Stereophile's Products of 2013 Digital Component of the Year

Digital Component of the Year

Audio Research Reference CD9 CD player ($12,999; reviewed by Fred Kaplan, October 2013, Vol.36 No.10 Review)

The finalists in this category included an A/D converter, three D/A processors, a media server, a portable media player, and a couple of Blu-ray players—signs of the times, all. So it may come as a surprise that the clear winner is a single-disc CD player. A CD player? That's right. Contrary to popular belief, the Compact Disc is not dead. In fact, for those interested in squeezing the very best from their CD collections, there's no better time than the present to invest in a high-quality disc player.


Consider Audio Research's Reference CD9, an absolute kicking, scratching, biting, no-holds-barred assault on the state of CD-player perfection. With four first-place votes and 15 total votes, the CD9 easily pulled away from an ambitious bunch. Granted, this isn't just any CD player. First of all, there are the tubes: Four 6H30 dual-triodes drive the analog section; a fifth 6H30 and a 6550C regulate the power supply. Then, the DACs: ARC claims that its use of four digital-to-analog converters (two per channel, each in dual-mono mode) reduces the digital noise floor by 3dB. For more fun, the CD9 provides optional on-the-fly upsampling to 88.2kHz and two choices of digital reconstruction filters. Oh, by the way, the CD9 also includes a full complement of digital inputs: S/PDIF on RCA, BNC, and TosLink; AES/EBU on XLR, and USB—perfect for those new high-resolution downloads you've wanted to stream.

The sound? "Simply excellent," said Fred Kaplan, who most admired the CD9's ability to reveal layers of detail while preserving a song's emotional complexity. "A superb source for music today and tomorrow," he concluded, though he recommended against using the optional upsampling.

Runners-up: (in alphabetical order)

Aesthetix Saturn Romulus CD player ($7000; reviewed by Jon Iverson, October 2013, Vol.36 No.10 Review)
Astell&Kern AK100 portable media player ($699; reviewed by John Atkinson, July 2013, Vol.36 No.7 Review)
Ayre Acoustics QA-9 A/D converter ($3950; reviewed by John Atkinson, November 2012, Vol.35 No.11 Review)
Bricasti Design M1 D/A processor ($8595; reviewed by John Marks, July 2013, Vol.36 No.7 Review)
Marantz NA-11S1 media server ($3499; reviewed by John Atkinson, October 2013, Vol.36 No.10 Review)
Meridian Explorer USB D/A processor ($299; reviewed by Art Dudley, September 2013, Vol.36 No.9 Review)
Mytek Digital Stereo192-DSD D/A processor ($1595; reviewed by Kalman Rubinson, July 2013, Vol.36 No.7 Review)
Oppo Digital BDP-103 & BDP-105 Blu-ray players ($499 & $1199; reviewed by Kalman Rubinson, May & July 2013, Vol.36 Nos. 5 & 7 Review)
Parasound Halo CD 1 CD player ($4500; reviewed by John Marks & Sam Tellig, June & July 2013, Vol.36 Nos. 6 & 7 Review)

anthony.aaron47's picture

As a refugee from high-end audio (my former spouse got custody of our system), I'd like to offer a counterpoint to what is offered here.

A competing audio site recently (October 24, 2013) reviewed a pair of Omega Super 3T Single-Driver monitors and a Dared 2A3C integrated amplifier.

Based on that review, and some phone conversations with the owner of Omega Speakers and the US Importer for Dared, I purchased a pair of Omega Super 3S speakers (the flagship of the Omega Super 3 series) and the Dared 2A3C SET integrated amplifier, plus Kimber Kable 4PR 8' cables. Total cost, less than $2k.

Thie sound of this system is magical -- even without being fully broken in yet -- and it just keeps getting better as the listening hours pass. The sublime sound of each component is dependent -- and revealing of -- the other. Neither operates in a vacuum. The speakers offer a wide and layered sound stage, fine detail when it's in the recording, and depth down to 38 Hz. The amplifier is dead silent -- and at 8 wpc is well able to push the sound out to these magnificent 4.5" full-range drivers.

This is a sublime system -- and, even though I've had a system that I considered excellent at 7 or 8 times the price -- I'll take this one any day.

bwright's picture

I have to comment on your review of the KEF LS50, as I have listened to these speakers at length.  

The bass is incredible for an enclosure of this size.  It is smooth and expansive.  The midrange is gorgeous and clear, and the air and space that this speaker lends to all recordings is superb.  In those areas, it far surpassed the other models I recently auditioned in the $5000 range.

But given the reviews, it was the aluminum tweeters that left me scratching my head.  On certain tracks, the treble was sharply etched, and had the same harsh and 'ringing' character that 90% of the metal tweeters I have heard typically exhibit.  

On occasion, you will find metal tweeters executed beautifully - Vivid loudspeakers are a notable example.  But in my experience, they are the exception to the rule.

I realize human hearing can be subjective.  Maybe it's just me.  Or it was the recordings or components used.  But that wasn't the case with other models I listened to, and with the exact same amplification and source.

In the areas mentioned, this speaker was truly incredible, and a remarkable achievement.  If your system is a bit more forgiving than most, then you'll love them. 

JohnJ's picture

I just want to give John Atkinson thumbs up for giving "awards"/saluting year awards to the two low budget speakers KEF LS50 and Pioneer SP-BS22-LR :  Great !!

I also want to thank him for his enormous amount of component measuring during many years: I have learnt a lot on where great hi-fi can be found from his conclusions of the measurements: For instance that Benchmark Media and Bryston make excellent measuring gear for a low/sensible amount of money while in contrast DartZeel and Edge are bad value for money.


John Atkinson's picture

JohnJ wrote:
I also want to thank him for his enormous amount of component measuring during many years: I have learnt a lot on where great hi-fi can be found from his conclusions of the measurement...

Thanks very much. This aspect of the magazine is very much a labor of love on my part.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile


bwright's picture

I'll now humbly revise my comments above.  I returned to the dealer who had originally arranged my auditions with the LS50.  They mentioned that I had been one of the first to listen to this particular set of speakers.  Since that point, they had been auditioned numerous times, and could now be considered fully broken in.  

I figured it was worth investigating, and set up the speakers with the same CD, source, cables and amplification.  Indeed, the hardness in the treble noted previously had completely disappeared.

This taught me an important lesson, and made me wonder how many other components I had written off in a similar way.  But one thing I did realize - the Stereophile award was spot on, and the LS50 is an incredible value.  The presence and warmth they add to vocals is stunning.  And if your desktop is big enough, these could be the ultimate computer audio speakers.

derekseto's picture

Hi, I have an 18 year old Denon UDRA-90 component system and the speaker surrounds are badly damaged. I'm looking for replacement speakers with a limited budget. I was considering the KEF Q100s until I saw your review of the Pioneer B22. While I do prefer the looks of the KEFs, the price of the BS22 is too attractive to ignore. The Denon's amp says its 8 ohm while the Pioneers speakers are 6 ohm. Would they work together? Would you recommend the Q100s or the B22s? Thanks for any opinion.