by Martin DeWulf
Its a well-known fact that Americans like things big. We eat Big Macs, drink Big Gulps, manufacture Ford Expeditions, implant silicone enhancements into our women, and maintain gigantic undefended borders with other countries.
Ive tried to break the mold, with my passions for two-seated sports cars, diminutive bottles of sparkling water, wearable computers that can run Linux, and short skirts. But, in the end, I cant avoid my destiny. I order the larger helping of steak, buy the large-screen TV, and listen to back-breakingly heavy, high-powered amplifiers.
Thus, when I was offered the opportunity to review the BCAP preamplifier and CA35 amplifier from Alternate Audio, I was intrigued. Traditional American Jim wanted to watch them be crushed beneath the heel of my 185Wpc McCormack DNA-1. Rebellious, cosmopolitan Jim lusted after their more svelte figure and single-ended, 25Wpc, class-A configuration. Which side would win this electronic Bud Bowl?
Alternate Audio got its start in Orem, Utah back in 1986 as a high-end-audio retail outlet. According to company founder Dan Patten, the quest was to provide customers with equipment that provided the best bang-for-the-buck performance. This left out many flashy, well-known cost-no-object designs and forced the company to seek out more obscure vendors who focused on maximizing sound value, within reason.
In doing so, Alternate Audio realized that many designs provided an excellent sonic experience without having to resort to the use of, in Dans words, "trendy or audiophile-grade components." Instead, by carefully selecting high-quality components (for example, military-grade resistors and capacitors), these manufacturers produced equipment that provided much of, if not all, the performance of the salon models, but at a fraction of the cost.
As time went on, the company began expressing this philosophy themselves through the design and production of their own line of loudspeakers, which they sold in their store. These speakers proved more and more successful over time, prompting Alternate Audio to branch out into their first electronic component, the EC-1 electronic crossover, ancestor of their current EC-6 model.
As time has progressed, Alternate Audios focus has moved entirely from their retail roots to the design and manufacture of high-end audio products. Dan Patten feels this transition has provided the company with a unique insight into the world of high-end audio, as well as granting them a superb rapport with the small, specialty audio stores that make up the backbone of the industry.
Alternate Audios desire to provide high value continues in their current product line, and in the BCAP and CA35.
The devils in the details
The BCAP (short for "Basic Class A Preamplifier") and CA35 amplifier were designed with similar goals in mind. Dan describes himself as a member of the minimalist audio design camp; he believes that keeping the number of devices in the signal path of an electronic device to a minimum helps to preserve the purity of the audio signal sent through that device. Toward this goal, both the BCAP and CA35 use only two transistors in the signal path, both MOSFET devices. In addition, Dan feels that the use of class-A designs, with their simpler circuitry, exemplifies this simplistic approach. Class-AB or -B designs, in his opinion, will also have to tackle problems with transistor matching and crossover distortion that class-A designs simply dont have to deal with.
In addition, both the BCAP and the CA35 feature differential pairs of MOSFET transistors in their input stages, and these provide voltage gain and DC offset correction. Their output stages are current regulated, and provide current gain. All resistors are metal film, and all insulators use Teflon. Both devices include detachable IEC-style power cords.
The class-A BCAP provides four identical inputs (labeled 1 through 4 in case theres any confusion) and a single pair of outputs. The inputs all provide 24dB of gain, with a 18k-ohm input impedance. Vinyl fans will be disappointed, however, as the BCAP has no phono stage. The front control panel presents a selector knob for the four inputs, a mute switch, a power switch, and volume and balance controls. The BCAP weighs in at 10 pounds.
The CA35 is a fully solid-state, high-bias class-A amplifier rated at 25Wpc into 8 ohms. It provides 24dB of gain, with an input impedance of 18k ohms. The rear panel holds, in addition to the five-way binding posts and single pair of RCA inputs, a master power switch. As long as the master power switch is activated, some circuits in the amplifier are powered up to an idle state, even if the front on/off switch is off. The CA35 is significantly heavier than its preamp cousin, weighing in at 35 pounds.
The CA35s front panel includes a power switch and indicator lights for thermal overload in the left and right channels and DC voltage. In either case, protection circuits will disconnect the speaker outputs from the circuit to protect your speakers. One unusual feature is the standby switch, which reduces the output transistors bias current by 80%. This allows the amplifier to draw less current and dissipate less heat, while still energizing the entire signal path. In fact, the amplifier continues to function in this mode, though at a drastic reduction in output power.
