Exposure CD Player Page 2

The DAC's current-output signals are led via selected screened cables to the Exposure's analog board. Here a selected transistor is connected in common-base mode with an active load to deliver a phase-correct voltage to the passive filter. This in turn leads to the output buffer, a powerful emitter-follower with a constant current load. This also acts as a Sallen and Key low-pass filter, using polypropylene film capacitors.

The analog output is non-invasively muted by relay, and capacitor-coupled via a small Philips electrolytic. You might question such a choice until you discover that this is properly polarized by a DC offset to achieve an optimal operating point and the desired sound quality. Thus from the DAC current output there are only two active SE stages in the audio path—an interesting prospect. One clue to the Exposure's potential sound quality is the very short path between the digital data coming off the CD and the DAC.

With a low output impedance, there won't be any matching problems to cables or amplifiers. The audio output is single-ended only, via gold-plated RCA phono connectors with PTFE insulation. A digital data output is provided, though I don't think this model is specifically designed to excel as a transport. S/PDIF output is unbalanced via a 75 ohm, transformer-isolated BNC connector. With respect to electromagnetic emissions and immunity, the Exposure player passed the appropriate "CE" independent laboratory tests.

Many CD players need significant warmup, and the Exposure was no exception. Out of the box, the Exposure's sound was uninspiring: rather flat, lifeless, and gray, with soft detail obscuring grain in the treble. It wasn't really that bad—it was just that the player improved so much after an overnight warmup that its first impressions seemed lousy by comparison. The usual conditioning was needed for the power-supply electrolytic capacitors, and for other components which may be electrically or mechanically stressed in manufacture or in assembly. The digital section, in particular the DAC, seems to benefit from an hour or two of warmup even when the player has been fully run-in. Presumably this is due to operating temperatures taking an hour or two to stabilize following turn-on from cold. When not playing a disc, the laser and motors shut down, and there's little else to draw significant power. Since the power consumption is very low, around 12W, I left the player on permanently, save for vacations.

Early on in the listening I was caught out by that built-in volume control—it looked innocent enough there on the Philips-style remote handset. And yes, it does work, with just-usable 2–3dB steps over a 60dB or so dynamic range. (The actual level is denoted by the number of six horizontal bars visible in the display.) This volume control operates in the digital domain with only moderate data precision. As a result, it reduces fidelity, and in this class of player the difference isn't trivial. I have unknowingly set just one notch of digital attenuation and, judging by the resulting impairment, thought that the player had developed a fault. Now I understand those warnings printed in triplicate in the instruction manual to leave the volume set to maximum on the player itself. Still, this control is not entirely unusable in circumstances where fidelity is not crucial—say, background music for a dinner party. Otherwise, forget those two dangerous Volume Up & Down buttons: the sound quality with the digital volume engaged was several levels below that noted on that first cold start. In any case, the player will always reset to full volume and maximum resolution when switched on again.

Clearing these hurdles, I settled down to a series of enjoyable and entertaining sessions with the Exposure CD player. What might be interpreted as an early feeling of "quietness" was soon replaced by a growing realization that this player lacked the false glare, the "forwardness" and "whitened" quality, of so much digital replay. There was more than a hint of single-ended analog sound to this player: a sense of unforced vitality and quick and lively dynamics, with dynamic contrast and expression available at all levels and with any complexity of program. Reflecting Exposure's analog sympathies, it really sounds more like a fine turntable system than a $2000 CD player.

However, the player did emit a low-level mechanical click between tracks: the output muting relay responding to the intertrack mute command on those discs that have this set during the mastering (footnote 1). You get used to it, but perhaps a bit of acoustic quieting for the relay would not go amiss.

While it didn't have an obvious, immediately explosive rock sound, and at first proved most at home reproducing classical works, the Exposure did have inner strengths that underpinned its commitment to all types of music. If rhythm and timing were not quite in the Naim CD-2 class, the Exposure was still pretty special in this area. The player was good at defining the start and stop of notes, and while its pace wasn't as upbeat as the Naim's, it succeeded in generating its own sense of drive, and at a level that left much of the competition sounding rather sleepy.

