ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

December 15, 2004

Classé Audio Delta CDP-100 CD Player

As Classé Audio enters its 25th year as a maker of quality audio electronics, the company is introducing its new Delta line: five power amplifiers, an integrated amp, a stereo preamp, and the subject of my attentions over the past few months: the Delta CDP-100 CD player.

The name "Delta" might induce some of us to make the associative leap to riverine or Mississippi blues connotations, but Classé says its Delta refers to the Greek letter, used in math and engineering as a symbol indicating difference or change. A smart label -- audiophiles thrive on those two attributes, although they’re too often obsessed with blowing up minute differences into major ones, and change often means swapping last month’s hit item for this month’s.

But my time with the Delta CDP-100 suggests that it does indeed encompass some new features in a Red-Book-only CD player, and that it’s likely to exhibit stronger staying power than some of its flavor-of-the-month rivals.

The look . . . and the touch!

I won’t comment on the rest of Classé’s Delta line, but photos make it apparent that the Delta gear makes a strong visual statement that’s a far cry from the typical black box. The CDP-100 is handsome; its silver face split horizontally by a black line that effectively masks the disc drawer and the Standby, Menu, and Load buttons. A black square with a center TFT touchscreen display covers about a third of the front panel, giving it an elegant, dramatic appearance.

Classé further enhances the drama with a design that combines grace with solidity; the player looks bigger and heavier than it actually is, although at 26 pounds it’s no lightweight. And those thrusting black insets and widely rounded front edges make for a fetching design statement. The chassis is steel and aluminum; the front-panel wrap is aluminum, and the feet are of Navcom, designed to reduce the effects of vibration.

Back to that touchscreen: On startup, the screen displays the Classé logo. Load a CD in the drawer and the screen automatically displays options -- Play, Pause, Forward, Reverse, Stop -- along with access to controls that allow setup options, programming tracks, shuffle play, language selection, and a bunch of others, including programming the remote control’s four F buttons. Just touch the labeled box on the screen to get the player to dance to your tune. The screen’s brightness can be varied from very bright to medium to low. I found the relatively large screen a huge distraction, but this is easily remedied as the user can program the CDP-100 to turn the screen dark after a specified period of time. Checking track and time requires pressing another button to restore the screen, making me long for the simple displays of standard CD players.

The remote control is another intriguing piece of design work: an 8.5"-long, silver oval slab with 37 small buttons that, if all options are programmed, does everything but open the loading tray and make coffee. Push any button, and all of the remote’s buttons light up pale blue, introducing a bit of Broadway glitz to your listening sessions. This hefty little monster includes volume controls that work only with Classé’s preamplifier.

The remote can also control volume for other Classé products, such as surround processors. A bi-directional RS-232 control port is included for downloading new operating software as well as sending status information if you have external control components. A DC trigger input and output for integrating the CDP-100 with a home-theater system is available as well. The player also sports the standard balanced and single-ended output jacks, a coaxial digital output that enables the Delta’s use with an outboard DAC, the on/off rocker switch, and a receptacle for the power cord.

The feature-laden CDP-100 has built-in appeal for those who desire the utmost flexibility from a CD player and who love new wrinkles, such as the touchscreen. My own reaction was somewhat more subdued; I didn’t thrill to the screen’s intrusive stare, nor did I warm to its touchy-feely aspects. And while the CDP-100 is convenient and simple to operate, I couldn’t quite ditch my suspicion that Classé’s approach to the simple task of playing a CD was unnecessarily complex.

Of course, digital is inherently complex, so such technophobic quibbles don’t apply to a player’s insides. The CDP-100 supports Red Book CD, CD-R, CD-RW, and HDCD. A pair of Burr-Brown 1738 DACs operate in mono mode for maximum channel separation, and standard CDs are automatically upsampled to 24-bit/352.8kHz D/A conversion. The player includes sophisticated protection circuits and a modified Philips VAE1250 disc transport.

Loading CDs was excruciatingly slow, however, given how quickly most players do the job. And when I hit Play, whether via the remote or the touchscreen, there was an audible chirp from the unit, as if an interior bird was confirming that the music was about to start. That’s not a complaint; the chirp was barely noticeable from the listening position, and there was enough of a delay between birdie and music for it not to be an issue.

