I think every audio reviewer hopes for a surprise—when a good, but not outstanding, product is refined by the manufacturer into something special. The review then becomes an exciting discovery, reaffirming the pleasure one takes in good audio, and in listening to music being reproduced as it should be. It makes the listening exciting and the writing easier. The Classé Fifteen solid-state stereo amplifier is just such a surprise.
Canadian manufacturers enjoy a special relationship with the US market. Though technically their products are "imports," a high level of trade harmony, plus a common continental location, mean that Canadian designs tend to be equably priced in contrast to those exported to the States from overseas.
The last Classé power amplifier I reviewed, back in November 2004, was the imposing Omega Omicron monoblock ($20,000/pair), which made glorious sound with the Revel Ultima Studio speakers. But things change. First, my reference speakers are now B&W 802Ds. Second, my system now has three front speakers, supplemented by two B&W 804S speakers for surround sound. While a quintet of Omicrons would undoubtedly be dandy, five such monoliths would take up so much space that I'd be wondering about their effects on the room's sound. With so many channels, it seemed time to investigate whether a multichannel amp could carry the load.
On the face of it, the power amplifier has the simplest conceptual task of any audio component. Fed an audio signal at its input, all it has to do to satisfy the demands for current made by the loudspeaker is to modulate a high-voltage voltage supply with that signal. Yet power amplifiers vary enormously in their ability to perform that task without editorializing. As a result, when I find an amplifier that appears to step out of the way of the music in the manner I desire, I make the commitment, I buy it, and I stick with it.
Have you ever had one of those conversations with your Significant Other that begins "But I thought you said..." and goes downhill from there? The Other's tone is condescending, and the body language—hands on hips, head slightly tilted—lets you know you're in big trouble.
Non-audiophile friends and relatives raised their eyebrows when they saw the Classé Omega Omicron monoblocks. Not only is the Omicron more expensive than any other amp I've used; at 108 lbs, it's heavier than some of the speakers I've used. The Omicron is Classé's next-to-top-of-the-line amp in its Omega series, but is still definitely a "statement" product. Brian Damkroger reviewed the Omicron's big brother, the Omega Mono, in the July 2003 Stereophile. I refer you to that review for a more detailed description of the Omicron's basic circuitry.
What fascinates me about the High End are the electric personalities behind it. Manufacturers typically invest so much of themselves in the products they make. It's a divine madness—they do it because they have to. They're driven to it with a real sense of mission and excellence. But God forbid you criticize any of their offspring...ooo-la-la!
Cycles can be seen in the fortunes of companies. Likewise cycles can be seen in the performance of companies' products. A particular range will appear to have got it just right, whatever "it" is. The designer may have hit a winning streak and thus steal a lead over the competition. C-J set a new state-of-the-art preamp standard in the late '80s with their Premier Seven, and some of that expertise and experience are beginning to pay off in the shape of new high-performance preamplifiers at realistic prices. Moreover, the pressure was on to develop better power amplifiers to match. Two important products have emerged from all this in C-J's moderately priced FET range, namely the PF-1 preamplifier and the matching MF-200 power amp. By audiophile standards, these are moderately priced at $1295 and $1995, respectively.
Rumor had it that if the MF2500 amplifier had gotten any better in development, Conrad-Johnson would have had to include it in their "Premier" series. However, C-J's intention was to hold to the lower price of their established MF series, and so they have. Rated at 240Wpc and retailing for $3495, the '2500 is the core model of Conrad-Johnson's current range of "MF" power amplifiers. Its companion MF2250 offers 120Wpc, while the MF5600 delivers 120Wx5 for multichannel home-theater applications.
High-performance audio has always been and will probably remain a cottage industry perpetuated by talented and visionary individuals whose products reflect their singular visions and whose companies often bear their names, though of course there are notable exceptions. One of them is Constellation Audio. No single star dominates the appropriately named Constellation Audio, which arrived on the scene at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show with a seemingly impossible debut roster of products: stereo and monoblock amplifiers, preamplifiers, digital file player/DACs, and phono preamplifiers, each category of component represented by members of two distinct lines: no compromise and some compromise.
The $1200 Counterpoint SA-100 amplifier came up to bat fourth in my listening sessions, behind (in order of appearance) the Adcom GFA-555 II (not reviewed here, but sent along by JA for comparison purposes), the VTL Tiny Triode monoblocks, and the Muse Model One Hundred. Thus, my progression went from bipolar solid-state to tube to MOSFET, with a wide spread of sonic characteristics between them: stygian bass from the Adcom; uncanny spatial presentation and vocal reproduction from the VTLs; and an overall superior sound from the Muse. I was therefore eager to see where the tube/MOSFET hybrid Counterpoint would fall in this group of very different-sounding amplifiers.
What better way to celebrate the expiration of a noncompetition clause than to debut a product that has no competition? That's what Dan D'Agostino appears to have done with his Momentum monoblock amplifier ($55,000/pair)his first new product since leaving Krell, the company he cofounded more than 30 years ago.