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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 1
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nOrh

CD-1 CD player

as reviewed by Ed Morawski, Carlo Flores, and Francisco Duran

 

 

 

 

ED MORAWSKI'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Alon Capri.

ELECTRONICS
Bryston 4B-ST amplifier and a Muse Model 3 preamplifier.

SOURCE
Muse Model 5 transport and 296 DAC.

CABLES
Synergistic Research Kaleidoscope interconnects, AudioQuest Slate speaker cables, and DIY power Cord.

 

one.jpg (6551 bytes)After many hours spent listening to the nOrh CD-1, I still don’t know if I like it, but I should start at the beginning (for your information the player was broken-in for well over 100 hours prior to the "formal" review process) . Upon opening the rather flimsy box, I was surprised to see a sleek, silver-and-black CD player. The CD-1 is also very substantial, being all metal. After admiring the thick aluminum and black-smoked Plexiglas front, I was anxious to hook it up. I decided to test its performance as a transport first, mated to my Muse 296 DAC, but this was not to be. I could not get any signal! I tried again with my Denon 5700, but still nothing. Okay, most owners are going to use the CD-1 as an integrated player anyway, for its tube output stage, so no big thing. With a spare set of Synergistic Research interconnects, I connected the CD-1 to my Muse 3 preamp. Planning on letting the tubes warm up for an hour or so, I flipped on the rear power switch and was greeted with a terrible hum. The next several minutes were spent trying to find the source, to no avail. Changing cables, inputs, power cords, and receptacles accomplished nothing, so I decided to open up the unit.

Although nothing appeared amiss inside, I was glad I had a chance to check out its innards. The construction quality was superb. The CD-1 is made in Thailand by some engineers that formerly worked at California Audio Labs, and it is far and away the best piece of electronic gear I have seen that comes out of a third-world country. Two things should be noted, however. First, the tubes are unmarked. Secondly, there is no provision for the cooling of the tubes, as the chassis is without a ventilation hole of any kind. This causes me some concern about heat buildup. There being nothing much else I could do, I screwed the cover back on and proceeded to listen.

This CD player completely changed the character of my CD collection! I have never heard a player make such a huge difference. I started with Deep Blue by Keiko Matsui, a very well-produced set of piano tunes. The nOrh made it sound like a new recording. I suspect the tubes are producing harmonics in certain ranges. I could actually hear the piano wires vibrating each time she struck a key! This effect was evident on many instruments. Anxious to hear how the CD-1 reproduced vocals, I inserted Diana Krall’s The Look of Love. Although her voice was creamy and silky-smooth, other notes were emphasized to the point of annoyance. This seemed most pronounced in the lower midrange, and was evident on the rather peculiarly-tuned guitar used throughout this CD. This time the effect was grating.

Not wanting to give up, I played many more CDs, each one sounding either fantastic or irritating. For instance, on Loreena McKennitt’s The Visitor, the CD-1 seemed to over exaggerate her intake of breath, while the harps and piano sounded amazing. I finished up with her Parallel Dreams, and that left me almost liking the nOrh because it was so emotionally involving. Her voice sounded natural, while the stringed instruments were as good as I have ever heard. The drums had a deep, hollow sound that you rarely hear on a recording. I also became aware of a clicking sound at the beginning and end of each track. I assume this is a relay. While it didn’t really bother me, some may find it objectionable.

What do I say? Was this unit defective? I don’t know. I am not a big analog fan, but I suspect a vinyl buff would love it, as it sure doesn’t sound digital! It can be described as warm but detailed. Bells, cymbals, and chimes are crystal clear, and most stringed instruments flat out sing. The bass is tight, and extremely detailed. The soundstage is okay, but I noticed that on some recordings the image seemed to separate and then reform. The CD-1 is an interesting unit, and you owe yourself an audition if you’re looking for a non-analytical sound. Ed Morawski

 

 

 

CARLO FLORES' SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
PSB Stratus Bronze, Sennheiser HD580, Grado SR225 and SR60 headphones.

ELECTRONICS
Conrad-Johnson Sonographe SA-250 amplifier. DIY headphone amp and an Anthem Pre1L (w/Mullard tubes).

SOURCES
AH! Njoe Tjoeb CD player (w/Amprex tubes), Arcam Apha 9 CD player, Rega Planar 3/Origin Live RB250/Grado Gold. Vintage Phillips receiver (phono and tuner)

CABLES
TEK-Line power cords, Tara Labs and Kimber interconnects, and DIY speaker cables.

ACCESSORIES
Vibrapods, BDR cones, and DIY rollerblocks.

