PrimaLuna ProLogue Eight CD player Page 2
Dynamic range was compressed a bit, but peaks weren't distorted or clipped; it was more like someone slightly easing up on the pedal. The high octaves were also rolled off a bit (hence the shortage of air), but the rolloff was smooth; there was no sense of a brickwall filter, no harshness.Fred Kaplan
Comparisons from John Atkinson
There are two important questions to be asked about a midpriced CD player like the PrimaLuna ProLogue Eight: 1) Does it offer sufficient sonic improvement over less-expensive products to be worth considering at all? and 2) does it approach the sonic performance of more expensive components, making its recommendation a no-brainer?
As Fred Kaplan admits above, his primary reference for his auditioning of the ProLogue Eight was the very much more expensive Krell 505 SACD player. (There is an inevitable conflict between a reviewer's need to have as a long-term reference a component whose sound he is intimately familiar with, and other components that are directly competitive with the product being tested.) The first of these two questions was left unanswered, therefore. As I have a stable of players available for comparison, I stepped into the review.
I did a long series of comparisons between the PrimaLuna and four digital sources that I know well: the Ayre C-5xe universal player ($5000), which has been my long-term reference since I bought a sample following Wes Phillips' review in July 2005; the now-discontinued Oppo DV-970HD universal player ($149 when available), which WP enthusiastically reviewed in May 2007; the Pioneer DV-578A universal player ($150), one of which I bought a few years back to use as a low-priced reference (no review, though the Pioneer chassis has been used as the basis for a number of high-end universal players, and WP used it as a reference in his Oppo review); and the Benchmark DAC 1 USB D/A converter/headphone amplifier ($1275), which I reviewed in January 2008. The Benchmark is a superb-sounding DAC and a bargain at its price (and even more so at $975, which is what it costs without the USB input). Given that it will produce close to Class A CD sound for not much more than a kilobuck when used with an inexpensive player such as the Oppo (footnote 2) or Pioneer, I feel that the Benchmark DAC 1 sets the bar for players that cost significantly more.
All comparisons were performed matching the sources' output levels to within 0.1dB at 1kHz. For the player comparisons, I used duplicate CDs playing synchronously on both players. For the comparisons with the Benchmark, the DAC was driven via a 1m length of AudioQuest OptiLink-5 from the PrimaLuna's digital output.
I also used the ProLogue Eight as my primary CD player for quite a while, but became increasingly dissatisfied with a lean tonal balance. (I also didn't like the slowness of the PrimaLuna's disc tray, but that's a more personal thing.) I stopped using the player to examine its measured performance, which revealed the reason for the tonal problem: the Parasound Halo JC 2 preamplifier has a moderately low input impedance of 27k ohms in the midrange and bass; the ProLogue Eight's output impedance is 2.7k ohms in the treble and midrange, but rises to a very high 12k ohms at 20Hz. The voltage divider formed by this value and the input impedance of the Parasound preamp will shelve down the low bass by up to 2.4dB. This is not much in absolute terms, but in my system and room it was enough to unbalance the PrimaLuna's sound. Crestfallen, I replaced the Halo JC 2 with the Mark Levinson No.380S, which has an input impedance of 100k ohms. All the remaining auditioning and all the comparisons were performed with this preamp.
Once that had been sorted out, my opinion of the PrimaLuna ProLogue Eight was very positive, in that it did one thing superbly well: it threw the widest, deepest soundstage from CDs that I have experienced with any player. Perhaps even more important, individual images within that stage were clearly delineated, with a palpability more akin to what you get from SACD (or LP). At the beginning of April I recorded Bob Reina's jazz group Attention Screen live at Otto's Shrunken Head, a Manhattan tiki bar, using an ORTF pair of cardioid mikes. The individual drums of Mark Flynn's kit were clearly positioned farther toward the back of the stage than the bass guitar, keyboard, and guitar. But it was the palpability of the offstage noises, such as the pinball machine in the adjacent bar area, and the sounds of members of the audience talking between songs, that impressed me when the resultant CD was played back on the ProLogue Eight. In this, the Dutch player outperformed even the Ayre C-5xe!
