Primare CD32 CD player Page 2
Again, when I listened very carefully, I noted that flutes, oboes, and clarinets had the stunning clarity I heard in the violins. Guitars, bassoons, and tenor saxes were a little less sharply drawn, favoring the body and resonance of their sounds rather than the sharp spatial and temporal edges. Interestingly, part of the reason the acoustic guitars on the Pizzarelli disc had such realistic presence was this slight emphasis of the sound of their bodies. The CD32 also treated female voices particularly well, maintaining all the articulation of their upper registers while adding a better sense of the chest or body creating the voice.
Bonus Feature 1
I don't usually listen to MP3s, but I did give the CD32's USB input a try. I used iTunes to compress a few AIFF files and save them to a thumb drive. When I plugged the drive into the CD32 and selected USB as the input, up popped a menu on the Primare's display listing the songs I'd copied. It was easy to navigate the menu and select songs, and although the sound wasn't great, it was passable for MP3s. This convenience feature is not one I'm likely to use, but it's there, and it does what it's supposed to do.
Bonus Feature 2
I found curious the CD32's assortment of upsampling and conversion modes. Kevin Wolff explained that because some listeners don't upsample, Primare offers the ability to stick with the native bitstream. The differences between native 44.1kHz and the same bitstream upsampled to 96kHz were obvious, but not always an improvement across the board. In many casesJohn Pizzarelli's guitar, for exampleinstruments had more body and slightly better defined transients at 44.1kHz. Upsampled to 96kHz, recordings invariably had more air and detail. Everything sounded too refined at 96 than at 44.1kHzit reminded me of a video image with the contrast set too high. Overall, I actually preferred the 96kHz setting, but I can understand Primare's decision to give listeners the choice.
The Law of Diminishing Returns
The CD32 is dramatically better than its predecessor, the CD31, but my expectations and performance/price curve have changed since 2007. At the very bottom are the $19.99 players you can buy most anywhere. Spending a few hundred dollars to get something like one of the models listed in Class D of our "Recommended Components" takes you up a pretty steep curve, and that curve is still pretty steep at around $1000, where you'll find players that are listenable and enjoyable but have obvious shortcomings.
At the far end of the curve are the cost-no-object models for which every design decision has been made only to best realize the designer's vision of the ultimate sound quality. Price is irrelevantthe differences between these players are of character, not of absolute quality, of sound. I can't say exactly where the curve flattens out, but I've heard a few players costing between $30,000 and $50,000 that, for me at least, have reached the plateau beyond the point of diminishing returns.
The knee of the curve is somewhere between these two extremes, and is always moving as technology and the marketplace change. For me, the Primare CD31 and Audio Research Corporation's CD8 established two data points. In 2007, I concluded that the CD31 was at about the knee of the curve; ie, it would cost disproportionately more to improve on its sound. My perspective changed when I was loaned a CD8 in 20102011: The CD8 was enough better than the CD31 to justify its higher price ($9995). Had I been shopping, I'd have bought the ARC.
The CD32 represents a new data point. Much better-sounding than the CD31, it's only slightly more expensive, and so reshapes the performance/price curve and moves the knee sharply upward. The gap between the CD32 and the flat part of the curve is narrower than with the CD31, but it's still there. When I interspersed listening to the CD32 with sessions with cost-no-object players, I found that voices and instruments had more inner detail with the expensive players, as well as more nuanced palettes of tonal colors and textures. It was hard to fault the CD32's handling of ambient information, but the premium models did better jobs of retrieving the subtlest cues. Their portraits of the recording venues were a bit clearer, most noticeably at the sides and rear of the soundstage, with more of the air and energy one feels at a live performance.
What's it all mean?
Primare's CD32 is a superb CD playerperiod. Getting this level of sound, functionality, and build quality for $2850 reflects brilliant optimization of design and production elements. With the CD32, Primare has made choices very different from those it made with the CD31some obvious, some bold, some even a bit riskyand the result succeeds far beyond expectations.
Listening to music through the CD32 is an unqualified joy. Everything I love about a piece of music delights me when I hear it through the CD32. And while the CD32 does retain a hint of the slightly soft, warm character of earlier Primare players, this signature is vanishingly small, and audible only when the sound is dissected and directly compared with the sound of other, usually much more expensive players. But even in such hypercritical comparisons, the CD32's performance is still excellent; it's just a tick below the very best I've heard. Much more important is that, when I simply listen to music, the CD32's performance wants for nothing.
The Primare CD32 is dramatically better than the CD31, and a big step up from even the best players I've heard at or below its price. Looking in the other direction, cost-no-object players do offer better performance, but cost a lot moretypically, spectacularly more. Everyone has a different performance/price curve: If the differences between the CD32 and the superpremium players matter a lot and the money doesn't, the choice is simple. And if there's a less expensive player that gives you everything you want, the choice is also simple. From where I sit, the CD32 looks an awful lot as if it's sitting right on the knee of today's curve. I recommend it highly, and urge anyone to give it a listen, regardless of where his or her curve bends its knee.