Digital Replay

The CD players we have on demonstration at present are all integrated, one box players. We are not against separates but these tend to be very expensive. We still believe CD players to be the more musical way to listen to digital recordings for a more natural, less ‘hifi’ sound, compared to other digital media. Some smaller independent labels are producing very high quality digital recordings on this format which can rival the best of the golden age of analogue recordings.

CD Players vs Streaming DACs

We have now heard many of the brands that specialise in playing computer music files, streamers and servers that are being offered to the audiophile consumer and, to date, we are not convinced by any of them. None comes close to the sound quality achieved by a high quality recorded CD played on a quality CD player. FLAC and WAV files, even at so called higher resolution, still sound compressed when compared to the same music played from a CD through even a modestly priced CD players such as the  Norma DS-1 or the Hegel Mohican.

The higher resolution music file, the size of a movie, such as those supplied by HDTracks or Native DSD should easily beat a standard CD – but it does not. In careful listening tests, this is very easily demonstrated with a close A vs B demonstration using exactly the same music. Clearly something is lost even if they tell us it is ‘lossless’. 

The major difference in sound quality is one of resolving the details that give the aural clues to the 3-dimensional depth of sound stage. The air and space around instruments and vocalists. These are very important aspects of 2-channel stereo and one that make it a more convincing recreation of the concert experience, not just merely a “hi-fi” sound. Computer music files, so far, fail to deliver these finest details despite the claims made for them. The tonal balance is also shifted towards the brighter end of the spectrum, far removed from the natural timbre of instrument heard live. And the sound stage is 2-dimensional, flat, with no perceivable illusion of depth.

Convenient streaming and computer files may be, we have never chosen convenience over sound quality. Even DACs capable of supporting high resolution files, DSD and DXD recordings have not lived up to expectations despite glowing reviews. For us streaming from Tidal or Qobus will be recommended as a convenient secondary source to offer our client who use CD as a prime source.

Streaming

We have decided that now is the time to introduce streaming components to our portfolio. Up until this point, we have been disappointed with the flat, compressed sound of this medium, when compared to a good CD player. Streaming from subscription services such as Tidal, Qobus, Deezer, etc, still does not compete with the same music played from a CD via a competent CD player.

We therefore regard streaming as being a complimentary technology to the best physical sources available, CD and Vinyl, as opposed to a replacement of these well-established existing formats. For us streaming offers convenience for casual listening, discovering new music, sampling music prior to purchase, or creating background music playlists.

After extensive auditions of many of the best brands in this arena, two stood out to us on sound quality, AVM and Innuos. Both offer highly commendable sound quality from physical sources as well as offering a competent sound from streaming but have a different take on this area.

AVM offers a real TEAC based ‘Pure CD drive’ CD player integrated into many of their streaming units and are a more traditional hi-fi component in appearance. The CD is played as in a traditional transport in real time.

Innuos has its history in computer based equipment only. Their units give the ability to quickly rip CDs to internal storage and then serve this data (along with other streaming services and attached storage) to the network, or direct to the audio system, or to a separate DAC.

Both brands offer a more natural sound than most other streaming products for their respective price points and are solely audio-focused in their design and build.

 

Streamer CD/Players

AVM Streamer/CD players

Heralding from Germany, AVM have been developing and manufacturing electronic equipment ‘for the highest quality of musical reproduction’, for more than 30 years. They have been producing this, with the goal of delivering ‘joy and emotion to the listener’. All the design and development is done in-house and all models are fully manufactured in their own German factory.

During our investigations, we were impressed with their quality of musical reproduction, along with their striking looks and their outstanding build quality. They aim to use simple, logical design principals to achieve optimal performance levels. Because they do not design unnecessarily complicated circuits, there is less requirement to use compensating components for them to function correctly. This allows for a focus on the best components, and by carefully selecting these electrical components there is less of a fingerprint or character imposed on the musical reproduction.

AVM offers a range of equipment encompassing Amplification (Pre/Power & Integrated options), CD & Streaming, All-In-Ones, Turntables and a Phono Stage.

