Ensemble Dirondo CD player Page 2

Part of the Dirondo's character could be attributed to a somewhat light tonal balance, most noticeable with instruments and vocals that spanned the midrange. On Rickie Lee Jones' live acoustic CD, Naked Songs (Reprise 45950-2), there didn't seem to be a body or a resonating chest cavity behind the voice; Jones sounded girlish and coy instead of husky, sultry, or breathy. I could easily discern and feel the vibrations of both the strings and the guitar's body, but the latter lacked the deeper, more booming components. Jones' vocals and guitar were sweet, and satisfying, but compared to the Burmester lacked weight and body.

The funny thing was, the Dirondo didn't really sound as if it had a tipped-up tonal balance. The instruments were all solid and firmly anchored, and the sound was not at all aggressive, thin, or bright—just airy and sweet. My guess is that's because Ensemble has beautifully balanced a lot of different attributes in the Dirondo. For example, its soundstage was a smidgen recessed in the center, which indicates a dip or slight lack of dynamics somewhere in the upper midrange. Alone, this would be obvious and perhaps objectionable, but combined with the Dirondo's slight lack of weight, it instead helped prevent any aggressiveness that might have resulted from the upper midrange overshadowing the warmth region.

Similarly, listening closely to the Ensemble's high end suggested that, while sweet and airy, it probably wasn't overly extended, which would somewhat offset its lack of weight further down. The upper registers of Randy Halberstadt's piano on Greta Matassa's Live at Tula's (CD, JazzStream JSSACK002) were a telling example here. The notes' pitch and tonal density were wonderful, but in the upper registers, their leading edges were softened a bit, and didn't cut through the air as cleanly as the Burmester's, or the way a live piano's high notes will.

Similarly, the Dirondo's low bass was quite satisfying, if a little down in absolute power compared to the Burmester 001's seismic bottom end. The Dirondo beautifully reproduced the bass drum on the Mozart Serenade. It was detailed and articulate, and had excellent pitch definition; I could follow the components of the notes as they evolved from the initial impact to the round skin tone, then propagated outward as more tactile pressure waves.

Another component of the Dirondo's sweet and airy character was its reproduction of dynamic transients. Microdynamics, such as the subtleties that illuminate a pianist's touch, were handled beautifully, as shown by Randy Halberstadt's playing on Live at Tula's. The Dirondo differentiated among his most delicate nuances, giving even simple, low-level background passages a realistic complexity that caught my attention. Large dynamic swings were fast and clean but never aggressive. Listening closely and dissecting the sound suggested that the Ensemble's larger transients, whether a huge orchestral crescendo or a sudden explosion of Steve Forbert's harmonica, were slightly diminished in size and softened at their leading edges. Still, I never felt cheated or unfulfilled; on some material it was actually an advantage, making the Dirondo more forgiving of aggressive or harsh source material than the Burmester 001 or the $5700 Simaudio Moon Eclipse.

The Dirondo's excellent resolution of detail and sharp but not overetched definition of image edges also contributed to the wonderful airy presentation. It was easy to focus on individual players in the Mozart Serenade, for example, and, with an even finer focus, to imagine the solo violin itself, and the bow moving back and forth. Steve Forbert's live album, Be Here Now (CD, Rolling Tide), is one of my favorite tests of detail resolution. I listen to how holographically the system can portray his hand, pick, and guitar around the lower mike, and how it describes and locates his head and mouth as they move around the upper mike. The Dirondo did both fabulously, with a delicacy and precision that made Forbert seem as if he were in my room.

Such powers of resolution translated into a similarly excellent recovery of ambience cues and the corresponding ability to describe the original recording space. The Forbert and Rickie Lee Jones concert discs were both great examples, assembling the performer(s), space, crowd, and background noise into detailed, coherent wholes. At one point during "Chuck E.'s in Love," on Naked Songs, people in the first few rows of the audience at the right of the stage laugh at a line of lyrics; with the Ensemble, this laughter snapped the entire picture into focus. The detail in those voices, the precision of their locations relative to performer and listener, how the space around them was locally defined yet coherent with the whole—it was all seamless and incredibly realistic. Often, these types of excellent detail resolution and sharp image edges translate into a lack of coherence, but that wasn't the case here—another example of the Dirondo achieving just the right balance.

Summing up
The Ensemble Dirondo is an excellent CD player. Like a Swiss watch, it's elegant, thoughtfully designed, beautifully built, and a delight to use—I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. Although it has a distinct sonic personality, that personality is quite a nice one that never interfered with the music. I would be happy to have the Dirondo as my digital source.

Its price, however, does give me pause. While $8999 isn't out of line in the world of premium CD players, it is pretty expensive given the Dirondo's relative lack of features. And while the build quality is superb, it's tough to justify the price on that basis alone. The Dirondo isn't as lavish as the even pricier Burmester 001, or even the less expensive Simaudio Moon Eclipse.

But in the end it all boils down to sound, and whether or not the Dirondo's presentation makes you swoon. That sound is unquestionably lovely—open, airy, and of a slightly forgiving nature that will serve a wide range of music well and mate beautifully with a variety of associated gear. As with any component, it's possible to isolate and criticize a few aspects of the Dirondo's performance, but to ignore its overall balance is to miss the most important point. I wasn't able to audition a complete Ensemble system; however, hearing how successfully they've balanced things in the Dirondo, there may well be further synergisms to discover in an all-Ensemble ensemble. But even taken à la carte, the Ensemble Dirondo is a first-class CD player that's well worth a listen.

COMPANY INFO
Ensemble
US distributor: Lombardi Sales
390 Cheerful Ct.
Simi Valley, CA 93065
(805) 522-0989
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