Ensemble Dirondo CD player
But when I unpacked Ensemble's Dirondo single-box CD player ($8999), I saw that it was built like a Swiss watch. The design is thoughtful and well executed, and all its mechanical and structural aspects are solid, smooth, and precise, if a bit unusual in some regards. Naturally, the fit and finish are superb, the user interfaces simple and elegant. I might not have guessed the Dirondo's origins had I encountered it unannounced—but had someone suggested Switzerland, I'd have smiled and said, "Of course."
What makes it tick?
The Dirondo is simple to use. There's one set of unbalanced, fixed-level analog outputs, one digital output, and a bare minimum of functions and controls—pretty darn Spartan for a $9000 CD player. Ensemble claims that they've eschewed unnecessary functions to instead splurge on construction and component quality, and the inclusion of a few "often neglected features that can significantly affect the sound." For example, there is a phase-inversion switch accessible from the remote control, and the unit's digital output section can be switched off and isolated from the circuitry. Both are nice to have, but in a premium player, I'd also expect at least balanced circuitry and outputs, one or more digital inputs, and variable-level outputs.
The Ensemble is pretty simple inside, too, but nicely executed, and with particular attention paid to mechanical and electrical isolation. The top-loading transport, for example, is the stoutest I've ever seen. It's based on a Philips Pro2M, which already has a cast metal frame, but the components are then rigidly set into a large well of milled aluminum. This in turn is mounted on a constrained-layer damping base in a thick-walled steel subchassis. This module drops into the equally heavy-gauge main chassis, where it's electrically and mechanically isolated from the other subsystems. There are separate boards for managing the power supply; the digital circuits for the hardware-based upsampling, filtering, and 24-bit/96kHz conversion; and the analog section. All of these are similarly modularized, allowing the Dirondo to share cosmetics and chassis with other Ensemble components.
The Dirondo's simplicity makes it straightforward to install and operate. You just drop in a disc, clamp it firmly in place with the magnet-backed carbon-fiber clamp, replace the lid, and push Play. I used the player in both modes: normal, feeding a line stage; and hot-rod, driving an amplifier directly via the Placette remote volume control unit. I experimented with a wide variety of cables in both configurations and found no mismatches, but the Dirondo sounded best through Ensemble's own Dynaflux FSF interconnect ($850/m). Nor did I find any mismatches when mating the Dirondo with a diverse range of other gear, though I tended to prefer it with VTL's 12.5 preamp and S-400 power amp than either Burmester or Simaudio electronics. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to explore Ensemble's claim of significant synergism with a complete Ensemble system.
When I sat down to critically listen to the Dirondo—specifically, to a Mozart Serenade in D, performed by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (CD, Philips 289 464 022-2)—I immediately noticed that the instruments were quite solid, but had a lightness and a sweetness that were captivating. I was immediately struck, too, by the Dirondo's open, airy presentation. Images were smaller and more tightly focused than with the $15,000 Burmester 001 CD player, but were more widely separated on a wider soundstage. With the Ensemble, that stage stretched to beyond the outer edges of my Thiel CS6 loudspeakers, and its outer boundaries were unusually well illuminated—there was an excellent sense of the space outboard of the orchestra. Soundstage depth wasn't as great as with the Burmester, but the players were still nicely layered from front to back.