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CD 2.1x CD player
as reviewed by Ed Morawski and Greg Ewing (with a short commentary by Dave Clark)
I began to drool at my first exposure to the features of this all-in-one player: Sony transport, Analog Devices 18-bit/1x DAC with no brick-wall filtering, pure Class A tube output stage, oil output caps. This sounded like a very good recipe for a single-box player. When I received the review sample, I popped the cover and looked inside, to find a clean layout, beautiful boards, hefty power supplies, huge oil caps, and a tiny, thimble-sized output tube that is soldered to the board. No NOS tube swapping here, folks. The power cord is detachable, and thus upgradeable, although I used the stock cord. The player sports an impressively thick brushed aluminum faceplate, and the build quality looks much better than the price would indicate. Styling is definitely more European than Japanese. The British seem to provide just the features that you will actually use and nothing more. Cheers for that.
I had never heard a "zero times" oversampling (or should that be "one-time" sampling?) CD player or DAC before getting my hands on the Audio Note CD2.1x, so I was more than a little curious. It seems the industry is heading in many directions to solve the same problem, which is to avoid phase distortion. After hearing SACD and the Taddeo Digital Antidote, there is little doubt in my mind that phase distortion is the major obstacle to getting natural digital sound. The Audio Note player arrived at a very good time, as I was in the middle of ongoing mods of the Sony CE775 SACD player. The Audio Note immediately and positively smoked the Sony on Redbook, which I fully expected it to do, but it also surpassed my modded JVC-1050, as well as the JVC1050/Bel Canto DAC1 combo, which I didnt expect at all.
No use putting this offthe Audio Note 21.x is the finest digital source I have had in my system. Not that it will please everyone, mind you. I have heard it said that one-time oversampling DACs and players make digital sound more "organic." I have to agree. This player will have most listeners seriously questioning whether Redbook CD sound is really all that inferior to the latest high-resolution digital offerings. The Audio Note player is so natural sounding that I kept thinking it sounded more like vinyl than other digital sources. The natural harmonics were so unlike my other digital experiences that it was disarming, and difficult to get used to. Hall acoustics were detailed way into the rear of the soundstage. I have found that this ability is one of the major factors that separates high end from mid-fi components.
It really is difficult to make accurate conclusions regarding digital technology these days. I have heard great SACD sound. I have also heard excellent upsampling players. Now I have heard a "one-time sampling" player. Which approach is best? All three seem to have unique advantages. SACD has an unmistakable relaxed quality that is almost unequaled in my experience. Upsampling players add a fullness and richness to the sound as well as adding additional separation to instruments and voices. One-time sampling seems to provide a combination of these attributes, not to mention making use of existing Redbook CDs.
To illustrate, I recently got the latest Lara St. John CD, Bach: The Concerto Album (thanks to Ed Morawski for the tip). The Audio Note made this CD sound very analog-like, with absolutely no trace of digitalis. The sound of the hall was incredibly obvious. St. Johns violin was warmer, richer, and more three-dimensional than I have ever heard it. Or, try the Mark Knopfler soundtrack CD, Shot At Glory. The sound was so liquid it almost seemed that some reverb had been added to the mix. This CD sounds good on other digital sources, but on the 2.1x it became a reference disc. Comparing both of these discs on upsampling DACs revealed slightly more instrumental detail but less organic and natural sound. The Audio Note seems to humanize the sound, particularly with poorly recorded sources. I have no clue why it should do this. Its entirely possible that some listeners will find the Audio Note slightly dull compared to similarly priced players. In my experience, the combination of tubes and oil caps is very friendly to less-than-ideal digital sources, and always adds a subtle sense of warmth. I found it interesting that the Audio Note player was the only digital rig in my experience that was not improved by the Taddeo Digital Antidote (passive version). There were simply no digital artifacts for the Taddeo to remove. This leads me to believe that the Taddeo device really does remove some of the audible ringing effects of brick wall filters.
