At last, a reasonably priced preamp with absolutely no audible weaknesses, but one that isn’t without its eccentricities.
THE CA2 PREAMPLIFIER is the third piece of ATC hi-fi gear that I’ve reviewed, and it faced a stern challenge that started as soon as it crossed the threshold of my listening room. The previous ATC kit that I put through the wringer was very impressive, and it set a real precedent for excellence. The SIA2-150 integrated amp (reviewed here) received a glowing review and a five star rating, as did the recently reviewed ATC SCM20SL AT active loudspeakers (reviewed here). In fact, the SIA2-150 is at the top of the list of amps that might be called to replace my Viganoni and Viganoni Sachem monoblock power amps should they ever go bang.
So, perhaps unfairly, I was ready and willing to cane the CA2 if it didn’t live up to these lofty standards. In addition to these expectations, the hapless CA2 was also being reviewed under the thinly-veiled, ongoing subterfuge that is the “Find Kramer a New Preamp Programme”, which has been running since I got my hands on the Sachems. I’ve tried a number of preamps and have come close, but never really felt that I’d reached audio nirvana. Rogue Audio’s Metis Magnum valve preamp was the best of the bunch (reviewed here), especially after a set of vintage Brimar valves were dropped in. In fact, I’ve been contemplating acquiring the review unit, but seeing as the local ATC agents offered both the CA2 and the new CDA2 CD player/DAC/preamp for review with the ATC SCM20SL AT speakers, I figured that I’d review both units before making any decisions.
Features & Construction
The CA2 is hand built in the UK and it’s been fabricated according to the traditional style of stereo components over the ages (that is, a thick curved metal faceplate is combined with a bent sheet metal lid, which is folded to form the side panels, and then in this instance, to wrap around the bottom panel for an inch or so). As is often the case in this style of construction, the top panel rings like an old metal army trunk. How much of an impact this has on the sound quality is anyone’s guess, but it’s worth contrasting the CA2’s construction to that of the similarly priced Cambridge Audio Azur 851 series components (as reviewed here), which are built, at least externally, to a standard that’s miles ahead of the CA2.
The styling of the CA2 is simple yet graceful and quite discreet; the look of the brushed satin faceplate with its inlaid black bars and bright plated controls certainly grew on me over the course of the review period. The controls are nicely weighted and simple enough to operate, because there’s not much in the way of choices for the owner. The source selector and volume knobs are flanked by tape monitor and standby switches, and that’s the lot – no balance or tone adjustments are provided but then again, this is something of a purist preamp.
From a feature perspective, the CA2 hides some of its talents round the back (and it conceals some strange eccentricities there to boot). There are four RCA line level inputs, plus an internally configurable MM/MC phono stage, which has internal adjustments for sensitivity and impedance. Here’s one of the eccentricities: according to the comprehensive user manual, this phono input is marked as AUX2/PHONO, but on the back of the amp, it’s marked as AUX2. I suppose that the presence of the earthing terminal alongside this input should serve as a clue not to plug in a CD player, but that’s a (loud!) mistake that you’ll only make once.
A record loop is also provided, along with subwoofer outputs and both RCA and balanced XLR pre-outs – the XLR’s are ideal for driving the balanced inputs of ATC’s range of active speakers, and as such, both the pre-outs and the sub-outs are designed to drive cable runs of up to 50m in length.
As on the SIA2-150 integrated, ATC thoughtfully provides a good headphone stage (based on an op-amp driving a discrete transistor output) with a 6.35mm jack. Unfortunately, as per that amp’s implementation, the ATC engineers have again chosen to hide it on the back of the CA2 (more eccentricity). I was told that it looks better that way, but that’s a load of horse-pucky. How about making the design user-friendly and catering to the needs of the poor long suffering user – the guy who spends the money? Placed on my current high-tech audio support (a wooden coffee table), there was no hassle getting to the headphone jack, but if the amp had been living in the middle shelf of my Spider Rack with a turntable on top, then access would have been a righteous pain in the proverbial. The headphone stage is quite capable of driving high-end ‘phones and of doing justice to them too, so ATC, for the love of Pete, please move the jack to the front on all your amplifiers.
