The Emmeline CA-2 is a product that stands at the crossroads of high-end audio. If you've followed audio for the past twenty years or so, I'm sure you're aware of the continued price escalation that has driven many potential buyers away in disgust. After all, a $20K price tag often represents an impossible investment to someone working for a living and raising a family. Common sense and even a modicum of skepticism would suggest that most $20K power amplifiers are over priced given their parts count and typical industry markups. And how would you explain the insanity of $10,000 speaker cables to your non-audio friends when most audiophiles and music lovers make do with complete systems costing under $10K. It's not always a question of greed. One of the few manufacturers unafraid to speak up is VMPS Audio's Brian Cheney. He specifically mentions Wilson Audio's founder, Dave Wilson as someone who discovered the impact of a huge price tag in establishing product credibility and mystique. Price a product head-and-shoulders above the competition and it attracts attention. It generates a buzz because such a product is perceived to be superior in the same way that a Mercedes passenger car outranks a Chevy in the US market. Although in the German domestic market, Mercedes is no more distinguished than Chevy; most of the taxicabs and trucks there are in fact built by Mercedes.
As a consequence, I believe that ultra high-end audio is a dying business currently supported by affluent, brain cramped, baby boomers who are obsessed with the notion of purchasing nothing but the best, where the best is often nothing more than a mirage of hype and misinformation. To survive, high-end audio needs to attract the 30s crowd, and in the process re-discover the appeal of components with the dual virtues of musical integrity and value for the dollar. In other words, re-vitalize the business by emulating these principles established long ago by the late David Hafler and the Dynaco Corporation. The Emmeline CA-2 is just such a product. At $ 695, it gets the job done at a price point that most crusty audiophiles will simply not take seriously.
The Technical Details or Shootout At The IC Corral
The most essential thing about this unit is that it is built around two pairs (one pair per channel) of Analog Devices AD797 operational amplifier (op amp) integrated chips. These are remarkable devices featuring very low noise, low total harmonic distortion of -120 dB at audio bandwidths, wide dynamic range, and excellent current drive. According to analog Devices, the new architecture of the AD797 was developed to overcome inherent limitations in previous IC amplifier designs. A single high-gain stage replaces multiple gain stages, and by exploiting the inherent matching of transistors fabricated on the same IC chip (i.e., NPN to NPN and PNP to PNP), high open-loop gain and low noise are ensured.
The CA-2 is packaged on two chassis. An external power supply feeds the audio circuitry though an umbilical cord. The two audio channels are laid out in dual-mono fashion on a mil-spec, type FR4 PC board, with 2 oz. copper traces. The topology of each channel is quite simple: an AD794 gain stage (4.5dB), followed by an AD794 driver stage that adds a bit of gain for an overall gain of 9 dB - just about right for a line stage. All components are said to be closely matched for left-right balance, and are hand soldered. A Noble conductive plastic pot is used for volume control. Note that absence of an on/off switch: the CA-2 is designed to be powered at all times. It sounds best after a warm-up period of at least 30 minutes. The power supply uses an impressive toroidal transformer with dual primary and secondary windings. Each secondary is outfitted with a dedicated solid-state full-wave bridge rectifier. Polypropylene caps bypass all electrolytic caps. Output voltages are regulated for an exact +/-12 volts DC. Each CA-2 is broken in for at least 48 hours prior shipping, so expect it to work flawlessly right out of the box.
The CA-2 is yet another example of the potential of op-amp based designs; the prowess of such designs has been amply documented by our esteemed publisher, Steve Rochlin, in his past reviews of the 47 Laboratory gear. Designer Ray Samuels tells me that he went to hell and back in order to define and lock-in the most musical operating point for the unit. His goal was to emulate the virtues of a tube line stage in a solid-state design. To accomplish that, careful listening tests were required, One key factor turned out to involve the optimization of the AD794 feedback loop though selection of just the right feedback resistors. Tweaking of the power supply capacitance turned out to be another import sonic element. To my mind, the important lesson here is that high-end products should be voiced though listening tests, and that measurements alone are not enough. Harry Olson, for many years the dean of the American acoustics scene, used to say that the ear should be the final arbiter when it comes to products designed for musical enjoyment. Engineers who put their faith entirely in test bench measurements have challenged that basic message time and time again.
When I met up at the last Winter CES with noted designer Jim Bongiorno of Ampzilla fame, it only took 10 minutes worth of discussion for the phrase "wire with gain" to surface. And he meant it as a superlative, that no amplifier could possibly aspire to anything better. I despise that sort of two-dimensional view of audio because it completely overlooks the aspect of human perception. Apparently Bongiorno feels that IF his amplifier measures perfectly I will enjoy it. I am not saying that good measurements are a bad thing. And most of the time products with serious measurement deficiencies sound bad. I have lived my audio life by the dictum (Dick's Dictum) that man does not live by measurements alone. What is important to me is a product that makes the music come alive, that enhances the illusion of live. And for most of my audio career solid-state gear has been equivalent to an emotional dud.