The EVOLUTION MP 5.2 CD Player & Streamer is a versatile unit which in our listening tests offered a most natural music reproduction, from both streaming and especially from the integrated ‘Pure CD drive’ TEAC based CD player. Most streamers are not so focused on CD in this way. Thus, the MP refers to the fact that this is a true Media Player.

This superb unit provides particularly good sounding streaming, plus a no-compromise CD experience, all in one chassis. This is a very talented and beautiful looking unit, with the ability to deliver all of your digital music with insight and aplomb.

This unit can stream from the Network (LAN, UPnP or Wi-Fi), from a hard-drive up to DSD (as the MP 5.2 has no internal storage /ripping capability), or from services such as QOBUZ, TIDAL or Internet Radio.

The MP 5.2 can also be used as your digital-hub as it has the following six inputs; USB, 2 x Optical S/PDIF, 2 x Coax S/PDIF, plus AES/EBU over XLR. It can thus function as the DAC to your entire digital universe. It contains a no compromise DAC utilising two fully balanced DAC modules per channel as well as using specially conceived AVM low-gain input stages, a technology borrowed from their flagship-line pre-amplifier (the OVATION PA 8).

Another feature that really sets this unit apart from the rest is the in-house developed EVOLUTION 83T Tube Line Stage, using custom AVM 83T tubes, used in a fully-balanced mode. Our listening tests easily demonstrated that this gives a very natural and satisfying sonic delivery with weight, detail and a very ‘real’ timbre to music.

The unit is controlled by either the RC S remote control app for both Apple iOS & Android (free of charge) or from the optional full-colour RC 9 remote.

EVOLUTION MP 5.2 CD Player & Streamer – black or silver £5,750.00

AVM website

EVOLUTION MP 5.2 CD Player & Streamer
EVOLUTION MP 5.2 CD Player & Streamer

Under evaluation.

Innuos website

 

Streaming CD Receiver

AVM Streaming CD Receiver

The EVOLUTION CS 5.2 Compact Streaming CD Receiver is a very interesting and versatile all-in-one unit. One of the more recent trends in hi-fi is for ‘lifestyle’ units, these being smaller and with the ability to do more from a single chassis. This unit takes these principles to a new level of sound quality without serious compromise. We were impressed with the CS 5.2’s range of talents and sonic character delivering great dynamics and a very natural timbre. Exceptionally rare with such all-in-one designs.

Firstly, there is a very powerful amplifier delivering 2 x 220 wpc at 8 ohms (2 x 330 wpc at 4 ohms), with 2 sets of switchable speaker outputs.

Next, contained within, is a TEAC based ‘Pure CD Drive’ to give outstanding CD reproduction. It is acoustically shielded and spring-mounted to protect from unwanted resonances and structural feedback loops.

Connectivity is ample with 4 analogue line inputs and 1 phono input (for both MM and MC). To compliment this it has a range of digital inputs (Coax, Optical and USB). There is both a pre-out and line-out.

This unit can also stream from the Network (LAN, UPnP or Wi-Fi) including from a NAS, from a hard/thumb drive (as the CS 5.2 has no internal storage/ripping capability), or from web services such as QOBUZ, TIDAL or internet radio. The streaming client firmware is updateable and upgradable, making the CS 5.2 future-proof. It also includes a RDS FM tuner.

It is fully controllable through vast menu functionality including; tone controls with bypass function, adjustable input sensitivity, individual naming of inputs etc. It is remotely controlled using either the RC S remote control app (for free download for both Apple iOS and Android) or the optional RC 9 full colour remote control.

As a bonus, it also has a high quality pure Class-A headphone amplifier with 6.3 mm output.

