Kinergetics KCD-40 CD player
it might be read. Nothing's better left unsaid.—Keith Reid
As I sit writing this review on the eve of Thanksgiving 1989, I'm reminded that it is exactly seven years since I first heard the CD in my own system. I had borrowed an early Marantz CD-63 (identical to the top-loading Philips Magnavox FD-1000 reviewed by J. Gordon Holt in Vol.7 No.2) and a Sony CDP-101, and, while impressed with some aspects of the sound—lateral imaging precision, low-frequency definition, the lack of wow & flutter, particularly on piano recordings—I was disturbed by much of what I heard in the treble. KEF's Raymond Cooke, too, commented in late '82 how he was bothered by a hitherto unknown distortion typical of CD replay, akin to the sound grains of rice make when sprinkled on taut brown paper.
In a public lecture in November 1982, I actually played both an all-digital CD of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, from the VPO conducted by André Previn, and Beecham's 1957 LP with the RPO of the same work, without telling the audience which was which. When I asked the listeners to tell me which they thought was the CD, by a show of hands they overwhelmingly voted for the quarter-century-old analog LP as being the sound of the brave new digital world!
There has been considerable progress since those early days, more so in CD-player design than in the development of better digital recorders, yet I can't help thinking that record producer Robina Young, of Harmonia Mundi USA, was right when she said in a seminar at Stereophile's 1989 San Mateo show, "As the digital art advances, when you put back what is missing, you will get back to analog." For analog still has that ease, that accessibility to the music, that allows the listener to be swept along with the minimum of effort. With CD, perhaps partly due to the fact that with almost every disc, every sound you hear has been encoded with the Sony PCM1630 processor, there is a subjective threshold that has to be overcome before the music can be treated on its own terms. Some listeners, the venerable J. Gordon Holt (in whose ears we trust), for example, have very little difficulty in suspending their disbelief when listening to CD. Others, such as Stereophile's publisher Larry Archibald, find it almost impossible to hear through what CD does wrong in order to appreciate what it does right.
Me? As befits an editor, I'm in the middle. I had no difficulty in agreeing with LA that Stereophile's first recording should be released on LP rather than CD. But I have also built up a relatively large collection of performances and recordings on CD that I love for their musical worth: I suppose you could say that I live in hope that one day I will have a replay system that allows them to be appreciated without any subjective threshold effect.
But one thing I have noticed is that the small California company Kinergetics has invariably produced extremely musical sounds from CDs at CE Shows with a system put together around relatively modest-priced components, in particular a pair of Spica TC-50 speakers coupled with Kinergetics' BSC subwoofer system. When Stereophile was offered a sample of Kinergetics' new KCD-40 CD player for review, therefore, JA the Editor didn't need to ask JA the Audio Writer twice whether or not he wanted to review it.
Previous Kinergetics CD players reported on in Stereophile include the 14-bit, 4x-oversampling KCD-20A, favorably reviewed a couple of years back by Martin Colloms and Dick Olsher (Vol.10 Nos.3 & 4), and the 16-bit, 4x-oversampling KCD-30, again favorably reviewed by DO (Vol.11 No.9). The current lineup consists of the 16-bit KCD-20B, which Tony Di Chiro, one of Kinergetics' kahunas, regards as being better than the KCD-30 at a lower price, and the subject of this review, which is based on a new digital-filter/DAC combination.
The KCD-40's transport and data-recovery sections are based on Philips parts. The board used in the '40, however, has had its Philips TDA1541A DAC and SA7220 filter chips removed and the corrected datastream is sent to an entirely new board that occupies the right-hand side of the chassis. This board is double-sided, with most of the upper copper layer used to make a groundplane, and is powered by a small Holden & Fisher toroidal transformer fitted to the chassis rear. Following the signal flow from the back of the board to the front, the data are taken to a Sony 8x-oversampling digital filter chip identical to that used by California Audio Labs in their Tempest Special Edition player. The output of this filter feeds a matched pair of Analog Devices AD1860 18-bit DACs per channel.
According to the affable Mr. Di Chiro, the KCD-40 is the first player to feature these devices, which are said to be very accurate. In the KCD-40, one DAC of each pair outputs an analog current signal with the correct polarity, the other an inverted version. There are two current/voltage converter stages and two low-pass analog filter sections; the signal is therefore handled in fully balanced form until the player's output stage, which amplifies the difference between the two signals. The effects of DAC nonlinearities should thus cancel out, as should even-order harmonic distortion.
