Krell Cipher SACD/CD player Page 2

The Cipher's way with bass tones was particularly impressive. Thunderous bass has always been one of Krell's specialties, but that's not all I'm talking about here. I'm talking about the details, the melody, even the delicacies of a double bass. On "Mood Indigo," from the Duke's Masterpieces by Ellington (Columbia/Legacy CK 87043, CD), I could hear every pluck of Wendell Marshall's bass, the value of each note, and the shifts in his cadence, even when the full orchestra blares forth. This isn't mere detail for detail's sake; it's crucial to the rhythm—the "mood indigo," if you will, of the piece—which Marshall alters by lagging just behind the beat. Ditto for Charlie Haden's fingerwork on his bass's soundboard and neck—and, even more, the resonance of the wood—in Jasmine, his duet album with Keith Jarrett (CD, ECM 2165). And Jarrett's piano sounded richer than I've heard when spinning this disc in other players, perhaps because the Cipher gets the harmonic overtones just right.

Overtones have a lot to do with distinguishing an instrument from one that's similar but not quite the same. Listening to James Carter's tribute to Django Reinhardt, Chasin' the Gypsy (CD, Atlantic 83304-2), I'd never heard so clearly the difference between the steel- and nylon-string guitars. Through other players (including the Evolution 505), the start of Radiohead's In Rainbows (CD, TBD 0001) has sounded a bit like a train wreck, the drums and the electronic gnashings smooshed together; through the Cipher, they sounded not only more crisp and dynamic, but also more distinct, in terms of both space and timbre.

The Evolution 505 let me hear more vibrato from the bass strings in David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta's recording of Górecki's Symphony 3 (CD, Elektra/Nonesuch 79282-2), more attack from all strings, and more modulation in soprano Dawn Upshaw's voice, than I'd heard with other CD players. The Cipher did all that, and it let me hear much more bowing in the deep double basses in the movement's first minute (which is all but inaudible through some systems), as well as much clearer counterpoint between the cellos and the double basses in the third minute. I also heard the piano chords under Upshaw's voice with greater clarity than ever.

But I don't mean to turn this review into a checklist, or to liken the Cipher to an X-ray machine clinically spotlighting each lung and ligament of some musical anatomy. Some pieces of gear with exceptionally high resolution are like that: white light, but no warmth. The remarkable thing about the Cipher was that it unveiled all the details without losing what makes them add up to music: the seamless dynamic contrasts, the holographic imaging of a voice or instrument (especially up front), the uncanny sense that a foot is stepping on the pedal of the kick drum, that a bow is gliding across the violin, that vocal cords and even—with a really well-recorded disc, such as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's of J.S. Bach's Cantatas BWV 82 and 199 (CD, Nonesuch 79692-2)—that a chest and lungs are heaving forth a singer's voice.

Two examples. First: At a Consumer Electronics Show several years ago, I sat in one room (I forget what components were involved) listening to Sheryl Crow & Friends' Live in Central Park (CD, A&M 06949-0574-2), amazed at how live it sounded: the eye-blinking drums, the wailing guitars, Crow's palpable presence, the ambiance of the crowd, the sheer dancing-in-your-head joy of it. Over the years, I've tried to get my various systems make that disc sound the way it sounded in that CES room, but they never quite have. I figured maybe my speakers weren't big enough, or my amp wasn't powerful enough. But with the Cipher, I heard it; I got that goose-bump sensation for the first time.

Second: Miles Davis's trumpet in his performance of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," from his terrific, strangely neglected Live Around the World (CD, Warner Bros. 46032-2). I could go on about how the Cipher let me hear more of his breath on the mouthpiece, the slight sputtering, the purity of his tone in the quiet parts. But what dazzled me was the emotional depths of his playing, the mournful quality he lent to this pop tune, to a degree I'd never heard before—and I've listened to this track through other machines probably 100 times.

True, I made some similar claims in my review of the Evolution 505. I feel a bit like Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap, saying that his guitar amp goes up to 11. But believe me: the Cipher does all that the 505 does, but more so: It goes up to 11.

