The New Celestee Headphones From Focal

Focal has a new headphone in their premium lineup, the Celestee. And it’s a beauty.

Many of you know Focal for their world-class Utopia, Sopra, and Kanta speakers, but they have been making open and closed back headphones since 2012. We currently use their Utopia phones as a reference here at TONE, and have just finished a review on the Stellias. Suffice to say, these are at the top of the headphone game. The new Celestee arrives on the market at a very approachable $990 and will be available mid-February.

Focal is always ahead of the game in the aesthetics department, producing speakers and headphones in unique and sophisticated colors, materials and finishes that are distinctively Focal – the French call it “savoir-faire,” and the Celestees have it in abundance. Their choice of navy blue instead of a more traditional black or silver really sets the Celestee apart from the pack, feeling more like something from a top watchmaker. Interestingly enough, navy, copper and bronze have become all the rage in the watch world, and you need look no further than the current Rolex catalog to pick up on this trend. One look and you can definitely see that navy is the new black.

As with Utopia and Stellia, the materials used are first rate, with every detail receiving meticulous attention. The semi-aniline leather and microfiber headband, and leather ear pads makes for excellent comfort and soundproofing, so they will be effective at home or on the go. We are anxiously awaiting a pair for review, and will have more details as soon as they arrive.

You can find out more here:

(images courtesy Focal)

Dac Magic DAC/Headphone Amp from Cambridge Audio

Again, Cambridge Audio redefines the standard in approachable audio, with their new DacMagic 200M.

$499 gets you dual ESS Sabre DACs with the ability to decode PCM to 32bit/768kHz, DSD512, and MQA support. It also features Toslink optical inputs, RCA/SPDIF, and USB inputs, as well as Bluetooth, so connectivity regardless of format is assured. RCA and XLR analog outputs are featured, though Cambridge does not mention if these are fixed or variable level outputs. (it would be a major bonus if they are variable)

A full sized headphone jack is on the front panel, so for desktop digital users, this should be all you need. And, the DacMagic 200M comes in Lunar Grey.

Watch for a full review soon.

REVIEW: The PrimaLuna EVO 100 Integrated Amplifier

Listening to Dylan’s “Times They Are A Changin” reminds me of the original PrimaLuna ProLogue integrated amplifier that I reviewed for The Absolute Sound back in 2003. Man, that was the little amp that could.

With just under 35 watts per channel, it offered a combination of new and old school sound, along with a level of build quality that precious few $5,000 amplifiers had. Yet the PrimaLuna was $1,095. Almost 18 years later, this amplifier still works flawlessly and sounds great.

However, time marches on, and fortunately the things that made PrimaLuna an amazing upstart have stayed firmly in place. Putting the two amplifiers side by side for the photos, there’s no evidence that they’ve cut corners in the casework anywhere. If anything, the current casework is a more refined version of the original, and a basic remote control is now part of the package, as is a headphone jack. Our test version even has a PrimaLuna installed MM phono stage, which only adds about $350 to the price – and it’s worth every penny. You’ll pay that much for an interconnect to add an outboard stage. Top value remains a pillar of the brand.

The EVO100 may look similar to the ProLogue 1 at first blush, but under the chassis, the components have been constantly improved. There are even higher quality capacitors, a power supply with more reserve, along with better transformers too. While the price has doubled in 18 years, if you adjust for inflation, the current amplifier is really only 50% more expensive. PrimaLuna has not scrimped one bit on the actual assembly quality of their amplifiers. The cleanliness of their point to point wiring is some of the best going.

For those who don’t want to read all the way to the end, the new EVO is a very worthwhile upgrade. If you’ve got one of the original ProLogues, now might just be the time to trade up. This is a good jump in performance.

Head to head

Letting both amplifiers warm up for an hour, using the new T+A 2500 DAC/Streamer/SACD player (via Roon and Qobuz) as a source, and the Dynaudio Confidence 20 speakers, the difference is vast. Everything we were enamored with in the original is here in spades: great midrange, a vast soundstage, and a saturated tonality that is just right. In the review system, it’s tough to tell the difference 8 watts makes, but it’s not about that.

