Classé CP-800 D/A preamplifier Page 2
The menu offers more options and functions than can be described in a review; everything is fully described in the excellent manual, which can be downloaded here. I commend Classé for including, as well as conventional tone controls, a Tilt control that allows the entire response be hinged up or down by up to 6dB at each end of the spectrum. Introduced at the end of the 1970s in analog guise, by Quad Electroacoustics in their Model 44 preamplifier, this kind of control is the only one I have found useful for adjusting recorded balances to sound neutral.
Made in China
Back in 2005 I visited the Classé factory, in a Montreal suburb, and was impressed with what I saw. Here was a major high-end audio brand that still manufactured its products in North America. It was thus with some sadness that I learned last year that the CT-M600 and CA-M600 amplifiers, which I positively reviewed in March 2011, were among the last products Classé was to make in Canada. Like B&W, Classé is owned by the B&W Group, whose products, along with Rotel's, are distributed in North America by Canadian Equity International conglomerate. In the fall of 2011, the B&W Group moved Classé's production to the facility it owns in China, which already was responsible for manufacturing Rotel gear, as well as B&W's 600 and CM series models. My review sample of the CP-800 is one of the first to come from the Chinese factory.
In a frank discussion at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, Classé's Dave Nauber outlined for me the reasons for offshoring manufacturing. With many of the components used in Classé products already made in the Far East, it made sense to move actual manufacture there. There's no real difference, Nauber said, between, say, installing a Chinese-made transformer in an amplifier in Montreal and installing it in China. To guarantee quality, the important thing is that the Chinese facility be not an independent contractor, but vertically integrated with the owner's other brands.
Most important, the creation of the intellectual property embodied in Classé's productsthe R&D and designremain in Canada (footnote 1).
Tonally, as a line preamplifier in Analog Bypass mode, the CP-800 fell into the camp of the clean and clear rather than the mellow and euphonically colored. In that respect it was somewhat similar to the Parasound Halo JC 2 ($4000), which I reviewed in March 2008: A wealth of recorded detail was laid bare without being spotlit. In level-matched comparisons with the Ayre Acoustics K-5xeMP ($3500; I reviewed it in June 2011), the Ayre sounded slightly veiled, though there was a robustness to its soundstaging that resulted in more fully fleshed-out images within that soundstage.
Using as a source my newly repaired Mark Levinson No.30.6 D/A processor, I selected the CP-800's EQ section but set it to do nothing. This way, analog signals were digitized, then converted back to analog. Though the extra processing added a very slight hardness to the sound in absolute terms, this will be offset by the tonal changes that are then possible.
For most of my auditioning of the CP-800 I fed it digital data, either via USB from my 2.7GHz i7 Mac mini, or via AES/EBU from my Ayre C-5xeMP disc player. There was a delightful delicacy to the sound, without any significant difference audible between the USB and AES/EBU modes. Leonard Cohen's husky baritone in his reading of Joni Mitchell's "The Jungle Line," from Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters (Apple Lossless 24/96, Verve/HDtracks), sounded as natural as I can recall, without any emphasis of sibilance. The drum opening of "Penguins," from Lyle Lovett's Live in Texas (Apple Lossless file ripped from CD, Curb MCAD-11964), effectively lit up the surrounding ambience, while the horn interjections punched holes in the appropriate places in space.
With the levels matched using the CP-800's Input Offset Level control to within 0.1dB, the kick drum on this album didn't have as much LF authority as the No.30.6's analog output. The older megabuck processor, however, couldn't quite match the Classé's delicacy in the treble. The complex mix of "The Afterlife," from Paul Simon's So Beautiful or So What? (24/96 Apple Lossless file, Hear Music/HDtracks, transcoded to USB to AES/EBU using the Empirical Audio Off-Ramp4), sounded muddier with the Levinson, even though the bass guitar had cleaner leading edges to its tone.
Against the Debussy
A more relevant comparison for the CP-800's performance as a D/A processor was with the dCS Debussy ($10,999, reviewed in January 2011), again with levels at 1kHz matched to within 0.1dB. (Comparisons were rendered easier by the fact that the transport controls on the CP-800's remote functioned with iTunes on the Mac mini.) The Debussy was used with its apodizing filter selected, which is how I feel it performs at its best.
While there was no real difference in the processors' treble characters, with the Debussy I got a better sense of the surrounding space of Chad Kassem's Blue Heaven Studios in "The Mooche," from the Jerome Harris Quintet (Editor's Choice, CD/Apple Lossless file, Stereophile STPH016-2). The Classé, however, offered slightly of the more lower-midrange energy in the sound of Jerome's Taylor acoustic bass guitar.
With Richie Havens's imaginative cover of "Won't Get Fooled Again," from his Nobody Left to Crown (CD/Apple Lossless file, Verve Forecast B0011631-02), the dCS gave his frantic strumming a little more propulsive drive, while the Classé was slightly better at bringing out the jangly quality of his open-strung acoustic guitar. With the solo cello at the song's beginning, it was a wash.
Only with 192kHz-sampled tracks, such as from the Ray Brown Trio's Soular Energy (24/192 Apple Lossless file ripped from DVD-Audio, HiRez Music HRM2011), did the dCS pull ahead, presumably because the USB data were being downsampled by Pure Music to 96kHz to feed the CP-800.
Classé Audio's CP-800 is that rare component: a multi-function device that, despite its versatility and extensive use of new technologies, doesn't appear to compromise the quality of the sound. Yes, its D/A section is surpassed in both measured and audible performance by expensive state-of-the-art processors such as the dCS Debussy, which also has a 192kHz-capable USB input. However, it must be remembered that the dCS costs more than twice as much, and while its volume control is truly transparent, it lacks both analog inputs and the CP-800's extensive DSP functions.
Six months after starting this review, I am well aware that the CP-800 offers more functions than I have come to grips with. Performance as a headphone amplifier? As an iPod dock? Providing bass management for a sub/satellite system? Sorry. While I can confirm that those functions do work, I have not yet formed opinions of how well. But even without my testing those functions, I highly recommend the CP-800 as a straight, future-proof, two-channel D/A preamplifier. It offers more than its purchaser expects, at a price lower than any would expect to pay.
Footnote 1: It is fair to note, however, that Scottish engineer Alan Clark, who was chief technology officer for the B&W Group and played an important role in the development of the CP-800, has for personal reasons relocated from Montreal to Calgary, where he now holds the position of executive vice president of R&D at Ayre Acoustics.