Scandinavian design flair and deliciously seductive sound combine in Gato Audio’s ultra-stylish preamplifier, which looks divine and has a built-in 192kHz/24-bit USB DAC
With digital entertainment sources ubiquitous in today’s living rooms, many modern DACs include a variable output, obviating the necessity for a preamplifier if you don’t own a turntable, FM tuner or legacy tape deck. But Gato Audio’s strikingly handsome-looking PRD-3 is a proper system preamplifier, not simply a DAC with a volume control. It includes three line-level analogue inputs alongside its three digital inputs. If it sounds anything like as good as it looks, then it promises to be fine value at $3,655!
Fabulous fit and finish
Hailing from Denmark, Gato Audio is a relatively young brand, the company’s product portfolio only recently becoming available in the UK. We tested Gato’s CDD-1 top-loading CD player/DAC together with the MOSFET powered AMP-150 integrated amplifier last autumn. Priced $8,830 each, they looked a million dollars and we described them as delivering a harmonious listening experience, thanks to their relaxed and rather beautiful sound quality.
Gato Audio PRD-3 overview
Gato Audio makes a couple of less expensive Class D integrated amplifiers which we’ve yet to audition, the DIA-400 ($6,500) and DIA-250 ($5,000) that similarly look fabulous in their distinctive casework. Unlike the AMP-150 they feature built-in 192kHz/24-bit USB DACs as well. The company hasn’t yet announced a power amplifier dressed in its luxurious livery but I suspect it’s only a matter of time, as this PRD-3 preamplifier really does deserve a matching sibling on a shelf in a system rack.
As well as being distinctively formed, Gato’s components really are fabulously well put together. The fit and finish is first-class; their 10mm-thick aluminium fronts exude high quality; and the feel of their controls is equal to some of the finest high-end gear money can buy.
This PRD-3 is also blessed with a lovely white-legend LED matrix display that’s large enough to be read from a distance of several metres. Output level setting is displayed from 0-99 to the left of the rotary electronic volume control knob – the numbers rotating vertically in the fashion of a tumbler in a slot machine – while the selected input is indicated on the right.
One XLR and two RCA line inputs are joined by two S/PDIF inputs and a Type B US connection. There are three outputs and a 12V trigger is provided too
When using a digital input, incoming sampling frequency can be shown (for four seconds) by pressing that input’s direct selector button on the supplied IR handset. Alternatively the display can be switched via a small push button on the preamp’s rear panel to continuously show sampling frequency – and only indicate input selection when actually changing inputs. The display can also be turned on/off via the remote handset.
At the rear there’s a balanced (XLR) and two single-ended (RCA) line inputs all on gold-plated sockets, two S/PDIF inputs (one RCA, one Toslink) and an asynchronous USB connection for computer audio playback. Of course, the latter can also be used to feed digital data from an iPad, if you hook it up using one of Apple’s $42 Camera Connection Kit adapters.
Using the PRD-3 in a bi-amped system would present no difficulties: there are two sets of output XLRs as well as a pair of single-ended RCA outputs.
The built-in D-to-A converter, which is driven by a dedicated power supply separated from the preamp’s analogue circuitry, uses a balanced dual-differential Burr-Brown PCM1794 DAC and sample rate converter, Gato’s designers describing the PRD-3 as featuring ‘an optimized high-bandwidth I/V converter, very clean internal clock generator for ultra-low jitter in the digital domain, and an analogue stage with low-Q low pass filters’. Digital inputs are upsampled to 192kHz/ 24-bit prior to analogue conversion.
Gato Audio PRD-3 on board
The supplied handset is no thing of beauty, its 13 rubberised buttons all identically-sized. Nevertheless it’s been thoughtfully designed, with unambiguous labelling that makes it easy to use. Four buttons in a diamond cluster at the centre control volume up/down and input scrolling, while two rows of three buttons provide direct selection of the preamp’s analogue and digital inputs respectively. A separate row of three buttons along the top of the controller governs standby, display on/ off and mute.
While it’s usually going to form the control hub of an audiophile’s two-channel music replay system, the PRD-3’s volume control can be bypassed for integrating with surround sound home cinema set-ups. Activating (analogue) input No1 and subsequently pressing and holding down the input selector button on the front panel for four seconds switches the unit into Direct mode, the number on the left of the display indicating volume level changing to read ‘HT’ (home theatre). Holding down the button again reverts the PRD-3 to normal operation.
A silky smoothness
I began listening to the PRD-3 by using it as a standalone USB DAC for computer audio playback, presenting it with a barrage of 44.1kHz/16-bit CD rips and high resolution file downloads. First impressions were extremely positive as I welcomed its evident silky smoothness and finesse, the Gato DAC dispensing a rich and creamy sound balance full of beauty and charm. I’m tempted to describe it as ‘valve-like’ – especially as it conjured up memories of the seductively inviting Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum integrated amp that recently graced my system. But this might give a false impression as the PRD-3 also appears ballsy and robust thanks to its fulsome bass character.
