A Polk/Classé/Marantz Event in Montreal

July 3, 2023 0 By JohnValbyNation

Until about a week ago, I thought Classé Audio was out of business. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Classé was not just alive but also kicking, with a new line of high-end electronics, which were being showcased, along with flagship products from Marantz and Polk Audio, at Montreal audio-video importer Sherpa Group’s offices. What’s more, it was happening tomorrow–that is, the day after I found out about Classé’s resurgence.

Turns out that US-based Sound United, which also owns Marantz and Polk, among other well-known audio brands, acquired Classé in 2018, a transaction that shifted production of Classé gear from its old haunt in China to a dedicated facility in Japan, while re-establishing Classé’s headquarters and R&D operations in Montreal.

Inside the Sherpa Group’s lobby, I was greeted by a French-speaking version of Art Dudley, who wasn’t really Art but Sherpa Group’s President and CEO Phillippe Rayes, Art’s French-Canadian doppelganger in charm, wit, looks, and speech patterns, the latter in French, of course. Philippe graciously suggested that while I await my turn to enter the demo room — demos were conducted in groups of three or four participants, and one was currently in full swing—I could enjoy the food and refreshments table. And what a table it was! Amply furnished, colorful, and immaculately laid out. It was like staring at an unspoiled ocean reef. I was afraid to disturb it.

By the time I mustered the courage to peck, it was too late: Out of the demo room came Sound United’s VP of sales Kevin Zarow and Sherpa Group’s Sales Manager Drew Vergil-Bisaillon, who were sharing demo duties. Four of us were led inside the dim, relatively spacious listening room and shown our seats, which were aligned one behind the other, centered between the speakers.

To begin, we were given a rundown of the components involved in the music making, starting with one whose presence in our event added poignancy: Marantz’s 1-bit SAKI – Ruby Reference SACD player / DAC 40th Anniversary Edition ($CAD5200), the last Marantz Reference series design Ken Ishiwata completed before he passed away. Ken has said in an interview that of all his Marantz designs over a 30-year period, the SAKI – Ruby was his favorite.

The amplifier was Classé’s stunning, 250Wpc, low-impedance, solid-state Delta Stereo ($CAD19,000), which delivers its first 12.5W in class-A before switching to class-AB and has a nifty turbine cooling system that works by sucking in air from the outside. The preamp was Classé’s Delta Pre / DAC ($CAD15,000), both units from the company’s new Delta line, the only Classé line currently in production. Also in the line but not at the demo was Classé’s 300Wpc Delta Mono monoblock (35 watts delivered in Class A) ($CAD17,000).

Speakers were Polk’s L800 ($CAD9000), part of the company’s new flagship Legend series. The L800 employs Stereo Dimensional Array (SDA) technology Polk developed in the late 70s. If you remember Carver’s Sonic Hologram, you’ll understand SDA’s objective: to eliminate interaural crosstalk, the distortional effect created by having one’s ear capture the delayed sounds of the speaker furthest from it. Unlike the Sonic Hologram, however, SDA goes about its business passively, without active electronics or DSP. It does this by using for its mid and high frequencies two nearly identical speakers — essentially a pair of Polk L100 standmount speakers ($CAD1700/pair), also part of the Legend series, placed side by side atop a passive dual-woofer cabinet. Both left and right towers are linked via a proprietary cable that allows the outer “standmounts”–those angled away from the listening position–to play an out-of-phase signal relative to the signal being fed into each of the amplifier’s channels.

This wasn’t one of those squinty-eyed “am I hearing a difference?” moments. On each of the handful of CDs played for us, SDA’s effect was obvious. Right there, three feet off the side of the right speaker, big as life, was Herbie Hancock’s funk-vamping synthesizer. From eight feet to his left, in the back corner, came Paul Jackson’s snapping bass line. Choruses in an a capella version of the Flintstones theme song on Jacob Collier’s release “In my Room” poured in like light-beams from a honeycomb structure of dark places. On an excerpt of “Pie Jesu,” from John Rutter’s Requiem, I felt I could hear the size of the opera house. Notably, because of how SDA handles spatial relationships between objects, musical passages never sounded cramped.

Aside from its spatial abilities, the L800 offered transparent, layered, robust sound. For around $USD$6000, you’re getting a nearly full-range speaker fitted with proprietary technology that works as advertised. I suggest you audition the L800 to hear what it can do.

SDA works best when the listener is seated on axis. Move too much to the left or right of the sweet spot, and the holographic effect collapses. Also, if you sit too far back, directly behind the sweet spot, the soundstage expands and diffuses until it no longer makes sense.

For those seeking a more conventional sound, Polk’s L100, which was also demoed for us, provided rich, warm, natural sound and an excellent sense of musical intimacy.

Parting thoughts:

The L100 is a superb performer and value;
The L800 does space like no other two-speaker setup I’ve heard;
Ken Ishiwata was a masterful designer;
Classé is back with a vengeance.

Oh, and next time I need to be faster on the trigger at the buffet table.

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