NAT Symmetrical line preamplifier Page 2

Today, as I reflect on my recent experiences in my reference system with Audio Valve's Eklipse and Conductor, Audio Research's Reference 3, and the NAT Symmetrical, as well as time spent at friends' houses and audio shows with C-J's Art 2 line stage, I realize how dramatically things have changed. I felt that each of these designs presented a chillingly realistic reproduction of the musical experience, with no meaningful flaws, and with strengths that far exceeded those of designs of a decade or more ago. I found that, as a reviewer, it was nearly impossible for me to rank these products, to the point that I've come to believe that an audiophile who likes one might well be satisfied with any of them (footnote 2). Which brings me to the task at hand: how to evaluate the NAT Symmetrical in the context of the current competition.


During my extensive listening to the Symmetrical, I heard no flaws whatsoever. Across the entire audioband and with every recording I played, I felt it was dead neutral, reproducing copious inner detail and ambience cues on a wide, deep soundstage, and transients and dynamic swings reminiscent of a live musical performance. But rather than end my review here, I'll concentrate on the three aspects of the Symmetrical's performance that far exceeded those of any other preamp I've had in my house.

First, the level of detail resolved by the NAT was such that I was able to analyze very familiar recordings in unprecedented depth. In "Man/Machine," from Minimum/Maximum (CD, EMI ASW 60611), each of Kraftwerk's four members uses a bank of synthesizers controlled by laptop computers and keyboards. With the Symmetrical I was able to individually follow each musician's synth part, noting his chosen waveforms, phasing, pitch, timbre, and rendering of transients and dynamic envelopes. I also heard each musician's contributions as coming from a distinct part of the soundstage. I had never noticed that with any other preamp I'd heard in my house, nor had I noticed it in the live performance of this tune that I heard at a concert in the tour during which this album was recorded.

When I listen to "Sins of My Father," from Tom Waits' Real Gone (CD, Anti- 86678-2), I usually like to analyze the phrasing of Marc Ribot's brilliant guitar solo. This time I focused on other things. With this spectacular recording, in which Waits' voice is given some intentional mild distortion to dirty its texture, I found myself analyzing the singer's phrasing. His pitch inflections, at times slightly off-key, and his phrasing, sometimes ahead of and at others slightly behind the beat, demonstrate a level of phrase control that suggested levels of individuality and skill comparable with Frank Sinatra's at his best. Then on to Ribot's guitar solo—but instead of analyzing the guitarist's phrasing, I focused on his sound. It was fairly easy for me to estimate which model of Fender amp Ribot was using, where his volume and tone controls were set, and how far the studio mike was from the amp's speaker.

On "Becuz," from Sonic Youth's Washing Machine (CD, Geffen DGCD-24825), guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo play Fender Jazzmaster guitars tuned in just intonation and played through similar distortion devices. During the ensemble instrumental passages, the two play using similar techniques in an attempt to sound like a single giant, shimmering, cacophonous guitar. Through the Symmetrical I was able to distinctly follow each player's part.


Normally when I listen to Charles Wuorinen's Ringing Changes for Percussion Ensemble (LP, Nonesuch H71263), an all-percussion work recorded during Nonesuch's golden age, I'm accustomed to hearing each instrument naturally reproduced on a wide, deep soundstage. Through the NAT, I noticed that each instrument was reproduced with a different attack envelope and decay curve that varied with the type of instrument, how and where it was struck, and how far the instrument was placed from the recording mikes.

The second thing about the Symmetrical that floored me was its rendering of low-level dynamic inflections. I've been impressed with other preamps that were able to render subtle dynamic inflections down to the ppp level in a way that was linear and organic (the latter an adjective I tend to overuse). Not only did the NAT resolve down to pppp, but with the best recordings, I could hear the linear change from pppp to ppp, from ppp to pp, and from pp to p, each shift in volume made with a sense of natural dynamic continuousness. I had never heard this effect in my system before; only in live performances, when I've been able to score the best orchestra seats at Carnegie Hall.

Footnote 2: Since I last auditioned the Audio Research Reference 3 line stage in 2007, it's been superseded by the Reference 5. I've not yet heard the Reference 5, but I'm curious to hear how it stacks up against the aforementioned preamps.
NAT Audio
US distributor: Musical Sounds
6 Mayflower Court
Milford, CT 06460
(203) 877-7776