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Classé CAP-151 - integrated Amplifier

[Classé CAP 151]
[Italian version]

Product: CAP-151 Integrated Amplifier (with optional phono stage)
Manufacturer: Classé Audio - 5070 Francois Cusson - Lachine, Quebec - Canada H8T 183
P (514) 636-6384
F (514) 636-1428
Approx. price: $/Euro 2200
Reviewer: M.L. Gneier - TNT USA
Reviewed: April, 2003

In my last review I discussed many of the efficiencies of the modern integrated and what a sensible solution they can represent in a home system wherein either space or resources are at a premium. Now, efficiency and sensibility are both fine qualities but the integrated that I write about here is possessed of far more than those admirable characteristics. Indeed, as audiophiles and music lovers we often demand more from our gear. We also need elegance in design and sophistication of function. In your search for elegance and sophistication you would be fortunate to find the Classé CAP-151 and when you find that it is every bit as efficient and sensible as you could possibly want, you may just realize that you have found audio Nirvana.

Classé has always known how to "finish" a product. From the classic DR-3 to the current Omega designs, their products exude a polish that most companies just never seem able to attain. Like all current Classé gear, the CAP-151 uses the contrast of black and silver (clear) anodizing to create a very pleasing and well coordinated look. Its silver faceplate is suitably thick and luxurious while the black center section gives the piece a rather stealthy feel. In all, the 151 is a sensibly dimensioned integrated with just enough heft to suggest solidity yet it is compact enough to fit inside the most modest A/V rack.

Outside & inside

The design and functionality of a product is often times more keenly felt by a reviewer than an end user. We are a picky breed. Moreover, we see and use so much gear that the contrast between very well executed gear and less well executed gear can become quite glaring. A piece like the Classé CAP-151 makes a reviewer breathe a sigh of relief and satisfaction. From the packing to the instruction manual, to the tactile pleasure of the unit's controls, it is evident that this is one well executed product.

The front panel is dominated by a large machined volume knob which bestows a pleasant analog sensibility in this increasingly binary world. In the center is the master display which indicates the unit's status. At turn on, the CAP-151 executes a displayed 20 second countdown while the output stage stabilizes. The large, red and highly legible display can be adjusted from full bright to completely extinguished which is very pleasant when listening in a darkened room or while watching a movie. From there, the Classé can either be operated via the front panel controls or via the wonderfully simple remote. Ah, the Classé remote! Audio and video world please take note of the Classé remote: Yes, it is machined aluminum, but no, it is not overly large, heavy or cumbersome. Its functions plainly mimic those found on the faceplate. It is simple, legible and quite positive in its response. My only request applies equally to the Classé remote as well as all of the other aluminum remotes that I have used. It would be very helpful to add tiny, little rubber feet to the underside of the remote so that it neither damages or is damaged by the surface that it is sitting upon. Metal on wood is not the very best combination.

The rear panel of the CAP-151 is nicely laid out. There are four line level inputs and one balanced input. I was happy to learn that the balanced input is a true balanced differential circuit and not just an unbalanced input terminated with an XLR. This allows a simple CD based system to be balanced from input to output which increases resolution while lowering the perceived noise floor in virtually any system. There's no way around it, I just don't like the Tiffany speaker terminals that Classé has used on this piece. They look nice, and they have kindly provided four pairs, but they simply don't work well with either high end spades or bananas. I know that they use them because they meet with CE requirements, but they are simply not very high end in their functionality.

When I installed the optional phono stage, I had a chance to take a peek at the inside of the 151 and its was quite impressive. First of all, everything fits together like a fine watch. The phono stage resides atop another PCB and one need only remove and replace a couple screws and mount some standoffs to make the 151 phono ready. To those who are unfamiliar, it's not easy task to design and construct a piece so that an entire PCB can be added later without the addition either being either an awkward piece of work or the end result looking like an afterthought. With the phono stage installed, everything aligns perfectly and no one would ever be able to tell that anything had been added to the original assemblage. One final operational note: The 151 can be used as a standalone preamp but I did not not test the musicality of this facility during my evaluation.

