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.
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.
I'm about to out YYves-Bernard André as one of the great unknown tweakers of high-end audio. (My own predilection for stepping into uncharted tweakwaters is well known.) Yves-Bernard, his wife and partner Ariane Moran, and importer/distributor Daniel Jacques of Audio Plus Services seemed perfectly sanguine about letting the cat out of the bag. And why not? In a singular way, the YBA audio solution encompasses both the supertweak and the more-casual-about-equipment music lover.
The YBA CD 1 Blue Laser (or Lecteur CD 1, as it's known at home in France) breaks new ground. It is very French in that it's individualistic in the extreme, and perfectly embodies current thinking chez YBA regarding music playback in the home. Its design dates back to 1991, a point Yves-Bernard takes pains to point out in the manual.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Walking through the circus that was WCES '95 was like undergoing total neural-synaptic overload. I felt hard-pressed to just keep my head above water separating good sound from bad. Trying to piece together a coherent picture of the show, I jotted down the components in the best systems that I'd heard, and a few items popped up with astonishing regularity. One of these was Audio Research's single-chassis CD player, the CD-1.
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!
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.
It seems to me that it should be possible to make a perfectly jitter-free CD transport without resorting to elaborate, expensive mechanical structures. This idealized transport would ignore all mechanical considerations of disc playbackvibration damping and isolation, for exampleand simply put a jitter-free electrical driver at the transport output. If such a circuit could be made, it wouldn't care about how bad the signal recovered from the disc was (provided the recovered data were error-free). The circuit would just output a perfect, jitter-free S/PDIF signal. The result would be the sound quality of the $8500 Mark Levinson No.31 Reference CD transport in $200 machines. Such a scheme would provide an electrical solution to what has been considered largely a mechanical problem.
But back in the real world there's no doubt that attention to mechanical aspects of transport design affects sound quality. Examples abound: listening to Nakamichi's 1000 CD transport with its Acoustic Isolation door open and closed; playing the Mark Levinson No.31 with the top open; and putting any transport on isolation platforms or feet are only a few of the dozens of experiences I have had that suggest that mechanical design is of utmost importance.
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.