The Entry Level #22 Page 2

Like the Zphono•USB, the Zcd packs a lot of versatility into its compact chassis. The rear panel is fairly busy but neatly organized: Variable and Fixed analog outputs; a video output; a 3.5mm stereo line input; coaxial and optical digital outputs; an RS-232 control jack; IR Control In and Loop output jacks for custom-install applications; a USB input for MP3 playback; a three-way turn-on switch with positions for Manual, AC, and 12V; 12V input and output jacks; and, finally, a standard IEC AC receptacle for the included power cord.

The Variable output jacks carry the audio signal at a level that can be adjusted using by the Zcd's plastic remote control: the Zcd can be used without a preamplifier. The thorough user manual rightly cautions, "Using the Variable outputs in conjunction with a preamp will decrease sound quality since there will be two volume controls in the signal path." Who needs a preamp, anyway? Talk to Sam Tellig about preamps and he'll tell you to go passive. (See this month's "Sam's Space.") I used my NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier, so I stuck to the Fixed outputs.

If you connect the Zcd's video output to your TV's composite video input, you can view MP3 metadata and scroll through that data using the remote. This is cool, if you have a TV. I don't, so I didn't mess with it. I watch episodes of True Blood at Natalie and Nicole's place; I keep up with the stinking Mets from Ms. Little's couch.

In a stripped-down, Tellig-approved, preampless system, the Zcd can also accommodate a second analog source (most likely an iPod, but any portable MP3 player or smartphone will do) via its clever 3.5mm stereo line input. Curiously, the Zcd outputs the source connected to its 3.5mm input even when the Zcd is powered down. I preferred the bigger, cleaner, more powerful sound from my NAD C316 BEE's front-panel mini-jack, but I was happy to know that the Zcd's 3.5mm input made music at all. Very cool.

Even more impressive was the Zcd's USB input. While this input will not allow you to play music directly from your PC or Mac, it will let you play MP3 files from a USB flash drive. The Zcd comes with a handy USB extension cord to make installing the flash drive a bit easier for the lazy, but even I had no problem reaching around back.

I did, however, encounter a problem with the first drive I used, an unbranded 16GB unit. The Zcd's small front-panel display read "MP3," and it automatically played the first file it found, "#283," from Hauschka & Hildur Gudnad¢ttir's excellent Pan Tone (320kbps MP3 from Sonic Pieces SP012). The sound was so surprisingly compelling—tactile, fast, detailed, and spread across a wide stage—that I listened from beginning to end, then continued right through the entirety of Radiohead's In Rainbows. So I decided to compare the CD version of In Rainbows (ATO 21622) to what I'd just heard via the USB drive. I played the opening track, "15 Steps," ejected the CD, and reinstalled the thumb drive. This time, the Zcd wouldn't read the drive at all.

I connected the thumb drive to my laptop and saw that the MP3s were still there—as well as some M4a and image files I'd accidentally stored there. Perhaps the Zcd was tripping over them. I removed the rogue files and reinstalled the drive in the Zcd. Still nothing. Parasound's Bob MacDonald explained that the Zcd works best with Kingston Generation 2 flash drives, up to the 32GB DataTraveler DT101, as well as smaller-capacity drives from most other brands.

We have dozens of flash drives floating around the Stereophile office, so I randomly selected a 1GB drive, loaded it with a bunch of MP3s, and installed it in the Zcd. It worked perfectly. I have no idea why my first drive ultimately failed. Bob MacDonald says that all drives with storage capacities below 4GB have performed flawlessly with the Zcd. Whatever drive you use should be formatted to the FAT32 file system. Parasound provides a list of recommended drives and formatting instructions here.

Fun stuff, right? Computers have a way of making even Compact Discs seem awesome. At least flash drives are cheap: Best Buy sells 8GB Kingstons for $5.99. You can buy a bunch of them and have a blast.

