Kinergetics KCD-40 CD player Thomas J. Norton, March 1993
CD players are all over the place these days. The CD-player section of Audio's annual directory is starting to compete with loudspeakers for pulp content. The major Japanese manufacturers, it seems, hardly get their newest models established before yet newer models take their places.
But try as they might, complete CD players just can't get any respect in the High End. Digital/analog processors are where the action is, and our coverage recently has reflected that fact. Maybe it has something to do with stability; processors usually come from smaller manufacturers who don't change their models every six months. Over the last couple of years the reviewers for Audio and Stereo Review have had full-time jobs reviewing the new top-of-the-line machines from Sony alone. Or so it seems.
But there is an undeniable attraction in the single-box player. Besides convenience, there's the theoretical cost advantage—less sheet metal, fewer power supplies, lower shipping costs, etc. The manufacturer of a single-box player also has more control over the total CD playback system and doesn't have to wonder what transport will be used with their D/A processor (or vice versa), and thus have to make design allowances for possible variations. And the buyer is spared concern about choosing, and paying for, a digital interconnect. With the average-priced CD tin-lizzy flying out the door of your nearest Audio/Video R Us for less than a middling-cost pair of high-end interconnects, it takes guts to attempt to market a player for more than ten times that price. But here we have four of them, fighting their ways uphill against an avalanche of mass-market hype designed to convince the public that a CD player is a disposable item distinguishable from others of its ilk only by its features—if at all.
The KCD-40 Platinum
The KCD-40 looks unique only in its use of lever switches instead of pushbuttons. I'm not certain that this is an advance; ergonomically I found them a little more fiddly than large, well-arranged buttons, but each buyer will have to make that determination for him or herself. The light lettering—common to the Kinergetics line—can also be a little difficult to read.
A ganged volume control on the front panel adjusts the level at a pair of variable-output jacks on the rear. A second pair of fixed-level jacks is also provided (most of my listening was done using the latter). There is also a pre-cut opening on the rear for fitting a coaxial digital output—a $125 option. Kinergetics does not install one at the factory; they feel it may slightly degrade the performance. There is no on-off switch on the player; it is designed to be left on at all times.
The KCD-40 operates in an 18-bit, 8x-oversampling mode. Four matched Analog Devices DACs are used, two per channel in the same balanced topology used by Kinergetics in their separate D/A processors to minimize even-order distortions. Only unbalanced outputs are standard, but balanced ones are a $125 option (installing them deletes the unbalanced connections). Kinergetics also incorporates their patented hysteresis-canceling circuit, claimed to cancel any non-linear distortions in the signal path due to wire and contacts.
The output stage of the KCD-40 is a hybrid of bipolar transistors and J-FETs. It is direct-coupled; a servo control is used to control DC offset. The output voltage available from the KCD-40 is considerably higher than that from any of the other players here, even in the balanced mode (where provided). This permits it to drive an amplifier directly through the variable outputs, or through a passive or other zero-gain control unit/attenuator.
Internally, the KCD-40 shows good build quality, if slightly less "aah"-inspiring than that of the Proceed and Marantz I also review this month. It has a solid aluminum chassis and high-quality parts. A toroidal transformer drives separated discrete voltage regulators for all stages.
As the least expensive player on test this month, the Kinergetics KCD Platinum had everything to gain in this auditioning; even had it finished last, a strong showing would be nothing for it to be ashamed of. Well, it did make a strong showing, stronger than its relative price might indicate.
The Kinergetics is, however, still far from being an inexpensive player. A buyer has a right to expect a solid performance, and that is what he or she will get. The KCD-40 combines a rich, rounded, glowing midrange with an open, detailed top end and a full, warm, but well-defined and punchy bass. It has a slightly forward perspective which makes its depth less immediately obvious than that from the best players or transport/processors, but over the long haul its front-to-back perspective is convincing. It never sounded etched or analytic with the TARA Labs cables I used (assuming something resembling a good-sounding CD). It could, however, be made to sound more up-front and forward—including some tag-along low-treble emphasis—with a judicious (or perhaps injudicious?) choice of cables. There was a definite bloom to its sound which sometimes enlarged images—especially noticeable on male singing voices—but the soundstage was otherwise well-formed.
The KCD-40's performance is easier to describe in terms of particular recordings than generally. Jennifer Warnes's The Hunter was reproduced beautifully. Some excess of warmth is inevitable with this recording, and the Kinergetics did not conceal it. But the sound was big, open, and generous, with a finely shaded, detailed midrange and top end. It was neither overly sweet nor veiled. Gordon Lightfoot's voice on If You Could Read My Mind did have a trace of excess warmth, but was otherwise full-bodied and open, with a clear, transparent midrange. With the more complex interplay of voice and instruments in Mister Swing, there was a good, though not exceptional, feeling of being able to hear into the soundstage and "feel" the layering of the recording. Again, the mid- and upper bass were perhaps a bit too warm here, with the lower bass present but somewhat soft. But the bass range did not obscure detailing further up into the midrange and treble.