Appearance and ergonomics
The BCAP and CA35 arrived at my apartment well protected in their shipping cartons. Upon unpacking them, I found a pair of relatively unassuming black boxes. Their look was one of understated quality, without a lot of doodads and gimcracks. This philosophy, one illustrated by my McCormack equipment too, is one I can appreciate, particularly at this price point -- Id much rather see my hard-earned cash invested in sound than in flashy looks. The equipment was solidly-built, however, featuring high-quality input connectors and controls, with the standouts being the beautiful, heavy-duty TIFF five-way metal binding posts, a significant upgrade from my DNA-1s plastic posts. The aluminum chassis were obviously carefully machined, and were both solid and rigid, despite their relatively light weight and small size (at least compared to my DNA-1).
I set up the equipment on my rack, and connected the equipment to the rest of my system. The back panels of both devices are well laid out, making my life as a reviewer much simpler during the device comparisons that were to follow.
Powering up the BCAP and CA35 in careful, manufacturer-prescribed order, I noticed that each device provided a 15-second mute period when first energized, to protect your speakers from voltage transients. Once the mute clicks off and the lights glow appropriately, you know youre ready to play.
In my darkened room, the backlit rings around each control on the BCAP soothed me with their gentle red glow. Somewhat less soothing, however, were the loud, almost violently jarring noise problems I had trying to use the BCAP and CA35 I received, either with each other or with other equipment. After many attempts to solve the problem, with the help of the SoundStage! technical staff and Dan Patten himself, I sent the BCAP and CA35 back to Alternate Audio, and promptly received a second set of pre-broken-in demo equipment. These two pieces were absolutely silent in almost every configuration, and I was ready to begin the review. (Patten later discovered that the original CA35 was running slightly out of spec, which at least partially explains the problems I experienced)
My review system consists of the aforementioned McCormack DNA-1 and TLC-1, along with the Parasound C/DP-1000 integrated compact disc player. Wires used for the review included Kimbers HERO interconnects and 8TC speaker wire with WBT heavy-duty banana plugs, Cardas 300B MicroTwin interconnects and TwinLink A speaker cable, and JPS Labs Ultraconductor interconnects and speaker wire (review pending). Speakers used included the PSB 1000I floorstanders, Ohm Walsh 100 Mk2, and the excellent Nova Audio Bravo floorstanding loudspeakers (review pending). The PSB 1000I and Nova Audio loudspeakers were normally biwired.
The amplifiers were placed on home-brew amp stands (granite paving stones from my local building center), and all other electronics were stationed on a Michael Green Designs Justarack in natural cherry. No power filtration or surge protection was used, with all components plugged directly into the wall. All electrical connections were treated with XLOs TPC (The Perfect Connection) wipes. For comparison purposes, components were carefully level-matched with a Radio Shack digital SPL meter. Ambience was provided by scented candles from Bath and Body Works and a blue Lava Lamp. My good friend JP provided setup and room-tuning assistance, as well as a second subjective pair of ears during our weekly listening sessions. Gabby the Audio Cat served as ombudsman and technical advisor.
The final BCAP and CA35 I received from Alternate Audio has already served as demo equipment in the past, so I was assured by Dan Patten that they were already broken in. However, I still took advantage of a hectic work schedule, and spent roughly 50 hours breaking in the amp and preamp with moderately loud music during days to be certain that they were fully acclimated.
Confident that the Alternate Audio pair were fully broken in, I sat down to do some serious listening to the BCAP and CA35 working together. My bias towards high-powered equipment led me to theorize that the Alternate Audio equipment would suffer from a lack of dynamics and bass impact. This theory was dashed shortly after my listening session began.
At no time during my early listening sessions did I detect any hint of leanness or thinness to the sound; on the contrary, the systems power was more than adequate to fill my (admittedly) small listening room with powerful, involving music. I never found myself wondering if the dynamics of a particular passage would improve with the McCormack DNA-1s significantly larger rated power output; instead, I found myself engaged in and enthralled by the musical presentation.
The BCAP and CA35 presented a wide, detailed soundstage, with instrumental elements clearly defined, both horizontally and front-to-back. More importantly, the presentation was clear. At the risk of overusing an audio cliché, it was as though someone had removed a set of thin mufflers from my ears, or cleaned the glass pane separating me from the music -- there was a sense of clarity and realism that drew me into the music. On good to excellent recordings, the sound was free of grain, with none of the hash or smearing often associated with solid-state equipment, especially at this price point. The sword of clarity was double-edged, however; the revealing nature of the equipment helped to draw out some of the unpleasantness of more poorly executed recordings. At all times, however, even the most poorly recorded music stayed listenable and enjoyable -- the BCAP and CA35 never seemed to draw extra attention to flaws and ugliness. Poor recordings simply paled in comparison to the distinct wonder of the Alternate Audio equipment reproducing high-quality media.