It’s certainly a more opulent and full-flavoured Malbec than a fresh ‘n’ crisp Pinot; a luxurious limousine rather than a seat-of-the-pants sports car. Consequently it worked wonders with chill-step electronica, the angelic voice of Soundmouse in Phaeleh’s ‘Here Comes The Sun’ from Tides [Afterlo AFTRCD1004] sounding deliciously sweet as it floated within the ethereal soundscape.
The song’s synthesized bass line was gratifyingly deep and wholesome, the Gato’s low frequency delivery possessing tangible weight and power so that the bottom octaves provided a strong foundation for the musical structure.
The Gato DAC dispensing a rich and creamy sound balance full of beauty and charm
Chris Jones’ ‘God Moves On The Water’ from his album Roadhouses And Automobiles [Stockfisch SFR 357 6027 2] opens with a strong figure on a bass guitar before harmonics from the six-string leap out from the image – and the PRD-3 reproduced the bass introduction with tremendous wallop. Similarly ‘No Sanctuary Here’ was delivered with colossal muscle and authority.
All the while the Gato DAC had been hooked up to T+A’s three-box P/A/ PS3000HV pre/power combo with its additional behemoth power supply unit [HFN Sept ’14], driving my towering Townshend Sir Galahad monitors. The Gato’s uncommon civility and lack of aggression was highly appreciated with ‘hot’ and forceful rock and pop recordings, especially when increasing the system’s volume to remind my neighbours they too need a good hi-fi system to enrich their leisure time.
If the PRD-3’s rich bass was proving a little ‘thick’ for my system, it would be churlish to fault how deep it actually digs. The rollicking timpani during the opening passage of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide, with the Kansas City Symphony [Reference Recordings RR-120], rolled out like not-so-distant thunder, with a low and long reverberation that not so much decayed as disappeared into subsonic regions. Image scale and solidity were fabulous.
Standby and input selector buttons sit below the large LED matrix display which flanks the aluminium rotary volume control. Display of input/sampling rate can be customised
In use as a preamp
T+A’s ‘faster’ and more incisive- sounding £1990 DAC 8 converter [HFN Oct ’12] has remained in my system for the past couple of years as a reference marker against which I judge other DACs. It’s frankly better suited to my system than Gato’s PRD-3, although not everyone will prefer its sharper sound.
Indeed, the Gato’s lack of aggression will undoubtedly be appreciated by countless music lovers whose systems need taming. Anyway, I next hooked up the T+A DAC 8’s balanced outputs to the PRD-3’s XLR input and used the Gato solely as a preamplifier to drive T+A’s P3000HV power amp.
And guess what? I was greeted with a sound much the same as when using the Gato as a standalone DAC, the preamplifier’s disposition similarly smooth and calm, confirming that it was the honeyed tonality of the Gato’s analogue stages which were determining its overall sonic character.
With a Xilinx FPGA handling all digital input processing and housekeeping, Gato Audio also specifies a legacy 24-bit/192kHz DAC and sample rate converter from Burr-Brown. Note the local input/output relay switching (orange)
It wasn’t only with ‘challenging’ modern rock that the Gato sounded delicious. Its richly-textured personality also brought many vintage recordings to life. One such was Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ from Dusty In Memphis [Rhino Deluxe Edition, R2 75580], the full-bodied delivery of the PRD-3 helping to flesh out a thin and rather distant brass section accompaniment.
Dusty’s delectably sultry voice sounded simply wonderful, hovering in the image of the characteristically 1960s-style ‘ping-pong’ stereo presentation, while the bass and lead guitars were clearly defined in their respective recording spaces. Again, the Gato’s smooth high frequencies tamed the splashiness from the drum kit’s cymbals. In Memphis of course sounds its age, but it sure did seem lovely…
Gato’s PRD-3 delivers sonic finesse rather than whip-cracking dynamics, with good soundstaging that’s capable of extending way beyond the plane of your loudspeakers when enjoying fine music productions in which instruments and voices have been panned ‘believably’ amid the spatial field.
Meanwhile, there’s little masking of fine detail via the PRD-3, even if it does lack a degree of incisiveness and sparkling true-to-life-realism when reproducing today’s finest high-resolution recordings.
But when you consider its stylish good looks, the immaculate finish of its casework and its seductively balanced sound quality, it really is a honey for the money.
· Maximum output level (Balanced): 18.1Vrms at 73ohm
· A-wtd S/N ratio (pre / S/PDIF / USB): 89.7dB / 107.7dB / 107.7dB
· Distortion (1kHz, 0dBFs/–30dBFs): 0.0027% / 0.0002%
· Dist. & Noise (20kHz, 0dBFs/–30dBFs): 0.035% / 0.012%
· Freq. resp. (20Hz-20kHz/45kHz/90kHz): –0.1dB to –0.04dB/–0.8dB/–2.4dB
· Digital jitter (48kHz/96kHz/USB): 20psec / 13psec / 20psec
· Resolution @ –100dB (S/PDIF / USB): ±0.2dB / ±0.2dB
· Power consumption: 12W (1W Standby)
· Dimensions (WHD) / Weight: 325x105x420mm / 7kg