HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



December
2008

Reviewed by
Doug Schneider
REVIEWERS' CHOICE


Classé Audio
Delta CA-5200
Multichannel Amplifier

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: Delta CA-5200

Price: $9000 USD
Dimensions: 17.5"W x 8.75"H x 21"D
Weight: 121 pounds

Warranty: Five years parts and labor


Features
  • 200Wx5 into 8 ohms, 370Wx5 into 4 ohms (manufacturer rated)
  • Balanced and single-ended inputs (switchable from front panel)
  • Bidirectional RS-232 port
  • Trigger input
  • Infrared remote-control input
  • Detachable IEC power cord
  • Self-protection circuitry

In the decade or so that I’ve been reviewing audio and video equipment full-time, I’ve seen and heard so many components that there’s very little that I get all that excited about anymore. So when I see a component and say Ho-hum, some may think I’m cynical. But it’s simply a byproduct of seeing so much stuff over the years.

So I wasn’t expecting to get all that charged up about Classé Audio’s Delta CA-5200 five-channel power amplifier. After all, it’s a power amp -- you turn it on, and basically it sits there and does its thing. It’s not exciting, like an A/V processor with all sorts of features to play with. Right?

Description

The CA-5200 ($9000 USD), the most powerful five-channel amp in Classé’s Delta series, is claimed to deliver 200Wpc into 8 ohms or 370Wpc into 4 ohms, all five channels driven at once. The model was first released in 2004, and nothing has changed since then other than two software updates -- a strong indication of how thorough Classé was in the original design. Classé also offers the CA-5100, which delivers about half as much power: 100Wx5 into 8 ohms or 190Wx5 into 4 ohms. The CA-3200 delivers 200W into 8 ohms, but has only three channels. You’d probably pick the CA-3200 if you wanted an amp to power only your front three speakers, and another amp to power the rear and/or surround channels. But for power-users who want it all in one chassis, the CA-5200 is the amp to choose from Classé’s Delta series.

The CA-5200 is pretty big: 17.5"W x 8.75"H x 21"D. It’s also heavy: 121 pounds. Basically, it’s a beast. Although Classé ships it in an outstanding box that folds open to "present" the amp to you without sidewall obstructions, it was still a two-man job to get the CA-5200 out of that box and into position.

J-FET devices are used in the input stage, bipolar devices in the output stage. According to Classé’s literature, the Delta-series amps put out about one-third of their power in class-A. In class-A mode, the output transistors never shut off as the signal cycles from positive to negative; this eliminates the switching distortion that can occur in class-AB operation, in which the transistors are switched on and off. The benefit of class-A is generally better sound; the downside is that, because the transistors are on all the time, the amp uses far more electricity and runs much hotter. Many people believe that class-A operation is important only for low-power output; i.e., when you’re listening at low to moderate volume levels, when sonic subtleties are easier to hear. When things get loud, such nuances get lost. Therefore, once the CA-5200 gets past that first third of its power output, it runs in class-AB, now switching its transistors on and off when the signal goes from positive to negative; it thus uses less current at higher outputs, and runs cooler.

On the rear panel are five sets of speaker terminals, as well as five sets each of unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR) input connectors, all controllable from the front panel (see below). Toward the bottom center is an IEC receptacle for the detachable power cord (a basic, thick black cord is included). The CA-5200 also has some convenience features: a trigger input to remotely turn on the amp, an input for an infrared remote control, and a bidirectional RS-232 port to connect the amp to an external device that can control the channel power-on sequence and the input type selected for each channel.

The front panel is exquisitely styled with Classé’s now-well-known curved faceplate. It looks slick. Toward the bottom left is the Standby button, with which the amp can be turned on. Above and to the right of this are two rows of five LEDs each, to indicate which channels are powered on. The rows correspond to the kind of input connection used: top row for balanced, bottom row for unbalanced. You can switch between them using the large Select button, which is to the left of the LED banks.

Usually, a power amp just goes on and off, but the CA-5200 is more flexible than most. And being able to select from among multiple connections via the front panel is handy. For example, if your processor has balanced and unbalanced outputs (as does my Anthem Statement D2), you can run them all into the CA-5200, then select among them, channel by channel: all balanced, all unbalanced, or any combination. It’s also possible to run one A/V processor’s outputs into one set of inputs, and the outputs of another processor (or preamplifier, two-channel or otherwise) into the other set, and have two "front-ends" feeding a single amp.

Something not apparent from the outside is how much self-monitoring the CA-5200 does. It’s able to detect a fault, act on it if necessary, and record the incident for later diagnosis. For example, the amp will shut down if it detects DC or is shorted for too long. To reset the CA-5200, you simply hold down the Standby switch for a number of seconds, or unplug it from the wall, then plug it in again.

