The least expensive super car is still a super car. Those who follow many of my reviews know I’m a bit of a car guy and the super car analogy immediately popped into my noggin once I got the Classé DELTA series fired up in my system.
Super cars represent the pinnacle of automotive engineering, combining stellar appearance with technology for blistering performance. When the Classé DELTA series PRE and STEREO showed up at my door, I decided to take them for the proverbial hot laps.
Words and Photos by Graig Neville
Besides being a part-time audiophile, I’m also a part-time race car driver. There’s way more to going fast at the track than mashing the throttle to the floor. It takes finesse to go fast, and I wanted to know if the Classé DELTA was all muscle, or the complete race-prepped package.
I first heard the Classé DELTA PRE and STEREO at AXPONA 2022 with the Bowers & Wilkins 801 D4, a combo that made a great initial impression. But how did it sound at home?
Classé DELTA: Super Car Looks
The Classé DELTA series offers sleek hi-fi looks. The black and gray brushed aluminum looks modern and worthy of a super car badge. The DELTA series isn’t all bling, though. Its industrial but elegant design would also fit in a studio setting. I really like the simple and elegant, yet still industrial aspects, to the DELTA design aesthetic.
The rear panel of each component is well-thought out. The PRE has Furutech connectors and a bajillion (I counted them) other various inputs and outputs for sources, subwoofers, main and auxiliary speakers, etc. Everything was labeled in a clean white paint with hatching differentiating inputs and outputs. Both the PRE and the STEREO operate via RCA or XLR connections. Only the internal phono
stage requires RCA, but there is a way to configure XLR2 for a phono input.
The Classé DELTA STEREO had large and unique knobs on the speaker taps that can be easily tightened by hand. They have an audible “click” when the appropriate torque is applied, just like my shop torque wrench. Super cool. AND they accept banana connectors – even more awesome!
Later I found out these are Furutech FT-809 binding posts. They are particularly great with spade connectors, providing equal contact pressure for every speaker connection. You can’t over torque them because of the torque guard ratcheting system (the “click”).
Before I forget to mention it, the Classé DELTA STEREO has real needle-swinging left and right meters! I did find myself sitting in the dark mesmerized by the wagging needles listening at higher volumes. Everything about the DELTA series oozes high end.
Super car looks and ergonomics from the Classé DELTA – check.
Classé DELTA Super Car Specs
Any super car worth owning has amazing performance – on paper. The Classé DELTA PRE and STEREO lived up to the stellar specifications requirements. Low noise, channel separation, low THD; all of it had spectacular specifications from the manufacturer. I don’t have a test rig to confirm all these numbers, so I had to use my ears to see how the DELTA PRE and STEREO performed.
But before we dig into the test runs, the DELTA PRE is and all-in-one preamp with DAC, phono, home theater bypass, parametric EQ, subwoofer outputs, headphone jack and more. The PRE owner’s manual is online, and extensive if you dare to dig into it. Once you dig deep enough, it does recommend working with your dealer to custom tailor the PRE to your space.
The Ins and Outs of the Classé DELTA PRE and STEREO
The Classé DELTA engineers offer the following tech information on these two pieces:
“The Classé DELTA PRE has a fully balanced internal signal path. The single ended inputs are converted to balanced right after the input connectors. Conversely the single ended outputs are derived from the balanced path right before the output terminals. Why did we choose to use “twice of everything”? (twice the number of circuits, DACs, volume controls, double the current delivery capacity for the power supply, etc…)
“The benefit is the high CMRR (common mode rejection ratio) offered by the balanced topology which ensures that only the signal is amplified, not extraneous signals that may be picked up via the input cables or from the environment. The output circuitry of the PRE is biased in class A easily driving any typical loads seen by a preamplifier.
“The same design approach applies to the STEREO, it has a balanced topology for the internal gain stages while the output is single ended (going further up the line, the monoblocks – aptly named MONO, offer a bridged/balanced output). The output stage works in class AAB, delivering the first 12.5W in pure class A and everything higher than that up to 250W in class AB. The significant class A output ensures that the crossover distortion is practically inaudible, irrespective of the sensitivity of the speakers paired with the amplifier.
“A characteristic common for both models: none uses coupling capacitors in the signal path. This offers the most effortless sound possible.
“Construction wise all the Delta series use high quality Mundorf electrolytic capacitors and employ Rhodium plated connectors for RCA and binding posts.
