"Two years ago I discovered my latest guilty pleasure: Internet radio. As long as it's 192k or higher. My whole buying/download cycle had been reduced. The pleasure and savings have increased. If they succeed in killing Net radio, I'm done with the hobby."Reader Peter DeBoer, in response to a recent Stereophile online poll.
As we approach the end of the 21st century's "oughts" decade, many feel that playing music from a discrete physical medium is positively 20th century. Much of my own music enjoyment now comes from computer files, often high-resolution, streamed to my high-end rig via a Logitech Transporter or Bel Canto USB Link 24/96. It is perhaps a paradox, therefore, that high-end audio companies are still devoting so much effort to developing expensive, state-of-the-art disc players. In April I very favorably reviewed Meridian's superb 808i.2 CD playerpreamplifier, which costs $16,995 as reviewed, and Michael Fremer is about to review the ultimate Scarlatti SACD playback system from another English company, dCS. The $80,000 price tag of the Scarlatti makes the subject of my review this month, the Boulder 1021, seem relatively affordable at $24,000.
The whole idea that different CD transports have different sonic characteristics when driving the same digital-to-analog converter is a vexing problem. It is easy to prove that even the cheapest CD players recover the data stored on most CDs with bit-for-bit accuracy, thus disproving the widespread and erroneous belief that errors in the digital code are commonplace and affect presentation aspects such as imaging, soundstage depth, textural liquidity, etc (footnote 1). If the datastream driving the digital converter is comprised of the same sequence of ones and zeros, regardless of the transport, what other factors could account for the sonic differences between CD drives reported by many listeners?
It's been a while since I auditioned a Meridian CD player in my system. I had enthusiastically reviewed the English company's groundbreaking Pro-MCD player in early 1986, and over the years had kept up with the progress they were making in digital playback, either through my own reviews or by performing the measurements to accompany reviews by other Stereophile writers. The 508-24 player, reviewed by Wes Phillips in May 1998, was one of the finest digital products of the 1990s, I thought. But when Meridian began promoting surround sound and DVD-Audio at the turn of the century, their goals became somewhat incompatible with my own. Yes, I can appreciate what surround playback can do, but my own musical life is still solidly rooted in Two-Channel Land.
The Krell KPS-20i (KPS stands for "Krell Playback System") is essentially a CD transport and digital processor in one chassis. What make the KPS-20i different from a CD player are the unit's five digital inputs, which allow the KPS-20i to function as a digital/analog converter for external digital sources.
Bryston's first CD player, the $2695 BCD-1, is a drawer-loading player with a front panel of polished aluminum. The slim disc drawer, engraved with the Bryston logo, sits in the panel's center. To the drawer's left are an infrared sensor and Open/Close button, then a two-line, 16-character alphanumeric display. To the drawer's right are the usual transport controls and a power On/Off button. All of these functions are also accessible via the BCD-1's remote control, as well as two more: Back and Forward. Hold down either and the player moves through the selected track at several times normal speed until the button is released.
There's a retro, Heathkit vibe to the curiously capitalized PrimaLuna ProLogue Eight CD player: a shelf of glowing tubes and a chunky transformer case perched atop a plain black chassis. But on closer inspection, it seems there's much more going on here. The chassis is made of heavy-gauge steel, with (according to the manual) a "five-coat, high-gloss, automotive finish," each coating hand-rubbed and -polished. The tube sockets are ceramic, the output jacks gold-plated. Inside, separate toroidal transformers power each channel. Custom-designed isolation transformers separate the analog and digital devices, to reduce noise. The power supply incorporates 11 separate regulation circuits. The output stage is dual-mono with zero feedback. Audio-handling chips include a Burr-Brown SRC4192 that upsamples "Red Book" data to 24-bit/192kHz, and one 24-bit Burr-Brown PCM1792 DAC per channel. Only the tiny silver control buttons (on the otherwise hefty faceplate of machined aluminum) betray a whiff of chintz.
US composer Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna is one of the indisputable masterpieces of the 20th century. John Atkinson has recorded the male vocal group Cantus's performances of Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium (on Comfort and Joy: Volume One, Cantus CTS-1204) and Ave Maria Dulcissima (on Cantus, Cantus CTS-1207). (And great recordings they are—one engineer chum thinks JA's Cantus recording of OMM is the single best-engineered choral recording he's ever heard.)
When I first learned that Meridian had co-badged, with Ferrari, a $3000 table radio, I was tempted to cynically dismiss it as a marketing gimmick—an attempt by the audio manufacturer to leverage the brand loyalty of the Italian automaker to its own highly developed industrial designs. The problem was, that required that I dismiss everything I knew about Meridian and its singular head designer, Bob Stuart.
At a "Meet the Designers" panel discussion at the 1992 Los Angeles Stereophile High-End Hi-Fi Show, I asked a group of successful digital designers (footnote 1) each to state how much of a digital front end's sound quality they believed was due to the transport, digital processor, and interface between the two. There was virtual unanimity: Nearly everyone agreed that a digital processor accounts for about 50% of a digital source's sound quality, the transport 30%, and interface 20%.
My first one-piece stereo—I think I paid $60 for it, including a pair of speakers with pegboard backs—gave me a lot of pleasure when I was young, and I loved it. Everything that came after has been better in every way but one: None has inspired that kind of love. And most have left me wondering if there might be something just a little bit better.
It's easy to be impressed by Simaudio's Moon Evolution Andromeda Reference CD player. Everything about it oozes quality and luxury, from its imposing two-chassis configuration to the multi-component disc clamp of machined aluminum. Even surrounded by my double-decker VTL amps, VPI HR-X turntable, and Ferrari Fly-yellow Wilson Audio Sophia 2 speakers, the Andromeda was usually the first thing guests asked about: "How much does that cost?" The answer is $12,500. The Andromeda should look impressive.
I first heard a CD player in my own system in 1984 or 1985, several years before I began writing for Stereophile. I was curious about the Compact Disc medium—I'd read about it, had listened to CDs in stores, and was eager to hear what they sounded like in my own system. I'd even bought a CD: the original-cast recording of 42nd Street, which I already had on LP. One evening, a friend who worked for Sony and knew that I was an audiophile brought over his latest acquisition: a CDP-501ES, the second from the top of Sony's line of CD players. He also brought along a bunch of CDs, including some solo-piano discs, and Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony's then-famous recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (Telarc CD-80041).
In the ongoing debacle that has been the introduction and promotion of high-resolution digital audio and the record industry's struggles to engage the public's interest in it, two recent events stand out.