Right before the Alternate Audio equipment arrived at my home, I had fallen in love with Paquito DRiveras Portraits of Cuba [Chesky Jazz 9037 145 2]. This 1997 Grammy-winning album combines incredible musicianship, interesting arrangements by Carlos Franzetti, and a clear, clean recording to provide one of the best big-band Cuban performances on any medium. The BCAP and CA35 rendered this delicious work of art quite faithfully. On the opening track, "La Bella Cubana," the amp and preamp threw a wide, distinct soundstage, with the acoustic of the recording venue coming across as a real, almost tactile thing. The horns had an excellent balance of body and "blattiness," without coming across as too intense, and percussion instruments came across as detailed and precise. Similar results were found with track 7, "Portraits of Cuba"; the systems presentation was involving, presenting a dynamic experience without being overly forward or grainy. Also of note was the Alternate Audio equipments incredible preservation of the various front-to-back layers of the soundstage throughout these complex, powerful performances.
Next, I moved onto a another current favorite, Depeche Modes Singles: 86-98 [Mute/Reprise 9 47110-2]. This two-disc set presents the hit singles from Depeche Modes greatest period of mainstream popularity, and includes some of what I feel to be their greatest work. The remastered editions of these songs are often a significant improvement over the original renditions, though Im not always happy with the "radio mix" versions of some of the singles that I know so well from their original albums. The BCAP and CA35s revealing nature was not as kind to some tracks from this collection; in particular, the hits "I Feel You" and "Walking In My Shoes," originally from the heavy rock-tinged Songs of Faith and Devotion, came across as rather hazy and congested, with the mixture of guitar riffs, heavily synthesized loops and noise effects being somewhat harsh and jarring. This initial impression led me to believe that perhaps the low-powered Alternate Audio equipment would have trouble dealing with complex, powerful material. However, I was proved wrong on two tracks originally from Ultra, Depeche Modes latest album. "Barrel of a Gun" was significantly clearer, with the bass beats and effect loops coming across clearly and dynamically. David Gahans voice did suffer from a sense of being heavily processed, however. The improvements were even more distinct on "Its No Good," where Gahans voice hung clearly between the two speakers and in front of the clean, distinct, and powerful instrumentals. I was also quite impressed by the live recording of "Everything Counts," from the bands famous concert in Pasadenas Rose Bowl. The equipment preserved the energy and open-air acoustic of the live performance, while not discarding the detail of the electronic instruments and David Gahans spirited vocals.
Final proof of the BCAP and CA35s incredible clarity and low noise floor came on Madonnas spectacular Ray of Light [WEA/Warner Bros. 46847]. The somewhat cheesy electronic effects on "Drowned World/Substitute for Love" were rendered startlingly, with positioning both in front of and far to the sides of the normal soundstage. Madonnas passionate vocals throughout the album were rendered clearly and movingly, with the complex electronic tapestry woven by old-school ambient artist and album producer William Orbit coming across distinctly and involvingly across a deep, wide soundstage. Of particular note was "Ray of Light," where the little amplifier produced astounding dynamic range and bass, making me go completely nuts (figuratively) while enjoying this pulsing, hypnotic dance tune.
Comparison listening: mano y mano
After gathering my initial impressions of the Alternate Audio equipment, it was time to pit the BCAP and CA35 against my stalwart DNA-1 amplifier and TLC-1 linestage, to see who would come out on top.
I began with comparisons of the BCAP and CA35 as a system, against the DNA-1 and TLC-1 (running in fully passive mode) as a system. After the extremely positive impression made by the challengers from Alternate Audio, I expected a quick KO over my McCormack equipment. However, careful listening revealed that the champs of my listening room were no slackers. The two sets of equipment were nearly dead-even in detail, both in terms of revealing musical and vocal effects clearly and in presenting the complete sound of a particular instrument or human voice. On many tracks, particularly on complex electric rock and electronica, the McCormack setup presented slightly improved bass depth and tightness, and just a slight sense of improved pacing and dynamics. The DNA-1 and TLC-1 could also provide a slightly more pleasant presentation on less well-recorded material.
To its detriment, however, the McCormack system also provided a slight sense of haze, which most often manifested itself as a sense of distance from the music, that was absent with the Alternate Audio equipment. In most cases, even on the most well-recorded material, the McCormack equipment was slightly grainier as well. The Alternate Audio equipment was most remarkable in what it didnt seem to do; it didnt mask, haze, or interfere with music, or slip in grain that wasnt in the recording. It was, overall, less veiled and more enjoyable on most music that I listened to.
Lyle Lovetts Joshua Judges Ruth [Curb MCAD-10475] is a wonderful, though oftentimes dark, album that is recorded remarkably well. On this recording, the two systems were almost indistinguishable. On the humorous, upbeat "Church," the McCormack gear sounded slightly more forward. On the more mellow "North Dakota," the Alternate Audio equipment provided a sense of being slightly more detailed. In either case, however, the differences were nearly imperceptible.
