Nagra CDP CD player Page 2

Nagra's US distributor feels the unbalanced outputs are the better-sounding, because there is less circuitry in the signal path. However, I used the CDP's balanced output connections, because that's how I normally connect my Ayre C-5xe universal player to the Ayre K-1xe preamp and MX-R power amps currently residing in my reference system (footnote 1).

I'd take precision over power any day
My first sonic impression of the CDP was of a tightly focused, phenomenally detailed musical image. I listened to "Cloudburst," from Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross's The Hottest New Group in Jazz (CD, Columbia/Legacy C2K 64933)—which, despite bearing the name of the group's first Columbia LP, is a two-CD compilation of all three of their recordings for that label. Immediately, I was reassured that the CDP wasn't going to be one of those finicky players that demand I cherry-pick my recordings. Even though the material was all recorded between 1960 and 1962, the Nagra made it sound as fresh and bright as it must have 47 years ago.

That's the disc mastering, you say? That's true to a great degree, but I've auditioned expensive (and "high-resolution") CD players that emphasized older discs' analog origins all too vividly. Yes, when listening at very high levels, I was quite aware of some tape hiss, but at volumes that were normal chez Wez, that hiss was well down in the mix.

What was front and center was loads of detail that I did want to hear. The three singers were each miked separately, and the CDP not only revealed that readily, but made it obvious that they were each using a different model of microphone. Drummer Ike Isaacs' tom-toms had transient snap and a mellow bloom, and his ride cymbal had an immense range of color—ranging from the brilliant pings from the bell to the lusher sizzle of strokes nearer the rim. But while all of that was impressive, the gestalt was that these guys were swingin'. Sorry, that's a different song, but man, was it true.

Hmmm, thunk I, why not try some other music I might not get away with through other big-ticket players?

Out came Odetta Sings the Blues (CD, Riverside 3007), recorded in 1968 in a far more intimate way than the Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross tracks: Odetta's huge voice is placed in a small room with piano, acoustic bass, and drums. I cued up "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Wowsers! I'd always loved the power and heft of that voice, but how had I never noticed how three-dimensional the whole thing sounded? The lady herself was front and center, piano to the right, drums to the left, the bass somewhat behind her. Convincing and timeless—not to mention a persuasive argument for Nagra's format-longevity argument.

Paavo Järvi's recording of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (CD, Telarc CD-80615), with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was fascinating through the Nagra. Although the DSD-recorded CD was incisive and rich, it made me realize that the CDP didn't turn everything into gold. That's a good thing—and it's why, whenever I audition a component, I always play a few discs that have never before worked for me.

But if the Stravinsky disc was so "incisive and rich," what's my bellyache? I can't fault the CSO's playing, which really is exciting and dynamic—the Jeu du rapt is about as jarring and brutal as any I've heard. But, for me, those first three-and-a-half minutes—the introduction, with its plaintive bassoon and oboe melodies and slow orchestral unfolding—just lacks the awe and mystery I demand from the work. And somehow, as vividly imagined as the next 42 minutes are, they don't work for me without those three minutes of wonder at the beginning. The CDP allowed me to revel in what George Perle has described as the work's "intersecting of inherently non-symmetrical diatonic elements with inherently non-diatonic symmetrical elements," but it didn't fill in the missing magic. And, of course, that's not its job.

However, when a performance and its recording did click, the CDP could be magical. Violinist Mark Feldman's What Exit (CD, ECM 1928) is an ear-opener. An outing for acoustic quartet, this is one of those rare jazz discs that leans as heavily on silence as it does on intense bursts of sound. In a word, it's dynamic. The 22-minute "Arcade" begins in complete silence, broken gently by drummer Tom Rainey's delicate, intensely rhythmic cymbal work. Double-bassist Anders Jormin comes in with an insistent pulse, and the two just develop the groove for a long time—some songs are shorter than this introduction. When Feldman finally enters, it's with a repetitive, two-note bowed motif that begins so quietly it's as much sensed as heard. Things get louder quickly; and although this band is never afraid of not playing, "Arcade" develops in what is as much a series of solos and duets as of ensemble playing.

It's simultaneously free-form and structured—and it's sonically intoxicating. Jormin's bass, John Taylor's piano, and Rainey's drums are big and loud, where required. The bottom end is intense, but Feldman's overtone attacks are extended and crystalline. This isn't just one of those rare recordings in which the performances are matched by the sound; it's one of those recordings where anything less than lifelike sound would cripple the performance. The CDP had me lapping it up with a spoon.

