Stephen Mejias, June 2011
When Wes Phillips reviewed the NuForce CDP-8 ($1450) in our November 2010 issue, he described it as "a remarkably good CD player" that combined solid bass impact with airy highs and a strong sense of momentum. On John Atkinson's test bench, however, the review sample exhibited very high levels of jitter and noise modulation. The team at NuForce was "embarrassed and chagrined" by the test results. In his "Manufacturer's Comment," NuForce's Jason Lim confessed: "We had felt that the basics of performance were addressed by design, and have been applying our effort at listening and making decisions based on listening. Like Wes, we had not noticed any significant degradation in the sound, so we had no reason to look for jitter issues." A subsequent production change to reduce EMI and RFI radiation worked to eliminate the noise modulation and reduce jitter, found JA. But what effect would this update have on music? There was only one thing left to do: listen. JA handed that honor to me (footnote 1).
Benoît Delbecq's Circles and Calligrams (CD, Songlines SGL 1583-2) matches the lovely, glowing tone of a 92-key Bösendorfer concert grand with a captivating assortment of prepared sounds for a treat that is as much indebted to the jazz-piano tradition of Thelonious Monk as to the avant-garde adventures of John Cage. Playing the closing track, "Mille Nandie Remix," the original version of the NuForce CDP-8 created a cavernous soundstage, setting Delbecq's piano in a great, dark space and surrounding it with percussive rattles, drips, and trills, all with remarkable low-frequency warmth and good speed. Near the track's conclusion comes a series of massive bursts of low-end energythese coursed through my room's floorboards and shook its old walls. How could this get better? I wondered.
I was not expecting the updated version of the CDP-8 to sound very different, but it did. The new version's faster, more precise, and better-controlled overall sound made the original unit seem lazy. Those percussive dripsactually formed when the piano's hammers strike some object inserted in the instrument's stringswere now much snappier and more metallic, emphasizing the fact that these sounds were actually emanating from Delbecq's piano, and not from some external source. In fact, the entire perspective had shifted dramatically: Whereas earlier I got the sense that things were happening around Delbecq's pianothat the piano was somehow set in a strange and ominous environmenthere I perceived that the piano was responsible for this world; that it had, in fact, actively created it. I imagine that that was what Delbecq wanted. (But I can only guess at an artist's intent. Hi-fi allows us to play these silly guessing games. Fun!) The new CDP-8 presented a smaller, brighter, less romantic picture, but without sacrificing any of the mood. The greater speed and precision of the rattling sounds worked to enhance drama, while the NuForce's tighter grip on the lowest frequencies painted the song's conclusion with even more menace and intensity.
In "Fear of the Unknown and the Blazing Sun," from Colin Stetson's riveting New History Warfare Vol.2: Judges (CD, Constellation CST075; see "Record Reviews" elsewhere in this issue), bass saxophonist Colin Stetson and producer Shahzad Ismaily use clever placements of 24 microphones and expertly produced panning effects to create a heavy, palpable sound that seems to encircle the listening room. Imagine a large, heavy padlock tossed from one speaker to the other and back again, engaging and disengaging along the wayclick-calla-clamp, click-calla-clampas pulses of low-frequency energy swirl around the room. Though the original CDP-8 offered this track with a weight and physicality that made me feel sorry for my neighbors, the updated version's greater speed and precision made the earlier presentation seem unrefined and brutish. While the original CDP-8 had me caught in an impressive but gentle eddy of sound, the updated CDP-8 pulverized me. Those deep pulses, which had previously swirled around my room, had now become part of my room; whereas earlier it seemed that some outside force was acting on my space, it now seemed as if my space were integral to the musicwonderful! And though individual images weren't as big through the newer CDP-8, there was no overall diminishment of scale. In fact, through the updated CDP-8, Shara Worden's voice seemed more solidly placed in the center of the soundstage, and infused with greater urgency. In addition, the ends of Laurie Anderson's vocal lines were produced with greater precision and finality, as if the updated CDP-8 were inserting periods into the text where there had previously been commas or ellipses. The result was a faster, terser, more intense listening experience.
Next I focused on Sarah Lipstate's guitar in "Almost Alright," from Noveller's Desert Fires (CD, Saffron SAFF-001). Through the original CDP-8, that guitar was depicted with a lovely, ruddy tone, but with less glassy vibrancy than I've become used toas if Lipstate had turned down her amp's Presence setting and boosted the Bass. Though bass notes were round, robust, and well pronounced, harmonics seemed overripe, and Lipstate's hammer-ons and pulloffs were produced in a slower, more cautious fashion, with less sparkle than I'd expected. The updated CDP-8 presented this track as if Lipstate were playing closer to the bridge of her guitar, which was now clearly a Fender Jazzmaster. The greater control and precision of Lipstate's bass notes and harmonics resulted in a cleaner aural pictureless mud, more shimmerand her fretting techniques now seemed more purposeful and musical.
It may surprise you to know that by this point in my listening I still had not decided which CDP-8 I preferred. It finally occurred to me that, throughout my comparisons, I had been measuring the warmth of the original CDP-8 against the refinement of the updated sample. With that in mind, and with a desire to evaluate a vocal performance, I turned to Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs, performed by mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson with James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestraa work of "uncommon warmth" and "uncommon refinement," as described in the album's liner notes by Alex Ross, classical music critic of The New Yorker (CD, Nonesuch 79954).
Through the original sample, the first song, "If Your Eyes Were Not the Color of the Moon," matched sultry, languid strings with Hunt Lieberson's commanding voice; and though the singer was set farther back in the soundstage than I'd expected, the power with which she sang "Oh, bienamada, yo no te amar¡a" was startling and awe-inspiring. I didn't get the sense that anything was wrong with the original CDP-8's interpretation of this song, and I didn't feel compelled to switch to the new unit to hear what I might be missing; I did so only out of obligation.
I'm glad I did. Through the updated CDP-8, Hunt Lieberson was much more presentmore appropriately scaled to match the strings, which were now depicted with more sweeping urgencyand her incredible voice was given much more vibrancy and strength. There were other differencesthe new unit had a lower noise floor and greater clarity, resulting in a sound that was more like a live performance than a studio recordingbut my listening notes at this point became sparse and sloppy. My thoughts were littered by obscenities in response to this music's breathtaking strength. I could hardly think.
Everything is alive so that I can be alive:
Without moving I can see it all:
In your life I see everything that lives.
"If Your Eyes Were Not the Color of the Moon"
Though I'd been of two minds regarding the old and new versions of NuForce's CDP-8, I now had no doubt: The new version was, by no small margin, the more compelling player. Interested owners of the first-generation CDP-8 can return their units to NuForce for an upgrade at no cost.Stephen Mejias
Footnote 1: Serial number of updated CDP-8 reviewed: 0301069. Serial number of original CDP-8 reviewed by Wes Phillips: 0401012.
Footnote 2: Associated equipment: PSB Alpha B1 loudspeakers; NAD C316BEE integrated amplifier; Audience Conductor speaker cables and interconnects.