Is this the perfect CD player? Almost. It doesnt play DVD/As or SACDs. Lets see, at last count I had over 1200 CDs, 8 SACDs, and zero DVD/As. That means the Audio Note will play 99.4% of my existing software collection. I suspect that this percentage would be similar for most audiophiles at present. I think you can wring slightly more detail out of Redbook CDs by using an upsampling player or DAC, but only at the expense of the natural, organic, and relaxed quality of the Audio Note. The highs seem slightly rolled off, which I consider a bonus for poor digital material, but you might not. I dont know if its the one-time sampling (and subsequent lack of a brickwall filter), the tubed output stage, or the oil output capacitors. My guess is that it is a brilliantly designed combination of all of these, combined with the use of a solid transport and substantial power supplies. Whatever the design elements, Audio Note should be very proud of the end resultthe CD2.1x brings true musical clarity to the listening room. I now desperately need to hear the latest Audio Note DACs hooked up to my JVC and Sony transports. I think Audio Note is really onto something here. Greg Ewing
The Audio Note company and this CD player, the 2.1x, seem to share peculiar British traits. Don't get me wrong, I love Englandsome of my fondest memories are of the time I spent in the Blackburn areabut the British do have their idiosyncrasies. When I do a review, I go to the company's web site to check out its philosophy and the latest news, and get the technical specs of the component. When I went to www.audionote.co.uk, I was a little surprised. For instance, the "Recent News" section was dated July 2000! This is 2002, isn't it? Perhaps two years is not the same time span as it is in the Americas? Or there just isn't any news? Next I searched for the 2.1x, but the only CD players I saw were two-box models. After awhile I found the AN-CD2, which looks similar to the 2.1.x but has been around quite a long time. There was no mention of the 2.1x anywhere. In frustration I did a search and found one mention of the 2.1x by a dealer in the U.S.!
Having hit a brick wall in my research, I turned to the player itself. My sample had a silver face and was somewhat attractive, but Audio Note chose to busy up its looks with too much labeling. "Audio Note" appears on the disc tray and on the front left side, then in the lower right corner there are the words: "6111WA Valve Output Stage, 18 Bit/96khz d-a Convertor, Featuring the Exclusive Audio Note, Direct from Disc, 1x oversampling circuit." I thought this was a bit much. As far as other features, the remote is compact, but has very tiny buttons. The player's operation is very quick. The table of contents of the CD comes up in the blink of an eye and you're ready to listen.
I let the player warm up for several hoursit does have a tubeand gave it a listen (it should be noted that Ed got the player after I had put a good 400 hours or more of time on it - Dave Clark). My new system, consisting of a Plinius CD-LAD preamp and Plinius SA-102 power amp driven by a Resolution Audio Opus 21 CD player, had been in place for a month or so. Initially I thought the Audio Note was quite good. The first disc I played was Keiko Matsui's Deep Blue, and I was immediately struck by the ultra-wide soundstage and superior separation. The bass was very good for a tube player, and listening carefully for the highs I was satisfied that it was keeping up with my Opus 21. The longer I listened, though, the more I could detect problems. While the soundstage was wide, there were distinct holes in it. In my room, the sound was coming from the left, middle, and right instead of having a seamless spread. The highs were also rolled off and the bass was a wee bit sloppy.
Next I listened to Norah Jones Come Away with Me. Detail was pretty good, but the piano just didn't have the impact I knew it should. I found the player lacking in emotional involvement. This is not to say it wasn't good, but I felt myself reaching for another CD even though this is one of my favorites. Trying something a little less "refined," I put in Madonna's Immaculate Collection, and turned up the volume. On a few of the slower songs things sounded good, but as the pace quickened the player just couldn't keep up. The bass became more sloppy and the highs a trifle harsh. I know many people use tubes to round off the digital edges, but in my experience, they just cannot keep up with digital playback. I think this is less evident in the Audio Note than other tubed players I have heard, but still a problem. I played Lara St John's Bach Concertos, and again was happy. Her violin was smooth and accurate, and the piano deep in the background was still evident. However, there was a definite lack of air compared to the Opus 21. Continuing through the tracks was fairly enjoyable as long as the music didn't get too complex.
