Quad 99 CDP-2 CD player

You can't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need—and Quad, bless its cockamamie heart, is the company that gave it to me.

106quad1.jpg

Nah, it didn't make me one with everything; it made me one that connects to everything. Well, almost. It packed a ton of function into a CD player—with a heavy emphasis on the fun. And it did it for $1350.

The 99 CDP-2 is a CD player. It's a digital switch box. It's an upsampling D/A processor that is specified as being able to handle 24-bit/96kHz PCM signals. It also has variable output. And its mama dresses it pretty—you get all of that in an attractive cast-aluminum chassis.

What did you do and when did you do it?
I first heard about the 99 CDP-2's immediate predecessor, the 99 CD-P, when I visited Quad's manufacturing facility in Shenzen, China. I was instantly captivated by the player's mix of functions, but when Julian Maddock began describing the CD-P's design genesis, I knew I had to get my hands on one.

Maddock startled us visiting journalists with his brutal assessment of Quad's CD forays over the years, accurately describing the original 99 CD player as having been compromised—"crippled" was his word, as I recall—by its use of a proprietary Quad bus-connection scheme. "Even if it had possessed great sound," Maddock said, "few people other than the owners of complete 99-series Quad systems would have ever known. However, the player was average—not what Quad had traditionally striven for."

So while the 99 CD-P was cosmetically part of the 99 series and included a Quadlink connection, it was designed from the ground up—or should I say from the ground plane up?

The chief designer was Jan Ertner, who had joined Quad during its glory years and left during its decline under the Verity Group. As part of IAG's attempt to return the marque to its former luster, Maddock brought Ertner back on board and turned him loose on the new CD player.

Ertner set to work on a player that would use a Philips transport and a 24-bit/192kHz Crystal DAC with 2x upsampling. After he'd come up with a working prototype, Maddock had a brainstorm. "Could we add digital inputs to this design, and how much would it add to the price?"

Ertner's answers were yes and about $40. But that wasn't all, he told Maddock. The upsampling would be applied to any digital input, and the DAC could accept PCM signals with up to 24-bit word length and 96kHz sampling rates. Maddock told him to make it so.

Then Maddock added another mizewell. (The term comes from home renovation, where customers frequently tell contractors, "While you're at it, you mizewell add another bathroom over here.") "How much would it cost to add variable output to the player for consumers who don't want—or need, now that the CD player accepts multiple sources—a preamp?"

Ertner's answer was that it could be done inexpensively or it could be done right, with a separate ground plane and power supply—in which case it would add about $90 to the price.

Another no-brainer. The 99 CD-P was born.

A 99 CD-P was not what I got for review, however.

During Ertner's design process, Philips decided to get out of the CD-transport business, which is why so many manufacturers now use data and DVD drive systems in their CD players. According to Maddock, there's a problem with this: CD players operate in the realm of 1x (real-time) reads, and those other drives are designed to crank along at higher speeds and read data multiple times to ensure accuracy. That means that the servos tend to overshoot in their error correction because of the need for speed in data recovery—relying on re-reading data, which isn't possible at 1x CD-reading speeds. Quad feels that the data drives that work so well in computers just don't cut it for audio.

So, Maddock told me, they hired Jon Green, one of the leading designers in Philips Optical's brain trust, to design a new, high-resolution CD transport for the 99 CD-P—which would now be called the 99 CDP-2—complete with a "unique bundle of laser reading strategies." This means that the CDP-2's transport isn't simply a drop-in replacement for the one in the CD-P, but Quad does offer the upgrade to owners of the original units.

While the box my review sample arrived in proclaimed it to be a 99 CD-P, the unit itself had a badge identifying it as a 99 CDP-2—which, by the way, costs the same as the original CD-P: $1350.

The 99 CDP-2 has a cast-aluminum shell with elegant crenellations along its rear edge. The front panel is simple: drawer, four CD-navigation switches, display. That's it. Digital source switching and volume control are assigned to the remote. The rear panel sports an IEC socket, fuse holder, mains switch, variable and fixed analog outputs, three coaxial data inputs, three TosLink data inputs, and a TosLink digital output. Quadlink in and out connections are provided.

Met him on a Monday, da doo ron ron
One of my typical "tests" of a component is to set it up and use it without reading the manual—or even, as my vision worsens, without sticking my face up against the faceplate to read the labels. So I connected the Quad 99 CDP-2 to the Conrad-Johnson Premier 350 power amp, powered it up from the rear-panel mains switch, and was surprised to discover that I'd immediately turned it off again with the front-panel power switch that I thought opened the CD drawer. Actually, I'd turned the player off again with the front panel power switch—which is located next to the drawer, where the open/close control usually resides. That switch is the one farthest from the drawer, and clearly labeled, if you actually pay attention to that kind of thing.

That settled, I connected my Polk XM Reference tuner and Musical Fidelity X-RayV3 CD player to two of the CDP-2's digital inputs and began listening to the Quad as the "brains" of a simple system driving the C-J power amp and a pair of Penaudio Serenade floorstanding loudspeakers.

Do/be do/be. Do!
My immediate impression was that music was less involving than it had been during my audition of the Viola Labs Cadenza preamplifier (reviewed in the December 2005 Stereophile). I wasn't exactly stunned by this—after all, I was replacing a $16,000 preamplifier and $6000 universal player (the Ayre C-5xe) with a $1350 one-box combo. Besides, I reasoned, the Quad needed to burn in.

Things improved as I logged more time on the 99 CDP-2, and the XM Reference tuner sounded a lot better than through its own D/A section, but I never really felt that I got the Penaudios singing the way I'd heard them do. Bass seemed a bit woolly, details were subsumed into the mix, and there just wasn't enough presence to engage me—something that was just as true when I listened to the X-RayV3 (footnote 1) as when listening to the same CDs through the Quad.

I inserted my Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista preamplifier between the 99 CDP-2 and the Premier 350 and switched over to the Quad's fixed outputs, leaving the X-RayV3 and the XM Reference connected to the CDP-2's digital inputs.

Oh my, yes indeedy. Houston, we have jump. Also snap, focus, and detail.

I don't want to completely dismiss the 99 CDP-2's variable output option. It's undeniably convenient—and that convenience is probably worth the $90 it adds to the price. I suspect this is why Julian Maddock was very careful to say that Quad doesn't consider the 99 CDP-2 a preamplifier–CD player, but rather a unit that is "95% a CD player, with some added features."

By the way, if I cranked the variable output fully open, I heard essentially the same sound I heard with the fixed output. That's pretty great, but the whole point of the variable output is using it to attenuate the sound of the player, and once I did that, its negative effect on the music was audible.

The 99 CDP-2's DAC helped the sound of digital components with iffy converters. The XM Reference was vastly improved through the Quad's converter, gaining in snap and focus. It remained somewhat swimmy tonally, but XM doesn't devote tons of bandwidth to any channel's signal, so there's only so much any DAC can do.



Footnote 1: Sam Tellig reviewed the X-RayV3 in his December 2004 "Sam's Space" column.—Ed.
COMPANY INFO
Quad Electroacoustics Ltd.
US distributor: IAG America
15 Walpole Park South
Walpole, MA 02081
(508) 650-3950
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