Hovland HP-100 vs. CAT SL1 Ultimate: Feedback

The Hovland HP-100 and CAT Ultimate are similarly priced, full-functioned, w. phono MC section pre-amps. How do their respective performances differ?

Any problems?
Any other full-featured, w MC phono pre's to suggest (Limit: $6500 retail)?
I favor tubed pre's. Remote not important. Need tape/record loop.

Looking for direct, controlled comparisons. Long time use with both units (but not necessarily at the same time) may also prove helpful. Feedback please.
I did a review of both products awhile back. Both are excellent but quite different. I currently still have my hovland but in a perfect world I would take the best qualties of both and put them into one chassie. Check out the link below for a idea of how the products differ. As as side note I recently purchased the CAT JL2 stero amp which is ausome. It has similar trates as the Ultimate preamp and is the best tube amp I have ever owned. I will be doing a complete review shortly. Johnny http://www.AudioAsylum.com/audio/general/messages/187966.html
Dear Kalan:

I did same side by side comparisons and liked the CAT Ultimate more than the Hovland. Especially when mating with my CAT JL-2 amp. I too agree with Johnny above that the CAT JL-2 stereo amp is one of the very best and will drive even the most difficult speakers - AWESOME control and purity, to date best I have heard. Combination is totally synergistic to my ears and my listening preferences. It is all about the sonic priorities that are most important to you. That is why some people love vanilla and some love chocolate... CAT Preamps and CAT Amps are very well designed, thought out and have outstanding build quality, but how they sound is the big story IMHO they are great!
I haven't heard the Hovland Pre but I know that one difference between the two is that the Hovland has only 16 dbs of gain .vs the Cat's 20 plus dbs. So the input sensitivity of the parnering amp is something to consider.I have owned a Cat SL1 Signature for 7 years now, and my system has undergone many changes but the constant has been the Cat. I was surprised to hear that jmsoul' Cat did not have enought gain for his .25mv cartridge, I used a troika (.1 mv) and it had plenty of gain to burn. This could also be assosciated with efficientcy of the associated speakers as with my Dunlavys driven by a Krell Ksa 250 it worked great. The sound was detailed,delicate, sweeet and dynamic as an erupting volcanoe with transperancy that put a lot of megabuck systems at the local dealers to shame. The Cat is very neutral in that it's sound will change consistenly with various changes in gear or accessory and will show any defficiency in associated equipement but nowhere near straightwire pure. Its sound is rich which I find to be a very pleasent coloration but nowhere near the syrupy Conrad Johnson sound. Its tonality is slightly on the darkside which is something to consider. Even till now I still feel it to be a tremendous bargon and enjoy every minut of owning it.
jmsoul, What did you prefer about the CAT, or did not like about the HP-100?
Musicluvr, The relatively low gain of the HP-100 line stage is a concern. Some of the amps I would like to audition favor high gain pre's.
Compared a HP-100 to my CAT signature modded with NOS GE smooth plates. No comparison, the CAT is way more dynamic, drops down into the low end with much more authority and the depth portrayal recreates the back of the stage with much bettter precision than the Hovland. BTW the CAT can drive my Benz Ruby 2 with ease. The HP-100 also has plenty of gain. HP-100 kills the CAT in looks.... very preety.
I just spent two days with a CAT Ultimate. The 26 dB gain in the line stage turned out to be too much for my system (Cary SLAM-100's power amps: 95 triode push/pull watts [don't have input spec's handy]). I think CAT provides some resistors to reduce its gain, but I did not have the manual nor the resistor packs to tame it.

Has anybody else had to reduce the gain on the CAT?

The CAT, in my system, had speed and bass to die for, no doubt about it. It had a low noise floor and maintained control over big dynamic swings. But it sounded aggressively bright, and it forced the music in a kind of hyper, fuel-injected way. The leading edge attacks were life-like, but the sustain and trailing hall sounds were stomped on by the subsequent notes. Stage depth seemed compromised and the overall sound seemed a tad dry.