Over the next several days I kept coming back to the Audio Note. Its sound intrigued me, and I had to make sure it wasn't my mood that was affecting my perception of its performance. Nevertheless, my perception remained that the player, while good, has problems with the extreme lows and highs, and with complex music. By the second week, the 2.1x had been on for over 300 hours, so break-in time should not have been influencing the sound. I tried more CDs. I had recently rediscovered the Eurythmics, and slid in their debut album. "Love is a Stranger" had good bass tempo and solidity, while the highs were clear and distinct, but as the tracks played on it got harder to listen. By track seven, "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This," I couldn't stand it. The music was indistinct and all over the map. The last CD I tried was Diana Krall's The Look Of Love. On "Love Letters," drummer Peter Erskine lays on the brushes a little too much, I think. On the Audio Note it sounded like static! This was very disconcerting, but I had heard a similar sound on this track from the Nohr CD-1, coincidentally also a tubed CD player.
While my criticism of the 2.1x may seem harsh, the problems I have noted are actually minor compared to a player twice its price. On the other hand, the Audio Note is $1499, a tough price point. I haven't heard the new Cary 308, but I imagine it will smoke most of the competition in this price range. The Arcam CD72, at half the price, sounds really good, and If you want a similar, tubed design, the Nohr CD-1, also $800, sounds almost as good, although its reliability is perhaps not as high.
The British have been around a very long time and cherish their traditions and history, but while some British firms produce some of the most advanced technology in the world, others stubbornly cling to outdated customs. It's hard to get a handle on this company and this player. While it can sound stunningly good at times, I think it has a limited place in today's market. Ed Morawski
I don't usually like to butt in to reviews, but Ed and Greg have hit it right square on the head with their two different takes of the CD2.1x. Both are quite right, in that depending on the system it is used in, this player will either be the cat's meow, or a dog barking up the wrong treeat least that is what I have experienced personally.
I had the player prior to either reviewer and found that in my system, it presented itself pretty much as Greg described (I used the player for well over a month after running it 24/7 for a good 300 hours. I also left the unit on when not playing musicmeaning the player had a substantial amount ot time on it before either reviewer gave it a listen). A very good player for the money and one that could compete with players costing considerably more. Not the best there is, but not one to run home with its tail between its legs when faced with a myriad of music. The CD2.1x offered a big and exciting sound with plenty of detail and warmththough perhaps a tad too rich in the midrange as it was not the most revealing or transparent player to come through. I would also describe it as being a bit rolled off at the top and more loose at the bottom than tight and punchy. It had a big robust sound and never came across as etched or bright. Images were spread across a reasonable soundstage with a degree of depth and palpability that made most music involving. The player was very fun and enjoyable to listen to after a day chasing 10 year olds around a classroom.
On the other hand, I took the player over to a friend's place, and there it came across as just the opposite. In this system, the player was bright, forward and not the least bit involving musicallyrather Hi-Fi-ish at its most mediocre. The soundstage was neither wide nor well all that well defined. Details were more etched and well... oh-so-digital. It was okay, but what the heck happened to the fun factor? Where did the music go?
Want to really add a monkey to the party? I also had the 3.1x player here. In my system the 3.1x came across like the 2.1x as heard in my friend's system. Not good. Yet in his system the 3.1x came across as the 2.1x as heard in my system. Really good.
Which means that system matching really comes into play here with this player. As does using the right power cord, suspension system, and any other tweak one wants to use to maximize the player. But whether the player works for you or not will require an in-home audition. Dave Clark
Ed is quite capable of dealing with things electrically as that is his background (he has built a fair amount of amplifiers and speakers so he knows what he is doing and is also an EE.) Therefore, he would have no problems dealing with load requirements.
As to our qualifications, I have been writing and reviewing gear for over 10 years now, and Ed has been heavily involved in audio most his adult life, as has Greg. Both are very well versed in audio and post quite often on Audio Asylum. Ed has also owned more gear than most of our readers, so he knows what is going on. Other than that, either you like us or not.
And I also disagree with your comments as to my cover-over. It is obviously an issue of system synergy/compatibility and tastes. Which is what I said in so many words. And no, the review was not meant to be a report on zero or over-sampling. We report on what we hear, though when we can, on perhaps why. If Ed wants to go into oversampling, he is more than welcome, as are any of our technical editors.
Sorry someone did not like an AN product. Things like that happen. On the other hand, I and Greg loved it! Heck, I even bought one.
Oh, Bob is more than welcome to join in!
the record, my Plinius CD-LAD and SA-102 combo retails for over $8000! The specs on the
CD-LAD preamp are:
CD 2.1x CD player