Aesthetix Saturn Calypso line preamplifier
Over the past few years I've heard some great-sounding and versatile line stages, including VTL's fabulous TL-7.5, Audio Research's Reference, Ayre's K-5x, Musical Fidelity's mammoth kWP (my reference), and Hovland's HP-100, to name but a few. Some, like the VTL, offer convenience and setup options that would make a Japanese-sourced home-theater receiver blush.
Aesthetix's Saturn Calypso ($4500) was inspired by the company's more expensive Jupiter Callisto line stage, a two-box design crammed with enough tubes to warm a small apartment. In designing the Calypso, Jim White's challenge was to pack as much of the Callisto's performance into a single chassis as he could while using far fewer tubes, these driven by a solid-state power supply.
I liked the Calypso right out of the box—it looks as if you get something substantial for your $4500. The nicely finished faceplate of brushed, anodized aluminum has five triangular input pushbuttons and associated blue LEDs, plus additional buttons for Mute, Tape, Bypass, Phase, Display, and Standby. The volume control is built into the large, rectangular, transparent display. Press the left side to lower the volume, the right side to raise it. Very neat. The balance can be adjusted only via the full-function remote control.
On the rear panel are five sets of RCA and balanced XLR inputs, a set of RCA tape output jacks, two sets each of RCA and balanced XLR main outputs, and a set of dummy holes, labeled Phono, for the Saturn Janus preamp, which includes a phono board.
Inside is a symmetrical dual-mono design, the main circuit boards (also derived from the Jupiter series) packed with components from RelCap, Roederstein, and other suppliers of premium capacitors, resistors, and transformers. Right behind the faceplate, and the cause of the unit's oddly front-heavy balance, is a shielded, stainless-steel enclosure containing the transformers—one for the high-current/low-voltage tube-heater circuit, the other for the low-current/high-voltage solid-state and control circuitry—and a noise-reducing high-voltage circuit choke.
But what I noticed immediately upon removing the top cover to install the four tubes (a 12AX7WB and a 6922 in each channel) was how little actual wiring the Calypso has. The layout is ultratidy, and signal-path lengths kept to a minimum. The most prominent piece of cabling is one that takes the AC from the rear-mounted IEC jack to the front-mounted transformer. To minimize potential noise, the cable is routed through a channel that runs down the center of the chassis.
When you've hooked up the Calypso to your system (you can mix and match single-ended and balanced components) and the AC, the line stage goes into Standby mode: tubes powered off, solid-state circuits on, with sufficient voltage applied to form the coupling capacitors. Powering up the Calypso activates a circuit that wakes the tubes up gradually, ensuring their long life.
The Calypso's microprocessor-controlled operation is said to be accomplished without compromising the sound. When not called on to perform, the microprocessor circuit is disabled. It's active only when issued a command.
The Calypso's dual-differential, zero-global-feedback circuit automatically converts single-ended inputs to fully balanced. Volume control is accomplished via discrete resistors in 88 steps of 1dB each. A bypass mode for home theater use allows one or more inputs to be set for unity gain, so that an outboard processor can handle control functions. Finally, the display brightness can be programmed, or set to automatically adjust to the ambient room lighting. You can also shut it off via a button on the front panel.
In short, the Saturn Calypso offers an attractive combination of couch-potato convenience without compromising its tweaky audiophilic performance potential. While the plastic remote isn't luxurious or even particularly ergonomic, it gets the job done. If you need to, you can teach any learning remote to control the Calypso.
Can the Calypso cha-cha-cha?
The Calypso performed flawlessly during the two months it directed my system. It awoke from Standby in short order without having to rub the sonic sleep from its eyes before delivering its full musical bounty. It routed sources silently and responded to commands instantaneously. As a piece of audio hardware, you can't ask for more for $4500—or for twice that, for that matter.
It took just a few hours of concentrated listening for me to understand why so many readers have asked me to review Aesthetix's Saturn series. Not since the VTL TL-7.5 was in my system have I experienced such mesmerizing midband richness unmarred by thickness and congestion. Equally impressive was the Calypso's quietness. Tube rush? Never heard any. And while I almost pulled the trigger on buying the hypnotic-sounding VTL '7.5, in the end I hesitated because its bottom-end extension and control, while appropriately nuanced and well-textured for acoustic bass, were not sufficiently taut and punchy to serve all of my musical needs.
Musical Fidelity's kWP couldn't match the VTL's luscious yet transparent, silky-smooth mids—few preamps I've heard can—but it was sufficiently juicy to float delicate if somewhat more recessed images, and its bottom-end extension and rhythmic drive delivered rock and pop's musical goods unhindered.
With Wilson Audio Specialties' MAXX2 loudspeakers—capable of low-end performance down to 20Hz, review forthcoming in the August issue—there would have been no hiding any bass inadequacies the Saturn Calypso might have had. But the Calypso's bottom-end performance never left me wanting more extension, more control, or more definition—all of which came as a big, pleasant surprise when I substituted it for the kWP (though the MF was still somewhat more "punchy").
When asked to deliver the lowest, stomach-rattling organ notes or massive reggae bass attacks, the Calypso responded with sufficient extension, control, followthrough, and well-sculpted low-end definition to be completely credible at all times. It served up electric and acoustic bass, kick drums, and timpani with satisfying textural and tonal authority, maintaining control whether the musical gestures were small or massive. When I cranked up the volume the Calypso delivered, never compressing, bottoming out, or smearing the bass.
The Aesthetix's midband presentation was everything I expect from an all-tube circuit: rich, colorful, harmonically involving, fully fleshed out—all without sounding waterlogged, sluggish, or overly "golden" or romanticized. The midrange picture served all musical genres equally well—a difficult balancing act.
Overall, the Calypso's midrange performance bettered that of my reference kWP, which sounded somewhat polite and recessed by comparison, with a tendency toward "oily," insufficient definition of high-frequency transients. The kWP seemed to lead with the transient attack, the harmonics following in tow. The Calypso produced that breath of musical life in which everything hits simultaneously.