November 2004Classé Audio Delta CP-500 Preamplifier
by Marc Mickelson
Conventional audiophile wisdom (no wisecracks, please) states that using a tube preamp with a solid-state power amp is the ideal way of introducing tube sound to your audio system. Many an audiophile has followed this path to musical happiness -- because it makes sense. You take advantage of the generous power and low output impedance of a solid-state amp for driving speakers, and the inherent sweetness of a tube preamp for adding gain to sources.
What this doesn't address, however, is that the utter neutrality of many solid-state preamps can be a great match for tube amplifiers. The Lamm L2 Reference preamp that I've used for a number of years is a hybrid (the tubes are used in its power supply, not its line stage), and it has worked like a charm with the many tube amps I've reviewed. There is also the issue of noise, which is better alleviated upstream, before it is amplified. Tubes are noisier than solid-state devices.
What to do? If we audiophiles are good at anything (again, no wisecracks) it's experimenting. Carved-in-stone rules just don't play in audiophile circles because being an audiophile involves not only seeking the musical truth but also achieving it in a way that pleases each listener. With this in mind, I opened the shipping box of the Classé Delta CP-500 preamp, not knowing what to expect but expecting to know more about the sound of today's solid-state preamps.
Lust at first sight
Canada's Classé Audio has been in audio business for 25 years, and many of the company's products are considered classic. Classé's DR-series amplifiers from the early '80s still sell briskly on the used market, and more recently the handsome Omega SACD is considered one of the CD/SACD players you will want to hear if you are considering such a unit. Any audio company would cherish such a track record.
I first set eyes on Classé's Delta components at CEDIA Expo 2003, where the entire line, it seemed, was on display. It was impossible to miss a wall filled with two-tone curvaceous chassis, many of which had touch screens instead of the more common rows of LEDs, knobs and pushbutton controls. This touch screen defines the forward thinking behind the Delta line; the dozen products that make it up -- five power amps, an integrated amp, a preamp, a CD player, two surround-sound processors, a universal A/V player and a universal A/V transport -- were designed to be distinctive alternatives to products similar in function and price from many different companies.
The fully balanced Delta CP-500 ($3500 USD) is a large -- 17 1/2"W x 4 3/4"H x and 16 1/2"D -- and relatively heavy -- 26 pounds -- single-box preamp with a clean, sleek, utterly modern look due to its softly curved corners and lack of most external controls. The front panel has only flush-mounted standby/operate and mute switches, a traditional volume knob, and the touch screen through which most of the CP-500's functions are accessed. The feature set of the CP-500 is controlled by software, which gives the preamp flexibility that most of the competition cannot duplicate. Four single-ended and two balanced inputs along with single-ended and balanced outputs are supported. Via the CP-500's software interface, each input can be renamed, adjusted so that the connected source will have the same volume level as others by default, and even turned off so that it doesn't show up for use. Other notable features include (but are in no way limited to) the ability to assign function keys for accessing features that are nested within the CP-500's menus and a sensor option that indicates the CP-500's operating temperature and the voltage of the power line to which the preamp is connected. All of this can be accessed from the touch screen or the remote control, whose backlit buttons match the background color of the CP-500's display -- a cool cornflower blue.
Around back you'll find the various inputs and outputs, the master on/off switch, and two special features: an RS-232 port for software updates as well as connection to I-Command, AMX and Crestron systems; and Controller Area Network (CAN) control ports for future application with other Classé products. An internal MM/MC phono module is an option.
If you are someone who likes to customize the things you buy, the Classé CP-500 will keep you busy for an afternoon at least. But even more impressive than all the features is the elegance of its interface and the ease with which you can make changes. In my experience, only the Mark Levinson No.383 integrated amp and No.32 Reference preamp rival the CP-500's rich feature set, but neither of these has the touch screen for input. This puts the CP-500 in an ergonomic class by itself.