Let's swing

I let the 151 burn in for a number of days before I sat down to listen seriously. The phono stage, particularly, concerned me as there was no way to tell if it had been burned in separate to the 151 at the Classé factory or if it was in fact dead cold. So, to be safe I left it going for quite a while just to make sure that the entire package had the chance to achieve thermal equilibrium.

A local dealer friend of mine tipped me off to expect good things from the Classé phono stage, but I didn't really believe him. Truly noteworthy phono stages are rare so I really didn't expect much. I was in for a surprise. The phono stage of the 151 is superb. It is deadly quiet and very resolving. Both the Ravel and the Schubert LPs are hard on phono stages in that it is very hard to get the tone and timbre of the piano just right while preserving the speed of the attack. The phono stage of the 151 had a very fast and articulate presentation that was really quite suggestive of a far more costly phono stage. My dealer buddy surmises that the phono stage used in the 151 is the very same unit employed in Classé's flagship preamp, but I do not know this for a fact.

The linestage of the CAP-151 shared the speed and clarity of the phono stage but I found that the midband could congest and slow just slightly on some of the more dynamically challenging parts of the Stefanovski / Tadic CD. It never sounded overtly compressed, just slightly blanched of contrast during the peaks. At these times, the transition between the amp's recreation of the midband and top end took on a slightly reedy quality that while not detracting from the musicality was an aberration.

Of course, I should note that although the Classé is rated at 150 watts into 8 ohms it only increases its output to 225 watts into the sort of 4 ohm loads that I used it with. This modest increase indicates that the 151 isn't a really huge current monster. However, it would seem that the power supply is very well regulated as the amplifier was always totally stable and controlled sounding at all times.

Interestingly, the 151's top end was extended and pristinely detailed on both LP and CD. Minute details of harmonics could be clearly heard on both the dry and airy voice of DeMent and the grittily Metallic edge of Landreth's slide guitar. The stage rendered by the 151 was large and spacious with reasonable image size and localization. For example, the period strings of the Corelli sounded like period correct instruments and not like modern strings. This can only be accomplished if the device under test can define and delineate subtle tonal and timbral cues.

Current issues aside, the Classé had a strong sense of dynamic swing and microdynamic shadings. It sounded quite powerful and controlled even at less than sensible levels. Playing Landreth's "Blues Attack" loud (and I do mean loud) did little to ruffle the 151 and the presentation always sounded easy and flowing. The bottom end was exceptional, again bearing in mind that this is not the most powerful amplifier that Classé builds. The left hand on the Byron Janis had an excellent quality and quantity of purr and authority, always in a most musical and linear fashion. Also, the electric bass and drums of some of the Landreth LP was really striking when one considers the amp's modest power rating.

Perspective is everything

No reviewer evaluates gear with a mind toward differentiating the sound of the review piece from the sound of live music (Sorry, Harry but I'm sure that even you've figured this one out by now). We tend to be harder on more costly equipment and more forgiving of products that are built to a price point. The Classé CAP-151 is a fascinating product. On one hand, it could be seen as a value oriented product. On the other it could be viewed as a true high end product. What I know quite certainly is that it will handily outperform any traditional preamp / amp combination that costs what it does, or even a few hundred dollars more. My guess is that you might have to spend well over $3500 to match the 151's overall performance and musicality in separates, and you may still wind up short on points of elegance of execution and style.

Some years ago I was trying to decide on a new watch for my collection. At one point I was looking at the Omega Seamaster Professional and the nearest cost competitor from TAG Heuer. I liked them both, and though I always preferred the Omega, the TAG did have some nice qualities. Then, however, the watch salesman said something very telling. He said, "The TAG really is a fine watch and a great value, but an Omega is forever." I took his point: A truly great watch is worth keeping, and in fact may become even more satisfying over years of ownership. This experience came back to be as I summed up my views on the Classé CAP-151. Its design and style are as alluring as its musicality. Everything about it conveys a sense of pride and quality. It is as easy a piece of gear to live with, listen to and look at as I have used in quite some time, and I'm sure that it will retain those qualities for a very long time. After all, a Classé is forever.

© Copyright 2003 M. L. Gneier - http://www.tnt-audio.com

HTML edited by: Andrea De Marco

Evaluation Recordings:

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