Parasound Halo CD 1 CD player Sam Tellig
John Marks wrote about Parasound's Halo CD 1 player last month. The CD 1 is far less retrograde than it first appears. Yes, it looks to the past, and 30 years of perfect sound forever. Billions of CDs sold worldwide. The most successful audio format in history.
For $4500, the CD 1 plays CDs. Period. This includes recordable discs, CD-R and CD-RW. It also includes the CD layer of SACDs. It does not play MP3 files burned to CD-R. (It did play MP3s that I converted to AAC and burned to CD-R on my Mac mini.)
The CD 1 is not designed to play "CDs that have had anything applied to them, including so-called damping mats or dots, fluids or 'treatments' that are purported to improve CD reproduction," says Parasound.
More than 20 years ago, I affixed some plastic rings to the rims of some of my CDs. I stopped when I realized that the rings jam some CD and CD-ROM drives.
When we divorced, my first wife took some of our CDs. She played them without incident. Then her boyfriend tried to play one of the ringed CDs in his car. It got stuck. I don't know how much the Mercedes dealer charged to fix it.
The Parasound Halo CD 1 has 75 ohm BNC, TosLink optical, and coaxial digital outputsbut no digital inputs. There's no volume control, no headphone amp. There is a phase-reversal switch, accessible from the remote control. Analog outputs include balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA jacks.
There's an Analog Output button on the front panel. Intriguing. This lets you listen to the CD 1's analog outputs straight from the op-amp outputs or from "the discrete transistor output stage." The specs are said to be the same for both settings, but the sound is said to differ. Yes, it does, but I can't possibly describe how. Nor should I. Listen for yourself.
I have to admire Parasound's founder, Richard Schram. And the folks at Holm Acoustics, in Denmark, with whom he collaborated on the CD 1's design. Richard has one word for audio geeks with their computer audio, dead digital formats, MP3 files, and evanescent digital downloads: Scram. (Nah, Schram didn't say that.)
Besides, this is computer audio!
As it spins a disc, a conventional CD player converts the digital code into an audio signal more or less in real time, as it's read off the disc. Errors are fixed on the fly. Perfect sound becomes less perfect. Remember when audio engineers told us that "bits is bits"?
Inside the Parasound Halo CD 1, a CD-ROM drive, spinning at four times normal speeds, feeds data to an Intel ITX computer. The player has 30 seconds to deal with each data segment on the disc. It reads all data twice. If the two passes are perfectly identical, bit for bit, the data are sent to the buffer. If the passes don't agree, the computer tries againand again, if necessary, until it gets two datastreams that match. If all else fails, the computer isolates the bad disc segment and subjects it to "pre-interpretation analysis." As a last resort, the CD 1 conceals errors, but these instances should be few and far between.
The verified data are then dumped into a buffer, where they're synchronized with the CD-ROM drive's input clock and sent asynchronously to a second clock and a single AD1853 stereo digital-to-analog converter.
The user notices nothing. There are no skips, no pauses, no lights to indicate error correction. By the way, the CD 1 did skip, as have other players, on the few very badly damaged discs I keep around.
The CD 1 is slot-loading. You insert the CD and nudge it, slowly, almost all the way into the slot. The player makes some noises, like a busy robot, then, without further ado, begins playing the disc. Maksim, our cat, was fascinated.
When you turn on the CD 1, it tells you "PLEASE WAIT." Please do so. When I tried to feed it a disc while the "PLEASE WAIT" message was still displayed, the player accepted the disc, then made me wait some more. I resolved the situation by turning it off, waiting several seconds, then turning it on again.
Aside from disc initialization, the CD 1 ran very quietly. The Intel computer inside needs no fan.
I ran a balanced pair of interconnects from the CD 1 into my Music First Baby Reference preamplifierthe preamp that isn't (see "Sam's Space" passim). Then I went, again via balanced interconnects, into my Musical Fidelity M6PRX stereo power amplifier. Speakers were my Triangle Comète 30th Anniversaires.
I let the player run for a few days. Just for good measure, I let the amplifier run, too. You can't do that with tubes. Then I started my listening. No SACDs. No audiophile discs. No "hi-rez" digital downloads at $4 per string-quartet movement. Yes, I'll take movements two and four, thank you, and leave the other tunes on the table.
I did not expect to be "blown away" by the Halo CD 1, and I wasn't. Instead, I was seduced. Then put to sleep.
The CD 1 went about its workPerfect Sound Forevercalling no attention to itself. The player was not a revelation, and recordings that suck still sucked. If the CD itself sounded congested or brittle, it sounded that way through the CD 1including those early Herbert von Karajan CDs on Deutsche Grammophon.