The CA2 is shipped with one of ATC’s standard remotes, which is a plastic system remote. It’s more appropriate at this price than it was with the $6000 SIA2-150, but ATC could well look at a slightly more upmarket remote – a bit of metal and weight never goes amiss in this most critical (and most used) of user-interface points. That said, the remote is sensitive, offering fine control of volume levels, and as a bonus, it also happens to control my Marantz SACD player.
The CA2 is able to offer most of its audio talents from a cold start, taking only three or four tracks to get to a fully stable and great sounding state. This is a nice fit with my cold running Sachem power amps, which need very little warm-up time. I often listen to my system in short bursts while getting ready to go out or cooking up a meal, so waiting 30 minutes for a component to work up a head of steam is another pain. It’s worth noting that the power switch is located on the rear of the CA2. I didn’t consider this to be much of an issue because I kill the power at the wall when I’m not listening to my system – your habits may differ though.
The CA2 was given a thorough run-in before any critical listening was done, and initially it was hooked up to the lovely SCM20SL AT active speakers. In this demanding, high-resolution environment, the CA2 proved entirely capable of passing on every tiny bit of information it was getting from the Marantz SA8260 SACD player or Micromega MyDAC USB DAC. The sheer clarity of the presentation here was superb, and allied to the drive and power of the amp modules and the tautness of the bass, the overall result put me in mind of a system driven by a higher-priced preamp.
Hooked up to my Sachem power amps with a short set of Slinkylinks cryo-treated silver interconnects, and with my Theophany M5 Series 2 floorstanders on the end, the CA2 continued to impress. Actually it impressed, and then it proceeded to blow my socks off. I reasoned that this was either a very, very good preamp, or that there was an uncommon amount of synergy between these components. Then I decided that both options were in fact correct. Sonically, the CA2 does everything just right – there’s no aspect of the performance that can be regarded as anything other than excellent, and even with the most critical ear, there are no audible weaknesses at the price.
I appreciate a detailed, transparent and highly dynamic sound in my stereo system, and the CA2 provides this in spades. In fact, it sounded better than any other preamp I’ve heard with this particular mix of components and cables. I’m very familiar with the sound of each part of the system, as well as with the overall characteristics of the system as a whole with different preamps in the middle. I’ve tried a bunch or them and hooked up the preamp outputs of every integrated I’ve been able to beg, borrow or steal.
Many of these pre-amplification devices had pronounced strengths. The Rogue Audio Metis Magnum provided a lush and warm tonal balance, a deeply extended bottom end and good dynamics. The StereoKnight Silverstone Balance passive offered high levels of both forensic detail and tonal colour. Densen’s B-200 was a transparent magic box that opened up recordings to the deepest scrutiny. My Yamaha A-S2000 integrated provided dynamics right to the very bottom of the frequency range that were quite amazing to hear. However, none of them ticked every single box. The CA2 does – it’s as simple as that.
The first track I listened to in reviewer mode was ‘Lake Of Fire’ from Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. It was presented with an exceptional blend of abilities. Detail and tonal nuance were combined with outstanding speed and attack, along with unrestrained dynamics to make the first four drum strikes on the track sound lifelike in terms of scale and realism. The Sachems are some of the most agile and clear power amps for anything less than big money, and with the CA2 in the driving seat, they were at their best; I could just about picture the sticks hitting the skins in front of me. The rest of the CD was filled with energy and a gritty rawness, and it was swiftly followed by increasingly louder music as I took advantage of my neighbour-free status and hammered the volume control. The big bass notes from SMV’s Thunder CD and Stanley Clark’s At The Movies had serious impact, the CA2 delivering power and extension at the bottom that wasn’t far from what the Rouge Audio Metis Magnum had on tap. A particularly spirited session with Massive Attack’s Collected CD probably loosened some of the floorboards, especially when ‘Karmacoma’ was cranked right up. At frankly ridiculous levels, the system didn’t sound at all compressed or overdriven, and the CA2 sounded perfectly in control at all times.