 

two.jpg (6646 bytes)Since buying the AH! Njoe Tjoeb 4000 CD player, I’ve been wondering about its competition in mid-priced tubed CD players. Enter the nOrh CD-1, a well made CD player with a tube output stage, not a buffer as in the AH! Njoe Tjoeb. The nOhr also has an enticingly low price. I was dying to hear it.

The CD-1 feels like a statement about what’s possible in the sub-$1000 price range. The fit and finish of the chassis, with its rounded edges and utilitarian look, appealed to me, much more so than the Marantz-based Tjoeb. The interior of the nOrh is cleanly laid out, and looks much more substantial than the competition. No isolation, tube rolling, or mass damping was done at any point during this review.

Before going any further, I’ll note what changes have been made to my player. Dave Clark added an IEC input, attached to which is a DIY power cord based on Doc Rosenberg’s design. The top lid and bottom chassis have several layers of Dynamat pressed onto their surface for added rigidity, the headphone output has been disabled, and the tubes have been replaced with 1964 Phillips SQ E88CCs. The Arcam Alpha 9 also featured prominently in my comparisons.

First up was Having a Party with Jonathan Richman (Rounder 9026). Jonathan Richman is an interesting guy, known to drop his guitar and dance like a madman without regard to where the mic is, and his love of music comes across clearly in his work. This single-mic'd live performance, just Richman and his guitar, feels like a flashback instead of an album made in the early 1990s. The CD-1 handled it easily, not giving much of a hint that it’s a tubed component. The guitar lacked any sense of smearing, with the slightest sweetness, but without sacrificing extension. I felt very much like I was in the crowd, with the occasional hoot coming from the far right, the audience clapping around me, and Richman working the stage. The soundstage of the CD-1 isn’t as wide as the Tjoeb’s, but it is projected forward, not offensively, but enjoyably. Richman moves across the soundstage on "Monologue About Bermuda," clearly establishing a depth that extends about three feet behind the speakers and a foot in front of it. The Njoe Tjoeb presents images as if seen through a fish-eye lens, with the lead singer up front and the other images rounded out behind. With the CD-1, those boundaries turn into straight lines. It is more believable, just as involving, and superior to the Tjoeb.

The CD-1’s instrument separation and clarity with complicated works such as Tricky’s Maxinquaye (Island Records 610524 089-2), is about average. This recording’s layered and stepped bass tracks have more blend than I hear with the Alpha 9, but are much faster and deeper than with the Tjoeb. On "Ponderosa," the sense of ambience that makes trip-hop what it is pops out of the digital black. The nOrh has an admirably low noise floor for a tubed component. Its black background, and its excellent linearity from the midrange down, easily outclasses the Tjoeb. However, there is a prominent lower treble glare. On Maxinquaye, the female lead’s voice sounds brassy, and this doesn’t quite fit. The synthetic horn work throughout the disc lacks the texture and sweetness I get with the Tjoeb. I suspect a tube change would tame the harshness, but I cannot say this with certainty. As it is, the Tjoeb not only sounds more fluid but also has more air. Cymbal crashes on the DCC remaster of Metallica’s Master of Puppets (GZS-1133) sound hard and fake with the nOrh. Granted, through the Tjoeb–or the Arcam for that matter—they don’t sound remotely close to the real thing, but at least they’re listenable.

Another Steve Hoffman remaster, Joni Mitchell’s Blue (DCC GZS-1132), finally shows her brilliance without the artifacts so prominent in previous digital releases. Yes, I’m in love with her, and yes, I think her voice is one of the greatest the world has known, but with the nOrh I can’t get into the recording at times. When listening through either the Tjoeb or the Arcam, I get caught in the romance of "A Case Of You." With the nOrh, her voice falls apart. But that’s still focusing on the negative; the guitar sounds vibrant and rich, without the exaggerated but pleasing tone of the Tjoeb or the flatness of the Arcam. It rings with beautiful decay, slightly colored but very absorbing.

I spend a lot of time listening to great music recorded on bad equipment. The challenge isn’t so much in getting a piece of equipment to forgive those errors, but having it let the musical qualities come through. For example, an early CD release of The Velvet Underground’s "Lady Godiva" (White Light/White Heat (Polydor 31453 1251 2) has a ruthless, hard sound that grates on the ears, but listen for technique instead of sonics and it’s negligible. Through good equipment it is so absorbing that the lyrics become secondary. The CD-1 does well, if a tad rolled off in the upper registers when compared to the Arcam. Compared to the Tjoeb it’s a touch flatter, but that’s a compliment considering, once again, that the Tjoeb exaggerates the soundstage.

