Oracle CD player Page 2

Both samples of the Oracle seemed to take an unusually long time to burn in. My usual practice—~200 hours using a mix of music and the burn-in tracks from the Sheffield/XLO Test & Burn-in CD (Sheffield Lab 10041-2-T)—barely scratched the surface. Only after a full month of continuous operation did the Oracle seem to settle on a consistent sound—one that bore little resemblance to its original personality. Once set up and burned in, the Oracle performed flawlessly, but the message to anyone auditioning an Oracle (and to anxious editors) is: Be patient, or you risk not hearing what the Oracle can really do.

I couldn't help but wonder if the Oracle's sonic performance would be as unique and spectacular as its looks. Nope. In fact, the Oracle proved to be one of those rare components with so subtle a personality that it was difficult to get a consistent picture of what, if anything, it was contributing to the system's sound.

With the Wadia 830 I reviewed in October 1999, for example, I was always impressed by, and could immediately identify, its incredible transient precision. The luscious SimAudio Moon Eclipse CD player's depth and dimensionality were stunning and easily recognizable. Not so with the Oracle. "This thing's a chameleon!" I complained to Bonnie. "Every time I think I have a fix on it and change a surrounding component to make sure, whatever character I'd associated with it vanishes!"

The Oracle had an uncanny ability to synergistically blend with whatever sort of music I was playing. With orchestral recordings—like the wonderful José Serebrier/London Philharmonic reading of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade (Reference Recordings RR-89CD)—the Oracle impressed me most with its superb ambience retrieval, with how well it assembled the spatial cues into a seamless, natural sonic picture. Everything—the instruments' size and placing on the stage, how they interacted within the ambient envelope, the location of the surrounding walls, the spatial relationships between listener and performers, the balance of ambience and direct sound—simply fell into place.

Perfect? The best I've ever heard? No. In a comparison with the SimAudio, it was apparent that the Oracle was slightly foreshortening depth. This was more in terms of sensing the front-to-back space between instruments than of obvious, overall soundstage depth. While the rear of the Oracle's stage wasn't quite as deep as the SimAudio's, for example, it had a slightly more forward perspective. The front of the Oracle's stage was slightly forward of the speakers, while the SimAudio's, like most players', seems to begin at or slightly behind the plane of the speakers. Similarly, the Oracle's images were less dimensional than those of some other players I've heard—but again, only slightly. And neither shortcoming—in depth or in dimensionality—detracted from the Oracle's overall presentation.

The first two movements of the Scheherazade were great examples. The orchestration builds and falls, various sections and layers enter and leave—from a spotlit violin against full orchestra to a delicate oboe near the rear of the stage—all surrounded by a cushion of air that carries the music's subtlest overtones to the far corners of the stage. The Oracle reproduced it all beautifully, and throughout all the transitions never deviated from its single, consistent, and completely natural portrayal.

But just as soon as I'd mentally pigeonholed the Oracle as primarily a great player for soundstaging and continuity, with maybe a little smoothing of hard transients, I'd throw something at it that required detail and dynamics...and get blown away. Far from stumbling, the Oracle would become fast and stunningly clear, and display a dynamic snap very nearly equal that of the Wadia 830. Leading edges were precise and true, but what struck me even more was how distinct the trailing edges of notes seemed to be. Whether they were sharply cut off or decaying asymptotically into the background, I had a much better sense of the ends of notes than I'd ever heard before.

Whatever the contributing factors, the Oracle's dynamic performance was superb. On "Chuck E.'s in Love" from Rickie Lee Jones' Naked Songs (Reprise 45950-2), her guitar licks snapped and exploded out of the ambience with a you-are-there sort of presence. And when the audience erupted in laughter or applause, I'd be surprised, and involuntarily look for the people down in front of the speakers—even though I knew it was coming. Even subtle microdynamic shadings—the slight inflections and vibratos that Jones superimposes on her quietest, whispered passages—were crystal-clear through the Oracle, and gave the entire performance a live, supercharged energy.

The Oracle also did a great job of drawing distinct image boundaries, particularly in the dimensions of width and height, and of reproducing low-level and inner detail—sort of the sonic equivalent of sharpening a camera's focus. The uncanny ambience retrieval on Scheherazade was one manifestation of this superb focus, as were the details of Jones' snapping and vibrating guitar strings. Studio noises, people talking and moving in the background—both were incredibly clear with the Oracle.

Clark Terry's wonderful collection of duets, One on One (Chesky JD198), was another great example. The Oracle's focus and fine detail made Terry's trumpet and his partners' piano—and even the background noises woven into the studio ambience—incandescent and sparkling with life. On another Chesky release—David Johansen's wonderful blues disc, David Johansen and the Harry Smiths (Chesky JD196)—my notes read: "I can hear into his voice, and into the jumbled mix of textures and tones in his guitar. This disc sounds a lot more 'live' than most of the live recordings I've heard."

