Prejudices have conspired to force upon this review a 'foregone conclusion'. My valve lust is well-known. My admiration for the look of Cello products is no secret. I've got a fetish about all things Scandinavian. And the girl who haunted my dreams during my teen years was named Copland. So I now have to spend a page and a half justifying my bias.
But it'll be easy. Even if I suffered from none of the above 'influences', the Copland CTA 401 integrated amplifier would win me over for the right reasons. It's a delicious, more-ish seductress which grabs the listener the way Lindt manipulates chocaholics. (Including Editor Harris, who for years has been on the choc-wagon.) And the main reason it succeeds in surprising the unwary is its near-anonymity.
Copland has been around for years, making little noise here because the operation was (1) low key and (2) handled by a so-so distributor. Now a part of the Absolute Sounds empire, it'll get the exposure it needs. Oh, and the special attention, because this product will not be an 'easy sell'.
The Danish-designed, Swedish-built Copland gives one helluva first impression because it manages to combine no-nonsense functionality with Bauhaus chic, all the while conveying big bucks build quality. The only other sub-#1500 product I can name which offers a similar mix of 'perceived value' considerations is the Einstein integrated from Germany. So Cello-like is its appearance that I approached the first tactile encounter anticipating a let-down. But this wasn't the case because the feel of the controls is Leica-like.
Svelte though the Copland may be in its 430x175x375mm (WHD) case, it's carrying around a lot of weight. The hefty transformers and solid chassis add to the 23kg, and the strain induced by schlepping it about adds to the sense of security: this thing gives an impression that it's built to last. And the longevity is reinforced by the one aspect which will limit its appeal...
The appeal limiter is the '401's output, a meagre, weedy, Casper Milquetoast 26W/channel. The upside is that the two EL34 valves per channel – capable of 48W each – are asked to deliver a mere 13W apiece. And all of the valves within the amp are the highly regarded Shuguang Golden Dragons distributed by PM Components. For the time being, though, let's leave the downside and start with the outside.
That lovely fascia sports rotary controls including a five-source selector (with phono!!!!), a tape monitor switch, a balance control (unfortunately lacking centre-detent), the volume control and the on/off switch. Why Copland placed the volume control 'one from the right' I don't know; the number of times I accidentally turned off the amplifier during a fortnight's usage is well into double figures. But I suppose you'd get used to it. That aside, the ergonomics reflect the sanity of all no-frills designs.
The back reveals the usual row of gold-plated phono sockets and an IEC three-pin mains receptacle. What's nice is that Copland offers not two but three binding posts per channel, allowing you to select four or eight ohm taps to match the amp to the speakers. And when you consider that this amplifier makes a Walkman seem like a Krell, you'll want to massage those precious watts on their way to your ears.
The case rests on tall feet and it's well-slotted to ensure cool running for the four EL34s and a clutch of E83CCs (phono section and line amp) and E82CCs driving the output valves. The amplifier runs cool enough to confuse those familiar with Class A solid-state designs or those more accustomed to valve amplifiers which think that they were waffle irons in a previous life.
The lebensraum schtick carries through to the innards, as per Brooklands – 'The right crowd and no crowding'. The input supply travels through a custom-made, magnetically-screened 500W toroidal transformer feeding a 400mf capacitor reservoir. Two separate power supplies feed the heaters: the output pentodes with a high-current AC supply and the line level valves from a solid-state bridge rectifier. The transformers are situated across the back of the chassis, in an uncluttered row spaced sufficiently away from the single PCB which covers most of the bottom plate.
This board uses a 70 micron copper track layout, with relays mounted on the surface to provide reliable switching functions with a minimum of crosstalk. As is expected in this enlighted age, earthing is of the stellar variety, and there are no switches in the signal path. All capacitors are of either polyester or polypropylene and the resistors are metal film types. The board, too, is uncluttered, so any servicing needed through the years will be as painless for the doctor as it is for the patient.
Physical set-up is absolutely straightforward, with only one option to consider. As delivered, the CTA 401 is a Class A/B design. However, your dealer can tweak it to run in pure Class-A. The penalties? Hotter running and shorter valve life. The UK distributor feels that the stock set-up is ideal, so that's how I reviewed it.
Then you get to the system matching, which brings us back to the mere trickle of juice flowing from the terminals. And it's a real ball-buster. So transparent is the CTA 401 that I could identify with ease the line and phono sources used throughout the listening sessions; mismatches going into the Copland are rare if you avoid low-output m-c cartridges. But the speaker matching...this leads us to:
Read more about the CTA 401 on Page 2.
