SimAudio Celeste I-5080 Integrated Amplifier
by Paul Schumann
Yes, I know what youre thinking -- not another integrated amp review! Like the proverbial tribbles from Star Trek, such reviews seem to be multiplying before our very eyes. Here at SoundStage! weve reviewed quite a bevy of integrateds lately. I consider this a great turn of events, especially for those looking to stick their big toes in the high-end waters for the first time. The SimAudio Celeste I-5080 is an ideal choice for these people, with first-rate features and a high-end sound.
Celeste is the most affordable line of equipment from SimAudio. Priced at $1299, the Celeste I-5080 is in a market niche above most entry-level integrateds, but is less expensive than many of the offerings from other high-end companies. Despite its lower price tag, the I-5080 reflects many of the design values of its more expensive siblings. Like the $2595 Moon I-5, the I-5080 incorporates SimAudios Renaissance Technology. This includes no coupling capacitors in the preamplifier section, no overall feedback, digital source selection, and an extremely precise digital volume control. Such advanced design features are rare in an integrated amplifier at the I-5080s price, and SimAudio should be commended for incorporating them in such an affordable package.
The I-5080 is physically quite a contrast to the last integrated I reviewed, the Anthem Integrated 2. While the Anthem is a massive and heavy beast, the Celeste is slim and lightweight by comparison. Since the top of the I-5080 is secured with special Allen bolts, I was unable to snoop around its insides. A peek through the ventilation grates revealed a large circuit board with the components nicely laid out. My review sample was supplied with black faceplate. This, combined with the slim profile and cooling fins on the side, gave the I-5080 a simple and elegant appearance. The front panel sports an LED display, a standby/on button, a source-selector button, and two volume-control buttons. The LED display shows the volume setting until the selector button is activated. It then switches to display whichever input is being used. The user can change the input with discrete presses to the button.
The inputs of the I-5080 are switched via digital relays. The volume controls are easy enough to use -- push the "up" button to raise the volume and the "down" button to lower it. Like the source selector, the volume is controlled with digital relays connected to a resistor network. This eliminates a potentially noisy volume pot that can degrade sound. What makes this volume control so special is the degree of manipulation afforded the user: 100 discrete volume settings. This means that no matter what the occasion or music, the right volume setting can be found quickly. Another interesting feature is the standby/on switch. The actual power switch is a rocker type located on the back of the unit. When the front-panel button is on standby, portions of the circuitry are still active, thereby reducing warm-up time. All of the front-panel controls can be activated with the supplied remote, which worked flawlessly. The back panel consists of the power switch, a receptacle for an IEC power cord, six inputs, one tape output, one preamp output, and two pairs of speaker binding posts.
Despite its petite appearance, the I-5080 cranks out enough juice to satisfactorily power all but the least efficient speakers. The power is rated at 80Wpc into an 8-ohm load and 140Wpc into a 4-ohm load. This was more than enough for the Thiel CS1.5s used in the review.
As reviewers, we train ourselves to judge a product over a period of time so that we gain a balanced understanding of its strengths and weaknesses as it breaks in. Sometimes, however, you cant help but be impressed with a product right out of the box. Such was my experience with the Celeste I-5080. Once I put the I-5080 into my system, I put the handiest CD I know of into my player for a quick listen. This was Jerry Goldsmiths re-recording of music from the soundtracks of Patton and Torra, Torra, Torra! [Varese Sarabande VSD-5796]. I had been listening to this recording and found it to be muddied in the midrange and rather attenuated in the treble. As soon as the CD started playing, I was startled by the clarity and crispness of the bass drum. This surprise continued as the full orchestra joined in. The strings lost much of their muddiness and gained a shimmer that was previously absent. Overall, what I had thought to be a dull and lifeless recording was suddenly transformed into a performance filled with many hidden treasures.
After the I-5080 went through a couple weeks of break-in, I started listening in earnest to test my first impressions. The I-5080 is a very transparent and quick-sounding integrated that allows you to hear a great deal of what is going on in a recording. This transparency is highly evident when listening to Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestras recording of Holsts The Cloud Messenger [Chandos CHAN 8901]. This piece opens with a single oboe playing a languid melody for the first few measures until it is joined by the rest of the woodwinds. The sound of air streaming out of these instruments is so clearly rendered, its almost tactile. Also revealed for the first time to my ears are the sounds of the rest of the orchestra while waiting to join in. Just before the basses make their entrance, there is an audible "rush" as the players shift forward in their seats and ready for that first stroke. Talk about a window into the recording session!
Another recording that showed off the I-5080s transparency is Shawn Colvins Steady On [Columbia CK 45209]. This album is beautifully recorded and uses subtle arrangements to augment Ms. Colvins acoustic-guitar-driven songs. The I-5080 allowed me to hear the creatively interwoven backing instruments in these well-crafted tunes. The opening of "Another Long One" consists of an acoustic guitar accompanied by percussion. For the several years that Ive listened to this CD, I always thought the percussion was done on a piece of sheet metal, but one quick listen through the I-5080 proved me wrong. The percussion line is actually being traded back and forth between a real piece of sheet metal and a synthesized duplicate. Previously I was never able to distinguish between the two. Through the I-5080, it was plain as the nose on my face -- and I do have a fairly sizable nose!
