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Occasionally readers query me how it is possible that when say reviewing a 4.000zł  amplifier I described its treble as "simply amazing" whilst another amp for 50.000zł had its treble referenced as "a bit gentle, not as rich as the reference system". Pure nonsense is how some react, pointing out that the obvious conclusion must be that they should buy the cheaper amp and forget about the high-end - or that I wasn’t telling the truth. Perhaps it doesn't happen that often but still, occasionally readers do ask such questions because they take my reviews too literal. I think I should clarify my intentions. It will also serve this review. The proper perspective is relativity. That’s vital when reviewing audio equipment. When judging any device, I first try to compare it to my reference regardless of the tester’s price. The larger price and performance differential are, the better. When making comparisons, you have to assume a difference between your reference point and what you try to compare against it. The reference point should at least be one class better. The same principle is at work in any university. Dissertations are always judged by someone with a higher academic degree.

Only afterwards do I cross reference the tester with a competitor at a similar price. When writing a review, I don't distinguish one result from the other. I treat them as a whole. So it's up to the readers to draw the proper conclusion. When I state that the treble was simply amazing for a 4000zł amp, it implies for its price compared to similar devices and I base my opinion on knowledge of direct competitors and how it compares to my reference point. I needed this introduction to make sure you will properly relate to this particular review. I wanted a reminder that when it comes to differences between high-end machines, they are usually really tiny, far smaller than between so-called hifi gear. Yet to describe these tiny differences I still must use the same words, phrases and expressions. So remember that the same words sometimes carry less weight.

CAT’s SL1 Legend is a member of a very small group of the very best preamplifiers I know. Obviously there are many ingenious machines I haven’t yet had opportunity to try but the list of those I have tried isn’t that short. Again so that we are on the same page – the CAT SL1 is one of the best preamplifiers I've ever heard. What's more, it is equally brilliant as a line and phono stage, making it unique even amongst the top echelon. Usually when a line stage is great, its phono stage isn't that fabulous or vice versa.

Let’s start with a general description. The sound can be partially described as ‘tube like’ while some aspects are ‘solid-state’. In a perfect world there would be no need to qualify descriptions like this as it wouldn't matter what technology was applied. But the perfect world doesn't exist. Tube-like refers mostly to the CAT's timbre - very smooth, rich and complex. Transient attacks are a bit softened to make it more ‘analogue’. That’s most apparent in the frequency extremes to remind me of the Nagra PL-P. The lowest bass is not as rich or complex as from my Ayon Polaris II but the transistor Luxman C-1000f and Accuphase C-2810 offer a similar sound. These aren’t significant differences and if you use a tube amplifier, the final sound will be more defined by the power tubes. I certainly wasn’t complaining about the quantity of bass tones. Cue up the opening track of Laurie Anderson’s Homeland called "Transitory Life", a wonderful tune with very low bass which will be properly handled by only very few machines. The CAT handled this very nicely – full, extended and with good timbre. It wasn't perfect as the Polaris went further but it still was very very good.

Later I listened to many 50s and 60s recordings mainly for double bass and there were no significant differences between these preamps. Don Friedman’s Trio Circle Waltz, Marty Paich’s I Get a Boot Out of You! and even powerful big-band numbers like Perry Como’s Como Swings showed perfectly rendered timbres, richness and control. Higher up it got even better not because of any weakness in the bass range but because of just how remarkable the midrange is. This I should talk about later. For now the important thing to tick off is that the CAT’s bass range was at least as good as competitors by Luxman, Accuphase or Art Audio’s Conductor, perhaps even better.

Not yet assessing any better or worse, the treble presentation was similar to all three machines above in richness and transient attack. The closest match was the Accuphase, not the Art Audio or Nagra. The transient softening increased vibrancy over the Polaris or a VTL 5.5 but was very similar to the ARC Reference 3 (I haven’t yet heard the Reference 5) and somewhat similar to the tube module of the McIntosh C-500 - on the same plateau of performance and as a very comparable rich and strong presentation. One thing is sure, the CAT does not curtail the treble. Some readers might wish I highlighted this last point as a chief advantage.