I chalk the sound I got up to a gain mismatch and NOT necessarily to the CAT's normal characteristics. (I've heard the same forced quality from another high-gain pre.) The CAT also may not fit in with my cabling, amps, etc.

I hope to get an HP-100 in for an audition soon. If it sounds overly soft and euphonic, I'll revisit the CAT.

The CAT's speed and bass were pretty impressive. The HP-100 does look pretty--at least in the fold-outs. But I'm after personality, long walks with my LP's, an intimate relationship, and possible long-term commitment....
Kalan, the slam 100 has a very high input sensitivity .85v I believe, so its a very poor match for the Cat. Its probably agressive and in your face. No wonder you don't like the way it sound.The Cats depth should sound as if the soundstage is 20 feet deep.
Hovland, CAT, BAT, Krell, AR… and some other units within $5-7K are unfortunately the very faulty as the preamps and as phonostages. They are kind of the hi-end’s mass-market black boxes “for kids”. But it is what you’re looking for, do you?
Huh? Also.
Musicluvr: Yes, the Cary SLAM-100's have a high sensitivity: .75v. And yes, the CAT was very in my face. I wrote to CAT some time ago about my experience and asked about possible ways to match the CAT and the SLAM-100 to each other better: no response.

I heard a Hovland HP-100 linestage in a different system a week ago, and the sound was soft and laid-back. Details and leading edges were a bit blunted. Since I did not hear the HP-100 in my system, it would be hard for me to place how the HP-100 figured into the overall sound I heard.

Verygigamp: triple huh?

If you mean I have to spend way more money to get decent pre-amplification, your point is well taken. But the spend-more method does not always hold true; it has to be proven on a case-by-case basis. I have heard cases in which cheaper gear actually sounded better than more expensive stuff in side-by-side comparisons.

My comment had nothing to do with advise to spend “money to get decent pre-amplification”. You asked about $6-7K unit and this was why I referred to them. Unfortunately the preamps I mention are not the preamps but just a bunch of the electronic parts in the metal boxes. They just do not do what preamps should do and therefore they are useless.

Figur out what a serous active preamp should do and benefits your system can get form it. If you do then you won’t drink this typical Audiogon's coca-cola.

Good luck,
Romy the Cat
FYI, Romy had a serious confrontation with Ken Stevens of CAT at the 2002 CES so objectivity here for Romy is not certain. Ken basically threw Romy out of his room after Romy had been a very bad kitty.

i'm not trying to start anything here but history does mean something.

my opinion is that neither of these preamps are the last word in neutrality.....i am a big passive preamp fan myself. i do have friends with both units that really enjoy them. the CAT SL1 Ultimate is more neutral to my ears than the Hovland.....in other words you can 'hear' the sonic signature of the Hovland more in the system.....a good thing?....a matter of taste. many people love what these preamps do in their systems.
Verybigamp/Romy: If the kinds of pre-amps we've been discussing are easily dismissed as so much "...mass-market black boxes 'for kids'." or "...typical Audiogon's coca-cola.", what is your solution to pre-amplification?

You make provocative statements but do not offer the obvious: the counter recommendation. What is your stake in any of this? Are you a manufacturer of competing products or something?
Sorry, Kalan.

My thinking about audio is too radical, too multifarious and too advanced to be able hosted at this site. Any more or less valuable comments I made (and that were greatly appreciated by people to whom I forwarded them) were rejected by the audiogon administration. So, cursing around you have to stick to the Mikelavigne’s coca-cola-like self-afraid intelligence…. this is the purpose of this site.