EVOLUTION CS 5.2 Compact Streaming CD Receiver – black or silver £5750.00

AVM website

 

EVOLUTION CS 5.2 Compact Streaming CD Receiver
EVOLUTION CS 5.2 Compact Streaming CD Receiver

CD/Players

This Norwegian electronics company has been around since the mid-1990s but in recent years has become much better known in the higher end of the audio market. They have a very focused range of products which include integrated amplifiers with built in high quality DACs, two separated DACs and a dedicated CD player. The CD player is called a Mohican, which could be considered the last CD player you need to own. This plays nothing but Compact Discs and does so superbly. This product really appealed to us as a courageous move in today’s market where there is a trend towards computer files as a main source.

Most CD players today try to incorporate many additional facilities to enable other digital formats to be played, support DSD, etc. The problem is that these additional functionalities not only drive up the cost, but significantly reduce the sound quality when playing CDs. The Mohican does nothing but play CDs, rare in today’s market, and plays them exceedingly well. A dedicated CD player using the very latest in digital processing, adapted for CD only. The results are astonishing.

The Mohican CD player offers a truly high-end sound, a very refined, very organic sound. This elegant sound is largely due to their patented SoundEngine to control the clock, forcing jitter down to levels they have never reached before. Perhaps the lowest in the world.

Mohican Reference CD player £3900.00

HD12 D/A Converter – 32 bit/192kHz with USB input £950.00
HD30 D/A Converter – Airplay, DLNA, DSD, dual mono £3900.00

Hegel Music Systems website

Hegel Music Systems H590
Mohican Reference CD player
HD30 D/A Converter
HD30 D/A Converter

After listening to, and being disappointed by, many DACs designed principally for playing music files from a computer, we have finally found one that presents music in a way that is more like that offered by the best CD players. It is from the Swiss company Merging Technologies and is called MERGING NADAC – Network Attached Digital to Analogue Converter.

Merging Technologies is the world’s foremost manufacturer of high-resolution digital audio recording systems. Their list of customers reads like a who’s who in the recording industry and recordings made with Merging Technologies’ systems regularly receive the recording industry’s prestigious Grammy® Award. So many in fact, that they have lost count. The NADAC is essentially a consumer version of their analogue to digital converters in the Pyramix Digital Audio pro recording stations used in the major studios around the world, the gold standard for DSD recordings.

Merging Technologies founded in 1990 quickly established a reputation for their expertise in digital signal processing and associated hardware, and with their Pyramix Virtual Studio, was one of the first companies to produce a DSD recording system. The DXD format, (Digital eXtreme Definition) which works at 352.8kHz/24bit, was then developed by Merging Technologies in collaboration with Philips, to overcome the challenges in editing and mastering DSD for SACD.

The benefits they gained from years of developing cutting-edge products for the professional recording community are now made available to the discerning audiophile. By introducing RAVENNA networking to the home, it not only removes traditional limitations in DACs working with computer files, it totally transformed the performance that can be delivered from true high resolution file systems such as DSD and DXD.

What appeals to us about this NADAC, apart from it being one of the best sounding DACs we have heard in recent years, is what it does NOT do. It does not up-sample, it does not over-sample, nor does it convert PCM recordings to DSD. If used as a DAC attached to a CD player or transport, it will play the music in its native format – 44.1kHx/16bit. Simply as it is intended to be listened to, not making up information that is not there. We have always found that quality CD recordings sound better when they are not subject to unnecessary additional processing – and MERGING agree with this totally. No one in the professional recording industry would dream of doing otherwise.

Another aspect that appeals to us about the NADAC is the lack of a USB port. We have never 
been convinced by this connection for audiophile use, even though it has become virtually ubiquitous in most DACs on the market today. MERGING found that IT based point-to-point connections such as USB or Firewire were either not optimum, or even obsolete, for audio even though other manufacturers have pressed them into service. There was only one choice that made sense: RAVENNA. This uses Ethernet output only. Ethernet is not length limited like a USB cable (probably to a maximum of 2.0 m), it can transfer data accurately, and fast, up to 100 m – and it does not carry any power. RAVENNA Precision Time Protocol was developed by MERGING to enable clock resolution to be accurate to 1 Nanosecond. This level of accuracy is only feasible using the Ethernet interface. It is the only logical choice for the professional and is now available to the serious audiophile via the MERGING NADAC.

