David Nauber - Classé
The most recognizable brands in the world of audio equipment are usually the ones that can set trends and focus the attention of the audiophile community and sometimes shock with original ideas or products better and more expensive than anything we've seen before. However, there is a group of companies that do the same, often outperforming the achievements of famous brands, and directing their offer to dedicated music lovers. Classé is just such a manufacturer. The Canadian company has had to deal with many turbulences recently. It was acquired by a big corporation, and it showed the world three hi-end devices made in a completely different factory. It all sounds pretty weird, but when you look at the Delta series, it's hard not to smile. They are wonderful - beautiful, powerful, modern, and made in such a way that it is hard to improve anything in their design. That is why I decided to find out what is going on at Classé.
If you do a quick research about Classé, you'll find out, that - speaking about what's been happening with this company, change is an understatement - it seems that a rather small revolution took place here. Nevertheless, Classé remains true to its roots, and the philosophy of building hi-end electronics has probably never been implemented in such a spectacular way as in the case of the Delta series - the Delta PRE preamplifier equipped with a set of digital and analog inputs, the Delta STEREO two-channel power amplifier power offering 250 W per channel into eight ohms and doubling this power into four ohms, and Delta MONO monoblocks offering an impressive 300 W per channel. In addition, the Delta STEREO offers the first 12.5 W in pure class A, while the Delta MONO works in this mode up to 35 W. It sounds fantastic, although it all comes at a cost. But, as I read on one website, "Every Classé component is designed and built to last long after you forget about how much you had to pay for it". Is it enough to convince extremely discerning audiophiles? That's why I decided to interview David Nauber, Classé's Brand Director at Sound United.
The founder of Classé, Mike Viglas, was passionate about music, but the first really big impulse that pushed him to search for better audio equipment was the fact that during one of the presentations, electronics failed him terribly. "Boom! The lights flickered, there was silence, a strange smell permeated the room and particles that had previously been contained in his beloved tube amp collapsed. When the guests stripped the condenser cotton from their hair, Mike, embarrassed, swore that it would not happen again." - we can read on your website. What exactly happened?
I would describe the situation a bit differently, saying that he had been a long-time audiophile, obsessed with getting the best possible sound. His friends often shook their heads in amazement at the cost of such components (as mine do). His tube amp, like other audiophile components, had been designed with performance in mind but with less attention to reliability than one might hope. It was his quest for components that could compete for best sound while working reliably year after year that lead him to found Classé. I don't know the details of what exactly had failed that night, but Mike told the story in his typically humorous fashion, which is what made it memorable to me.
Saying "I'll build a better amplifier" is easy - it's much harder to do. How did Mike manage to move from words to deeds? After all, a factory of hi-end audio equipment can't be built just like that, in the middle of the night, with shards of glass from electron tubes in one's hair...
Nothing gets built without engineering and this is where David Reich came in. David had been building amplifiers under the name Eleson and when Mike heard them, he knew it was what he was looking for. In those days people could and did build amplifiers like that on their kitchen tables. It was a different world. Today, there is no way you could build a Classé amplifier outside a state-of-the-art electronics factory. And designs have become far more sophisticated. They are the work of a design team that brings a multi-disciplinary capability to bear.
The first amplifier presented by Mike and David - the DR-2 - delivered 25 W per channel and worked in pure class A, which actually inspired the name of the company. Today we associate Classé with rather powerful devices weighing several dozen kilograms and offering 250-300 W per channel. But that doesn't mean you've dropped out of A-class, right?
That's right. Class A offers the purest sound and lowest distortion but it comes at the cost of efficiency. For this reason, it's impractical to try to deliver all the power you might ever need in class A. The idea is to have amplifiers that work well within their power limits, which means you want to have more power available than would typically be used, even under demanding conditions. The class A power we offer is sufficient to completely satisfy the requirements of most listening sessions, but we allow the amps to operate in class A/B for those higher power, short-term peaks that may be required from time to time.
For many, many years, Classé components were presented in the company of Bowers & Wilkins speakers. It was even said in the industry that the British acquired two brands whose equipment worked well with speakers at different price levels. The Rotel was recommended for the cheaper ones and the Classé for the more expensive ones. What exactly did this cooperation look like?
