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To conclude introductions, the NAT Symmetrical is delivered in a solid wooden crate, offers 15dB of gain (a little high for my taste and I would have preferred 6 or 8dB for easier integration in a system with high sensitivity speakers), two outputs which can be used either balanced or single-ended, a fixed output, a simple but heavy remote and a back-panel switch to change the grounding from earth to chassis. Shy of input naming, HT bypass and variable gain, the NAT offers a compelling feature package. It's not quite on par with the overachieving Esoteric C03 but very few preamps are. Aesthetically, the Spartan look isn't my cup of tea but your mileage may vary. Seriously, its sound is so good that the Symmetrical could come in a shoe box and I would not care. And since I moved to a dedicated music room, my wife does not either! Ah, the joys of a man cave.

With proper introduction rendered, on to the music. Not sound, bass or treble but plain good ol' music. That's what the NAT has been created for, that's what it does best. Where to start if not with tone density and lushness of timbre? On first listen this will probably be the most striking trait of the NAT especially if you favor vocal music and period instruments. Both are remarkably well served. Don't mistake lush with warmth, truncation or imprecise timing. The NAT has none of that. It's not about the softening that can arise from lack of transparency or timing deficiencies. It's about a tonal enhancement of rich and dense harmonics, finely revealed instrumental textures or voice grain as only the best tube gear achieves.

When you switch back and forth between the NAT and Esoteric C03 as I have over the past few months, the C03 always comes across as precise, tremendously transparent and faithful. The NAT on the other hand always seems bigger and more exuberant, adding a sparkle and touch of spice. Envision the difference between Italian and French cuisine. Italians use the freshest ingredients they can find and typically mix them to reinforce and reveal each other but except for a few herbs they don't necessarily build complex dishes nor practice much enhancement of the initial ingredients. I am terribly over-simplifying for effect of course but overall in Italian cuisine, the self taste of the ingredient, be it fruit, vegetable, sea food or meat, is king. That's the Esoteric C03. By contrast, French cuisine is a world of greater complexity where you can expect a lot of contrasting tastes and textures. It's a world of sauces and gravies where cream, butter, milk, eggs or wine will be called upon to enhance the taste of the start-out ingredients. That's the NAT. As things have it, I enjoy both cuisines at different times. The same happened for these preamps.

Unlike Gary Koh's analogy of the chili/oyster omelet during my review of his Genesis GR360 amplifier (where the chili and eggs are used to hide the taste of an oyster that is no longer in its prime), the NAT goes about its task in a very controlled and refined manner. There's no heavy-handed second-order harmonic distortion, no top-end shelving nor excessively boomy bass. The NAT Symmetrical is for all intents and purposes a modern sounding tube preamplifier with all that implies in terms of timing excellence, precision, control, imaging and dynamics - but with a generous helping of flavor on top.

I truly noticed it for the first time while I reviewed the bassoon dances and songs by Selma y Salaverde. The dark and deep sonority of the recreated fagotto used in this recording was further enhanced and revealed in all its splendor yet the instrument lost none of its resolution and microdynamics versus the C03. This was truly revealing and I started paying attention to the other period instruments on this recording to notice the same phenomenon. Texture, tone and micro dynamics all seemed revealed in greater detail, bringing forth a sense of presence and extreme physicality to the instruments. If you ever thought period instruments sound dry and lifeless, you need to hear them through the NAT. They take on a new timbral dimension I'd only experienced in concerts thus far.

So I continued digging in this direction. With Nicola Fiorenza's concerti grossi, I again came to the same conclusion. The instruments were easily identified and delineated but also had a depth and harmonic complexity that seemed to have escaped the C03 - or more precisely, the C03 conveyed the instruments exactly as recorded whereas the NAT focused more of their inner textures and hues even if it meant pushing the saturation dial beyond what the recording commanded. Depending on which speakers I used and which disc I spun, I preferred one presentation over the other but regardless, the NAT sounded nothing short of superb. The subtle differences belonged in the realm of preferences and synergies with a given record. If the music had a vocal component, I always gravitated towards the NAT. If it was more orchestral or modern in nature, the C03 typically had my vote.

Switching to heavier orchestral ensembles revealed some of the minor weaknesses of the NAT. Primarily its bass control and depth did not match what the C03 is capable of. In this realm, solid state remains king. That was obvious on both Beethoven's Overtures conducted by Colin Davis where the double basses did not have the same weight; or on Saint-Saens' 3rd 'Organ' Symphony under Munch where the 16Hz organ pedals almost disappeared out of the mix. It also showed that the NAT did not stage as deeply and broadly as the C03. While not far off, it was not quite as impressive. Although the NAT images very naturally, it won't differentiate layers of musicians as efficiently.

This latter point needs some context because when you sit in a concert hall listening to a symphonic orchestra and you close your eyes, instruments do tend to blend into each other. Boundaries get just a little fuzzy and overlap happens. That's also what the NAT does for imaging. Imagine yourself now still in that concert hall. You open your eyes and with that visual aid, each instrument occupies a very precise and defined position and so does the sound. Any sense of overlap vanishes because your brain combines vision and sound to locate the musicians precisely. That's the feeling the C03 conveys. It's a greater precision in the location and boundaries of instruments and musicians. If you enjoy closing your eyes in a concert hall as I do, you will feel very much at home with the NAT's presentation but if you favor higher precision and order, the C03 will delight you.

Then I switched to piano music. You'll read reviewers over and over stating that no other instrument will tell you as much about components as piano. It is at once highly percussive
yet resonant with complex harmonics from paralleled strings and the wooden body to reveal a lot about the transparency and dynamic prowess of a system. Putting Couperin's Tic Toc Choc [HMC 901956] in the player proved that the NAT could almost resolve the same level of detail and complex harmonics as the C03 (amazing for a tube preamplifier compared to one of the most transparent members of the transistor breed) but stood just behind it when it came to the sharpness of the first impact and the initial dynamic rise of the note. It also showed that the Symmetrical could match the Esoteric's decay and sustain, a characteristic I had found absolutely phenomenal with the Japanese preamp. Seeing that a tube amplifier could equal it was a revelation.

Switching to Richter's monumental Appassionata piano sonata [RCA 82876-59421-2] proved that with huge and unrestrained dynamic macro swings, the NAT knew how to get brutal when necessary. The very first transient burst may have been behind the C03 but the macrodynamic envelope of the NAT was nothing short of phenomenal not just for a tube preamplifier. It is huge, period. In both cases, the NAT edged out the Esoteric in how it rendered complex wooden harmonics from the piano's body especially when using the Genesis G7.1f metallic-driver speakers with ribbon tweeters. The C03 was more string and less wood than the Symmetrical. The Serbian better maintained the rich and complex harmonic signature of the instrument.