On a visit to Chicago this fall, I had the good fortune to attend a concert at Orchestra Hall given by the marvelous pianist Murray Perahia, whose performances over the decades are being released by Sony in a special box set called The First 40 Years. While I was listening to Perahia, the importance that ambience makes for a performance came home to me once more as Perahia stamped his right leg when playing especially dynamic passages from Beethoven and Schumann. With those thumps came a thrilling sense of visceral excitement from hearing a performance that was not simply live but also lively, one that swept along the audience with its intensely intellectual and physically powerful approach to these great piano works.
Isn’t it also the case that the extent to which an audio system can lull, or, if you prefer a more pejorative term, fool us into believing that we are hearing the original concert hall is an important element of creating a sense of realism about a recording? This isn’t simply soundstaging, but the perception of an instrument performing in a natural space, an acoustic envelope that has widened to include the entire hall.
Enter the Classé Audio CP-800. The dominant virtue—and it has many—of this new $5000 solid-state preamplifier from Canada is that it is a champion at transporting a concert hall into your room. To call the images created by the Classé “large” would be something of an understatement. They are towering. This is a preamp that is a technological marvel, offering both flexibility of operation and excellent sound. Its noise floor is crazily low, translating into a spooky sense of transparency.
The multiplicity of design features of the Classé are so numerous that they almost threaten to overwhelm a description of its performance. You practically need an engineering Ph.D. to get the most out of this nifty piece. The CP-800 can be run either balanced or single-ended. It has multiple inputs and outputs, including a bass-management system and the ability to use a parametric equalizer (anathema to some, heaven to others). But the goodies don’t end there. On the front of the preamp is a nifty little logo of headphones, which is where you can plug your pair in if you’re into solitary listening. The front also has a USB port dedicated to Apple portable devices.
The power supply is a switching type with power-factor correction. The switching supply monitors the supply’s output voltages more than 100,000 times per second, resulting in lower ripple (vestiges of the AC on the DC supply) than from a conventional linear supply. The supply’s power-factor-correction circuit phase aligns the voltage and current from the AC outlet, making the supply more efficient and quieter. The preamp also boasts symmetrical left and right channels that are fully isolated from each other and an analog bypass for what Classé rather quaintly terms “legacy” sources to ensure absolute signal purity.
The preamp, however, sounds anything but legacy. It has a crisp, galvanic, and powerful presentation that was immediately apparent upon spinning a new CD by British trumpeter Alison Balsom, Sound The Trumpet [EMI]. On a track with the counter- tenor Iestyn Davies, Balsom’s trumpet rang out resoundingly. The Classé provided a transparent window into the recording, allowing the interplay among Balsom, Davies, and the orchestra, conducted by early-music specialist Trevor Pinnock, to emerge with great clarity. It was also the case that the unique sound of the natural trumpet, which was used in the baroque era and possesses no valves (the keyed trumpet was a modern innovation that first came into vogue with the Haydn Trumpet Concerto), shone through beautifully. One of the nice features of the natural trumpet is that, as the name suggests, it has a more resonant and burnished sound than its more recent descendants. The CP-800 did a fine job of capturing its resonant overtones rather than homogenizing or glossing over them as a lesser preamp might have done. It possessed tremendous control and grip at any volume level. It never became distorted or distended at the highest SPLs, displaying prodigious power in the bass regions. On the deepest piano notes a kind of resonant growl emerged as each overtone lingered on. On the Chicago Symphony Brass’ live performance of Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy, which the orchestra released on its own CS Resound label, the percussion section came through with tremendously powerful and crisp whacks. The CP-800 started and stopped on a dime so that there was not the slightest sense of overhang. The tuba sounded like a foghorn emanating from the distant right corner of the hall.