Classé CAP-100 integrated amplifier Page 2

When I first dropped the CAP-100 into my system, my initial reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The CAP-100 took control of the Aerial 5s in a way that the Linn Majik, Rotel RA-970BX, Anthem Integrated 1, and Audio Note OTO SE integrated amplifiers couldn't match. Granted, the Classé costs much more than these other products (except the Audio Note), but the musical difference rendered by the CAP-100 with the Aerial 5s was dramatic.

What set the CAP-100 apart from these other amplifiers was its authority, control, power, and dynamics. I always had the feeling that the other amplifiers were struggling to drive the Aerials—the same feeling you get when driving a small-engined car up a long hill. The CAP-100 made the Aerial 5s come alive, and gave the music a newfound sense of solidity. The bass, in particular, became tauter, deeper, better defined, and much more dynamic with the CAP-100 behind the Aerials. Nathan East's fabulous bass playing on Victor Feldman's Audiophile (JVCXR-0016-2) (footnote 1) took on a newfound visceral impact and drive with the Classé amplifier.

Just as the CAP-100's bass was tight and controlled, the soundstage was focused and well-delineated. Image outlines were sharply defined, with pinpoint precision in the soundstage. The spatial presentation had a coherence and believability I associate with expensive separates. The soundstage was not only wide, but the CAP-100 presented tangible images along a continuum from left to right. Some amplifiers have width, but also have a tendency to bunch images to the extreme left, right, and or center. The CAP-100 had a remarkable precision in placing an instrument right there. Soundstage depth was good, but not outstanding. The presentation had a sense of large size, but tended to be truncated at the very back of the soundstage. On the other hand, the CAP-100's soundstage transparency was outstanding, from an amplifier of this price. The presentation had a "see-through" quality that I hear only from much more expensive separates.

I was also greatly impressed by the CAP-100's resolution of detail—it clearly unraveled musical elements that tended to be obscured through the other integrated amplifiers I've auditioned in the system. Low-level information was presented with a clarity that gave me the impression of hearing more music. No, the CAP-100 wasn't "ruthlessly revealing," etched, or hyped. The sound was instead infused with a finely woven quality that gently revealed detail. The detail wasn't thrust at me, but resolved with subtlety and grace in a way that pulled me in to explore the music's innermost structure. This remarkable quality of the CAP-100 was particularly evident on complex music such as Frank Zappa's The Yellow Shark (Rykodisc RCD 40560); quiet instruments could still be heard in the presence of louder instruments.

Similarly, the CAP-100's overall perspective was lively and immediate without being pushy. The sound was more up-front than the Majik's presentation, with a greater sense of presence and life. The Linn amplifier was softer-sounding, more laid-back spatially, and had a greater sense of ease. As much as these qualities are appealing, I preferred the Classé's "take-charge" sound. (You'll also find a description of this characteristic of the CAP-100 in my review of the Aerial 5s.) On an absolute basis, the CAP-100's treble could sound a tad hard; cymbals took on a bit of a "chromium sheen" that made the uppermost octaves sound less like a continuous part of the musical fabric. I wasn't too bothered by this character through the Aerials, which have a very smooth treble, but I can imagine it becoming a liability with overly bright loudspeakers.

I greatly enjoyed the CAP-100's dynamic agility, both with micro- and macrodynamics. The amplifier had a "quickness" that was particularly adept at portraying transient detail such as percussion. The Classé also a dynamic impact in the bass that all the other integrated amplifiers I've auditioned couldn't begin to match.

The CAP-100's only shortcoming was its phono board—I thought it added a layer of grain over the treble. The top end was also brighter and harder through the CAP-100's phono section than through the Majik' The CAP-100 had a weightier bass, but lacked the smoothness and refinement of the Majik. The CAP-100's phono stage was also a little noisy with the 0.3mV AudioQuest 7000.

The Classé CAP-100 is not only a great-sounding amplifier, but a fabulous value at $1995. It offers many of the performance attributes of separates, but at a much lower cost, and its big, powerful, authoritative sound was in sharp contrast to the mellower British integrated amplifiers I've been listening to lately. The CAP-100 also had stunning transparency, soundstage focus, and detail resolution that would be remarkable even in much more expensive separates. In addition, the CAP-100's ability to portray dynamic shading, from the quick leading edge of percussion to the visceral slam of bass drum, was first-rate. And I must mention again the CAP-100's beautiful build quality, particularly the front-panel metalwork.

The CAP-100's immediate, lively, and detailed sound may not suit all listeners or systems. If your system is already on the forward side of reality, the CAP-100 may not be the best choice. I found, however, that the CAP-100 was a perfect match for the smooth Aerial 5. The Aerials also benefited from the Classé's iron-fisted bass and tight control.

My last caution concerns the CAP-100's phono section. It was a little bright and dry for my liking, and is better suited to a cartridge with at least 0.5mV output.

Whether you're considering a $1200 integrated amplifier or $4000 separates, I urge you to audition the CAP-100. Along with the Krell KAV-300i ($2350), the Classé CAP-100 redefines what we can expect from an integrated amplifier.

Footnote 1: This new CD, mastered using JVC's stunning Extended Resolution process (XRCD), is a combination of Feldman's Secret of the Andes and Soft Shoulder, both of which originally appeared on the Nautilus label: Secret of the Andes as a direct-to-disc, Soft Shoulder as a half-speed-mastered LP. Both were subsequently released on Palo Alto Jazz as PA 8054-N and PA 8053-N. I bought both LPs about 13 years ago. Audiophile features such top LA session players as Nathan East, Abraham Laboriel, Robben Ford, Harvey Mason, Tom Scott, and Hubert Laws, among others. Both LPs were engineered by Alan Sides, who has perhaps the largest collection of tubed microphones in the world. The LP sound, which is of demonstration quality, transferred well to the CD format through the XRCD process, although there is some wow apparent on some tracks.—Robert Harley
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