Classé is one of the most respected electronics brands in the audiophile world, but the last handful of years have been a bit tumultuous for the company. They’ve been spun-off, sold, and re-sold. Their current owners are thankfully Masimo Consumer, which is also the parent company of Denon, Marantz, Polk Audio, Definitive Technology, as well as Bowers & Wilkins. Today’s Classé gear has more to do with made-in-Japan technology than their Canadian roots, but considering how well Japanese craftsmanship works for sister audiophile electronics brand, Marantz, this is not such a bad thing. Classé’s current audiophile electronics lineup is pretty tuned-in, including the $13,000, 250 watt-per-channel Delta Stereo Amp that I recently reviewed, as well as even more beefy Delta amp in a monoblock configuration.
The Classé Delta PRE is a $9,999 audiophile-grade stereo preamp that is designed for advanced users looking for an as-good-as-it-gets solution for adjusting volume and switching both digital and analog sources. Where the Classé Delta PRE goes next level is the fact that it has actual HDMI inputs. Mainstream sources such as satellite receivers, 4K streamers, and universal disc players all have HDMI outputs and the content that flows out of these components is as important to a modern audiophile experience as anything on a silver disc or pressed on a big, black chunk of vinyl. The build quality of the Classé Delta PRE is first rate as is the fit, finish, and feel of the product, as you should expect at the 10-grand price point. How does this lofty preamp hang in today’s audiophile world? Let dig into it.
What Makes the Classé Delta PRE Stereo Preamp So Special?
- The HDMI connectivity is just gigantic for me, even if traditionalist audiophiles make light of the matter. Even without surround sound, having HDMI along with a bevy of digital as well as analog inputs makes this stereo preamp more relevant than so many others in the marketplace today. Other audiophile companies can’t justify the cost of engineer and more specifically licensing HDMI. Masimo can and does and good for them, as this is a majorly differentiating feature in a stereo preamp in 2023.
- The Classé Delta PRE Stereo Preamp doesn’t have a sound, per se, and that’s a very good thing. This audiophile component is a clean switching, non-flavored preamp that takes any number of inputs and gets them to the correct level and switches them with ease. And that is what a stereo preamp is designed to do.
- Beyond HDMI, there are AES/EBU, coax, network, USB, and other digital options. There are both balanced XLR and unblanced RCA inputs for analog sources.
- Controlling sources is easy and intuitive via the on-screen menu.
- There is an internal phono stage capable of boosting and equalizing moving cartridge or moving magnet cartridges for turntable lovers out there. Not having to have an external box to get the voltage on your turntable to an acceptably high level (without any dreaded hum) adds a level of welcomed simplicity to this stereo preamp.
- The build quality of the Classé Delta PRE stereo preamp is topnotch. It uses the same Navcom feet that I raved about in the Delta Amp review. It have Rhodium-plated connectors, which are ultra-premium. The physical feel of the unit exudes luxury while delivering performance.
- My Pass Labs XA25 power amp is notably low-gain. That’s not a knock against Nelson’s design, as it sounds fantastic (even if it runs very warm over time). but you do need a preamp with enough gain to get your speakers playing at a pretty loud level. The Delta PRE has all of the gain that I ever needed, with really small 0.25 dB increments so that you can really dial in your listening experience.
- The Classé Delta PRE has a simple five-band tone control that so many other preamps at this price point (and many above) tend to skip. Tell any audiophile who poo-poos EQ that every track of every great audiophile recording ever has EQ on it. So does the studio’s house speakers, and their subs and their nearfield monitors sitting on top of their mixing console. For that matter, the mastering engineer also has a whole bunch of EQ options available to him or her, so EQ is baked into the DNA of any recording that we care about. To have a bit of “program EQ” allows for some rudimentary tools to allow you to customize your sound a little bit if you are so inclined. By no means is using tone controls mandatory, but it is really nice to know that the preamp has the option included under the hood.
- Subwoofer outputs are another oversight in far too many expensive audiophile stereo preamps, but not with the Delta PRE. There is support for both mono and stereo subwoofers.
- Pass-through options allow digital inputs to stay digital while you can also make sure your analog inputs don’t get an extra layer of analog-to-digital conversion. That’s smart.
- For home theater users looking to integrate the Classé Delta PRE, there is a pass-through mode, which is yet another thoughtful option at this price point.
Why Should You Care About the Classé Delta PRE Stereo Preamp?
For those who want excellence in stereo playback in their two-channel audio system but don’t want to leave out many of the best, modern AV technologies, the Delta PRE is a really compelling option. Somebody was really thinking about what they could deliver in a modern audiophile stereo preamp when they sat down to start drawing up this component. Because of this foresight, you get a pristine audiophile sound paired with a level of simplicity that does nothing but add to this preamp’s value proposition.
Some Things You Might Not Like About the Delta PRE Stereo Preamp…
- With all of these killer features, somebody skipped room correction? The Delta PRE has so many nifty tricks, but is missing one of the handful of increasingly excellent room correction options. Masimo brands license some of these options, most specifically Dirac Live, which can be very effective in dealing with room acoustics and/or system synergy issue in one’s specific listening room.
