California Audio Labs Icon Mk.II Power Boss CD player Page 2

The lower highs were more lifelike and relaxed than on the stock unit, and a bit more extended into the top octave. The midbass warmth of the original unit was gone, and the lower bass clarity and extension, especially on well-recorded classical music (Stravinsky, Les Noces, Clarity CCD 1025-G, and Zappa, The Yellow Shark, Barking Pumpkin R271600), were dramatic in their airy realism.

Excellent reproduction of inner detail and ambience: It was very easy to follow individual lines on densely recorded classical passages, and the retrieval of subtle detail cues enhanced image specificity. The unit's superior rendition of depth and hall sound on Ramirez's Misa Criolla (Philips 420 955-2) added to the lifelike quality of the layering of voices on the stage.

Extremely wide dynamic range: From the subtle instrumental articulations of woodwinds to explosive orchestral fortissimos, I've not heard better from any front-end, analog or digital. My three-month-old, Jordan (footnote 3) didn't bat an eye at the weird music I threw at him during my reviewing sessions, which he enjoys. (He slept right through The Yellow Shark.) But during the more climactic passages of "In the Tavern," from Orff's Carmina Burana (Telarc CD 80056), I thought he was going to jump out of his seat, eyes agape.

Natural articulation of high-frequency transients: I have been annoyed by, but have come to expect, the detached, artificial, mechanical quality of percussive transients as reproduced by every one-box CD player I've heard (and many expensive separate processors as well). Not so with the upgraded Icon Mk.II. The marimba attacks on the Kohjiba cut from Stereophile's Festival CD (STPH007-2) and Janis Ian's acoustic guitar transients on Breaking Silence (Morgan Creek 2954-20023-2) sounded coherent and realistic, without the hard edge I've come to associate with inexpensive digital gear.

The Icon's reproduction of HDCD recordings was even more impressive. The most significant improvements were noted in the reproduction of ambience, low-level detail, and microdynamics. Brass, woodwinds, and pianos also sounded more lifelike and relaxed.

The Icon's reproduction of percussion on the Winston Ma HDCD recordings was among the most natural I've heard, digital or analog. On the two Percussion All Stars recordings (Mozart Piano Concerto, GSCD027, and All Star Percussion: Vol.III, GSCD022), mallet percussion transients were delicate without a trace of hardness. Bells and deacon chimes shimmered in an extended, airy, three-dimensional presentation. Small jazz groups sounded particularly impressive. On the John Whitney Trio's Classical Groove (GSCD028), the string bass was natural and articulate and the low-level dynamic inflections in the piano's middle and lower registers had me dancing in my chair.

A very unusual recording, Teresa Teng's Forever: Vol.2 (GSCD 030) is really intended for the Asian market—Ma was a bit reluctant to give me a sample. Apparently, the late Teng was one of China's greatest pop-ballad vocalists; the recording features instrumental arrangements of some of her greatest hits. Although the songs themselves have a bit of a Muzaky quality to them, the recording is fascinating. The pieces are arranged for a small jazz group, accompanied by classical string sections, latin percussion, and a solo erhu, a Chinese string instrument. This recording, with very precise staging as outlined in detailed liner notes comes across on this CD player as one of the most natural-sounding recordings I've heard—I happen to own an erhu—and it features the most realistic massed strings I've experienced from digital.

Should I ask the Boss for a raise?
Although it's a bit long in the tooth, the Icon Mk.II is still my favorite CD player under $1000—colorations and all. The Power Boss upgrade, however, offers a significant improvement in sound quality compared with the stock player, even on nonHDCD recordings. Its HDCD performance is better still. Even with the promise of a higher-quality DVD-based digital standard on the horizon, the benefits of HDCD are substantial enough that anyone considering the purchase of a new player would be foolish not to embrace it—assuming the number of HDCD-encoded releases continues to grow. For a one-box player under $1500 to exhibit so few sonic flaws is quite a remarkable achievement; the Icon Mk.II HDCD is my new "affordable" reference player.

As for the 23,000 owners of older Icon Mk.IIs, the $450 upgrade is a bargain. It is recommended to all who plan to keep their players for the foreseeable future.

Footnote 3: Single readers probably find it annoying that reviewers who are first-time parents somehow manage to work their new arrival into every review. Well, folks, it's my turn.—Bob Reina
California Audio Labs
113 Taylor Way
Blue Lake, CA 95525
(707) 668-1736