The new amplifier is much more extended, with much more detail from top to bottom. In the past, PrimaLuna made a ProLogue and a DiaLogue series, with the latter having better components and offering a step up in performance over the entry level. Most noticeably, and has been the case going forward with the PrimaLuna models is an increase in bass performance, without sacrificing the lovely midrange response that draws a music lover to tubes in the first place.

Along with the Dynaudios, I achieved excellent results with a pair of Eggleston Nicos, the Focal Kanta no.1s and another perennial favorite here, the JBL L-100 Classics. You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t paired this amp up with any budget speakers – it’s that good. The EVO 100 is right at home with a pair of premium speakers, and if you aren’t playing music at ear splitting levels, it may be all you need.

Listening to the bass control in Kruder & Dorfmeister’s “Don Gil Dub,” shows off the improvement that power supply makes – right now. If you happen to be a K&D fan, you know how spacy their recordings tend to sound. Seguing into Thorne Miller’s “Soul Man” delivers even more bass grunt, and shakes a few things on the shelving unit near by. Great stuff. Perhaps this isn’t as telling as a violin solo (though this amplifier does an awesome job there too) but it is a real marker for the cool factor a great vacuum tube amplifier brings to the party. This amplifier has that big, airy, nearly psychedelic feel to it and that’s a great thing.

Speaking of tubey-ness, swapping the T+A DAC for the PrimaLuna EVO DAC makes for a slightly less dynamic, but even yummier sound. If you aren’t a crazed analog person, this combination is so synergistic, you could be persuaded to forget about vinyl – seriously. We’ll have a full review on the EVO DAC shortly.

If you have to spin records

In the context of the EVO 100s MSRP, the extra $300 that the phonostage will set you back is perfect for someone with a modest turntable, or a streaming lover wanting just enough vinyl to have fun with. Add a $500 – $800 table (new or vintage) and rock. We paired the onboard phono with a Technics SL-1200 and NOS Shure M44. Woo hoo. This was an absolutely engaging combination, especially with the JBLs (which you can get from Kevin Deal at Upscale Audio to go along with your EVO100.)

Playing a ton of classic rock through the EVO100/Technics/JBL combination just feels so right. This little 40 wpc amplifier plays way louder than one would ever expect it to, and it ticks all the boxes for sound and style. Dusting off the Dynaco Stereo 70 for a quick comparison really leaves the vintage amp lacking. Frampton Comes Alive and Rumors were never so much fun.

Perfectly balanced

There’s only one caveat with the EVO100, it really needs an hour’s worth of warming up to deliver maximum sonic effect. Think I’m kidding? Turn it on and play your favorite track. Then come back to it in an hour and listen – the difference is not subtle. The room just got a lot bigger.

Much like a great motorcycle or sports cars, there are hifi components that bowl you over with a single aspect of their performance, yet I submit the ones you remember the most (the true classics) are the ones that perform well across the spectrum. The EVO100 is one of those special components. There are tube integrated amplifiers that offer more power and more finesse, but they all cost a lot more than the $2,295 the EVO 100 will set you back. This amplifier is so good, you can start with a budget pair of speakers, yet grow up to a $5,000-ish pair of speakers and not feel like you need another amplifier. That’s value.

No matter what kind of music you enjoy, the EVO 100 will deliver great sound. If it’s your first experience with vacuum tubes, especially if you are stepping up from a more mass market receiver or amplifier prepare to be amazed. While PrimaLuna products deliver more fun for the dollar than anything we’ve used, they also have 20 years of manufacturing expertise behind them and some of the best reliability in the business. There are other great tube amplifiers out there to be sure, but no one makes a more robust amplifier than PrimaLuna.

Thanks to being very well designed and built, the EVO 100 is easy on tubes. Again, from my experience with a number of their amplifiers over the years, even with heavy use, you might even see five or more years out of a single set of tubes. That is value and consideration for the customer.

Final touches

As they used to say on those old TV shows, “but wait there’s more.” The EVO 100 still has a few more features. First, the remote. Granted, most of us can use a few more steps in our daily routine, but having a remote is handy. Especially when you’re streaming a long selection of tracks where the volume can jump up and down dramatically. The remote included with the EVO 100 is basic, but built to the same standard as the ones in the larger EVO series components.

