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But it will become still more meaningful once we add the SL1 Legend’s strong upper midrange into the equation. On one hand it wasn’t as direct as the best passive preamps and my reference, on the other hand it was richer and more communicative than passives and better differentiated than the Polaris. The CAT seemed unbeatable when it came to differentiation of treble and upper midrange. The only system I know that is capable of even more in this aspect is Ancient Audio’s CD deck with onboard line stage to go amp direct. I only had to listen to King Crimson's In The Court Of The Crimson King, an ingenious recording of cymbals to confirm my opinion.

The CAT much better differentiated how each cymbal was struck, with how much force, exactly where etc. It was much easier to admire and follow the techniques of drummers. John Coltrane's The John Coltrane Quartet Plays created the same impression. While this material was not as perfectly recorded, it should have made it more difficult to verify my conclusion but it still stood. The American preamplifier also outperformed the Polaris when it came to presenting the self noise of master tape. Surely nobody listens to this but it does show the quality of high-frequency replay. Based on it I could clearly tell how fabulous the resolution and ability to differentiate the high tones were with the Legend.

This particular sonic character is surely a result of the designer’s intentions who obviously wanted to achieve a particular kind of sound. The most important aspect was the midrange but it's not as warm as the Nagra, Art Audio or Accuphase nor in any way emphasized. I could simply tell how the midrange was most important to the designer. Because the sound isn’t warmed up yet treble and upper midrange are so powerful, one can’t really identify a tubed device. One ‘tube’ feature might be the slight softening of transients but nowadays many top-line transistor preamplifiers do the same thing. The midbass was deep and full and only the lowest part of the range betrayed a vacuum state device. Apart from this the majority of the audible range reminded me of the C-500’s solid-state module, just better.

So far I’ve mostly discussed the midrange but it’s really the decisive aspect on whether this particular preamp will fit into your system. The sound on a whole was bit thinner than the Polaris, not to mention the more overtly tubed Art Audio and Nagra but also the Luxman. For my system and my room, Ayon’s Polaris fits better. But that of course is a personal choice I made and on top of that an individual preference. In a bigger room with bigger speakers, I’d likely choose the CAT over the Polaris as being more proper on tonal balance. In a big room there’s space to develop a big sound and you need to exercise maximal control over all aspects of the sound. My Polaris could then become a bit too warm and massive. In smaller rooms this slight enlargement of the Austrian preamplifier better defines the sound in my opinion. One thing I really love about it is just how rich the midrange is. It is not about emphasizing but fully developing this band. I prefer to hear each instrument here and now very saturated even if that’s not 100% accurate. The CAT places the sound not as close to the listener but rather at some distance. As I say, this is a function of personal preferences. After all, you will never have exactly the same sound at home as during a live concert regardless of whether you use the CAT or Ayon.

The line stage of course is just one half of this equation. There’s also the phono stage. If you take a look inside the machine, you’ll notice how similar the topology of either stage looks. They even take up the same amount of space. In other words, they were both treated with the same care and attention. Usually the line stage is the core focus and phono a mere addition. The only exception I know is the Polaris II. Its phono stage runs twice as many bottles as the line stage. But somehow I wasn't convinced of Ayon’s phono stage, hence I ordered only the line stage and maintain RCM Audio’s Sensor Prelude IC as my external phono stage. During the last three years only very few others could match the Prelude in terms of speed and precision but also—surprisingly—its richness. The only clearly superior device was the Manley Steelhead v2. When I saw how the CAT was built, I became anxious to listen to some records.

At first I listened to the CAT with my own phono stage. The surprise was how different the CAT sounded with digital and analogue sources. With the turntable the sound became richer, deeper and fuller but the treble weakened and the bass lost some control. I had the same results in every case. I started by comparing the same mixes issued on CD and vinyl like Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue (50th Anniversary Collector's Edition) or one of my latest buys, a wonderful Vinyl Factory Helligoland edition by Massive Attack. I was really surprised because it meant that the CAT was able to differentiate the signal based on source in an extraordinary way. The characters of both Avid Acutus Reference deck and Miyajima Waza pickup were easily recognized.