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.
We have now listened to most of the brands that specialise in playing music files from a computer, streamers and servers that are available to the audiophile consumer and, to date, we are not convinced by any of them. Most do not come 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 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 comparison 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” reproduction. So far music files played from a computer from a hard drive 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 instruments and voices heard live. The sound stage is 2-dimensional, flat, with no real attempt to create the 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 clients who use CDs as a prime source.
We have decided that now is the time to introduce some 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 exceptional 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 conventional 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 at their respective price points and are solely audio-focused in their design and build.
Heralding from Germany, AVM have been developing and manufacturing truly high quality electronic equipment 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 totally 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 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 wide range of equipment encompassing Pre-Power & Integrated Amplifiers, 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 replay in this way. Thus, the MP refers to the fact that this is a true Media Player.
This superb product 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.
With identical technical specifications but without the tube line stage there is the EVOLUTION MP 3.2 CD Player and Streamer. Whilst maintaining a high level of sound quality, this model offers a different tonal balance due to the all solid state circuitry at a lower cost.
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 £5750
Same specification as the MP 5.2 model but without 83T tube line stage
EVOLUTION MP 3.2 CD Player & Streamer – black or silver £4495
A Portuguese company that has been dedicated to the improvement of digital music reproduction since 2009. Their goal was to focus on three core principles; Software and Hardware Synergy (providing true end-to-end solutions), Customer-Driven Research and Development (to truly understand what customers require) and finally developing an Open Platform (allowing integration with popular HiFi) that is being constantly reviewed.
In our listening tests covering all the key players aimed at streaming, we were very impressed with the sound quality of digital reproduction from both ripped CDs and streaming services. Right from the entry level, Zen Mini, the sound was way above the average. It was also clear how this sound improved as you step up through their range to truly nuanced and detailed performances. We have not always found this to be the case with other streaming dedicated brands.
With the most recent Mk3 range, Innuos has spent time and money developing custom computer motherboards. Designed specifically for their units to minimise Electromagnetic Interference (EMI), truly optimising performance, as opposed to the easier approach adopted by competitors of modifying something off-the-shelf. This custom hardware works alongside their custom firmware (innuOS).
Innuos has also focussed more closely on power supply quality with the entire Mk3 range, which is well known in audiophile component designs to provide large sonic benefits. Additionally, the USB interface itself has been further developed, to make this as free from noise as possible (a traditional problem with USB connectivity) maximising the transfer of musical information.
As well as sound quality Innuos has also concentrated on functionality. Their products are extremely flexible and easy to use – not always the case with products aimed at playing computer files. Each unit in the range can be used as a CD Ripper, Music Server /NAS (Network Attached Storage) and Streamer. This means they can be used either directly connected to your audio system or can serve music to suitable devices anywhere on your network, making placement more flexible. They also incorporate fan-less designs for quiet operation.
For these reasons, we have decided to stock the entire MK3 range from Innuos. They offer outstanding sound quality and superb value at their respective price points. Their stylish designs are a true bonus.
The ZENmini Mk3 (from £900) is a small unit (214mm wide) and is their gateway product. In our listening tests we found this to be a musical and highly enjoyable performer, whether playing CD rips or streaming. It can be used as a CD Ripper, UPnP Music Server (NAS) and Streamer, so is extremely flexible
Integrated TEAC CD drive used solely for ripping to the hard drive, for copies of the highest quality.
It has both Analogue RCA and SPDIF (optical and coaxial) outputs making existing hi-fi integration as easy as possible. It has 4 x USB 3.0 inputs as well as 2 x RJ45 sockets.
It can output via analogue RCA any file up to 24 bit/192 KHz, using the internal DAC, but can serve files out to the network including DSD and MQA to a suitable DAC.
This, as with all models, can be controlled by a free of charge application available on Apple iOS, as well as Android and Windows 10
Streaming services supported are; Qobuz, Spotify Connect, Tidal and Internet Radio as well as being Roon Ready (Roon Core and Roon Bridge).
It can be ordered with a variety of internal HDD drive options of between 1-8 TB of storage: 1 TB (£900), 2 TB (£1000), 4 TB (£1200) or 8 TB (£1500).
Optional Upgraded Linear Power Supply, in a separate matching chassis which further improves sound quality. Available for £449 if purchased with any Zen Mini, or £499 if purchased separately.
The Zen Mk3 (from £1900) is their first unit in a full width chassis. In our listening tests we found the Zen to have a notable step up in sound quality over the ZENmini. Sound-stage is wider and deeper, with better transients, and with voices sounding more natural.