Performance

In assessing the performance of any power amplifier, I look for: 1) sufficient power output to comfortably drive most well-designed speakers; 2) neutrality across the entire audioband, with no emphasis or deemphasis of any particular range of frequencies; and 3) complete transparency and high resolution -- in effect, the amp should act as a crystal-clear window on the sound while drawing absolutely no attention to itself and giving the listener no hint that it’s even there. In assessing whether a multichannel amplifier intended for home-theater use is not just good but great, I look for one more thing: sound quality equal to that of topflight monoblock or stereo amps intended strictly for two-channel hi-fi -- or, in other words, a multichannel amp that goes above and beyond what’s usually required to reproduce film soundtracks and can do justice to good music-only recordings. To do all this, I use a variety of speaker systems and listen not only to multichannel movie soundtracks, but also to a lot of two-channel music-only recordings.

From the first film I played, the Blu-ray edition of No Country for Old Men, I knew that the CA-5200 was special. First off, power output was never an issue. Home Theater & Sound doesn’t measure home-theater amplifiers, so I’ll take Classé’s word for it that the CA-5200 actually does output 200Wx5. In my listening room, at least, the amp never came close to running out of steam. All five of the Paradigm Signature speakers in my surround system -- S1 v.2 mains, C1 center, ADP1 surrounds -- sprang to life and never had to beg for more power. The bass was always tight, forceful, and seemingly bottomless, the highs always ultra-extended and infinitely sweet -- all things that change if the amp driving these speakers approaches clipping. With the CA-5200, none of those things ever happened.

Speakers that present an amp with a typical load -- 6 to 8 ohms, say -- were a snap for the Classé to drive. Even when I played things LOUD, the CA-5200 had no problems even with the PSB Synchrony One, a tricky load that has caused some amps to distort here because its impedance drops to just a few ohms at a few places within its frequency response. Obviously, the CA-5200 had good current capability and was able to drive difficult loads.

Nor was speaker sensitivity an issue. Even those speakers at the lower end of the scale -- Paradigm’s Signature S1 v.2 weighs in at only 84.5dB, a few dB lower than the norm -- could be driven to high volume levels without incident: There were always watts to spare. I played the Blu-ray edition of Martin Scorsese’s concert film of the Rolling Stones, Shine a Light, as well as the soundtrack album on CD, to ear-splitting levels, and the CA-5200 didn’t seem to even approach its limits -- or get abnormally hot. All in all, the CA-5200 sounded effortless even with the most explosive soundtracks, such as Sin City on Blu-ray, which can be felt as much as heard. Unless your power requirements are truly extraordinary, the CA-5200 should be sufficient.

But the Delta CA-5200 wasn’t just a rough-tough workhorse. As I’ve said, its highs were sweet and extended, both hallmarks of a refined-sounding amp. Other hallmarks of such refinement possessed by the CA-5200 were its levels of detail and transparency, and, from top to bottom, an overall sound so pristinely clean that it bordered on the uncanny. The richly nuanced soundtrack of No Country for Old Men has great soundstage width and depth. Through the CA-5200, the film’s soundfield was so chock-full of detail, the stage so vivid and three-dimensional, that I knew that the CA-5200 not only qualified as a great home-theater amp, but a great amp for listening to music as well, whether in two or many channels -- an important consideration for the increasing numbers of people who, like me, don’t want separate systems for music and movies. We want something that does it all.

And the CA-5200 seemed to do all that I wanted it to. Next, I listened to two-channel music recordings. In addition to its bottomless bass and sweetly extended highs, the Classé’s midrange sounded so pure and smooth that, if it weren’t for the CA-5200’s high power and absolute neutrality, its sound could be mistaken for that of a delicate little tube amp. The CA-5200 indeed sounded just that refined, making voices sound mesmerizing, and instruments that occupy that range natural and wholly realistic. Listening to Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis’s Two Men with the Blues (CD, Blue Note 5 04454 2), I was thoroughly impressed with how smooth and musical the Classé sounded, yet also with how it could reveal a wealth of recorded detail with precision. Marsalis’s trumpet had vibrancy and attack yet never sounded out of control, and Nelson’s voice had texture and grit but was never edgy or hard. This is a tough balance to get right; the CA-5200 nailed it better than any other amp I’ve heard, multichannel, two-channel, or mono.

