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Impressions: The Classé DTP-1 Transport & DAC-1 D/A Converter

05-08-2017 | By Editors at Positive Feedback | Issue 87

This article, by David W. Robinson, originally ran when Positive Feedback was in print - Vol. 7, No. 5, 1998.

Background to a review

If you do high-end audio reviewing long enough, you get to hear a lot of equipment. Some of the names come and go...I'd tell you which ones, but I don't remember them!... while others stick with you as examples of superior work. Some of these will, in the course of years, be recognized as classics, equipment that's worth having for many years to come.

One of the names that I've come to respect over the years has been Classé Audio. Years ago, I got a chance to audition the combination of the Classé DR-9 stereo amplifier and the DR-5 preamp. It was over at the long-since lost and lamented site of Hawthorne Stereo here in Portland; my good friend Dennis (The Audiomeister!) Wright thought that I really should check out this tandem, from a company that I had never heard of.

Anybody who knows Dennis knows that you could take his recommendations to the bank when it came to "check it out...I think you'll like it." So I did...and I did...and the Classé preamp and amp eventually came home to stay. Better yet: within a year, I was able to purchase another DR-9...the next in serial number series, no less...and bi-amp with some 400 watts per channel. And that, children, was extremely fine.

I became interested in Dave Reich, at that time the designing genius behind the Classé DR (for "Dave Reich," eh?) series of electronics. He and I exchanged a phone call or two, chatted, and that was that. Later I would upgrade the DR-5 preamp for its superior sibling, the DR-6 (with phono section), and enjoy even better preamplification, before yet more changes in my system took it away from Classé...and Dave would move on eventually to McCormack Audio and the very talented crew working with Steve McCormack.

Yes, time and life does go on.

Classé redux

In the late sprint/early summer of 1997, however, Bruce Manoly's request to listen to a Classé all-in-one CD player brought back to mind my long interest in the line. I spoke with the folks at Classé, and was able to procure their two box, reference pair, the DAC-1 D/A and CDT-1 Transport. It was time to listen to what Classé had done in the years since Dave Reich's tenure.

The Setting

The DAC-1/CDT-1 were placed in PF Central's listening room number two. This is our "real world" setting, intended to be a "spousally correct" living room, with minimal tweaks and acoustical treatments. (Listening room one is the "no holds barred!" fully dedicated layout; for notes on the design of the room, see my column in Vol. 7, No. 4.) The room is roughly 14' x 18', with a vaulted ceiling of up to 12', and a wide entraceway on stage right as you sit in the listening position. Overall, it's a challenging room that probably sounds better than it should.

The transport and D/A were placed on a Bell'Oggetti stand on Black Diamond Racing Cones. The power cables were from Tice Audio, which were plugged into a Marigo Audio power strip. During the course of the review, both balanced and unbalanced interconnects as well as the speaker cables were by JENA Labs.

The preamplifiers used with the DAC-1/CDT-1 included the KORA Eclipse and Spectron Model 10; amplifiers included the KORA 100SB (6C33-CB based) monoblocks, the Blue Circle BC-2 monoblocks, and the Spectron 1KW (Pure Class D digital); speakers included the Von Schweikert VR-4 Silvers, the Merlin VSM with BAM, the Zeligman Joshua mini-monitors, and the Von Schweikert VR-6s.

In other words, a pretty fair amount of stuff.

This gave me an opportunity to hear the Classé digital reference source with triodes, with hybrids, and with digital solid state. The CDs themselves boxed the compass, and ran the gauntlet from standard-issue to HDCD™ to MoFi GAIN System™ to JVC XRCD™ ...also work from the likes of John Marks, Pope Music, DCC, Classic Records, and Analogue Productions.

The equipment and specifications

Both the DAC-1 and CDT-1 are very attractive pieces, right out of the box. Both are finished with a silver brush finish aluminum faceplate and dark chassis. The overall look and feel is clean and clutter-free. The size of the DAC-1 is 19"x14.75" x 3.25", with a net weight of 17 lbs. The CDT-1 is a complementary 19"x13.75" x 4", and weighs in at 13 lbs.

The DAC-1 features five digital inputs: 2 coax, 1 balanced AES/EBU, TOSLINK, and ST. UltraAnalog 20-bit DACs operate in balanced configuration, and provide 8x oversampling for 32/44.1/48kHz. HDCD™ decoding is standard. The controls on the front of the unit allow you to choose digital input, invert phase, and alter display brightness; there is a standby mode as well, which is necessary since (like so many other high-end D/A's) there is no master power switch. HDCD™ and de-emphasis detection indicators are standard, and work well; phase inversion operates entirely in the digital realm, and worked as it should.

During the course of this review, I used the DAC-1 solely in AES/EBU mode, since I found the sound to be better than that obtainable through standard RCA connectors.

