An opulent sound. The GATO FM-8 bookshelf loudspeaker.
As I have continued my journey through hi-fi I have noticed my tastes and listening preferences shifting from a sound that is ultra transparent, fast and teeming with microdetail to a sound that focuses more on the liquidity, flow and harmonic bloom of music. My desktop loudspeaker reference is the ATC SCM7. A 2 way bookshelf speaker from the venerable British professional monitor company. It is a fantastic speaker that excels when it comes to pacing and delivering every drop of nuance, clarity and detail that can be startling. The problem? At least in my setup the treble can be at times a touch hot and lead to listening fatigue.
In my search for a more musical richer sounding speaker a name that kept coming up was unsurprisingly Harbeth. Musicality and euphonic warmth is a tuning they are well known for. I wanted to try something a bit different and potentially higher value. Enter the Gato-FM8 bookshelf loudspeaker.
William was the point man at Gato audio, a loudspeaker, preamp/dac/streamer and amplifier manufacturer based out of Denmark. My dealings with him before the loaner unit was shipped was extremely pleasant and a unit was shipped to me in Canada extremely quickly.
Build and finish
Upon arriving I was pleased to see the speakers were extremely well packed with thick double cardboard, foam inserts and the speakers themselves were individually wrapped in a soft white cloth bags.
Upon completing unboxing the speakers I was extremely impressed with the piano black mirror finish which I can only describe as flawless and reminiscent of my $15,000 Yamaha NS5000 stand mount speakers! Around the black mineral cone woofer and dimpled silk dome tweeter are beautiful brushed aluminum rings (I believe the drivers are custom made in partnership with venerable SB Acoustics of Denmark). The black cloth covers attach magnetically to the aforementioned driver rings. Very nice touch.
Moving to the back there is a port and the unit comes with a foam port plug. I was again shocked by 2 features here… firstly the binding posts are solid chunky metal that feel extremely high quality and as there are two sets per channel you can bi-wire or bi-amp. Additionally what was quite unique… especially to a product of this humble price are trim jumpers. Will discuss these more later. To summarize the build quality and finish… it was impeccable and I was extremely impressed. These speakers ooze luxury and quality… and at this price I don’t know how Gato has done it. I have handled speakers that are 2-5x the cost that are not as well finished.
The cabinet is very solid and the knuckle wrap test yielded a deep solid thud when hitting all sides of the cabinet. Reading more about these speakers they use multiple layers of MDF, HDF as well as a type of asphalt in the middle in an effort to make the cabinet more resistant to vibration and resonance. Indeed when music was playing the cabinets felt positively motionless. This is not something that is common even among very expensive speakers. It is absolutely clear Gato has made truly premium speakers with fantastic care and attention to detail.
I paired these speakers with 2 amplifiers, the first the Pass Labs x350.8 and (and this is not recommended based on the manual specs) the 9.2 watt per channel elekit tu8600 which is a 300b tube amp. Preamps for the pass labs were the Audio Research Reference 5SE and Audio GD HE9. My reference DAC was the Denafrips Terminator with v2 board. Source was my desktop PC running as roon core and feeding a DI20 HE which fed the Terminator via a Wireworld I2s input cable.
This speaker offers a unique feature and that is the ability to tune the sound based on your preferences. There is a ‘focus and detail’ setting on the back with thick gold tone prongs that can be adjusted in 1 of these positions. Focus relates to frequencies between 600 Hz - 1200 Hz and Detail relates to 5000 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Each position will adjust the sound by 0.5 db. You can set the pins as either ‘low’, ‘neutral’ or if you remove the pins altogether then ‘high’. I tested the different configurations and they did make a noticeable difference. I preferred the stock setting of both at neutral and that is what I used for the rest of the review but it is fantastic that this kind of option is available and it's something you simply don’t come across very often. I do have to admit though that setting the focus to high and detail to low was quite magical with vocal focused smooth jazz. It leads to a nice slight emphasis in the mids while keeping things very smooth and relaxed. Definitely experiment to find what you prefer.
The essence of the music
With the ARC Ref5se + Pass x350.8 chain I noticed the FM-8 has a tonality with jumpers set to both the neutral setting (stock setting) that sits between the ATC SCM7 and my recently acquired Vienna acoustics Haydn Grand. There was a slight tonal warmth in the mids yet there was noticeable speed, articulation and bite in the treble that reminded me of the ATCs except it was smoother and not fatiguing in the way the ATCs were. That bite allowed for the speaker to be both technically competent but at the same time musically engaging. Relative to the Haydn grand there was definitely more energy and charge to the sound. Ultimately a fantastic balance of precision and flow.
