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.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a company more protective of its reputation than Krell. At a recent meeting of the Academy for the Advancement for High End Audio and Video, a motion was made to replace the phrase "High End" with the more purely descriptive "High Performance." Krell's CEO, Dan D'Agostino, objected—while he knew the description fit his products, he wasn't sure about those from some of the other members.
The Krell KPS-20i (KPS stands for "Krell Playback System") is essentially a CD transport and digital processor in one chassis. What make the KPS-20i different from a CD player are the unit's five digital inputs, which allow the KPS-20i to function as a digital/analog converter for external digital sources.
Those of our readers who are still anti-CD are going to be offended by what I am about to say. Partly because they do not want it to be true, but mainly because it is. I shall utter the heresy anyway: the Compact Disc is, right now, doing more for the cause of high-end audio than anything that has ever come along before!
Over the past two decades, enough advances in the high-end audio industry have trickled down to aspiring audiophiles that we now enjoy a level of high-value, high-resolution performance that would have seemed unattainable even just a few years ago. Still, immersion in a profound musical experience remains an ephemeral goal to potential converts, given the level of expertise that seems necessary to assemble a truly audiophile set of separates.
When the Compact Disc was first introduced nearly ten years ago, many were critical of the sound quality from this medium that promised "Perfect Sound Forever." To many sensitive listeners digital playback was a travesty that paled by comparison to even modestly priced turntable/arm/cartridge combinations. Ironically, those listeners who first praised CD sound have been forced to recant when confronted by the huge improvements in digital to analog conversion (and A/D conversion) seen in the past few years.
In the early 1980s, Ivor Tiefenbrun, of Linn Products, Ltd., compared digital audio to "a nasty disease" that his company offered not to spread. Less than 25 years later, digital sources outnumber analog ones in Linn's product line—so much so that the venerable Scottish manufacturer has expanded its line of disc players to encompass two different formats: multi- and two-channel.
After writing my very favorable review of Marantz's PM5003 integrated amplifier ($449.99) for the January 2010 issue, I began to fantasize about how it might be packaged with other components to create a dynamite entry-level system for about $1000 (excluding cables). A good place to start, I felt, was the companion model to the PM5003, Marantz's own CD5003 CD player. Since then, both have been replaced with new models, respectively the PM5004 and CD5004, so I sought out review samples of both. (To read how the PM5004 compares with the PM5003, see my "Follow-Up" on the Marantz PM5004 integrated amplifier.)
At a "Meet the Designers" panel discussion at the 1992 Los Angeles Stereophile High-End Hi-Fi Show, I asked a group of successful digital designers (footnote 1) each to state how much of a digital front end's sound quality they believed was due to the transport, digital processor, and interface between the two. There was virtual unanimity: Nearly everyone agreed that a digital processor accounts for about 50% of a digital source's sound quality, the transport 30%, and interface 20%.
If there is a component category that causes the "objectivists" in the audio community to splutter uncontrollably over their cups of herbal tea, it is the high-end CD transport. For in their "bits is bits" world, all a transport is required to do is recover the digital data from a disc—much like a grown-up cousin of your computer's $25 floppy-disk drive. The thought of paying up to $10,000 for something so humble—and, in their eyes, unnecessary—typifies what these blinkered folks regard as the insanity of the High End.
We are now well past the era in which every review of digital playback equipment had to begin with an apology for the medium. CD replay performance may, in fact, now be bumping up against a glass ceiling. But that doesn't discourage high-end audio manufacturers from trying to advance the art, and tempt audiophiles (at least those among us who are not hopeless digiphobes) out of our minds.
My next-door neighbor bought a late-'70s Porsche 924 last week, and I'm really glad he did. For one thing, it adds a little class to the 'hood—my 1984 Grand Wagoneer's peeling "wood paneling" is far more typical of the vehicles in my part of town. And Eric is just so obviously thrilled to own a piece of the legend—a real Teutonic driving machine.
More than a decade ago, I bought a new pair of speakers and sought to find the most suitable cables for them. After auditioning a number of borrowed sets, I enlisted my daughter to confirm my selection. She grew up in a household where there was always good music playing on good equipment, but had no active interest in either. To placate Dad, she listened to a few of her own recordings with each of the various cables and then, lo and behold, reached the same conclusion I had. In fact, she described the differences almost exactly as I would have. I was ecstatic. Not only did it confirm my opinions about the cables, but it confirmed to me that any motivated listener can hear what golden-ear audiophiles obsess about. As I tried to express my joy to her, she left the room with this parting shot: "Yes, of course, but who cares?"