So, Njoe Tjoeb or nOrh CD-1? The CD-1 looks better, sounds better, and feels like a lot more thought was put into it, with one caveat—the upper-frequency glare cannot be ignored. Given everything the nOrh does so well, this turns from a minor blemish to a distraction. It’s easy to imagine how great the CD-1 could be, but it falls sadly short of the mark, at least with the stock tubes. When the Njoe Tjoeb is outfitted with its stock tubes, there really is no contest. The nOrh beats it silly. The stock Tjoeb sounds bland and uninvolving. The stock CD-1 presents the music much more easily, with a slightly forward sound that keeps me both interested and willing to dig deeper into the recording. A more worthy adversary is the Arcam Alpha 9. It outclasses the nOrh with its ruthlessly revealing nature. While slightly laid back and arguably lean, the Alpha still has the detail and speed that makes it my favorite player under $2000. However, forgiving and euphonic it isn’t. The nOrh has great soundstage and tone. It’s revealing enough, just warm enough to be called musical, and complete enough to live with. Highly recommended.
Carlo Flores

 

 

 

FRANCISCO DURAN'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
ProAc Response 2 with Osiris 24" stands.

ELECTRONICS
Monarchy SM-70 amplifiers (mono). Reference Line Preeminence lA passive line stage.

SOURCE
Musical Concepts’ Pioneer DV414 DVD Epoch VII Signature player. Taddeo Digital Antidote Two.

CABLES
Superconductor+ interconnects and a double run of JPS Ultraconductor speaker cables.

ACCESSORIES
Panamax power conditioning. BDR cones and Vibrapods.

 

three.jpg (8484 bytes)When it came time to write this review, I realized that I had very few listening notes. Was the nOrh CD-1 CD player so good that I just sat in front of it dazed, pen in hand but not writing? Maybe it was just so much fun to play my CD collection through. What a novel idea! The fact that the CD-1 has two 12AX7 tubes mounted to its circuit board might conjure up visions of rich tonal color and layers of musical dimension. Well, that depends. If there is anything you learn quickly when dealing with tube-based products, it is that the tubes used can have a profound influence on the sound. I have been reminded of this fact in my recent return to tube amps. In any case, what nOrh has brought to with the CD-1 is a player with a tube output stage and a 24/96 Burr Brown DA processor. nOrh designed the CD-1 player from the ground up. It’s not a Marantz el cheapo stripped and modded to the hilt, not that I have a problem with modded CD players.

Lifting the bonnet of the CD-1, one first notices a single circuit board covering three quarters of the interior real estate, with two tubes, two transformers, and all components neatly mounted to it. The CD-1’s construction is very solid. This unit costs $799? The look and feel alone suggest something more like $1400 or $2000. Actually I had the CD-1 in my system several times. Switching to the nOrh CD-1, I immediately noticed a very open, dynamic, and fast-paced musical presentation. As with the Lamm LL2, don’t let those tubes fool you. The nOrh CD-1 delivered a clean, well-balanced sonic picture. At times I felt that a little too much light was shed on the top end. It wasn’t really bright, but leaned that way with certain recordings. Aside from that, I do feel that tonal balance is definitely a strong point of this player. No part of the spectrum was exaggerated. Notes trailed off nicely. Bass notes were agile and punchy. Benefiting from the tubes was the texture and realness of timbre so often missing in a solid state unit. I’m not sure what brand of tubes was installed in the nOrh CD-1. I did not "tube roll," but my experience tells me that a whole different musical picture can be painted by slapping in different tubes, while the inherent sonic character of the unit will still be evident. If I could change anything by doing so, I would like a slightly sweeter top end and a little more dimension in the lower treble. That said, the mid to treble range of the nOrh CD-1 accounted for itself quite well. Play all of the violin recordings you have in your collection. Violins and orchestras were reproduced smoothly, but with detail. A CD player with less grain than this one would cost you much more.

The CD-1 can deliver naturalness of tone in the critical midrange, yet still deliver the goods at the frequency extremes. This is where I think it has a leg up on the competition. The sonic picture of the nOrh CD-1 is open, lively and engaging. It will not cheat you at the frequency extremes, nor will it slow down a fiddle player doing "Flight of the Bumble Bee" or trip up the bass player going full tilt on some hard rock. Throw in nice harmonic texture and dimension and you have a well -rounded player. I feel the competition for this player is well beyond the $800 price bracket. The slogan for the last few years seems to be "Why wait for the digital debate?". I don’t know about you, but I want my music now! Check this player out. Francisco Duran

 

 

 

nOrh CD-1 CD player
Retail $799 (recently discontinued)

nOrh
web address: http://www.norh.com

 

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