In love, as in gluttony, pleasure is a matter of the utmost precision
What was interesting was, as much as I liked the CDP, I was fairly certain that, in comparison listening, it would be more or less sonically equivalent to my Ayre C-5xe. I really like the Ayre, after all, and in most other comparisons it's what I've ended up preferring—which is why it remains my reference player. Of course, the reason we actually compare components is because it's so hard to make these judgments in a vacuum.

Why compare the $13,495 Nagra to a $5950 universal player when I had on hand several other hi-rez players closer to the CDP's price? Because the Ayre is my reference, for one thing. And because Stereophile has not yet reviewed the Krell Evolution 505 SACD/CD player (Mikey gets to do that one) or the Chord Blu/DAC 64 combo (coming soon), and our policy is to compare products under review only with products for which our opinions are already on the record.

Which is a long way of saying that I was in for a surprise when I did begin level-matched comparisons of the CDP with the C-5xe. First—and this is one of those differences that I couldn't begin to claim was significant—the Nagra projected a soundstage that was more forward than the Ayre's. Not by a lot—the CDP placed performers more or less in the plane of the loudspeakers' baffles, while the Ayre put 'em approximately at the back of the speakers.

Did I prefer one to the other? Not consistently. With "Cloudburst," that more forward placement put the performers closer to me, which made the performance a tad more involving. The whole image was bigger and a touch more dynamic. Jon Hendricks' voice had deeper nap to its velvet during his scat solo, and Isaacs' cymbals had more shimmer and a longer decay.

So the Nagra was remarkably better than the Ayre? No, but it did expand on that musical player's strengths.

Odetta, too, sounded closer to me through the Nagra, and her three backing musicians had more space between them; the Ayre kept everyone clumped together. But what surprised me was that Odetta's diction was slightly more comprehensible through the Nagra—not "better," because in this song she channels Bessie Smith's elisions and slurs. Through the Ayre, the line sounded like "And your friends / You haven't ay..." The Nagra couldn't do much with that swallowed consonant, but it sounded more like, "And your friends / You haven't any..."

You just know I'm going to say that the CDP was all over the C-5xe on the Stravinsky, right? Once again, that's why we actually listen. The work's introduction, while not up to my favorite performance (Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra), sounded far more moody and mysterious through the Ayre. Not only did the bassoon emanate from deeper in the soundstage, it seemed to come out of a deeper silence. Oddly, the CDP made the soundstage sound flatter—a bit of a cutout, really—but added a bit of texture to it as well. The Nagra did a better job of emphasizing dynamic contrasts, however, which added to the visceral quality of the Jeu du rapt.

That unfettered dynamism made me prefer the CDP with Mark Feldman's "Arcade," as well. The slow, three-minute climb from silence to forte at the beginning of the track was a thing of wonder—it just built and built and built, until the four musicians simply had to explode into sheets of sound. It wasn't just music; it was drama.

Language is a tool adequate to provide any degree of precision relevant to a particular situation
When it comes to construction and performance, the Nagra CDP is one of the best CD players I've ever heard or caressed. If you're even the slightest bit prone to pure gizmoid lust, you'll be a goner the minute you get your hands on one.

Here in the real world, many of us must also consider the question of value. Although I feel that Nagra has met its design brief in building a player capable of extracting every detail lurking in a CD's bits, I'd have a hard time justifying its $13,495 price simply in order to obtain the extra performance over my $5950 Ayre C-5xe—but then, I had to pinch pennies so hard to buy the Ayre that Abe Lincoln actually scowled at me.

Besides, that's putting my wallet in your pocket. If owning something that ranks among the best of its type is important to you and price isn't that big a consideration, you might well consider the Nagra CDP.

But if cost is an object to you, as it is to me, and you're easily swayed by components engineered to fulfill their function with maximum physical and sonic quality, just shut your eyes, stuff your fingers in your ears, and walk on by quickly, muttering, "Get thee behind me." Lust can be the very devil to overcome.

Footnote 1: I will be comparing the Nagra CDP's balanced and unbalanced outputs in a Follow-Up report.
Nagra USA
357 Riverside Drive, Suite 230C
Franklin, TN 37064
(615) 726-5191