Classe Cdp 202 (£4750)

Classe is so proud of its touch-screen menu display that it even has a dedicated video output for connection to a full AV system. But this is a two-channel CD player...

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However hard they may try, proponents of multichannel music are not going to convince certain audiophiles that anything more than just two channels are needed for sonic bliss. Canadian company Classé, a manufacturer that also produces multichannel players, has taken the decision to produce a top-end two-channel-only CD player – despite its internals employing multichannel components. What it has done, in a breathtaking display of lateral thinking, is force-feed all this capacity into optimised stereo playback.
    As a result, the CDP-202 has odd capabilities, such as DVD-Audio playback mixed down to stereo, and you can – if you’re the sort who doesn’t object to watching a feature film on a mobile phone – view a video DVD on its front-panel LCD control panel. Wisely, Classé realised that most DVD-As need to be operated through a menu, and this facility proved useful.
    With the exception of SACD, HD DVD and Blu-ray discs, this machine doesn’t seem to have a problem with anything. The TEAC slot-loading drive, which handles the discs with impeccable grace and is winningly preferable to a clunky tray (and is also found in the company’s flagship CDP-300 DVD player), reads all other forms of 5in discs, including recordable CD and DVD, MP3, WMA and even DTS discs, upsampling them to 24-bit/192kHz prior to D/A conversion.
   At the back, in addition to balanced and single-ended analogue and three types of digital outputs, is a special test/monitor output for connection of composite and S-video signals to standard definition displays. So I guess you could call this a DVD player…

But Classé set the terms for this review: the company promotes it as a ‘two-channel CD player’, so that is how I approached it, despite it sounding fabulous with the aforementioned DVD-As mixed down to stereo. I fed it the bonus DVD-As from David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name and Jackson Brown’s Running On Empty, and they slaughtered the normal CDs in every area: vocal textures, bass impact, transparency, transient attack. And, no, I didn’t detect any odd artefacts when comparing a two-channel CD with a 5-to-2-channel mixdown via DVD-A.
   Accessing all of this wonderment is accomplished through either a hand-held remote, or the front panel touchpad LCD. This allows the unit’s fascia to be utterly free of mechanical controls, save standby and eject buttons, but it also leads to my only complaint.
   When I first faced a component from the Delta range, I immediately fell in hate with the washed-out, mediocre display. At a time when seemingly disposable mobile phones and sat-navs feature the most vivid and crisp of LCDs, why does Classé persist with this anachronistic insult? Did they buy a bulk lot?
   Just for sport, I compared the images it produced from one of the DVDs with the same through the Nokia N95. Classé should be ashamed. Suggestion: they should simply throw in, for free, a touch-pad mobile phone that takes over from this on-board atrocity.
   That aside, this is a sumptuous machine: so pretty it can pass the wife-approval factor, and so well made that it can hold its own with cameras and watches. The Bauhaus-naked front contrasts with the comprehensively-equipped back panel and its top-grade connectors, the 445 x 419 x 121mm, 12.3kg unit sitting on special vibration-absorbing feet. The overall effect is one of a high-end product that doesn’t suffer from the usual ergonomic and aesthetic sins associated with hi-fi equipment.

Used in single-ended form with the new Musical Fidelity A1 and in balanced mode through the McIntosh C2200/MC2102, lastly through Sonus faber Cremona Auditor Elipsas and Guarneris, the CDP-202 slapped me upside the head for being so prejudiced: I anticipated the very solid-state/digital malaise that keeps me wedded to analogue valves ’n’ vinyl. The CDP-202 was having none of it, immediately demonstrating a top-end free of fatigue-inducing nasties.
   We got off to a great start with Keb’ Mo’, the acoustic instruments possessing so much air and such a wealth of harmonic shadings that I had to pinch myself. This was not the commanding yet uber-detailed, highly analytical presentation which I associated with the brand. The control and coherence were intact, but     there was a delicious absence of the in-your-face aggression which is normally part and parcel of much high-end solid-state gear. This was, well, almost friendly.
   What the overall effect boils down to is impressive presence, especially the rich lower registers, held in check by beautiful tonal balance. No part of the sonic landscape dominates – at least not so you’d notice it to the point of annoyance. This component seems to have been voiced by someone who loves natural sounds, especially vocals and unplugged instruments.
   With the remastered Christine Perfect: The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions, the CDP-202 balanced fluid blues guitar with punchy brass arrangements, crystal-clear tambourine, rapidly plucked bass and that deep but articulate voice, each sounding distinct, clearly decipherable and yet in total harmony. Even some dated studio effects didn’t irritate as much as they might.

More surprising, though, was the extreme left-right soundstage width from the DVD-As, though I’m at a loss to explain how it relates to their mix-downs to two-channel. With normal stereo CDs, the stage width was slightly reduced, but still extended beyond the speakers’ outer edges. It proved a boon when savouring the new ‘Collector’s edition’ of Love’s Forever Changes, attesting to Bruce Botnick’s skills as a producer. I’ve heard this disc a thousand times, including early vinyl pressings, but never have Arthur Lee’s often fragile vocals been handled so sympathetically.
   So, too, did the machine decipher all there is to hear in Duffy’s fresh-as-yesterday Rockferry, the sheer mass of the title track (which possesses the majesty and atmosphere of Lulu’s otherwise-saccharine classic, ‘To Sir With Love’) pouring out from the Classé with an all-embracing liquidity devoid of artifice. 

Despite my personal reservations about players costing above £500, this unabashedly stereo audiophile offering does tick all the right boxes. And, wisely, it errs on the side of musicality when it could easily have veered towards the clinical. So if you are looking for your ‘final’ player, put this one on the list. Above all, the Classé doesn’t look as if it was made by monkeys in a shed.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue