Copland CSA14 integrated amplifier Reviewed

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Since the Austerity has ensured that the High End must be regarded as 'politically incorrect', is it any surprise that there's a fresh flood of mid-level products? Heretofore best thought of as the audio graveyard -- neither cheap enough to qualify as budget or 'entry level', nor dear enough to possess the prestige required by snobs -- the mid-priced sector is due for a boom. Encompassing separates which cost more than, say, £500 apiece but no more than a low four figures, the category contains just about everything which would qualify as a 'first upgrade' purchase, products just a bit too rich for novices but just right for those ditching their first systems. And, as the British are beyond doubt the meanest audiophiles in the Western World, I reckon that we're going to see a flood of NAD3020s in the classifieds, as these well-worn starter amps reach their Bar Mitzvahs and their tight-fisted owners unlock their wallets.

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Which leads me to the key area of the mid-price sector which is enjoying its renaissance: upscale integrated amplifiers. The unwritten rule in this country has been 'Integrateds up to £500, separate pre-power combinations when you go above that price'. Or so it has always seemed. The UK has never been a great market for costly integrateds (or receivers, but that's another matter entirely). But integrated amps offer a couple of benefits -- compactness, guaranteed matching of the pre-amp and power amp sections, one mains cable -- and only one 'negative': they're simply not as cool as separates. But the New Austerity has changed all that, so you can actually boast to be green by buying a single chassis instead of two. But what does it take to seduce the first-time upgrader away from bottom-of-the-line separates and toward upmarket integrateds?

Copland, aside from possessing a modicum of prestige as an import from Denmark, has always had an unusual selling point, one of which appeals only to a very narrow band of consumers. Whether deliberately or accidentally, the Copland equipment looks exactly like a piece of Cello equipment. And those who have heard of Cello know that it's the costliest, most exclusive hi-fi brand of all. So, in a wierd way, buying a piece of Copland is not unlike buying a Tudor wristwatch. It looks exactly like a Rolex but it costs wa-a-ay less.

But physical resemblance to a costlier product isn't enough to attract customers. Fortunately, Copland isn't so cynical as to leave it at Cello-ness, so the sound of Copland's products has always been something special. If I had to describe a family sound, I'd portray Copland's sonic signature as delicate, coherent and powerful, if restrained and polite. I've yet to hear any system which sounded bad because of Copland components in the chain, and I've yet to see a Copland product which didn't represent good value for money. The miracle is that the brand retains tweak credibility while offering sensible pricing and mass-market convenience/reliability.

So why the CSA14 integrated amplifier? Are not the existing fairly inexpensive and smack in the middle of the 'first upgrade' sector? True, but the New Austerity demands more, a Leftist approach to materialism which doesn't suggest that 'less is more': it insists that less is more. The CSA14 is small at 430x125x375mm (WHD), affordable at £995 and decidedly unmacho. No, no, NO, that does not mean that the CSA14 is a wussy amplifier, somehow feminine; to me, there's no such thing as gender-determinable audio gear. The CSA14 simply eschews the stiff-dick marketing embraced by those who equate mass, girth and heat-sink real estate with value.

Although Copland is known as a valve amp producer, it's not above addressing market demands with solid-state solutions. In the case of the CSA14, the technology is almost entirely solid-state, from the completely transistorised pre-amp section to the top-quality Toshiba bipolar output devices. But because Copland respects what tubes can offer, a brace of E88CCs are used in the input differential pre-driver stage of the CSA14, therefore '...allowing the notably smooth and transparent properties of the valve to blend with the power and dynamics of transistor electronics." This is something we've come across before, but it should not be regarded as a cost-based compromise. In the coming months I'll be looking at all-valve integrateds which sell for the same as or less than the CSA14, so all-tube is possible below £1000. What Copland is offering (and, to a lesser extent, AMC with the 3030) is a sonic trait, true, but also a cooler running, more user-friendly alternative. And, considering that the type of customer moving up to a £995 hybrid integrated is likely to be someone not 100% ready for tubes, the concept of a tube-like amp with the behaviour of a bog-standard tranny amp is irresistably enticing.

Read more about the CSA14 on Page 2.
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