Audio Note CDT One/II CD transport & DAC 2.1x Signature D/A processor
The received wisdom of 20 or 25 years ago has been turned on its head: There are now many CDs whose contents will never be released on vinyl. Some are historical recordings, originally released on shellac, that have now been preserved on CD by archivists such as Ward Marston and Michael Graves. Others represent genres of musicfolk and bluegrass come to mindin which significant numbers of recordings are sold by the artists themselves, at performance venues and online. Still others are bootlegs (by which I mean live recordings and/or studio outtakes offered for sale outside of the usual channels, not pirated copies of Frampton Comes Alive). The CD, for which erstwhile LP buyers once paid a hefty premium, now seems poised to become the medium of the marginalized and the dispossessed. Who saw that coming?
For hobbyists who are content to use their computers as CD players, and/or to rip CDs to their hard drives: Be my guest. But remember that, the next time you upgrade or replace your computer, the new one probably won't have an optical drive. Hey, no one saw that coming, either.
So: How much do you want to spend on that new CD player? Assuming you stuffed a $10 bill in the cookie jar every time you bought a CD, as you were supposed to, you would now have $10,000 to go with your collection of 1000 CDs. It is on that irrefutable logic that I have established my new baseline for reviewing CD players: Let's you and I find the best player we can for $10,000and let's start with Audio Note's combination of CDT One/II CD transport ($4100) and DAC 2.1x Signature digital-to-analog converter ($5500).
Hobbyists who've kept up with the steady stream of audio-show coverage on Stereophile.com and elsewhere know two things about Audio Note UK:
1) Their demonstrations, usually conducted by the company's estimable David Cope, are often hailed as Best of Show by attendees, journalists, and even the occasional honored competitor.
2) Most of Audio Note's show systems of the past few years have used, as their sole digital source, the combined forces of the CDT One/II and DAC 2.1x Signature. That's why I decided to write about them.
I'll let you in on something else: Cope has shared with me his view that this combination is a standout in the Audio Note line in terms of offering high valuehigher, even, than AN's CD-4.1x CD player ($12,000), which I reviewed positively in Stereophile's July 2012 issue. That one-box source component combined Audio Note's CDT Two/II CD transport with their DAC 2.1x DAC. By contrast, the combination presently under review apportions the buyer's funds somewhat differentlybetter DAC, humbler transportfor a lower total price ($9600), while offering the advantage of one-stage-at-a-time upgradability.
The CDT One/II is an ostensibly simple thing: Inside this front-loading model, a Philips L1210/S transport and its integral logic board are mounted atop three robust nylon pillars, themselves bolted to the floor of the steel chassis. (The casework used for various Audio Note components is somewhat modular: Each basic chassis size is used for a number of different products, enabling what appears to be a just-in-time manufacturing style.) Behind the aluminum faceplate is a second, larger logic board, made in-house and containing the basic user controlsbuttons for open/close, stop, play/pause, back and forward skipas well as the bits needed for communicating with the CDT One/II's rather basic remote-control handset.
A length of Audio Note's AN-V symmetrical-silver coaxial cable carries the digital signal to a small output board, which itself connects to both balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) outputs. The last and largest element inside the CDT One/II is its power-supply board, which contains two separate mains transformers and three solid-state rectifiers.
An even more robust power supply, built around a distinctly large mains transformer and a similarly chunky chokeboth made by Audio Noteis at the heart of the DAC 2.1x Signature. The DAC's power-supply board, which is one of three PCBs in this product, is equipped with a bridge rectifier, although a new-old stock (NOS) Philips 6X5 rectifier tube is also present. While the division of labor wasn't immediately apparent, I assumed the tube serves the converter's analog circuitry.
The DAC 2.1x Signature is addressed by a choice of balanced (XLR) or single-ended (RCA) S/PDIF digital inputs. (A USB input is not provided.) The rear-mounted toggle switch that selects between them is this product's only user control, apart from its power switch. The DAC's digital board, preceded by an Audio Note digital-input transformer of surprising bulk, is built around a hand-selected Analog Devices 1865 chip: a two-channel, 18-bit DAC so preferred by Audio Note that they not long ago bought 1000 of them. Audio Note's own can-style transformers are central to the current-to-voltage section: The non-oversampling DAC 2.1x Signature doesn't use digital or analog filtering, but AN claims that transformer coupling at the I/V stage applies to the analog output signal an appropriate degree of treble compensation. Voltage gain is provided by a stereo pair of Russian 6H23N dual-triode tubes, partnered by Audio Note copper-foil-in-oil coupling capacitors; the amplified signal is handed off to the DAC's single-ended RCA output jacksalso symmetrical silverby a double run of Audio Note AN-V cable.
Installation and setup
Installation was unmarked by tragedy: The two identically sized Audio Note components fit on the top level of my Box Furniture equipment rack, alongside my Shindo Masseto preamplifier. Neither generated noise or excessive heat. (During use, the DAC 2.1x Signature became mildly warm to the touch; the CDT One/II stayed as cool as a cucumber.) Once both products were installed in my system, I left them powered up 24/7.
Transport and DAC were linked by a 1m-long, single-channel run of Audio Note's AN-Vx silver interconnect (ca $750), loaned to me, for review purposes, by David Cope; coincidentally, I also own and use a 1.5m length of the same cable, configured as a stereo interconnect. I am not a cable agnostic, but neither am I the sort of religious fanatic who foams at the mouth and rolls around on the floor between the pews. That said, I do tend to enjoy Audio Note's silver interconnects, which always impress me as being audibly distinct from competing products at any price, and which suit the sound of my system by honoring, in particular, instrumental and vocal colors and textures.
I didn't experiment with power cords, isolation devices, or other accessories during my time with the Audio Notes.
My listening notes contain more than one reference to how the sound of CD playback loaded my room more realisticallymore in the manner of real musicwith the Audio Note combination than with my reference Sony SCD-777 SACD/CD player. That's a difficult thing to describe, and perhaps an impossible thing to quantify; to me, it has to do with the sense that the best playback allows the music to breathe in and out, rather than letting it hang static and dead in the air of the room. Also, good room loading allows low-frequency notes to sound lively and lightimagine a bow bounced on the low E string of a double bassyet still powerful and weighty.