Canadian-based Classé Audio is a world renowned maker of high-end music and home theatre components. All of its components are designed and manufactured just outside of Montreal, Quebec. Classé’s Delta series represents the company’s sensibly priced line of components which uses many of the design principles and trickled-down technologies from the flagship Omega series. The topic of this review is the Classé Audio CP-500 preamplifier from the Delta series, priced at $4000. At first glace, a review of a preamplifier may not seem like the most interesting read, but the CP-500 is like no other preamplifier that we’ve come across. Do I have your curiosity sparked yet? Read on!
The primary functions of the CP-500 are seemingly straightforward: Provide source selection and volume control for a two-channel music system. However the design of this caliber of preamplifier is far from its simple functionality. The CP-500’s solid-state design begins with a quiet and stable power supply: a toroidal transformer with dual secondary windings which keeps power for the left and right channels completely separated. On the main electronic board, the signal paths are kept to a minimum and the circuit paths are placed far enough to provide ideal stereo separation. The inside contains carefully chosen premium electronic components. Finally, the solid chassis of the CP-500 was designed to reduce any microphonic distortion. There is a great amount of information on the Classé website, which describes in detail the design principles and parts used in the construction of the CP-500 – it is definitely worth a read.
Although physical appearance has nothing to do with the performance, that’s where I’ll start since the elegance of the Classé Delta series is impossible to ignore. Simply put, the CP-500 looks like a designer audio component thanks to its curved lines and clean face that’s virtually free of any buttons. A large volume dial is the only obvious control on the front panel. This volume dial is controlled by sophisticated software that allows the user to fine tune its response to perfectly suit everyone’s preferences. A closer inspection reveals three other buttons cleverly integrated into the front panel: Standby, Menu and Mute. The most advanced design feature of the front panel is also perhaps the most hidden one – I’m referring to the 3.75-inch, colour LCD touchscreen. Only once the power is turned on, the screen comes to fruition and the CP-500 clearly becomes a preamplifier. The screen provides a colour, graphical interface that would otherwise require a large number of buttons on the front panel. It also gives the preamplifier a major “wow” factor that will not go unnoticed. Everything from the screen to the buttons, to the chassis itself feels to be of the finest quality. The chassis of the CP-500 is constructed from brushed steel and aluminium, and weighs in at a manageable 26 pounds.
Unlike the clean front, the rear panel of the CP-500 is studded with a wide variety of inputs and outputs – a good thing. The inputs include three single-ended RCA, one single-ended tape RCA and two balanced XLR. The CP-500 can be fitted with an optional phono preamplifier module (sold separately), in which case one of the RCA inputs will serve as a dedicated turntable input. The output section contains one RCA, one tape out RCA and one balanced XLR.
The supplied remote matches the look and build quality of the preamplifier. It is made from brushed silver aluminium and has a very solid, heavy feel. The buttons are well laid out and perfectly responsive. A backlight behind the buttons rounds out the remote very nicely.
We’ve been using Classé Audio’s CA-2100 power amplifier (reviewed in our May-July 2007 issue) as our reference two-channel amplifier for the last year now, so naturally we matched it with the CP-500 preamplifier for this review. The sources were an ARCAM DiVA CD73 CD player, an Esoteric SA-60 universal disc player (also reviewed in this issue) and a Goldring GR1.2 turntable. The speakers were ProAc Studio 130 and BC Acoustique A3. The A3s had just arrived at our office – look out for a review of these speakers in our next issue. Throughout my tests, I used both the single-ended RCA and balanced XLR connections between the amplifier and the preamplifier.
