Classé CAM 350 monoblock power amplifier Page 2

Is there a Genie in the Lamp?
The CAM 350s arrived midway through my August 2000 review of the Magnepan MG3.6/R loudspeaker and immediately took up residence in my main system.

Over the years, in daydreams in which I'd mentally paired Magnepans with my dream amp, the most dramatic effects were significant improvements in transparency, dynamics, and the resolution of low-level detail. In my musings, that last little bit of gauze that my Maggies could never seem to shake would simply vaporize. The tiniest details would be revealed, imbuing images with a vibrant life and body. Subtle tonal and dynamic shadings would emerge as well, resulting in a rich, complex texture and articulate density. Transient edges would become clean and precise, and the Maggies would snap with a quickness and life more akin to a topflight dynamic speaker, or perhaps even an electrostatic panel. (Hey—it's my dream, okay?) But now that I'd gotten what I'd wished for—my "really good, big solid-state amp"—did reality match my dreams?

In a word, yes. So much so, in fact, that the Classés' installation stopped my Magnepan review dead in its tracks. I'd been cycling through a series of amps and could change the system's sound, but never eliminate the last, faint remnant of a slightly liquid, opaque texture. There was a slight softening of transients and a slight obscuring of the finest detail that combined to insert what must have been an ephemeral but still frustratingly tangible barrier between the music and me. I was ready to conclude that the 3.6/R reduces the characteristic Magnepan texture to a new low without eliminating it, and move on.

But with the Classés, by 10 seconds into the first cut on the first CD I played—Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris's cover of "For a Dancer," from their Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions (Asylum 62408-2)—it was obvious that that texture was gone. In its place was a stunning clarity. There was now space between and around the images that added depth to the soundstage and dimensionality to the images themselves. With the Classés, I was hearing much farther into the soundstage, and could really get a sense of the space between and behind the images.

Western Wall hadn't magically become an audiophile disc, but what had before been an amorphous, slightly viscous blend of sounds and images opened up into a distinct, three-dimensional soundstage. In addition to the reduction in texture, there was an equally significant improvement in edge definition. Where images had run into and over one another before, they now had width, height, and depth, and were distinctly bounded on all sides.

The CAM 350s' resolution of detail was also staggeringly good, as was their retrieval of ambience cues. Combined with the absence of any discernible texture, their superb resolution allowed the Classés to paint a startlingly realistic portrait of the recording space. The best example of this I heard was on Clark Terry's One On One (Chesky JD198), where he duets with a Who's Who of jazz pianists. Although the trumpet and each piano shared the same recording space, the miking and mixing resulted in a discontinuous stitching-together of two distinct ambient environments. The piano is close, large, and immediate, dominating the left side of the soundstage, with little or no sense of the space around it. It's as if the space is acoustically inert, or its boundaries are sufficiently distant to contribute very little to the picture. Terry's trumpet, on the other hand, is smaller, more distant, and placed firmly in a reverberant environment, with distinct and precisely located walls.

With most amps I paired up with the Maggies, these differences were apparent but somewhat obfuscated by the liquid texture and the masking of low-level detail. The piano seemed a bit more distant and its transients were blurred slightly, diminishing its presence and impact. Similarly, the space around the trumpet wasn't as well-defined; the walls and background noises were less distinct and not so precisely located.

With the Classés, the differences between the two halves of the soundstage were enormous. The space around the trumpet was portrayed more holographically than I've ever heard. And although the piano sounded vividly detailed and natural, the perspective on it was completely different, as was the relationship between the instrument and any surrounding space. The juxtaposition of the two perspectives and the two different ambient fields was jarring. It was almost as if I could hear a jagged line where the two were spliced together.

One On One also showed off several of the CAM 350's other strengths. For one, its handling of dynamic transients was superb. Dynamic gradients—the swings in loudness between quiet and loud passages—were larger with the CAM 350 than with most other amps. Where another amp might swing between, say, pp and f on a particular passage, the Classé would begin at something more like ppp and explode up to ff or even fff. This is likely due, in part, to its higher-than-average gain, but whatever the reason, the Classé would inevitably sound faster and far more vivid than other amps I used.

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