CH Precision I1 Integrated Amplifier Review

“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother…”

So go the lyrics off the Hollies 1969 Parlophone cover of the Bobby Scott/Bob Russell-written ballad of the same name, which is a classic Hollies-style Baroque pop song (only the Hollies could legitimately be classified as Baroque Pop and not make me chortle when I refer to them as such). A lot of their material spans several genres, but it’s their hook-filled, lilting, minor-key ballads that draw me in like a whisky with a friend by a warm fireplace on a cold night.

As for “He Ain’t Heavy…” the Internet gives several sources for the song’s title, but the earliest one (1884) credits James Wells, a clergyman of sorts relating a tale of seeing a small girl carrying an even younger boy who was almost as big as she was. When asked if she was tired and needed help, she replied “No, he’s not heavy; he’s my brother.”

This sits better with me than that other piece of historical lore of more recent urban-legend reference that the song involved former United States President Jimmy Carter’s brother Billy who had fallen on hard times as a peanut farmer.

The song couldn’t have been a more fitting parable to have sprang to my limited mental faculties when I started writing this review because it kept running through my head as I cursed, sweated and struggled to move the prototype 95-pound CH Precision I1 integrated amplifier first from my car into my house and then into place on an amp stand in front of my hi-fi bench.

I couldn’t believe that such a reasonably-sized chassis (17.4-inch square) weighed so much – CH is obviously continuing to use heavyweight construction materials and big iron for the heart of the I1’s linear power-supply with multiple independent local regulations and oversized, magnetically-shielded toroidal transformers (1,000 VA main and a secondary standby toroidal transformer) to make me almost dislocate my arms from their sockets lifting it.

The CH Precision I1 (100 watts/channel into 8 Ohms, 175 watts/channel into 4 Ohms) solid-state integrated amplifier the company supplied me with for review is wrapped in their svelte, sleek-looking, aluminium-alloy casework (which has no visible external screws on the front, top or sides) and features four stainless-steel, rubber o-ringed feet with internal-adjustable spikes.

The reason, you might wonder, for The Hollies opening segue on this review is because having spent time with the I1’s much bigger brother, the 165-pound M1 Stereo Amplifier, I was familiar with the tonnage involved in their designs. The M1 is like a slab of raw marble, and completely unmovable under one’s own steam. So, with that previous CH experience on my mind and a sore lower back and forearms from the I1, all I could mumble while I went through the supplied CH nomenclature on the amp and hooked up USB, Ethernet, speaker and AC cabling to the unit was – you guessed it – “He Ain’t Heavy…”

A quick sidetrack here, but coincidentally, another Hollies’ cover is also one of my favourite cuts of all-time and one I listened to through the I1 after “He Ain’t Heavy…” (I just had to hear it) this is one off their 1975 LP Another Night and it’s their version of Bruce Springsteen’s “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” with their deliver of the lines “Sandy that waitress I was seeing lost her desire for me/I spoke with her last night, she said she won't set herself on fire for me anymore…” that still makes me melancholy for some unknown reason and here, the I1 delivered all the weighty emotional sonic goods that the song vibes in me. Let us continue.

CH has chosen to continue to take a modular (and I think highly successful) approach to designing and constructing their components chassis. Nowhere is that more evident in this, their latest foray into a one-box (“super integrated” as I like to call them) design; the I1. To quote the company’s website “CH Precision’s recipe for making a Universal Integrated Amplifier: Gather together an A1 (two-channel power amplifier –$37,000 USD), C1 (DAC controller –$32,000 USD), L1 (preamplifier –$34,500 USD) and P1 (phono equalizer –$31,000 USD). Gently squeeze and collect the essence and soul of each product. Delicately pour the concoction into a mould in the shape of the CH unique enclosure. Lightly shake for perfect consistency. Season to taste with optional audio input cards.”

So, the I1 is a conglomeration of a part of each of these separate units distilled into one chassis for those looking for the convenience of a lower box count and in my mind, the cost savings involved for entry into the ultra high-end range of components the company has built it’s reputation on.

