Classe CDP .5
Top-flight integrated CD players are becoming increasingly popular, as even high-end users move towards simpler, more user-friendly systems offering fewer components and a greater level of userfriendliness. The Classe CDP .5 is the more affordable of two new integrated CD players from the Canadian marque, and it delivers even more than it promises.
Audiophiles have always preferred the two-box (sometimes even three-box) route when it comes to digital source components.
In other words, it has always been deemed advantageous to separate the transport section from the digital to-analogue converter by locating them in different enclosures, and then linking them digitally. The strongest argument in favour of such an arrangement is the need for mechanical and electrical isolation, which the two-box option obviously achieves.
However, it also means adding two components to a system, instead of one. And the added expense, of course. In recent years, an increasing number of high-end audio makers have started producing top-notch integrated CD players in addition to their line-ups of CD transports and D/A converters.
Some, like the Wadia 16, proved that careful design and construction could lead to levels of performance on a par with high-end digital separates. Krell, Copland, EAD and a host of others have followed suit, and today, a highend integrated CD player is no longer unusual.
Classe Audio has now also joined the fray. The marque remains best known for its superb range of pre and power amplifiers, which continue to offer exceptional value at the audiophile end of the audio market. But last year it launched its first CD transport and D/A converter, and now follows up its move into the digital arena with two integrated CD players.
By normal standards, the Classe CDP .5 cannot be called entry-level, nor affordable. Its R20 000-odd price tag($1,995.00 U.S. Dollars) positions it very specifically in the upper strata of hi-fi equipment. But in relative terms, the price is not unreasonable, especially judged against the backdrop of a number of more expensive competitors.
Those familiar with the Classe product range will immediately recognise the understated and conservative styling of the CDP .5. Available only in black here (pity, because the silver available abroad is far more attractive), the CD player looks and feels solid, thanks to a thick, anodised aluminium fascia and all-metal enclosure.
The front panel layout is conventional, with the loading tray on the left and an orange LED display on the right. Round push-button controls look after the basic transport functions. The only visual indication of what's under the covers is the presence of a red LED indicator which lights up when HDCD discs are played back.
Much more comprehensive is the accompanying remote control handset which, not surprisingly, also has an allmetal casing. While that may underline Classe's commitment to quality in a further, tactile manner, it's debatable whether it's a user-friendly option.
The controls and buttons are clearly laid out however, and add the usual programming controls, direct track access numeric keys, and buttons for repeat, scan and random playback. There's also a power on/standby button - and if you're using a Classe pre-amp, volume and mute can be controlled from this handset, too.
The plain theme continues at the rear of the CDP .5, although here there are further signs of the player's lofty aspirations. There's an IECstyle three-pin power socket with a power on/off rocker switch, and single-ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs, both gold-plated.
Even more surprising is that the single digital output is an AES/EBU standard XLR version, which presupposes that any upgrade to a separate D/A converter would entail purchasing a unit of audiophile quality: which makes sense, I suppose, considering the Classe's own some prowess.
Indeed, for all its plain exterior features, the CDP .5 has an impressive technical resume. Under that metal cover, you'll find a combination of components and circuitry employed in the substantially more expensive Classe CDT-1 CD transport and DAC-1 D/A converter.
Thus, the CDP .5 employs the same chassis, servo board and transport mechanism as the CDT-1, while on the digital side, the HDCD-enabled Pacific Microsonics PMD-100 digital filter is identical to the one employed in the DAC-1. However, instead of the latter's twin UltraAnalog D/A chipset, the CDP .5 gets dual Burr Brown PCM 1702 20-bit DAC modules.
At the same time the digital face is simpler, and as already mentioned, there is only one digital output option, instead of providing for the likes of the SPDIF RCA single-ended output, or an ST-standard glass optical interface. Other costsaving measures to keep the CDP .5 reasonably affordable include simplified power supply and chassis requirements.
Classe claims that a focus point of the CDP .5's development was isolation from mechanical and electrical interference. The player's solid construction limits the risk of vibration to a minimum, while much development time was spent on minimising jitter to prevent compromising the musicality of the unit through timing errors in the digital domain.
A substantial amount of time was spent in the company of the Classe, which was linked to various amplification options during that period. For the most, it was connected to my Proceed PRE reference pre-amplifier, linked in turn to a Proceed AMP 2 power amplifier and Celestion SL700SE loudspeakers.