“We use a pair of top tier AKM DACs employed in dual differential configuration (one chip per channel used in mono mode). This improves the SNR by about 3dB while also lowering distortion. A hidden advantage is that the L,R crosstalk is also reduced across the board but especially in the treble area, giving a feeling of more ‘air and space’ in audition. The master clocks used are from CRYSTEK’s CCHD-957
series (ultra low phase noise) one for each base sample rate frequency (45.1584MHz for 44.1k, 49.152MHz for 48k).”
“As expected the phonostage has also a fully balanced topology. It features both RCA and XLR inputs and a broad range of load impedance options for both MM and MC cartridges. Load impedance is memorized for each input and can be selected from the listening position via the remote, rendering the job much easier.”
Now that the deets are out of the way, let’s move on to use and sound.
I’ll start with the Classé DELTA STEREO. The PRE and STEREO pair superbly, but the STEREO certainly works well with other the components in my system.
Paired with either the PRE on one end of the spectrum and the minimalist Backert Rhumba Extreme 1.3 at the purist end, the Classé STEREO was spectacular in my system. Bass had immediate and deep authority. My Vandersteens are not a tough impedance load, but they do like power and copious amounts of it.
The Classé DELTA STEREO has serious muscle under the hood and is ready to rock like a top fuel dragster waiting for the green light. With the STEREO, the speakers came alive in a way that only big clean power can reproduce. The STEREO hasn’t been the most powerful amp I’ve had in the system, but it sounded at least as powerful as the Rotel Michi 500W/channel power king I reviewed in 2021. The STEREO never sounded warm or dry even though it can play clean to party hard levels.
The Classé DELTA STEREO wasn’t just all about the horsepower. It was refined with a soundstage that easily filled the space between the speakers and imaging that was pinpoint and precise. Especially when paired with the Backert, which is an imaging monster, the Classé STEREO was toe tapping, grooving, and just “I Drive Flat Out, because that’s how I drive.”
That’s not to say that the Classé DELTA STEREO was all about grunt, because it’s not. It can canyon carve and pirouette when asked. Nah, it ain’t got that tone of the best tube gear, but it’s also not boring or dry solid state either. It’s not dead neutral like some of the gear I’ve had in the system. It definitely has a signature sound; it sounds very “audiophile.” It’s a combination of smoothness and refinement that perhaps departs a bit from reality or dead neutral but was, for me, immensely satisfying.
Overall, I loved this amp. I just purchased an amp, albeit less expensive than the STEREO’s $12,999 price, and I immediately had buyers remorse. Hands down this is my favorite amp I’ve had in my system; tube OR solid state, and I love me some tubes. I’m seriously thinking about saving up my shekels for this one at some point in the future.
PRE Boarding DELTA
The Classé DELTA PRE is good, really good, and a great pairing with the DELTA STEREO. Besides the slick DC triggers and interoperability between Classé gear, in my system and for my tastes the STEREO was a better fit than the PRE. The DAC in the PRE is shockingly good. Probably the best all-in-one DAC I’ve heard. The Meitner I heard at Grover’s was smoother and the LampizatOr Golden Atlantic TRD
prototype had better imaging and groove, but the PRE DAC is excellent. The PRE DAC is one I could live with and not feel like I was missing out by not going the separate components route.
Digital was clean, with superb imaging and soundstage. Like I mentioned above other DACs might do this or that better, but the balance of the PRE DAC matched perfectly with the PRE linestage and STEREO to create a wholistic vibe of a clean and very high-end sounding presentation.
The PRE flexibility/connectivity is bonkers. It reminded me of a high end BMW or Audi that has more features embedded in the software interface than 90% of drivers will ever use. It’s cool and amazing if you need it, but most users are unlikely to use all that technology. So, if you have a difficult room, have a plethora of subwoofers, and love to tweak and EQ to the nth degree, the Classé DELTA PRE is absolutely for you. I’m a bit more of purist at heart, but appreciated the functionality.
The PRE linestage is a solid foundation. It didn’t have the groove of a tube linestage (which many of us on the PTA staff have been gravitating towards lately) but it has a cleanliness that you’d expect from a $9,999 unit. As solid state line stages go, the PRE was very good. Even with all the built-in sources and modules the unit was dead quiet and had a full soundstage with solid imaging, allowing instruments to be precisely picked out of the soundstage.
The PRE is a masterful maestro with all the functionality you could ever want, while driving the beast that is the STEREO with razor-sharp technical precision that never sounded dry. Like the STEREO, the PRE never sounded warm or particularly smooth, but it suited the very slight deviation from neutral of the STEREO. I think this preserved the tonal balance of the pairing brilliantly.
