Musical Fidelity CD-Pre24 CD player-preamplifier Page 3

In most ways, the CD-Pre24's analog preamplifier compared quite favorably with the Hovland, especially in terms of its dynamic authority—its ability to scale the large dynamic peaks was effortless, confident, and fully fleshed-out. On Classic Records' 45rpm edition of the Reiner/CSO version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, the orchestral crescendos were nothing short of explosive. Instrumental timbres were somewhat drier and less complex but still convincingly rendered, and delivered absolutely free of grain and grit. My reference was somewhat more pure and finely textured on top, but short of a direct comparison, the CD-Pre24's harmonic delivery was sufficiently rich and free of mechanical artifacts to give my ears long-term satisfaction. Key to the unit's performance was the natural quality of post-crescendo, low-level decays and fadeouts—these were absolutely convincing and well-resolved, thanks to the ultra-low noise floor. And the backgrounds were black.

Vocal sibilants were also conveyed honestly: finely articulated and detailed, yet free of edge or harshness. With the purity and rich resolve of the Hovland? No. But female voices had delicacy and believability, with no hint of mechanicalness or cardboard-cutout edge definition. There was plenty of air around instruments on familiar live recordings, though the overall presentation was somewhat drier than the Hovland's.

Listening to such favorites as Tony Bennett's Live at Carnegie Hall (LP, Columbia C2S 823), Joni Mitchell's Miles of Aisles (LP, Asylum AB 202), Mel Tormé and Friends at Marty's (LP, Finesse W2X 37484), and Miles Davis' In Person: Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, San Francisco (LP, C2S 820) demonstrated that the CD-Pre24 could adequately convey venue size, room ambience, and image dimensionality, though not quite as convincingly or as gracefully as the Hovland—or, not surprisingly, the $16,000 Connoisseur 4.0 that I wrote about in October. More important, the CD-Pre24 never got in the way of the music by injecting obvious additives into the picture. I entirely enjoyed listening to music with the CD-Pre24 substituting for the Hovland. It was a listening experience different but no less enticing.

The MF's overall tonal spectrum leaned toward a slight upper-midrange presence, but with the frequency extremes so well-rendered and the midband admirably transparent and free of congestion, the balance remained remarkably neutral and cut from whole cloth. Measured against any standard, the combination of the slightly dark but wonderfully rich- and complex-sounding Lamm LP2 phono section ($7000; see this month's "Analog Corner") and the rhythmically adept CD-Pre24 yielded first-rate sound.

Not surprisingly, given the same DAC and transport, the CD-Pre24's CD performance was very similar to the Nu-Vista 3D's, minus the 3D's lush midband and high-frequency delicacy. On a few of the rich (some might say overly warm) JVC XRCDs, such as Bill Evans' Sunday at the Village Vanguard (JVCXR-0051-2), the slightly drier, faster sound worked to the disc's benefit. The DAC-preamp's impressive dynamic range and low-bass prowess were spotlit via Shawn Murphy's superb recording of James Newton Howard's edgy score to the summer blockbuster Signs (Hollywood 62368-2).

As for the true upsampling 24/96 DAC, I tested its efficacy by running the 24/96 digital stream from the Alesis Masterlink, and I think it decoded it. I say "I think" because of a few curious findings: If I ran the 24/48 digital output of the Camelot Technologies Round Table DVD player into the Masterlink's digital input (the Camelot is supposed to pass the 24/96 bitstream, but for some reason mine downconverted it to 48kHz, according to the Masterlink), which automatically syncs to the incoming word-clock rate, it registered the 48kHz sampling rate. But if I ran the digital output of the DVD player into one of the CD-Pre24's digital inputs and connected the Masterlink via a CD-Pre24 digital output, the Masterlink synced to and indicated a 44.1kHz clock rate. Ditto through the digital loop. So something inside was downconverting 96kHz to 44.1kHz, which means it's not really a "loop." That leaves me wondering if the 24/96 Masterlink and 24/48 DVD-player outputs are really being decoded at full resolution in the CD-Pre24, or if they're being downconverted be fore being fed to the DACs. At any rate, the result still sounded like pristine, ultra-high-resolution audio.

While 24/96 DADs like Classic's Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (DAD 1031) and Hi-Res Audio's Seven, Come Eleven, a live album featuring Herb Ellis and Joe Pass, sounded more dimensional, harmonically fleshed out, and just plain involving than most CDs in my collection, they also sounded more rich, lush, delicate, and analog-like when decoded by the Round Table's ultra-sophisticated, 24/192-upsampling internal DACs (by Anagram Technologies of Switzerland) and connected via the Camelot player's analog outputs.

With a record on the turntable and a 24/96 hard-drive recording of the same LP on the Masterlink, it was possible to A/B the AAA vinyl and the 24/96 recording decoded by the CD-Pre24 by pressing the MF's digital monitor button—but only with recordings made previously through the Hovland, or new ones through the CD-Pre24's analog tape outs, because the digital out downconverts to 44.1kHz. And since it now appears that the Masterlink's 24/96 bitstream is downconverted by the CD-Pre, then upsampled, the A/B was less than rigorous.

So I compared the Masterlink's digital and analog outs into the CD-Pre24 and found that both resulted in a slight shift away from transparency and a diminution of image size, three-dimensionality, and lushness compared to the "live" AAA source. I guess it's a tribute to the CD-Pre24's downconverting/upsampling DAC that there was little difference between the true 24/96 signal decoded in the Masterlink and run analog into the CD-Pre24, and the digital 24/96 bitstream downconverted and upsampled in the CD-Pre24. And though I felt the former sounded somewhat bigger and more liquid, I wouldn't want to bet the farm in a double-blind test!

Quirky, unique, and oh so handy for the home-recording enthusiast, the Musical Fidelity CD-Pre24 packs versatility, flexibility, and first-class sound into an attractive, reasonably compact, extremely well-built package. And considering that its CD performance comes surprisingly close to the Nu-Vista 3D's and it costs $2500 less, think of the CD-Pre24's preamp, DAC, digital switching, and tape loop as premium freebies.

Nonetheless, those already owning ultra-high-quality DACs and/or CD players, and those who don't need the unit's flexible analog and digital tape-loop facilities, should probably consider all-analog alternatives like Musical Fidelity's A3CR preamp. And owners of high-resolution 24-bit/96kHz recorders like the Masterlink will probably want to opt out because, despite its upsampling 24/96 DACs, the CD-Pre24 is strictly a 44.1kHz A/D and pass-through device.

Can an SACD-based edition equipped with 2.83MHz sampling and an Ethernet connection be far off? Now that sounds like real fun! Just give Antony Michaelson and prosumer manufacturers like Alesis some time...

Musical Fidelity
Kevro International
902 McKay Rd., Suite 4
Pickering, Ontario L1W 3X8, Canada
(905) 428-2800