Next, the internal headphone amplifier. As in the bigger PrimaLuna amplifiers, the EVO100 actually uses the tube circuitry to power the headphones, and is not a small, op amp board that is added on, sounding nothing like the amplifier you’re used to listening to. A cursory audition of some Grado, Audeze, and B&W phones all proved pleasant. None of the phones in my collection presented an issue to drive, and again, if you are of the headphone persuasion, you’d easily pay some serious coin to get a headphone amplifier sounding this good. Merely use the switch on the right side of the amplifier to go from LS (loudspeaker) to HP (headphones).

One thing missing on my original ProLogue amplifier was a bias switch to recalibrate the Adaptive Auto Bias circuit to apply a bit higher bias to 6550, KT 88, and KT 120 power tubes. The low bias position is more suited for the EL34 tubes that the EVO 100 is shipped with. It probably even squeaks a few extra watts out with KT88s, but the tonal quality is different.

The different sonic characters available with different tubes, is more than another article, so perhaps we’ll pick that up in an upcoming article or video, so stay tuned. Either way, this is another aspect of PrimaLuna ownership that really ups the fun factor. With it so easy to swap tubes, both small signal and output – it’s easy to fine tune your EVO100 exactly to your taste. Me, I’m not a big tube roller anymore, and vintage NOS EL34s are prohibitively expensive. But if you have to go down that rabbit hole, it can be as long of a journey as you’d like it to be. Not to mention Kevin Deal and Upscale Audio have the biggest stash of tubes on the planet, so their staff can help you with your journey.

Though PrimaLuna’s entry level tube integrated has crept up in price in almost 20 years, considering the increased sound quality and feature set, it remains one of the best bargains in high end audio. Again, an easy choice for one of our Exceptional Value Awards.


Digital Source dCS Bartok, T+A 2500, PrimaLuna EVO DAC

Analog Source Technics SL-1200mk. 5 w/Shure M44

Speakers Sonus faber Lumina 1, Focal Kanta no.1, Eggleston Nico, Dynaudio Confidence 20

Tellurium Q Black Diamond

Torus TOT, Cardas Clear power cords

Issue 105


Old School:

The Audiophile Apartment:

Mine: It Should Be Yours


Playlists:  We share our readers choices from around the world

Future Tense

Gear in our immediate future

Cover Feature:


And… Integrated amplifier roundup

REVIEW: Totem Skylight

Ironically, this review starts out with the title track from the Kinks classic Low Budget. However, low budget doesn’t mean low quality.

Just because you don’t have $60,000 to spend on a pair of speaker cables, doesn’t mean you don’t love music – right? These highly capable, yet diminutive two-way speakers do an excellent job unraveling this dense recording, keeping the vocals and harmonies intact.

Some audio enthusiasts associate the term “pace” almost exclusively with British speakers, yet these Canadian masterpieces are masters of keeping the musical pace of a recording intact. If you’re new to the world of obscure audio prose, think of musical pace in the context of hearing live music. When you hear a group of musicians playing together, whether acoustic or amplified, the music blends together so that it’s tough to hear one instrument standing out (unless a particular player is soloing). Yet listening to recorded music on a HiFi system, on a less than awesome pair of speakers, perhaps the drums or the vocalist doesn’t seem to “keep up” with the rest of the music. There are several reasons for that, and at least for me, pace is something that I notice more when it’s not happening. I hope that makes it a bit clearer. Pun intended.

The Skylights do an excellent job with pace, and overall balance. Building anything to a price point means something must be compromised. Totem resists the urge to emphasize any aspect of the music spectrum, creating a $1,000 pair of finely balanced speakers. If you’ve ever listened to Totem speakers at a HiFi show, you’ll notice they always use high-quality amplification for their demos.

Totem speakers are very resolving, at the top of their class for the price. Unlike many modestly priced speakers that plateau quickly, the Skylights are true to the breed in the sense that they keep revealing more musical information as the electronics behind them improve. The Skylights turn in an acceptable performance with the SVS Prime Sound Base ($499), a PS Audio Sprout II ($599), and a recently acquired vintage Marantz 2220B ($150), so you don’t have to have primo gear to build a nice system.

However, plugging them into the VAC i170 integrated ($10,000) is an ear-opening experience. The Skylights no longer sound like a great pair of thousand-dollar speakers. Mated with a small sub in the 13 x 15-foot room, they are installed, even better. You don’t need a subwoofer to enjoy the Skylights, but should your involvement and budget improve, these speakers give you a lot of room to grow – that’s value.

