You've heard it said that the early bird catches the worm, which is all well and good if you like worms. If you're more interested in music, you might want to follow the lead of Roy Gandy instead: He's the managing director of Rega Research, a 331/3-year-old audio company that was the very last of its kind to enter the CD market. Rega's first CD player, the Planet of 1996, was a success in virtually every way.
The dual subwoofers were bumping and our pant legs were flapping. Only moments before, we'd been treated to a polite viola da gamba. Not now. Resolution Audio's designer, Jeff Kalt, had brought only two discs with him to ensure that his company's Cantata Music Center was functioning properly in my system: Jordi Savall and Hespérion XXI's Altre Follie, 15001750 (CD, Alia Vox 9844), and Tool's 10,000 Days (CD, Tool Dissectional/Volcano 81991). After changing a few things around with the chamber music, we'd advanced to the hard rock of Tool.
My first one-piece stereo—I think I paid $60 for it, including a pair of speakers with pegboard backs—gave me a lot of pleasure when I was young, and I loved it. Everything that came after has been better in every way but one: None has inspired that kind of love. And most have left me wondering if there might be something just a little bit better.
Simaudio has been doing well in the middle of the high-end market, providing products such as their Moon i-5 integrated amplifier (reviewed by Chip Stern in July 2002), which offers a glimpse of high-quality sound at an affordable price. That's not to say that the Canadian manufacturer neglects the cost-no-object market: the two-box, $5700, Simaudio Moon Eclipse CD player impressed the heck out of Brian Damkroger when he reviewed it for Stereophile in April 2001 (with a Follow-Up in April 2003). So when Simaudio's Lionel Goodfield offered me their Moon Equinox player ($2000) for inclusion in my irregular series of CD-player reviews (footnote 1), I didn't need to be asked twice.
In the early 1980s, when CDs began trickling out of the few existing pressing plants, they were such rare and exotic objects that Aaron's Records, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, kept them secured under lock and key in a tall glass cabinet. A customer forsaking vinyl would enter the store and, with great fanfare, announce the decision by dropping a load of LPs on the front counter with a disgusted thud. Then, in a ceremony resembling a rabbi removing the sacred scrolls of the Torah from the ark, the customer would approach the glass cabinet. An employee would unlock and swing open the doors, and, under that watchful gaze, the customer would choose from among a scattering of titles, carefully avoiding any disc that did not include the Strictly Kosher mark of "DDD."
It's easy to be impressed by Simaudio's Moon Evolution Andromeda Reference CD player. Everything about it oozes quality and luxury, from its imposing two-chassis configuration to the multi-component disc clamp of machined aluminum. Even surrounded by my double-decker VTL amps, VPI HR-X turntable, and Ferrari Fly-yellow Wilson Audio Sophia 2 speakers, the Andromeda was usually the first thing guests asked about: "How much does that cost?" The answer is $12,500. The Andromeda should look impressive.
Tony, a mechanic friend of mine, once ran down for me his "national characteristics" theory of automobile engineering. Germans, he said, love precision engineering but don't take repair into account, so their engines are always placed in wells so perfectly proportioned that skinned knuckles are inevitable. British cars, he said, are marketed to a nation of tinkerers, hence the existence of dual carburetors. And Italian cars? "Well, let's just say they all resemble espresso makers." He said it—and he was the proverbial Fiat mechanic named Tony.
All the action in digital playback for the past seven years has taken place in separate transports and digital processors. Nearly all high-end manufacturers have focused their skills on perfecting the individual elements of the digital playback chain—transports and processors—rather than on designing integrated CD players.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised when I first spied the prototypes for Sonic Frontiers' luscious new digital combo, the Transport 3 CD transport and Processor 3 D/A processor, at HI-FI '97 in San Francisco. After all, this is the company whose meteoric rise from an electronic parts-supply outfit run out of president Chris Johnson's basement, to a large factory pumping out an impressive array of entry-level to crème de la crème tube electronic components, has elevated Sonic Frontiers to front-line status among high-end manufacturers.
Our long-awaited laser-audio disc player (usually called the CD, for "Compact Disc") finally arrived, along with a real bonanza of software: two discs—a Polygram classical sampler of material from Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and Philips, and a Japanese CBS recording of Bruckner's 4th Symphony, with Kubelik.
It's conventional wisdom among audiophiles: Small, high-end audio companies build high-quality products in small numbers. Products which are often expensive. But not always. Big mass-market companies build cookie-cutter products in big numbers. They're usually cheap. But not always.