However, I also used it with the same pre-amp linked to the glorious Mark Levinson No 332 power amplifier (which really lights up the Celestions!), and as a source for the classy Rogers E40a valve amplifier reviewed elsewhere in this issue - this time employing the single-ended outputs.
A variety of interlinks was tried during the course of the review, starting with the XLO Reference series balanced and single-ended cables, but also embracing Kimber KCAG, Van den Hul The Second, and Madrigal CZ Gel.
In all instances, I came away extremely impressed. True to Classe form, the CDP .5 delivers a sonic message that exceeds expectations substantially and is musically persuasive at that.
Perhaps the initially most appealing aspect of the Classe's delivery is its poise and polish. More than often, it's a single performance parameter (detail, smoothness, tonal balance, weight, sound staging, to name a few) that jumps out at you when listening to a component.
In the case of the CDP .5, it is the sum of all these parts, rather than any single performance aspect, that strikes you on first acquaintance. The Classe has a rounded, holistic approach that lends realism and credibility to the music, so that often, even a favourite CD sounds more cohesive and involving than before.
Perhaps it has to do with the player's strong underlying sense of rhythm, which allows it to translate a nything from classics to pop with incisive confidence. The timing always sounds just right, as if the Classe is able to 'tune' itself into the mood and emotion of the disc at hand.
But that's only the start. From a tonal perspective the CDP .5 delivers the goods too. The bass is deep and sonorous, yet open enough to bring detail at the extreme lower end of the frequency to the fore with ease.
There's a lot of information in the richly textured midrange too, but presented with a clear sense of purpose. As a result, the Classe unveils the subtle slivers of information that can so easily remain obscured, especially on more complex recordings.
A highlight are trebles, which are expressed with such smooth, sweet intent that they boast an almost analogue quality- but not at the cost of precision: here again, clarity is paramount, allowing everything committed to master tape during the original recording to be faithfully reproduced.
Not surprisingly, imaging and stereo focus are out of the top drawer. The soundstage is almost holographic, with all three dimensions represented with an easy confidence. With the Celestions powered by the Mark Levinson 332, the levels of transparency were quite astounding, and at times the music appeared to transcend the borders of the listening room itself.
That the overall delivery remains contextually sound, with a strong sense of balance, is proof of the high level of musical competence achieved by the Classe. Everything sounds right here, and no single aspect of the player's performance is allowed to dominate the rest.
Even more importantly, the Classe is a CD player you can listen to for hours on end. Despite brilliant detail, there is never any sense of fatigue, and the listener comes away fulfilled by the music, rather than simply pleased with the technical prowess of the player.
With the CDP .5, Classe has underlined its ability to place the focus firmly on the music - a trait that has already been amply illustrated in its range of pre and power amplifiers. For the asking price, there are very few CD players that can boast the same musical equilibrium.
One wonders just how much better its more expensive stablemate, the CDP-1, is likely to be. As it stands, the Classe CDP .5 is one of the finest integrated CD players I have come across. It may not be dressed in the kind of fancy livery that high-end buyers love, nor boast as many gadgets. But when it comes to what really matters - performance, musical credibility and construction -the Classe is right up there with the true aristocrats.
FOR Lucid, detailed and extremely musical delivery that puts the emphasis on sonic integration, rather than isolated performance features. Exceptional construction linked to a price that undercuts performance value considerably.
AGAINST Exterior styling plain (although functional) in high-end terms. Limited digital output facilities
PRICE R15 O00
TESTED WITH Proceed PRE and AMP2 pre/power amplifier combination, Mark Levinson No. 332 power amplifier, Rogers E40a integrated valve amplifier, Celestion SL700SE loudspeakers, XLO Reference interlinks and speaker cables, Designs Unlimited audio furniture.
RECORDINGS Texas - White on Blonde (Mercury/PolyGram CD) Dave Holland Quartet- Dream of The Elders (ECM CD import) The Beautiful South - Blue is The Colour (PolyGram CD) Beethoven - Piano Concertos nos. 4 & 5 Oppitz/Janowski/Gewandshausorchester Leipzig (RCA Victor/BMG CD import)
SUPPLIED BY Audio Imports (011 ) 706-3079