Romy the Cat
Yes Verybigamp, please enlighten us! There are many brands which you named which I don't like, but I know what I do like. If there are any products which you think are not mass market black boxes. please let us know and why you think they are not coca cola. To get Ken Stevens really mad is not very difficult. If you are nice and tell us what you are talking about, I will post a link to an incident where a customer really made Ken furious by pushing the man's buttons. Maybe it was you! It seems you like to push buttons.
Then why waste your time with mere mortals like us?
Yeah! Let us have it. We can handle it.
OK, since Romy will not share, the rest of us un-enlightened kids, drinking coca-cola pre-amps will just have to toil on in darkness.

Back to CAT vs. Hovland: I have a feeling, based on what I heard with the CAT in my system and from what I could gather from my HP-100 audition in another system (and from others' comments), the CAT may indeed be closer to neutral. BUT, the CAT will not properly mate electrically with the Cary SLAM-100 power-amps (aggressive, in-your-face, pre-amp output vs. power-amp input sensitivity mismatch, etc). This must also be the case with some other power-amps out there.

Ken Stevens (or anybody else at CAT) has not responded to my query about this. Back to square one.
Dear Kalan,

Happend to read responces to your question and want to give you my opinion (if it is important one?!).

I owned four different CAT preamps: from Reference to Ultimate. Had a chance to hear most of the preamps on the market in my system, or in the systems I know very well(sorry, didn't have Holand pre at home) and nothing could make me to sell my CAT, only if the new model was coming, and own one now.

Tell you why. I agree with Musicluvr and Jamsoul about neutrality of this product. Only,it comes together with the warm, full sound, huge soundstage, and the best bass you can get from the tube preamp. Never sounded up-front. Single instruments and voices are like you would hear them in a real life. Phono stage is "forte" of the CAT and, possibly, best available outside some external mega-buck components. I played this preamp with many different cartriges and amps and never had problems with matching. Did I get lucky?

I just remembered one old review on CAT preamp (possibly Dick Olsher?) where he mentioned that ...if you don't like something about your system after you introdused SL-1, look for the answers somewhere else. Chances are that it showed you what you didn't hear before and will help you to tune your system...

About your problem with "in-your-face" sound. Think about placement of the speakers (new component allways comes with their re-positioning), cables you use, etc. By the way, using cables like Magnan Signature will help to reduce gain. My freind use two of them and it helped in his case. Also, CAT used to have available "special" volume control for the customers with very small rooms or high gain components to give them twice more steps before it gets loud. Missing resistors are for the phono loading and will change the sound of the cartrige,not gain. You should use them with low output MC. 100 Ohm or lower will give you warmer and deaper sound, 150 Ohm and higher would open it up.

Don't give up on your CAT before you CAN'T use it at all. I know people who sold their CAT for various reasons and now regret they did it. After all, it plays music!

Good luck in your difficult search for the PERFECT preamp in your system.
Please don't egg him on. Then we'll be stuck with him like they are on Audio Asylum.
Hi Kalan I believe your situation of ouput .vs hight input sensitvity in not isolated to the Cary. I had the same problem when I mated the Cat with a Plinius SA 100 mk 3 (which is 1 volt sensitive input to full power) to my 91db sensitive Dunlavy SCIV. If you want to continue using the Cary slams, I would go with less sensitive speaker as this will balance things out.But be careful if you want to use a low output cartridge as low efficiency speakers can sound lifeless with lowlevel source.Or switch to another amp with a less sensitive input.regards Tim
Tonestudio: Please tell us what power amps you used with the CAT pre-amps you have had. Musicluvr just mentioned that he had similar "mating" problems with the CAT and his Plinius amps. (Thanks, Musicluvr) I am sure that you are right about the CAT not being the at fault in a system in which the CAT and the power amps actually electrically mate properly with each other, but what about a sheer electrical mismatch?

I have to consider that other pre-amps like the cj LS16 sounded down-right subdued in my system, the likelihood that changing speaker placement is really not the issue. The (early version) First Sound Presence pre-amp sounds laid back and smooth in my system. My M3A is not aggressive with the speakers right were they are. I have a Lamm LL2 in for an audition and will start listening tonight. This will give me no fewer than four other pre-amps to compare with the CAT's sound in my system.

