Preamplifier/DAC Gato Audio PRD-3 Review (Part 1)

8/27/2014 11:27:13 AM
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 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

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.

Dedicated power

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

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.

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