Macallan25, I'm a great fan of the Atma-Sphere amplifiers. I haven't heard the CAT in some time so I won't try to offer any specific comments here; hopefully someone else will be able to make a specific comparison.
The Atma-Sphere gear is very neutral, very fast, and very detailed yet with the naturalness and timbral accuracy for which one values high quality tube equipment. They deliver a quickness and transparency of sound that is exceptional to my ear. When matched with appropriate speakers, the bass authority, detail and agility of the Atma-Sphere amps improve upon some of the best solid state amps I've heard, while delivering what tubes do best: extremely natural and harmonically accurate reproduction of acoustic instruments. You will not find any added "classic tube" warmth or richness with a Atma-Sphere product to counteract a too lean or astringent system, but what you will find is exceptionally detailed, transparent, harmonically natural and timrally accurate sound.
In my case, I use and love the Atma-Sphere MA-2s, but with another preamp. Springbok10 uses the Atma-Sphere MP-1 with his Atma-Sphere MA-2s and you can read his review of the MP-1 with his MA-2s
and what he found to like about the combination (hint: he liked the combination a lot). Texasdave
uses the MA-1 with the MP-3. He's not posted about his experience that I know of, but you contact him through Audiogon to see if he'd share his thoughts.
Brian (audiogon member is EssentialAudio) has much experience with these two lines next to each other driving Soundlabs. I suggest you send him an email for what I suspect would be some valuable comparative strengths/differences of each.
What speakers will you be driving?
I will be driving the "New Coincident Total Victory 11"
Have heard the C.A.T. JL2 on numerous occasions and it never ceases to amaze me,for a tube amp its bass is unbeliveable and for its power rating it can drive almost any speaker effortlessly.As for the pre-amp a sig mk 3 is a big step above a mk 2 so I would start there.C.A.T gear is really addictive and built like a tank.Hope this helps.
I was hoping Brian would chime in here but I'll go ahead and give my experiences with these two product lines.
First off the preamps: I have not heard the MP1 but have wanted to for many years. The MP3 was one of the most disappointing auditions I ever had with preamps. I heard it at the ARC/Atmasphere dealer and it only sounded ok. So I borrowed it for the weekend, tried it at home and at the BAT dealer and in each case, the frequency extremes were rolled off, with no air or spaciousness at all. It was no match for the ARC LS5 or BAT 31SE as a line stage. I did not even bother with the phono capabilities.
The CAT SL series has impressed me time and time again. It is more neutral than my favorite preamps of the last 20 years. I tended to like a more warm presentation which is why I went with the ARC SP-10 and LS5/PH2, later the BAT 31SE and Aesthetix Io, but I find myself more and more drawn to the neutrality of such products like the CAT SL1. There's an openness of this product that is quite impressive.
The amps comparison is quite different. For the few hours I was able to hear the MA1 vs. JL2, there were big differences. Unfortunately the MA1s were new and clearly not "broken in" but they had a lush smooth richness that was so very very nice. To say I was impressed by the musicality of these amps would be an understatement. And they had just a little bit of that lower midrange warmth that added body and dimensionality to the music.
I would have to disagree with Rushton on the issue of the Atmaspheres and added no warmth. When you hear it aside the CAT, the CAT is clearly more tonally flat. But keep in mind, I tend to like a little bit of this warmth quality as it can be addicting and involving and this was what drew me to the MA1s. They were a great match with the Soundlabs.
Rushton writes that the Atmaspheres have a quickness. I would agree with this until I heard the CAT play the same music seconds later on the same system. There is an attack on each note and gnat's hair resolution with the CAT that allows for detail to come through. This was so evident with intricate acoustic guitar playing. I could much greater appreciate the talents of the musician and the sheer speed of the fingerwork through the guitar strings with the CAT. This was NOT subtle. I would label this as a quickness quality.
For me, the CAT excelled in areas of dynamics and resolution and had a more neutral tonality. When you hear dynamic contrasts like this amp can do, you pause and sit at attention.
There is no clear winner here as both of these amps are exceptional products. What I wanted was an amp that had qualities of each of these products .... I liked them both that much. It comes down to personal preference AND ultimately the match with the speakers you own. The CATs are made to drive virtually anything out there whereas the Atmaspheres need to be more carefully matched.
You really need to hear these for yourself.
I agree with Jafox's overall assessment of the CAT gear. My approach to sytem building would be to go neutral with the electronics and seek "voicing" for detail or warmth (Cardas?) through the use of cabling. I think this approach provides greater flexibilty in the long term - pretty hard to get rid of "warmth" in your electornics - should you want to. With neutral components you can season to taste without the use of bandaids to "compensate" for inherent coloration in the electronics -- which is not to say that coloration wouldn't be pleasing or preferable to some listeners. The CAT is nothing if not neutral.
The Coincidents are an excellent match with Atma-Sphere electronics. An MP-3 or MP-1 preamp is a synergistic match with the MA-1s - the special caps option for the preamp is recommended. I haven't compared either with the CAT preamp so can't comment, but it mates well with a variety of amplifiers with single ended inputs and has a good phono stage. The JL2 amp, as Jafox describes, is quite neutral, and as Strapper211 indicates the bass is one of its strong points. I would suggest auditioning both if possible; you will quickly know which you prefer. Since you appear to be in the UK I'll mention there is an Atma-Sphere dealer there, and I imagine a CAT dealer as well.