Our involvement with Bowers & Wilkins began just prior to my arrival in 2002 and actual ownership emerged in the ensuing years. Rotel, the other electronics brand in the B&W Group, has enjoyed distribution agreements with Bowers & Wilkins in many global markets but there has never been an ownership position. As a B&W subsidiary, we shared functions like sales and marketing, service, and 3rd party distribution companies. We also shared computer and inventory control systems and built Classé at the Bowers factory in Zhuhai China. Most engineering was separate, as you'd expect since they were in the loudspeaker business, but we collaborated on some electronic projects, like the electronics for the original Zeppelin iPod dock, subwoofer amps and also an update to the active crossover used with the Nautilus speakers. We did however develop our amplifiers specifically with the idea of working especially well with the B&W 800 series, which is true even of our current Delta series models. As it turns out, if your amplifier works well with these speakers it's likely to work well with virtually anything.
Today your company is in turn part of the Sound United group. And I would probably not lie if I say that it is the most exclusive brand in this portfolio. Aren't you afraid that after some time people will start saying that Classé is a more expensive equivalent of Marantz and Denon?
To be honest, I hadn't really thought of that. We have our own design team in Montréal and, while it makes sense to deploy shared technologies like HDMI, which we have always brought in from 3rd party suppliers, our core amplification and processing technologies will remain highly differentiated due to their substantially higher cost to implement. It should always be easy to look and see that these brands are different.
Audiophiles are considered conservative people. They like tube amplifiers, turntables, and monitors built under the BBC license. On the other hand, you pride yourself on the fact that you willingly introduce new technical solutions in your devices. For example, you were the first company in the world to introduce a touchscreen to your hardware - seven months before the iPod Touch was launched. Do you see any more interesting things today that could work for hi-fi components? Have you already introduced more such innovations? And is it really worthwhile in any way?
We don't introduce new technologies to be fashionable. Everything we do, whether it's touchscreen control, tone control, or ICTunnel cooling, each serves to benefit the performance, usability and/or reliability of the product. I think it's one of the things that sets Classé apart. We always consider what can be done in a better way and trust that crazy audiophiles, like me (I have my turntable and two reel-to-reel machines always in use), will see and appreciate the benefits.
How do you see the current division between two-channel devices and home theater systems? In the US and Canada, multi-channel equipment is still quite popular, also due to complete installations and multi-room systems. How is it in other markets?
Classé has a history of building serious components for both stereo and theatre and we intend to continue that. We are working on a five-channel amplifier and a multichannel processor now. There was a time when people thought stereo listening was going away but that's clearly not happening. The reality is there are many different types of customers globally that share a common appreciation for sound quality, which is great because that's what we do. When we develop theatre components, we use music for our sonic evaluations. I think it shows in the results and has led to the great success we've had with multichannel components. North America still leads in theatre system installations but it's an important business in all major markets.
A few years ago, the offer of Classé - although clearly focused on high-end equipment - was quite rich. Today, in the product tab, we have only three items - the Delta PRE preamplifier, the Delta STEREO stereo power amplifier and Delta MONO monoblocks. Dimensions, mass and parameters from space. The prices, unfortunately, also, so they are not products for the average, or even for the wealthy, music lover. This is an offer for the most demanding hi-end fans. Will such people opt for a pre/power amplifier made by a company that - at least for now - doesn't make anything else?
We expect so because hi-end buyers appreciate specialization. There was a time when no self-respecting audiophile would have any two components in a system from the same company, so we're betting that audiophiles who compare what we offer to anything else anywhere near the price will choose Classé. As for the prices, they are what is necessary to build components of this caliber. Wealthy audiophiles can certainly afford them as can others who make them a high priority. There are examples around the world of ordinary people who are patient, save their money, and eventually acquire components in this class because they value them so highly.
Was the Delta series meant to be a clear reminder of the existence of the Classé brand? Such a strong re-entry to the market on new terms? Should it just be treated as another step towards the ideal sound?
I would say more the latter than the former, but ultimately both. We began developing these models in the days with B&W, and at the time we had Sigma series components as an entry-level offering for the brand. Now with Sound United, Marantz fills those price points below Delta, allowing us to follow the same path. Our thoughts have been that we wanted to ease price constraints to see where the next performance plateau would be. In achieving this higher level of performance and the timing of everything, the new Delta series both raises the bar and proclaims that Classé is here.
One of the most interesting solutions used in the Delta series is the equalizer that allows for a very precise adjustment of the tone. Orthodox audiophiles - and many hi-end fans belong to this group - believe, however, that electronics should under no circumstances interfere with the signal from the source. How do you reconcile this with each other?
