October 2009

New Spins on the Old CD

Talk to a tech pundit and you’d think the CD was as defunct as the film camera. Talk to someone at a hi-fi show and you’d think the CD was invented yesterday. While there’s no denying the slow commercial decline of the digital disc, there’s also no denying that it remains the primary format on which most of us buy and collect music. So it only makes sense that audio companies would continue to make CD playback better and more convenient than ever.

WHAT’S THAT SONG?

The CD players of today sound better than the ones of past decades, but until recently they all worked pretty much the same way: drop a disc in the drawer, hit play, listen to music, hit eject, repeat. The relatively recent migration of music to the computer makes this operation seem rather unfriendly—or, to be more accurate, uninformative. Computers can go out to the Internet, find out all sorts of things about the music you’re playing, and display it for you. With a conventional CD player, the most you usually get is a track number—not much help when you’re struggling to remember the name of the great standard that kicks off Sonny’s Way Out West.

The hottest new CD players of 2009 are stealing some of the computer’s capabilities, displaying the artist name, the album title, the song titles and sometimes even the album art on a front-panel display. The most extravagant and exciting example of this trend is Boulder’s new 1021 disc player, a truly state-of-the-art machine that combines many of the best elements of the audiophile CD player and the computer. Slip Way Out West into the 1021 and you’ll see the name of the artist, the album and all of the track titles (leading off, of course, with “I’m an Old Cowhand”). Although the 1021 has an Ethernet jack for an Internet connection, it also includes a large internal database of information about thousands upon thousands of CDs, so you can enjoy its info-intensive display even if you don’t have a network connection at your audio rack.

The 1021 uses its computing capabilities to deliver better sound, too. It employs a DVD drive mechanism, which allows it to read high-resolution audio data from CDs and DVDs. It reads the data from a disc into a memory buffer then sends it out from the buffer in perfectly pristine form, free of the jitter (or timing errors) that CD-drive mechanisms produce. The result is sound that’s probably as good as anyone has ever wrung from the CD.

At $24,000, the 1021 is intended for use in the world’s most elite audio systems. But similar technology can be found in PS Audio’s $2,999 PerfectWave transport. Like the Boulder 1021, the PerfectWave feeds CD audio data into a buffer then emits it with the jitter removed. The PerfectWave’s front LCD displays all the same artist/album/song data, and adds the album art, so you when you’re listening to Way Out West you can see Sonny all decked out in a Stetson hat and a pistol belt. The PerfectWave Transport’s front display is an especially great feature for those who keep all their CDs in folders (or worse, in stacks) and toss the jewel cases into a closet. The PerfectWave Transport is just a transport—it doesn’t have an internal digital-to-analog converter (or DAC), so you’ll have to connect your own. PS Audio would of course suggest the matching PerfectWave DAC, which also runs $2,999.

SERIOUS SOUND STORAGE

Music storage devices—those that rip your CD collection onto an internal hard drive and play them back from there—have been around for years. The appeal is undeniable: You get the benefits of computer-sourced music without the hassle of having to use a computer. For the serious jazz fan, though, most music servers have been designed for multi-room systems that distribute sound throughout a home. Multi-room systems are usually built for background music, not for serious listening. But recently a few companies have been designing servers to go into high-end audio systems, with sound quality that holds up even through a $10,000 pair of speakers.

The company that more-or-less originated these “serious servers” is Olive. It recently came out with its sexiest server yet: the Opus No. 4, which costs $1,499 to $1,799 depending on the size of the internal hard drive. Olive says the No. 4 is designed for super-silent operation. There’s no cooling fan, and the hard-disc drive is damped to keep it quiet, so even the faintest echoes on purist recordings like Chesky Records’ The Coryells won’t be drowned out by a whirring hard drive. The No. 4 also incorporates a high-quality digital-to-analog converter, so it should sound as good as many high-end CD players.

The most exciting feature of the No. 4, though, is its front color display, which lets you browse your music collection by artist, album name, genre and playlist, and also shows cover art. Most servers like the No. 4 provide this information only through a TV screen, so the No. 4’s color display alone may be enough to seduce video-phobic audiophiles.

The No. 4 can spread its magic far beyond your listening room, too. Place a $599 Melody No. 2 hi-fi multi-room player in another room, connect an amp and some speakers, and you can stream music from the No. 4 in the same pristine fidelity. The Melody No. 2 has a color screen just like the one on the No. 4, so you can control the music just as easily from the other room. Olive says a single No. 4 can stream to as many as 10 Melody No. 2s simultaneously, so you can listen to Count Basie in one room, Duke Ellington in a second, Fletcher Henderson in a third, etc., all from the same server. And both the No. 4 and the No. 2 feature a whimsical graphic treatment that looks more like the work of legendary Blue Note artist Reid Miles than like the plain “black box” designs of most servers.

