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resolution audio

Opus 21 CD player

as reviewed by Ed Morawski


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Alon Capri.

Plinius' 8200 integrated, the SA-102 amplifier, and CD-LAD preamplifier.

Muse Model 5 transport and 296 DAC, or the Cary 306/200.

Empirical Audio interconnects and speaker cables, and DIY power cords.


Resolution Audio is something of a cult. This small, San Francisco-based company made several CD players, but decided to stop manufacturing for two years while bringing the Opus 21 to market. I checked their web site, and was very impressed with what they are trying to do. Resolution sells direct now, with a thirty-day, in-home audition. If you don't like the Opus 21, you can return it for a 5% restocking charge. After talking to Jeff at Resolution, I decided to order one. That was back in March. Jeff anticipated they would be shipping in April, but as with any new product, there were problems. Although Resolution wanted to use a slot-loaded, CD ROM-based drive, they found it was not suited for use in an audio component. This necessitated a redesign of the box. Jeff called to keep me informed and to make sure I was still interested. Finally, in June, I got a call informing me that the Opus 21 was on the way via FedEx Ground service. It arrived the next day, very nicely packed in a fitted wooden crate.

The Opus 21 is a unique, two-box design incorporating the power supply and display in one box and the transport and DAC in the second. This is intended to isolate the transport from EMI noise from the display and power supply. The DAC also has an external digital input for another source, such as DVD. The Opus 21 has four Burr Brown D/A converters, and is set to permanently upsample to 96/24 kHz. The volume control has 98 steps. A very familiar plastic remote with just fourteen buttons, but no direct track access, is included. The odd size of the units (approximately 9.5 inches) means that they will not fit side by side on most racks.

Upon powering up, the Opus 21's large blue LED matrix display comes on and, accompanied by a Star Wars-like chirping sound, begins initializing. The opening and closing of the drawer is very fast, as is the TOC reading, so you are ready to hear music in blinding speed. My audition took place with the following equipment over a period of over two weeks: Plinius 8200 integrated amp, Plinius SA-102 power amp, used direct, and the Plinius CD-LAD, used in combination with the SA-102. Speakers were Alon Capris and my own DIY two-ways, which have Scan Speak 8545/9500 drivers and a first-order serial crossover. My speakers are very smooth and detailed, and were extraordinarily well matched with the Opus 21. Also on hand for comparison was a Cary 306/200, my favorite CD player (until now).

Let me get one thing out of the way—the Opus 21 does have a somewhat irritating whine when a CD is in the drive. This is audible when no music is playing, but is drowned out when in use. Perhaps Resolution should look into putting some noise insulation in the box. After leaving the Opus on for the first few days, I first connected the Opus 21 and the Cary into different inputs on the Plinius integrated, and put in Keiko Matsui's Deep Blue. Matsui is a so-called "smooth jazz" pianist and this, in my opinion, is her best CD to date. The Opus sounded very, very good. I listened to three tracks, then switched to the Cary, making sure the volume was the same (difficult until I switched back to the Opus and readjusted it to compensate and listened again). The two players are very similar in sound, but vary in texture. Bass is quite good in both—a sign of a good power supply, although the Opus 21 is much smaller and lighter. Most of the time, a blindfolded person would find it hard to discern which player they were hearing, but when the music hits the high notes, the differences become more evident.

The Opus 21 is more lifelike and realistic in its high-frequency presentation. A piano key sounds organic, a steel string sounds like steel, and so on. It was not until I heard the Opus 21 that I even realized that this quality is missing from every other CD player I have heard, including the Cary. Because of this, I put the Cary into its upsampling mode and listened again. The 306/200, while very musical and accurate, is harsher than the Opus 21. The difference is subtle, and most listeners (myself included) will not notice it unless they experience the two players side by side. The Cary may have more "punch,” but the Opus 21 is more emotional. The clarity of the Opus 21 is startling. On quite a few CDs, I was able to clearly understand lyrics I was never able to discern before. This occurred on Norah Jones' debut album, as well as on Vanessa Mae's Storm, where she sings in French. For once, I was able to hear it clearly enough to translate the words.

The Cary has HDCD decoding while the Opus does not, so I was unable to compare them on HDCD-encoded discs. I didn't miss HDCD at all on the Opus 21. Plus, when you turn on the upsampling on the Cary, the HDCD seems to be defeated anyway. I finally gave up on the Cary and just enjoyed the Opus 21. I listened to Norah Jones all over again. "Seven Years," "Come Away With Me,” and especially "I've Got To See You Again" sounded like new arrangements. The goosebump factor of the Opus 21 makes it worth many times its asking price. Is it perfect? No. The remote has no direct track access, and it balked at one or two CDs, but after I opened and closed the drawer a few times, it finally agreed to play them. That whirring noise will bother some people, though I find it barely noticeable. At $3000, or even twice that price, the Opus 21 is probably the best CD player on the market. I will not be returning mine. Ed Morawski

Opus 21 CD player
Retail $3500

Resolution Audio
TEL 415. 643. 6971
web address:
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