by Henry Wilkenson
During the “Golden Age” of audio, some of the companies that rose to become premier names in the field were Marantz, Fisher, McIntosh and Bozak. By the late seventies and early eighties, new companies were poised to take their place as industry leaders. Classé Audio was one of them.
Based just outside Montreal, Canada, Classé released their first products in 1980. Soon they became and have remained Canada’s leading audio manufacturer. Their DR series of preamps and amps quickly earned star status and remain highly regarded today. Ads for DR power amps spend very little time unanswered on Audiogon. From those early days, the company’s continuously expanding product lines now include digital audio as well as multichannel components. Classé’s Omega series is considered by many audiophiles and critics alike to be among the best cutting edge audio components available today.
Classé became a part of the B&W Group in 2001. This merger gave the company access to far greater resources which, in turn, allowed them to make considerable strides in the realm of contemporary audio design. According to company literature, their performance goals are aimed at primarily achieving fidelity. They take a balanced approach in the manufacture of their products. Both manual and automated assembly procedures are used. Thus, the company is able to utilize the benefits of both methods in the execution of their products. The obvious benefits of employing these more efficient production techniques result in higher performing products at lower cost. This is always good news for the consumer.
The CP-500 is part of Classé’s Delta series that includes a matching power amp and CD player. The CP-500 is a preamp that is specifically designed for two channel stereo reproduction. There are a number of features that are particularly noteworthy. The designers are keenly aware of the ill effects of vibrations reaching the internal circuitry. In order to prevent the sonic degradation that can result from this, the chassis is constructed of both steel and aluminum. The feet are designed with Navcom LimbSaver material. These features, also found in other Classé products, serve to make the CP-500 immune to external vibration.
A serious effort has been made to create a high-quality power supply. A proprietary, shielded toroidial transformer and other premium parts such as a glass epoxy motherboard are used throughout. While a complete discussion of the parts array and circuit innovations used in this unit would require a separate essay, a peek under the hood, so to speak, clearly demonstrates what I have tried to describe here. The aforementioned high quality parts are neatly laid out. A huge proprietary toroidial transformer that is shielded from the other circuitry is located at the rear of the unit. The overall build quality of this unit is outstanding.
The CP-500 has a very clean and simple control layout. The front panel has six controls. From right to left the first is the standby button LED indicator. This button toggles the unit between the standby and fully operational modes. The LED indicator is used to indicate the status of the unit. When it is steady on, the unit is in standby. It flashes when going from standby to full power up, and off is for the ready state. Next is the menu button which activates the main menu system on the LCD touchscreen, followed by the touchscreen (more about that in a moment). Next is the mute button, the IR window for remote functions and a large volume knob.
The volume knob is not your typical volume control. In this case, the volume control is controlled by sophisticated software that governs the degree to which the volume increases and decreases, based upon how the user turns the knob. The faster you turn the knob the greater the degree of change in volume. Slower turns will allow you to make very fine changes in volume. With this control, there will no longer be any complaints about the volume control being too coarse. This is truly a unique design.
On the rear panel, there are four single-ended line level inputs for tape, two programmable inputs and one for the optional phono section. There are also two balanced inputs adjacent to the cluster of outputs located just below the inputs. The inputs and outputs for each channel are placed at the left and right corners of the rear panel. I was particularly impressed with the very well thought-out rear panel layout. The inputs and outputs are appropriately spaced so you should have no trouble connecting even the most robust audiophile cables. Other manufactures should look at and make note of this design.
The rest of the inputs and outputs are located at the center of the rear panel. The 1/8th inch mini-mono jacks are for use with an IR (infrared) remote controller. Next is a DC Trigger input and output for use with other components such as in a home theater system. The master on-off switch is next and is intended to be left in the on position except when you plan to leave the unit off for an extended period of time. Following that is the IEC socket for the power cord. Below these controls is the RS-232 control port. This is a DB-9 connector that is used for downloading new operating software into the CP-500 should new features or updates become available. It can also be used for external control of the preamplifier by control systems such as i-Command, AMX and Crestron. Finally, there is the Classé CAN Bus Control Ports. These are RJ-45 connectors that are for future control and communications applications using Classé Audio’s implementation of the Controller Area Network (CAN) Bus specification.
Another candidate for becoming an industry standard is the owner’s manual. It is extremely well written, clearly illustrated with all of the functions being thoroughly explained. Unlike a number of other owner’s manuals that I have encountered, this one works really well and eliminates the need for any guesswork; therefore, the setup was simplicity itself.
Given its unusual design, a word about the remote control is in order. It is an 8.5 inch long oval shaped wand that weighs a little over one pound. All of the most used functions are available through the remote. The individual buttons are well spaced, with the ones used for volume, mute, input selection and tape in line on the right side of the unit. These buttons are larger than the others, so you soon learn to use them without having to look at them. In addition, pressing the first button on the upper left corner labeled “Light” will cause all of the buttons to light up, making them easy to use in the dark. The only quirk that I found was the slight delay between the time you select a function and having it actually happen. This is not in anyway a problem, since I became used to it in very little time. This is the best remote that I have used since I used the one supplied with the Sonic Frontiers preamps. The LCD or “The Magic” Touchscreen
The most unusual feature of the CP-500 is the LCD touchscreen. The touchscreen is located in the center of the front panel and is used to control the normal operational functions such as input selection and balance. It is also used to access an extensive number of other capabilities that are found in the menu system. At first glance, you might be tempted to key in your pin number and expect to receive cash but, as far as I have found out, that will not work. The operational menu allows easy access to the basic functions of the preamplifier. If you go no further, you can easily operate the preamp with this menu alone. There are buttons to select between the three single-ended and two balanced inputs. Any inputs that you do not intend to use can be deactivated and the corresponding button will be removed from the touchscreen.