The direct-coupled output stage, which appears to have a servo circuit to block DC from appearing on the outputs, can put out a hefty 7V RMS signal and feeds a front-panel–mounted, high-quality Noble pot. Left and right levels can be adjusted separately but are normally friction-locked. The outputs from the wipers of this pot are taken via pcb traces to two pairs of phono sockets on the KCD-40's rear, two left and two right, so that owners with speakers requiring bi-amplification can feed the signal to the two amplifiers without having to use Y-leads.
"But what of Kinergetics' patented hysteresis-correction circuit?," I hear you cry. This used to be a major feature in earlier Kinergetics players, where typical poor coupling caps and resistors, lengths of wire, op-amps, and switches would be inserted into a negative feedback loop so that the degradation introduced by similar components used to make the recording would be to some extent canceled. About the only visible sign of this in the '40 are two lengths of what appears to be MIT coaxial cable, one for each channel, with their free ends featuring the core soldered to the screen.
Parts quality on the Kinergetics board is high, with metal-film resistors and a liberal sprinkling of WIMA polypropylene caps in evidence—though there are no caps in the signal path except for filtering and deemphasis purposes—and, where op-amps are used, these are audiophile-grade types bedded in on ±17V voltage rails. The output-stage ICs are mounted on the underside of the board so that their metal cans can be in thermal contact with the chassis. From the presence of two BUF-03 chips on the upper side of the board, I suspect that the output stages also comprise this high output-current (70mA), low output-impedance (2 ohms), high-speed (250V/µs slew rate into capacitive loads of less than 200pF), not-inexpensive (the one-off price of the F version used here was $11 a few years back) voltage-follower chip from Precision Monolithics. The front panel is of handsome black-anodized aluminum; though I have reservations about the steel chassis, the top plate is black-painted polystyrene. (A transparent top panel is also available via special order.)
Philips's FTS (Favorite Track Selection) is included among the programming functions, though to be honest, I have never used this option on any of the players that featured it.
One thing I do as a matter of course before inserting a new CD player into my system is to spend a couple of days listening purely to LP as a source. You could say that I'm cleansing my hearing, the equivalent of the sorbet that it is customary for French restaurants to serve between courses. Probably more important is the fact that it prevents me from judging CD on its own terms. If you restrict your diet to digital, it becomes only too easy to forget that there is more available from recorded sound than is offered by those seductive little silver discs (footnote 2). In this instance, I was in the middle of a long series of comparisons between the Mark Levinson No.25 and the Vendetta Research SCP2A phono preamplifiers when it became time to formally audition the KCD-40.
Following this pure-analog diet, the KCD-40 nevertheless fared extremely well. Tonally, its signature could be characterized as being slightly "dark," though its sound was relatively free from treble glare once warmed up. (When first turned on, there is a gritty, "solid-state"–like quality to the treble that takes about three days to dissipate—though a suspicion of a sniff of residual HF grain remains when compared with analog.) I have mentioned before in these pages my use of Thomas Dolby's Aliens Ate My Buick album (EMI-Manhattan CDP 7 480752), which has a somewhat overcooked treble. Played on the Kinergetics, while still bright, it didn't have as much of the sizzle that I so often hear from lesser players.
A caveat is in order regarding my description of the sound as tending toward "dark": I was puzzled by an inconsistency when making this judgment, as a minority of discs did have more HF air apparent. Upon inspection, I realized that these were preemphasized; apparently the KCD-40 adds a very slight top-octave boost when applying the appropriate deemphasis, something later confirmed by the measurements. This is perhaps a trivial point when almost all current CDs are encoded without preemphasis—the only example I have come across recently is the Denon-sourced tracks on the new HFN/RR Test disc—but should be noted, nevertheless.
Low frequencies were full-bodied, perhaps a bit too much so in the upper bass, but extension was excellent, the Aliens album having tremendous impact. Funkmeister George Clinton's "Hot Sauce" track is underpinned by a basically two-in-the-bar thudding bass drum and a thunder-thumbs growling bass line—"Ge-doo do do do, do-ow, Ge-dit!"—and it came over in full measure even via the bandwidth-limited Celestions when compared with some other players. A powerful subjective bass has to involve rather more than the simplistic notion of measured frequency extension, in my opinion.