More serious was an intermittent problem I encountered with certain discs: After I’d loaded them, the mechanism emitted a whirring sound and "Please insert a disc" appeared on the screen. Repeated tries elicited a second message: "the mechanism seems to be stuck," which can be translated as "the player ate your disc." The problem was easily solved by putting the unit in Standby, shutting off the power, then starting it up again a few minutes later. Sometimes the disc then played, sometimes it didn’t. Some of the new RCA Living Stereo hybrid SACDs never played at all, though they had no problems on my reference Metronome T-20 Signature. A friend took a pair of the RCA discs to his dealer to try them on the store’s CDP-100. One played, the other didn’t. Classé Audio has since stated that a software update has been implemented to address both the disc-reading problem and the slow disc-reading times. Classé’s excellent manual discusses voltage variations that might kick in the protection circuit, but I had no such problem with my reference. To put this in perspective: I had trouble with only five or six discs in two months of heavy use.

Despite this, I have no hesitation in saying that the build quality of the CDP-100 is outstanding. When it arrived chez moi, I didn’t know its price. Freeing it from its shipping container and considering its heft, fit and finish, and stunning looks, I figured it retailed in the neighborhood of $10,000. Wrong. It goes for $3500 USD. Given that its sound, build, and looks are superior to those of many players costing shameless multiples of its price, the Delta CDP-100 qualifies as a bargain in this market.

Making music

I used the Delta CDP-100 in my reference system, which includes the Wyetech Opal preamplifier, Jadis JA-80 monoblocks modified with Siltech internal wiring, Von Schweikert VR-4 Gen III HSE speakers, Siltech Classic Series SQ-110 interconnects, and Siltech Classic Series LS-188 speaker cables. Comparison listening was done with the Metronome T-20 Signature transport and C-20 Signature DAC and, very briefly, the Lector CDP-0.5T. Accessories included Vibrapod and Vibracone isolators and Harmonix footers.

Classé’s manual says that the CDP-100 needs up to 300 hours to fully break in. That’s about what I’d expect from some loudspeakers, but I played along by leaving the unit turned on and spinning a disc on Repeat day and night for a couple of weeks, dipping in occasionally to monitor progress but not doing any serious listening until I felt it was up to snuff. That came after 200 hours or so, after which I continued to log hour after hour of enjoyable listening. After enjoyment, work -- the kind of note-taking, nit-picking detail work we reviewers do.

First up was the JVC XRCD disc of Fritz Reiner conducting Mussorgsky-Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition [JMCXR-0016], which I was anxious to compare with the CD layer of the new RCA Living Stereo hybrid SACD release [RCA 61394]. Good as the RCA was, from the JVC I heard more bite to the solo trumpet in the Promenade sections, more air around the instrument, a more vibrant snare drum in Bydlo, and the portrait of Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuyle yielded overwhelming impact through the unison strings of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, more powerful bass, and appropriately piercing wails from the muted trumpet.

I was also impressed with the way the CDP-100 loved a later CSO offering, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with Georg Solti at the helm [JVCXR 0225]. The unit’s transparency was impressive as the opening bassoon solo floated on a bed of air as well as shortly thereafter, when the strings entered with their obsessive percussive rhythms. Detail was there too, as the rumbling contrabassoon was clearly heard within the orchestral fabric. Other parts of the disc fared slightly less well. I’ve heard the strings at the start of Part II projected with more presence; through the CDP-100 they were sometimes lost in the welter of percussion, though the latter was well portrayed.

Solo violin is a critical test for a CD player, especially a solid-state design, so I turned to a pair of recent discs I’ve found especially useful for this: Leonid Kavakos’ recital of music by Ravel and Enescu [ECM 1824] and Itzhak Perlman Rediscovered [RCA 62516], the latter originally recorded back in 1965, when the violinist was a fuzzy-cheeked phenomenon just out of his teens. Here, the speed of the CDP-100 paid off -- every double-stop, pizzicato, and ascent into the upper regions came through with a clarity and presence that made me want to put the disc on Repeat. The ECM disc conveyed similar qualities, Kavakos’ big, soulful tone well captured in close-up sound. At one point, the violinist’s ricocheting pizzicatos are doubled by the piano, and both instruments retain their integrity -- a difficult test for CD players to bring off, but a test passed with flying colors by the CDP-100.

