Aesthetix Saturn Calypso line preamplifier Wes Phillips, July 2010
When Aesthetix Audio's founder, Jim White, dropped off a sample of his Saturn Atlas hybrid power amplifier, which I reviewed in January 2010, he also brought along a sample of his Saturn Calypso line preamplifier ($4999). Actually, two samples: One was the stock unit reviewed by Michael Fremer in July 2005, the other the Saturn Calypso Signature ($6999, footnote 1). At first, White said only "I think you'll find the differences instructive."
I began by listening exclusively to the stock Saturn Calypso, to establish a base line, as it were. After becoming reasonably familiar with its sound, I did the same with the Saturn Calypso Signature. Instructive indeed.
I completely agree with MF's assessment of the Saturn Calypso: It's beautifully built, smartly designed, and sonically brilliant. It was a joy to use, and an even bigger joy to listen to. Like Mikey, I'd put it up against much more expensive preamplifiersand, 9 times out of 10, probably end up preferring it. The Calypso punched way above its weight.
The Signature version replaces the stock Saturn Calypso's polypropylene coupling capacitors with custom-made interstage Teflon-hybrid caps (four per channel), and switches out the polypropylene caps (two per channel) between the gain and output stages. White claims that this change "results in higher resolution, extension, less grain, and more air." The 2µF-output coupling capacitors (four per channel) are replaced with 4µF Dynamicaps. This change, White says, "provides more drive, bass extension, resolution, and dynamics, while also reducing grain." Highly specialized, adjustable air-core capacitors, used primarily in the radio-frequency realm, are installed and adjusted to tweak each unit to conform to a rigid standard.
The stock Calypso's five rubber feet are replaced in the Signature with Harmonic Resolutions Systems Nimbus Couplers specially made for Aesthetix. (Earlier Saturn Signature models didn't incorporate these; if you have one that lacks Nimbus Couplers, contact Aesthetix for a free upgrade.) These couplers are said to "result in a lower noise floor and more air and space." The Couplerssquishy interfaces between the preamp and whatever it sits onare well named. When the time came to remove the Calypso Signature from my system, it took two adults to pry the preamp from the shelf. The upgrade also includes a new display window with "Signature" engraved on it.
Aesthetix measures the tubes used and opts for the best replacements it can find in its stock of graded and matched tubes. White also pointed out that, in addition to a customer buying a brand-new Saturn Calypso Signature for $6999, he'll upgrade a Calypso to Signature status for the $2000 difference in price between the two modelsincluding tweaks to make the unit current (including software updates).
According to White, the replaced parts alone amount to "about one-quarter the cost of a new unit," by which I suspect he means one-quarter the difference in price between the stock and Signature models. By anybody's reckoning, that makes the Signature version a bit of a bargain, assuming you find the stock model's price reasonable in the first placeas I do.
Listening to Jimi Hendrix's "Castles Made of Sand," from The Ultimate Experience (CD, MCA MCAD-10829), through the stock Saturn Calypso, the song had a wide soundstage that spread Hendrix's two guitar parts to hard left and right, and pinned his voice, Noel Redding's bass, and Mitch Mitchell's drums solidly in the centerexcept for some phasing in the right channel on the choruses. That shift to the right was shocking. I'd heard it before, of coursemany times over the yearsbut the Calypso made it seem fresh and real.
The Signature didn't sound immensely different, but it did have more snap and an even wider soundstagesubtle differences, perhaps, but significant in the sense that more really was more. As I said, I'd happily choose the Calypso over much of the competition, but I'd also choose the Calypso Signature over the stock model.
Listening to Zuill Bailey and Simone Dinnerstein's recording of Beethoven's Cello Sonata 3 (CD, Telarc CD-80740) through the Calypso was completely engaging. The richness of the cello and the acerbic bite of the piano were well delineated, as was the sound of the room the musicians were recorded in. The pizzicato cello notes in the Allegro ma non tanto sought out the room's boundaries, and had plenty of jump factor to boot.
Through the Signature, I could hear deeper into the roomnot a huge difference, but a discernible one. Those plucked cello notes also had more bite on the attack, and seemed to be lower in pitchor perhaps just deeper overall, a factor of both pitch and timbre. When Bailey's bow really bit into the strings, I heard more of the bow's rosin growl.
With the lovely ballad "Colours of Mercy," from the Tord Gustavsen Trio's The Ground (CD, ECM 1892), the Calypso suspended Jarle Vepestad's brushwork and cymbal play on a cushion of airit seemed to surround and float above Gustavsen's piano and Harald Johnsen's double bass. That bass had heft and depth. The Calypso's sound was three-dimensional and darkbut hey, we're talking Scandinavian jazz here, so dark is appropriate. Through the Signature, the song's sense of suspension was even greater. The cymbals took longer to decay and the bass had more body. I was also more aware of the sound of the recording venue, in this case Oslo's Rainbow Studio. Again, these were small differences that added to the musicalityby which I mean that, emotionally, I was being drawn deeper into the music. Or perhaps that's just another way of saying that the Signature presented me with fewer barriers between me and the music.
The standard Saturn Calypso is a wonderful preamplifier that I think is well worth its $4995 price. The Saturn Calypso Signature is a somewhat better preamplifier for an additional $2000. Are the differences profound enough to justify the 40% increase in cost? I suppose that all depends on one's values and one's budget. I consistently preferred the Saturn Calypso Signature in comparisons, but if I hadn't had it there to A/B against the basic Calypso, I wouldn't have complained about what I was hearing at all. In fact, I did have the Signature model to compare with the Calypso, and I still had no complaints about the sound of the standard versiononly admiration for how much more could be wrested from the basic design with some tweaks.
If you've got the money, Aesthetix Audio's Saturn Calypso Signature is a wonderful preamplifier that justifies its price. On the other hand, for $2000 less, the standard Saturn Calypso is still one heck of a great preampand it can always be upgraded to an even better one anytime you and your wallet are ready.Wes Phillips
Footnote 1: Serial numbers: Saturn Calypso Signature, 4627; basic Saturn Calypso, 4623.