The Fifth Element #86
Unlike many affordable disc-spinning devices with slot-loading transports (eg, inexpensive DVD players starting at $29.99), the CD-200 has a traditional drawer mechanism that has been upgraded to minimize the noise of loading and clamping a disc. TASCAM also claims improvements in the internal clock function, for smoother sound and lower jitter.
The CD-200 has the shape of a standard 2RU (Rack-Unit) professional component. It weighs 9.3 lbs (4.2kg) and measures 19" (485mm) wide by 3.72" (95mm) high by 11.73" (300mm) deep, and is shipped with rack-mount ears installed (they're easily removed). On the CD-200's front panel are a ¼" stereo headphone jack with a rotary volume control and, for its analog outputs, a variable (±12%) Pitch Control, enabled with a pushbutton: push it, and a yellow caution light illuminates. In any event, the zero point of the ± knob is firmly detented.
The CD-200 can play MP3 and WAV files, for which it has front-panel Folder navigation controls. The display is a restful shade of blue. A wireless remote control with numeric track-selection buttons is included. The power cord, with a two-prong polarized plug, is permanently attached.
There's also a broadcast-industry feature that you might use only once (if you're like me), or more frequently if you listen mostly to pop CDs and can't remember the track number of your favorite songs: Press the Intro Check button, and the CD-200 automatically plays the first 10 seconds of each track on the CD, in sequence. It's cool to hear the CD-200 do that trickat least once. The one pro feature absent is illuminated transport-control buttons. However, you can't have everything at every price point.
The CD-200 certainly looks worth its list price of $449.99. However, this is one case where the phrase "widely discounted" contains not one word of a lie. Amazon.com sells the CD-200 for around $220 (the actual price seems to change on a daily basis) with free shipping in the US, as does B&H Photo's online store.
That the CD-200 even exists, especially at its affordable price (TASCAM also makes some hugely expensive, ne plus ultra broadcast players), is a bit of a surprise to me. It seems to me that a radio station really must be a rather Podunk affair if it's still spinning CDs. Don't all radio stations now use computer playlists?
Listening to the CD-200
In any event, TASCAM's CD-200 looks handsome and purposeful. All the controls are in the usual places, and in moderately heavy but not 24/7 use, it performed flawlessly as a transport, feeding both my Grace m905 and Bricasti's once-again-upgraded M1 DAC. I think the CD-200 is the quietest affordable CD player I've ever used. Well done.
I briefly tested the CD-200's analog outputs through the Grace monitor controller's single-ended RCA inputs, and with my cheap'n'cheerful Audio-Technica M50 closed-back professional headphones. Loudspeakers were ATC's SCM19s, which I wrote about in my June column. The stereo power amplifier was also from ATC: their 150Wpc, solid-state P1.
Michael Franks's Sleeping Gypsy includes a few definitive test tracks that I've been using, in one format or another, since 1978. This time I played a new Japanese SHMCD edition (Warner Bros. WPCR 13251). As I understand it, the SHMCD process uses for the disc's substrate a purified form of polycarbonate, the less to obstruct or hinder the path of the reading laser beam. The SHMCD CD clearly sounded better than my very old original US CD!
Years ago, in the first flush of 24K-gold CDs, a company in Japan offered a hugely expensive replication service in which gold CDs were pressed with a substrate of polyolefin. Once, for an audio-society meeting, I played a Bob Katzrecorded track from CDs of aluminum, gold, and gold-polyolefin. I didn't tell them what I was doing. One member authoritatively proclaimed that the third example had different equalization and reverb. In reality, all they were hearing was . . . what?
To quote my skeptical friend Bob Saglio, it's not as if a polyolefin substrate can turn a digital 0 into a digital 1. (A club member later verified that all three CDs were bit-correct clones of each other.) So the idea that changing the nature of the material the laser beam must pass through twice, to enable the data on the CD to be read by the photocell, can change the sound was not unfamiliar to me.
BTW, vinyl fans, you can pick up Sleeping Gypsy LPs for peanuts. The production, by Tommy LiPuma, is in the same vein as that of Steely Dan's Aja and Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark. How bad can that be?
With the CD-200 used as a transport for the Bricasti M1 DAC (a Follow-Up is in the works), Sleeping Gypsy sounded perfectly acceptablejust great. Nothing at all to complain about. However, when I played the same disc in the Parasound Halo CD1, a read-until-right, computer-based player-transport, the improvements were immediately audible. The music was more present, with greater resolution of fine details. The music was also more continuous. I heard more of Franks's breathing and vocal articulation. The soundstage was wider and higher. The dubbed-in strings were airier and more dynamic.
All of that, as far as I'm concerned, justifies the Parasound's price of $4500. But neither does it deny the TASCAM CD-200 its place in the sun. For people who want a dead-quiet, industrial-quality, reliable disc-spinner CD transport for not much money at all, the CD-200 is a bargain.
By the way, through both headphones and the Grace m905's single-ended analog inputs, my listening impressions were the same as through the TASCAM's digital outputs into the Grace and Bricasti. The CD-200's analog sound was leaner and less three-dimensional than the Parasound's, which costs more than 20 times as much. But other than when listened to in a direct comparison with the Halo CD1, music through the CD-200 was very enjoyable.
The CD-200 is not the only 200-series player that TASCAM offers. There's the Bluetooth-enabled CD-200BT, the CD-200iL with iPod dock, and the CD-200SB, which plays SD cards and has a USB input. But not, apparently, a CD-200 with all of these functions.
Not everyone is ready to dive into computer audio, given iTunes's inability to effectively handle large classical collections, and the frequent kludginess of helper programs. The exception is Meridian's Control:15 (formerly known as Sooloos), but only if you can afford the price of admission, as well as the surcharge of third-party ripping and library organization. If affordable CD-only players are slinking away in the night, perhaps it's time to grab oneand TASCAM's professional CD-200 player is a very nice thing to be aware of. It might make sense to pick one up against future need. And perhaps John Atkinson can measure this one's technical performance, which I would expect to be good, given its professional pedigree.
Not the Usual Bruckner Disc
According to Mahler authority Jerry Bruck (Posthorn Recordings, New York City), the original name of the New York City group that came to include the foremost early US advocates for the music of Gustav Mahler was the Bruckner Society of America. That always caused me a degree of puzzlement, though it is fair to note that, according John Berky, the society's secretary, the goal of its publication, Chord and Discord, almost from the beginning, was to offer "news and scholarly essays on the music of Bruckner and Gustav Mahler."
Footnote 1: TASCAM, TEAC Professional, 7733 Telegraph Road, Montebello, CA 90640. Tel: (323) 726-0303. Web: tascam.com.