Jazz recordings sounded particularly alive through the CDP-100. On the well-recorded Illuminations [Telarc CD-83599], a quintet led by pianist McCoy Tyner put the player through its paces and it met the challenge. Terence Blanchard’s trumpet had a bronzy glow and the microdynamics were especially fine, while Tyner’s fluid pianism on a Hamburg Steinway made every note tell. Rhythmic timing was precise, and there was plenty of "slam" to the drum kit on most tracks.

A more relaxed blend of jazz-inflected Latin pop-folk is found on Marta Gomez’s Cantos de Agua Dulce [Chesky JD281]. I was impressed by the way the CDP-100 rendered the singer’s sweetly mellow voice and the clarity of the fingering on the guitar accompaniments and solos.

It was when listening to opera and other vocal genres that I became more conscious of a very slight edginess in the mid-treble, an effect that spilled over into other music as well, including the violin discs mentioned above. On a smashing recital with orchestra by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe [Virgin 45702], high notes had a distinct edginess throughout. This was most intrusive in Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, where the intimate mood was compromised. The problem was considerably lessened when I played the disc on my reference transport-DAC combo, the tubed Metronome Signatures, so I experimented by using the Classé as a transport and running the signal to the Metronome C-20 DAC. Blythe’s voice lost a portion of the disc’s bothersome edginess and gained a greater degree of timbral depth.

I had similar results when the CDP-100 went head to head with the Lector CDP-0.5T during a brief listening session. Lector’s keen-eared distributor, Victor Goldstein of Fanfare International, wanted me to hear the Italian-made player, whose price tag is less than half that of the Classé. Several discs suggested a standoff of sorts, the tubed Lector displaying more of an analog-like fluidity.

But the big test came with one of my favorite obstacle courses, Puccini’s Tosca [EMI 57173], specifically the great "Te Deum" ending of Act I. Scarpia quietly schemes and the scene morphs into a massive fortissimo section that will test any system, solo baritone and chorus singing conflicting music and the orchestra going full blast. Here, the Classé’s slightly metallic highs were a distraction, though it threw a far deeper stage picture than the Lector. Oddly enough, the Classé sounded ever so slightly more transparent than its rival in the quieter passages of that track, revealing a bit more detail there, too. The oddity came when the music increased in volume; in this passage’s overwhelming climax, the Lector snapped to attention and was more transparent, while the Classé sounded more muddled.

But the Classé’s detail retrieval won out in the telling passage at the beginning of the track, where the villainous Scarpia sings quietly. At one point, as he sings "palazzo Farnese," the musical line trends downward on the pianissimo palazzo, and then veers quickly into a louder, higher-flying Farnese. The Lector rendered palazzo as pala . . . , leaving the rest of the word indistinct. Through the CDP-100, every syllable was clear. But the Lector’s rendering of the voice itself had more tonal body, resulting in a more human quality.

But sometimes such mano a mano contests are unwinnable. Both players displayed virtues and shortcomings (although the Lector was at a disadvantage in warmup time), the key ones being the Lector’s easeful liquidity and the Classé’s faint metallic quality.

Bottom line

It may be that such comparisons are just back doors into the old solid-state-vs.-tubes issue, which has been beaten to death for so long. I’m not joining that particular fray; the solid-state Reimyo CDP-777 is by far the best-sounding CD player I’ve heard. But it costs $14,000, the Classé only (!) $3500. Because the Classé Delta CDP-100 shares some of the strong points of the Gryphon Mikado ($11,000) and edges out the Ensemble Dirondo ($8980) in its less coolly analytical musicality, it shapes up as something of a bargain. The Classé is also more than a third less costly than the Cary 360/200 and the Metronome Signature C-20 DAC and T-20 transport, which supply the missing warmth I crave, so it’s certainly a viable alternative.

My time with the Delta CDP-100 was very satisfying. Despite my discussion of that faint hint of the metallic, the Classé was never fatiguing and always musical. My own preferences lean toward the tonal warmth and image density heard in live, unamplified music, but those are qualities in fairly scarce supply among CDs and players. And they’re not priorities uppermost in the minds and tastes of most audiophiles.

With its looks, build quality, flexibility, price, and overall excellent sound quality, the Classé Audio Delta CDP-100 is bound to develop a large following. It deserves it.

…Dan Davis

Classé Audio Delta CDP-100 CD Player
Price: $3500 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.

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

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

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