I used the Classé CP-500 in my reference system with a wide variety of partnering electronics. Amplifiers included Lamm ML2.1 and M1.2 Reference monoblocks, Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk II.3 monoblocks, and a Belles 150A Reference stereo amp. Speakers were Wilson Audio MAXX 2s, Thiel CS2.4s and Paradigm Signature S8s. Source components included an Esoteric DV-50 universal A/V player, an Audio Research CD3 Mk II CD player, and a Zanden Model 5000 Mk III DAC and Mark Levinson No.37 transport used together (with either an i2Digital X-60 or Audience AU24 BNC-terminated digital cable between). Preamps for comparison were a Lamm L2 Reference and a Belles 21A with Auricap upgrade.
Interconnects and speaker cables were from Siltech (Compass Lake and The Emperor), Nordost (Valhalla), Cardas (Golden Reference) and AudioQuest (Air and Volcano). Power cords were all from Shunyata Research, with Anaconda Alphas used with the amps, Anaconda Vxes used with the preamp and digital players, and an original Taipan used with the Mark Levinson transport. Everything -- amps and all -- was plugged into a Shunyata Hydra Model-8 that was connected to the wall with its own Anaconda Alpha power cord. This was fed by the same outlet that's used in the Model-8, a Shunyata Research Venom Silver. If you think a simple outlet can't improve the sound of your audio system, buy one of these custom-made, silver-and-rhodium numbers from Shunyata. I was shocked.
Those used to the billowy bloom of tubes or the forceful energy of many solid-state preamps will be surprised by the sound of the Classé CP-500, which I characterized a few times in my listening notes as "self-effacing" and "matter-of-fact." The sound of any high-end component is defined to a certain degree by the performance of its peers, and in this regard, there's more to talk about in of the sound of other preamps than that of the CP-500, which passes the signal in a truthful way, without pizzazz or romance.
To determine this, I listened to a greater-than-normal number of CDs and SACDs, mostly because I was having a hard time pinning down the CP-500's character. But after a few long listening sessions, the CP-500's sound became clear, and it starts with the preamp's clarity. There is no euphony or sweetness to the CP-500's sound, only abundant detail and a lively, albeit somewhat lean presentation. Slowly and without notice, Evolve [Righteous Babe RBR030-D] has become my favorite Ani DiFranco album, and all of its funky energy is communicated by the CP-500, but not overdone with too much edge definition, which can make listening a chore. The soundstage on each cut begins at the rear of the speaker cabinets and works backwards, making for a tremendously deep presentation. On Evolve, DiFranco sings three feet behind the speakers and, in my case, right where my equipment racks sit.
Lou Donaldson's great The Natural Soul [Blue Note 7243 42307 2 1] showed how well the CP-500 reproduced recorded space: with consummate width, depth and air. I felt like I could walk among the musicians -- they were that well placed in space and delineated. This horn-driven recording has been remastered as part of Blue Note's extensive Rudy Van Gelder series, which means that it, like other RVG remasters, is sonically on the thin, dry side. This was a bit of an issue with the CP-500, but only in terms of overall sonic balance. The CP-500 was surely not masking The Natural Soul's sound, but its own bit o' leanness made for a decidedly non-palpable presentation. It was with this recording that I missed the warmth and weight of so many tube preamps, but one can't expect everything, sonically speaking, in a preamp of the price and functional sophistication of the CP-500. You have to make some concessions in the process of making your choice.
The sheer resolving power of the Classé CP-500 is very high, the preamp capturing and conveying even the smallest of musical and ambient details. This allowed the CP-500 to serve classical music especially well. Telarc's recent announcement of a two-channel SACD version of the label's 1982 release of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, Rodeo and Fanfare for the Common Man prompted me to pull out the CD [Telarc CD-80078], which I've owned since its release. This recording is renowned for the startling impact of the bass drum and tam-tam, which 22 years ago was as striking to me as the canon blasts on Telarc's famous first recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.
I listened to all three Copland pieces with the CP-500 in my system, and the results were impressive. All of the instrumental tones and overtones, and all of the space of Atlanta Symphony Hall where the recording was made were preserved, and even amidst all of the captured space, the bass-drum whacks were quick and powerful, with no added weight or slop. This recording has huge dynamic range, which was an issue with my audio system (and neighbors) 22 years ago, but only urges a heavy hand on the volume control now -- the Wilson Audio MAXX 2 speakers are up to any dynamic challenge. The Classé CP-500 did a superb job of refreshing my memory of this superb recording, which I've heard dozens of times, while erasing the limitations of earlier audio systems on which I've heard it.
