The CD-303/200 is a stout, handsome unit with a thick front panel of black-anodized aluminum (silver is also available) and a beefy, epoxy-coated aluminum chassis. Even the remote control—a heavy aluminum unit with multi-function, backlit buttons—screams "Quality!" Curiously, however, the remote is clad in chrome plate, rather than brushed aluminum or anodized black to match the player. The coup de grace is the CD-303/200's transport mechanism, a Philips CDM12, which is good enough as is; Cary addition of a thick, machined drawer warmed this metallurgist's heart.
I was stumbling through the Denver Convention Center at CEDIA 2006 when I spotted John Franks, of Chord Electronics, and Jay Rein, of Chord's US importer, Bluebird Music, stranded in the basement purgatory for "niche" products. I couldn't resist asking, "What sin relegated you guys to this little hell?"
With Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio four years old as established media this fall, the two-decades-old Compact Disc medium is still well-established as the primary carrier for recorded music. (Yes, it is experiencing a significant threat from downloadable music files, but that is outside my bailiwick as a hardware reviewer.) Stereophile has therefore been paying attention to the high-performance one-box CD players that are available. In May, I wrote about my positive experiences with the $2950 Ayre CX-7 and Brian Damkroger favorably reviewed the $2999 GamuT CD1, after having followed up his April 2001 review of the $5495 Simaudio Moon Eclipse player in April 2003.
When, at the beginning of this century, the market profile of the high-end Mark Levinson brand took a dip due to the parent company's reorganization, one of the companies that took advantage of the opportunity was Classé Audio. Founded in 1980 by engineer Dave Reich (now with Theta Digital) and run by engineer-entrepreneur Mike Viglas since the mid-1980s, the Canadian electronics manufacturer's Omega line of high-end amplifiers and preamps had universally impressed Stereophile's scribes, and its Omega SACD player (reviewed by Jonathan Scull in November 2001) was the first such product to come from a North American company.
Is anyone in this economy shopping for a four-box, rack-swallowing, two-channel SACD/CD player contending for the state of the art and costing $79,996? dCS is betting that its Scarlatti will attract a small crowd of those wealthy music enthusiasts who, in any economy, reliably pony up for the best. For the rest of us, the Scarlatti will be a spectator sport.
Because I am an audiophile, I want to hear that music through the best possible source component. Lately, I've been enjoying CDs through the Emotiva ERC-2 CD player ($449).
The Emotiva ERC-2 measures 17" (435mm) wide by 4.25" (110mm) high by 14" (360mm) deep and, at 17.5 lbs (8kg), is the heaviest component to enter my listening room since the 25-lb Simaudio Moon i3.3 integrated amplifier ($3300, discontinued). The player's distinct appearance was developed by Emotiva's president and CEO, Dan Laufman, and VP of engineering, Lonnie Vaughn. In building the ERC-2, their goal was to "keep it simple, easy to use, and elegant . . . in a machine-oriented way."
I've encountered a number of audio products over the years whose thoughtful design and intricate craftsmanship brought to mind the expression "built like a Swiss watch." As often as I'd thought or even written that phrase, however, I don't think I'd ever stopped to seriously consider what an audio component might be like if actually built by the nation that produces Rolex and Breitling wristwatches.
The whole idea that different CD transports have different sonic characteristics when driving the same digital-to-analog converter is a vexing problem. It is easy to prove that even the cheapest CD players recover the data stored on most CDs with bit-for-bit accuracy, thus disproving the widespread and erroneous belief that errors in the digital code are commonplace and affect presentation aspects such as imaging, soundstage depth, textural liquidity, etc (footnote 1). If the datastream driving the digital converter is comprised of the same sequence of ones and zeros, regardless of the transport, what other factors could account for the sonic differences between CD drives reported by many listeners?
In the ongoing debacle that has been the introduction and promotion of high-resolution digital audio and the record industry's struggles to engage the public's interest in it, two recent events stand out.
I was in a jam. John Atkinson was gently reminding me of rapidly approaching deadlines, and my longtime reference CD player, the Simaudio Moon Eclipse, had just been recalled for an upgrade. This wouldn't normally have been a problem, but I was also in the middle of relocating from New Mexico to California, and all of my backup gear was either in storage or on a moving truck somewhere.
Around the turn of the century, a review of the latest hair-raisingly expensive turntable would often begin with a soothing chant that, yes, the RotorGazmoTron XT-35000 is a tad pricey, but it will be the last piece of analog gear you ever buyso go ahead, take the plunge. A dozen years later, pressing plants are stamping out LPs 'round the clock, and new high-end turntables are rolling off production lines at a respectable clip. So who knows whether today's Cassandras might be equally premature in bewailing the death of the Compact Disc? Which is to say that I can't in good conscience urge you to pay $12,000 for a CD player on the grounds that the medium's about to die, so splurge now while there's still something to splurge on. But if you have the scratch, and the itch for such a product, step right up and let me tell you about the Krell Cipher.
So many things in this world are designed for convenience, not for excellence. That's all right if you have a choice, but it becomes a problem when products designed for convenience become universal standards and are thus foisted on everyoneincluding enthusiasts, who must then live with a product aimed at the lowest common denominator.
The digital interface between CD transports and digital processors is a perfect example of this dilemma. The Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format (S/PDIF) standard was designed so that connecting two digital products required only one cable. This single cable carries left and right audio channels as well as the timing clock essential to making the system work.