The distinct characters of the two systems came across more dramatically on Dead Can Dances live album, Toward The Within [4AD 9 45769-2]. The opening track "Rakim" threw a dramatic soundstage, with the venues acoustic being represented clearly and believably by the BCAP and CA35, while the McCormack equipment tended to render the acoustical "presence" as hazy garbage that reduced the songs clarity. Brendan Perrys and Lisa Gerrards powerful, distinct vocals came across with more authority and realism as well through the Alternate Audio equipment, with the differences in the equipment becoming even clearer as the album progressed. Of particular note were "Persian Love Song," with Gerrards powerful voice taking on a slightly hazier, less distinct tone on the DNA-1 and TLC-1, and "Desert Song," where the various instruments rung out more clearly and musically on the BCAP and CA35. On this album, the BCAP and CA35 tended to preserve front-to-back imaging and layering more distinctly than the McCormack equipment as well.
The system-on-system face-off had, in my mind, favored the Alternate Audio BCAP and CA35. However, since many people arent likely to replace both their amplifier and preamplifier at once, I spent some time trying to determine the characteristics of the BCAP and CA35 individually. To do so, I spent several evenings performing painstaking comparisons, swapping out multiple iterations of the BCAP, CA35, DNA-1, and TLC-1 (both in passive and buffered modes), mixing-and-matching, all the while using white noise from Stereophiles Test CD 2 and my handy-dandy Radio Shack digital sound-level meter to carefully match volume levels.
The clearest distinctions were between the McCormack DNA-1 and Alternate Audio CA35 amplifiers. John Williams The Seville Concert [Sony Classical SK 53 359], recorded at the Royal Alcazar Palace in Seville with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Sevilla, contains a mixture of baroque and romantic pieces, with varying paces and moods. On track 4, the first movement (Allegro giusto) of Vivaldis Concerto for Lute, Two Violins, and Basso Continuo in D Major (with the lute replaced by Williams guitar), the DNA-1 brought more body to the orchestras accompanying strings. It also tended to bring a more forward tendency to the music, particularly on the harpsichord and the higher notes of the guitar and plucked string instruments. This forwardness was never overly harsh or grainy, and could be enjoyable on some darker systems. However, in my mind, the CA35s was the more natural, musical presentation; I found myself more engaged in the music and the nuances of performance, without discarding detail.
On Telarcs recording of Carmina Burana, as performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Robert Shaw [Telarc CD-80056], the CA35 brought the chorus voices out to the region directly around the loudspeakers. It also tended to make the various vocal characteristics of different chorus members more distinct, while still preserving the musical whole. Its representations of cymbal rimshots were also slightly more defined than those rendered by the DNA-1. However, the DNA-1 did a much better job presenting the tone and power of percussion, particularly the tympanic rimshots. It also provided a slight sense of more dynamic range. The CA35 was very slightly more distinct, but the difference was less clear than on The Seville Concert.
The TLC-1 linestage and BCAP preamplifier were virtually neck-and-neck in performance, particularly when the TLC-1 was run in buffered mode. I tended to prefer the TLC-1s passive mode over either its buffered setting or the BCAP, in terms of nth-degree clarity and instrumental detail, although the BCAP and buffered TLC tended to preserve musics sense of rhythm and pacing much better. The passive line stage tended to better suit quiet acoustic performances, while more powerful recordings sounded better with the BCAP and buffered TLC.
I must emphasize, however, that the differences between the preamplifiers were incredibly minute, which is quite a compliment to the BCAP preamplifier, considering that it was often compared to a passive linestage.
I have lived, and will continue to live, happily with my McCormack DNA-1 and TLC-1. Their detailed, dynamic presentation were a superb value in their day, and continue to provide excellent bang-for-the buck performance even now. Solid-state design has perhaps moved on since the McCormack electronics were first designed, however, combining the raw power and exquisite detail of the DNA-1 with musicality and clarity previously found only with much more expensive electronics, and this was made evident by the BCAP and CA35.
I was powerfully wooed by Alternate Audios charming amp and preamp. In nearly every case, on nearly every CD, the BCAP and CA35 were more engaging and less veiled, allowing me to touch more directly the heart, soul, and passion of the performances I was listening to.
In the end, for audiophiles that value the enjoyment of music over the boytoy aspects of the hobby, being in touch with the performances they love is the most important factor. And for those audiophiles, the Alternate Audio BCAP and CA35 are no-brainers; they provide superb value, musicality, construction quality, and dynamics for their price point.- James Causey - Soundstage