as reviewed by Robert H. Levi
Brand new from Mystere comes the baby brother of the acclaimed ca21, the quite astounding ca11. With the same features and almost identical specifications of the more expensive ca21, the robust ca11 is a musical tour de force and the poster child for magnificent industrial design. You thought Black Beauty was a horse; now it's a preamp, too! There are only two preamps in the world I would gladly live with under $2000. The ca11 is one of them.
Sporting 4 6SN7s and a 5AR4, no negative feedback, and a volume control that screams perfection, there is a ton of room for tube rolling and experimentation to max out the ca11. I assembled a perfectionist near field system to test its abilities. The sources were the E.A.R. Acute I CD Player and McIntosh MR71 FM Tuner. The amp was the E.A.R. 534 Tube Amplifier and the speakers were the Marten Dukes. Cables were the Kubala-Sosna Emotion Interconnects and the Elation! Speaker Cables. Power Cords were the Kubala-Sosna Emotion and Elation! AC Cables. One Emotion Interconnect costs nearly twice as much as the ca11. I use the best in connectivity from Kubala-Sosna because I'm not interested in reviewing any inexpensive cable colorations, just the sonic performance of the preamp!
Freq. Response: 8Hz - 200kHz @ 47k Ohms
Not many features for $1795, but there's certainly enough here for the budding audiophile perfectionist with four good sources and a top two-channel system. Turntable jockeys take note: there is no phono stage on board. The tube cage lifts off for tube swapping, and is masterfully constructed. Important: in my opinion, the ca11 sounds best with the tube cage installed at all times. Without it, expect a somewhat thick lumpy sound. With it, you'll hear near perfection with tons of delicacy and agility. In addition, the preamp looks better with the cage in place. This review is based on the unit with the cage installed and no tube substitutions. More on that later.
The volume control is a fixed-position step-type control with a ladder of resistors, one for each detent on the control. This is a fabulous way of maximizing volume control integrity and volume repeatability. There is no remote control. Even my $11,500 reference preamp uses a stand wiper-type volume control, so it fascinates me to see it on the under $2000 ca11!
So far, so good.
The ca11 would not have turned my head no matter how well built and original it might be, if it did not perform like a world champ. Give it 100 hours of play time, and then sit back and enjoy the glory of high-end sound. The highs sparkle with generously served up ear candy. The mids are colorful and agile with delicacy and textural nuance galore. The bass is solid, defined, and deep. Imaging is realistic and focussed. The ca11 is very close to neutral and just a bit sweet. Colors are harmonious and full of you are there reality. Depth perspective is top notch and backgrounds are blackest black… almost like a passive line stage.
Overall definition is excellent, and may be improved just a bit with judicious tube rolling. Vocals are mellifluous and realistic. The better your ancillaries and front end gear, the more this baby delivers. Not wet or dry, it's almost spot on neutrality never quite makes you aware of whether tubes or transistors are on board… except, no transistor preamp would ever sound this realistic at this price point, in my experience.
Built in China, but designed and managed by European designers, Mystere has truly built a winner. Listening to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue on the Sony Blu-Spec CD from Japan was as emotional an experience as I can remember. Mile's trumpet soars. Coltrane's power is second to none. Cobb's drums lead. You'll listen with fresh ears through the ca11. It's "You are there!" fun, for sure.
Hearing my favorite reference CD from Yarlung Records, Dialoghi, featuring cello and piano, the ca11 gave up the smallest amount of textural information compared to my more expensive references. The cello was rich and solid with lots of boxiness and air. The Steinway was bell-like and delicate, with woody overtones. Nice.
Margareta Bengston, Where the Midnight Sun Never Sets, CDSOL-MB0001, was sexy and warm. She was in the room and captivating as usual. Cymbals were particularly perfect, with that wonderful blend of brass and silver that those high-tops can yield. Loved the slide trombone on this CD; this is the perfect vocal CD to use as a reference disc.
The new Britten's Orchestra from Reference Recordings, RR120 CD, is an amazing test disk for the ca11. The flutes and piccolos just sparkle with air and beauty. The violins are layered, and are sweetly textured. The horns are powerful and jarring. The bass fiddles are sonorous and fun to hear and feel. What a killer CD. Well done Professor Johnson! No wonder it was nominated for a Grammy!
I spent a bit of time playing with tubes on the ca11. Here's my advice. For most listening in most systems in the $10,000 price range or less, the ca11 as supplied is just fine. Now, my speakers are $8500 in my near-field system, so I was able to benefit from some changes. I liked a NOS 5AR4 replacing the supplied Mystere branded tube. I found a Mullard or RCA tube (you can buy a good one used) brought out even more definition and richness with a bit more textural information. The stock tube is a bit brighter, so it may compliment your speakers better than it did my ceramic tweeters on the Marten's.
I found the front pair of 6SN7s are more important than the rear pair. I loved a pair of Amperex NOS [expensive] tubes in the front positions, stock in the rear spots. Try US made 6SN7s, too. Hard to predict the outcome, but 95% of the time you use NOS, you will get some improvement over modern tubes. I tried new Sovtek, JJ, Ruby, and EH 6SN7s, but the stock tubes always sounded either best or about the same. The fun in tube rolling is in the doing…so enjoy.
A mighty European design hand combined with deftly executed Chinese metalwork has produced the ridiculously inexpensive ca11 Preamp from Mystere. This is only the second preamp I've found under $2000 that can be considered high-end; this one's built like a Sherman tank. It's also a piece you might see at MoMA in New York, it's that beautiful. Sonically, it has the kind of earthy, delicious, highly detailed sound audiophiles crave. What a deal!
At only $1795, I can offer only one piece of advice. If the ca11 is a comfortable purchase for you price-wise, don't hesitate to buy it. The ca11 has my highest recommendation! Robert H. Levi
Mystere Audio USA