It has the functionality of the above ZENmini (CD Ripper, Server and Streamer) except for only having USB output (no analogue or SPDIF), so it will require a USB digital input into your DAC/Amplifier. Innuos have spent a lot of time developing the USB connection to achieve ultra-low-noise quality and is now their preferred choice.
New dual layer Power Supply Unit designed by Dr Sean Jacobs, incorporating high quality Nichicon MUSE Capacitors.
More attention paid to vibration control with the chassis treated, along with incorporating asymmetrical, anti-vibration feet based on technology developed for the Zenith Mk2 SE.
With the increased RAM in this unit, playback of stored files is entirely from the internal 8GB of RAM on board, allowing music to be played without engaging the hard drive (a bonus in terms of sound quality).
New Generation Quad-Core Intel CPU.
Completely isolated dual-Ethernet RJ45 ports with dedicated isolation transformers.
Supports up to DSD 128 via DoP (DSD over PCM) and native DSD, through a suitable DAC.
The internal Hard Disc drive options are: 1TB (£1900), 2TB (£2000), 4TB (£2200) or 8TB (£2500).
Silver or black faceplate option to a black chassis.
The ZENith Mk3 (from £2,999) is their flagship one-box solution with the same styling as the Zen. In our listening tests, we found this to be a most impressive performer from both ripped CDs and streamed files. The soundstage opens even more, being more holographic in all dimensions than the Zen. Instruments have a smoother, more life-like character with the decay on notes being more natural. Bass transients are also more impactful. This unit offers a superb and very engaging sound for this price point.
Provides all the functionality of the rest of the range (CD Ripper, Server and Streamer)
Triple-Linear Power Supply Unit, designed by Dr Sean Jacobs, incorporating extremely high quality Mundorf Capacitors with ultra-low-noise regulators.
Incorporates SSD storage (with no moving parts) with newly improved vibration and EMI treatments.
Supports up to native DSD 512 through suitable DAC’s.
Internal Solid State Drive (SSD) options are: 1TB (£3000), 2TB (£3500) and 4TB (£4000).
As with the Zen, silver or black faceplate option to a black chassis.
The STATEMENT (from £9800) is the ultimate 2-box solution from Innuos incorporating the best of their current technology to maximise sonic performance. In our listening tests we found the Statement to have the best sound when compared to other streaming capable brands at this price level. Music was textured and detailed with a deep and wide soundstage. Voices and instruments were detailed whilst remaining natural and nuanced, with plenty of micro-detail. This is true state-of-the-art and builds on the R&D for their previous flagship model, the multiple-award winning ZENith Mk2 SE. It truly is a statement piece.
Provides all the functionality of the rest of the range (CD Ripper, Server and Streamer)
Double-enclosure linear power supply designed by Dr Sean Jacobs with 8 power rails (effectively 8 separate power supplies) that serve completely clean power signals to the various parts of the unit independently of each other. This reduces electrical noise caused by the voltage conversions of regulators. Moreover, these power supplies have been individually tailored for each critical component to work optimally.
Separately enclosed AC/DC conversion stage to isolate the transformer vibration and EMI emissions.
Regulation stage within the main enclosure to shorten the clean DC power path.
Custom designed components including a state-of-the-art Innuos designed USB board with a dedicated 5v power.
USB and Ethernet re-clocking by independently powered 3ppb OCXO clock for higher precision and lower phase noise.
EMI-Optimised, custom motherboard exclusively designed for Innuos.
Available in Silver or Black (milled-aluminium) for the front, side and top panels of both enclosures.
Internal Solid State Drive (SSD) options are: 1TB (£9800), 2TB (£1030) and 4TB (£10800).
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 to encounter such sound quality from an 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
AVM have been developing and manufacturing electronic equipment ‘for the highest quality of musical reproduction’ for more than 30 years. All their 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. Unnecessarily complex circuits are avoided allowing them to concentrate on using the highest quality components.
We have described in detail their EVOLUTION Media Players MP 5.2 and MP 3.2 in the section above, but these models can also be purchased as just CD players for those who do not require the streaming facility. Sound quality is of the same high level as that of the equivalent Media Players, particularly so for the EVOLUTION CD 5.2 CD Player that incorporates the tube line stage.
With identical technical specifications but without the tube line stage there is the EVOLUTION CD 3.2 CD Player. Whilst maintaining a superb sound quality, this model offers a different tonal balance due to the all solid state circuitry at a lower cost.
EVOLUTION CD 5.2 CD Player – black or silver £4525
Same specification as the CD 5.2 but without the 83T tube line stage
EVOLUTION CD 3.2 CD Player – black or silver £3150
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
HD30 D/A Converter – Airplay, DLNA, DSD, dual mono £3900
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.
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
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.
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, we are sure you can live without being connected for a few hours for the sake of an evening’s listening pleasure.