Further listening also revealed a thinness in the midrange and a sometimes-annoying upper-midrange glare that made some hot pop recordings difficult to sit through. The strings on Bruno Walters recording of Brahms Fourth Symphony [Columbia MS 6113] lost their accustomed lushness, and Bjorks Homogenic [Electra 62061-2] could only be listened to at reduced volume levels to save the assault on my ears. Suspecting a poor synergy between the I-5080 and my cabling, which had matched well with my Jolida integrated amp, I dropped a line to Marc and Doug to see if I could get some warmer cables to use in my review. James Causey was kind enough to send me the very same Cardas 300B-Microtwin interconnects and Twinlink A speaker cable he reviewed in the June 1998 issue of SoundStage!
The day the cables arrived, I plugged them into my system, anxious to hear if my suspicions were correct. It was quickly evident that the midrange was fuller and warmer and the upper-midrange glare was all but eliminated. The tradeoffs were reduced transparency and a rounding of bass transients. This isnt an entirely fair comparison, however, because the Cardas interconnects are quite a bit less expensive than my Kimber Kable Silver Streak and Nordost Red Dawn interconnects, and the Twinlink A speaker cable is designed for use with amplifiers of lower wattage. Based on other SoundStage! reviews of more sophisticated offerings from George Cardas, things could probably be improved even further with another Cardas cable.
Im not going to go into a philosophical discussion as to which set of cables is more truthful in presenting the sound of the I-5080 used in my system. Ill leave those ponderings to our resident audiophile philosopher, Doug Blackburn. All I can say is that the I-5080, when used with the Cardas interconnects and speaker cable, is more relaxed and enjoyable to listen to. While we all have listened to recorded music that has -- for the lack of better word -- an electronic sound to it, we all know that this is far from the experience of listening to live music. An instrument that illustrates this point is the violin. Whenever I hear a violin in person, Im always struck by how it lacks any of the brittleness that is so prevalent in recordings of the instrument. Listening to the Sibelius Violin Concerto [Columbia MS6157] with my standard set of cables and the I-5080, the sound of the solo violin was strident, with little feel for instruments body. However, this same recording through the I-5080/Cardas combination is a real treat. David Oistrakhs violin is rounded in its tone and with only a hint of electronic-induced edginess. This allows you to forget about the sound and enjoy the music (with all apologies to Steve Rochlin).
As I mentioned previously, one of the strengths of the I-5080 is its ability to deliver transients with startling immediacy. Many recordings that I previously thought flat in the dynamics department snapped to life when played through the SimAudio integrated. A good example of this is the George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra recording of the Brahms First Symphony [Epic BC 1010]. When I first added this record to my collection, I found it to be a technically excellent performance of the work, but lacking excitement. Through the I-5080, this recording has taken on an entirely different personality. Orchestral crescendos are startling in their intensity, timpani strokes are felt as well as heard, and trumpet blasts are telegraphed with surprising immediacy. Before the I-5080 was inserted into my system, I had designated this record as an occasional listen. Now it seems to be finding its way on to my turntable at least once a week.
The immediacy of I-5080s presentation gives it a slightly forward character. I was surprised to learn that I needed to slide a little further back in the couch than I was accustomed to achieve the maximum depth of the soundstage. Vocalists and fronting instruments appear in a plane just in front of the speakers. While the width of the soundstage is comparable to that with other amplifiers used in my system, the depth is foreshortened. This reduces the feeling of space between the players and the dimensionality of the musicians themselves. This works out as a tradeoff of sorts. Intimate recordings like the Trevor Pinnok and English Concert compilation of Bachs Brandenburg Concertos [Archiv 423 492-2] are exciting in their vividness and clarity, but the re-creation of the performance space is minimal. Whether this is good or bad depends on your point of view. I prefer to look at it as just different.
Another strength of the I-5080 is its performance in the bass. This is one lean, mean bass machine. Teamed with Thiel CS1.5s, the I-5080 delivers bass notes that are taught and controlled, with absolutely no wooliness or fuzziness. Stanley Clarks bass playing on Animal Logic II [IRS X2-13106] is aggressive and punchy, and has no blurring between the notes. This reinforces propulsive nature of the bass lines as they drive each song forward and makes it extremely difficult to listen to this music without moving some portion of your anatomy. This control extends down to the lower bass fundamentals also. The organ pedal notes on Holsts Hymn for Jesus [Chandos CHAN 8901] are pure and unclouded as they burrow right through the London Symphony Orchestra during orchestral climaxes. While this sort of bass performance is common in higher-priced integrated amplifiers, its less common from an integrated in the $1300 price range.
So how does the Celeste I-5080 stack up against some other integrateds? Ill be the first to admit that I havent heard all of the integrateds out there, but I believe it would be difficult to find a more vivid and transparent integrated for the same money. The Anthem Integrated 2, which Ive reviewed, is definitely more refined in the upper treble and more laid-back overall. The Anthems power reserves seemed to be inexhaustible, as it never broke a sweat during high-volume moments. The Classé CAP-80 integrated has never been in my house, but Ive listened to it extensively at a local audio shop. This is a smooth-sounding integrated that lacks any rough edges, and it reminds me very much of the Mark Levinson gear Ive heard. This makes the Classé CAP-80 a forgiving amplifier to listen through. It too is less dynamic and transparent than the I-5080. The last integrated Ill mention is my Jolida SJ202a. This amp is the most harmonically rich of this group, but the least dynamic and transparent. Despite this, the Jolida has the most refined treble of the bunch.
So what are we to make of the Celeste I-5080? Its immediacy and transparency make it an exciting integrated for listening to music, but there is nothing sugar-coated about the way the I-5080 gives you your music. Because of this, some care must be taken in putting a system together around it. If you address these things, the SimAudio Celeste I-5080 can be a highly rewarding integrated amp. Combine this with its more-than-reasonable price, and you have a cornerstone for an entry-level high-end system.
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