AH! Njoe Tjoeb 4000 CD player Page 2

Bang for the buck
Right out of the box, the basic $849 AH! Njoe Tjoeb 4000 sounded every bit as warmly detailed and resolved as my trusty old sidekick, the California Audio Labs combo of Delta CD transport and Alpha 24-bit/96kHz tubed DAC. The CAL remains a very musical, alluring performer, but the Njoe Tjoeb more than held its musical own against the CAL, which dates back to the mid- to late '90s, when it retailed for $2400. This sort of took me by surprise, but hey, time marches on. Digital design has come a long way since then.

There isn't room here to delineate the technical nature of upsampling or how Njoe Tjoeb mates it to a tubed output stage, but based on my experience of these units, and of conjugal visits with the pricey, pace-setting, supremely musical dCS Elgar, I was reminded anew of how, when all else is in doubt, the culprit is invariably noise. Proponents of upsampling assume that, as you remove noise by reducing jitter errors and kicking high-frequency artifacts upstairs into ever less audible realms, ambient backgrounds get blacker and deeper.

The resulting sound, as I apprehended it with the Njoe Tjoeb 4000 with 24/192 upsampler, was indeed more musically involving: quieter and more resolved, with a stunning increase in resolution and small details. There was simply more there there. Straightaway, the 4000's superb rhythm and pacing made my experience of small-combo jazz far more enjoyable. The 4000 didn't display the transient snap and steely, vise-like grip on low frequencies that I enjoyed with my longtime reference, the now-departed Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD player. But in some ways its portrayal of bass information was juicier and more detailed, while its depiction of acoustic space rivaled, and in many ways exceeded, that of the tubed CAL Delta/Alpha and the solid-state CAL CL-20 CD/DVD player. For instance, clarinetist Bill Smith's Folk Jazz (Contemporary OJCCD-1956-2), a wonderful 1959 recording engineered by Roy DuNann, there was significantly more harmonic information present in the leading edge of bassist Monty Budwig's acoustic bass than through the Sony: the sound of each individual string, the touch of the hand, the air around each note, the way those notes blossomed and decayed.

Just as the Delta/Alpha portrayed Budwig's bass with ingratiating warmth and roundness, the Njoe Tjoeb 4000 fleshed out the midrange to reveal another layer of texture and detail, which manifested itself in the shimmy of Shelly Manne's brushes. And while the CL-20 has long impressed me with its depth of resolution and portrayal of acoustic space, there was altogether more depth with the Njoe Tjoeb 4000, not to mention more presence, which I heard as greater image-to-image distinction—a more palpable sense of the physical placement of instruments within the soundstage. I heard this to particular effect with Jim Hall's muted electric-guitar comp—the 4000 brought Hall's sound forward without unduly tipping the balance of the mix. Bill Smith's clarinet was woody, buoyant, and warmly balanced from the upper bass through the lower treble, the horn floating out front with a relaxed vocal presence, no register hotter or stronger than any other.

This last point was driven home when I contrasted the performance of the Njoe Tjoeb 4000 with another reliable old friend whose musical deportment has never failed to draw me deeper into the emotional subtexts of a performance: the Musical Fidelity A3 CD player, which was, dollar for dollar, one of the best values ever in high-end audio. Renée Fleming's stunning performance of "Ave Maria" (The Schubert Album, London 455 294-2) showcased the A3's captivating depiction of space and dimensionality; its exceptionally smooth frequency response and natural portrayal of vocals were altogether pleasing, yet there was a little something extra to the Njoe Tjoeb 4000's presentation. Call it the deeply layered midrange character of tubes or the extra detail attributable to the TjoUpsampler—there was not only greater depth of field and a more fulsome sense of resolution, but the depiction of space itself—the silences between the notes—was more compelling. Not only was there more detail to Fleming's individual notes—such as how she concludes the arc of one long phrase by snapping it off with a click of her tongue on the top of her palate—but it sounded as though the images of Fleming's voice and that of her pianist, Christoph Eschenbach, were individually backlit.

Yet while I could discern greater distinction between the two images, and a wealth of additional detail, there nevertheless remained an organic bond between voice and instrument that defined the emotional connection of soprano, piano, and room acoustic. I'm talking macrodynamics and microdynamics here—not in the cold, analytical manner of a telescope or microscope, but in the best senses of those terms: as a more realistic sense of liveness and sonic illumination.

For several months in my reference system, the AH! Njoe Tjoeb 4000 CD player with 24-bit/192kHz TjoUpsampler acquitted itself like a champ. However, listeners with exceptionally reflective rooms and/or etched, analytical systems should be prepared for a fairly extended break-in period, during which the 4000 might sound irritatingly bright. My upsampler-equipped unit took a few hundred hours to break in; thereafter, as it continued to settle in, the brassiness that had characterized its out-of-box sound gradually diminished. (Despite all the extra resolution, some listeners may very well prefer the warmth of the basic unit, sans TjoUpsampler.)

While I've heard CD players with smoother, more relaxed top ends, I wouldn't characterize the 4000's sound as bright, but...brilliant. Likewise, I've heard digital playback systems with punchier low ends. But the glory of the AH! Njoe Tjoeb 4000 is its detailed and richly layered midrange. Visitors to my den of iniquity were invariably surprised when I pointed out that a $1000 CD player was functioning as the digital epicenter of a no-compromise sound system. I've heard CD players that had better rhythm and pacing, more midrange liquidity and transparency, greater depth of field, and finer resolution. But I can't recall hearing a more musically involving, fulsomely detailed, three-dimensional presentation from any other CD player at such a modest price as the AH! Njoe Tjoeb 4000.