Pubul: I'm not sure I would agree with the "tonal correction" process through cables. Someone who buys the CAT gear is doing this to a large degree on the product's incredible dynamics and resolution. So many cables that may add warmth to the tonality, e.g. Cardas, may not do a very good job to preserve these capabilites of the CAT. Tonality is only one of many sonic characterizations here. Why pay so much for such a strength only to see it lost through bandaid cables? I would focus to find electronics that have the menu of priorities that I like and then find a cable which best allows those products to show their strengths.
I have been a warmth fanatic for many years but as my system has improved, my emphasis has shifted to resolution and more so, to neutrality. You just can't have it both ways. If it were not for the CAT's awesome dynamic strengths, I probably would have gone with the Atmaspheres as they are about as close as it gets to having the best of both worlds (a little midrange warmth but otherwise neutral and good resolution).
With all this said, if you want to play with cables here, I have found the NBS classic series, the Statement, Pro, Master, etc., to have that little bit of warmth emphasis but have resolution far far beyond the Cardas. But what these cables really do so well is preserve the harmonic richness like no other cable I have heard. I have found the top priced MIT cables to have more resolution in the highest frequencies but have less presence in the mids. So yes, you can juggle cables a little bit for fine tuning, but this is not something I would do as a primary task to assemble an audio system. And again, I think it's mighty tough to have it all.
IMHO using a neutral amp/pre permits greater flexibity as your taste and/or speakers change. It is less expensive to season to taste with cables. The inherent sonic signature of an amp - if not neutral, is difficult to compensate for. So let's say you like warmth, have a "warm" amp/pre and then buy Sonus Faber - you might have too much of a good thing. With the CATs essential neutrality, I think you could enjoy both Sonus Faber, or Thiel (as two extremes)by matching it with the "right" cabling. I think I just want the amp to makes a bigger version of a smaller signal with minmal alteration to the signal (the amp should amplify, not alter tonality) - then the individual user can take that signal and have it match their taste based on the cable/speaker interface.
Macallan25, as demonstrated by the responses, you clearly have selected two very good equipment manufacturers to consider. Both Ken and Ralph make great gear and the choice between them will depend on the speakers you're matching them to and your sonic priorities. As Brian suggested, actually listening to them yourself will clearly be the best way for you to decide.
Jafox, thanks for your description of what you like about the CAT amplifiers. But I must confess to being puzzled by your experience with the Atma-Sphere preamp. Whatever limitations the MP-3 may have (and experience will vary depending on which of the factory options have been installed, e.g., the upgraded resistor package), being rolled off in the frequency extremes does not match with any of the reports from people I know or that I've read. Also anyone considering the MA-1 amplifier should keep in mind that it also is available with factory options for resistors and power supply that will affect the sound, and add to the cost. (This is in keeping with Atma-Sphere's philosophy of providing cost-effective solutions, but allow for purchasers to choose to further improve the sound with some higher cost options in some of the component parts. The MP-1 and MA-2 both come only fully optioned, with price to match.) Still, thanks for sharing your experience.
Rushton: I too was very surprised and disappointed in the MP3 I borrowed for a weekend. After reading nothing but the greatest praise of their amps for many many years, I had a lot of excitement to finally get a chance to hear this preamp....and in 3 systems with at least one other preamp to directly compare to each time. Even the BAT salesman was quite disappointed at this as he too had very high expectations of the MP3 but the VK31SE just destroyed it when he put on the Miles Davis "Kind of Blue". And my ARC LS5 III could not compete with the BAT that day either. What a wake-up call for me!
As for the amps, keep in mind that my comments were a direct comparison to the CAT JL-2. Had I heard both in separate systems, I would not have been able to identify (quantify) the unique qualities of each. Both amps were truly exceptional and eclipsed my aged Wolcotts by a huge margin.
The warmth of the MA1s with the Soundlab U1s was immediately noticeable.....and I loved it. But compared to the CAT, the MA1 was a wee bit off neutral. And like I have noted here before, this is a quality that I like so I have nothing negative to comment on this concerning the MA1s. It was simply a noted sonic difference.
The one thing that the CATs get a lot of credit for is in the bass. However, I felt the bass in the MA1s was as extended and authoritative as the CAT. But there was clearly a level difference between the two amps with the U1s. The JL-2 sounded a bit lean in the bass after listening to the MA1s but an adjustment on the U1s would bring this back into balance. I think the U1s' bass were dialed in for the MA1s and thus this difference. But both amps handled the low end incredibly well. Like I said, I was big time impressed.
Unless we do such listening comparisons right then and there, it is tough or darn near impossible to make such absolute statements about A vs. B. But it was there.
Not much has been shared here on the CAT amps but one other member, 90493m, put a lot of effort to describe his feelings on the CAT amp and he too uses many comparative comments on the Atmas as well. I can relate so very much to his comments in the context of that one afternoon listening session I had between these two products.
John (Jafox), thanks for your further comments.