Proceed CD Library Page 4
If it can be said that the better digital processors are increasingly forming two camps—Vivid'n'Ballsy (the Thetas, Levinson No.30, etc.) and Laid-Back'n'Easy (the Linn CD player, ARC DAC1-20, etc.)—the CD Library definitely belongs in the second group. The Proceed has a gentle, less dynamic character than either the Theta Data/Basic II or the Levinson No.30 (footnote 6). I won't go so far as to say the CD Library approaches the ease of good analog like the best members of its camp, but it's a very good-sounding player.
There's good, and there's good; compared to the Theta and the Levinson strictly in terms of sound quality, the CD Library falls short on several fronts. The Proceed is a musical player, but doesn't really offer the you-are-there resolution of the better digital gear. The CD Library lacks the gripping immediacy of processors like the Levinson and Theta, which for me is the line of demarcation between enjoyable sound and white-knuckled, head-nodding involvement with the music. I always enjoyed listening to the Library, but I never got really lost in the music as I routinely do with the Theta combo.
The most noticeable difference between the two players is in the low end: while the Theta combo kicks ass and takes names, the CD Library seems to soften and reduce the bass, resulting in a much more polite rhythmic feeling than the Theta. Listening to The Commitments soundtrack with the CD Library, the butt-bumping soul music sounded too tame, as if it really was a bunch of white Irish kids trying to play Wilson Pickett. Kick drums, too, were reduced in impact, altering the feel of the music's rhythmic structure to the point where my monkey-bone finally said, "ENOUGH!," and I took The Commitments out of the Library so I could play it on the Theta combo; I slap this disc on when I want to groove, and the Proceed just wasn't cutting it.
One CD I've been having a lot of audionerd fun with lately is Chesky's new Test CD Vol.II; this disc is pure unadulterated audioporn, with the coolest "listening tests" I've ever heard, including a hyper-purist recording of Jeremy Kipnis downing a brew and BELCHING into the mike!! GO CHESKY GO!!! (footnote 7) Tracks 51-59 are Blumlein-miked sound effects, ranging from a barnyard to a police riot, and some of these tracks have HELLACIOUS ultra-low bass, especially the freight train cut; I'd wager most systems won't even hint at what's on down there. The Muse Model 18 subwoofer can, and revealed the CD Library to be much less powerful and tight in the bottom octave than the Theta; where the Basic II's bass is like a big meaty fist in the kidneys, the Proceed pulls its punches.
The CD Library's rendering of recorded space was, again, very good but not up to the level achieved by the Theta combo. Listening to my guitar recording, "Eden," on Stereophile's new Test CD 2, the CD Library's soundstage width was just as wide as the Theta's, but the depth of image was shallower, the artificial dome of ambience smaller than when decoded by the Theta Data/Basic II. Digital Lad's outstanding acoustic guitar recording on the new Test CD 2, made in VTL's all-tube studio, also showed up the difference in space between the two units; while the Theta replaced my listening-room walls with those of the recording studio, the CD Library merely suggested that, yes, this acoustic guitar was recorded in a fairly large room, but just how large remained to be seen.
The CD Library's high end, like its midrange, was smooth as silk. I did note, however, a tendency for the high end to harden a bit when the going got rough; Nirvana's Nevermind, a textbook example of "rough," is all-out thrash with all the warts intact, but the admittedly bright recording bothered me more through the CD Library than with the Theta combo (which I would not characterize as soft-trebled). However, with less intense discs like Bob Brozman's Devil's Slide (Rounder CD 11557) and Charlie Rich's grrrrrrrrREAT new Pictures and Paintings (Sire 26730-2), the Proceed's high end is noticeably absent of any hardness, sounding smooth and laid-back. A bit too smooth and laid-back for my system, I felt, but I've heard plenty of systems, including some of the rigs in Stereophile's listening room, that would be greatly complemented by the CD Library's laid-back top end. In my room, though, Test CD 2's acoustic guitar track lost a bit of string-squeak sparkle with the Proceed, which subtly rounded-off the attack of the pick as it hit the strings. By comparison, the Theta combo reproduced the guitar with much greater presence and clarity, again presenting the instrument with a you-are-there quality in contrast to the Proceed's more distant-sounding balance.
All of the above comments on the CD Library's sound quality apply to the fixed single-ended outputs only; while I found the Proceed's variable outputs to sound much better than those from most players, they added a mild but obvious congestion to the sound from the lower midrange on up, as well as reducing bass impact even further. I can see where some CD Library owners would give up that last dollop of sound quality for the convenience of remote-controlled volume and mute, but for the best sound, stick with the fixed outputs.
I also spent a great deal of time listening to the CD Library as a transport only, feeding the Theta Pro Basic II processor. The Proceed offers such an amazing amount of convenience, I wondered if its performance as a whole wasn't being compromised by the good but not great PDP 2 internal processor. I would've LOVED to try the balanced AES/EBU digital output with Levinson's $14,000 No.30, but alas, Madrigal forgot to send me one, so I settled on comparing the CD Library's transport with the Class A-ranked $2400 Theta Data, each hooked up to Theta's Pro Basic II processor with Theta's own digital cable from their unbalanced RCA digital outputs.
Footnote 6: I listened extensively to the No.30 at Austin's Audio Systems, driven by the Linn Karik transport. The system was Levinson's No.27 amp and No.28 preamp, Martin-Logan Quests, Audio Express NoiseTrapper AC line conditioners, and AudioQuest cables.
Footnote 7: The second coolest track is 47, the "General Image and Resolution Test," which is a Blumlein-miked recording of what sounds like a bunch of crazed Zulu warriors shaking tambourines and whooping up a storm as they circle around you. This track is uncanny; if you close your eyes and it doesn't feel like you're about to get a spear up your butt, then brother, something's wrong with your system.