But the area in which this Kinergetics player really shone was in its ability to throw a wide, deep soundstage. The Aliens album remains a favorite of mine for its intelligent use of all the resources of the modern recording studio to paint detailed soundscapes. All too often, those sound pictures are presented in a one-dimensional manner, the individual image elements having no more substance than stage flats piled one on the other. The KCD-40's soundstaging added space between those flats, the Spaghetti-Western guitar in "Hot Sauce" reverberating into the distance.
On well-recorded live rock recordings, this ability to create a sense of space was even more welcome. I recently acquired the Mobile Fidelity Ultradisc release of Procol Harum's classic Live album (MFSL MFCD 788). The KCD-40's more believable reproduction of the audience laughter and orchestral tuning noises before the group bursts into "Conquistador" better sets the stage for the music by more clearly delineating the hall's acoustic boundaries. And on naturally recorded acoustic music, such as Tony Faulkner's recording of sacred vocal music by Monteverdi for Hyperion (CDA66021), the delicate way in which the KCD-40 allowed the listener to hear the singers and instrumentalists stroking the church acoustic into life was exquisite. Even with recordings I own for their musical worth, such as Kyung-Wha Chung's performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto (London 400 048-2), where the quality of the recorded sound didn't have much influence on my decision to buy the disc, I was pleased to find that the Kinergetics separated the layers of orchestral sound more readily, even though the way in which the engineers have presented the solo violin—too bloated, too loud—is left untouched.
One final test of a CD player's intrinsic ability to preserve the musical values of a recording is to play monophonic recordings. If you read my reviews regularly, you will no doubt be aware that I value highly a system's ability to throw a clearly defined soundstage, with instrumental and vocal images hanging in space unobstructed by aural reminders of, for example, the positions of the loudspeakers. Hobbling my reactions to the sound as sound by listening to a mono recording, therefore, allows me not to be distracted by that image; in all honesty, I encounter few CD players where I can bear to continue serious listening for long.
Paradoxically, therefore, I regularly buy mono CDs, recent purchases including Jacqueline du Pré's early BBC broadcasts (EMI CDM 7 63165 2), an essential collection for lovers of the cello, in my opinion. But my acid-test recording for listening in mono is Maria Callas's 1953 La Scala performance of Tosca (EMI CDC 7 47176 2). I dropped the Kinergetics' laserbeam in on the start of Act III, intending only to listen for a moment. My wife joined me, and we listened enthralled right through to the culmination of the drama, where Tosca flings herself from the parapet of the Castel Sant'Angelo, from where she had witnessed the shooting of her lover. That was that. No more listening that night. Callas was Tosca!
The other CD players I had on hand during this review were typical of the high-end context in which the Kinergetics machine finds itself. The $1500 Barclay Bordeaux from Soloist Audio of San Antonio is a modified Philips CD880; it was favorably reviewed by Robert Harley last August and has been the subject of much word-of-mouth approval. The $3995 California Audio Labs Tempest II Special Edition is an improved version of the tubed Tempest II, using Burr-Brown PCM58 DACs rather than the II's TDA1541A, and was reviewed by Lewis Lipnick last June. The final reference was a sample of the $7770 Wadia Digital 2000 processor (driven by the Bordeaux digital output) reviewed by Arnis Balgalvis elsewhere in this issue.
First off, how did the KCD-40 compare with the Bordeaux? The Texan player has a lighter, rather bass-shy balance than the Californian. Listening to Peter McGrath's recording of the Water Music for Harmonia Mundi USA (HMA 1907010) revealed that the Bordeaux rendered the sound of the continuo harpsichord with more of a tinkly quality and a more obvious attack. Yet the Kinergetics seemed to more correctly present the instrument's tonality. The harpsichord, once described by Sir Thomas Beecham as sounding like "a pair of skeletons copulating on a tin roof," can actually have a full-blooded tone. That is what the instrument on this recording sounds like when reproduced by the KCD-40: a tone with attack and body. In addition, there is a more tangible sense of space surrounding the instruments via the '40 when compared with the Bordeaux, even though the latter player is no slouch in this area.
