The Fifth Element #21 Page 2

Such was certainly not the case in the Joseph Audio room, where Manley Labs, Cardas, Equi=Tech, Grand Prix Audio, and Orpheus Laboratories amicably synergized to make inviting sounds, and never seemed to get in each other's way when it came time to get product information. For me, at least, the discovery was Orpheus Laboratories, a relatively new Swiss firm, the mission of which is to realize Anagram Technologies' digital circuit designs in audio products for the professional and consumer markets.

Feeling that I was adequately familiar with the other products being shown, I was immediately attracted to the crisp, clean, unmistakably Swiss industrial styling of the Orpheus CD transport and DAC, as well as to the crisp, clean sounds I was hearing. Orpheus' Marc Chablaix kindly refrained from commenting on my Southern New England French accent, and gladly played a few selections from discs I had brought, which soon confirmed that Orpheus' gear enviably combined detail retrieval with essential musicality.

I requested a review sample of the Orpheus transport configured as a one-box CD player. Orpheus' US media representative, Ralph Bauer, tried to get me to take the transport-DAC combo instead. He felt that only the separates (which retail for about $12,000) deliver the full advantages of Anagram's proprietary digital implementations. I begged off because, at $6000, even the one-box is outside the outer limit of what I want the average price of the units I write about to be, and I had just reviewed Esoteric's $14,000 two-box CD-playing combo.

As it turned out, I ended up dragging John Atkinson to hear the Ensemble Amarcord disc there, and he was sufficiently interested in the Orpheus gear (they also make a preamp, power amp, and integrated amplifier) to take some photos. There we also encountered Stereophile's digital maven Kal Rubinson, who said he would be willing (in the fullness of time) to do the honors for the two-box setup.

The Orpheus Zero—that's their name for their transport configured as a CD player—arrived in a sturdy shipping carton, and I set about breaking it in and becoming acquainted with it (footnote 2). The Zero weighs about 22 lbs and is unusually configured: it's only one standard professional rack unit (1.75") in height, and the standard professional rack measure (19") in width. (In the rack-unit sizing system, width is a given and fixed at 19", while height is expressed in 1.75" rack-unit increments, as in a component's being "3RU" high.)

I'm familiar with a couple of other 1RU CD players, but they're professional components intended for radio station or commercial public address use, and they are, understandably, front-loading. The Orpheus transport-player is a top-loader, so one is faced with the counterintuitive proposition of a professional-looking piece of gear that can be used in a professional rack only if you leave empty a sufficient number of rack slots above it. Perhaps the answer is that Orpheus was making more of a design statement than a practical recommendation for placement. As it was, I used the Zero on a Symposium Ultra isolation platform, to predictably excellent effect.

Although I'm usually less than tickled (in fact, I'm usually annoyed) with trapdoor CD-loading mechanisms that require you to mess with a puck thingy, the Orpheus Zero's was among the better-thought-out I have seen. The trapdoor is manual, moving from front to back smoothly and with minimal effort. The puck thingy is a compound, ringlike affair with an upper, outer metal piece that might be titanium, and an inner, lower collar that is strongly magnetized.

The puck cutout and the spindle that the puck grabs on to are not the usual round affairs; each is in the negative or positive shape of a triangle with bulging sides, somewhat akin to the rotor of a Wankel engine. Other than the engineering bravura that Orpheus' manufacturing tolerances are so remarkably close that you can hardly see any seam when the puck has been fitted onto and has grasped the spindle, I could not figure out any benefit to this arrangement. There is a negative aspect, however: Each time you change the CD, instead of just dropping the puck on the spindle, you have to align it rather precisely, and the spindle tends to rotate during this procedure.

As soon as you begin moving the trapdoor, thanks to a magnetic sensor on its rails, red LEDs (the intensity of which are adjustable via the programming menu) illuminate the disc compartment. If the unit has been in standby, it powers up. If the disc has been spinning, it stops, as though Brembo brake calipers had grabbed it in earnest. As soon as the door is closed, the disc spins to read the table of contents. The music begins playing a few, rather than a couple, of beats after Play is pressed, but it's not a case of a seemingly interminable wait. The unit was essentially silent while spinning discs. All in all, first-rate mechanical performance from the transport section (footnote 3).

The front panel has a gray-on-green LED display, and five very small pushbuttons for navigating the transport functions and programming menu. The sleek and elegant remote-control handset duplicates the five pushbuttons, which does seem to limit its functionality to the familiar menu of Next/Previous/Pause/Stop; navigating the deeper layers of options in the software menu requires being able to read what's on the LED screen.

