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.
I was stumbling through the Denver Convention Center at CEDIA 2006 when I spotted John Franks, of Chord Electronics, and Jay Rein, of Chord's US importer, Bluebird Music, stranded in the basement purgatory for "niche" products. I couldn't resist asking, "What sin relegated you guys to this little hell?"
It was inevitable that I'd encounter the California Audio Labs CL-15 in my search for a CD player priced less than stratospherically. CAL was one of the first companies to hit the market with a high-end CD player, and they've been building great-sounding digital gear ever since. What's more, the CL-15's predecessor was the Icon PowerBoss Mk.II HDCD, a longtime personal favorite. I was particularly curious to see how the CAL would stack up against today's competition. I've been impressed with CAL products over the years—the original Sigma, the Delta, the DX-1 and 2, and, of course, the Icon. On the other hand, the competition—players like the Rega Planet, Arcam's Alpha 8 and Alpha 9, and Ultech's UCD 100—has improved dramatically since I last heard the Icon.
At $2295, the CD31 is the most expensive integrated CD player from Swedish manufacturer Primare, and an evolution of their D30.2, which I reviewed in the June 2004 Stereophile. I knew that the CD31 wasn't a clean-sheet design, but my first look suggested that it wasn't even much of an evolution—a comparison of its and the D30.2's spec sheets matched almost line for line. When I asked Terry Medalen of Sumiko, Primare's US distributor, about the similarity, and if the CD31 was just a mild tweaking of the D30.2, he said, "Well, yes and no. You really need to listen to it."
Many pundits in our industry say that CD is under threat from Super Audio CD, DVD-Audio, and dual-layer CD/DVD technologies. Conflicting stories abound, and even though I'm supposed to be well-informed, I've found some of them hard to sort out! For example, Michael Fremer, concluding a fine review of the $7500 Bow Technologies ZZ-Eight integrated CD player in August, compared its notable 16-bit/44.1kHz achievement with a DVD-based disc originally mastered at 24/96kHz and replayed on an inexpensive DVD player. He found the Bow wanting in some respects. What is the world coming to?
Audiophiles are frequently accused of being more in love with gizmos than with music. There may be a kernel of truth in that, but a scant few companies actually exploit the giz factor to give you mo'—a lot mo'.
More than a decade ago, I bought a new pair of speakers and sought to find the most suitable cables for them. After auditioning a number of borrowed sets, I enlisted my daughter to confirm my selection. She grew up in a household where there was always good music playing on good equipment, but had no active interest in either. To placate Dad, she listened to a few of her own recordings with each of the various cables and then, lo and behold, reached the same conclusion I had. In fact, she described the differences almost exactly as I would have. I was ecstatic. Not only did it confirm my opinions about the cables, but it confirmed to me that any motivated listener can hear what golden-ear audiophiles obsess about. As I tried to express my joy to her, she left the room with this parting shot: "Yes, of course, but who cares?"
My first exposure to Burmester electronics was some years back at a New York Hi-Fi Show, where they were powering a pair of B&W 801s and impressed the hell out of me. But Burmester's distribution seemed sporadic and the prices beyond my consideration, so I put them out of my mind.
In the early 1980s, Ivor Tiefenbrun, of Linn Products, Ltd., compared digital audio to "a nasty disease" that his company offered not to spread. Less than 25 years later, digital sources outnumber analog ones in Linn's product line—so much so that the venerable Scottish manufacturer has expanded its line of disc players to encompass two different formats: multi- and two-channel.