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Sutherland CA 800 Stereo Preamplifier Print E-mail
Friday, 01 January 1999
ImageIt takes more than just great sound to sell a high priced two channel preamp these days. You really have to want it. Perhaps "want" is too weak a term. You really need to lust after it. A new preamp should be so cool that you start to drool at the idea of plugging it into your music system. This is exactly the sensation you get when you audition the Sutherland CA-800. Drooling.

Its interface and design are unlike any preamp I have ever encountered. The front plate of the preamp is missing any kind of "volume knob." In its place are two rows of sensors that detect changes in capacitance and or resistance caused, simply, by your finger moving from one end of the sensors to the other. Changing inputs requires you holding your finger near the sensor that corresponds with the desired input. Simple tasks like raising and lowering the volume on the Sutherland CA 800 make you fell like you are James Bond having your fingerprint scanned at British Intelligence Headquarters.

The internal design of the Sutherland CA 800 is unique. The front plate is in no way physically connected to the truly dual mono preamplification sections. Much like many home theaters, the Sutherland CA 800 uses IR controls from its cutting edge front plate to the preamp circuits. This proves to provide superior isolation and removes levels of design complexity from your music playback. The Sutherland CA 800 can be configured to be a preamp as I tested it, priced at $5485 or $6370 with a built in phono section. If you'd like to combine a 100 watt per channel amp in your CA 800, the price jumps to $8220. While Sutherland's new, no button remote is not yet available, it will soon sell for $100 and will use motion to control inputs and volume.
The Music
The Sutherland CA 800 was a pure joy to listen to. Never did I feel like the preamp was adding anything I didn't want to hear to the signal path. It always sounded very musical and functioned flawlessly. Its open architecture structure reminds me of a Cello Audio Suite, as did its warm, but very resolute sound. "How Insensitive" featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim and Sting from Red, Hot and Rio (Verve), captured wonderful layering of piano, percussion, stand up bass and delicate guitar while at the same time kept Sting's voice focused way up front in the soundstage. The width of the soundstage was every bit as good as what I heard with my Mark Levinson No. 380s or the BAT VK5i.

I tested the speed and pace of the Sutherland with Marcus Miller's "Funny (all she needs is love)" from The Sun Don't Lie (PRA Records) and the CA 800 excelled. The bass on this cut is extremely powerful and deep even on lesser systems. However, the trick is to see how well your system keeps up with the subtle details while pounding out the subsonics. With the CA 800 in my system, I found the cymbal decay times to be more realistic, while there was that razor edge on the muted trumpet.

On lesser recordings I found new levels of detail that I have never heard before. On Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lot of Love" from Led Zeppelin II (Atlantic) the whole swirling, psychedelic solo showed both increased detail and expanded width in soundstage. Jimmy Page's guitar solo, tightly focused on the right side of the stage, scorched with that indelible Les Paul to-the-max, dingy sound. In all my years of hacking out this song in various garage bands as well as hearing the cut thousands of times on the radio, I never before heard the hard panning from left to right on the "Way down inside... Woman... You need me" bleed through vocals. Finding new levels of resolution and enjoyment from beloved albums Like Led Zeppelin II makes a solid argument that the lofty price of high performance music systems are truly worth it.

The Downside
The CA 800 is not a balanced preamplifier which really threw me for a loop. My reference system is fully balanced, including a Mark Levinson No. 36s dac, No. 380s preamp and No. 333 power amp. The CA 800 forced me to call in a favor with Transparent Audio who graciously lent me a 20 foot Reference RCA interconnect to hook up the Sutherland preamp. Additionally, while there are balanced inputs, there are only one set of unbalanced outputs. Oops. I needed to then use Radio Shack Y adapters to spilt the signal from my Sutherland out to my Mark Levinson No. 333 and my two Sunfire Signature Subwoofers. I was not thrilled about adding the Radio Shack element into a cable system priced at nearly $15,000.

Ron Sutherland and I discussed the issue of balanced versus unbalanced operation. He is convinced that unbalanced operation is superior because of its simplicity. I have heard the difference that balanced versus unbalanced operation has made in my system, thus I was less convinced. We agreed to disagree on the topic, but it would have been helpful to the argument to have had the option of both balanced and unbalanced outputs on the CA 800. We would have been able to settle the score the old fashioned way, with our ears.

The lack of ample outputs is a clear weakness and a possible excuse not to invest in a CA 800. The makeshift universal remote control which I was given to use while waiting for the high concept Sutherland remote, was less than excellent as well. The remote worked, but lacked the "wow" factor that walking up to the unit and dialing up the sensors has.

The Sutherland CA 800 is a great preamp designed to perform to the highest standards. It is not loaded with all of the bells and whistles that you'll find on say a Krell or a Mark Levinson, yet the musical playback on the Sutherland CA 800 is absolutely excellent. The interface is revolutionary and makes the CA 800 truly a conversation piece at a cocktail party. The lust factor is off the scale with the Sutherland Engineering CA 800. If you are in the market for a two channel preamp, I highly recommend you hunt one down for audition. You will not be disappointed.

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