Proceed CD player Page 2
Over the past few months, I had grown familiar with the Marantz CD-94. Although it has several weaknesses (ill-defined bass and lack of dynamics), it is relatively free from the "digital glare" so common among other CD players and digital decoders. After a long listening session with the Marantz, I connected the Proceed, which had been warming up for several days.
Starting with my own jazz recording, the Proceed immediately demonstrated its superiority. The most striking difference was the tightness, depth, and articulation of bass. The Proceed presented a very solid, punchy LF foundation that brought a renewed rhythmic drive to the music. Bass had a depth and dynamic impact I had not heard from CD playback through the Sequel IIs before. Well-recorded drums jumped from the soundstage with percussive attack. These characteristics greatly increased listening pleasure. Listening to Reference Recordings' Dick Hyman Plays Fats Waller, a solo piano performance recorded direct to CD (read all about it in last month's feature article), revealed the weight and authority the Proceed is capable of presenting. The piano has a rich, full low end that was particularly satisfying, even with the Sequel IIs' midbass suckout at the crossover point.
The Proceed's overall tonal balance was very natural and musical, but with a slight upper-octave upward tilt. Treble presentation, though forward, was clean and devoid of hash or spittiness. This presentation added a certain excitement to music compared with the Marantz CD-94 and the Kinergetics KCD-40. On most recordings, however, I preferred the smoother top end of the Kinergetics. The upper octaves were somewhat detailed and analytical, but not thrust upon the listener as with many players. Overall, the slight tendency toward brightness and forward treble was minor, and did not detract from musical enjoyment. Extended sessions did not create a sense of fatigue or the desire to turn down the volume.
The midrange had a more laid-back character, giving the impression of sitting farther away from the musicians. After listening with my eyes closed for an extended period, I was taken aback when I opened them and discovered the speakers only 10' in front of me! This characteristic was particularly enjoyable: it created the feeling of transportation into the music, making it easy to forget the intervening playback system. The midrange also had a liquid texture, free from glare and graininess. Concurrently, the soundstage seemed to be presented behind the speakers, with a sense of air and space around the entire soundstage. However, the Proceed somewhat lacked the three-dimensionality experienced with the KCD-40, California Audio Labs Tempest SE, Theta DSPre, and Wadia 2000 ($2000, $4000, $4000, and $7800 respectively). Instruments toward the rear of the soundstage did not seem as separate from instruments in the front. However, the Proceed's soundstage easily beat the Marantz for depth and spatial resolution. It may be unfair to compare the $1650 Proceed with the more expensive Tempest, Theta, and Wadia; such comparisons, however, speak highly of the Proceed, considering its much lower price. Overall, I found the laid-back spatial perspective very inviting and musically involving.
Next to the Marantz CD-94 (which has been consistently recommended in Class B of Stereophile's "Recommended Components" listing), the Proceed excelled in every area. Bass depth and control, dynamics, soundstaging, and liquidity were all superior through the Proceed. Toward the end of the listening sessions, I compared the Proceed with the Kinergetics KCD-40, favorably reviewed by JA last month. The KCD-40 was more in the Proceed's league. In fact, the two machines sounded remarkably similar. The main difference was the Kinergetics' softer, less detailed top end and more laid-back treble presentation. The Kinergetics also had a greater sense of soundstage depth. The KCD-40's bass control and impact, though excellent, did not match the Proceed's. The ability to resolve low-level detail was slightly better through the Proceed. All things considered, I could live with both machines.
Incidentally, all auditioning took place with the Proceed fully warmed up. On one occasion, however, I tried to listen to it after it had been turned off for a few days. The difference was staggering. Until the Proceed reaches optimum temperature, it sounds shrill and harsh. All components need warmup, but the Proceed's sonic change with temperature was the most radical I have encountered. I therefore strongly recommend that the Proceed be auditioned only after it has been turned on for several days.
During the CD-player evaluations, I had been using Reference Recordings' new CD, Tropic Affair by Jim Brock, recorded live by Keith Johnson. Out of curiosity, I played the LP of the same recording on a VPI HW-19 Jr. fitted with an AudioQuest PT-5 tonearm and Sumiko Virtuoso Boron vdH cartridge. This front end, though excellent, is far from the ultimate in LP replay.
Nevertheless, the difference was astounding. None of the CD players even came close to the LP sound. The LP was the clear winner in soundstage width and depth, natural timbres, and dynamic impact. This comparison was later repeated at JA's house, pitting his Linn/Ekos/Troika combination against the formidable Wadia Digital 2000 Decoding Computer. Everyone in the room felt that LPs offered superior playback over CD, but none was prepared for the magnitude of the difference we heard.
The Proceed represents a considerable advancement in mid-priced CD player design. While it does not stretch the bounds of the state of the art in digital playback, it nevertheless provides a musically satisfying experience at a moderate price. I can give it a Class B recommendation. It clearly bests some of the older Class B competition (the Marantz CD-94, for example), and rivals the more expensive units.
On the positive side, the Proceed scored very high in dynamics and punch. It has the ability to convey the rhythmic drive and intensity of music, resulting in an exciting rendering. Midrange textures were round and liquid, and the slightly distant perspective was musically inviting. On the downside, the slightly uptilted treble balance may not suit everyone's tastes or system. In addition, the soundstage lacks the depth and spatial resolution heard from other, albeit more expensive, players such as the California Audio Labs Tempest or the Kinergetics KCD-40.
Construction quality and build cannot be faulted. One look at the inside reveals the integrity of both design and execution. The Philips CDM1 Mk.II transport, for example, is of higher quality than that found in other machines in this price range, including the Kinergetics KCD-40.
Overall, the Proceed CD player is a worthy start to Madrigal's new Proceed line. Its few faults are minor, considering its overall musicality and reasonable price.