Further down the value path, the Totem Skylights are built at their Montreal facility – this is not a “designed in Canada, built in China” speaker, and it shows. The level of finish on the cabinets – from the joints to the way the drivers bolt in, is outstanding. Totem builds honest products.

This two-way system is available in a black ash veneer, mahogany veneer, or a white satin finish. Our review samples arrive in satin white, and I must admit this has become a real favorite.  Those with more traditional décor will probably gravitate to the black or mahogany, but in a newer home, the white cabinet blends into the background in a lovely manner.

You can get the full specs here (, but the diminutive cabinet of the Skylights holds a 5.75″ woofer and a 1″ soft dome tweeter, with a claimed sensitivity of 88db/1-watt. As someone that doesn’t make purchasing decisions based on spec sheets or measurements, the Totems perform well beyond what their conservative specs suggest. And they will deliver an equally good performance with solid-state or tube electronics. Shaking the dust off of a vintage Dynaco SCA-35 makes for a heavenly, musically involving setup with the Skylights in a 10 x 12 room at a modest listening level.

Because the Skylights have a very gentle roll-off in their low-frequency response, they respond well to being placed close to the wall. This way, they can utilize room gain to achieve some extra bass grunt, without sacrificing the detailed, three-dimensional image they present. You’ll know when you get too close to the walls when the upper bass becomes cloudy and non-distinct. We had excellent luck with the speakers about 8 inches from the wall when using them without a subwoofer, delivering solid output down to around 40hz. Those in more compact spaces will appreciate this.

The Skylights offer excellent vertical and horizontal dispersion, so they are not as critical of speaker placement as some, and this contributes to the large, coherent soundfield they generate. Yet, a little bit of fine-tuning when you get the chance will make for an even bigger musical window. We found toe-in to be more of a determining factor than rake angle with these speakers, and getting the distance between them just right will help you to get the maximum image size.

Going through a wide range of musical selections, both acoustic and electronic, reveals no weaknesses in the Skylights – no music is off limits. However, lovers of bass-heavy music may want to invest in one of Totem’s excellent subwoofers sooner than later. You know who you are.

Refinement is the word that sums up the Totem Skylights best. As you move up the food chain with real HiFi manufacturers, the best offerings reveal more musical information without emphasizing one part of the musical spectrum over the other. These speakers provide that wealth of experience at an easily attainable price. After a few hours with the Skylights, you’ll understand why Totem owners are as loyal to the brand as they are.

Rotel’s CD 11 and A11

Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, Japanese hifi manufacturer Rotel was one of the top value proposition audiophile brands. Though not possessing quite the cache of top brands like Mark Levinson and Audio Research, many a budding audiophile brought home a Rotel RA 913 or RA-2030 integrated amplifier to start their journey into the high end. Their products have always offered high build quality, a clean design aesthetic, and most of all, great sound.

Rotel has never left the audio world, but has always had somewhat of a quiet legacy, going about their business building great gear. However, in the last five years or so, they’ve been making a bit more noise so to speak, and their latest products retain all of their key values.

They join us here with two models that celebrate the current rebirth of the integrated amplifier, the standalone CD player, along with the recent passing of audio legend, Ken Ishiwata. Long known for his relationship with Marantz, Mr. Ishiwata was the most well-known of Japanese hifi designers, and always a joy to engage with at hifi shows. He was somewhat of a creative director, taking designs, listening carefully, and making suggestions to improve them further.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ishiwata passed away right before the completion of the Tribute models, but the Rotel team implemented his suggestions in the final designs, a real testament to his legacy. Even a quick listen out of the box shows that these are indeed special components, well within reach of any music lover.

The Rotel A11 and CD11 Tribute models from Rotel are the last two pieces of audio gear to bear his imprint, and like everything else he’s had a hand in, are fantastic. At $699 and $499 respectively, this 50-watt per channel integrated amplifier and compact disc player go about their business in an understated way. If you need a plethora of inputs, outputs and functionality, this may not be the combo for you, but if you want the core for a straight-ahead system that delivers the sonic goods, read on.