The CA-2 proved to be a pleasant exception to Dick's Dictum. Early solid-state sound (60s and 70s) may be described as sounding bass punchy, detailed, bright and gritty - almost a film noire version of live music. These products (e.g., early Crown, Dynaco) appealed primarily to the bass and detail Uber Alles school of listening, and seemed to sell well on the basis of power rating, with a 400 watt per channel rating being almost irresistible to the average audiophile. During the 1980s, a new breed of silicon-based amplifiers emerged, whose voicing was much more refined, with musical textures that could positively be described a silky. The downside was that with smoothness came an emotional sterility that many audiophiles seemed to tolerate, but music lovers just hated. One of my worst audio nightmares is to recall the sound of a 1980s vintage PS Audio pre-amplifier: dark, detailed, but oh so cold. The CA-2 is proof positive that solid-state has reached yet another milestone, combining traditional strengths with a newfound musical voice.
For the record, let me state that the CA-2 is absolutely the most superbly detailed piece of amplification to ever grace my playback system. The amount of front-end information that flows though this line stage is stupendous without being exaggerated. Having switched over from a lower resolution tubed line stage, it felt as though cotton balls had been removed from my ears. Loreena McKennitt's fine rendition of "Ye Rambling Boys of Pleasure" (Chieftains Tears of Stone, BMG 9026-68968-2) is laced with layers of artificial reverb, which diminishes the intelligibility of the lyrics. I like the lady, but she appeared to be singing with a pebble in her mouth. With the CA-2 in the chain, to my great surprise, I was able to decipher ever word. The phrasing was still drenched in reverb, but the clarity of the musical tapestry was such that intelligibility was no longer an issue. Very often a detailed sounding amplifier or pre-amplifier comes across as analytical, or to put it in the parlance of some reviewers - as ruthlessly revealing. Not so with the CA-2. There were no residual distortion products that emphasized detail at the cost of textural bite or brightness. Musical textures were refined and smooth sounding across the entire frequency spectrum.
This level of resolution and clarity seemed to be a direct consequence of the unit's excellent time domain behavior and its exceptionally low noise floor. Speak about a Windex treatment, the soundstage appeared to have been wiped squeaky clean. Layers of veiling seemed to have been lifted away, as the CA-2 shone a giant search light toward the inner recesses of the soundstage. The music's transient attack and decay were clearly delineated, and unfolded with the incisiveness typical of live music.
Tonal balance is one subjective area that seems to divide audiophiles into two camps on the basis of taste: accuracy versus euphonics. My own taste is for a slightly warm, romantic presentation ala vintage tube gear. That is the sort of balance that pushes my buttons, and since my goal is to enjoy the music, that's the way aha I like it. The CA-2, however, is bound to please those who subscribe to the tonal accuracy school. It failed to puff up the lower midrange in a big tone sort of way or etch the upper octaves. Bass line were well delineated without being overblown. The transition from the midrange to the treble range was seamless without any change in character. Conclusion: it sounds pretty much like it measures: flat.
The sound of the CA-2 has been described by the manufacturer and others on the Internet as being tube like. I have a problem with that characterization. It's really improper to label as tubey every solid-state device with naturally smooth, velvety textures. That in itself is not enough, and fails to capture the essence of tube sound. There is more to tube magic than just smooth textures. Two critical attributes come to mind are imaging and dynamics. At its best, tube gear paints a fully 3-D soundstage with image outlines that are almost palpable. The CA-2 was a bit stingy in this regard. Its depth perspective was a bit constricted, so that the perception of space did not encompass the rear wall. And while it located image outlines with great precision within the soundstage, individual instruments were not fleshed out sufficiently. Note that these are observations from someone who listens to expensive tube gear for a living. My standards in this respect are high. However, the CA-2's level of soundstage transparency, image focus and spatial resolution far exceed those of any inexpensive tube line stage I've auditioned to date. With respect to dynamics, and especially microdynamics that define emotional nuances embedded in the music, the CA-2 surprised me with its expressiveness. The music's dramatic fire was given pretty good scope. There was more fire here that with any other solid-state pre-amplifier I had auditioned - irrespective of price.
Do not mistake the Emmeline CA-2 for a budget design. The fact that it is sold directly to the consumer is one reason for its affordability. Its production values are clearly high-end in scope and include excellent part selection. It represents a carefully executed design that cashes in on the sonic potential of the exceptional Analog Devices AD797 op amp. Enjoyable to the max, the CA-2 puts to shame $5,000 solid-state line stages It's my distinct pleasure to introduce the Emmeline CA-2 to a wider audience. Kudos to Ray Samuels for raising the bar substantially in the quest for bringing the live experience closer to home. And by the way, the matching phono stage, the Emmeline XR-2 ($1,050) sounds pretty terrific as well (as reviewed by clicking here)
Frequency Response: 1Hz to 50kHz
Volume Control: Noble potentiometer
Main Chassis Dimensions: 6 x 4.5 x 1.5 (DxWxH in inches)
Power Supply Dimensions: 6 x 4.5 x 2.5 (DxWxH in inches)
Warranty: 5-year transferable
Ray Samuels Audio