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.
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.
Everything else about the CSA14 is standard, circa 1993 integrated amplifier practice: a quiet and competent 47k Ohm phono section, four line inputs, a tape monitor stage, decent socketry and binding posts balance control, no unnecessary frills. Inside, it's top quality components, clean layout, short signal paths, separate earthing on the power supply and a light show. Eh? Copland has filled the CSA14 with red LEDs to control localised voltages, a cluster of 1.6V Hewlett-Packard devices which also serve as a method of diagonostics. Should one not light up, the engineer or repairperson knows just what stage has failed. A green LED has been installed at the output terminals to indicate switch-on stability, the unit switching on after a mute period to ensure that no nasties reach your speakers. Note, though, that the light show is only visible from above.
And then there's the super-clean styling, all the more impressive if you've longed for some Cello... priced perfectly, preferring the greater perceived value of separates once the dosh level has increasedactually few real impressiveabout beingSo amp, unspokenbut t looks almost exactly like : And from six feet away, few can tell the difference.the Copland soundthetheedid it bother with products Yesn almostonly , the New Male in brushed aluminium, quiche-eating and unworthy of a diet of Metallicaor gender-specific bigstill acreage with quality or worth.
Maybe I've been ignoring the small stuff for too long, or maybe Copland makes even better gear than I remember. Whatever, the CSA14 is one powerful unit despite a rating of only 60W/ch. Sandwiched inbetween 20,000 worth of Krell CD player and speakers ranging from 15 ohm minis to sub-3 ohm ribbons, the Copland never behaved like the weeny little amp its case suggests. MTDs, Sonus Fabers, ATCs, Apogees -- all types, impedances, sensitivities responded well, and it meant an easy review period because power-related mismatches just didn't occur. Maybe I've just lowered my head-bang threshold...
Source equipment proved equally unfussy, once I accepted that the Copland wasn't designed to accept low-output m-c cartridges. With everything from the Krell Reference 64, Audio Alchemy DAC-In-The Box, Krell MD-10 and Primare 204 digital products to the Sony TC-755 and Tandberg 20A open reel machines, the Copland reacted with equanimity. In other words, the pre-amp section is as neutral as the power amp section is sturdy. But my earlier impressions of Copland products being polite or delicate or restrained were confirmed by choice of material rather than by choice of partnering equipment.
Again, I must confess to an icreasing abhorrence to high playback levels. I probably did not beat the shit out of the Copland the way I might have a couple of years ago. All for a quiet life, I concentrated on the amplifier's finer points, its way with subtle details and low level information.
Okay, so the CSA14 didn't fall to pieces when asked to construct a wall of noise. Even when driving the wattage-swallowing Sonus Faber Minima Amators, the kind of speaker I'd expect to be mated to the CSA14, the Copland surrendered gallantly, with a tube-like softening rather than the expected solid-state shriek. I did turn up the wick on occasion, I did audition the requisite number of HM and dance tracks, and did not at any time feel like the Copland showed nerd tendencies. It just seemed to prefer the subtle, the delicate, the refined.
There's a sense of fragility to the spatial characteristics of the Copland, like the walls could cave in at any moment. Instead of super-glued Krell image positioning, or wide-open-spaced vintage tube horizons, the Copland's soundstage seems to have been crafted in filigree. Hey, I'm just as embarrassed at the analogy, but there's no other image which springs to mind. The CSA14 delivers the 3D picture, but a constant sense of lightness and delicacy comes perilously close to compromising the illusion. This was consistent from speaker to speaker, a feeling that the amplifier was working on the edge of its abilities -- not in terms of power but of resolution.
Curiously, this was not accompanied by a sense of strain. If a lack of power were the issue, then strain would have been in evidence. This fragility is a quality I'd rather you heard for yourself because you'll think I'm imagining it otherwise. Which begs a question: what does it take to make the Copland tip over the edge? The answer is: I don't know. At no point did the sound turn raggedy, and no point did images shift or the soundstage collapse.
What holds everything together with the CSA14 is its coherence, regardless of music type, operating conditions or partnering equipment. WIth a degree of competence rare at the price point, the Copland manages to produce uniform sound -- in terms of texture, balance, transient activity and weight -- right across the spectrum. It's like a full-range electrostatic loudspeaker speed or a good set of headphones. Also like the latter, it sounds a bit small.
But perfectly formed.
Putting the Copland CSA14 into context is easy: It's a brilliantly conceived product for a specific price point and a certain type of consumer. It is not a high-end substitute. It is not an audiophile penis extension. Rather, it's a mature, sophisticated, adult NAD3020. And that's meant as a compliment. It's the ideal upgrade for all of those who started out in audio over a decade ago and only just realised that their 249 starter systems from 1979 are starting to decompose. But there's a bonus. Unlike budget integrateds, for which the owner is always apologising, the Copland possesses that certain something else, what the Yanks call 'class'.