Audio Research CD2 CD player Page 3
Conditioned as I have become to the proposition that when you audition two components side by side you will be able to identify differences between them, I was initially startled by how few significant differences I heard when comparing the Audio Research CD2 with the Mark Levinson No.39. That's not to say that there were none, just that most of them were either musically unimportant or so small as to seem piddling.
Ruth Laredo's superb-sounding CD of Beethoven piano sonatas (Connoisseur Society CD-4210) served to show that the No.39 did a better job of reproducing tape noise and hall air than did the CD2. Aha!, I thought. The 39 will have more high-end detail! But no—on music, the two players were virtually indistinguishable in that regard.
Well then, what about my feeling that the Audio Research player was somewhat warmer-sounding than the Mark Levinson? I could certainly discern differences between the two, but they seemed to be on the order of shifting my seat in the concert hall from the first third of the hall to a point, say, six rows back. The Levinson placed me in row G, perhaps, where the direct sound considerably predominated over the reflected sound; the Audio Research moved me back to row M, where the sound was slightly more informed by the hall—less sharp, more blended. Which was "truer"? Well, neither—they both sounded quite real, just ever so slightly different in perspective.
Switching over to compare the Krell KAV-300cd to the CD2, it was déjà vu all over again, to resort to that overworked phrase. The difference in slam was discernible, but the Audio Research certainly didn't sound anemic or deficient, nor did the Krell sound too bass-heavy. The presentations were just different. This doesn't mean that there was nothing to choose among the three. If only it were that easy...
Some will find the Krell more up-front in perspective, preferring the smoothness of the CD2's tonal delivery. Others, I imagine, will require that sense of impact and power that the Krell so readily delivers. Audition carefully; I think most people won't have too hard a time choosing a favorite.
It might be harder to choose between the Audio Research and the Mark Levinson. The differences were extremely subtle, and from disc to disc I found myself switching from one preference to the other. Of course, the Levinson offers more versatility: with its volume control, it can be used without a preamp, as a D/A processor for outboard digital sources, as a transport, or as an all-in-one player. But you end up paying $1500 more for that versatility, and most people don't have the additional digital sources that would allow them to take advantage of the digital inputs. In comparison, the CD2 seems quite a bargain.
My colleague, Jonathan Scull, frequently speculates on the type of buyer who would enjoy the exotic creations J-10 reviews—a valid critical exercise that I think is appropriate here. If you value impact and immediacy, I suspect you'll prefer the Krell. It delivers those qualities in spades, and achieves a laudable balance in other areas as well.
If you have a sophisticated system, or wish to assemble an extremely simple one sans preamp, the Levinson can easily accommodate your specialized needs. If you like to sit in the front of the concert hall, but not so close the trombones can blow off your hairpiece, the Levinson's presentation should make you happy.
If you actually crave the more blended sound of mid-hall, but also value precision and amiability, then the Audio Research could be the final stop on your pilgrimage toward musical nirvana.
Which would I choose? I'm still trying to decide. I really did admire the CD2's mid-concert-hall presentation a lot, but that's the problem with systems that have achieved equilibration: as the variations between choices decrease, it becomes increasingly difficult to isolate the criteria that make deciding easy—or even possible.
That man can interrogate as well as observe nature, was a lesson slowly learned in his evolution.—William Osler (1849-1919)
Is that really what's happening in the ambitious realm of high-end CD players? I think so. The Levinson, Krell, and Audio Research are all stunningly good. And they're joined by equally exalted players we haven't yet looked at: The Wadia 850 and Meridian 508.24 readily come to mind.
Stephen Jay Gould writes (in Full House): "Individual players struggle to find means of improvement—up to limits imposed by balances of competition and mechanical properties of materials—and their discoveries accumulate within the system, leading to general gains toward an optimum. As the system nears this narrow pinnacle, variation must decrease—for only the best can now enter, while their predecessors have slowly, by trial and error, discovered better procedures that now cannot be substantially improved." That sounds like a natural rule for the High End, if ever there was one.
If we are creeping ever steadily toward the best that our current digital standard can accomplish, it is players such as the Audio Research CD2 that are within spotting distance of that goal. Like the Krell KAV-300cd and the Mark Levinson No.39, the CD2 has no real weaknesses to detract from its long list of virtues. It's easy on the ears, true to the music, and, as these things go, relatively kind to your wallet.
We may never see another .400 ballplayer in the majors, but we certainly have our choice of CD players that can hit it out of the park. Add the CD2 to that list. Gosh, it's good.