A similar product recently emerged from respected British high-end manufacturer Naim Audio. Naim’s HDX shares many traits with the Opus No. 4, including a front LCD display for easy browsing. The difference between the two is a usual one with higher-end products: the HDX is more advanced in construction and sound quality. The $8,250 HDX incorporates two 400-gigabyte Seagate hard drives chosen for their quiet operation. One is used entirely as a backup, so if either drive crashes you don’t lose one note of music.

Naim is also famed for the sound quality of its CD players, and early reviews say that HDX sounds as good as the company’s best disc-spinners. You can also add a separate, isolated power supply to improve sound quality even further. The PR materials for the HDX stress that it’s a music player, not a music server—but it can, in fact, stream music to as many as six other networked devices.

SPINNING IT OLD-SCHOOL

If you just want to play your CD of Dexter Calling… and don’t want to come anywhere near this computer stuff, I feel for you. Fortunately, plenty of manufacturers are still putting out traditional “close ’n’ play” CD players that do their job without fancy technological trickery. In fact, some of the most interesting of the newer players are so old-school they actually use vacuum tubes. Why use tubes in a CD player? To warm up that sometimes-too-cool digital sound, of course.

PrimaLuna’s ProLogue Eight might be the most tube-centric CD player ever devised. It uses four tubes in the output amplification stage and two more in the power supply, and it even uses a tube in the clock circuit that provides the timing signal for the CD drive and the internal DAC. All but the clock-circuit tube are on bold display atop the player. But like Herbie Hancock, the ProLogue Eight is simultaneously traditional and modern—its DAC converts the 16-bit/44.1-kilohertz digital audio from CDs up to the 24-bit/96-kHz resolution of DVD-Audio discs.
Placing the Raysonic CD168 alongside ordinary audio gear is like standing the early 1970s Miles Davis next to the late-1950s Miles Davis. Like the ’70s Miles, the CD168’s over-the-top look is intended to get your attention, but beneath all the flash it still sounds great. This unusual, $2,549 top-loading player sports four output tubes surrounding a top-loading CD mechanism, all illuminated by bold blue LEDs. Even people who couldn’t care less about audio gear (let’s call them audiophobes) will be drawn to the CD168.

Don’t worry if a couple thousand dollars isn’t in your budget. You’ll be happy to know that if your 10-year-old CD player’s on its last legs, you can probably find a much better-sounding replacement for the same price you paid back in 1999. Most of the companies still in the CD-player biz have a great passion for sound, and all can pull from a much better selection of high-quality, low-cost digital audio chips than they had a decade ago. Good-sounding players can run as low as $299, which is the price of NAD’s C515 overachieving C515BEE. No matter what your budget, there’s a CD player out there waiting for you to fall in love with it.

CD FREE

If you’re from the generation that believes CDs exist solely to be ripped into iTunes, the Chordette Gem may do more than any other product to upgrade the sound of your memory-stored music and make it easier to access. The $799 Gem interfaces with all sorts of digital devices. Its built-in Bluetooth capability lets you stream music from a Bluetooth-enabled iPhone (or other smartphone), iPod Touch or laptop computer to your audio system. You can also connect the Gem to a computer through its USB jack. The Gem can access your favorite Ella tunes three ways: from your computer hard drive, from Internet radio stations, and from streaming services like Pandora. No matter what you play, the Gem’s high-quality digital-to-analog converter will make it sound a lot better than it would with a direct connection to the computer or phone.

Another great computer-centric audio product is the Sonos Multi-Room Music System, introduced a few years ago but constantly updated with new features and components. The system’s core unit is the $499 ZonePlayer 120, which connects to your home network and automatically accesses all your computer-stored music as well as Internet radio. Its internal 55-watt-per-channel digital amp powers a couple of speakers. Sonos’ latest options include the $349 CR200 wireless remote, which lets you browse all the music stored on all your computers—complete with cover art—from any room. And control through an iPhone or iPod touch is now possible thanks to free downloadable software.

1 Comment

  • Dec 19, 2009 at 02:51PM Anthony Perrone

    Up converting a CD to 24/96 has no benefit whatsoever. It adds no data so why?

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