Compared directly with the Ayre, however, the ProLogue Eight didn't go quite as deep in the bass, nor was its upper bass quite as well defined. Sounding a little soft, the upper harmonics were slightly emphasized, to the detriment of the fundamental and the second harmonicnot unpleasant, but not strictly accurate, either. Kick drum on Attention Screen's recording at Otto's had a slightly better-delineated "thud" through the Ayre. Overall, the solid-state player had a more delicate but more laid-back upper midrange than the tubed one, which proved a more synergistic match with the forward-balanced Avalon NP 2.0 speakers.
The PrimaLuna did sound more dynamic overall, but on the channel-identification tracks on Editor's Choice (CD, Stereophile STPH016-2), my bass guitar had a touch too much "bite" to its sound than with the Ayre. It's fair to note, however, that the differences between the two players were not night-and-day.
Turning to the other end of the price spectrum, my next comparisons were with the Oppo DV-970HD. Consistent differences were easier to hear. The cheap player dried up the recorded acoustic a little, sounding deader as a result. The subtle manner in which Don Fiorino's electrified lotar lights up the hall on "Mansour's Gift," from Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2), was more effectively conveyed by the PrimaLuna. In the orchestral arrangements of Gershwin's Preludes for Piano on Editor's Choice, the soundstage was flatter and drier through the Oppo, which also rendered the bass guitar and lower-pitched tom toms as sounding more "hummy." The occasional rustle and tick from the audience in the live recording of the Mozart Flute Quartet on that CD was less well delineated through the Oppo, less identifiable as offstage noise than via the PrimaLuna, and the image of the solo flute was wider and slightly less stable.
The Oppo did have a smooth if rather bland balance that went some way toward taming the Avalon speakers' forward upper midrange. But its sound was curiously uninvolving overall.
I had a different experience from Wes Phillips with the Pioneer when I compared it to the Oppo. Wes had written that he found that the Pioneer's high frequencies sounded less smeared than the Oppo's, though he felt both players had disappointing lows. Yes, the low frequencies were very similar, but I felt the Pioneer both to have a little more top-octave energy and a more involving sound, with a better-fleshed-out midrange. The piano on my recording of Robert Silverman performing Liszt's Liebestraum on Editor's Choice was more organic in its presentation, by which I mean the percussive attack to the notes was better integrated with the following body of the tone. However, the Pioneer still didn't begin to approach the palpability of the PrimaLuna player in this respect. Its soundstaging was flatter, and it lacked both the dynamics and the sense of top-octave ease that characterized the ProLogue Eight.
It was against the Benchmark DAC 1 that the match became more equal. Not only did the standalone DAC have a more delicate, more articulate midrange and better-defined low frequencies, its soundstaging was far closer to the PrimaLuna's than those of the inexpensive universal players had been. The image thrown by the Benchmark was wider than that of the ProLogue Eight, with very slightly more top-octave air, though the tubed player still did better when it came to ultimate image depth and sense of bloom.
The ProLogue Eight had more forceful dynamics, the Benchmark blacker blacks. But as with the Ayre comparisons, and again putting to one side the enormous soundstage thrown by the tubed player, I'm not talking about enormous differences here. Which presentation will be preferred will depend very much on the listener's taste in sound and music, as well as on the rest of the components. The Benchmark would be the better choice in systems that are balanced a bit on the forward side; the PrimaLuna would be best in systems that tend to be laid-back.
So, to answer my two questions: yes, the PrimaLuna ProLogue Eight (footnote 3) definitely offers a considerable step forward in sound quality compared to entry-level players; and yes, when it comes to soundstaging at least, it does compete on the highest level.John Atkinson
Fred Kaplan Sums Up
In sum, the PrimaLuna ProLogue Eight is a very fine CD player for the money. Its designers seem keenly aware of the machine's strengths and weaknesses, and they know how to maximize the former and finesse the latter.Fred Kaplan
Footnote 2: The big disappointment for me with the Oppo used as a transport was that its digital output truncates 24-bit DVD data to 16 bits. This doesn't affect its recommendation as a CD transport, however.John Atkinson
Footnote 3: PrimaLuna offers two upgrades for the ProLogue Eight, each comprising a plug-in printed circuit board with the standard NE5534 op-amp chips replaced with unidentified chips offering lower noise and a much higher slew rate. I will report on the effect of these upgrades in a Follow-Up.John Atkinson