Issue No. 1 1998
by Larry Cox
My listening tastes are still evolving. When I purchased Vandersteen 2Ci's, I wanted a full-bodied sound which conveyed a sense of lyricism and melody, knowing that the speaker was not as detailed as many others. I still like and respect Vandersteens, but after years of listening to more and more gear I don't think that I could now accept their compromises. (I haven't heard the newer 2Ce's, so have no comments about them.) What I want at present is gear that remains lyrical and melodic, and with plenty of detail, but not at the cost of accurate timbre. I want warm but detailed sound. Previously I equated warmth with bass extension, but that is a mistake. There are lots of components with deep bass, but which lack the warmth that seems accurate to me. Thus, the lamb I sacrifice for contentedness is bass extension. The interim holy grail is a resolving system with realistic timbre and a slightly warm, perhaps even dark sound. I'm not sure that I really want darkness, but I know that a bright system would be short-lived in my living room.
When I moved from a PSE Studio Mk IV amplifier to the Classe CA100, I got just about as much detail but a bit more tube-like warmth, while retaining the sense of "properly" reproduced timbre. I have been quite happy with the Classe. What has surprised me these past several weeks is that I now hear how grainy it is, when compared to the Alternate Audio CA35 amplifier. The Alternate is a further step along the road to more refined, more detailed sound, while retaining the ability to reproduce realistic timbre.
The CA35 is much more refined than the Classe, and at $1000 more in cost, perhaps it should be. What I mean by refined is that there is a lot less grain at every frequency response. The treble is clearer, without being harsh or etched. What is fairly astonishing to me is the difference between the CA35 and the Classe in the midrange. On Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's Facing Future, the late singer's angelic-but not pantywaist-voice is communicated with a greater sense of clarity than with the Classe, as are his ukelele and the steel guitar. On track 10, the latter instrument is played very low, and to hear it with less grain and a greater sense of strings vibrating in air is a real achievement, at least to my ears. That ability is part of what makes this amplifier pretty spectacular.
Almost everything is more transparent and more "here" than with the Classe. That increased transparency makes the singer more "present" in the room, though not as palpable or full-bodied as some tube amplifiers. In combination with my tube preamplifier, the Alternate amplifier gives an excellent sense of presence, perhaps as much as most people would want.
Many people describe Classe amplifiers as "tubey." While it has the excellent character of palpability commonly ascribed to tube amplifiers, the CA35 also bears comparison to tubes in its liquid reproduction of sound. Like tube amplifiers, the CA35 doesn't go really deep. However, like solid state amplifiers, the bottom end it does reproduce is quite solid and very tight. Its frequency response is seamless. In comparison, the Classe's more robust bottom end sounds as though it might be a bit overstated., although I confess that I really like it. The Classe's bottom end invites playing more dance music, more rambunctious rock and roll, or anything that has a substantial bottom end. I found that the bass playing of Charlie Haden on the Missouri Sky CD to be a bit more restrained and less full-bodied on the Alternate Audio amplifier, though not disappointingly so.
Tone seems to waver a little less than with the Classe. In particular, Carlos Santana's licks on John Lee Hooker's album the Healer seems more realistic. In my system, this translates as not requiring the volume to be higher to get a full sense of the micro dynamics of the instrument. Lower volume levels are not mandated because the sound is harsh, but rather because the quieter transients on the guitar seem to be more clearly or correctly reproduced. Perhaps like the portions of nouvelle cuisine, you don't need as much to get the full flavor of what you are consuming. The CA35 almost always conveyed a greater sense of transient speed and rightness than the Classe. Additionally, the top end is smoother than the Classe's, even though it is more extended and perhaps a bit more forward, without being bright.
Some classical music fares better on the Alternate amplifier, as the greater numbers of instruments are more clearly delineated. While resolving more, the amplifier doesn't lose the sense of timbre that is so important to me. Large scale works like Holst's Planets are a little more inviting on the Classe, but Vladimir Horowitz' rendition of Beethoven's Pathetique is more emotionally engaging on the CA35 because it is more delicately conveyed. What doesn't sound surprising to me now, but would have seemed heretical before living with the CA35, is that the amplifier resolves better in the near field. Its rendering of small-scale, intimate music seems to call for the listener to be seated more closely to the speakers.
The Alternate Audio CA35 could be the right amplifier for you if you are in a small listening room, listen to small jazz combinations or string quartets, or just prefer to listen at low volume levels. In that environment, the CA35 kicks the Classe's behind. Moreover, if immediacy is important to you, this amplifier will bring you within hand-shaking distance of the performers. However, if you want a funkier amplifier that will move more air for dance music or large-scale orchestral pieces, this amplifier might still do it for you, but you may have to surrender the driving sensation other similarly-priced amplifiers can provide. The CA35 is certainly worth an audition. For this reviewer, at this time, I want the macrodynamics and the more substantial bottom end of my Classe. While a truncated bottom end is not a problem, the CA35 doesn't have quite enough warmth to make me switch. The Classe isn't as highly resolving as the Alternate amplifier-it is grainy by comparison. If there were a smidge more warmth in the Alternate, I'd push the Classe out into the classified ad section without hesitation.
- Larry Cox