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CD vs. LP - a Face-off: a Musical Fidelity A308CR vs.
the Meridian 588-24 vs. an Accuphase DP-57 vs. a Technics SL-1210 MK2/Dynavector
10X5 analog rig
In this final portion of my CD player survey, I will be comparing the three players that I discussed in my previous articles—to each other, and to a turntable. My choice of turntable might be controversial, but stay with me. I had much hope for SACD and DVD-A, but those hopes were dashed. Both formats sound artificial to me. I tried and tried to like SACD, but couldn't stand to listen to it for more than a few minutes. Perhaps, instead of being too detailed, SACD (hi-res in general) is really too digital? The recent trend towards tube DACs or tube output sections in digital players is interesting. I've heard some of them, and they sound good. Is the wave of the future a throwback to the past? Tubes introduce forms of distortion. Is that what makes the music sound better? The very air we breathe introduces distortion to live music, so who can say?
Is the imminent demise of the hi-res formats a symptom of the iPod age? Many have said that people just don't care about music any more, yet everyone who listens to my system excitedly comments about how good it sounds. Perhaps someone now at work in a research lab will develop a standard that will finally blow us all away. Whether this happens or not, Redbook is what we have for now.
I have no doubt that most audiophiles would be thrilled to own one of the CD players under consideration here, but the Meridian 588-24 is the biggest question mark. I believe that if I played the same CD on all three units, blindfolded listeners would be able to pick out the Meridian player every time. The Musical Fidelity and Accuphase players are like brothers, while the Meridian is a distant cousin. For this survey, all three players and the turntable were heard with a Musical Fidelity A308 power amp, BAT VK-31 preamp, Olympic Audio loudspeakers, and VooDoo cables.
The Musical Fidelity A308 limits the highs somewhat, and is very, very rich through the midrange while producing prodigious amounts of bass. The Accuphase DP-57 has very good highs, is a little more polite through the mids, and sacrifices a tiny bit of quantity for quality in the bass. The A308 likes to have the volume control at a medium to high setting, the DP-57 sounds very good at very low volumes, and the 588-24 is loud, loud, loud all the time, no matter what the volume setting. How a stuffy British company can be responsible for the brash-sounding 588-24 is a mystery, one that I suppose proves the exception. The fact that the Musical Fidelity player is also British and the Accuphase player is Japanese is unsettling, since they sound so much alike. The Meridian was too much for me, and while I could easily live with either the DP-57 or the A308, I selected the DP-57 in the end. It was the best all-around performer, with a very organic and well-integrated sound. The DP-57 lets nothing get out of hand. No matter what music I play, the Accuphase player handles it with complete equanimity.
I have found the vinyl forum on Audio Asylum to be the nicest and most down-to-earth, as well as the most active of all the forums. One can post there without being jumped on. Through a friend there, HenryH, I learned about the amazing turntable that I used for this comparison. First, a few points: Do you know which turntable has been in production longer than any other? Do you know which is the best-selling turntable ever—over three million since 1972? The answer to both questions is the Technics SL-1200. First introduced in 1970, it is still in production, though it is mostly used by club DJs. Not only is it a DJ turntable, it is direct drive as well! Heresy upon heresy, to which I say, "So what?"
I'm not a stranger to vinyl, having owned a VPI Aries and a SOTA Comet. I found the VPI a little intimidating, and not a good choice for a beginner. It required constant adjustment, and used LPs sounded noisy. The Comet was nice, but I found that I was not using it much, so I sold it. After catching the vinyl bug again, I wanted something inexpensive, easy to use, and bulletproof. The Technics met all those requirements and then some. I opted for the SL-1210 MK2. At about $400, it is built like a tank—it weighs more than 20 pounds—and is virtually impossible to screw up. I mated mine with a Dynavector 10X5, also around $400. I was able to set it up in less than five minutes, with the hardest part mounting the cartridge to the headshell. I love the way the headshell mounts to the tonearm with just a twist. The SL-1210 even comes with a simple overhang adjustment tool. Get the edge of the cartridge straight and you're set.
I also really like the fact that the turntable is direct drive, which means that it is controlled by a chip that constantly measures the platter speed with a strobe light. This compensates for speed variation, and ensures perfect pitch. The SL-1210 also has pitch adjustment, so you can throw it off if you desire (as DJs are prone to do). Belt drive may be the only audiophile-approved drive mechanism, but I'd rather be assured of perfect speed. It may not be quite fair to compare an $800 turntable to a $3500 CD player, but if vinyl is superior, the turntable should still win, right? At least it should show the possibilities of LP playback.
For the faceoff, I used only brand-new records, and LPs for which I had duplicate CDs. These included Alison Krauss' Forget About It, Madonna's Immaculate Collection, and a couple of Julie London LPs for which I was lucky to find unopened originals. I know that many people enjoy combing record shops and thrift stores for old LPs, but I can't stand noisy records. The SL-1210 is very quiet. If the record is clean, there is absolutely no background noise. The turntable does a respectable job considering its price. It is a bit lacking in soundstage width, and dynamics are limited, but this could be the cartridge. The only time I've heard really good dynamics from an LP was with a $2000 Lyra Helikon cartridge.
I expected the Meridian 588-24 to beat the SL-1210 handily when it came to excitement and dynamics, but it was a very close call. I played the Forget About It CD and LP at the same time, switching between inputs on my preamp. The LP sounded more full bodied, and had more ambience than the CD, and this was true with all three CD players. It was sort of like the difference between a Gallo Merlot and a 1999 Le Macchiole Merssorio. Both are red wines, but the execution is completely different. The LP had more of the flavor of the music, while the CD held my attention because it seemed to have more detail.
The Accuphase DP-57 came closest to the turntable in terms of my enjoyment of the music, especially on the Julie London albums. When I closed my eyes, I struggled to detect whether I was hearing the CD or the LP. It is possible that this has more to do with the engineering of these recordings than with the playback medium. There were more differences with the Madonna album, and even more with the Alison Krauss album, favoring the LP. I conclude that this proves that modern engineering of LPs can elevate the medium higher than digital allows.
I decided to take my cue from Car & Driver, and rate the four machines using their famous numerical comparison chart:
I was quite surprised by the results. The SL-1210 bested the Meridian 588, but it fell short of the other two players because of its noise and lack of convenience. Of course, these characteristics are inherent to LP playback, and the Technics has no control over them. Is the chart accurate? I did my best to be fair, but having to get up every 15 to 20 minutes to turn over a record will simply never be as convenient as playing a CD. And the noise, which is an issue even with brand-new LPs, is just not an issue with CDs.
I was also surprised at how close the tallies were for the Accuphase and the Musical Fidelity players. Considering the price difference, the A308 is a bargain. If you don't mind the ritual of playing LPs, it is certainly worth the effort. I will keep the DP-57 and the SL-1210. The DP-57 sounds better to me, and is the most enjoyable, but I also love the SL-1210. It looks pretty good, and it's very easy to use. It can be modded endlessly (from people like kabusa.com) and I can always explore different cartridges. Best of all, it sounds great. Speaking of tweaks, there were two that really took the SL-1210 to the next level. An acrylic mat in place of the rubber one considerably heightened the dynamics, and I couldn't believe how much difference it made to "nude" the Dynavector cartridge by removing the plastic shell. One never knows.