Concerning its digital workings, the Zero uses Orpheus' proprietary amplifier, located between the disc-reading system and its servo. The claimed benefit is that the error-correction system is rendered redundant and therefore never engaged. Orpheus also uses its own clock-synchronization design, claiming, as a result, jitter-free performance. Although Orpheus' separate DAC, the One, uses Anagram's Adaptive Time Filtering asynchronous 24-bit/192kHz upsampling, implemented by use of Analog Devices' SHARC ADSP-21065L digital signal processor chipset with 40-bit floating-point arithmetic, for cost reasons the one-box CD player uses a Wolfson oversampling DAC with 16/176.4 performance.

The Zero's upconverting and all other signal processing are nondefeatable—you can't make comparisons, on the fly or otherwise, between plain "Red Book" data and the upconverted results. However, absolute phase is switchable between 0 degrees and 180 degrees, and can be accomplished using the remote control.

I have tilted at the upconverting windmill before (Stereophile, November 2001), and I won't do that again here. I am more interested in how a unit sounds and less in how that sound is made possible. The quick bottom line is that, at less than half the cost of the wonderful, world-class Esoteric D70-P70 combination, the Orpheus Zero has very little to apologize for. There was a wonderful balance between detail and the musical whole; the presentation was crisp and clear, but not at all dry.

Inner musical voices and low-level detail especially seemed to benefit. Listening to a variety of well-recorded early-music CDs—from Colin Tilney's excellent new Scarlatti recital, Ladders to Heaven (Dorian DOR-93253), to Jordi Savall's evergreen Tous les Matins du Monde soundtrack (Auvidis Travelling K 4640), to a great new discovery, Convivium Musicum's Monsieur Arbeau's School of Dancing (1589) Vol.II (MRCD 005)—there was always a sense of newfound insight into the soundstage, and into the structure of the composition as well (footnote 4). The Orpheus Zero is analytically informative without being clinically overbearing.

So, one might ask, how could the Orpheus Zero be bettered? I'm not sure, but one straw in the wind is that, for more than twice the money, and with perhaps an even more involved upconverting scheme, the Esoteric D70-P70 did everything the Orpheus did but with an extra measure of musical solidity and weight and, most of all, a lush tonal ripeness and temporal languor that beckoned rather than cloyed.

Musical images rendered by the Esoteric D70-P70 seemed to glow from within. Perhaps that was an artifact of its own upsampling approach, or of its proprietary intelligent guessing as to what the nonexistent high-resolution data would have been. And, perhaps, the Orpheus separates, at near the Esoterics' price, would substantially close that gap.

To tally up: Pros: excellent build quality, excellent sound quality, switchable absolute-phase inversion, good value for money, Swiss high-tech styling, and a clearly marked upgrade path. Cons: Top-loading, idiosyncratic styling, user interface not very intuitive, does not play SACD or DVD-Audio discs.

There are far worse ways to get the attention of the US marketplace than by having one's products used in a room that gets voted "Best Sound of Show." Based on my time with the less-expensive one-box player from Orpheus Laboratories, as well as what I heard of the full-boat two-box version in San Francisco, Orpheus certainly should be on your shopping list if you plan to spend more than $5000 on a CD player, and don't need or want to play back high-resolution formats.

Questions, comments?

Footnote 2: For all this listening, I used Custom Power Cord Top Gun Series 2 power cords, the aforementioned Symposium Ultra Platform, interconnects and speaker cables from Wireworld and Nordost, amplifiers from Sugden (both integrated and separate) and Jeff Rowland (the new 302, more about which later), and speakers from Magnepan and Dali (the MMG and MS5, respectively, and more about both later).

Footnote 3: When I was first listening to the Zero, I noted that, when playing CDs whose music began with the first digital frame assigned to that track—at the "0 seconds" point—the Zero delayed a small fraction of a second before producing any sound. This chopped off the very first bit of the music on such CDs. I attributed this to some hangup in a digital mute that was failing to unmute in time. I informed Orpheus' press rep about it, and sure enough, once people listened for this phenomenon, they heard it. The unmute hangup would not be noticeable with discs that have some room tone or tape hiss after the track start and before the start of the music. All that was required was a software revision, and that was accomplished by mailing me a chip that was a drop-in replacement. Problem solved.

Footnote 4: I also listened to non-early music, such as Josh Groban's self-titled Euro-pop effort, J-Pop; Two Mix's Super Best Files 1995-1998; and even, in a fit of nostalgia, Boston's self-titled debut, during which I did see my Marianne walking away (except she never really was mine...).