The first DSD256 (11.2 MHz sampling) recordings were made in 2013 with Merging Technologies equipment and have been acclaimed by many top engineers and producers as another revolution in audio recording and reproduction. DSD256 works at 4 times the rate of the original DSD64 and provides a major improvement in sound quality, as well as a significant improvement in the noise characteristic. This is backed up by enthusiastic feedback received from professional users. Despite its many advantages from the audio perspective, DSD is difficult to process. The solution was another Merging Technologies development. DXD, Digital eXtreme Definition, was created by Merging Technologies to seamlessly move a DSD file into a PCM environment so that editing and processing can take place more easily.

True high resolution files in DSD or DXD format, in native format, taken from the master recording, before further processing, cannot be preserved on to a physical format such as a CD or DVD without compression of some sort. These very large files can only be transferred to, and played from, a suitable hard drive.

These true high resolution files, such as DXD and DSD sound exceptional through the NADAC. The NADAC is the only DAC on the market today to support the highest DSD files, and to do with the ultra-precise communication clocking asynchronously. Hence the true performance potential of the master quality recordings can be realised at the same level of resolution excellence as it was recorded and mastered.

The precision of the NADAC will expose poor recordings, even if they are DSD or DXD files. The fact they are high resolution files does mean they all sound good. The music can only as good as the engineer who made the recording. But when the recording is good, the sound is exceptional through the NADAC.

The honesty of the Merging device simply makes it seem like it is playing music totally unconstrained by the electronics

Alan Sircom, HiFi Plus

The NADAC is offered in two versions:

Network Hi End DA Converter.
Network Player network streamer Hi End DA Converter.

NADAC ST2 2 channel £10200
NADAC MC8 8 channel £11220

NADAC PLAYER ST2 including Roon £13250
NADAC PLAYER MC8 including Roon: £14270

NADAC PLAYER prices includes VIP Service Fee and optional Roon Lifetime Licence.

Cables and accessories

Cordial RAVENNA RJ45/Ethercon Network Cable - 2.5 m £100
Cordial RAVENNA RJ45/Ethercon Network Cable - 5.0 m £125
Cordial RAVENNA RJ45/Ethercon Network Cable - 10.0 m £200
DELL 8 Port managed network switch RAVENNA QOS pre-configured £306

The Eight channel versions can be configured in one of two ways:

The 8 channels of the ESS Sabre ES9008S Reference D/A converters can be merged into 2 for improved linearity, greater dynamic range and a lower noise floor. An appropriate choice for the serious audiophile.

The 8 channel version can be set at any time to operate in 8 discrete channel modes, or 4 stereo modes.

Both versions have separate headphone outputs using the same method of combining the channels for uncompromised DSD/DXD listening on your favorite headphones.

The Merging NADAC is about the most accurate and precise digital listening tool I can think of. Very highly recommended.

Alan Sircom, HiFi Plus

 

Merging NADAC by Alan Sircom, HiFi Plus Merging NADAC by Alan Sircom, HiFi Plus (191 KB)

Merging NADAC website

Merging NADAC
 
Merging NADAC
 
Merging NADAC
 

These digital sources are manufactured by a high quality electronics manufacturer in Italy. Little know in the UK at the moment but well established throughout Europe. Extending their philosophy of their superlative range of amplifiers, Norma Audio CD players have a natural tonal balance, very fast rise time dynamics and speed and generate large and deep soundstages. Elegant Italian designed casework and high quality components used throughout. They offer a sound quality that can easily rival some CD players costing several times the asking prices.