I initially had some challenges with the phono stage. I’m still very new to vinyl and playing around with different cartridges and getting a decent turntable on par with the DELTA series was tricky. My Rega P3 with Hana SH cartridge was ok with the inboard phono stage, but sounded better with the outboard phono stages I had on hand.
Other PTA staffers really like low-output moving coil better then moving magnet or high-output moving coil and thanks to Dave McNair I got a low-output MC Dynavector 10×5 to test out. OMG what a difference – I’m an official low-output moving coil fan.
I had heard good things about the Dynavector and it really grooved with the PRE phonostage. Sure, several of the outboard phono stages were better, but the margin was far smaller than it was with the Hana SH. The Hana SH also sounded dramatically different among the outboard phono stages as well, so this wasn’t unique to the DELTA PRE. None of the outboard phono stages had the breadth of options and settings of the DELTA PRE, so if you need something unusual or specific for your cartridge, the PRE likely has the appropriate settings.
Following up with Classé, the engineers suggested selecting Bypass for all the optional digital processing on analog sources. In their experience this provides the best performance. Unless you really need the EQ functions, and leaning towards my more purist sensibilities, I predominantly used Bypass mode for the majority of my listening. I’m also graced with a pretty good room that only needs minimal treatment to get great sound, so much of the EQ is unnecessary for me. Your rooms will likely vary.
Reviewing the DELTA PRE was actually kinda difficult. Much like some super cars it’s almost like getting into a jet cockpit with an encyclopedic user manual. There’s so much technology and capability packed into this unit its daunting to give it a proper review.
For example, I pulled out my HiFiMan Arya headphones to test out the headamp output. After several minutes of listening I realized that a review of the headphone section could be a review almost unto itself. So, I acquiesced to “headphone amp section works and sounds pretty good” and left it at that.
I poked around in the EQ section and the subwoofer sections, just to see how they worked, but short of pulling out my test microphone and a program like REW (Room EQ Wizard) you really can’t evaluate those portions properly. It even alludes to this in the user manual. So, coordinating with your dealer or setup technician is highly recommended if you get into the proverbial weeds.
Much like the McIntosh C49 I reviewed, the Classé DELTA PRE is an all-in-one preamplifier I could happily live with forever. Which of these units I liked better would be a tough call. Both are great in their own way but quite different. The DELTA PRE is more expensive, and I believe justifiably so just for the extra features it brings to the mix.
Classé DELTA Hot Laps
As I mentioned in the opening, the least expensive super car is still a super car. The Classé DELTA PRE and STEREO to me break through a sonic performance barrier that is tough to find in this price point.
Least expensive does not mean cheap. These are an investment proposition. At AXPONA, they were paired with Bowers & Wilkins’ new flagship 801 D4 which retails over $36,000 MSRP. In my opinion, the price point on the Classé DELTA gear is justified for the sonics it provides. That might sound a bit crazy, but remember we are knocking on the door or the audio gear equivalent of super car territory, and in my opinion we are walking through that door. You could easily spend considerably more money and get less performance than what the Classé DELTA gear offers.
The Classé gear was a rush. Getting to elevate my system upwards towards that rarified realm of hifi heaven put an immense smile on my face, and with less bits of rubber and brake dust than racing!
The DELTA PRE and STEREO would be solid gear as a foundation for any high end system. If you are looking to keep it simple and plan to use the inboard DAC and phono stages you might be able to save quite a bit of money. By the time you’ve invested in separate DACs, phono stages, and cables to go with the line stage you are at or above the money you would spend on the PRE. So, yeah I think it’s a decent value.
During our HUBCON meet up in 2022 we discussed that there aren’t too many line stages under $10,000 worth owning. I think the DELTA PRE might be another linestage that approaches that barrier, so to speak, and adds a DAC and phono stage to boot. Now the Classé DELTA STEREO has an extra special little spot in my heart that might bring me to shed a tear when I have to pack it up.
There are amps out there with similar prices that don’t get me excited like this amp did. If I had the money on hand, yeah I’d keep this bad boy. It reminds me of a 1968 fastback Mustang GT350 I saw for sale back when I was in college. If I had the money I would have bought it on the spot, but alas like the Classé STEREO it got away. It’s certainly on my short list of amplifiers to buy in the future, and it should be something you go take a listen to, and the Classé gear costs way less than a super car!