Musical Fidelity X-Rayv3 CD player

Larger than a stocking stuffer, Musical Fidelity's X-Rayv3 CD player is nevertheless quite compact and would be very nice to find under the Christmas tree.

At $995, the X-Rayv3 matches Musical Fidelity's X-150 integrated amplifier in size and price. (I reviewed the X-150 back in May.) There's also an X-80 integrated amp rated at 40Wpc into 8 ohms, vs 75Wpc for the X-150. I'd have reviewed the X-80, too, but I didn't want to rattle the cages of the "inmates" on the Internet. (They know who they are.)

Audio nerds might turn up their noses at this gear because of the small size. That would be a mistake. There's nothing small about the sound or the performance. That goes for the CD player and the amps. The models are built into a chassis 8.5" wide by 3.9" high by 13.6" deep—together, CD player and amp take up the same shelf width as a standard 17" component. Alternatively, you can stack the amp atop the CD player and tuck the two into a narrow nook. Leave enough space for ventilation—the sides of the chassis act as heatsinks.

Apartment dwellers or those who want to avoid equipment clutter, take note. This could be an elegant solution. You could combine these components with a small set of high-quality speakers and have yourself a very high-class mini system for home or office.

Musical Fidelity's Antony Michaelson puts the X-Rayv3 "on a par or better than most of the world's expensive CD players." That's quite a statement for a player that retails for under $1000. I haven't heard most of the world's pricey players, and I'm not sure what "expensive" is. I do know that I've heard nothing better for under $1000. In fact, I'm not sure I've heard anything better for under $2000.

The disc mechanism is by Philips, a Crystal chip upsamples the CD data to 24 bits at 96kHz, and a Burr-Brown DSD1792 DAC resides at the heart of the player. (This is the same combination of chipware used in Musical Fidelity's now-discontinued Tri-Vista 21 digital processor.) The player's transport mechanism, DAC, and analog output stage have dedicated power supplies. Jitter is said to be very, very low.

I did most of my listening with Musical Fidelity's X-150 integrated. (I haven't auditioned the X-80.) Speakers included the Harbeth Compact 7 and Super HL5 and the Spendor S8e. I also tried Musical Fidelity's X-Cansv3 tubed headphone amp (reviewed last January), along with my Sennheiser HD600 headphones.

It was apparent straight away that the X-Rayv3 resolved low-level information in a very convincing way. If you blindfolded me, played a well-recorded disc, and asked me to guess the price of the player, I'd probably say "$2000 to $2500." I haven't heard a player for under $1000 that comes even close to the X-Ray. Five years ago, comparable CD performance couldn't be had at any price.

That's when a funny thing happened. You know. SACD was introduced—or, rather, it lurched into existence. We were all going to replace our CD players with SACD or DVD-Audio machines. Remember? As for regular "Red Book" CD, it just wasn't hi-rez.

Well, guess what. CD is hi-rez, and players such as the X-Rayv3 prove it.

If your CD player is a few years old, the X-Rayv3 should be a significant upgrade—and a good place to wait out new developments over the next few years. CDs are not going to be replaced anytime soon.

The X-Rayv3 has in spades what early CD players so painfully lacked: air, ambience, delicacy, finesse. Even five years ago, many of us assumed that the CD format was so flawed that we'd never get an open, airy sound, an analog sense of ease.

This is what the X-Rayv3 delivered. It had a natural, easy way with the harmonic structure of instruments and voices. (Being a musician himself—a clarinetist—Antony Michaelson is particularly sensitive to this.) Transients were rendered cleanly and clearly. No splash, no hash. Bass was tight and tuneful enough—no problems down below—though I have heard players that exhibit a little more toe-tapping rhythmic drive (namely, those from Naim).

I was struck by how good even some of Deutsche Grammophon's earliest digital recordings sounded—discs from the early and mid-1980s. I'm not sure that the best digital recordings have improved very much over the past 20 years. What has happened is that really dreadful digital classical recordings, once common, are now rare. Meanwhile, digital playback has gotten much better—by leaps and bounds—and near-state-of-the-art sound is available at much lower prices. Perfect sound forever. Well, almost perfect; and if not forever, then at least for the next five years. A decade from now, we'll still be spinning CDs. Any new formats will have a tough time establishing themselves because consumers are happy with CDs and likely will remain so.

The X-Rayv3 offers such a high level of performance at such a keen price that you could stop right here, knowing that you have CD playback that's fairly close to as good as it gets. If you decide to upgrade, however, the X-Ray makes a fine transport—and I'm one who thinks that transports usually don't make much of a difference. The narrow chassis may help to damp vibrations and allow the disc mechanism to operate with less error correction. Just a thought; can't prove it.

True, for $1000 or less, you could buy an SACD player—or a universal player with SACD and DVD-A. The more formats, the merrier, right?

I don't think so. Several designers have told me that it's tough to get the best possible CD sound if you also have to worry about SACD and/or DVD-A.

Keep in mind, too, that SACD and DVD-A might be superseded sooner than expected, by yet other high-resolution digital disc formats waiting in the wings. I heard about such technology at a TDK press briefing last summer. Your DVD movie collection? Tomorrow's laserdiscs. Perhaps.

Maybe the best thing to do now is optimize your system for CD playback over the next five years. With the X-Rayv3, you'll have CD playback that's close to as good as it gets. I'd say you'll be 88% of the way there.—Sam Tellig

Musical Fidelity
US distributor: Signal Path Imports
215 Lawton Road
Charlotte, NC 28216
(704) 391-9337