All in all, by the finish I found the Exposure happy with all kinds of music. The lower midrange was a particular pleasure on both rock and classical, its excellently differentiated dynamics revealing of instrument type and musicianship. In the bass it proved to be nicely extended, with no hint of band-limiting or a "closed-in" effect. The Krell KAV-300cd certainly has greater bass slam and grips right down to the lowest frequencies (a Krell hallmark), but the Exposure approached the Krell in image scale and depth, and was actually a touch lighter on its toes rhythmically. The Exposure's bass was "warmer" and a tad soft in the lowest register, but more than crisp enough in the mid and upper bass.

The Exposure's soundstage was also well beyond its class, sounding wide and deep, very well focused, nicely layered, and achieving convincing perspectives. It was unusually good at conveying the sense of air around singers and instrumentalists, the soundstage appearing richly textured and open, and noticeably lacking dullness or veiling.

The Exposure's midrange was nicely balanced, with natural and believable harmonic colors. Relatively high resolution was heard here; in my estimation, almost but not quite enough to justify a Class A rating in Stereophile's "Recommended Components" listing. The player fared well enough in the treble, the sound again graced by that desirable lack of "forwardness" or aggression. It was nonetheless finely textured, with a subtle but wholly satisfactory level of grain.

You might not know it was there at all—or, if you did, whether it was what's commonly found on digital recordings, if you were without a Krell KPS-20i/l to help make the comparison—but a slight "sheen" was added to the treble. Interestingly, it didn't draw attention to itself or spoil the overall result.

That result was a quality of balance and character that could construct large-scale, well-detailed soundstages that rivaled some of the best players made. Moreover, this was achieved with a consistently upbeat, involving, and musically truthful foundation, a sound that you need make little excuse for. You could leave this player installed for long periods and not have to agonize over the absence of the usual audiophile references.

The Exposure proved compatible with a wide range of system components that I tried, stretching the capabilities (transparency and timing) of less expensive amplification and speakers, and making a surprisingly good effort to match some of the better electronics on hand. If not quite up to Krell FPB 600/Wilson WATT System 5 class, it was still punching hard at the Krell KAV-300i/FPB 300/Wilson CUB/WITT level—damn fine performance for a modest integrated CD player. In addition, it sounded particularly creamy with fine tube amplification. For those who follow my Hi-Fi News & Record Review scalings, the Exposure scored 35 points overall for sound quality. Enthusiasts will enjoy the improvements to be heard when this physically lightweight player is put on a good sound table, loaded with a Shakti Stone or two, and caressed by a clean mains supply.

Sometimes one can't argue with how a designer achieves his or her aim. Instead we must stand back and recognize it for what it is. The Exposure is an unusually musical CD player that has very good soundstaging abilities, is quietly neutral and yet dynamically resolving, has an involving and pacey character, and is convincing and satisfying in the long term.

If the Exposure were a good tube preamplifier, you could hardly argue with anything seen in its measurements: a wide bandwidth, quiet, with moderately low distortion. And as much as we value excellent low-level linearity in CD replay, and eulogize implied +20-bit linearity, there is still much more to digital sound quality. Here is a case in point: a player whose transfer function stumbles at around –80dB, far down on the aural sensitivity curve, and then recovers to a good linearity below –100dB (with the usual encode dither). One might expect its sound to be damaged in some way, indeed that it might be responsible for that slight, if musically satisfactory, treble "texture." Whatever, it fortunately didn't appreciably damage the overall sound, which stands comparison with many more costly and superbly linear players.

By now, the conclusion must be self-evident: Yes, I liked this moderately priced and economical player. I was intrigued by its simple single-ended transistor analog circuitry and the fine sound it made. Without prejudice to any future listening, at the time of writing I feel that this is a high-ranking Class B contender, truly commendable in its price class. Exposure's John Farlowe should be warmly congratulated on his first foray into digital replay: the Exposure CDP comes confidently recommended.

Footnote 1: On the Stereophile music CDs, which fade to ambience rather than digital black between tracks, I asked the mastering engineer not to do this.—John Atkinson
Exposure Electronics
US Distributor: Fidelis Music Systems
460 Amherst Street (Route 101A)
Nashua, NH 03063