We need to talk about Nigel…

By now, having figured out that the I1 resists being pigeon holed with an intellectual recalcitrance equivalent to the sulky intensity with which the average cat resists being put in its basket for a trip to the vet, you might well wonder just why CH set out on this particular path, especially when it comes to engineering what many observers might assume would/should/could be their most popular and saleable product? The answer lies in that operational versatility. Ask Florian Cossy (the C in CH) that question and it quickly emerges that the raison d’être behind the I1 was to bring the same operational versatility and sophistication, the same user configurability and App driven control interface, to smaller systems and smaller spaces. Think those people who recognise the advantages of the CH ‘software driven’ approach to audio engineering but can’t accommodate a full 1 Series separates system. Or those who already own a full CH rig, but want a second system for a smaller space, pied à terre or second home. The only way to offer that within a single, standard CH chassis was to build the unit around a digital core – and hence the I1 concept emerged.

Note the giveaway information in the I1’s display, from the indication of the DACs’ interpolation algorithm at work to the volume level read out, the clock priority setting to the % global feedback.

All of which would be irrelevant to all but the very few, if the amp didn’t sing: but in its latest guise (firmware version 2.2), sing it does – and with a much wider range of speakers. If the Firmware updates centre around the DACs’ time and phase performance, the musical results are expressed in terms of dynamic range, musical intent and a renewed sense of purpose and performance that have very real, real world implications. Earlier versions of the I1 were perfectly at home with compact floorstanders from the likes of Apertura and Living Voice, but struggled to get a grip on speakers like the Vienna Acoustics Liszt, leaving the latter combination sounding pale and sluggish, musically disjointed and the musicians heavily hung over. Well, that’s all change! With new model VA Liszts in-house for review, what better time to revisit the rejuvenated I1 – and with extremely rewarding results. Previously, playing a track like ‘Safeway Cart’ (from Sleeps With Angels) generated a soggy morass from which the vocal struggled to emerge. Now, the pulsing bass/drum line is properly deep, weighty and propulsive, bringing proper meaning to the term rhythm section. The etched guitar line is crisp but also suitably delicate, the vocal clear and solid. But the most impressive upshift in performance lies in the sense of overall musical structure, the way the different strands work together, filling the soundstage, filling the room, without blurring or muddling the edges between instruments and voice, or tripping over the measured beat that constrains the song and gives it its desolate emotional power. Fullness and emptiness at the same time? It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off – and the I1 does, with Neil Young and Shostakovich, The Pretenders and Miles Davis. That grip and musical authority isn’t established at the expense of articulation or emotional range, but acts as an enabler for both.

Not your average phono-stage, anyway you look at it!

Perhaps most impressive of all though, is the I1’s phono-performance. The musical insights, integrity and access delivered by the combination of the current gain input stage and switchable EQ curves (the same RIAA, eRIAA, EMI, Columbia, Decca and Teldec/DGG options you’ll find in the P1) regularly reveal musical gems buried within what have previously been dismissed as ‘ordinary’ or ‘mediocre’ recordings. You can almost see the implications dawning on the consciousness of jaded, record collecting listeners as the possibility of mining the rich seams of discarded second-hand discs hits home: and that’s before they even realise that the sound they are listening to has been digitised. Indeed, if you need a justification for CH’s obtuse approach to building an integrated amp, you’ll find it here, not just in the astonishingly involving musical performance offered by the phono-option, but by the fact that it is the processing muscle provided in the digital domain that contributes so much to the end result.