NAT Symmetrical line preamplifier Page 3

Listening to the recent remastering of the Beatles' Abbey Road (CD, Apple 382462 2), I focused on Ringo's drum work during the densely orchestrated chorus of "Something." Despite the complex mix of vocal harmonies, instruments, and orchestral backfill, I was able to follow every dynamic inflection of Ringo's clever snare and tom work, even though it was buried deep in the mix. And with Robert Silverman's reading of Beethoven's Piano Sonata 1, from his complete set of the sonatas (CD, OrpheumMasters KSP-830), I was able to analyze every movement of Silverman's stylized technique in a piece I have played many times in the past.

Jazz horn solos best illustrated the Symmetrical's subtle dynamic strengths. I cued up Jerome Harris's arrangement of Duke Ellington's "The Mooche," from Rendezvous (CD, Stereophile STPH013-2), and analyzed the solos of trombonist Arthur Baron and alto saxophonist Marty Ehrlich. Baron's solo was blatty, silky, and bloomy; at times, he and Ehrlich felt as if they were joining me in the room—I was worried about getting some spit on me (footnote 3).


The third aspect of the NAT that impressed me was its rendering of high-level dynamic slam. This was problematic for me—I found it difficult to compare several dozen recordings without constantly changing the volume setting, lest I incur the wrath of an annoyed wife or risk scaring small animals. I turned up Helmut Rilling's recording of Penderecki's Credo (CD, Hänssler 98.311) high enough that I could enjoy bass Thomas Quasthoff's solo in the first movement. Through the NAT, this meant that the loud choral and percussive crash of the climax preceding the solo came through at ffff, which startled my two sleeping shelties—who had just slept through Sonic Youth at 98dB—and made them jump. My wife gave me a look that read, "Tell me John Atkinson's wife puts up with this!" (footnote 4).

As for electronic dance music, I compared the aforementioned Kraftwerk tune with "Bad Romance," from Lady Gaga's The Fame Monster (CD, Streamline B001353-72). Although the Gaga track is very well recorded (as opposed to most of the sonically horrendous electronic stuff on Top 40 rock radio), it was noticeably compressed compared with the thundering Kraftwerk tune. Finally, the horn tuttis in "Bluesville," from Count Basie's 88 Basie Street (LP, Pablo/Acoustic Sounds 2310-901), punched me in the face.

The Symmetrical's capabilities in terms of high-level dynamic slam went hand in hand with its seemingly bottomless, fast, and uncolored reproduction of the bottom three octaves. I cranked up Attention Screen bassist Chris Jones' solo track, "Midnight Sun," recorded under the name Overcast Radio (45rpm single, Surface Tension STNSN002). The opening, rapid-fire bass-synth ostinato made me write "Slamming!!!" in my notes. On the more delicate side, I compared drummer Mark Flynn's technique on bass drum and Korean Puk drum on Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2). The timbres and dynamic envelopes of the two instruments were clearly distinct. Finally, when bassist Peter Freeman forcefully enters in the opening passage of "Aurora," from Jon Hassell's Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street (CD, ECM 2077), it woke the dogs again.

The NAT's clean, extended, undistorted high frequencies made me want to listen to well-recorded guitars. I equally enjoyed listening to Kevin Barry's Stratocaster on the title track of Mighty Sam McClain's Give It Up to Love (CD, JVC JVCXR-0012-2) and Taylor Swift's pristine and silky Taylor (don't you think she should marry a guitarist named Martin?) flattop acoustic on "White Horse," from Fearless (CD, Big Machine BMRATS0200). In addition to the NAT's flawless midrange reproduction of the aforementioned jazz horns and piano, and its silky and forceful rendition of George Harrison's voice on "Something" caused me to draw parallels between Harrison's vocal and guitar phrasing.

I used several recordings to compare the NAT Symmetrical with my Audio Valve Eklipse (now $5700; see my review in August 2007), but spent much of my time with Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall. As both line stages were detailed, dynamic, and uncolored performers, I felt at times as if I were splitting hairs. However, there were several areas where the NAT's performance exceeded the Eklipse's, and none in which it fell short.

First, their sonic perspectives were a bit different—I felt the NAT presented the music as if from mid-hall, whereas the Audio Valve was a bit more forward, especially in the midrange. The stages reproduced transients equally well, although instruments were a touch more clearly defined through the NAT, with a bit more separation and sense of openness. Pianos sounded somewhat more clean, crisp, and rich through the Symmetrical, and with a touch more decay and air. It sounded as if the NAT's noise floor was lower; that is, although both preamps were dead quiet, it seemed that as notes decayed, the transition from mid-volume to the softest passage took longer with the NAT before the music dropped off into silence. The preamps' rich, silky, natural reproductions of voices were nearly identical. Finally, I felt that the Eklipse added a subtle electronic haze to the music that the Symmetrical did not.

Among today's expensive tube preamps, so many are so nearly flawless that it's difficult for a relative newcomer to come up with a creative and cost-competitive design that will cause audiophiles to take notice—but NAT Audio has done so with the remarkable Symmetrical. Anyone who can afford to spend $8000 on a new line stage should give this baby a listen. Every minute I spent playing music through this gem was a revealing and enjoyable experience. In the Symmetrical, NAT has a real winner.

Footnote 3: Perhaps this low-level dynamic performance is related to the Symmetrical's use of an all-tube rectification circuit. The only other preamp with tube rectification that I've had here has been the ARC Reference 3, whose low-level dynamic performance was also impressive.

Footnote 4: Mrs. Atkinson puts up with much more.

NAT Audio
US distributor: Musical Sounds
6 Mayflower Court
Milford, CT 06460
(203) 877-7776