As many of you may know, I’ve got a Classé SSP-800 surround sound processor at home. Over the last couple of years, this has become the favorite processor for Audio Advice. I don’t think we’ve ever had a product solicit as many positive calls after home tryouts. Most calls say it sounds far better than the more expensive processor it’s replacing! It really sounds fantastic.
Well, this Friday morning several of us came in early to meet with Dave Nauber, head of Classé, and go over details of their new stereo preamp, the CP-800. Classé is recently on a roll, with their latest amps winning all kinds of awards and getting reviews as some of the best sounding amps in the world, regardless of price. With the high end audio market oversaturated with stereo preamps, we were all interested to see what Classé had pulled off to make the CP-800 unique.
In a word, I would not call the CP-800 evolutionary, but revolutionary! With inputs it starts out pretty ordinary, with 3 single ended audio ins and 2 balanced audio ins. After that, it takes a new path for audiophile preamps. There are 4 toslink digital inputs, 3 coax digital inputs, 1 AES/EBU digital in, and get this-2 USB inputs, one on the front and back! As you might assume from this, the Classé has an on board DAC (but more on that later). It’s the output side that really sets it apart. There are five single ended and five balanced audio outputs. These are configurable! For the first time ever, we have a high end two channel preamp with really cool bass management. Those of us who feel a great subwoofer adds a lot to a system no longer have to compromise and use a surround sound processor to manage bass. There are three outputs you can configure for the sub(s), making it super flexible with various slopes. Classé did not stop there. If you’ve been playing with audio gear for a long time, you may remember the Quad preamps of the late 70s and early 80s that had a “tilt” control. This was quite a useful feature, altering the sound of a less than stellar recording to make it more pleasurable to listen to. Classé has come up with a new kind of tilt control where you can adjust both the frequencies and the shelf! Not only that, tone controls are back with a fully configurable bass and treble control. And for rooms with acoustic issues, Classé has incorporated the same eq circuitry of the SSP-800, giving you five fully configurable bands of room correction eq! All of these adjustments occur in the digital domain of the Classé (which as you will learn next, is quite special).
Classé has come up with a first in the CP800 with a new kind of power supply. Switching power supplies have huge advantages, but one drawback for audio has been the noise they introduced. Classé came up with a unique way to attack this. The result is probably the best audio preamp power supply ever designed. It’s got the lowest measurable noise floor of anything available by several dB!
The USB DAC category has been extremely popular for people who have music libraries on computer and want them to sound better. With a USB DAC, you connect a USB cable from your computer to your DAC, and the DAC converts the digital signal into music. Building the USB DAC into the preamp has a lot of advantages, but to this date, no one has done it like Classé. They have figured out a different way to clock the data that has not been done before. Many current state of the art DACs use an asynchronous clocking system. The Classé incorporates this clock in a unique way, resulting in much better music reproduction.
Once Dave went over all of the technical details, he told us the sound would be like nothing we had ever heard. That’s a claim one hears a lot in the world of high performance audio, so I was a bit skeptical. Dave told me after playing his prototype at home he started ripping CDs like crazy: he could not believe how much better it sounded. Dave then hooked up the prototype CP-800 and left it with us to play with for the weekend.
Friday afternoon around 5, our CP-800 disappeared off the sales floor and went into the back of my truck. By 6 PM I had it connected into my system. Unlike Dave, I already have all of my CDs ripped and use a Mac Mini to play them back with. Connection was really simple, using a USB from the Mac and audio outs to my two channel power amp. I’m currently still playing around with the PSB Sync 1s in my room.
About 10 minutes later, I sent Dave an email with a couple of expletives: he was right! I have never heard ANYTHING like this for digitally based music. NEVER EVER! It’s hard to explain until you hear it, but first of all, there is this sense of the music flowing with no effort. The noise floor is incredibly low, with every instrument very clear and focused. I kept trying song after song that I’m extremely familiar with and it was like hearing them for the first time. The CP-800 reveals so much in the way of micro dynamics, I got a sense of immediacy like nothing I have experienced. If you thought Alanis Morissette was an emotional singer, you’ll be blown away by all of the new colorations you will hear in her voice. You’ll hear more of how Eric Clapton moves his guitar strings. It’s simply amazing, and frankly, I was just stunned. You will think your favorite recordings have been re-mixed to improve the audio quality, it’s that big a difference!!
The world of two channel performance preamps can get into stratospheric pricing pretty quickly. If I would have had to guess the price of the CP-800 after hearing its feature set, I would have guessed a price north of $15-20,000. Well, it’s not! For all it offers, the CP-800 is competitive with a high performance USB DAC alone (never mind that it’s an amazing preamp), initially selling for $4995! Classé will soon activate the Ethernet jack on the back and it will become a streaming player as well. Then the price will go to $5495, and people who buy the unit initially will only pay the difference for the upgrade.
We should be getting our demo in soon for both Raleigh and Charlotte, but for now, I’m going back to listen to some more of my music for the hundredth time, and really hear it for the first time! In my book, the CP-800 gets an A+++!