Audio Note CD-4.1x CD player Page 2

Also: During its first days in my system, the CD-4.1x was unkind to those few CDs in my collection on which solo voices and violins had been recorded at excessive levels: Those things sounded "hotter" through the Audio Note than through either my Sony SACD player or my computer-audio rig—although that condition resolved itself over time.

Given its unusual pedigree, I can be forgiven for wondering if, throughout the many hours I spent listening to the CD-4.1x, I was presented with higher-than-average levels of certain distortions: Audio Note's own product description would seem to predict such a thing, and JA's measurements may well quantify it. Be that as it may, I know I was also presented with something that usually goes missing in CD playback: the sort of presence—the sonic flesh and blood—that I seldom get from the medium. Voices and instruments had substance, color, and texture. Vocal cords vibrated with real human warmth, pianos purred, cymbals sizzled, and string instruments comprising thin pieces of lightly varnished wood, whether bowed or plucked, resonated in a manner exactly like that of string instruments comprising thin pieces of lightly varnished wood.

Put another way: When I listened to CDs on the Audio Note player, recorded voices and instruments came closer than usual to loading my room in the manner of live voices and instruments. The effect was probably compounded by my using the AN player through AN speakers, the latter being known to me for that selfsame quality.

One of the first records I played was guitarist David Grier's Live at the Linda (Dreadnaught/Burnside 0701), an album I know pretty well—I sat in the front row at the concert in question. And since David and I have picked together in my home on a couple of occasions, I'm also familiar with the sound of his 1946 Martin D-28. I expected, then, to begin by testing the CD-4.1x on the basis of the above—but even before I had a chance to get that far, the Audio Note impressed me. The sound of the MC's voice as he introduced David was distinctly real: It wasn't just a sound occurring between the speakers; rather, I could hear, from the first fraction of a second, that distinct sound of a voice pressuring a microphone.

Hilary Hahn's recording, with Marek Janowski and the Oslo Philharmonic, of Shostakovich's richly scored Violin Concerto 1 (Sony Classical SK 89921), showed off the Audio Note's good way with instrumental colors and textures. Hahn's 1864 Vuillaume retained its fine, complex tone, with appropriately percussive note attacks and bounce. Similar justice was done to Jascha Heifetz in his 1959 recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Walter Hendl and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (JVC JVCXR-0223-2).

One of my most delightful experiences with the Audio Note player—and one in which, curiously, the distinctions were greatest between it and both my Sony SACD player and my combination of Apple iMac and Wavelength Proton DAC—was while listening to XTC's 1999 album, Apple Venus, Pt. 1 (TVT 3250-2). There was something about the tones and, especially, the textures on this recording that the CD-4.1x suited especially well, from the pizzicato strings—some of which are very deep, and which the Audio Note succeeded in portraying as such—in the coalescing opening of "River of Orchids," through Colin Moulding's crazy-good electric-bass line in "I'd Like That," to the great downbeat bass notes of "Harvest Festival."

The Audio Note did a good job communicating various spatial aspects of recorded sound: Audiophile favorites such as Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony's 1962 recording of Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra (JVC JMCXR-0011) had excellent scale and stage depth, while Van Dyke Parks's cleverly arranged strings convincingly decorated the sonic space of Joanna Newsom's Ys (Drag City DC303CD). But the CD-4.1x's sound lacked the light, pellucid quality that appeals to many listeners. Hobbyists who are especially interested in the hall sound or "air" captured on some good recordings would, I think, be disappointed with the Audio Note in that regard.

Less ephemeral qualities will be the ones I'll miss when this player leaves my home: Beyond sounding pleasantly colorful and substantial with well-made recordings, the Audio Note succeeded, consistently, at pulling maximal musical thrills out of ancient wrecks—no better example of which can be found than the Carter Family's charming "Hello, Stranger," from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four (Revenant RVN 211). Before I heard it through the CD-4.1x, all I could think on pulling this handsome little set off the shelf was, What a shame it never came out on vinyl. After hearing it through the Audio Note, the prevailing thought was: This'll do. And that's not faint praise.

Here is a crass but hopefully meaningful comparison: Until I received the review sample of the Audio Note CD-4.1x, the most consistently satisfying CD player of my experience had been Naim's CD555—which costs over $20,000, not including the power supply. Both players sound wonderful and chunky and involving; the Naim goes even further in also being the most aesthetically and ergonomically pleasing player I have used. Which is the more durable, as both a machine and an investment? Danged if I know.

Hell, even $12,000 is a hell of a lot of money: roughly four times the amount I've ever paid for a digital source. I know someone—a husband of a friend—who recently bought a high-mileage, late-model BMW 3-series for just slightly more than $12,000. He loves it. And for some crazy reason, every good guitar that's captured my imagination in recent months—none of which I can afford, either—has been priced near $12,000. Steve Swan of Burlingame, California, has a couple of late-'40s D-18s and a mint '51 D-18 for $11,500, kid you not, while Merrill & Company and the Santa Cruz Guitar Company—my two favorite contemporary builders—both offer handmade, heirloom-quality, hide-glue–construction instruments for the same or less.

The luxury items described above—or, I'm sure, any number of other things of which I have no experience—are likely to hold their value at least reasonably well. I can't say whether the Audio Note CD-4.1x might be among them.

I also can't say whether the Audio Note CD-4.1x is the best CD player. I can say it's one of my two favorites—and it's priced lower than the other one.

In any event, although its technology may not represent the state of the art of digital source components, the CD-4.1x stands as a reference-quality product in at least one regard: Any hobbyist who, like me, has found himself generally unsatisfied with the CD rank and file should go out of his or her way to hear it: It might be what you've been missing.

Audio Note UK, Ltd.
25 Montefiore Road
Hove, East Sussex BN3 1RD
England, UK
(44) (0)1273-220-511

JItterjaber's picture

They still make CD players? 

Thanks for the review, but I would be really curious how a RAM based CD playback (i.e. pure music) on a laptop compares to expensive CD players. I have a feeling this could enlighten people!


mrhyfy's picture

Looking under the cover,,I don't see 12 grand worth!  Sorta looks like chi-fi.

mrhyfy's picture


Archimago's picture

Good review and I'm glad to see equipment like this getting on the test bench and put through its paces.

Obviously, the measurement results are laughable...  No worry however, since I'm sure Peter Qvortrup will happily conjure up some philosophical musings about how frequency respose, accurate waveform reproduction, noise level, jitter are all irrelevant and how these results are those of superior sound reproduction at a mere $12K :-).