Aesthetix Saturn Calypso line preamplifier Page 2
That's how live music sounds. Get close to the stage and cymbals continue to ring sweetly, but more intensely. Even when you get so close your ears begin to throb and ring sympathetically, it's because of the SPLs, not because of harshness. The Calypso's tonal and transient presentation was like that. It never sounded hard or harsh, but neither did it sound soft or muffled or overly round. It was a truly amazing balancing act that had me cranking up the volume and sticking my smiling face right into it, night after night, and never wishing for more or less of anything.
The Calypso's spatial presentation was equally impressive, placing well-focused, delicately rendered images in a vast three-dimensional space without etch or blur. This level of performance elicited well-deserved "Wows" from friends listening to familiar recordings (hearing them through the MAXX2s didn't hurt, I promise). The sonic picture never "stuck" to the speaker baffles—what we heard were three-dimensional, fleshed-out images that floated and "popped" convincingly.
Dynamics at both ends of the scale were equally well served by the Calypso, delivered with a natural musical flow that was not hyped. Perhaps some of the LPs and CDs I played during the weeks I auditioned the Calypso had greater macrodynamic potential, but the preamp's "slam" factor was never in doubt, and if the tube-driven circuit had a higher noise floor than a solid-state design would have had, the noise was neither audible, nor did it interfere with low-level dynamic scaling or the resolution of inner detail.
If the Calypso lacked in any department, it would be that it might have missed the last bit of expansive air and resolution you can find in some preamps costing far more—but not in all of them. On the other hand, the Calypso never sounded bright, hard, or artificial unless the recording told it to sound that way.
Audio is like cooking: the combination of ingredients is as important as the quality of each. Recently, an executive from a major record label visited my listening room. He wanted to listen to the Wilson MAXX2s, and through them the only format he takes seriously: vinyl. When he arrived, in the middle of this review, I had the Aesthetix Saturn Rhea phono preamp and Saturn Calypso in the system, driving the Musical Fidelity kW power amps and the MAXX2s. I'd just taken MF's kW phono preamp out and replaced it with the Rhea. That earlier combo had kept me up until 3am nightly, me telling myself that this was, by a wide margin, the best stereo system I'd ever heard in my home, and perhaps (I'm embarrassed to write) the best I'd heard anywhere—something I had never before told myself.
But on this night, with this VIP sitting in my listening chair, it just wasn't happening. He knew it and I knew it, though I said nothing. "Let me switch something around," I said, and substituted the kW phono for the Rhea. With that, the system sprang to life; we spent the next few hours wowing through some choice tunes.
Just before finishing this review, I returned the kWP preamp to the system, still using the kW phono preamp. Ugh. That combo wasn't happening either. Even after a 48-hour warmup, everything sounded gray and lifeless. Bass was rubbery, transients slick and silvery. The harmonic, textural, and tonal colors had been drained from the music. These $44,900/pair speakers had wowed me for weeks. Now they bored me. I inserted the Manley Steelhead phono preamp. All better. Life restored.
The Aesthetix Rhea phono preamp is an excellent component—as are the Musical Fidelity kWP preamp and kW phono preamp—but in my system for those days, the combinations of the two MF pieces or the two Aesthetix pieces didn't do justice to the music or to the system or to the individual components. When you're cooking up a stereo system, it's not enough to use the finest ingredients. You have to make sure the recipe works.
Was I impressed by Jim White's Aesthetix Saturn Calypso? Damn straight I was. Used with far more expensive gear, it held its own and then some, and had one of the best-balanced sounds of any audio component I've come across at any price. At $4500 it's no budget product, but it's a high-performance component in every sense of the term, and something you can stick in the face of any cynic who thinks high-end audio has become a ripoff. Whatever the Calypso's sonic shortcomings might be, they're so well hidden that you'll discover them only by changing out the Calypso for whatever might prove to be better. My biggest complaint was the manual's virtually blank specifications page. The purchaser of a high-performance audio product deserves better documentation.
The Aesthetix Saturn Calypso was one of the most enjoyable, musically satisfying preamplifiers I have had the pleasure of reviewing. Your $4500 buys you a beautifully built, smartly designed, crisply functioning, versatile, and, most important, sonically brilliant preamplifier. I could live with it happily ever after. You could spend a great deal more and get more for your money, but you're just as likely to get less—that's how good the Saturn Calypso is.