More than enough power

Most small to moderate space dwellers should be just fine with 50 watts per channel, and lifting the top on the A11 reveals the necessary ingredients: a hefty power supply with big power transformer, a discrete, class AB power amplifier, complete with heat sinks, and enough control facilities to add a turntable, CD player, and tuner or tape deck.

The A11 has an onboard DAC, featuring a Texas Instruments chipset, it is only a Bluetooth streamer, with no optical or SPDIF inputs. The CD11 CD player provides both an anlog RCA output as well as a coaxial output. This is the only shortcoming of what is an otherwise excellent pair. As good as their performance is, it’s a shame you can’t plug a laptop or budget streamer in to increase the functionality of these two excellent components, but it’s understandable that Rotel drew the line in the sand here.

Half of our listening was done with our reference pair of Sonus faber Lumina 1 speakers, while the rest was split between a pair of Martin Logan Motion 15i’s, the Golden Ear BRX’s, and Totem Sky’s. All excellent choices in the $600 – $1,600/pair range. There were no anomalies with any of these small speakers, and we’d suggest any one of them.

The overall sound of the A11 is natural – neither embellishing, nor subtractive in nature. Thanks to a discrete amplifier section, the tonal saturation present is more engaging than many similarly priced integrateds featuring class-d amplification. Not only is the A11 worthy of both the Rotel name, and the legacy of Mr. Ishiwata, it reminds me of another legendary integrated, the NAD 3020.

Offering great bass control, clear mids, and a smooth high end, this amplifier is destined not only to be a classic, but one that will stay in your family for years. Whether buying your first hifi system, or a second system for somewhere else in your house, the A11 provides engaging sound that you will not tire of.

The shiny disc

Much like the vinyl record, the CD is also enjoying a bit of a resurgence. Used record stores and online shops have a plethora of discs available, and at reasonable prices. For those of you that either aren’t streaming, or just enjoy the physical act of playing a disc, the CD11 does not disappoint.

Good as the A11 is, $499 in 2020 is about $88 in 1983. Those of us that were there at digital audio’s beginning know what rubbish even a thousand-dollar CD player sounded like back then. The A11 goes about its business, just playing CDs. As mentioned, there is no provision for streaming, or even a digital input to connect your laptop, so it serves one purpose only. At this price, even if you no longer have a massive (or any at all) digital disc collection, it’s much like picking up an entry level Pro-Ject or Rega table. A few days of online shopping will put you a pretty diverse collection of 50 to 100 discs in no time.

The overall sound is solid, and smooth. This is a very un-digital sounding player, that compared to a late 80s player (that we won’t name) is amazing. Truly, the only thing the CD11 lacks is a level of resolution that the big bucks digital does. However, in the context of the amplifier, and a like priced pair of speakers, it’s going to be tough to get this level of involvement out of a $499 turntable and bargain records.

Playing MoFi copies of a few Santana favorites (Abraxas, III, and Caravanserai) where the CD11 only captures the 16/44 layer is a joy. Music comes through with a lack of grain, clean top end and great dynamics.

The black disc

The A11 also includes an excellent MM phono stage. As we still had a Pro-Ject Debut with Ortofon 2M Red hanging around, and our long-standing vintage favorite Technics SL-1200mk. 5 with Shure M44, it was time to spin some records. This amplifier turns in a fantastic performance. The phono input is quiet and composed.

Having used a few Ishiwata inspired designs, I can’t help but hope he had a major say in final tweaking of the phono section. Thirty seconds in you can tell this is not an afterthought, but respectfully aimed at providing an engaging experience for the new vinyl enthusiast.

Both cartridges worked great with the A11 – the channel separation is excellent, producing a very wide soundstage, with great delineation of instruments. We even tried the Technics SL-1100/Denon 103 MC combination with a Bob’s Devices step up transformer. Again, the Rotel delivers big sonics. Playing the new Anne Bisson LP, Keys to my Heart, was absolutely dreamy. Ms. Bisson and her crew of vintage jazz cats made for a bold, engaging sound.

The phone

Though you can’t plug a laptop or streamer into either of these components digitally, you can stream your mobile device via Bluetooth to the A11. This is probably the only part of the A11 that feels a bit out of balanced, so I would almost suggest this amplifier and disc player combination to someone favoring physical media. Regardless, at least being able to stream tunes in the background, at dinner or a party via your phone is still acceptable. Again, kudos to the Rotel design team of including such a great amplifier and phono section for this price, having to add a digital input probably would have bumped the MSRP up a hundred bucks or possibly two. And, you can always add a streaming DAC instead of the CD11 if you have no need for digital physical media and still have a formidable combination.


