Minimalism, audiophile credibility, low prices – these I understand. But remote control? What is going on in the high end? As recently as seven or eight years ago, the mere mention of remote control would have had the Flat Earthers and the Linnies and all of the other jerk-off masochists screaming 'Compromise!', a pack of low-forehead, knuckle-dragging villagers brandishing staves and pitchforks and flaming torches as they assaulted Castle Frankenstein. But no longer is this the case. As mass market sensibilities spread like psoriasis and as CD makes us lazier and lazier, heaping its fertiliser on the couch potatoes, so do the specialist brands have to temper their purism. And Classe has performed a juggling act with its entry-level gear which takes care of both the tweaks and the button freaks...but with one tiny little proviso.
With the Thirty pre-amp and the Seventy power amp, Classé has entered a field populated by the few, the easiest for me to recall being Aragon and Musical Fidelity (with its F-Series tube/tranny hybrids). The recipe is simple: Offer to the audiophile solid, no-nonsense products at the right price while leaving out nothing important. That means the inclusion of true balanced operation (Class even includes a balanced input on the pre-amp), designer ingredients, exactly enough facilities to allow for the use of all the major sources including phono, clean styling, good build quality and a look that will not embarrass the kind of owners who actually gives a toss about the Joneses. We are talking about just-above-entry-level pricing, the rarely-addressed niche inbetween the £999 power amps and the loony tunes gear which antagonises Labour supporters. We are talking about Politically Correct hi-fi, classified as such because it blurs class boundaries. Not that this stuff is actually cheap.
The Thirty sells for £1320 and the Seventy sells for £1399. This in itself is enough to elicit sharp intakes of breath among those who would rather you sent all your money including your mortgage payment to Bosnia, but that's not the point. For a fully balanced system which delivers a perfectly adequate 75W/ch into 8 ohms and which will handle five sources plus tape and not embarrass the owner when snobs are about, £2719 is far from extortionate. Oh, and there's the matter of a remote control, too.
Unlike Musical Fidelity at one end of the price scale or Krell at the other, Class did not include source selection on the remote. The Class hand-held provides only volume up/down and mute, the latter particularly useful when the phone rings or one's significant other is calling from another room. Unfortunately, the argument for leaving off source select is specious at best – i.e. you have to get up to change software anyway, so what good is switching sources from the seat? – because some people might want to switch between tuner or TV sound and a CD or tape that's paused, while (and this is the real kicker) others (like reviewers and retailers) might wish to perform A/B switching from the listening position. It's the one 'tiny little proviso' I referred to above, but that's the decision Class made, so I suppose it's tough luck. Still, to be fair one must admit that most of the activity involving a remote control pre-amp is volume adjusting or muting.
Across the front of the Thirty (both units are available in silver or black, by the way) are the rotary for selecting inputs, the tape/source toggle, the centrally positioned infra-red sensor, a rotary balance control, a toggle to choose play or mute with a green/red LED to indicate status and the (motorised) rotary volume control. It's lean, clean and wholly functional, lacking only a mono button if one wants to quibble about what constitutes 'essential'. The back features (left to right) an IEC three pin mains input, XLR balanced outputs, top-quality phono sockets for all line sources and a pair of XLRs for balanced input. Note that the phono section can be converted to line operation, while a resistor kit is available for phono users who wish to alter its MC stage settings. Internal details include extensive mechanical isolation of the signal path circuitry, one percent custom-made metal film resistors, polystyrene and polypropylene capacitors, silver or gold contacts and custom-made controls and switches.
Measuring the same 19in wide but an inch deeper than the Thirty at 11 3/4in and two inches taller at 4 7/8s is the matching Seventy, as featureless an amp as it gets. An on/off rocker, an LED and a logo; that's the front panel in a nutshell. The back is slightly more crowded as the company has fitted the heat sinks to the rear rather than the sides. The outer areas of the back panel house the balanced (XLR) and single-ended (phono) inputs, then, moving toward the centre, come the heat sinks flanking the centre section which contains an IEC mains input, a fuse holder and multi-way binding posts. Like the Thirty, a substantial number of custom-made parts are used, including large capacitors for filtering totalling 40,000 SYMBOL 109 f "Symbol" f, with proprietary filtering of the main output transistor stage and the local supply to the low level differential amplifier stages. Smack in the middle is a single toroidal transformer powering both channels, one of the only visible economies affected by Class to keep the price so low. So, no, there aren't any false claims about dual-monoism.
Make no mistake: balanced operation throughout, including source, is the best way to employ the Class ; I used it solely in this mode. I realise that far too few source components with balanced outputs are available aside from a few high-end CD players and the late, lamented Sequerra tuner, but I only had a week in which to assess this pairing at its best rather than at its worst. Trying to assemble a like-priced system, I used the Class duo with Sonus Faber Minima Amators, Monitor Audio Ruby 3s and Rogers LS3/5As (a price span of £449 to£1449 per pair) and the Krell Studio DAC with the MD20 transport. And while the latter costs too much to assume as being used with the above in a normal situation, it formed the least expensive source I could muster with balanced outputs.
Which is almost like insulting the Class set-up because it is coherent, competent and transparent enough to warrant the use of the finest sources its owners can afford. Now read this closely because I do not want to be accused of revising the early 1980s Linn claptrap which encouraged the insane use of a state of the art turntable with a £99 amp and £99 speakers; I am not suggesting that you do the same with CD players. I still firmly believe that, for assembling a balanced system, far more important than 'garbage-in-garbage-out' is the belief that a system can be no better than its weakest component. (If I ever start blathering in a Glaswegian accent, just shoot me, OK?
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So, with the system ready to roll, each item familiar bar the Classé units, I let 'er rip. Long-term readers will know that I have had dearer Classé units in my system for some time, a DR-4 and two DR-10s, which I alternate with Krell, Aragon and Gryphon electronics for solid-state duties. Do I have a handle on the Classé 'family sound'? If the dearer models are anything to go by, it would be solid-state coherence and speed with a bit of sweetening at the frequency extremes, detailed without being too finely etched. The Classé sound is less commanding than that of Krell, less 'solid' and less extended at the frequency extremes, but it's particularly pleasant and rather forgiving. It's almost tube-like in its 'attitude'.