All the action in digital playback for the past seven years has taken place in separate transports and digital processors. Nearly all high-end manufacturers have focused their skills on perfecting the individual elements of the digital playback chain—transports and processors—rather than on designing integrated CD players.
I've encountered a number of audio products over the years whose thoughtful design and intricate craftsmanship brought to mind the expression "built like a Swiss watch." As often as I'd thought or even written that phrase, however, I don't think I'd ever stopped to seriously consider what an audio component might be like if actually built by the nation that produces Rolex and Breitling wristwatches.
I have always been a dyed-in-the-wool vinyl fan, committed to the superiority of analog over current 44kHz/16-bit CD technology. Nevertheless, I have been surprised at how greatly the sound of CD has improved over the past 10 years. By 1994, digital had gotten much closer to analog than I had ever expected, which was a good thing, as 1994 also saw the disappearance of the LP as a medium for obtaining new releases of mainstream recordings. But over the last two years, I've noticed some interesting phenomena: More turntables, tonearms, and cartridges started to become available, at least in the high-end arena. Audiophiles and, to a lesser extent, segments of the general music-loving public, began clamoring for new vinyl releases. Specialty labels, such as Classic Records and Acoustic Sounds, started to reissue premium vinyl releases of classical, jazz, and pop classics at reasonable prices. And major labels again began to offer vinyl versions of major pop releases.
Naim Audio has a reputation for making products that are truer than most to music's temporal content: rhythm, pacing, the beat almighty. Beginning with their classic solid-state amps of the mid-1970s, Naim's designers have stressed, above all else, the reduction of distortions that puff up and pad the attack and decay components of musical sounds: Getting rid of those additives seems to clarify the timing relationship between different notes in a line, making music more compelling and easier to enjoy. That their gear has historically favored musical content over sonic attributes is no shock to the Naim faithful.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised when I first spied the prototypes for Sonic Frontiers' luscious new digital combo, the Transport 3 CD transport and Processor 3 D/A processor, at HI-FI '97 in San Francisco. After all, this is the company whose meteoric rise from an electronic parts-supply outfit run out of president Chris Johnson's basement, to a large factory pumping out an impressive array of entry-level to crème de la crème tube electronic components, has elevated Sonic Frontiers to front-line status among high-end manufacturers.
To compartmentalize or not to compartmentalize, that is the question. Does one review an expensive CD player at the dawn of the 24-bit/96kHz digital age by pulling a "Clinton," standing defiantly before a jury of audio peers to deliver a speech on the state of the CD art, boxing in, roping off, and all but ignoring the new, supposedly unimpeachable medium?
Simaudio has been doing well in the middle of the high-end market, providing products such as their Moon i-5 integrated amplifier (reviewed by Chip Stern in July 2002), which offers a glimpse of high-quality sound at an affordable price. That's not to say that the Canadian manufacturer neglects the cost-no-object market: the two-box, $5700, Simaudio Moon Eclipse CD player impressed the heck out of Brian Damkroger when he reviewed it for Stereophile in April 2001 (with a Follow-Up in April 2003). So when Simaudio's Lionel Goodfield offered me their Moon Equinox player ($2000) for inclusion in my irregular series of CD-player reviews (footnote 1), I didn't need to be asked twice.
Recently, we've seen the digital "horsepower" race accelerate with the arrival of digital sources and devices with 24-bit and 96kHz sampling capability. Much of this has been spurred by the 24/96 labels emblazoned on the newer DVD players—and, within the purer confines of the audio community, by high-end DACs with this same ability. Indeed, it's possible that the dCS Elgar DAC, near and dear to John Atkinson's heart and a perennial Class A selection in Stereophile's "Recommended Components," performs so well with standard 16-bit/44.1kHz sources because its wider digital bandwidth permits greater linearity within the more restricted range of regular CDs.
After two decades of motorcycling, I recently achieved a long-held goal by buying a bike built by Bimota, a tiny Italian manufacturer. Although Bimota engages in a wide range of activities, from two-stroke engine design to racing, they're best known for their exotic, hand-built street bikes. They always include the very best components and feature cutting-edge engineering and performance, but what they're truly revered for is their style. Bimotas unfailingly combine shapes, textures, and finishes into motorcycles that are most often referred to as "works of art."
"Commoditization leads to the death of a specialty industry!" Hearing this at what I'd anticipated would be a sleep-inducing seminar on marketing, I pricked up my ears. The speaker was management guru Tom Peters, author of the best-selling In Search of Excellence and The Pursuit of WOW!. "Once your product is commoditized, all that is left to compete on is price," Peters continued, as I frantically scrawled down his comments, "and a small company will always lose to the big guns on price!"
"Desperation is the Mother of Invention." Isn't that how the proverb goes? Certainly it applied ten years ago in the case of the Philips engineers working on the development of the Compact Disc system. Given a specification that had included a 14-bit data word length, they had duly developed a 14-bit DAC chip, the TDA1540, only then to be informed that the CD standard decided upon after Sony joined forces with the Dutch company would involve 16-bit data words. (Thank goodness!)
High-end audio has always been a tricky business, and in recent years it's become more so. Home theater is pulling in one direction, and MP3, iPods, and the Internet are pulling in another. And customer expectations—not just of sound quality, but also of usability and integration into their space and lives—are spiraling upward. The companies that are thriving amid these pressures seem to have adopted one of two strategies: either they focus more narrowly and try to convince the world to accept their vision, or they evolve their products in an attempt to anticipate the market.
The CD-303/200 is a stout, handsome unit with a thick front panel of black-anodized aluminum (silver is also available) and a beefy, epoxy-coated aluminum chassis. Even the remote control—a heavy aluminum unit with multi-function, backlit buttons—screams "Quality!" Curiously, however, the remote is clad in chrome plate, rather than brushed aluminum or anodized black to match the player. The coup de grace is the CD-303/200's transport mechanism, a Philips CDM12, which is good enough as is; Cary addition of a thick, machined drawer warmed this metallurgist's heart.
At what point does a high price become exorbitant? When do you start doing double takes, to make sure you haven't mentally moved a decimal point? When do you look at something and think, "No matter how good it may be, it's just not worth that much money"?
Audiophiles once took it as given that LPs sounded better than CDs—end of discussion. Things are no longer so cut-and-dried. In my seven years as a contributing editor to Stereophile, I've seen an enormous improvement in the quality of digital software and playback-delivery systems. The early-1980s recording and remastering anomalies that made listening to early digital recordings so fatiguing are largely things of the past, though advocates of massive compression, jacked-up gain, and compensatory EQ ("Sounds-better-on-cheap-radios," they dully chant) continue to sully the waters of natural resolution.