We also need to mention a few last things. Fit and finish of this pair are way beyond par for their respective price points, but Rotel has always done a fantastic job in this department. The simple remote and the user interface are both intuitive and easy to use. It was a breeze to get these two rocking without the need for the manual without issue.

And…the A11 has tone controls. Laugh if you want, and yes, it sounds slightly more transparent with said tone controls disengaged. Apartment dwellers and those not able to put their speakers in the optimum audiophile position will appreciate a little bit of boost and cut – as will those streaming from a mobile device.

In the end, I challenge you to find a better sounding pair of components on which to anchor a good, entry level music system. The Rotel A11 amplifier and CD11 disc player are an honor to their makers. Two very honest components that do a great job at their tasks. It doesn’t get any better.

The Rotel A11 amplifier and CD11 Disc Player

$699 and $499

REVIEW: Conrad-Johnson CAV-45S2

As Ella Fitzgerald’s voice coos out of the Dynaudio Confidence 20s/Rel T-510 six-pack combo, I’m back home again.

Not with Ella, mind you, but the sound of a smaller CJ amplifier. Conrad-Johnson has been building great tube amplifiers for just over 40 years now. While some of their Premier amplifiers produce prodigious power, there’s always something incredible about their EL-34 based amplifiers. Lew Johnson has always been fond of saying, “simple circuits well-executed are the best approach,” and nothing could be truer of the Control Amplifiers they’ve built – they’ve only created a couple.

Their concept of a control amplifier puts a high-quality passive volume control in front of the power amplifier, offering a minimalist approach. An outboard passive attenuator works the same way; either offering a more transparent reproduction (i.e. less stuff in the signal path) or a slightly flat presentation (i.e., lousy impedance match between source and amplifier because there is no preamplifier to buffer things).

The CAV 45-S2 is no different, but when it’s a match, it’s really right. With a 100k ohm input impedance, there were no issues with any of the source components we have on hand from Luxman, Line Magnetic, dCS, T+A, BAT, or Pass Labs.

I must admit my personal bias before going further. I’ve owned C-J products since 1979 (PV-1) and am a huge fan. C-J tube gear has a slight bit of extra tonal body, richness, or saturation, whatever you’d like to call it that I have always loved. It’s not overly warm, like vintage Marantz, McIntosh, or Dynaco gear, but there is a tonal solidity that I’ve always enjoyed. After listening to thousands of components over the years, there is a familiarity and comfort whenever auditioning a C-J component that makes for a comforting exhale. Their marketing slogan has always been “It just sounds right.” I can’t agree more.

A brief history

The CAV-45S2 descends on one level from the original MV-45 power amplifier. Still, it wasn’t until the late 90s that they built the first CAV-50, which actually was more a true integrated, combining circuitry from the PV10 preamplifier (which I still own) and MV-55 power amplifier (which I used to own) to create a one chassis amplifier producing 45 watts per channel.

Somewhere in the mid-2000s, CJ brought back the CAV 45, now as a control amplifier, essentially a passive level control driving an EL34 power amplifier, with an abbreviated tube compliment – though still producing 45 watts per channel. The only review I was able to find of the CAV 45 (series 1) was by my buddy from the UK, the always affable Alan Sircom. You can read his review here. I certainly agree with everything he’s got to say, and it seems his only complaint with the CAV 45 is a few small things in terms of cosmetics.

The S2 version addresses the plastic binding posts, now replaced with a gorgeous pair from Cardas. The three transformers may look a bit old school aesthetically, according to Jeff Fischel (president of CJ), they are significantly upgraded and are now the same ones used in the Classic 62. (read Rob Johnson’s review of the Classic 62SE here) Combining the new, unregulated power supply (with three times the storage capacity) and the wideband output transformers, the S2 version of the CAV-45 now produces 60 watts per channel.

