Get the CAT and enjoy!
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personally, i'm spoiled by remote control for wolume/balance, so the cat wouldn't be on my list. but, if ya really are set on one or the other, then yust buy both, compare 'em both side-by-side at yer leisure, then sell the one that doesn't cut it. as yure buying used, ewe shouldn't have to worry about losing much (if any) money. if ewe decide ewe like some tings about one, & others about the other, keep the best one, & use it as a comparison to newcomers, 'til yure satisfied. i yust went thru this last year; my preamp situation is now under control... ;~)
I've owned the 5i but never heard the CAT. The 5i is a great preamp. It was Stereophile Class A, if that means anything to you. Be advised that it only has XLR inputs and outputs. You may need to buy XLR/RCA adapters for it, depending on your system requirments. Overall I was very pleased with the 5i. I only sold it after upgrading to the 30SE. Good luck.
It can be very hard to demo equiptment, especially if you are honest enough not to use dealers and then buy used. I go about it by buying and selling. If you are careful, you can do this without losing money. In fact, you can even make money and trade up. The key is to do your homework. Besides the obvious care needed when buying on the internet, know what the market is. Buy things at the right price and make sure they have resale value. I learned this the hard way. There are some great products that have no resale value. There are other great products that do. If you are sure that you will hold onto what you buy, go for it. I am never sure anymore. I know this is not the advice you asked for, but I am responding to the good advice that Sedond and Justlisten gave you. This is one way you can follow it.
Can't give any info on the CAT, but I love my BAT 3i (which has both balanced and single ended in and out). But the experience I have had with BAT's customer service has been remarkable. I bought mine used and have had to talk to them twice for advice and assistance. Their response has been rapid, accurate and they even sent me some upgrade advice and minor parts at no charge. A real class outfit.
i had cat reference once in my system. It is not as good as the signature. There is a big difference between the Reference and even Signature MK I. reference is a bit bass shy. In fact, I talked on the phone with Ken Stevens (CAT), who confirmed it. He did not recommend bying a Reference. My (as well as his) suggestion would be to find any CAT Signature; MK I, II, III, or the Ultimate, which is in the top 3 preamps at any price.
I have been fortunate enough to have
owned the Cat Ultimate SL1 as well as the Signature MKll
They are both Amazing pre amps. Cat has to be one of the Very Best.
However, you don't get much Bloom. The Imaging is absolutely incredible.
The Base is extremely tight, sometimes more than a Base would actually sound
To me the Cat has a lot of feelings with no emotion, all brains with no heart
A Joule Electra LA 200 replaced my CAT Sig MKII (I have two systems, one with Joule, the other with Supratek Syrah). Tube regulated power supply on board (as opposed to CAT SS with umbilical), easily superior harmonics, voice etc. CAT had horseshoe-shaped soundstage beginning at speakers and extending back; Joule extends wider and envelope of sound reaches out to listener. Put an NBS IC on it with a big PC (Electraglide, BMI Whale) and save yourself a good chunk of change. (Joule goes for $1500-2000 used. Get the MkIII)