Primare CD32 CD player
For me, the knee of the CD-player curve has, over the past decade, coincided with models from the Swedish company Primare. In 2004, in the D30.2 ($2250), Primare did a really nice job of combining and tweaking mostly OEM components. The CD30.2 had its shortcomings, but it impressed me with its excellent, well-balanced sound. In 2007, Primare upped the ante with the CD31 ($2295), which included more proprietary parts and significantly improved on the CD30.2's sound. It still gave away some sound quality to cost-no-object models, but again, its price was near the knee of the curveclose enough that I adopted it as my reference for listening to music and writing reviews.
And now, the CD32 . . .
Finding the knee of the curve requires a designer to make careful trade-offs and decisions, and for the $2850 CD32, Primare made ones very different from the design choices made for earlier models. The CD32's physical layout is completely new, with circuits partitioned differently among more and smaller boards. The circuits themselves also significantly differ from the CD31's.
One big change is that Primare has abandoned the CD31's fully balanced differential architecture. The CD32 has only one Burr-Brown PCM1704 24-bit/96kHz digital-to-analog converter per channel and a single DF1704 digital filter; the CD31 doubled that complement. On the other hand, the CD32 has an SRC4392 sample-rate converter ahead of the DACs, which does the upsampling and provides jitter reduction. Downstream, the CD32's analog section uses hand-matched, discrete components instead of op-amps and, at the outputs, an active DC-offset circuit instead of capacitors.
The transport and laser assemblies move further from OEM, with an Asatech 8210.B01-02 transport and Sanyo SF-P101N laser assembly replacing the CD30.2's DVS DLS-710A. The CD32's power supply is much more sophisticated and complex as well. For example, the CD32 has a digital switching supply that in standby mode, drops its power consumption from 34W to just 0.5W, to meet EC regulations.
The CD32's basic functions are pretty standard, and are accessed via its remote control. A nondescript but functional remote, the C23, is standard, but I was treated to the optional C33, a gorgeous metal remote that looks as if it jumped off the pages of Architectural Digest. There are balanced and unbalanced analog outputs, and S/PDIF, AES/EBU, and optical digital outputs. An RS-232 input allows firmware updates, and the CD32 supports a few different communication protocols.
The CD32 includes some new functions. One is a USB interface that allows it to play MP3 filesthough Kevin Wolff, of Primare's US distributor, VANA Ltd., stressed that this is a convenience feature, not a high-end interface. The other new wrinkle is the ability to select among three upsampling modes ahead of D/A conversion: the original 16-bit/44.1kHz signal, or the same datastream upsampled to 48kHz or to 96kHz.
The sleek exterior design that is now standard for all Primare models has been carried over to the CD32, including a few changes that enhance usability. One that I really appreciate is the switch to an OLED display, with big, bright characters that I can read from across the room. Another nice change is that the RCA jacks are now spaced wide enough apart to accept cables with oversized connectors. The transport drawer is now offset to the left instead of centered, and the front panel has only three buttons: Power, Stop/Drawer Open, and Play/Track Advance. Like the CD31, the CD32 is always on when plugged in; the Power button actually toggles between Standby and Operate modes.
The first few passages of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's wonderful recording of Brahms's Serenades, conducted by Nicholas McGegan (CD, Philharmonia Baroque BPB-05), reminded me why I've liked Primare players so much. Like its predecessors, the CD32's sonic attributes stepped away from the music. In just a few moments, any thoughts I had about the equipment or its sound had vanished, and I was drawn into the music.
The most immediate connection for me was the synergy between Brahms's musical conversations and the unique characteristics of this ensemble's authentic mid-19th-century instruments. In audiospeak, the CD32 did a great job of re-creating the instruments' timbresie, the balance and structure of their fundamental tones and harmonicsin a consistent way across the full range of frequencies and volumes. What made the connection, and probably registered in my subconscious, was that the instruments sounded "right": Double basses sounded like basses, cellos like cellos, violins like violins, and so forth. Even the ambiencethe space between and surrounding the instrumentsfit into this seamless, coherent sonic portrait of real instruments played in a real space.
The violins sounded articulate and especially captivating. Each bow's resinous leading edge cut through the space to present the note, just as it does in a live performance, and the sound then evolving until it had surrounded itself with the warm resonance of the instrument's body. The slightly different and more varied voices of the period instruments also gave rise to a wonderfully complex choral nature, which was almost mesmerizing.
The CD32 also drew me in with its portrayal of the orchestra's sound in the recording venue, Berkeley's First Congregational Church. This, too, felt completely natural, with nothing standing out to disrupt the illusion. All of the spatial cues that defined the sizes and locations of the instruments were consistent among themselves and relative to my listening perspective, which sounded like the middle of a small hall. It all came together to create a feeling of being in the space, rather than looking at it from outside.
Another, very different disc that had me thinking "I could definitely live with this" was Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (CD, Mercury 314 558 338-2). The album's sound is close-up, with sharply bounded, widely spaced images to spotlight the main elementsprincipally, the singer's voice. The CD32 meshed perfectly with this sound. Although neither the perspective nor the level differed from what I'm used to hearing from this album, I was struck by the power of that voice. Its tonal colors and textures seemed particularly vivid, and I was much more aware of subtle dynamic transients. An example of how the CD32 seemed to accentuate this vivid nature was how brightly rang the guitar chords in "Right in Time," and how distinctly their echoes trailed behind the initial chop.
With Three for All, by the Bucky Pizzarelli Trio (CD, Chesky JD362), my connection with and immersion in the performance were again immediate. The CD32's portrait of the three acoustic guitars, in particular John Pizzarelli's, had the solidity and presence of the real thing, in part because of the Primare's superbly defined transients. Unlike most CD players, the CD32 allowed the guitars to pressurize the space around them in just the way an acoustic guitareven an amplified onewill in concert. No matter how carefully I matched levels, whenever I switched from another player to the CD32, I was taken aback by how much louder it sounded. More than once, I found myself reflexively reaching for the remote to turn it down before I'd relax, recalibrate, and realize it really wasn't any louder than beforethe dynamic swings were just larger.
When I reviewed the Primare CD31, in the July 2007 issue, I loved its sound and the way it quickly pulled me into the music. I was always aware of its slightly warm character and that its focus was a little soft, but that sonic signature never got in the way. The CD32's signature was similar but much less obviousI was aware of it only when I listened for it, and even then, only when I compared the Primare to the very best players.
When I did direct comparisons of the CD31 and CD32, the differences were more dramatic. The CD32 improved on all the areas where the CD31 was strong, and addressed the areas where it wasn't. Most obvious was that the CD32's dynamic transients were better defined and much more precise than the CD31's, and its focus much sharper. Every disc I played had more life and energy through the CD32. The new player also resolved more low-level detail, better conveying the subtleties of voices and instruments. Its improved focus and resolution also made it sound more transparent. Images were clearer and more sharply bounded, and the space around them clearer and more consistent.