Coming up with some grand statement that sums up the Classé CP-500's sonic performance is not an easy task -- other than to say that it doesn't really draw attention to itself. If you seek sonic fireworks, which are often defined by an obvious coloration or aberration, the CP-500 will disappoint. It's too honest for that. However, one overwhelming idea that the CP-500 left me with, as I listened to it for weeks on end, is that it's for audiophiles who normally own their equipment for a very long time. I can't imagine that in the next decade preamps will move beyond the CP-500 functionally, and its honest sound, while not attention-grabbing in any one way, is always satisfying. This is not the sort of assessment that Classé will be rushing to use in advertising, but I suspect CP-500 buyers will be more swayed by the product itself than any attempt at marketing it.
Earlier this year I praised Dave Belles' 21A preamp with Auricap upgrade ($2995), calling it "the centerpiece of a great two-channel audio system." Dave Belles thought this line readymade for marketing -- he has subsequently used it in print ads, a fact that puzzles me given that we named the 21A a Reviewers' Choice, something that is not mentioned. No matter, the 21A is logical competition for the Classé CP-500, given that both are single-box stereo preamps reasonably close in price to each other. However, in terms of functionality and especially sound, the Belles and Classé preamps will likely polarize potential buyers.
First, the 21A uses two matched pairs of 12AU7 tubes, and while it is remote controlled, it offers none of the programmable features of the CP-500. It is also not fully balanced, although it does offer XLR outputs. While the Belles 21A is a tube preamp with some useful features not found on all of the competition (I'm thinking of my Lamm L2 Reference here), the Classé CP-500 is like having a computer at the heart of your audio system, so plentiful and flexible are its features.
In terms of sound, the Belles preamp stands in stark contrast to the reserved CP-500. It is more forward than the CP-500, the images it casts inhabiting space in front of, behind, and all around the speakers. This forwardness makes its presentation seem more clear than that of the more restrained CP-500, but close listening to both reveals only a difference in perspective, not in the amount of information each passes. The Belles 21A has the airy bloom that tubes do well in great abundance, and thereby it conveys more space than the CP-500. The bass is bigger, redolent with fullness and, in comparison to the low end of the CP-500, a little flabby, which I don't mind at all. The bass region adds some warmth to the overall presentation, a little brandy to your coffee, if you will. The CP-500 is, again, straightforward and direct. It never deviates from its goal of conveying the recording as it is. I can't say that the Belles 21A has some other goal, but its sound is more easily defined -- and more exciting.
On sonic grounds alone, I would choose the Belles 21A, whose remote control is also nice to have. But the Classé CP-500 doesn't cede much in sonic terms and is positively packed with features. Again, I foresee CP-500 owners looking for a new preamp somewhere after 2014, and even then they'll have to do some heavy searching for one that's as advanced.
In discussing the Classé CP-500, I have shied away from talking about the sheer pleasure of using it. We're all audiophiles here and interested in sound over ease of use. However, once you've connected and customized the CP-500, it is almost like an extension of your mind, so thoroughly are you able to make it into what you want it to be. Its remote control fits nicely to hand, and the ability to define volume levels for each source makes level-matched comparisons a breeze. It's a great reviewer's tool and a preamp that spouses and other family members will not have to read the manual to enjoy using. It is the epitome of user-friendliness in the here and now.
But the CP-500 is not all about ergonomic niceties. Its sound never veils or embellishes the music that flows through it, and while some listeners will find such performance uninspiring, I found it to make for long listening sessions. There is a leanness to its personality that is especially noticeable when it is compared to the sound of preamps with tubes, but I didn't find it bothersome. It's a trait, not a blemish.
We audiophiles are a picky bunch (once again, no wisecracks), but there are few of us, I am convinced, who will be unaffected by the Classé CP-500's broad-based appeal. The CP-500 will catch your eye, appeal to your ear, and give you extraordinary control over your audio system.
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