Another of the CA-5200’s special traits was speaker compatibility, something not shared by all amps. Regardless of the speakers I used -- quite an assortment, from the likes of Paradigm, PSB, Harbeth, Monitor Audio, and Definitive Technology -- the CA-5200 never ceased to impress me with how easily it could drive each model while always maintaining the same effortless, neutral, refined sound. For example, as I write this review, the CA-5200 is driving Harbeth Monitor 30s while I listen to Jackson Browne’s Solo Acoustic: Vol. 2 (CD, Inside INR8021-9). The power delivered by the CA-5200 helps make the inherently dark, rich character of this moderately sensitive speaker sound strikingly open and free, with a level of detail that borders on the revelatory. Yesterday I used the Classé to drive Definitive Technology’s Mythos STS SuperTowers while I listened to Ani DiFranco’s Red Letter Year (CD, Righteous Babe RBR063-D). The sound was different because the speakers were different, but the amp’s inherent character remained intact: powerful, effortless, neutral, refined, and transparent. I can’t imagine too many speakers that this ultrarefined, superpowerful amp wouldn’t mate well with.

During my entire time with the CA-5200, I found nothing to fault -- a rarity among the equipment that I review, let alone among the stuff that I own. My Stello M200 monoblocks, for example, cost $1600 each when available (they’re now discontinued). Five of them would run you $8000, which is in the same price ballpark as the CA-5200. I use a pair of M200s today for much of my two-channel music listening. Overall, they perform very well, but at 140W into 8 ohms they’re not as powerful as the CA-5200, so they can’t play as loudly and don’t sound as effortless -- when I push the Stellos too hard, they can sound strained. Furthermore, their bass, while deep, isn’t as tight and bottomless as the CA-5200’s. And from the mids through the highs, the M200 isn’t as refined; it has that touch of solid-state edge that I hear in almost every amp -- though not the CA-5200. With a pair of M200s driving any of the speakers mentioned here, I can hear some flaws I’d like fixed; with the CA-5200, I heard nothing to criticize. The CA-5200 is as close to a perfect power amp as I’ve found.

Torture testing

At the end of my listening tests, I tested Classé’s claim that the Delta CA-5200 could not only withstand a short circuit, but also protect itself from damage. The test was simple: Cross one speaker’s positive and negative leads and see/hear what happened.

The first time, I set my A/V processor at a moderate volume level, held the leads together for about five seconds, and watched for smoke. It didn’t happen. Actually, nothing happened. I reconnected the leads to the speaker, and it played fine. I quickly learned that the CA-5200 will drive a short at this low level, at least for a while.

So I got more aggressive. I set the volume higher and did the same thing again. This time, I tripped the CA-5200’s protection circuit, and that channel’s LED turned red. I reconnected the leads to the speaker. The channel was now off, while the rest of the channels continued to play. I reset that channel by unplugging the Classé and plugging it back in. All channels now worked fine.

Finally, I repeated this more aggressive test, not only to make sure that the first time hadn’t been a fluke, but also to test the faster method of resetting the channel: holding the Standby switch down for about five seconds. Once again, the channel shut off, as expected; holding down the Standby switch brought it back to life. I felt no need to further abuse the amp, and concluded that, overall, the CA-5200 is not only well built and sounds great, but seems bulletproof as well.

Conclusion

The Delta CA-5200 has exceptional styling, build quality, and sound. It also boasts a number of extra features, including protection circuitry that makes its operation virtually foolproof. I can’t even bicker about the price. When the CA-5200 first arrived, I didn’t know how much it cost, but based on what I’ve seen in the marketplace, I figured that this much amp must cost close to $15,000. When I learned that its price was only $9000, I was astounded. That’s still not cheap, but when you factor in all that the CA-5200 delivers, it’s extremely good value. No wonder it’s remained in Classé’s stable, basically unchanged, for five years now. I found nothing in it to criticize, and can think of no reason why they’d replace it anytime soon. I can see this model remaining current for many years to come. Some may need more power than the CA-5200 can deliver, but they’ll be few and far between -- any speaker I threw at it played just fine, even at extremely high volume levels.

It’s hard for me to get excited about many components, particularly power amplifiers, but the Delta CA-5200 exceeded all my expectations -- it’s one of the truly great home-theater products on the market today. Whether playing topflight movie soundtracks or music-only recordings, the CA-5200 is the best amplifier I’ve ever used. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Review System
Speakers - Mains: Definitive Technology STS SuperTower, PSB Synchrony One, Harbeth Monitor 30, Monitor Audio Platinum PL100, Paradigm Signature S1 v.2. Center: Paradigm Signature C1. Surrounds: Paradigm Signature ADP1.
A/V processor - Anthem Statement D2
Amplifiers - Stello M200 (monoblocks)
Sources - Sony PlayStation 3, Toshiba HD-A30 HD DVD player, Stello CDT100 CD transport and DA100 Signature DAC
Projector - Epson PowerLite Pro Cinema 1080 UB
Cables - Nirvana Audio, Nordost, Axiom Audio
 

Manufacturer contact information:

Classé Audio, Inc.
5070 François Cusson
Lachine, Québec H8T 1B3
Canada
Phone: (514) 636-6384
Fax: (514) 636-1428

E-mail: cservice@classeaudio.com
Website: www.classeaudio.com


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