The Tempest, whether the original or the Special Edition, is also an overachiever when it comes to soundstaging. However, in direct comparison with the KCD-40, the SE presented a rather shallower image even though there were equal wealths of audible ambient detail. And individual images within the soundstage took on more one-dimensional character via the tubed player, the opposite of what the conventional wisdom concerning tube sound would suggest. (Actually, the standard Tempest II, despite a more untidy presentation of detail, scores over the SE in this area, in my opinion.)
But, again, it was in the reproduction of instrumental tonality where the Tempest lost ground to the KCD-40. The tubed machine has less high-treble energy apparent than the Bordeaux, but still has an identifiable tonal signature whereby there is a slight brilliance added in the lower treble. This both pushes such instruments as the harpsichord in the Water Music recording forward, and renders the overall sound more relentless, particularly when the sound of massed violins is compared with that produced by the admittedly darker-sounding Kinergetics. I remember being told that the treble brilliance I noted is typical of a machine that uses 6DJ8 tubes. Whatever, again the KCD-40 wins on points, in my opinion.
For the final set of comparisons, I must admit that I came to the Wadia with a negative prejudice. I had looked at its low-level linearity and noise levels and was less than impressed with some of the things that it did. But comparing it with the better-measuring KCD-40 proved fascinating in that I was forced to accept the fact that the separate decoder outperformed the Kinergetics player in exactly the areas where I had felt the latter to score over the CAL and Barclay players: accuracy of instrumental tone quality, and soundstaging tangibility. I'm not saying that either machine was the equal of my fully loaded Linn, where the "stage flats" mentioned above in the Thomas Dolby recording themselves take on a depth dimension. But the steps toward analog sound made by the KCD-40 were turned into strides by the admittedly very expensive Wadia (although its tonal quality was even darker, to the point of sounding too "shut-in" much of the time in my system).
On my Chopin recording on the original HFN/RR CD (now available on Stereophile's first Test CD), while the intrinsic mike noise was subdued, the Wadia set the Steinway even further back into the hall acoustic. And there is a slight extraneous noise on this recording—I think it was a very soft footfall from the pianist's manager—that varies in its audibility. The Kinergetics presents it behind the plane of the piano; the Wadia places it in the stalls.
Things were closer when it came to dynamics. The Wadia excelled at presenting the music's ebb and flow. Nevertheless, the Kinergetics managed to present the leading edges of the piano's tone in a more realistic manner than the Wadia, which softened attacks, somehow, even while preserving the body of the tone in a manner which more closely approached the analog tape that I made at the same time as the digital master. However, the Wadia's sound is the best yet that I have heard from CD reproduction.
I was looking forward to my time with the KCD-40 and I was not disappointed. It appears well-made, and is one of a new generation of CD players from American companies offering the latest CD-replay technology. At what must be considered a realistic price in these days of multi-thousand-dollar separate digital processors and transports, this Kinergetics offers its purchaser more than a glimpse of what the best CD sound is all about. While not totally without character—its balance is rather dark-sounding, the upper bass might be a little too rich in some systems, and there is a tad of residual grain in the treble—its soundstaging and its reproduction of recorded space are among the best I have auditioned from a standalone player.
I was a little concerned about a QC procedure that would allow a player with audible deemphasis error to escape Kinergetics' factory. Assuming that this was a one-off fault, however, I can confidently recommend the KCD-40 to those concerned with extracting the maximum musical information from their CD collections without having to pay the maximum number of dollars.—John Atkinson
Footnote 1: For those thinking something along the lines of "Hey, doesn't this guy know that the only true reference is the absolute sound of live unamplified music in a real acoustic setting?," be assured that I go to, on average, two such concerts a month—about as many as is practically possible in Santa Fe—and that a quarter-century of such concert-going has left me increasingly unclear what the connection between the live-music experience and that from records is supposed to be. The sound of even the best system I have heard bears little relation to the real thing, rendering any direct comparison analogous to attempting to make measurements with a meter set on an inappropriately insensitive range. And even if the fundamental sound quality did more closely approach the real thing, the two events still require completely different mindsets for quality to be properly evaluated. However, I do believe it important for serious listeners to expose themselves to as much live music as possible, if for no other reason than it's fun!—John Atkinson