes in signal strength. The softness and slight veiling on low-level signals that I noted about the CAT was reduced, but louder material still came across as more immediate. Low-level or loud, however, all had the same natural texture and bloom. One can't overlook how clean and pure the sound is, how it avoids the slightest hardness or clamping down on the suppleness of dynamic shadings, and yet how muscular and beefy it is. This grouping of qualities is extremely rare and, in my experience, unknown in solid-state components. Solid-state doesn't seem capable of keeping hardness out of the presentation. The new Class D (digital) amps can do this, but have unsavory shortcomings elsewhere.
HS-SLC Speaker Cable
Something happened when the Harmonix HS-SLC speaker cable was thrown into the mix. The SLC grabbed the low-end even as it augmented it, so you got more bass and at the same time tighter bass. As the 300B tube is not noted for command of the lower-register, this extra umph and control was very welcome. Combak/Reimyo/Harmonix weight is not simply more low frequency energy—this would only result in an unbalanced frequency response. The weight kicks in as a natural outgrowth of the fundamental and just seems like an organic spice. This synergistic partnering was more tuned, and more dynamic to boot.
All of the Reimyo components sport luxury-class build quality and similar cosmetics. Chassis are finished in heavy-duty, satin polished aluminum with thick faceplates, an expensive touch, and all surfaces have smooth, rounded edges excepting, of course, for the raised hex screws. A knuckle rap on any surface did nothing more than return a dull thud (the thuds sounded differently on top and sides—maybe a reflection of the tuning?). The CAT with its six tubes just gets warm, but the PAT needs air circulation: Situate it sensibly with enough breathing room.
The power indicator light at mute state is red and goes to green (Ready for Action) in about a minute after turn-on. On the PAT, watch the graceful fade from red thru yellow to green. But those lights! They are so bright you might get sunspots in a darkened room. There are four push buttons to select from the four RCA inputs (no XLR), a very large continuous main volume control dial, and two smaller knobs for small adjustments of left/right gain. Note the CAT has three sets of RCA outputs, ready for tri-amping. Transformers are made to Combak's spec. All wiring is Harmonix's own cables. No tube biasing or other maintenance is required—they have built-in auto-biasing, and 300B tubes typically get around five thousand hours. And you don't have to worry about replacement tubes and parts—all are readily available either brand-new or NOS. Once installed you're good to go.
The Reimyo components sound great on their own large built-in footers, given sufficient break-in. (I got the gear directly from another reviewer, so I didn't have to suffer through break-in. I'm told it is around as long as it takes to break-in the Harmonix wires—that means 500 hours play time. Oh dear, you won't hear what they're capable of ‘til several weeks/months after purchase.) But do try to get hold of one or another of their exotic line of component footers. I got sizable gains in body and musical articulation from a set or two of TU-220 MT "Mega Tones", or TU-210 ZX "Golden Toe" or the new TU-66 ZX.
Reimyo at HE 2005
The Reimyo line is the brainchild of Kazou Kiuchi, Combak's chief designer. Depending on the project, he engages recognized experts on a consulting basis for specific design help, as required. This "High Tech Fusion" approach means the design team varies depending on the project at hand. In all cases, Kiuchi-san does his thing for tuning and resonance control, and all of the products are voiced to his taste. I found that voice fully realized only when his gear is fitted with his Harmonix accessories, the SLC speaker cable and the various footers. Without the accessories, you may experience issues with low-end, or top-end, whatever. They bring it all into balance.
In reading some of the published reviews of the Reimyo line, I was confused about the role of QRT (Bill Stierhout's Quantum Resonance Technology power conditioning) and where it fit into the picture. According to Stierhout, QRT will "…redress the chaotic nature of the electrons in your AC line and put them into alignment. Once the electrons are aligned, they tend to stay that way. When your components see this coherent electron flow, they don't need to work as hard. Less strain on the components means they work cleaner…" I used QRT products a while ago and found they did impart greater ease to the presentation and made it more relaxed, more pure, with fewer artifacts. QRT is said to affect anything electrical within 30 feet. Indeed, even the room itself seemed to acquire a more intimate atmosphere. However, these beneficial effects in my earlier systems gradually became less desirable with system advances—today I don't employ any of the devices. Better components, at least the ones I'm interested in, like the Reimyo, don't need help in these areas. So I was surprised to see QRT being used here. The real scoop is this technology is only employed in the ALS-777 AC Line Stabilizer (it's the only component with the QRT logo on the faceplate), and I was informed that Kiuchi-san is doing something different with it: he uses it in conjunction with two other proprietary technologies, which synergistically raise the performance level. Whatever it is, the synergy works—I bought the conditioner—but I never used the CAT or PAT through it, only the front-end.
For this iteration of the audition, the CAT sat on Harmonix RF-66ZX footers, the PAT was on TU-220MT Megatones on top of a TU-888 System Tuning Board. The front-end components were plugged into my Reimyo ALS-777 power conditioner. My Kharma CRM 3.2s and the new Ce-Sb- 1.0 Kharma subwoofer were wired up with a mix of Harmonix and Kondo KSL signal wires. All power cords were Harmonix Studio Master.
My astonishment that the "puny" 8-watt PAT-777 with its 300B tubes could drive my 89dB sensitive Kharma 3.2s only grew when I heard cleaner, more musical and more powerful crescendos. The huge stage, low-end weight and dynamics make the Reimyo excel at re-creating larger ensembles—full orchestra was never rendered more convincingly. But it also has the characteristic soft intimacy, beautiful tone and physical presence of the 300B—an uncommonly appealing mix. The Reimyo gear combines positive aspects of the SET experience along with the power, dynamics and extension we associate with higher wattage amplification. It resides somewhere in the middle ground between the two.
Acoustically voiced, lively and engaging, it was a beautiful sound that you can listen to all day long. Listening sessions were stretching into the night—nobody felt like packing it up. The level of credibility ratcheted up to the point where I was able to straddle more of the mental hurdles between self and reproduction than I'd previously attained. For me, most of the magic was in the CAT, which is the most musical pre-amp I've experienced to date. What I'm trying to describe to you is the attainment of a sound quality so uncommonly fine, so satisfying that my interior voice relaxed and made unspoken, happy, contented sounds. Yes, I've described what I might like better in places, and criticized some others, but these are just small points.
The Reimyo gear driving the Kharma CRM 3.2 FE monitors and Ce-Sb-1.0 sub presented me with the best sound to date. I was a very happy audiophile. There is no question that both the CAT and the PAT belong in Class A of the rankings. Marshall Nack