I was quite happy with the sound but wondered what may change with positioning. In my desktop setup (refer to the video review for more details) I un-toed the speakers so they fire straight ahead. I was shocked. The speakers did not draw attention to themselves toed in but un-toed they completely disappeared. With the speakers in this configuration it was as if the music was simply beaming into my head in a way that can only be described as real and intoxicating. I felt there may have been a very minimal loss of focus but imaging was still strong and precise in the significantly more vast soundstage. It was at this point I heard how truly musical the FM-8s can sound! Separation of instruments were excellent and there was air around the elements of the music yet the overall presentation remained cohesive, musical and tonally natural.
Moving to my elekit tu8600 (a diy tube integrated amplifier) I was not very hopeful it would drive the 85 db sensitive bookshelf speaker. To my surprise the amplifier got gato’s to sing even at the 10 o’clock position. Having said that, I could tell that the FM-8s were not as expressive and dynamic as with the vastly more powerful pass labs amplifier. Although there was a seductive musicality with the all tube integrated amp seemed to peak through the sound that caught my ear. I will endeavour to get a more powerful tube power or integrated amp and will revisit the FM-8 in the future once I do. However this pairing tells me the FM-8 responds very well to upstream changes and especially tube devices.
Selections and comparisons
Dear old stockholm - Swedish Ballads & more with Jan Lundgren Scott Hamilton
On this Scott Hamilton track I was struck immediately by the bass. I thought I left my dual 18 inch PSA subwoofers on… nope. The bass extended had growl and depth… I could hear the bassist string pluck, texture and a weighty bloom that was immensely satisfying. Also extremely noteworthy was the fantastic placement of instruments… Scott’s sax seemed to the left and above the speakers, the bass could easily be perceived between and behind the speakers with drums off to the right with Piano slight forward and to the right of center. The FM8s did not betray their position and vanished into the authoritative smooth and musical presentation.
Scott’s saxophone can often sound a bit hot to my ears on his recordings but with the Gato’s it has fast and lively dynamic attack but stops short of the line of grating that ATCs scm7 happily cross. The Viennas also are more relaxed but they are a bit too muted in presenting the explosiveness of Scott's tone. The FM8s strike an engrossing balance.
River of blue - Soul Nektar - Diane Arkenstone
This is a percussive, new age tribal type piece. Exceptionally well mastered. The Gato FM8 took full advantage of said mastering delivering a sound that was weighty, powerful and portrayed a 3d sound stage with excellent imaging. I was especially impressed by the tactility, texture and placement of the drums that feature prominently in this track. The flute cut through the drums with exceptional separation as did the tribal vocals that took me into a jungle like environment when I closed my eyes. The Gato FM8 is immersive!
Continuing the same trend in my comparative findings the SCM7s simply lacked the low end power to be convincing and although matched the superb imaging of the FM8, they simply felt thin, less engaging and less musically alive. The Vienna Acoustics delivered more convincing bass but it lacked the extension, texture and speed of the FM8. Moreover, the Vienna’s micro detail elaboration was more veiled and a bit too laid back compared to the FM8… especially with some of the faint synthesized sounds in the mix which sounded muddled on the Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand whereas they came through with fantastic clarity on the FM8.
Melos - Vassilis Tsabropoulos - Anja Lechner, UT Gandhi
This is a hauntingly beautiful classical jazz fusion piece recommended to me recently by my great friend (Tron) of Sonic Visions. I find that many recordings for some reason don’t quite capture the timbre and beauty of piano. This recording is an exception! Once again the FM8 shined… demonstrating the fantastic delicacy and speed of the piano. The micro dynamics of the violin emerged from a very black background and were breathtaking. Again closing my eyes my system disappeared and I was transported into the room with the musicians.
Once again the SCM7 did not have the weight of the FM8 especially as the violinist played low… the detail, speed and accuracy was very good and similar to the FM8 but that lower register information was not satisfying if not missing altogether. The Vienna Acoustics was too much of a good thing and sounded slow and a bit confused especially as the pianist played quickly.