I did feel, however, that some recordings did not quite snap to life on the KCD-40. Case in point: Andreas Vollenweider's Book of Roses (Columbia CK 48601). Here there was a small lack of air at the top end and a lack of crispness to the sound. The latter term is one I do not like to use as something desirable—it is too often associated with treble exaggeration—but here I mean it only in the sense of the quality which makes subtle, overlaid transients stand out naturally from each other. The Kinergetics was certainly more than acceptable here, but it did not quite bring out the best in this recording, which, on the right player, can be striking for its subtle shadings and inner detail.
Compared with the MSB Silver, the KCD-40 sounded a little less punchy, with a less extended bottom end and less present midrange and lower treble. Both were a bit soft at the very top, but this was less obvious with the MSB because of its greater immediacy. The MSB was more up-front, but at the same time its overall clarity gave it a more clearly focused soundstage and more obvious depth. Both players had a tendency toward warmth, but the MSB won out by a hair in the bass and midbass because of its superior detailing. Overall, my preference was definitely for the MSB—which will, after all, set the buyer back an additional $500.
The Pioneer transport/PS Audio Ultralink D/A processor opens up the price gap by another $200 or so, the additional cost being the price of the digital interconnect. And it opens up the sonic gap as well. The Pioneer/PS Audio outshines the KCD-40 in a number of ways. The most obvious is in overall openness and clarity—that "blacker" background. This, in turn, clarifies the overall soundstage; individual images have more "pop" to them, standing free of the surrounding sonic fabric. Vocalists were just a shade smaller and more appropriately sized. While Kenny Rankin's Because of You (Chesky JD63) certainly sounded fine on the Kinergetics, with warm, palpable vocals and solid instrumental accompaniment, it was that much "more" on the Pioneer/PS Audio. Kenny Rankin's voice was better balanced on "Someone to Watch Over Me," though still somewhat warm in the midbass and more appropriately sized—read smaller—with the reedy sound of the accompanying saxophone more apparent.
The depth and layering on Book of Roses was also more apparent on the Pioneer/PS Audio. Six seconds into "The Grand Ball of the Duljas," a dog bark is heard. I noticed it for the first time on the Pioneer/PS Audio. While it is quite apparent on the KCD-40 now that I know where to listen for it, its spatial perspective is quite different on the two players. On the Kinergetics it has, arguably, the better presence with slightly more body. On the Pioneer/PS Audio, it's a bit smaller and set back further into the soundstage.
Still, the Kinergetics displayed strengths of its own in this comparison. On the soundtrack from The Abyss, it had a dynamic sock in the bass which initially impressed more than that from the Pioneer/PS Audio. While the latter proved ultimately to have the tighter overall LF definition, it was very much a matter of tradeoffs, with the KCD-40's fuller bass and midbass edging ahead at times, while at others it fell behind the tighter presentation of the Pioneer/PS Audio. Neither was hair-trigger tight at the bottom; the Pioneer/PS had a band of warmth of its own that occasionally intruded into its otherwise detailed, seamless presentation.
I did try using the variable outputs of the KCD-40 to drive a power amplifier directly, without using a preamp. Not surprisingly, it worked, with more than enough gain to generate levels capable of driving even metal-maniacs screaming from the room. But my gut reaction, in an admittedly very brief listen in this mode, was that it was somewhat more congested and etched than with the fixed outputs. It's certainly worth trying if such an arrangement suits your listening situation—the fixed outputs remain available as a fall-back in any case.
I noted above that, with a change of interconnects, the sound of the Kinergetics could be made to sound more up-front and brighter in the low treble. I found that switching from TARA RSC to new AudioQuest Lapis livened up the sound of the KCD-40 and removed some of the sensation of softness. This was a plus in some ways, but not in all. Following my comparison of balanced and unbalanced Lapis on the Proceed PCD 3, I compared the PCD 3 with the KCD-40, using balanced Lapis for the former and unbalanced Lapis for the latter. In general I preferred the sound of the Proceed in this comparison. It had a tighter bass and midbass (though on some recordings the warmth of the KCD-40 was welcome), a slightly airier top end, a more neutral midrange perspective (less forward), and a less bright low treble. The KCD-40 does better overall, I feel, with the TARA Labs cable than it does with the Lapis, but it does not, in either case, beat out the more expensive Proceed.
It was no embarrassment for the KCD-40 Platinum to be bettered by the more expensive MSB, Proceed, and the Pioneer/PS Audio combination. While it didn't stand out in any particular respect within this group, its solid overall performance, and more than competitive price, still get it a recommendation.
The Kinergetics is easy. We have long recommended the earlier, "non-Platinum" KCD-40, and I see no reason to change that recommendation for this latest version. Choose your interconnects carefully (always good advice) and you'll have a first-rate player. If it doesn't quite reach the sonic accomplishments of the Proceed and MSB players, your bank balance or credit statement will help compensate.—Thomas J. Norton