When you press the menu button to the left of the touchscreen, a main menu system will be brought up. Each button on this screen will bring up submenus that allow you to customize many of the preamp’s functions. You can customize how the rotary volume control will work by the way you turn the knob. You can even set a maximum volume level, a welcome feature if you share your system with a headbanger. You can set the functions of the inputs such as CD, tuner, etc. If you have the phono option, you can set it for low or high gain with the touch of the screen. The left-right balance control is accessible from the main menu as are many more functions. For instance, if you have a component with its own volume control such as a tuner or DAC, you can set the input on the CP500 so it becomes a unity gain input. In so doing, the volume control on the preamp is disabled, allowing you to use the volume control on the connected component. All in all, this preamp has been extensively thought out and implemented to give the user all of the control flexibility that he could want, while not requiring a six credit course in computer science in order to use it. Classé has raised the bar in the areas of functionality and user friendliness. While all of this might be very impressive, the most important question to be answered is, how does it sound.
While Classé recommends a 300 hour break-in period, there are a few noticeable characteristics right out of the box, for instance, a very well defined soundstage. The instrumental images were well placed from left to right, with good front-to-back placement as well. These characteristics only improved during and after the break-in period. While nothing was ever etched, nor was there the “palpable” space between the instruments, there was an array of clearly formed images across the stage. Overall, the image presented was very natural, and for me, quite pleasant.
Well recorded material is handled very nicely by the CP-500. Jeremy Monteiro is a fantastic pianist who is very well known in the Far East but far less so in the U.S. I am quite sure this situation will change shortly. His album, “My Foolish Heart” [JJJazz 26-1084-92-2], is an album that contains both live and studio recordings. The CP-500 easily captured all of the acoustic signatures that easily allow you to differentiate between the live and studio recordings. Recorded on the JJJazz label distributed by Harmonix, the people who make those wonderful isolation devices, it is a showcase for Jeremy Monteiro’s considerable talents. The first cut is a fiery rendition of “All the things you are”. The piano had an open sound accompanied by rich and full timbres. The overtones have a very real sense of decay which surprised me to some extent, given the fact that this is a digital recording. I heard the same characteristics with “Keith Jarrett Standards, Vol.2” [ECM 1289 422 825015-2]. The complex harmonic structure of the piano was presented quite well by the CP-500.
The album “Eternal” by Branford Marsalis [Marsalis Music/Rounder 11661-3309-2] features Branford on soprano and tenor saxophones. All too often, the soprano sax can come across as rather hard and shrill sounding. This never happened with the Classe. The timber of Branford’s sax was rich and smooth, with never a trace of hardness.
Female vocals were another high point with the CP-500. On the album “Come away with me” by Nora Jones [Blue Note Records, 7243 5 32088 2 0], I heard the full breathy texture of Nora’s voice on every cut. While the various colors of her voice were clearly audible, it wasn’t to the point of sacrificing coherence. With “The Dana Owen Album” by Queen Latifa [Universal/AM 60003435-02] or “New Horizons” by Vanessa Rubin [RCA 0786367445 2], the clarity and detail of the vocals were quite pleasing.
The one area that I found the CP-500 to be wanting was in the bass. It wasn’t that the bass seemed to be rolled off; rather, it was too polite and lacked weight and impact with some music. The bass was rendered almost inaudible too often on “Stardust” [Blue Note Records 7243 5 37813 2 3], by Ron Carter. Given that Ron is the leader of the group, the bass seemed almost an afterthought. This becomes most apparent with music that you know has prominent bass lines. The movie soundtrack from “Romeo is Bleeding” [Verve 314 521 231-2], by Mark Isham and “Life, Love & the Blues” [Private Music 01005-82162-2] by Etta James really drive this point home. In both cases, the bass lines are far too diminished.
The Classé CP-500 is a very well designed preamp that will fit nicely in many high end systems. The sound is neither too cool nor too warm, yet it is highly musical. I found the preamp consistently reproduced rich instrumental timbres. You wouldn’t mistake this unit for tubes in this area but, it is very good just the same. The initial attack of plucked strings was always sharp but never separated from the body of the note. The result is very pleasing when listening to guitar or other acoustic music. Since this unit is dead quiet, it was also good at revealing low level details that previously were buried in the noise floor. I also noticed that the sound character did not change when the volume is increased, even beyond comfortable levels.
Given the strengths and weaknesses of the CP-500, I think it is best suited to classical and jazz music, rather than to rock. Given the bass limitations I described above, rock would not be a good choice for listening material for this preamp. The ergonomic layout is among the best that I have seen. This is often an area that is overlooked by designers. The sound is sophisticated and revealing if not the most extended in the lows. If these characteristics suite your musical taste and listening habits, and you are looking for a preamp in this price range, the Classé CP-500 should be very high on your audition list.
Analog Source: VPI HW-19 turntable, Grado Signature Tone Arm and Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cartridge
Digital Sources: Sonic Frontiers SFT-1 Transport, ART DIO DAC (Modified), Lehman DAC+
Amplification: VAC LE Pre Amp, Bel Canto EVo 200.2 power amps bridged mono
Loudspeakers: Dynaudio 3.3
Cabling:Acoustic Zen and Von Gaylord Audio Chinchillia Interconnects and Speaker Wire
Accessories: P.S. Audio Power Plant P-300, Mapleshade Triple point Coupling Devices, DH Labs Isolation devices
The Classé CP-500 Preamplifier
Price: $3500 USD