- The Delta PRE’s remote is bit of a metal brick and kinda sucks to hold. I would have rather seen Classé use some plastic remote as a stock remote and offer a much more kick-ass remote as an optional upgrade.
- The have been rumors that the Classé Delta PRE would be adding Roon endpoint functionality, but that is unlikely any time soon. This omission doesn’t ruin the value proposition, but other preamps in the market at (or around) this price point have a built-in music streaming end point, which adds even more elegance and simplicity to the user experience on this pretty fantastic stereo preamp.
Listening to the Classé Delta PRE Stereo Preamp…
“True” by Spandau Ballet (buy at Amazon) is about as iconic an 1980s pop tune as it gets, and is a guilty pleasure for more than just aging Generation Xers. What was notable was how when paired with either the Classé Delta Stereo amp, the Pass Labs XA25, or the AGD Productions GaN (gallium nitride)-based Class D amp, that the space between the instruments was notably good. The cheesy AF background vocals resonate with an irresistible sonic allure. This track sounded so good when played back on the Classé Delta PRE that I caught myself trying to book a suite on an upcoming ’80s cruise but cooler minds prevailed, thankfully.
“METALI” by Su-metal act BabyMetal featuring guitar god Tom Morello (buy at Amazon) is a balls-to-the-wall mix of Japanese rock, out-there-vocals, and Tom Morello being Tom Morello. The dynamic window gets beautifully crushed in this track, which shows how much gain the Classé Delta PRE brings to the table. Even when using the relatively low-power Pass Labs XA25, I could make it rain sound in my listening room using my recently reviewed Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4 speakers which aren’t the easiest speakers to drive. With modern-day, Yoko-inspired vocals and a bombastic arrangement nicely finished off with Rage-esque guitar acrobatics, you’ve got an audiophile demo unlike anything you’ve ever heard at an audio show. Take that, Jazz at the Pawnshop, as there is a new way to demo audio in these here parts.
Will the Classé Delta PRE Stereo Preamp Hold Its Value?
$9,999 isn’t cheap, but Classé electronics are pretty well-respected. The feature set on this audiophile preamp helps add a whole hell of a lot of relevance to the component. HDMI is huge. Tone control appeals to me. Network connectivity separates this preamp from so many others in the space. Subwoofer output, home theater bypass, and killer build quality only add to the value. At a secondary level, add in the type of support that comes from a multi-billion-dollar company with deep audiophile and consumer electronics roots only makes things safer for your audiophile investment dollars.
What Is the Competition for the Classé Delta PRE Stereo Preamp?
The Bricasti M20 is a $12,500 stereo preamp from Brian Zolner and his team of ex-Lexicon engineers, who are making some of the best sounding audiophile gear money can buy, even if it isn’t priced at Oligarch price points. While nowhere near the feature set that the Classé Delta PRE stereo preamp has to offer, the Bricasti M20 is about as pure a stereo preamp as you can find, sonically speaking. Both preamps are priced in the same ball park. They are about the same physical size and they both work and sound delightfully. Bricasti is one of the new companies challenging the audiophile electronics establishment (namely the likes of Krell, Mark Levinson, Audio Research, McIntosh, and Classé) with kick-ass gear that is by no means cheap but can compete with the uber-audiophile stuff that costs more than an AMG Mercedes. Read Michael Zisserson’s review of the Bricasti M20 stereo preamp here.
The Pass Labs XP12, priced at $6,100, offers a pretty big price savings but can absolutely hang with the $9,999 Classé sonically. This is a far simpler preamp. Forget HDMI, tone controls, and internal DACs. But sonically, you can compare the clean, colorless sound to the Classé Delta PRE and know that you saved a little bit of coin. This is Greg Handy’s reference stereo preamp. Read his review here.
The Anthem STR Preamp at $3,999 could be argued isn’t in the same price category, but the feature set on the Anthem is equally impressive when compared to the Classé Delta PRE. The big difference between the Classé and the far less expensive Anthem is that the STR has ARC (Anthem Room Correction) and the Classé has HDMI inputs. The Anthem punches well above its weight and also allows pass-through for analog inputs. The room correction from Anthem is a big deal and very appealing. If the Anthem STR had HDMI, it might be irresistible. Read Andrew Dewhirst’s review of the Anthem STR stereo preamp here.
Final Thoughts on the Classé Delta PRE Stereo Preamplifier…
You can’t find a better built, cleaner sounding, more feature-laden audiophile preamp at the $10,000 price mark today. The Classé Delta PRE is a true gem in today’s crowded high-end audio marketplace. While this preamp doesn’t have every possible feature (room correction or an internal source/end-point most notably), it has nearly everything else one might want packed under the hood.
Most importantly, the Classé Delta PRE has a transparent, don’t-get-in-the-way sound that is what a top-level audiophile preamp should deliver. You’ve got all the gain that you could ever hope for. You have HDMI connectivity, which simply fantastic. You’ve got stereo as well as mono sub support, plus home theater bypass. With a true pedigree and the support of the audiophile community’s biggest multinational corporation, the Classé Stereo PRE is a winner on so many levels that it is hard to see how one can lose making this audiophile investment.