Veracruz - Thirty-One Nights - Nicholas Gunn
This piece is one of my favorite tracks to evaluate audio gear because it is well mastered and has incredibly subtle nuances, layers and vocal echoes / reverb that some systems simply involuntarily omit. This was extremely well rendered with the Gatos. I was especially impressed with the 3d front to back layering of the drums, maraka and guitar. All instruments were clearly separated but musically cohesive. There are times where you hear a breeze through the mix and the way it fades away is where many systems simply fall short… but the Gatos rendered these subtle decays supremely.
The ATCs did a good job at also being quite crisp and clear but the maraka did at times get hot and distracting. The music was not as smooth and well blended as the Gato’s and the bass was clearly lacking compared to the Gatos which rendered the bass guitar in a much more ample and satisfying way. The Vienna acoustics was again perhaps too much of a good thing. Instruments seemed to be melded together and did not have the air of the Gatos and surprisingly the bass was not as impactful and extended as the Gato.
Concerto C-dur/C Major, Hob. VIIb:1- Haydn, Kraft - Cello Concertos
I am a great fan of classical music, especially of the baroque style. These sony recordings offer a cornucopia of beautiful baroque era music with reasonably good mastering (especially for classical genre).
The Gato’s timbre with violin and cello was absolutely superb! Deep cello notes groaned with appropriate woodiness… violins had just the right balance of speed, texture and air.. and unlike the ATCs which again leaned towards the bright, the Gatos offered a tonal shade of warmth that was more than welcome in these recordings. I was especially impressed with the scale produced by these diminutive speakers. Closing my eyes it really felt like I was in a grand hall with an orchestra in front of me. The performance was very immersive and the large scale dynamics and imaging were clearly on display. As for the Vienna acoustic speakers, they did a good job at conveying low notes in the cello but definitely sounded slightly veiled and lacked the air of the Gato which I feel is very important in large scale orchestral pieces.
The Best Thing - Chantal chamberland - Once in a While
Chantal is a very seductive singer. A powerful breathy and intimate vocal performer. Her records are exceptionally well mastered and her music is kind of a ‘cheat code’ for demoing audio gear because they can make almost anything sound amazing.
With the Gato’s though I was truly immersed and taken away. When a system is really well dialed in and synergizing I find that sometimes you have a better appreciation of the emotion in a singer’s voice… their intent as some prominent audiophiles have said in the past. I noticed this quality with my bottlehead crack amplifier. It is as if the singer steps out of the music mix… forward and is singing to you specifically. It is a feeling that is hard to describe… but it is a feeling that I feel the Gato FM-8 has captured. I don’t think I can praise a piece of audio gear more than stating it has this quality of ‘magical intimacy’.
The ATCs clearly did not have this emotion and although very clear, open and detailed did not have the warm breathy texture and mid forward presentation (especially with setting focus to high and detail to low as I mentioned earlier in my review). The Viennas did have pleasing warmth and weighty heft that Chantal’s voice is so good at portraying… but this was at the cost of background instrument detail and air and ultimately was less convincing as a whole than the Gatos.
There are a few things to keep in mind when considering these speakers. Firstly as they are small bookshelf speakers they will not give you ultra deep bass extension but having said that I was very happy with the bass performance. It was well extended, powerful yet still detailed.
The tonality of this speaker I would say is neutral-warm. If you prefer a brighter, more analytical sound (more like the ATCs) then this might not be the right speaker for you. For me though, the tone was truly excellent. I never felt fatigued even with long listening sessions of a variety of music.. but I also didn’t feel anything was held back, veiled or boring. These are goldilocks speakers.
If you are not in Europe or USA please keep in mind that servicing requires shipping the speaker back to Gato. I am sure that shipping to a local dealer might be something they could arrange but it may not be as simple as driving the speakers to a local dealer if you don’t have one near you. I am not too concerned though as these speakers seem like they are built like tanks and are very unlikely to break.
As you can tell I am very happy with these bookshelf loudspeakers! Their build quality is truly amazing and reminiscent of my much more expensive speakers. Their sound quality is even better and struck an incredible balance of lively and exciting yet musically seductive and reassuring. Above all the Gato’s are an incredible value as they satisfied me more than speakers that cost twice as much and I feel they wouldn’t flinch if put up against even stiffer more expensive competition. Combine all this with the fact that Gato offers a no obligation in-home trial (30 days) and free worldwide shipping… I think these are speakers you really need to hear. I am honored to award the Gato FM-8 the Sonic Visionary award.