Audio Research CD2 CD player Page 2
Impatient sort that I am, I didn't let the CD2 gather much dust between plugging it in and playing it. According to my well-thumbed copy of Earn Big Bucks as a Hi-Fi Critic, this is where I'm supposed to impress everybody with my description of how horrid it sounded cold out of the box. But it didn't. From the start, the CD2 sounded warm, big-boned, and inviting. Oh, the sound bloomed and steadily grew more refined and relaxed over the next several hours, but it sounded like a sweetheart from the git-go.
Listening to the CD2 was never a chore. This isn't a CD player from the "shine a 500W light on everything" school of over-illumination. Neither is it a proponent of the "let's mush everything together" school. To quote the noted measurement expert Goldilocks, it was "just right." Whenever I listened for details, they were there—in their natural proportions and unobscured—but never were they spotlit to the point where they overwhelmed the gestalt.
For this reason, I spent many hours listening to chamber music with the CD2. I love the symphonic repertoire, but quartets and trios are strong liquor to me, and I am able (and far too willing) to go on extended benders that take me through the entire outputs of Beethoven, Mozart, Bartók, and Shostakovich. It is said that, in a string quartet, you hear the bones of music laid bare, and I have certainly heard gear that proves that dictum with gory literal-mindedness. Play a work such as Bartók's Quartet 4 (performed by the Végh Quartet on Astrée E 7718) on one of those, and all you'll hear is bones and sinew, the grand ABCB'A' structure and the symmetry of the movements themselves. But there's far more to such a work than the mirroring of first and last movements, or the clever way they both end with same riff, reinforcing the tonal center of C.
Look at the Bartók's final movement, the Allegro molto: 16 strings scrape 15 bars of the most dissonant chords ever written—and the CD2 gave them a grandeur that many orchestras would envy. Over a constantly shifting rhythmic accompaniment, the main theme first develops, then mutates back into a variation that grows out of the first movement, and finally mutates into a free recapitulation that sounds like nothing so much as Arab music before pounding back into the motif that ended the first movement. This nails the Fourth shut about as satisfyingly as any work ever written.
The Végh bites into all of this with searing intensity and an emotional directness that is astounding. The CD2 certainly laid the structure open for examination, but what was even more noticeable was how it also captured the gritty frenzy that Bartók embedded into his composition—and that the Végh extracts from it. The CD2 performed a wondrous balancing act: neither the structure nor the emotionality overwhelmed one another. What I heard was the complete picture, made stronger by its contradictions.
Every time I thought I had a handle on what the CD2 did best, I would hear a new CD that emphasized some other aspect of musical communication, and the CD2 would turn out to be equally adept at that quality too. Duh. Those qualities are, of course, embedded in the music, and the whole point of a high-end transducer is to accurately reflect what it's been fed.
That meant that, when I listened to propulsively rhythmic music such as Medesky, Martin & Wood's Friday Afternoon in the Universe (Grammavison GCD 79503), I was impressed by the CD2's slam, metric assurance, and taut pace. When listening to delicate music, such as the central movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G (Ousset/Rattle/CBSO, EMI 75158-2), the player's strengths seemed to be tonal color and nuance.
Over time—a lot of time—I felt I had gained a handle on the CD2's sound. It didn't seem to have the bass slam of Krell's KAV-300cd, which is similarly priced at $3500, although its bass response was taut and in balance with the rest of its range. It also seemed consistently on the warm side compared with, say, the $5995 Mark Levinson No.39. Obviously, it was time to engage in some level-matched direct comparisons.