The CDT-1 transport has AES/EBU, SPDIF and ST outputs, and has a remote to control all the usual functions. It also has a standby mode to keep the unit warm when not being used. The transport mechanism itself is a Philips CDM12.4 with L1210 Loader. I spent quite a time with the earlier cousin, the CDM9 Pro, in the wonderful Vimak DT-800. The rev. 12.4 did not disappoint, showing quiet and smooth operation throughout the entire review period of nearly a year. The operation of the transport was faster than the Vimak, and the load of the TOC was a bit quicker, as well. Claimed jitter in the system is less than 40 picoseconds, but I am not equipped—nor inclined!—to measure actual jitter rates in operation at our site here.

In typical Classé fashion, the power supplies are heavy-duty toroidals, with full regulation and lots of elbow room for current requirements. Overall, the technical profile seems to be what audiophiles have come to expect from high-end CD sources.

Listening impressions

According to Classé's literature, the DAC-1 will break-in for some 300 hours or so. During the course of this review, considerably more time than that was put on the review unit. No break-in disks are used in listening room two; normally, in listening room one I will run the Purist Audio Disc to get things jump-started. We just ran a lot of music through it.

Right out of the box, I found the sound of the Classé combo to be a bit dry and thin. This is not unusual, though; I've seen it more often than not with digital gear over the years. With a week's worth of use, the sound began to bloom and open up, with an encouraging warmth beginning to develop. It was shortly afterwards that the KORA gear came in the door for its stay; the presence of the triode gear did its usual magic with the Classé equipment, and made this portion of the break-in easier on the ears than it otherwise would have been.

The HDCD™ section worked well, and reproduced HDCD™ without stridency or forwardness. (Yes, I have heard HDCD™ implementations that sounded that way; it isn't pretty. Thankfully, these earlier essays are now behind us.)

Somewhere around the 240 hour point, the DAC-1 seemed to reach a point of tonal maturity and stability; my impressions could now take a more authoritative form.

I would characterize the Classé digital source sound as being clear, shading to the "cold" side of middle ground. Regardless of the preamp/amp combination used, the DAC-1/CDT-1 demonstrated a consistent coolish tendency...never harsh or strident, but not richly seductive, either.

I have heard CD front ends...Dr. John Coletti's Levinson reference gear, or Vimak's reference piece, the 2000, as examples...that have a remarkable warmth, richness, and ease. Encore Electronics magical digital reference (with still the best implementation of HDCD™ that I've heard), the Pyramid, was authoritative, wide and deep in presentation, and marvelously coherent. Theta's wonderful Data III with the Pro Gen Va is lively, quick, and willing to be saucy and forward with the music...Carmen in silicon and metal! Linn's remarkable Karik/Numerik (about which I shall have much more to say very shortly!) is a completely different synergy.

So what as to the Classé?

I am extremely impressed with the clarity of the music that the DAC-1/CDT-1 makes. While the tonal balance is perhaps lightly cool, it is not aloof, nor harsh or grainy at all.

The best speakers for testing the imaging and soundstaging...the Merlins, and the Von Schweikert VR-6's... showed that the Classé tandem was capable of throwing a wide soundstage, with reasonable depth, given the limitations of the listening room.

The dynamics of music were finely handled; this was one of the strong suits of the DAC-1, as it provided excellent transient slap—especially with rock music. I had no problem with "overhang" in the sound...constriction or a lack of high-frequency extension...and found the openness of the music to be very fine indeed.

Timbral rendition was superb; in this category I would place the DAC-1 as a superior performer.

I would make a few recommendations to the person auditioning the DAC-1/CDT-1 combination:

1. Make sure that you upgrade the standard power cables that come with the units. Belden just won't do with the Classé; I would recommend the Tice Audio or Cardas as a good place to start.
2. Silver cables do not seem to synergize well with this coupling; stick with quality copper cable on the interconnect side of things.
3. Avoid marrying the Classé gear to solid state equipment that shades off towards the "analytical" side of things; if anything, err on the side of warmth downstream. I heard the Classé equipment sound its best when it was driving triodes or hybrids; the sound with the Spectron was good, but drier. Tastes vary, but keep this in mind when considering an audition.
4. Make sure that you allow Classé's recommended 300 hours of run-in, and don't be too hasty to form an early conclusion as to the sound. The DAC-1/CDT-1 combo starts out a bit aloof, but fills in nicely as the weeks go by.
5. Experiment with some tweaks...Shakti Stones work wonders with units like these from Classé. (Don't like tweaks? Fine...don't do it!)

All in all, Classé has produced a pair of exceptionally fine and thoughtfully designed products in the DAC-1/CDT-1. Have some fun getting the most out of them...don't be afraid to tweak...then enjoy!