Whatever I tried sounded fabulous, especially with the speakers roaring because the ATC’s contribution is by no means polite, but intriguingly, the system hung together very well when I turned the levels down, retaining enough vigour to make the music sound full of life. This is a highly prized ability around here because I often listen to my music at low volumes. A softly spun rendition of Air’s Pocket Symphony late at night was a stand out example of how the system was able to offer enough speed and dynamic range on very little power, which is where the StereoKnight falls down to a degree.
Soundstaging was broad and deep, with precise imaging – certainly the best I’ve heard with the Theophany speakers, which were placing instruments and performers more accurately than usual, but the sweet spot was narrower than I’m used to. Instrumental separation was excellent, allowing me to tune into specific parts of a track as I chose. Even “busy” or dense music was easier to follow, with elements standing out more than they do even with my passive preamp in place.
Listening to ‘So Begins The Task’ by Manassas from disc 2 of my much-loved CSN box set (dating back to 1991), I was struck by the depth of the soundstage and the instrumental separation. Then the vocals rolled in with a charming smoothness and a three dimensional openness that had me thinking of valves, but without any obvious warmth bar what’s present in the recording. The great speed of the power amps was there in full force, and again the scale and impact of the sound coming from the speakers was huge. I played the track a few times because I was enjoying the sound of the music so much, which is when I suddenly realised that all things considered, this was the best I’d ever heard my system sound. I was finally experiencing complete system synergy, where every component was performing as its designer intended.
The sound was smooth, yet exquisitely detailed, with delicious tonal colour and accurate rendition of timbre. The low end was tight and deep, the midrange as liquid as I could hope for without valves in the signal chain. The all-important dynamics were impeccable at all levels, and the sound was also very much grain free at the top – clear and open with practically no solid-state harshness. In this case, every box was ticked.
So a convincing performance then? Absolutely, but as with many a long story, there’s something of twist in the tale here. It turns out that there was a glitch with the pricing information I was given when I picked up the CA2. I had a feeling that I’d originally been told it was sub $3000, but the consignment note clearly stated the price as being $3999, with an appropriate jump in cost to the CDA2 CD player/DAC/preamp that was in for review at the same time. Given that the review was under way smack bang in the middle of the Festive Season holidays, I fired off an email to confirm the price but trusting paper over foggy recollection, I reviewed the preamp as a four grand unit.
At the four thousand dollar level, I was entirely happy to award the CA2 a five star rating. Even with the irrational headphone jack placement, this preamp’s sonic performance was so convincing that four thousand dollars seemed an entirely appropriate asking price. Throw in the matching power amp and the price point would be somewhat higher than the integrated amp, but that’s normal in the hi-fi world.
Imagine my surprise then when I got the post-holiday reply from the local agent apologising for the mistake and confirming that I was in fact correct – the CA2 costs $2699.
So with that instant discount in mind, should the CA2 get six stars? Well yeah, probably. Assuming such a phenomenon actually existed, and only then if Editor Steel was asleep on the job. [Zzzz! – Ed]. In reality, let’s just say that the CA2 moves from a great preamp at the expensive price to an exceptional preamp at the cheaper price. It’s a colossal bargain and it’s also without doubt the preamp that I’d be buying to replace my StereoKnight (and perhaps my Perreaux SXH2 headphone amp) if it weren’t for one small complication – the designer of the Sachems has built a preamp specifically intended to match his outstanding power amps. I’ll need to have a listen to that unit before I decide on my course of action. ATC’s CA2 is a stunning stereo component – if you’re in the market for a sub-$5000 preamp, you really need to take a listen before you spend any of your folding stuff or dig out the plastic. You might just save enough money to upgrade some other bits in your system. ASHLEY KRAMER