Occasionally you come across a truly exceptional performer. Maybe it extends your notion of what’s possible; maybe it extends your notion of what’s possible at a given price. The Carat A 57 amp is one such component – but examples are few and far between. The truth is that most products are a little better or worse than their peers, especially at the lower end of the market. Which makes the burden of expectation a dangerous thing. If you want to like a product too much and it fails to match your hopes, do you mark it down as a result? Being a little better than average is a long way from being bad. Given my extremely high regard for the A 57, this was exactly the challenge facing both me, and Carat’s C 57 CD player. Frankly, it was always going to have its work cut out to match the performance of the amplifier.
As with the A 57, it all looks good from the outside with sharp looks and build. The black acrylic fascia and blue illumination are visually appealing and the C 57 comes handily equipped with a decent pair of OFC leads with locking RCA plugs and of course, a remote control. Internally the player uses a Phillips transport and Burr-Brown 24/96kHz converters and output devices, all of which give it a good pedigree and the ability to read both CD and (the increasingly rare) HDCD discs. I had no qualms about sticking it straight on the front of the successful (if unlikely) combination of the A 57 amp and Micro Utopia Be speakers, and although the supplied interconnect was better than expected, the Vitus Andromeda cables gave a much clearer picture of each component’s contribution.
The C 57 needs considerable run-in if it’s to escape a clenched and constricted sound – a couple of months of continuous use at least. It has reasonable, though notremarkable resolution and its overall balance is somewhat soft. It lacks that bite and defined edge to its delivery that CD can be so good at. The designers seem to have steered away from too bright a balance at all costs. Instead they have opted for an altogether silkier and less sharply focussed view of the music, but have they over done it? I could understand this if the matching amplifier was a lean and sharp performer, but nothing could be further from reality. The A 57 is a truly great little amplifier and a steal at the price. It might be slightly lightweight in the bass, especially when driving hard, but it has real delicacy and a quite remarkable sense of musical perspective. When it came to the C 57 I guess I expected (or hoped for) more of the same but, in many ways, it moves in the opposite direction, even to the point of muting the A 57’s attributes. Which is where I need to be careful, because whilst the musical results are perhaps a little too bland and uninvolving for my taste, on the other hand there is absolutely nothing to dislike about the sound the Carats produce together.
The lively and open soundstage of the amplifier is best served when filled with energy, but the C 57 is just too gentle and its perspectives remain too diffuse to inject it with the instrumental dynamism it thrives on. I soon switched to the no-nonsense Electrocompaniet ECI-5 and found that this amplifier’s sense of drive and bristling power deliverysuited it far better, especially with the Micros. Here the player does not sound quite so hesitant and that sense of lush smoothness does not dominate. The ECI-5 grabs hold of the music and seems to re-energise it in a way that the A 57 doesn’t. Yes, these amplifiers are very different in both attitude and price, but they give you a completely different view of the CD player’s capabilities. It also illustrates in the starkest terms how dangerous it is to make assumptions or assess any electronic component in a single system.
As part of an all Carat system the C 57 feeding an A 57 brings mixed virtues. In many ways the CD player is a victim of the amplifier’s brilliance and in particular, its strong character. But for me, the player never exploits the amplifier’s potential with enough vigour. Speaker choice is going to be absolutely critical and with the right chemistry perhaps a better balance could be achieved, but with the Micros I definitely preferred it in combination with the gutsier sound of the ECI-5. Outside of the context of an all-Carat system I think the C 57 is a perfectly reasonable option – safe and smooth and solid, crying out for enthusiastic partners. As a matching system, the Carats certainly provide an undemanding, smooth and fatigue-free flow of music - one that you could listen to for days on end. Is that enough? You be the judge – but for me, despite the obvious aesthetic appeal, these units perform better apart than they do together.