Reviewer:
Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Sources: 27" iMac with 5K Retina display, 4GHz quad-core engine with 4.4GHz turbo boost, 3TB Fusion Drive, 16GB SDRAM, OSX Yosemite, PureMusic 3.01, Tidal & Qobuz lossless streaming, COS Engineering D1, AURALiC Vega, Aqua Hifi Formula, Fore Audio DAISy 1, Apple iPod Classic 160GB (AIFF), Astell& Kern AK100 modified by Red Wine Audio, Cambridge Audio iD100, Pro-Ject Dock Box S Digital, Pure i20, Questyle QP1R
Preamplifier: Nagra Jazz, Esoteric C-03, Vinnie Rossi LIO (AVC module), COS Engineering D1, Wyred4Sound STP-SE Stage II
Power & integrated amplifiers: Pass Labs XA30.8; FirstWatt SIT1, F5, F6, F7; Crayon Audio CFA-1.2; Goldmund Job 225; Aura Note Premier; Wyred4Sound mINT; Nord Acoustics One SE Up NC500MB, AURALiC Merak [on loan]
Loudspeakers: Albedo Audio Aptica; EnigmAcoustics Mythology 1; Sounddeco Sigma 2; soundkaos Wave 40; Boenicke Audio W5se; Zu Audio Druid V & Submission; German Physiks HRS-120; Eversound Essence; Rethm Bhaava [on loan]
Cables: Complete loom of Zu Event; KingRex uArt, Zu and LightHarmonic LightSpeed double-header USB cables; Tombo Trøn S/PDIF; van den Hul AES/EBU; AudioQuest Diamond glass-fibre Toslink; Arkana Research XLR/RCA and speaker cables [on loan]; Sablon Audio Petit Corona power cords [on loan], Black Cat Cable redlevel Lupo
Power delivery: Vibex Granada/Alhambra on all components, 5m cords to amp/s + sub
Equipment rack: Artesania Audio Exoteryc double-wide 3-tier with optional glass shelves, Exoteryc Krion and glass amp stands [on loan]
Sundry accessories: Acoustic System resonators
Room: Rectangular 5.5 x 15m open floor plan with two-storey gabled ceiling, wood-sleeved steel trusses and stone-over-concrete flooring
Review component retail: €17'000


"Is that classical music?" "Yes, I believe it is." In Startrek: Beyond, that's what the real McCoy asks the Vulcan Spock. And it's what he learns upon hearing Rock blast through space as an analog signal which Kirk broadcasts to disrupt communications between a lethal swarm of self-guided weaponry. Their 23rd century is our future. From that perspective, The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" tune which demolishes the hi-tech threat is classical. Beethoven becomes proper antediluvian, Bach faintest fossilian. In Nagra time however, classic is now! In what for hifi is an enviably long time line that started back in 1951 with professional gear makes the split, of their consumer gear into two discrete ranges, incredibly recent. The Super Swiss swish stuff now goes by HD. That's short for high definition, a perfect slogan to signify 21st century expectations for ultrafi. It's Nagra's most advanced take-no-prisoner kit. The only slightly less intense ware is called Classic. That's because it's styled in the company's trademark ¾ width laboratory livery. It looks... well, classic Nagra. As the famous man with the bad haircut but pointy ears would say: "Perfectly logical!"


That said, framing our tale in such terms could suggest business as usual. Now classic could smack of vintage. And that could mean passé to an up-to-date audience. Actually, business as usual would have meant Jean-Claude Schlup, Nagra Audio's team leader from the era before 2012's formation of Audio Technology Switzerland. This spin-off doing business as today's Nagra Audio remains owned and operated by the Kudelski family. That secures an unbroken lineage with founder Stefan Kudelski whose accomplishments—Pop Quiz alert!— include four Oscars and two Emmys. New ownership now simply operates independently from the Kudelski Group umbrella.


Part of said independence means a new set of critical ears. That golden set is attached to Philippe Chambon. His first Nagra job was as team leader on the HD DAC project. His background is teenage ham-radio operator. He'd launched a popular underground radio station in central France; and did so on his very own home-built kit. At radio transmission engineering school, he met Nagra's present marketing director Matthieu Latour, a connection which years later would pull him to Lausanne. Back then, he'd soon be contacted on behalf of a very recently ex president Giscard D'Estaing who proposed that Philippe become technical director of his new radio station.


A young ambitious student couldn't resist such a lucrative opportunity with promise of unlimited technical resources. He thus went to work right away, studies be damned, and garnered enviable field credentials in various endeavours including a few years in a hurricane-prone Caribbean location where he was in charge of a life-line broadcast station. In his spare time at Nagra today, Chambon is working up a personal music computer to multi-track a full symphony orchestra in 10.2 surround at full 24/192 or higher resolution. He's also a true aficionado of the organ to conjure up a bit of a Captain Nemo character in his very private submarine. This includes digitally sampling famous church organs on location to recreate their majesty in his own digs. Creative brains thrive on self-imposed challenges.

Faintly in the background, the Nagra Jazz precursor: the Classic Preamp and DAC premier at CES 2017 in Las Vegas.

The Nagra Jazz valve preamp in our system is from before Chambon's arrival at Nagra. Today's Classic benefits from lessons learnt since; and Chambon's extra set of Spock ears and input. In addition to the headfi circuit inherited from the HD DAC, the main cosmetic evolution within the classic Nagra styling is the display first seen on the flagship converter; and the attendant menu controller. A sideways look would next notice depth far deeper than legacy Nagra. Without changing le visage for perfect integration with pre-Classic classics like Nagra's iconic CD player, engineering hid the need for more internal space by going longer. This internalized the power supply, thus obviated the Jazz's external box with umbilical. Just so, the Classic's 12VDC Lemo connector can alternately connect to Nagra's dedicated MPS. This device can power up to four Nagra components, one with batteries, whilst providing "additional performance gains". Optional i/o transformers wound in-house can again create a fully symmetrical floating signal path for those with corresponding gear. Once again voltage gain is selectable between 0/12dB to adapt to varying system gain and speaker sensitivity. The main inputs of the Jazz (4:1 RCA/XLR) stay but its 2:1 RCA/XLR outputs invert to become 1 x RCA and 2 x XLR. One of the latter can be set as a true home-theatre bypass. Key specs are +0/-0.5dB bandwidth of 10Hz-50kHz with >125dB of dynamic range in high-gain mode; and with two 12AX7/ECC83 and one 12AT7/ECC81, a low output impedance of 60Ω. These figures alleviate any concerns over vintage tube gear. With wide bandwidth, low noise and low Z-out, Nagra's Classic Preamp is ultra modern. In short, as our opener promised, classic can have multiple meanings and layers. Despite sharing origins with the finest haute horlogerie of Swiss watches, not all of them coincide with conventional timekeeping.