Product Review: Alternate Audio CA35 as appeared in audioMUSINGS

Issue No. 1 1998
by Sherman Hong

Do not be fooled by the diminutive size and weight of the Alternate Audio CA35 amplifier. This amplifier was a real discovery for me, as I had never previously heard of Alternate Audio. My reference amplifier is an Accuphase P-550, rated at 270 watts ($2500). One would think this would be a battle between David and Goliath. The Accuphase has its advantages-better bass, effortless dynamics, and so on. However, the CA35 possessed a special magic of its own. Choosing between these two amplifiers was more difficult than anticipated.

As comparison began, both amplifiers sat on Black Diamond Racing cones and "The Shelf" platforms, connected with Acrotec 6N-2050 interconnects, Acrotec 8N-1080 speaker cables, and LAT power cords. Directly driving both amplifiers was an Accuphase DP-75 CD player, with the amplifiers driving ProAc Response 3.5 speakers. The faceplate of the CA35 supports an on/off and a standby/play switch. The back panel accommodates one set of RCA input and binding posts, a master power switch, and a detachable power cord connector. The chassis is composed of machined aluminum panels, a la Jeff Rowland. The CA35 does have one quirk-the plarity is inverted. It is therefore imperative to reverse speaker connections. This is not sufficiently emphasized in the instruction manual, which would make life easier.

The CA35 had enough warmth to communicate emotion without inundating the typical solid-state-like presentation. The spatial perspective was immediate, without sounding forward. The ambiance of individual recordings came through with ease. The images of instruments were three dimensional and true, although slightly miniaturized. The music originated behind and beyond the plane between the speakers. While soundstage width and depth were not as prodigious as the Accuphase's, it was excellent by any standard.

As one would expect from such a low-powered amplifier, the bass was not as abundant as my reference. The quantity of bass, however, was more than made up for in quality. The bottom octave struck with speed, control, precision, and proportional weight! The synthesizer on Watermark by Enya pounded, with dimensionality and proportionate authority. The intricate nuances on "Orinoco Flow" were reproduced with detail and clarity. All instruments came through with a sense of air and space between performers that was on a par with my reference. At normal listening levels, the music never compressed or smeared during strenuous passages. The bass, drums, and twelve-string guitars on Nicky Skopelitis' Ekstasis performed unrestrainedly, with such smashing dynamics that one forgets that the amplifier only has 25 watts of power. Nevertheless, the Alternate Audio amplifier lacked the ultimate solidity and bottom-end punch of Accuphase.

The midrange really glowed through with the CA35. Vocals and saxophones were accurate and natural. There was a sense of "tactility" that is rare among mid-price amplifiers. Dusty Springield's voice on Casino Royale came through smooth and lifelike, reminiscent the sound of tube amplifiers. Low-level resolution was effortless.

The piano notes in Beethoven's "Pathetique," on the soundtrack Immortal Beloved, decayed naturally, and were suspended in air. However, the CA35's midrange was still not quite as transparent or palpable as that of my reference.

Higher frequencies were also exceptional. The treble was transparent and clear, though slightly polite and warm. As a result, music sounded smooth and gentle. Guitar strings were pleasant and yet detailed on "Nobody knows when your down and out" on Eric Clapton's Unplugged. The cymbals were brushed with authentic sweet metallic-ness on Oxnard Sessions: Volume One. The top end sounded slightly rolled off in contrast to my reference. The Accuphase possesses the ultimate in extension and resolution without sounding excessively warm, bright, or etched.

On disc after disc I found the tube-like liquid quality of this amplifier quite delightful. I listened to entire CDs, as opposed to just individual tracks. The tonal balance of CA35 falls somewhere between tube and solid-state amplifiers. Top-to-bottom coherency and leading edge transient response were impressive indeed. The Alternate Audio will compress if pushed hard. Moderate listening levels or efficient speaker designs will be necessary to get the best out of this amplifier.

Overall, I can't recommend this amplifier more enthusiastically! It's wonderful that a bit of sonic paradise can be attained without taking a second mortgage on the house. I can't wait until its bigger brother appears on the scene.

- Sherman Hong