Richard Allan is one of those hard-working stiffs that hi-fi buyers
hear little about. Unlike the glamourous designers or high-profile
retailers, the behind-the-scenes workers merely get on with their jobs.
Richard, who also works as a consultant for Ruark and Celestion, knows
a thing or three about small, monitor-type box speakers, so I courted
his suggestions when it appeared that no speaker in my arsenal would
play much above whisper level with the Copland, including the LS3/5A
Richard just happened to have a pair of Sonus Faber Minimas in the
back of his Renault when he delivered the Copland. All of you know that
I was Sonus Faber'd years ago, charmed by the Electas, seduced by the
Amators and then clubbed over the head and dragged back to the cave by
the Extremas. Yet I missed out on the Minimas, a speaker with the same
frontal aspect as an LS3/5A but a few centimeters greater depth.
Two-way, ported at the back, bi-wirable, clad in that gorgeous Italian
walnut. Sensitive, swinging, rich, detailed, coherent. This bambino is
one of the greats, a Dino amongst the Daytonas.The #998 Minima sounds
like an LS3/5A which went to work for ITV...
Given that the CTA 401 has no grunt whatsoever, you cannot even
begin to consider it for your system without accepting the need for
truly sensitive loudspeakers. Forget SL700s, Extremas, TDLs, panels of
most varieties, WATTs, whatever. Think 88-90+ dB per watt and you're on
the right track. Still, you have to try the Copland with the speaker,
because the sensitivity cannot be separated from the impedance, and
specs never seem to match the empirical results.
Paired with the Minima, the Copland was just about able to produce
decent levels, with only a few dynamic swings and crescendos causing
the amp to run out of steam. Given that I hate ear-busting – I even
bang head at sub-85dB @ 1m levels – I found the match to be one I
could live with and without regrets. But (and I'm writing this in the
upper case) YOU DARE NOT PURCHASE A CTA 401 BEFORE HEARING IT WITH THE
EXACT SPEAKERS IN THE EXACT ROOM IN WHICH IT WILL RESIDE.
Now that's out of the way, I can tell you that the CTA 401 is like
an Air Tight which has enjoyed a 50 or 75% price reduction. It glows
(literally and metaphorically) in the classic valve manner, with the
see-through sensations of a circa-'91 high-end solid-state pre-power
combo. This can only be attributed to the noise-avoidance programme
undertaken in the design – the shielding, the light demands placed on
the valves, the wide-open spaces under the lid. If the perfect modern
valve product is one which behaves with the composure of a
set-and-forget solid-state unit, then the Copland is as modern as next
month's The Face.
The transparency of the pre-amp section is such that you'll hear
vivid differences between sources, as the sonic character of the line
inputs match those of the phono section. Swap with confidence from LP
to CD, knowing that this isn't an amp with afterthought RIAA. You'll
find it a willing assistant when choosing between future source
upgrades, because it appears to offer the naked truth.
But it is as valve-y as you can get before the on-set of
rose-colouration. The bottom end is tight but not dry, so you're
unlikely to mistake it for a solid-state amplifier; there is, however,
adequate damping to fool you the other way. The top? Sweet enough to
keep the Minimas from spitting or hissing and extended enough to
exploit the Esotar tweeter in the dearer Sonus Fabers. (Too bad this
could only be tested at levels too low to enjoy...) But the real glory
is the midband, something of a relief as the amplifier will drive too
few full range muthas and most small quality monitors need only a
midrange champ to deliver their best.
The midband is sweet and clear, a haven for vocalists and acoustic
instruments. No colorations were noticed with any regularity, though it
emerged that the '401 can't unclutter performances consisting of too
many instruments chasing too many patterns. So, abstract jazz, acid/rap
and Zappa fans may find the Copland a tad sluggish. But the sound is
never nasty or fatiguing, again reminding me of the Air Tight.
What the Copland does, at #1498 and with a speaker like the Minima,
is provide genuine high end sound but on reduced scale. It will not
serve those who change speakers at frequent intervals because it will
restict the choices by far too much. If you fall in love with the '401
but need more oomph, try the slightly more powerful CTA 501 – also at
#1498 but less the RIAA section.
The '401 is a city-dweller's high-end amp, a genteel, refined honey
of a product which serves the modern audiophile in the way that the hot
hatchback has supplanted the road hog. I reckon it will appeal to far
fewer audiophiles than would a sonic Scud dumping a kilowatt, but to
hell with the audiophiles. Music lovers lacking megalomaniacal
tendencies are just gonna lurve it.