Don't get me wrong; I am not claiming that the CAT is an aggressive-sounding piece. I know that it does not sound that way in lots of systems. The CAT just does not have the right output impedance for my pwr amps.

The M3A "over-drove" the ASL Hurrican DT-200s also. This is not limited to CAT pre's and Cary pwr amps by any means.

Thank you, Musicluvr, for your feed back about your CAT experience. I suspected an output-to-input mismatch--just as you confirmed--because I had similar experiences with a Wright Sound dedicated phono pre-amps several years ago. It's nice to get that second experiential corroboration

I am beginning to wonder if many folks are overlooking the matching characteristics of the pre-amp to pwr-amp interface. Everyone pays lots of attention to amp-to-speaker matching, but the pre-to-pwr match involves much of the same issues; they're just at a much wider range of allowed mating than amp-to-speaker. Both involve output impedance and gain relative to input impedance and sensitivity.
Kalan, I thought that pre-to-amp gain matching is possible after market, via adjustments (pre out or power/in) without compromising the design of the unit. Maybe a tech person could help (Sean??).
Although I didn't suffer from harshness with a CAT Ult. driving my amps, I still couldn't play over 9-10 o'clock without raising the neighbourhood. I got the input sensitivity on the power side adjusted. Worked fine, as far as I could tell.
Any easy, low cost fix that you can use to at least the impact of attenuating the signal to help gain match a high gain pre like the CAT to a sensitive amp is to use the Rothwell in-line 10dB attenuators. I have them between my DAC and my CAT, so that I will still benefit from the high overall gain to use a low output MC in the phono stage. If you don't have that issue you can place them between the pre and the power and benefit from increased s/N ratio as well. About $50. I went from an 8-9 o'clock position, to 10-11, using a Llano Trinity 300 amp and relatively inefficent speakers (Vandy 3Asigs.)
Swampwalker and Gregm: Thank you for your tips. My Cary dealer asked the main tech guy at Cary (Kirk) about reducing the SLAM-100's input sensitivity. He said he could increase negative feedback but does not recommend it. Also, a resistor at the input would screw up the amps' sound, apparently. Cary does not recommend modifying the SLAM-100's.
Finally heard a Hovland HP-100 in my system. It mates impedance- and gain wise quite well with the Cary SLAM-100 pwr amps, but it just sounded congealed and colored to me. I am sure it does not sound this way in most systems. It may just reveal other mismatches in my system, for all I know.

Since hearing the CAT some weeks ago, I've sought out other pre-amps: Lamm LL2, First Sound Presence Deluxe 4.0, and my AI M3A was always on hand. The Hovland and FS overlapped in my system for two days. The First Sound sounds quite a bit better than the Hovland in my system in every regard: speed, truthful tonal balance, inner detail, dynamics, etc. The Hovland also could not deliver the bass extension or impact of the CAT, the Lamm LL2, the AI M3A, or the First Sound. The HP-100's somewhat lacking bass showing may be the result of a poor synergy elsewhere in my system. Don't know. I loved the look and feel of the HP-100. It does not have clunky outboard power supplies that you have to route stiff cords to and place some where near the main pre-amp unit like so many other pre's.

To my ear in my system, the First Sound is a revelatory experience; it's so life-like that it takes one aback. Gone are many elements of electronic music play back that I had accepted as givens: circular sheen around female vocalists when amplitude increases, confused haze when cymbals crash, obvious dynamic compression, etc. The FS makes sense of the music instead of just presenting a clean signal. It is very clean, but it's also eminently musically meaningful. It does not roll the highs off at all. Details are there in abundance; it just doesn't scream at you to reveal them.
I have a lesser model of the First Sound (Mk II), but I agree very much with Kalan's description of its sonic strengths. I don't have enough experience with the other preamps under discussion to comment on them.