Miscellaneous Comments
I regret one thing about my review of the Evolution 505. The only amp I had on hand at the time was Krell's FBI integrated. For the most part, I listened with CAST cable connecting the 505's CAST outputs to the FBI's CAST inputs. Briefly, though, I listened while using balanced cable between the balanced inputs and outputs. The difference was so jarring—the CAST connection was so superior—that I advised readers not to pay so much money for the 505 unless they also owned or bought an FBI, or a Krell preamp with CAST circuitry.

In retrospect, I think that observation said more about the FBI than the 505, or perhaps about the best way to connect two Krell CAST components. The Cipher sounded terrific hooked up to the Simaudio Moon Evolution 700i, which has no CAST inputs, meaning I had to use the Cipher's balanced outputs. (To clarify: Although the Cipher's internal circuitry is CAST, if you connect it to a non-Krell preamp, the signal is not converted to voltage mode until the output stage—you're not wasting the proprietary circuitry, or all those extra transistors, if your other gear is made by a different company.) When I connected the Cipher to the FBI, it sounded different, in the same way that the FBI sounds different from the Simaudio. (I wrote about that difference in the March 2011 issue.) Which, by the way, suggests that the Simaudio is quite neutral, imposing very little coloration at the start of an often long and bumpy signal path. In any case, my descriptions of the Cipher's sound stem from my listening to it through the Simaudio. Enough said.

One more thing: In order to compare the Cipher with another CD player in its price range other than the Evolution 505, John Atkinson briefly lent me an Ayre Acoustics DX-5 ($10,000), which has been very favorably reviewed in these pages. I didn't listen long enough to make a systematic evaluation, but my impression was that the Ayre had better midrange, and maybe more coherence, through the upper midrange—as I could hear in the brash clarity of strummed electric guitars. But the Cipher was better at disentangling musical complexities, distinguishing between similar but different kinds of instruments (ie, getting the tonal colors and overtones right), and getting dynamics right; I found it more exciting—but not overexciting. It would be great to have a player with the Ayre's mid- to upper midrange and the Cipher's everything else. I guess that's what $20,000 CD players are for.

Caveats
The first Cipher that Krell sent me had problems. A few discs wouldn't load, and the player's innards would grind ferociously while trying to load them. With a few other discs, the Cipher would skip or go dead silent at certain points or, in a couple of cases, simply stop. I sent it in for examination. Krell's president, Bill McKiegan, said the tech guy found no problems but had replaced the laser head. They sent it back to me, and I started listening. Pretty soon, I heard the same problems. I sent it back again, this time asking McKiegan that he replace it with an entirely different unit, which he did. I've been playing it a lot, including those discs that the earlier unit couldn't handle, and I've heard no problems.

Early versions of the Evolution 505, which used the same Raymedia disc drive, were also very noisy. A Krell firmware modification made them less so, though still not entirely quiet, at least not with all discs. As noted earlier, the Cipher incorporates still more firmware mods and extra damping. The replacement unit has been quiet, and in this most basic function of playing discs, has worked flawlessly. Was my first unit a quirk? Or are there quality-control problems with this disc drive? I don't know. Krell provides a three-year warranty on the Cipher's mechanical parts; the problem, when I had it, occurred from the get-go. Even in the worst case, you wouldn't be stuck with a lemon.

Two more caveats, the first also true of the 505: The function buttons on the faceplate are arrayed in no apparent logical order—unless, as someone's idea of a joke, they're spelling out a message in Braille. They're also small, and the labels below them (Play, Stop, Pause, etc.) are smaller still. My second complaint is new: The remote control has too many buttons in addition to the ones you need all the time (Play, Stop, Pause, track numbers, etc.), including several that you need only once, if at all (eg, Menu Settings). Because these buttons, too, are small, it's easy to hit the wrong one, especially as there's no backlighting. Please, Krell: A simpler remote would be welcome.

Conclusions
Despite my mutterings about the name and the design—which, in the broad scheme of things, are minor—and assuming that my initial laser problem was a fluke, the Krell Cipher is a great CD player: the best I've heard in its price range, and the best I've heard, period, in my home system. Maybe it will be obsolete before the decade is out, but a lot of CDs will still be out there, waiting to be played. If I can scrounge up the change, I'm buying one.

COMPANY INFO
Krell Industries
45 Connair Road
Orange, CT 06477-3650
(203) 298-4000
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