To compartmentalize or not to compartmentalize, that is the question. Does one review an expensive CD player at the dawn of the 24-bit/96kHz digital age by pulling a "Clinton," standing defiantly before a jury of audio peers to deliver a speech on the state of the CD art, boxing in, roping off, and all but ignoring the new, supposedly unimpeachable medium?
In an industry whose newest products are often as discouragingly unaffordable as they are short of the sonic mark, the Naim Audio Uniti ($3795) stands out. In a single reasonably sized box, the Uniti combines the guts of Naim's Nait 5i integrated amplifier and CD5i CD player with various additional sources: an FM/DAB tuner, and interfaces for an iPod, a USB memory stick, an iRadio, and a UPnP-compatible connected computer or serverall for the price of a very good television set.
"So, what are you reviewing these days?" my friend Mark e-mailed me recently.
"A CD player," I said.
"They're still making those?"
Yesand better than ever, for the most part. But I understood Mark's confusion. When a "Vote!" question on the Stereophile website asked readers what digital source components they used, a surprising number responded that they did not, or hadn't bought a dedicated player in years. Topping the list were computers and universal players.
How to integrate a computer into a high-end audio system is a hot topic these days. I'm getting more and more e-mails from readers asking for advice, Wes Phillips wrote about transferring his LPs to audio files in his October and November newsletters, and a lively thread on this topic ran on the forum at www.stereophile.com.
I first heard a CD player in my own system in 1984 or 1985, several years before I began writing for Stereophile. I was curious about the Compact Disc medium—I'd read about it, had listened to CDs in stores, and was eager to hear what they sounded like in my own system. I'd even bought a CD: the original-cast recording of 42nd Street, which I already had on LP. One evening, a friend who worked for Sony and knew that I was an audiophile brought over his latest acquisition: a CDP-501ES, the second from the top of Sony's line of CD players. He also brought along a bunch of CDs, including some solo-piano discs, and Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony's then-famous recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (Telarc CD-80041).
After two decades of motorcycling, I recently achieved a long-held goal by buying a bike built by Bimota, a tiny Italian manufacturer. Although Bimota engages in a wide range of activities, from two-stroke engine design to racing, they're best known for their exotic, hand-built street bikes. They always include the very best components and feature cutting-edge engineering and performance, but what they're truly revered for is their style. Bimotas unfailingly combine shapes, textures, and finishes into motorcycles that are most often referred to as "works of art."
Back when the CD was a pup, I used to hear people say, "I refuse to buy a CD player until they can record." Ha ha, I thought, smart-ass audiophile that I was, they're gonna wait for a long timethat's never gonna happen. I was half rightit has been a long time coming. But I was also, as my football coach used to insist, half-fast. "Never" has arrived.
Externally, the LHH1000 came as a bit of a surprise to these jaded eyes, over-familiar with plain black or brushed-aluminum boxes. Each enclosure is finished in an almost white, anodized finish, with greenish-gray endcaps (made from zinc alloy, I believe) painted with a nubbly, crackle finishan attractively utilitarian styling with shades of military-surplus radio equipment, nicely set off by subdued blue fluorescent readouts. Internally, the units are constructed to audiophile standards. The transport uses Philips's top CDM-1 mechanism, which is fabricated from diecast aluminum, compared with the plastic CDM-4 mechanism which appears in less expensive and less well-specified players. The loading tray, too, which is made from metal, has a reassuringly solid feel to it.
What, a high-fidelity product from Magnavox? The company that 20 years ago had a reputation for building massive, polished-console boom-boxes and was scornfully referred to in audiophile circles as "Maggotbox"? Some important things have happened to Magnavox since those days. Mainly, it became a subsidiary of the Dutch Philips company, co-developer of the laser video disc and now the audio Compact Disc. The Magnavox CD players are actually made by Philips for US distribution by Magnavox.
There's a retro, Heathkit vibe to the curiously capitalized PrimaLuna ProLogue Eight CD player: a shelf of glowing tubes and a chunky transformer case perched atop a plain black chassis. But on closer inspection, it seems there's much more going on here. The chassis is made of heavy-gauge steel, with (according to the manual) a "five-coat, high-gloss, automotive finish," each coating hand-rubbed and -polished. The tube sockets are ceramic, the output jacks gold-plated. Inside, separate toroidal transformers power each channel. Custom-designed isolation transformers separate the analog and digital devices, to reduce noise. The power supply incorporates 11 separate regulation circuits. The output stage is dual-mono with zero feedback. Audio-handling chips include a Burr-Brown SRC4192 that upsamples "Red Book" data to 24-bit/192kHz, and one 24-bit Burr-Brown PCM1792 DAC per channel. Only the tiny silver control buttons (on the otherwise hefty faceplate of machined aluminum) betray a whiff of chintz.
At $2295, the CD31 is the most expensive integrated CD player from Swedish manufacturer Primare, and an evolution of their D30.2, which I reviewed in the June 2004 Stereophile. I knew that the CD31 wasn't a clean-sheet design, but my first look suggested that it wasn't even much of an evolution—a comparison of its and the D30.2's spec sheets matched almost line for line. When I asked Terry Medalen of Sumiko, Primare's US distributor, about the similarity, and if the CD31 was just a mild tweaking of the D30.2, he said, "Well, yes and no. You really need to listen to it."
High-end audio has always been a tricky business, and in recent years it's become more so. Home theater is pulling in one direction, and MP3, iPods, and the Internet are pulling in another. And customer expectations—not just of sound quality, but also of usability and integration into their space and lives—are spiraling upward. The companies that are thriving amid these pressures seem to have adopted one of two strategies: either they focus more narrowly and try to convince the world to accept their vision, or they evolve their products in an attempt to anticipate the market.
I think I've finally figured out the secret of Stereophile's success. You, cherished reader, don't read this mag because it's chock full o' reviews of tantalizing audio gear (even though it is). And you don't read this mag because JA and RL strive so hard to keep the literary quotient as hi as the fi (even though they do). And I know you don't read this mag cuz trusting yer own sensory input is a mighty scary proposition indeed so you look to Stereophile as to a Holy Bible that eases your Earthly burden by telling you, Ah say Ah say TAILING YEW what to buy (do you?).
The Proceed CD player is the first digital product from Madrigal Audio Laboratories, a company known for their Mark Levinson preamplifiers and power amplifiers, including the very highly regarded No.20.5 power amplifiers. Given Madrigal's track record of producing ultrahigh-end (and expensive) components, I was surprised and encouraged that the Proceed CD player is so affordably priced.
The Proceed was a long time in development, reflecting Madrigal's care and thoroughness before releasing a new product. Many technical innovations have been incorporated into the Proceed, and the machine's unusual appearance exemplifies the "start from scratch" attitude behind its development. With its nearly square proportions, grey cabinet, and sparse front-panel controls, the Proceed may set a new trend in audio component styling.