I've gone through 9 preamps in the last 5 years. The one that lasted the longest was one of the cheapest, a used Arcam c31. Quite simply, it did the most right while doing the least wrong. Others had been more dynamic, more balsy, warmer, but the Arcam let the honesty of the recordings came through, while not coloring or dissecting the sound.
The Classe has the same sort of honesty, while adding more transparency. Honesty is the word that keeps coming to mind, when I listen to it. It does edit or condense.
It's a hard sound to describe, but if pressed, it sounds on the lighter side of neutral, emphasizing space more than substance, without robbing rhythm, or bleaching out the sound. But, it's a faithful kind of neutrality, that allows recordings to come through. Detail is abundant, but in a very unforced way that never, and I mean never, lends to emphasis. Bass is textured, but again, not emphasized.
This natural flow of information allows the voice of the recording to come through, and the music with it. I've played everything from classical, jazz, rock, electronica, dubstep, pop, country, and dance through this preamp, and it hasn't failed to allow each genre to shine without emphasizing in a way that would enhance the listening experience of one type, at the cost of another. I've had preamps that sound darker, beefier, that really add some punch to rock or dance, but close in and constrain classical and jazz. And others that add body and warmth to country and jazz, but retrain more aggressive music by warming or coating the aggression in a thick layer of honey, sweetening the sharpness away.
The Classe does no such additions that subtract from musical intention. This goes for soundstaging, which is breathtakingly large if the recording allows, and intimate or constrained if recorded that way. Pet Sounds is a good example of well mastered music that sounds congealed sonically, with sounds that come out of other sounds. The Classe captures the tone, the delicacy, and the haunting harmonies all at once, allowing it all to come through in a sonically complete space, with plenty of music filling the space between the instruments that create it. Well recorded classical or jazz brings the concert hall or recording studio right into the room, with gigantic space.
More compressed music, like rock or electronica, has plenty of verve and punch to get your get up and boogie on, without taking the bite out, or adding any bite or punch to make it sound overly sharp, or thick. Led Zeppelin or Sevendust has plenty of aggression, but the sound never becomes unbearably aggressive. Daft Punk or Erasure has a punchy beat, without ever sounding too fat or think.
I don't know what perfect is, but for me, I just wanted a preamp that would serve the music...whatever music, the way it was meant to be enjoyed. So far, I haven't found a preamp that serves all types of music as faithfully, without doing any damage to it in a way that affect long term enjoyment. The Classe cp500 is the closest I've come to finding it. And it would take far more time than I have, and far more money than I can afford, to do better.
There are preamps that punch harder, sound more soulful, or dissect a well recorded piece of music better. But, they all alter music,like digital post process on a photograph. But not all things benefit from this global sharpening, warming, high contrast, or vignette effect most preamps add. The Classe is like a slightly brighter than perfect calibrated monitor, allowing the natural tones and colors to come through. It doesn't change the contrast or the saturation...it just adds a little light to the entire photo, allowing you to see into it a little more clearly, without adding any enhancements that might add unwanted artifacts that would otherwise disrupt what was recorded. It might be a little brighter than it should be, but the tones and color are very faithful to what was captured.
This kind of slightly brighter but generally accurate honest portrayal is not wanted, but in a system geared toward this same kind of honesty, this preamp is uncanny, and allows the artist intention to come through. To me, it just makes music sound, well, like the music I'm supposed to hear.
To describe a preamp that is IMHO invisible to the source and speakers is difficult. It does the job as intended. Chassis design, customizable, aluminum remote, quality and sound performance are solid and superior.
This unit is for those who can properly match up a system to full utilize its performance and those who desire ultimate transparency and sound articulation with future compatibility. It's not for those who feel 2 channel audio is gone or they can't hear a difference between Classé and other brands. eg HK or Rotel, etc.
My first unit received was slightly dinged on the front. The problem was reported and they sent me another within 2 days after the confusion was cleared up on the vendors side. Interesting note, so far they have sold about 500 units if the serial #'s are sequential. The only complaint is that I just finished running the previous unit for 200+ hours and it was beginning to sound settled down, relaxed, totally amazing and sweet... then I had to begin the breakin' process again on the new unit! :-) I was surprised to how much music never made it to my speakers with my older Rotel RC-1080. Rotel gear is great stuff for the money. I had mine for 4 yrs but for 2½x the price the diff is 25-75% more detail and music just from the Rotel RCD-991 player. 4x-5x that improvement IMHO, if you use the matching Classé CDP-100.