Amidst the myriad brands that fill the pages of hi-fi magazines are countless that have (seemingly) dropped below the radar. You just don't hear about them as much as you do, say, Linn or Krell. The reality, though, is that they've carved out niches for themselves - 'oddball OTL' or 'low-power solid-state' or other topologies - and they tootle along merrily, knowing that they have what's as close to a captive audience as is possible with audio components. The downside is that some, like Copland, deserve wider exposure.
Copland's niche? It's a double, rather than lone trait that identifies this brand. The most obvious is that the company excels at making sleek and modern solid-state/valve hybrids. Copland certainly wasn't the first to marry the two technologies in equal measure, but it certainly made the marriage viable, credible and desirable; you can see its 'children' in the wonderful amplifiers from Unico, Croft and others. But it's the other forte that marks Copland's turf for some, a group to which it's even more appealing than the tube/tranny nuptials: quite simply, the Danes at Copland have mastered the art of combining styling and construction at sane prices with such finesse that the products are most often likened (favourably) to the now-departed Cello.
What does that mean to those who don't recall that extreme high-end brand? Cello products were known for their wholly functional yet still elegant appearance and build-quality that reflected five-figure price tags. By my reckoning, the only other brand to achieve this is Nagra. With Copland, you get more than a taste of the high life, and from a catalogue with a price span of only £1299 to £2249. To put it into perspective, that's like Arcam money.
Copland has been regrouping over the past few years, consolidating its line-up and - with the CSA29 integrated amp - staking a claim in the hotly-contested 'second upgrade' sector: £1500-£2000. What's tough about it is that it's also part of the separate pre/power sector, so integrated here have to be special. And in some ways, remote control operation and svelte styling are merely icing on the cake. The Copland has to sound not just good, but wonderful.
It certainly looks and feels the part, and no audiophile who's moved from, say, a NAD or Rotel will feel like the wardrobe has been filled with hair shirts. The front panel is very much in the Northern European Minimalist vein, bearing only two knobs (source select and volume), two buttons (tape monitor and power on from stand-by) and a display showing power on or standby and the name of the chosen source.
As you can see from the photos, this is one sexy little amplifier, but its 430x110x390mm (WHD) dimensions disguise a shipping weight of a hefty 15 Kg. Part of that is due in no small part to the chunky 600W toroidal transformer and overkill power supply; then again, Copland always uses top-grade parts and the interiors of their amplifiers will not cause agoraphobia amongst the capacitors and resistors. Two 6922 valves operate in the input differential stage, while MOSFETs deliver 85W/ch from the output section; Copland expects users to get 4000 hours from the tubes.
Read more about the CSA 29 on Page 2.
Copland's back panel layout is straightforward, starting from the
left with a binding post and inputs labelled RIAA for LP playback
through the optional plug-in phono module. [Note: the board, expected
to sell for around 200, was not yet available, so I used this in line
only form.] Next are two pairs of sockets for Tape In and Out, followed
by four more pairs for line sources; they're labelled Tuner, CD and Aux
1 and 2. Next to these are two 12V DC jacks for remote on/off operation
of CD-player or other devices, a pair of multi-way binding posts and an
IEC mains input.
Two minutes out of the box, and I had it driving the Wilson WATT
Puppy System 7, fed by the Marantz CD-12/DA-12 CD player and the SME 30
turntable, Series V arm and Koetsu Urushi, through the EAR 324 phono
stage. (It also loves LS3/5As, and you may want to find a pair of Quad
10Ls for a simply blissful pairing.) Taken out of standby, the unit
requires a minute or so for the 'power' label to stop flashing,
indicating full operational status. And it sounded good from the
get-go. But not in the way that you'd expect.
It's as if Copland had some guy working in the back room, de
Paravicini-like, actively pursuing the narrowing of the gap between
tube sound and transistor. While the temptation with affordable hybrids
is to 'tune' the unit to sound more tube-like and therefore more
melodiously euphonic, Copland has opted for a less readily-definable
prejudice. As with Unison Research's all-time bargain, the Unico, the
CSA29 cannily blends the best of the two technologies, so you get
rock-solid (as in solid-state) bass with a warm-to-the-ear mid-band and
non-aggressive treble. Copland, however, has upped the ante with the
power deliver - this amp has serious grunt - and thus produced a
challenge for the less-expensive Croft GC-i.
What you get for 1898, or 648 more than the Croft, is a mix of the
sonic and sensual. However much improved the GC-i is over its
predecessors in terms of looks and build, it's still kinda garage-built
funky. The Copland oozes style and grace from every angle, and imparts
a feeling not unlike the twiddling of a Leica's (or, more accurately, a
Nagra's) controls. And it had a shade more punch, though the Croft is
no slouch. The only reason I go on about this is to point out that we
now have a simply amazing 'pecking order' for those who are tending
toward hybrids, a pecking order that proves 'you get what you pay for':
Unico, then Croft, then Copland, in ascending order of price. And all
three are winners in their respective price classes.
It's mainly about refinement, once you factor out the non-audible
differences. Quite unabashedly, the Copland 'wins' in terms of
perceived value, so the price is apt. But it's also capable of slightly
greater retrieval of low level detail, its soundstage is blessedly
large and there's an unmistakable sense of precision, especially its
transient attack and the control in the lower registers. I played a lot
of live recordings through the system, vinyl Dylan and remastered
Allman Borthers on CD, and it was able to convey audience 'mass', a
wide-open sense of large venues and concert-like levels. Moving to
studio recordings, including the back-to-the-original Let It Be...Naked
on vinyl, the Copland proved masterly with piano, electric bass and
George Harrison's delicious guitar work: the right textures, and
What it's never going to do - and what the Croft can do on occasion
- is fool you into thinking you have an all-tube unit. Although the
midband is deliriously lifelike - I used Joss Stone's soulful vocals to
torment the Copland - the extreme treble is a shade too crisp, and
almost enough to send you to your cable vendor to tame a tiny trace of
sibilance. I used Transparent cables throughout, so that wasn't an
avenue open to me. Suffice it to say, the Copland needs greater
system-matching than the Croft (or the Unico), and, I suspect, it will
prove less-forgiving of the partnering equipment.
But all of this is unimportant, and for a couple of reasons. For one
thing, I don't suspect that many buyers would spend 1898 on an amp,
only to use it with cheap ancillaries; for another, it's simply such a
joy to operate that you may be willing to trade of a shade of rosy tube
tint. And purists may balk at this but I've no doubt that a major part
of the Copland experience is the sheer tactile delight in using an
amplifier that makes you think there's a Porsche Carrera 4 in the drive
and a Dufour on your wrist. Only this time, you didn't pay Cello money.