My favorite example for showing off the Oracle's detail and dynamics was "Yulunga," from Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth (4AD 45384-2). This cut is a fun-house of exotic sounds, with layer upon layer of detail and orchestration and an awesome, three-dimensional soundstage—a sort of virtual-reality jungle. It's spooky and startling no matter what, but with the Oracle, the detail and dynamic snap made it all the more eerie. Toward the end of the track, sounds—not quite electronic, not quite animal—begin to descend into the mix. I caught myself tightly gripping the arms of my chair as my usually unflappable Catahoula Zippy sprang from his chair and began circling and nervously baying at the Magnepans. Talk about intense!

To really do "Yulunga" justice requires a player—indeed, an entire system—capable of deep, powerful, articulate bass. About a third of the way into the track is a deep, sustained bass note that drops right into the center of the soundstage and expands outward with near-seismic force—an almost visual sensation of pressure waves moving outward. Some players get the true fundamental right, some the power, and some the fine detail. With the Oracle, it was as if the tone had bloomed up from the earth's core and was moving forward through the soundstage to engulf me. Again my hands clenched the chair.

The Oracle was equally adept with less spectacular bass material. The timpani on the Scheherazade recording were wonderfully reproduced, each note in a roll built of a sharp attack, a clear evolution of the skin and round body tones, a decay into the surrounding space, and the final wisps of sound echoing off the rear and side walls. The subtle bass lines under Rickie Lee Jones' guitar on "Chuck E.'s in Love" were also beautifully reproduced, with very precise leading edges and distinct string vibrations, enveloped a split-second later by the warm bloom of the fundamental tone.

The Oracle's top end didn't have quite the air, detail, and extension of the best players I've heard—particularly the second, updated unit, which was slightly inferior to the pre-modification version in this regard. It wasn't a major coloration, but there just wasn't the last bit of air around a piccolo's harmonics, for example, and the shimmering cloud around cymbals wasn't quite as light and effervescent as it should have been. Drop down a tick from the very top, however, and the Oracle's high end was sweet and pure. Massed violins, even at the very top of their range, were sweet, with just a touch of resin and wood—and without the barest hint of steel. Triangles, bells, piccolos were all sweet and clear, but their highest overtones didn't bloom to quite the extent that I've heard.

More than anything else, the aspect of the Oracle's performance that kept luring me into false conclusions was its handling of the midrange. Words like "sweet" and "luscious" appear over and over in my notes. All of the usual audiophile criteria appear as well: "detailed," "fast," "clean"—you name it—but most of all, "sweet." When I'd cue up my midrange test cuts, like "North Dakota" from Lyle Lovett's Joshua Judges Ruth (MCA MCAD-10475), or "Allison" and "Downtown Train" from Everything But The Girl's Acoustic (Atlantic 82395-2), I'd sit back, mesmerized by how sweet, pure, and just plain good the Oracle's midrange sounded.

The Oracle seemed so captivating—luxurious textures, dense tonal colors, pure, crystal-clear tones—that I kept looking for a catch. Too much sweetness? A bit of golden, late-afternoon glow? But every time I was convinced that the Oracle was telling a slightly greater truth, I'd switch to Rickie Lee Jones, or perhaps a ruthlessly close-miked piano solo—and the golden glow would vanish, replaced by clean, fast dynamics and sharply focused detail.

Summing Up
The Oracle CD player proved difficult to definitively assess. While my review system isn't the very last word in resolution, I did pair the Oracle with a wide range of excellent equipment and found it contributed very little to the system's sound. True, I could carefully disassemble its sound and triangulate in on specific aspects of performance, but even then its sonic thumbprint was slight, and never seemed to get in the way of the music. On the contrary, the Oracle seemed to display whatever strength—soundstaging, ambience retrieval, detail, speed, bottom-end punch—was required to make the music work best. The bottom line is that it did just about everything so well that it simply faded into the music.

Assessing the Oracle's value is an equally daunting task. By almost anyone's standard this side of Bill Gates, it's expensive. Plus, there's no high-tech upsampling, no high bit-rate conversion, no super-exotic circuitry—not even a set of balanced analog outputs. It would be easy to stop there and brand it "just a pretty face," or dismiss it as an overpriced bauble. But look a bit more closely, and you'll find that all of its components are truly first-rate, and that its design, construction, and quality are otherworldly.

It's not that Oracle eschews high-tech electronics out of cost considerations, but rather that their design approach relies more heavily on optimization, execution, and a fanatical approach to vibration and resonance control. The player's performance is powerful testimony in favor of that approach; the barely perceptible nuances it distinguishes make all the difference in the world. If it looked or was constructed any differently, I don't believe that it would sound the same.

The Oracle CD player is a unique blend of superb performance and incredible style that, in my opinion, justifies its price. A $8950 CD player isn't in my budget (I just bought a Bimota, after all), but if it's in yours, I'd definitely recommend giving the Oracle a long look, and an even longer listen.

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