Copland Audio CSA150 Integrated Amplifier Review
CSA150 Integrated Amplifier
AUD $8,400 RRP
Copland has been ploughing its own hi-fi furrow since the mid-nineteen eighties and was doing tube/solid-state hybrid amplifiers long before it became fashionable. Designer Ole Møller has delivered a series of fine-sounding products over the years. The latest is the CSA150 – a large and powerful integrated amplifier with analogue and digital connectivity.
Aesthetically, it seems to me like a classic car with a digital dashboard – a sort of halfway house between traditional and modern. The basic style is old school, but the centrepiece of the fascia is a cluster of LED source indicators. Inputs include an MM phono stage, balanced and unbalanced analogue line ins, plus aptX Bluetooth and digital inputs too. The Copland still looks pretty timeless, but not in the mode of the all-singing, all-dancing Hegel with its own streamer built-in.
Inside, the retro-futuristic theme continues; this hybrid amplifier contains a single 6922 double triode that acts as the voltage driver for the line stage. Modern MOSFETs take over to deliver 150W RMS per channel of Class AB power into 8 ohms, or so the company claims. First productionised for hi-fi by Hitachi in the late seventies, MOSFETs generally sound very clean, reliable, and easier to package than discrete transistor designs.
The amp is built on a robust anti-magnetic aluminium chassis, with a lavish brushed aluminium fascia and pressed steel casing. The ALPS Blue Velvet volume potentiometer to the right of the fascia has a silky action, while the source selector to the left has a small digital input switch beneath it with useful LED indicators. The full-size headphone socket works with the amp's built-in headphone amp.
Copland has chosen an ESS9018 DAC working in quad mode mono configuration, which offers PCM decoding up to 32-bit, 384kHz resolution, and DSD. You get chunky binding posts around the back, plus sockets for its four analogue inputs, four digital ins, a moving magnet phono stage, a tape loop, and Bluetooth. There's a pair of balanced XLR ins, plus fixed and variable RCA line outs. Overall construction quality is very high, with the precise action of the front controls approaching the best Japanese standards. Thanks to plenty of internal case space, the amp runs fairly cool in normal operation. Vital statistics are 435x164x370mm (WxHxD) and 15kg.
The stereotypical view of valve amplifiers is that they sound fat, warm, soft and rounded. Certainly, classic power amps like the old Quad II are like this, but modern tube amps can actually be super clear and clean. The CSA150 is a hybrid, of course, so it could never approach the Quad sound even if it wanted to. My sense is that the Copland design team didn't because there's actually little obvious valve sound anywhere to be found. Indeed in some ways, it presents more like a very well executed Class A solid-state design.
There is a hint of tonal warmth, but it is super subtle. Instead, what impressed me was its conspicuous lack of solid-state grain and edge. The CSA150 is so self-effacing that it tastes like neither fish nor fowl – tube or transistor. One favourite torture track of mine is Traffic's late sixties rock classic Paper Sun; this is – being kind – a lo-fi recording that always sounds like it's being played on AM radio. It's all midband, and even that is pretty cloudy. Many solid-state amps just make it nastier; their subtle grain makes the recording sound edgier than it originally was, and they add even more cloud to the foggy mix. The Copland steadfastly refused to fall into this trap.
It's all very well to audition a great audiophile recording to show off with – Dire Straits' Love Over Gold, for example – then sit back and luxuriate in the expansive acoustic and vast amount of fine detail. Yet, with the Traffic track, this amplifier had to work for a living. I was genuinely impressed by the CSA150 here; rather than further degrading the sound, it seemed to enhance it. My attention was drawn away from the recording's failings and focused instead on the sound of the music itself. The mix presented as smooth and – while not lacking anything in the way of low bass or high treble – there was plenty of midband detail, centred around the guitar, bass and sitar playing. Drums were soft and compressed – just as they should be – yet still cut through with alacrity.
Then suddenly, like the sun peeping out from beyond the clouds, came the vocals. Steve Winwood's voice was clearly separated from the rest of the mix, hanging high above everything else. Its tonal purity was a pleasure to behold, making the track sound like an authentic musical event rather than just studio trickery. It didn't seem overly rich and euphonic, just devoid of grain. The Copland let me enjoy the recording for what it really is.
This was even easier with a clean, crisp modern recording such as Wake Up by Maximum Style and JB Rose. This is a drum and bass-infused slice of modern soul with high production values, and a massive bandwidth compared to the Traffic song. The CSA150 carried it really well, instantly impressing me with the intimate rendition of the vocals and the panoramic soundstaging. Indeed, the way the amplifier reconstructed the recorded acoustic was most impressive; this is a big powerhouse that's able to dominate even large, hard-to-drive loudspeakers such as the Yamaha NS-1000Ms I was using. It served up a really wide and expansive acoustic, inside which the images were positively placed.
I also loved its keen sense of rhythm. Wake Up sounded super wide, with clearly delineated elements in the mix all doing their own thing together, contributing to one musical whole. This is a trick that only real high-end hi-fi pulls off in my view, and I wouldn't expect an amplifier of this price to approach such rarefied company. It proved well able to knit together all the different strands coherently, deftly weaving the frenetic drum machine, frantic hi-hat patterns and seismic bass line together to produce a highly engaging, foot-tapping sound.
It's this combination of tonal purity, soundstaging and musicality that makes the Copland such a lovely listen. It means that whatever music you care to play, the amp just gets on with the job and lets the flavour of the music flood out. Whitesnake's Fool For Your Loving was quite a revelation; this early eighties heavy metal standard is compressed and bandwidth limited, yet the CSA150 zeroed in on the propulsive guitar work and made the vocals seem like a rhythmic instrument. David Coverdale's phrasing was great; I enjoyed its sheer pomp. Underpinning this was a gnarly bass line that this amplifier grappled with manfully. The music was muscular, impactful and visceral, yet never fatiguing.
Most of my listening was done through the Copland's line inputs, with a Chord Hugo TT2 DAC crunching the numbers from my Cyrus CD-Xt Signature transport. When I switched to the CSA150's internal digital convertor, there was definitely a slight mood change, but the amplifier's essential nature still shone through. I thought the internal DAC lacked the spatial extension of the Chord, and its tonal purity.
While there was plenty of midband detail, bass was a little more stodgy and congealed sounding, and the upper mid and treble came across as ever so slightly chromium plated. It was a subtle sensation but a reminder that you get what you pay for in the digital world. The opening Allegro con brio of Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto in C minor was still a pleasing listen, with an enjoyable rhythmic gait and decent dynamics – certainly the match of any other price rival's built-in DAC, I'd say. So this feature is worth having and brings welcome extra flexibility, but the amp is easily good enough to be fed with a better source.
I found the Bluetooth input to be perfectly decent; it didn't sound offensive and gave the amp greater versatility. The phono stage was better than this, though, proving rather respectable; it should suffice for anything up to mid-price turntable, arm and cartridge combination. It made a nice noise with an Ortofon 2M Black LVB 250 moving magnet, from my Michell GyroDec/Origin Live Silver Mk4 turntable. A few sub-$2,000 standalone phono stages do better, but there's no criticising the sweet and spacious sound it got from the rare groove of The Stylistics' Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart).
Copland's new CSA150 is a seriously capable integrated amplifier. In absolute terms – compared to the best amps money can buy – it lacks incision, depth perspective and bass grip, but it's one of the finest sounding designs at its price – and my own personal current favourite. Compared to Creek's excellent Voyage i20, for example – which is just a little cheaper – it offers extra power and a more pleasing tonality, allied to a subtly more musical character. I really took to it, and reckon that despite its immodest price, it is still excellent value for money.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.