Slowly, over several evenings, I came to realize that the CD 1 was uncommonly able to distinguish good and great recordings from the poor and the mediocre. As some hi-fi critics write (especially about turntables), the Halo was able to sort things out well enough that I didn't have to work so hard at doing so. I could hear more into the score. I could identify themes (and their echoes) running through each piece. This is not just a matter of audiophile detail; it's a question of making musical sense.
I began thinking about turntables, of all things.
In the 1970s, before I started writing for Stereophile, I had a fairly expensive direct-drive turntable whose speed was said to be spot on. Continuous error correction kept the speed steady. Or did it keep the speed continuously unsteady? A friend suggested I try the Rega Research Planar 3 'table. Indeed, he gleefully brought over his own Planar 3, to demonstrate the superiority of belt drive. Two weeks later, I had my own Planar 3. I've had a Rega 'table in the house ever since.
I recalled the early days of CD, and how some of us "improved" the discs' sound with various fluids and polishes, which Richard Schram cautions us not to use with the CD 1. Were we hearing things? I think we were hearing less error correction. The same might be true of various CD mats. (At the risk of repetition: CD mats are to be avoided with any slot-loaded transports, and probably with drawer transports, too.)
Various CD-player footers are safer. When you damp vibrations, you cut down on errors and thus on error corrections. Do errorsand their correctionsinterfere with timing? My guess is that they do. It's particularly insidious when timing errors find their ways not only between but inside the notes. Then the brain must make its own error corrections.
Antony Michaelson, head of Musical Fidelity, called the next morning. In the course of conversation, he suggested that I listen to an early (1982) digital recording of Beethoven's Symphony 6, Pastoral, with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (CD, Decca 410 003-2, reissued by ArkivMusic.com as a custom CD-R). While you're at it, you might pick up Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia's recordings of Beethoven's symphonies 5 and 7, recorded at about the same time. (All three were briefly available as a two-CD Double Decca set.)
Antony loves these recordings, especially the Pastoral, for the exquisite clarinet playing. (He's a clarinetist.) The same might be said of the horn playing, and the rest of the solo work. The recordings are so beautifully balanced. This was the dawn of digital, and Decca got things right. Their engineers were as assiduous (one of Antony's favorite words) as the musicians.
Sir Colin Davis died just as I was completing this column. Ah, Sir Colin. I heard him many times in Boston and New York, and once in Vienna, conducting John Atkinson's favorite composer: Berlioz. He was a pipe smoker. (So was I.) He took up knitting. (I didn't.) Davis's 1963 recording of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, on Philips, remains one of the greats. Back then, young Davis was just Colin.
Philips long ago found producing classical records margin dilutive; the label remains dormant, but much of its catalog is still available. The best way to buy this recording is on a budget set that also includes Harold in Italy, the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale, and other Berlioz works, all with Davis and the LSO (2 CDs, Philips 442290). Sadly, so many Philips recording artists have passed on. Claudio Arrau. Wolfgang Sawallisch. And now Davis.
Sir Colin recorded the Symphonie Fantastique at least three times, twice with the LSO and once with the Concertgebouw. Some of the later recordings may have more incisive, clearer sound, but it would be hard to top the youthful drive of the 35-year-old conductor.
The Parasound Halo CD 1 made the most of this recording. I noticed, with this and other CDs, that the string sound was particularly sweet. I heard a freedom from an edginess that might very well be caused by rickety CD mechanisms.
This is the point of this $4500 CD player: to go whole hog with CD. Forget your dead digital formats. Trash your MP3 files. Turn off your bloody computer, and listen to the computer embedded in the Halo.
Forget your outboard DACs, tooat least for playing CDs. I went from the CD 1's digital outputs to my Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista DAC, a longtime favorite, via my Music First Baby Reference "preamp."
I could hear no difference. I enjoyed the same solidity of sound, the same sweet, nonfatiguing smoothness. This is not to say that the CD 1 imposed a euphonic quality on the music; far from it. What I am saying is that the CD 1 got instrumental timbres just right.
As just right as a $104,500 turntable does?
The Halo CD 1 is for those of us who actually own, not rent, large CD collections, and who don't want to compromise the quality of CD playback by accommodating formats and sources we have little use for. It's for those who don't jump on bandwagons, no matter what's being hyped this month.
The CD 1 is for those who love their Compact Discs as much as Artie and Mikey love their LPs and turntables and Kal craves his surround sound. It's for those who want to give their CDs proper respect, and who don't care what the "industry" or editors want us to think. No dongles, no dingles, no USB cables, no screen, no setup, no menus, no network.
This is the way to do computer audio.