A long test drive

With a list price of just under $5,000, the CAV-45S2 is devoid of bells, whistles, meters, and balanced inputs. This control amplifier has three single-ended RCA input jacks of exceptionally high quality and a pair of speaker output binding terminals. According to C-J, most speakers between 4 and 8-ohm impedance will be just fine. After using about ten different pairs of speakers with the CAV-45S2 from a wide range of manufacturers, there are no compatibility issues to report other than this amplifier may be a little underpowered for a set of Magnepans.

Nearly all the time listening was spent with the T+A 2500 SACD/DAC/Streamer as a source component and the Dynaudio Confidence 20 speakers in concert with a six-pack of REL S/510 subwoofers in a 13 x 18-foot room. All cabling is Cardas Clear – signal and power. After 40 years of assembling systems of every capacity, you stumble on a group of components, almost by accident, that create magic. This time, I struck gold.

Truly special

Going from 45 watts per channel to 60 is a much more significant difference than you might think because the chances of someone mating a Classic 62 to an ACT 2, Art, or GAT preamplifier is unlikely to couple it with a Classic 62. You’d be floored if you did, yet matching it up with a lesser preamplifier doesn’t quite show off the Classic 62s brilliance. There’s only been one other tube power amplifier that I’ve owned in 40 years that I’d put in the same category – the legendary Audio Research D-79. A few of us back in the day ran our D-79s direct, using the level controls on the back panel to set volume because this offered another level of clarity. For most, it was too much work, but performance often rewards those that eschew convenience.

Removing the preamplifier stage brings a level of clarity that can’t be achieved without going to a mega preamplifier and a pair of interconnects that will probably cost more than the CAV-45S2. The sonic experience that the CAV-45S2 delivers within the boundaries of its performance envelope is as good as it gets, period.

Listen, listen, and listen some more

There’s a thing about tubes that when it’s delicious, you can’t forget it. But it’s a road with a lot of detours. If your experience has mirrored mine at all, no doubt you’ve heard amplifiers with a silky smooth high end, others rendering a three -dimensional space that is so beguiling you might think you were under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, yet others offer a delicacy that’s almost intimate enough to be obscene.

The CAV-45S2 offers all of this and a well-defined lower register to boot. Whether I was listening to bass-heavy ambient tracks or heavily layered vocals, it comes through like few others. The presentation that the CAV-45S2 provides is deceptively simple. Should you place one in a system achieving an excellent match, you’ll not only find yourself losing track of time while listening, but you’ll also question why you didn’t do this earlier.

As female vocal tracks are often the litmus test for engagement, I picked three tunes – one for the boomers, one for gen x, and one for the millennials in the audience. I queued Christine McVie’s  “Songbird,” Ellen Reid’s “I’m Just Chillin'” and Lana Del Rey’s “Venice Bitch.” All were equally enticing. I’m sure you have your favorites.

There is a cohesiveness to the sound created by the CAV-45S2 that still defies complete description. If this makes sense, it’s got the delicacy and low-level detail retrieval of a great SET, with the punch of a great push-pull amplifier, and plays a lot louder than you might expect a 60 watt per channel tube amp on a relatively compact chassis. Finally, it’s quiet. Jeff Fischel doesn’t hesitate to mention that the S2 is 10db quieter than the model that precedes it. The music gently falls into nothingness through the CAV-45S2, and you’ll find yourself having an internal dialog over how this can be so good for five grand.

Your inception thought

No, you can’t play AC/DC at concert hall levels (though you probably could with a pair of Avant Garde horns) with this amplifier. But this amplifier produces such a high level of engagement that with careful adjustment of the volume control puts you in a positively engulfing spot. You’ll know when you hit it. A little too much, and it’s bloated, too little – the soundfield isn’t quite as three-dimensional as it can be, with detail you didn’t think was there. That’s the spot that keeps you in your listening chair for hours.

Few material things in life are this close to perfection, even fewer at this price. If you have a room and system that can work within the constraints of a 60 wpc amplifier, I submit there’s nothing more fun or engaging than the Conrad Johnson CAV-45S2. It’s an affordable masterpiece. Time to pony up. I am adding this one to the long list of great C-J amplifiers I’ve had the pleasure to own.

And… we are creating a new category of award for this amplifier: The TONE Masterpiece Award, as the CAV-45S2 is truly a masterpiece.

The Conrad-Johnson CAV-45S2

MSRP: $4,995