REVO DS-1 integrated CD player. Includes 5 digital inputs; 4 x SPDIF, 1 x USB(pictured)
£4195 silver 
£4330 black                            

REVO CDP-1BR reference CD player (pictured, same CD player as DS-1 but without digital inputs)
£3595 silver
£3730 black
REVO DAC-1. 5 digital inputs; 4 x SPDIF, USB.
£3375 silver
£3510 black

REVO HS-DA1 DAC. Half size chassis. Includes 5 digital inputs: 4 x SPDIF, 1 x USB.
£2195 silver
£2274 black

REVO HS-DA1 VAR. Half Size chassis. Same as HS-DA1 but includes Variable and fixed output. Remote control included.
£2777 silver
£2854 black

REVO HS-DA1 PRE. Half size chassis. Same as  HS-DA1 VAR but includes dual mono Pre-amplifier and 2 x Class A headphone output. Remote control included.
£3875 silver
£3974 Black

Norma Audio Electronics website

REVO DS-1 integrated CD player
REVO DS-1 integrated CD player
REVO CDP-1BR Reference CD playe
REVO CDP-1BR Reference CD player

It is easy to obtain a significantly better sound quality for your CDs by some simple and cost effective treatments. One tip is even for free! The improvements are far from subtle and make sound more natural, less ‘digital’, with more clarity and depth. It raises the bar and separates the sound obtainable from these silver discs further from the other computer orientated digital sources.

 

Disc Cleaners

The outer plastic that encapsulates the aluminium foil of a CD is made from optical grade polycarbonate. This is the same material that spectacle, and some camera, lenses are made from. It is important that this surface is absolutely clean for the laser to extract the information from the pits in the foil without corruption. Even if the surface looks clean it probably isn’t. The manufacturing process will inevitably leave a film of release agent from the stamping process and, with time, atmospheric pollution with coat the surface. The simplest and safest way to clean this surface is with a proprietary cleaner.

The best one we have evaluated is that made by Furutech called PC-Alpha Disc Pure Cleaner. It comes in a little puffer bottle complete with a microfibre cloth. It treats around 100 CDs. For maximum cleanliness, we would recommend using a soft tissue (such as Kleenex) and disposing of it after use. This avoids the build up of dirt on the microfibre cloth unless this is washed very frequently. Remember to clean across the disc surface, never in a circular motion.

Furutech PC-Alpha Disc Pure Cleaner £21

Furutech PC-2 Disc Pure Cleaner

 

Static Build Up

Plastic materials build up static charge very easily. This is especially a problem in a dry centrally heated environment. CDs are particularly prone to this and this influenced the sound from them adding a brightness and harshness to the upper frequencies. Furutech have come up with a novel little static charge remover that is simple to use and treats a CD within 20 seconds. It is called a Destat III. Play a non treated disc for 30 seconds or so. Put it in the Destat machine and play it again. The results are dramatic. A whole new life comes to the sound. It sounds less ‘digital’ with upper frequencies sweet and rounded. Sibilance is virtually eliminated. In our view an essential component for the best sound from CDs.

Furutech Destat III £299 (new photo in due course)

Battery driven, mains adaptor.

Furutech Destat II

 

A Perfect Circle

Despite looking like they are, CDs are not always cut to a perfect circle during their manufacturing process. This means they are not rotating symmetrically or evenly in the disc player. This influences the laser beam error correction and puts strain on the rotational bearings. The clever people at AudioDeskSysteme, responsible for the renown ultrasonic vinyl cleaner, have come up with a CD disc cutter that not only delivers the perfect circle but bevels the edge to 36 degrees.

The more important effect of this cutter is the bevelling of the edge. This reduces refraction of the laser beam that occurs laterally through the plastic encapsulation producing reflections that distort the sound.

The effect on sound is not subtle. The sound is cleaner, more transparent and images are better focused and easier to perceive. More space around the instruments within the sound stage.

Due to the poor value of the GBP, we have been forced to increase the price of these items.

AudioDeskSysteme CD Sound Improver £890.00

New cutting blade £49.00

New drive belt £5.00

AudioDeskSysteme CD Sound Improver

 

Free Sound Improvement

When listening to your audio system, try turning off your wireless router and all mobile phones. The sound improves by quite a big margin. Tonal balance becomes more natural with more authority and, most importantly, the sound stage becomes much more holographic. And it’s free!

Go on, you can live without being connected for the sake of an evening’s listening pleasure.