Integrated amplifiers have often been considered a
compromise when compared to a separate preamplifier and amplifier, but in my
opinion they have always offered the best combination of performance and
value for all but the most expensive systems.
One of the most expensive parts of an
electronic component is typically the chassis. With an integrated you only
need to pay for one, which can save a huge amount of money given the same
level of electronics inside. Also, integrated amplifiers need no line level
interconnects between the preamplifier and power amplifiers, which improves performance as well as reduces cost.
So why aren't integrated amplifiers more popular in high-end audio
circles? There are several reasons, some real and others perceived. Some
believe that the separate chassis offer better performance, separating the
higher voltage amplifier stage from the lower voltage preamplifier stage.
While simple distance can reduce any problematic interference, so can
careful engineering in a well-designed integrated amplifier. However, an
integrated amplifier prevents you from upgrading either the preamp or the
amplifier; you must upgrade both, or use the pre-outs if they are present.
I manage to keep components for many years in my system. If you just have to
change components of your system on month-timescales, maybe an integrated
amp is not for you. But if you like to listen to your system, and get the
most performance for the dollar, maybe an integrated amplifier is the answer.
Another real problem is that,
until recently, high-performance integrateds have been difficult to find.
Many manufacturers have only made "value" integrated amps, or have not built
them at all. But products like my Plinius 8150i, their latest 9200i, the
Jeff Rowland Concentra II, the Krell KAV-400i, and several others, have
changed the integrated amplifier playing field.
Classé has always offered several integrated
amplifier models. My first "real" high-end system had a Classé CAP-100 at
it’s heart. This amplifier was a fantastic value, combining high build
quality, with great sound and features at an affordable price. Eventually
the upgrade bug got me, and I moved to a Plinius 8150i, which I still
have. Since the CAP-100, Classé has offered many integrated products, with
ever improving sound quality and features.
Classé became associated with
Bowers and Wilkins (B&W) in 2001, and Classé now has the engineering and financial
might of a major electronics manufacturer behind them. Classé is now the
flagship high-end electronics manufacturer in the B&W group. This has fueled
the development of their super-high-end Omega product line, and the Delta
series, of which the CAP-2100 is the integrated amplifier offering.
Delta series products include many of the lessons learned with the Omega
series. The Delta series is a bit of a departure for Classé from earlier
product lines. Design has become a more important component of the products,
and build quality, features, and level of performance have all taken a
considerable step forward. And of course, like all products, the prices
have also stepped forward.
The CAP-2100 is a single chassis version of the CP-500 preamplifier and the
100W per channel CA-2100 amplifier. It shares the Delta series cosmetics of
the other products, with a deeply rounded extruded aluminum front panel, and
a prominent blue backlit touch-screen for control.
Volume control is
provided by a large knob which drives an optical encoder. All user input is
processed via a microcontroller, as in many modern electronic components.
The microcontroller is firmware upgradeable with a RS-232 port on the rear
panel. The CAP-2100 offers three single-ended inputs (RCA jacks), and one
balanced XLR input. A tape loop is provided, and one of the inputs can be
converted to a unity-gain SSP pass-through simply by choosing “SSP” as the
name of the input. Four pairs of high quality five-way binding posts allow for
bi-wiring. The touch-screen interface allows customization of input names,
volume knob sensitivity, acceleration and maximum level, and balance, among
many others. An optional MM/MC phono stage is available, although the review
sample did not include this feature.
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