At start-up, the LCD screen displays six virtual input buttons, in two columns. The buttons as well as the input labels are displayed in white on a blue background. Just below the buttons, the volume level is shown in both Decibels and on a graphical scale. The volume is smartly preset to 0 dB by default each time the preamplifier is powered on, although this can be changed in the on-screen menu to either ‘last volume’ used or a custom preset volume. Speaking of customization, each of the input buttons on the screen can be renamed to match the connected source. For example, the default ‘Input 1’ button can be renamed to “CD Player” or “Computer” or anything else you like – you choose the letters, not just predetermined labels. The background colour of the LCD screen can also be changed to one of four colours, as can the brightness of the screen. This high level of customization is possible thanks to the fact that the LCD screen takes the place of standard hard-buttons in the CP-500. The volume knob offers a precise and perfectly sensitive operation. When the knob is turned slowly, the volume increases gradually. If it’s turned quickly, the volume goes up rapidly. If the default operation of the volume knob doesn’t satisfy your habits, it can also be fully customized in the menu. When the user adjusts the volume, the screen switches temporarily to display only the volume level in Decibels in large characters, which I could easily read from more than 12 feet away – a well thought out feature. Operationally, the CP-500 couldn’t be more of a pleasure to use, nor could it be any easier!
But an impressive operation means nothing without a performance to match. After some 300 hours of recommended burn-in, I began my listening tests with a selection of CDs. First up was Holst “The Planets” performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta on JVC’s XRCD. The size of the soundstage was just phenomenal on this disc. Its depth stretched well behind the speakers and its width extended way past the walls of my room. Different sections of the orchestra had clear definition within the soundstage, with noticeable amounts of space between them. My track of choice “Jupiter” was presented with the utmost delicacy when playing the softer passages. The extraction of details from these intricate pieces was superb. During louder passages, the bass drum struck with unforgettable impact and precise timing. The CP-500 allowed for all of the extensive dynamics of this recording to come right to my ears. As listened for the CP-500’s musical character, I found it to pass the audio without adding anything to it and without subtracting anything from it. This is just what a great preamplifier should do.
Satisfied with the orchestral performance, I moved to the Air French Band “Moon Safari” CD album, re-released earlier this year. I was pleasantly surrounded by a large amount of air (pun intended!) in the soundstage of this disc as the audio moved in a nearly three-dimensional space. The high frequencies were crisp, yet never edgy or tiring to my ears. Again, the amount of detail in the music was just awesome. Perhaps the only thing that the CP-500 didn’t have, in comparison to the Audio Research SP9-MKIII tube preamplifier that we’ve been using for some time now, was the overall warmth of tubes. But reasonably so – the CP-500 is after all a solid state component. Nevertheless, the presentation of “Moon Safari” was outstanding.
To listen to some records, I connected my Goldring GR1.2 turntable using an external Goldring PA1 phono stage, since my CP-500 review unit did not have the optional phono preamplifier module inside. As I listened to the first track from the Oasis “Standing on the Should of Giants” LP, I took a moment to rename “Input 1” on the preamplifier screen to “Turntable”. I quickly discovered just how great of a feature this was for my not-so-great memory. But the feature wasn’t a treat just for me. For the first time, my girlfriend was playing music on a dedicated 2-channel system without asking me questions like “what do I have to press now?” At the same time, I learned just how well the touchscreen interface of the CP-500 was engineered. The sensitivity of the touchscreen was right on the money when pressing the virtual buttons. For a guy who loves technology, the operation of the CP-500 certainly put the kind of excitement and involvement that I’ve never experienced from another preamplifier. For my girlfriend and friends, the system became a no-brainer to use. After listening to a few tracks from the Oasis LP and The Beatles “Yellow Submarine”, I came to a conclusion that the CP-500 truly didn’t alter the sound of my turntable – nothing was added and nothing subtracted. The warm and full-bodied sound of the turntable which I’ve come accustomed to was present in every song.
As I tested the CP-500 during the course of several weeks, it never really left me desiring more out of my music selections, no matter what I sent its way. In terms of sound, the CP-500 delivered a simply outstanding performance. Operationally, it is the most customizable and sophisticated preamplifier that I have yet used. Given the performance, sophistication and flexibility, the Classé Audio CP-500 preamplifier is decidedly worth the $4000 investment. This is one preamplifier that should bring you years of enjoyment and will likely never become outdated. Highly recommended!
Classé Audio CP-500 Preamplifier