The base price for an I1 is $38,000 USD. Add in the Ethernet Audio Streaming board ($5,000 USD), the USB Audio Input board ($3,000 USD), the Current-Mode Phono module which features an analog current-sensing phono stage on two RCA inputs, dedicated to MC cartridges with signal amplification done in the analog domain while the EQ filtering (RIAA, EMI, Columbia, Decca and Teldec) are applied in the digital domain by DSP processors ($4,500 USD – not used during this review) and the Clock Synchronization board which allows the I1 to be clock Master (for example, to that of a D1 SACD and CD transport) or clock slave, receiving the synchronization clock from an external clock device like the T1 10MHz Time Reference clock unit ($1,500 USD – not installed on my unit) and the cost of the I1 hits $52,000 USD. This is end-game territory for an integrated for most people, even in the ultra-high-end, unless you’re looking for serious separates.

The I1 boasts enough back-panel real estate to accommodate not only large speaker binding posts – spades or bananas, I went bananas (TelluriumQ Black II cables) and found them to possess a very satisfyingly-snug fit – but also a centre-located AC/Mains receptacle, main power rocker switch and a plethora of digital and analog inputs thanks to the modular circuit and multi-bay chassis architecture. Digital inputs on my demo unit are up-sampled to 384kHz (352.8kHz respectively) via DSP on-the-fly before being fed into a Delta-Sigma chipset. Inputs included a Type-B Asynchronous USB 2.0 port module (32/384, DSD 128), an Ethernet port (UPnP/DLNA compatible, handling of PCM up to 32/384 and DSD 256 in DFF formats) for direct streaming capabilities (Tidal and Qobuz in my case) using the dedicated CH Control App (Android only at this point). Also in place are a Coaxial connection (24/192 and DoP DSD64 over PCM), a CH Link for “High-speed PCM capability Cyphered DSD transmission” – (DSD 5.6448MHz/1 Bit, 32/768 PCM) an optical input (24/192) and an AES/EBU input (24/192).

There are three analog inputs (one Balanced XLR, two RCA) and Balanced XLR preamp outs. There is a Type-A USB port, but this is only for performing I1 firmware updates, so no jacking in your favourite four-terabyte drive of high-res files in my case. Hopefully this is something CH addresses in the final retail-release iteration of modularity options, because that would truly make the I1 a one-stop-shop in my eyes if NAS drives and their inherent noise aren’t your thing for local-file storage.

But wait, there’s more.

The I1 uses a hybrid volume control that sets attenuation in both the analog and digital domains thanks to D/A controller software algorithms gleaned form the L1 preamplifier line.

My unit did not have the Sync I/O module installed and during my time with the I1 I went back and forth between the I1’s Ethernet/built-in streamer using the proprietary CH Control App and the Type-B USB input being fed via an Aurender N10 and its Conductor App. Comparing the two modes of source had me switching back-and-forth almost instantly thanks to the I1’s inputs which made A/B-ing a real breeze. Differences between the two digital inputs were not negligible and definitely noticeable in back-to-back comparisons. With the CH Control App/Ethernet input having a very subtle edge in presenting instruments and vocals with more clarity/resolution than the Aurender Conductor/USB input, but also having a much more forward spatial presentation into the room. The Aurender/USB input played back with slightly more harmonic richness but presented more of a laid-back 3D-spatial presentation, seeming much more deeply-seated in the sound stage.

What you would prefer ultimately is taste-dependent, but I loved the Aurender/USB input on some cuts/albums and the CH Control/Ethernet input on others – isn’t choice wonderful?. Again, as in all things taste or audiophile-related, YMMV. Also, I know these statements will make the bits-are-bits people lose their minds, but all I can do is report what I’ve heard, so save the angry Internet comments for some other site where they love to fight about this shit, because this isn’t it. I will add that it’s been my continued experience that the way a file is stored/cached/reassembled after being pulled from the cloud, but before being presented to a DAC has a sonic impact.

CH Precision Sàrl
ZI Le Trési 6D 1028 Préverenges Switzerland
+41 (0)21 701 9040

Everclear's picture

Pass Labs INT-250 integrated amp weighs 105 pounds and puts out 250 WPC/8 Ohms :-) ..........

volvic's picture

If I am correct, and forgive me but going by memory, that for the asking price there are fewer inputs than my Linn Kairn. At that price there should be a few more, or am I just an old curmudgeon.