The Zcd also plays MP3s from CD-Rs. One morning, Stereophile's editorial assistant, Ariel Bitran, came into the office with a CD-R of a new electronic piece he and his roommate had been working on. When I tried it out that evening in the Zcd, the player made some whirring sounds before spitting the disc back out. I carefully reinserted the disc and everything worked fine. I never experienced the problem again. The music, by the way, was awesome, and reminiscent of Four Tet's soulful, melodic grooves. I was impressed by the physicality of the Zcd's bass and the precision of its imaging.

After all this futzing around with formats and files, I was anxious to just play CDs. The Zcd uses an unspecified slot-loading transport mechanism. Parasound's president, Richard Schram, says the mechanism was built by a company affiliated with Sony. The DAC is Cirrus Logic's CS4353. When I asked Schram if Parasound had set aside a number of transports and DACs for long-term serviceability, he almost choked. "You're kidding, right? This is Parasound." Schram assured me that the company does, in fact, have a large supply of spare parts.

Finally, I wondered why Parasound felt it important to produce a new CD player when the CD format is fast losing popularity to Internet radio, downloads, and LPs. Schram noted that while new CD releases are in decline, there are nevertheless "billions of CDs that already exist." He added, "There are 43,276,194 (at last count) audio enthusiasts who love their audio systems, but dislike their computers and definitely don't trust them. Based on the warm reception the Zcd has received here and in export markets, it appears that CDs are very much alive."

The same can be said of the Zcd's overall sound.

Very much alive
I listened using my NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier driving my PSB Alpha B1 speakers. (I'd finally packed up the Tannoy Mercury V1s for good.) Speaker cables and interconnects were Kimber Kable's 8VS and PBJ, respectively. Lately, I've been obsessed with "Climax," the lead single from Usher's latest album, Looking 4 Myself (CD, RCA 97176-2). While much of the album is predictable, overdramatic pop, "Climax," produced by Diplo, with a strings-and-piano arrangement by Nico Muhly and a remarkable falsetto by Usher, is something far more special: a quiet-storm jam with a modern, adventurous sound. Through the Zcd, "Climax" was appropriately big and dramatic, with surprisingly deep, physical bass; a fast, clean transient response; solid, well-focused images on a wide soundstage; and a good sense of space around Usher's voice.

Compared to my NAD C 515BEE CD player, the Parasound Zcd sounded faster, tighter, more aggressive, and produced a taller but shallower soundstage with less well-delineated images. The NAD sacrificed speed and jump factor but produced more graceful decays, had more body and texture, and created a much more deeply layered soundstage. Similarly, "Nightfall Pieces I" sounded absolutely sublime through the NAD, with a decidedly rounder, sweeter quality to George Marge's tone, and more of Bill Dixon's body and spirit remaining intact: I heard and enjoyed more of his breaths, more of his fingers on the trumpet's valves, more sense of anticipation before each musical event. Through the Parasound, Marge's flute and Dixon's trumpet could sometimes sound a bit shouty, unnecessarily assertive, and frighteningly forceful—but never, thankfully, at the expense of the piece's gorgeous melody.

Interestingly, there was something very alluring about the sound of the Zcd's USB input: Though MP3s played from a flash drive lacked the immediacy, impact, and clarity of their CD counterparts, they often sounded less aggressive, less abrasive, less mechanical. Could this have had something to do with the fact that no spinning disc was involved? Some audiophiles will scoff at the notion of playing MP3s through their hi-fis, regardless of how good they sound. While I'm not one of them, I do wonder if Parasound will produce an affordable player with a USB input capable of handling higher resolutions.

I encountered one other oddity with the Parasound Zcd: While listening to Drake's debut album, Thank Me Later (CD, Universal Republic 001613502), I noticed a few high-pitched electronic glitches scattered throughout the disc. The Zcd always produced these glitches at the same points in the music, which suggests they're artifacts of the disc itself—but I never heard them through the NAD.

Of course, the Parasound, with USB and 3.5mm line-level inputs, is the much more versatile player, one that acknowledges the past, embraces the present, and seems poised to stick around for quite some time. Count me among the 43,276,194 audio enthusiasts who still believe such a thing is necessary.

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