Now entering its fourth decade, the Compact Disc player seems to have reached a stage of maturity where the best models within a given price range will sound pretty much alike. The technology of the Compact Disc itself is set, its possibilities and limitations are well understood; and the designers of CD players who figure out how to stretch the former and finesse the latter wind up at about the same sonic place (again, for the same price), even if they've taken different routes to get there.
In a perfect world, all a serious record lover would need to enjoy music at home would be a single source component, one or two loudspeakers, and one good integrated amplifier. Speaker wire would be given by the dealer, free of charge, to any shopper who spent x number of dollars on new gear. Cable risers would come in cereal boxes.
The old Saab slogan, "Find Your Own Road," was so good that the old General Motors, which once owned Saab, had to kill itjust as the newly revived GM tried, in a "Call It Chevrolet" memo, to kill "Chevy." GM did a U-turn on that one the very next day, but "Find Your Own Road" never returned, and is available for Ayre Acoustics to use. I can't think of a better slogan for a company that I admire almost as much as I do Saab.
Consider this: While Ayre calls its new DX-5 ($10,000) a "universal A/V engine," the disc player doesn't have a coaxial or a TosLink S/PDIF input. That appears crazy to me, but to Ayre, no. They've found their own road.
With hindsight, one of the sideways steps taken by the High End in the early 1990s was the splitting of CD players into separate transports and processors. There were good reasons for this development, not the least of which was the flowering of creativity it engendered in high-end audio engineers. Having open access to the digital audio data also made possible effective digital equalizers and room-correction processors, but in the rush to increase a system's component count, it was overlooked for too long that keeping everything in one box offered certain advantages.
Looking at the current digital scene is enough to confuse and confound just about anyone this side of Stephen Hawking. One can choose from standard "Red Book" CDs (16-bit/44.1kHz), DVD-As, DADs (24/96 DVD-Vs), SACDs, combination audio-video players and changers, upsamplers, oversamplers, and every possible agglomeration of the above. As the audiophile-grade universal player remains vaporware, if you want to keep moving forward you have to choose among the various format combinations. Ayre Acoustics' Charles Hansen made his decision back in 1998—DVD-Video—and has spent the last four years refining the end result, now known as the D-1x.
Man, has Balanced Audio Technology come a long way in a short time. I think partners Steve Bednarski and Victor Khomenko have comprehensively put the kibosh on the notion that newcomers can't succeed in high-end audio.
As we approach the end of the 21st century's "oughts" decade, many feel that playing music from a discrete physical medium is positively 20th century. Much of my own music enjoyment now comes from computer files, often high-resolution, streamed to my high-end rig via a Logitech Transporter or Bel Canto USB Link 24/96. It is perhaps a paradox, therefore, that high-end audio companies are still devoting so much effort to developing expensive, state-of-the-art disc players. In April I very favorably reviewed Meridian's superb 808i.2 CD playerpreamplifier, which costs $16,995 as reviewed, and Michael Fremer is about to review the ultimate Scarlatti SACD playback system from another English company, dCS. The $80,000 price tag of the Scarlatti makes the subject of my review this month, the Boulder 1021, seem relatively affordable at $24,000.
Bryston's first CD player, the $2695 BCD-1, is a drawer-loading player with a front panel of polished aluminum. The slim disc drawer, engraved with the Bryston logo, sits in the panel's center. To the drawer's left are an infrared sensor and Open/Close button, then a two-line, 16-character alphanumeric display. To the drawer's right are the usual transport controls and a power On/Off button. All of these functions are also accessible via the BCD-1's remote control, as well as two more: Back and Forward. Hold down either and the player moves through the selected track at several times normal speed until the button is released.
At what point does a high price become exorbitant? When do you start doing double takes, to make sure you haven't mentally moved a decimal point? When do you look at something and think, "No matter how good it may be, it's just not worth that much money"?
My first exposure to Burmester electronics was some years back at a New York Hi-Fi Show, where they were powering a pair of B&W 801s and impressed the hell out of me. But Burmester's distribution seemed sporadic and the prices beyond my consideration, so I put them out of my mind.
Fantasy review time. I first heard about the C.E.C. TL 0 in the May '94 Stereophile (Vol.17 No.5), in Audio Mogul Richard Schram's Manufacturer's Comment to my review of the C.E.C. TL 1. I wasn't sure if he was kidding when he threatened the world with a cost-no-object $17,500 CD transport. Just what we all need!
I find it astonishing that two products built on completely opposing engineering principles can both have musical merit. Design goals exalted by one company are considered anathema by another, yet both components produce superb sonic results.
The face was different, but the look was familiar. It should have been. The $2395 Aria Mk.III is a close cousin to the Aria II that I'd hung around with for about two years. Same sense of style, same heart of tubes. CAL Audio apparently made it what it is today, from the ground up. They even designed its transport and transport-drive circuitry in-house (footnote 1). In a high-end world which has gone increasingly to separate digital processors, CAL has been, up till now, a conspicuous holdout. They've only recently introduced their first outboard converter, and have in the past argued in favor of the all-in-one player. Something about reduced jitter from all the timing circuits being under one roof.
It was inevitable that I'd encounter the California Audio Labs CL-15 in my search for a CD player priced less than stratospherically. CAL was one of the first companies to hit the market with a high-end CD player, and they've been building great-sounding digital gear ever since. What's more, the CL-15's predecessor was the Icon PowerBoss Mk.II HDCD, a longtime personal favorite. I was particularly curious to see how the CAL would stack up against today's competition. I've been impressed with CAL products over the years—the original Sigma, the Delta, the DX-1 and 2, and, of course, the Icon. On the other hand, the competition—players like the Rega Planet, Arcam's Alpha 8 and Alpha 9, and Ultech's UCD 100—has improved dramatically since I last heard the Icon.
I have always been a dyed-in-the-wool vinyl fan, committed to the superiority of analog over current 44kHz/16-bit CD technology. Nevertheless, I have been surprised at how greatly the sound of CD has improved over the past 10 years. By 1994, digital had gotten much closer to analog than I had ever expected, which was a good thing, as 1994 also saw the disappearance of the LP as a medium for obtaining new releases of mainstream recordings. But over the last two years, I've noticed some interesting phenomena: More turntables, tonearms, and cartridges started to become available, at least in the high-end arena. Audiophiles and, to a lesser extent, segments of the general music-loving public, began clamoring for new vinyl releases. Specialty labels, such as Classic Records and Acoustic Sounds, started to reissue premium vinyl releases of classical, jazz, and pop classics at reasonable prices. And major labels again began to offer vinyl versions of major pop releases.