The Fifth Element #57 Page 4

The SC-CX303 is a great little speaker. I respected the PSB Imagine B, which I wrote about in February, but I just loved the Denon. I'll be very interested in seeing a comparison of the speakers' measurements. My guess is that the Denon will measure a bit fuller and warmer in the midrange, perhaps even the inverse of the "smile EQ" effect. The SC-CX303 had more of an attractive richness of sound than actual deep bass.

Such things matter more to some than to others, but I think a pair of SC-CX303s look, if not quite like a million bucks, then at least more like $2000 than $1200. There's high-quality woodwork on all surfaces, with a wonderful raised-panel effect on the back. The SC-CX303 makes the black-painted Aerial 5B look industrial. C'mon, Aerial—bring back the veneered 5B!

I found the Denon RCD-CX1 SACD/CD receiver and SC-CX303 speakers to be an unusually synergistic combination, all the way down to the speaker cables that come free with the SC-CX303s. Using higher-zoot speaker cables such as Kimber's 8TC brought out a bit of glare in the SC-CX303s; the free cables restored a more listenable balance. Compared to more expensive speakers with the far more expensive Luxman electronics, the $2700 Denon combination was, overall, veiled and lacking solidity, and could get a bit blatty when pushed. But compared to some other ways to spend $2700, they were great. Mysterious Mountains, a demanding SACD of the symphonic music of Alan Hovhaness with Gerard Schwarz conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Telarc SACD-60604), should have made the SC-CX303s give up, but it didn't. The timpani in Symphony 66, Hymn to Glacier Peak, were impressive both in dynamics and bass extension, and the imaging and soundstaging were overall quite good. Well done.

Wrapping It All Up
If you want one-stop shopping and $2700 is your budget, the Denon combo is hard to beat—at least, I haven't been able to. If your budget is smaller, Arcam's Solo Mini ($999) is great, and I prefer the Denon SC-CX303 to PSB's Imagine B ($1000/pair), but you may not agree. That setup would cost about $2200.

As far as speakers go, in the lower tier, I love the Denon SC-CX303. Around $2000/pair, the Aerial 5B and ATC SCM 11 are both great.

If your budget is bigger, there are some great options. In electronics, the Denon RCD-CX1, Peachtree Nova, and Carat I57 are all truly excellent. But if you need to narrow the choices even more, as much as I love the Denon RCD-CX1 one-box, its lack of future-proofness and higher price make it defer to the Peachtree Nova, which is also the bass champ. Then, make your choice between the ATC SCM 11 and the Aerial 5B. And that's it—a completely respectable stereo for $2950–$3400, which leaves money on the table for cables and stands.

Best of luck.

More Holiday Stuff
From Norway's 2L label comes Mirror Canon (2L49SACD), a DXD-derived multichannel SACD/CD that combines Beethoven's Op.111 piano sonata with piano works by Schönberg and Berg—and, for welcome variety, Webern's Op.7 short pieces for violin and piano. The pianist is Tor Espen Aspaas, the violinist Kolbjørn Holthe. If the recorded sound of a piano gets much better than this, I haven't heard it. Amazing. Wonderfully poetic playing from Aspaas (born 1971), especially in the second movement of the Beethoven, along with excellent liner notes by the pianist. Just buy it. And if you aren't yet on the ever-so-slowly-moving SACD bandwagon, hi-rez PCM downloads are available at www.2L.no.

I borrowed a pair of the Audio-Technica ATH-AD700 headphones Sam Tellig raved about in his June 2008 column. Their list price is $249, but the street price is $149 and under. Yup, a stellar bargain. The AD700s have a remarkably neutral and unfussy midrange. Their bass is on the lean side, which is better than lumpy bass. And, of course, more expensive headphones will deliver more resolution. My other concern is that either the design is such that the earpads are not actually intended to seal against your head at their tops, or the headphones were designed to fit people with larger heads than mine—I found the frame about half an inch too wide. I advise buying them with a money-back guarantee.

If your headphone budget goes way up there, Denon's AH-D7000s make a good case for their being worth $999. Unusually, the AH-D7000s are a closed-back design, which gives them the best all-around headphone bass I've heard. The build quality is superdeluxe, with mahogany earcups, and leather earpads on cleverly designed asymmetrical cushions that give the most comfortable fit I can recall. The sound is exceptional, but not quite as startlingly real as that of the now-discontinued Ultrasone Edition 9, which I wrote about in my June 2007 column—but those cost half again as much ($1500). (And I haven't yet heard Sennheiser's new HD800s.) That still leaves the Denon AH-D7000s as one of the top half-dozen headphones I've heard, and perhaps the most comfortable—but if your head is smaller than mine, you may have the same problem with the Denons that I had with the Audio-Technicas. If you're shopping in this price tier, don't pass them over without an audition.

Finally, if you think Santa Claus thinks you've been very good, you may want to ask him to drop down your chimney the Guarneri del Gesu violin of 1741 formerly owned by Henri Vieuxtemps. Fiddle expert Geoffrey Fushi thinks it's the greatest violin in existence, and it's priced accordingly: $18 million (www.beinfushi.com).

Thoughts?

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