Classé CA-M400 Multi-channel Power Amplifier 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Multi-Channel Amplifiers
Written by Jerry Del Colliano   
Tuesday, 01 February 2005

Classe is one of the top ten most recognizable names in high-end audio history, with a respected lineage that goes back decades. Recently, Classe joined forces in, as some are calling it, a “slow takeover” of the company with the investment firm that owns and operates B&W loudspeakers and Rotel. Their first move was to hire one of Mark Levinson’s big gun executives, Dave Nauber, to run the show. Like Maserati, the newly-reconfigured Classe set out to significantly redesign every element of their product line, from the look of their products to functionality to dealer networks and beyond. Their goal, and I am one who believes they will be successful in this, is to elevate Classe from a Top 10 AV company to one of the most elite brands in the world.

One of the new Classe’s first offerings is a reference-level monoblock amplifier system for high-end audio and home theater use. The CA-M400s are 400-watt-per-channel amps that can be placed in the traditional location beside your speakers or rack-mounted as a part of an ultimate theater system in a 5.1, 6.1, 7.1 or beyond configuration. Normally, the feature set of an amplifier is pretty simple – they power any number of your speakers at a reported watt-per-channel level. In the case of the CA-M400s, their amps do a little more. They are designed to work with a smart system and offer RS232 connections, on-off triggers, computer configurability and computer accessible diagnostics. It is reported that Classe might be one of the only amps that can run both single-ended (RCA) and balanced operations (XLR) without making a physical change to the amp (like flipping a switch). For those looking for classic audiophile A-B tests, this could be cool. I plugged in my balanced Transparent Reference XLR cables and squeezed the spades of my Transparent Reference speaker cables into the space-aged speaker connectors on the back of the amp. With the press of a button, I was in business with these $10,000 per pair amplifiers.

Before I get to the music and movies, it is important to note the aesthetics of the new Classe products. Despite what purists will tell you, the look of a high-end audio product matters. They are, in many ways, performance sculpture, a technological statement that is neatly bolted to your rack or put up on pedestals on the floor of your media room next to your favorite speakers. Let me be the first to rave about the look of the new Classe line. One could argue everything has already been seen in terms of amp design, but the CA-M400s look fresh in terms of their sleek and modern industrial design. The curves on the front of the component gives the amp a sexier, more human look and the way the heat sinks are integrated into the back leave the lines simple and uncluttered. The blue light is reminiscent of my Krell amps and glows beautifully on my floor, yet is never distracting, even during a movie or serious listening session. Classe’s new look is one part Pierre Koenig (famous Los Angeles-based modern architect from the 1950s) shaken with another healthy part of Jonathan Ivey (Apple Computer’s industrial designer know for the iMac and iPod). While the technical chops of the amp are of ultimate importance, the fact that the Classe looks like it belongs in a modern home and a professionally finished interior is also of note.

The Music
On Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow” from Axis Bold as Love (MCA – CD), the clean tone of Hendrix’s upside-down Fender Stratocaster takes on a more open and detailed sound than I had been used to hearing in my room with my reference Krell FBP 350 monoblocks, Mark Levinson No. 336 and other high-end amps. The cracks and smacks on the snare during main verse of the song coming from Mitch Mitchell’s drum set have life and vibrancy to them, yet never sound over-the-top or bright. On “Up From the Skies,” Noel Redding’s bass has a round yet hefty sound to it. I even turned off my Revel Sub 30 woofer to hear just my Wilson Watt Puppy version 7.0 speakers rock the lower octaves of the track. You can hear and feel part of the groove, but it is the subtlety of the bass that solidifies the entire sound stage above it.

Acoustically, the Classe CA-M400s do their best. On “Mother,” from Disc One of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the three-dimensionality of the strumming acoustic guitar is believably real. In the second verse, it is immediately apparent when the organ sneaks into the mix, despite the fact that the instrument moves in very subtly. The bass guitar sound big, yet not bloated whatsoever. In many ways, you can hear how these amps would rock on a pair of B&W 800s, considering how controlled both the amps and the speakers are, with special attention to the all-critical midrange and its openness. On one of the less famous tracks on The Wall, “Don’t Leave Me Now,” you can hear the eerie breathing in and out recorded on the track, which in some ways keeps time during the early part of the song. The ability to resolve details, even ones buried deep in the tracks, gives a Classe owner the ability to hear elements of his or her favorite records in ways not easily heard in even top audio playback systems.

On Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By” (MFSL stereo SACD), the Classe CA-M400 amps showed off their ability to reproduce depth of field. In the introduction, the warm-sounding Hammond organ is sweetly layered with the vast string section creating many different listening opportunities. By the first verse, the righteously sleazy song strips down to a bare bones mix where the squeaky and brash guitar takes on the kind of bright yet lively three-dimensionality that you expect from Miles Davis’ horn. At first, to counterbalance the brightness of the guitar, there are ultra-smooth wa-wa strummings and then Hayes’ rich voice, layers of horns, strings and a great-sounding bass. Not only does the track have soul, it has life, energy and musical three-dimensionality on my system with the Classe CA-M400s in the loop.

Clearly, openness and resolution of even slight details and layering are strengths of the Classe CA-M400s, but I wanted to see how they kept up with the best performance element of my Krell FPB-350 Mcx amps. What Krells do so well is handle dynamics and bass even at top levels. I spun up Dark Side of the Moon on SACD for “Time” (Capitol – SACD) and buried the volume on my Meridian 861 preamp. At 90 (that’s really loud), the Classe kept up with the cacophony of chimes and bells without showing signs of the end of the power reserve of the amps. The ensuing bass and drum intro to the track had the power and low end you’d expect from a live show. All that was missing was a really cool laser light effects show, like the kind you get at the Planetarium.

On “Show Me How to Live,” from Audioslave’s self-titled record on DualDisc (Epic), I really put the Classe amps to the test. This track, with its 24-bit 96 kHz stereo track and bombastic hard-rocking flavor, simply begs to be played loudly. With volumes set at a rock-the-house and offend-an-audiophile level, the track sets out with aggressively digging bass in a slow march towards a musical explosion. The Classe amps keep Chris Cornell’s voice beaming way out in front of the soundstage, even when the chorus erupts into a somewhat messy explosion of sound. Note: there is nothing messy about the way the Classe amps reproduce the chorus; this is a critique of the mix of the album, even on higher-resolution DualDisc. The verses, on the other hand, are about the most intense, enthusiastic, high-resolution rock you will have the chance to hear at home.

If the Classe CA-M400s amps could hang with Audioslave at top volume, then I was no longer worried about the depth charge scene in “U-571” from D-VHS playback. While the bass is amazingly powerful in the “point one” channel, I turned off my sub to hear the speed and clarity with which the Classe amps could keep up with this demanding soundtrack. I could quickly understand how designers would want to rack-mount an entire battery of these amps to physically rock a large, dedicated home theater room. They have impressive headroom for movies and can play loudly and impressively at top theater levels. The amps’ ability to reproduce layering noted earlier is not lost on film soundtracks. The dynamics of Alec Baldwin’s speech in “Glengarry Glen Ross” (D-VHS) are spellbinding, not just for the prose but for the overall sound.

The Downside
It is always hard to find a fault with top amplifiers, especially at this level. One small issue I had was the fact that, with both amps flanking my Wilson WATCH center speaker, the orientation of the lights on the front of the amps are not symmetrical. While this would look more linear in a rack with a vertical placement, when placed on the floor, it looks slightly off.

The speaker connectors on the back of the amp are more complicated than the ones on my Krells. The Krell speaker connectors are simple, large twist devices. The Classe speaker connectors are metal, with a plastic covering. I found it somewhat challenging to get my spades into the Classe amps. Ultimately, I got the cables in for a snug fit, but it took me a little while to make it work.

I am not one of the proponents of aftermarket power cables, especially for top-end amps. My Krells and the Mark Levinson amps that I have previously owned removed the possibility of switching power cables by simply providing a fixed, ultra-thick, hospital-grade AC power hose from the back of the amp. Classe gives users the ability to change power cords, which could be useful for the tweaky audiophile or, more importantly, for the custom AV rack builder. My problem was that, with the amps on the floor, the power cable provided simply wouldn’t lay flat and/or look like it belonged next to my Transparent Reference cables. I know this is a small beef, but with the sexy good looks of the amp, it would be cool if the cables would not distract from the installation on the floor of a high-end listening room.

Classe’s new-look amps are as good as any I have heard or reviewed in the price category and should be considered among the likes of Krell, Mark Levinson, Linn, Halcro and the rest of the best amplifiers in the world. The Classe CA-M400s have the headroom and power to tackle rock concert volumes and theater level explosions.

At this ultimate price level, one picks an amp based on the subtle differences and flavors of a top amplifier. The Classe CA-M400s are powerful yet polite. They do best with acoustical music because of their superior resolution in midrange reproduction. But the Classe CA-M400s are no sissies. They rock hard for music and movies. Trust me, the competition is headed out to hear these amps; soon there will also be Classe AV preamps and universal players. Classe has redesigned their entire line and are poised to take an even bigger share of the ultra-high-end market.
Manufacturer Classe
Model CA-M400 Multi-channel Power Amplifier

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