First, I would say that the processing tools should be viewed simply as tools. There is no requirement to use them, so anyone who has a philosophical disagreement with them can leave them off. Second, I'd like to make the point that these are not particularly expensive tools. They are digital domain filters and don't have the sonic or monetary costs associated with similar analog filters. If you don't use them it's a bit like leaving some inputs on the back unused. No big deal. What makes them special is not their cost but the thoughtful way they are implemented. Let's take the Tilt/Tone control as an example. If you have recordings of good music that you don't listen to because you don't like the sound, what's the harm in using the Tilt/Tone control to make them listenable? You only use the tool when something needs to be fixed. Otherwise, you'd have good music that you never listen to. A similar argument can be made for each of the other tools.
The main, and in fact only source in the Delta series is the Delta PRE preamplifier. Is this the final solution or are you planning to introduce a separate digital transport or a full-fledged streamer?
This is a long subject, but I can say no, we don't want to build a transport (we do processing and amplification). I'm not a fan of dedicated streamers and could discuss why at more length, but you will see the capability of the Delta PRE evolve over time to include some Media Player functionality. In any case, the Delta PRE can work spectacularly with your favorite streamer as well as your turntable and other sources.
Will there be, for example, an integrated amplifier in the Delta series, or will this line act as a flagship, which will be complemented by components from other series in the near future?
Yes, although it's going to take some time to develop, we have plans for a Delta INT Integrated amp. No details yet and not near future, but worth the wait I'm sure.
Many European and American companies are moving or have long since moved the production of their devices to countries where it is cheaper. Mostly China, sometimes Taiwan, Singapore or Malaysia. Meanwhile, the devices from the Delta series are manufactured at Shirakawa Audio Works facilities in Japan. Why?
It's a great question and I'm in a pretty good position to answer it since, over the last 20 years, Classé has gone from building everything in Montréal to moving to the Rotel/B&W factory in Zhuhai, China to the current, best of all situations, building products at Shirakawa Audio Works in Japan. Cost is not always the only or even the driving factor when companies move production offshore. As components become more sophisticated, the last way in the world you would want to build them is with soldering irons and low-tech wave-soldering techniques of the 1990s. World-class electronics must be produced in a world-class factory and that means investment in equipment that could never be paid for with the small volume production runs of high-end audio companies. Classé has benefited from being part of larger portfolio brands - first Bowers & Wilkins, now Sound United. Other independent brands must go hat in hand asking large electronics factories to produce small batches, which they can neither do cost-efficiently nor with consistent quality since they gear up to make these small production runs so infrequently. Being part of Sound United puts us in a position to have a small line of Classé components continuously in production. The highest quality standards are met at reasonable (certainly not lowest) cost. It's an advantage virtually no other high-end brand enjoys.
We have heard voices that showrooms focused on high-end equipment no longer make sense, because customers want to choose everything individually, preferably on the basis of a presentation at home. Exhibitions also attract fewer and fewer actual buyers - more and more distributors and music lovers who want to see and listen to such equipment at least once in their life, but not necessarily buy it. And it was said so even before the coronavirus epidemic. So do you think hi-end electronics sellers are facing a big challenge now? Isn't all this heading towards a closed club, inaccessible to other people, which is controlled by a small group of specialists, and auditions taking place behind closed doors?
Specialty AV dealers and exhibitions have struggled for many years but there are always exceptions that stand out, showing ways to engage with customers and continue the critical process of creating new audiophiles. These shining stars give me hope that a new generation of dealers and exhibitors will grow. It has always been true that a small percentage of the population becomes hopelessly obsessed with the beautiful sound of music and this will not change, regardless of the technology and the way people choose to buy. I think we have been moving in a certain direction and the Coronavirus pandemic may have pushed us all a little farther down the path but didn't fundamentally alter it. People are people.
For some time now, the attention of the audio industry has been focused on new formats and dense files, but on the other hand, we are witnessing a renaissance of vinyl, and good CDs somehow don't want to give up and die. Is this the end of the media war in hi-fi?
I can't imagine we will ever see an end to the media war. There are enough fans of these different media that some residual existence seems possible for almost anything. But from a commercial perspective, I think it's pretty clear that some combination of local files and streaming will be the primary choice for audiophiles. That's not to say those same people won't play records, SACDs, or whatever else they might like, but the overwhelming available library of music online I think makes its pre-eminence a virtual certainty - until the next thing comes along.
After some time, many people in the audio industry feel fed up with this subject and buy a good soundbar or a pair of network speakers to listen to music at home. Are you one of those people, or quite the opposite - still improving your hi-end system?
Ha! I couldn't imagine doing that. I have two reel-to-reel tape machines and a high-end turntable that are in regular use. I just bought a new cartridge last month, I bought a pair of Magico S5 MkIIs last year and subscribe to all the streaming services. I of course have a Delta PRE and two Delta MONOs. I am as into it as ever and absolutely love the musical enjoyment and discovery my system makes possible.