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Audio Note UK CD-2.1x MkII CD Player Review

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Audio Note UK CD-2.1x MkII CD playerAfter attending CES 2010 and being impressed with both Audio Note rooms, I decided that I really needed to bring in one of Peter Qvortrup’s digital front-ends. Audio Note digital is most famous for its unique design in that all of their players use no digital or analog brick wall filters and no oversampling. Virtually all other manufacturers use filtering and oversampling in their CD players. Competing makers contend that without filtering, the sound would be poor. Indeed, the sound of most early CD players that used no oversampling or digital filters was truly obnoxious. And of course, being from Audio Note this is a tube CD player which Audio Note claims to have an expected life of 100,000 hours, 24/7 for over 11 years.

Receiving the 2.1x/II CD player in a rather small box, I opened it up and lifted out the rather light and plain looking unit. Nothing about it exactly impressed me. I have reviewed and auditioned many CD players over the years and for the price of this player it looked and felt rather uninspired. Aesthetically, it is another plain black box with big blue lights indicating track and time, but not the nice features of many less expensive CD players which will tell you the name of the artist or song title. The remote is plastic and entirely pedestrian, although functional. The power switch is oddly positioned on the back of the unit. I asked Peter why he put the power switch on the back and his reply was to deter people from turning the unit off. The expectation is that you will leave this unit on 24/7 to get the best sound from this unit.

The player uses the Philips L1210 transport mechanism which is also used in many other CD players in this price range including Bryston and Sim Audio, and to be honest I am not a big fan of it. I find it rather slow to read discs and the tray speeds in and out very quickly but rattles. My old Cambridge Audio at $800CAD from the mid 1990’s inspires far more confidence, and at about 14 years on, the player lived up to my inspired confidence as it is still chugging along perfectly. Sound quality is entirely another matter, however, and I will address that in a moment.

Break In

There is much debate on audio forums over break in and whether it is real or not. Now, the issue never interested me that much because to break in something merely requires that you use the equipment. Of course, the debate is the length of time required to break gear in. If the manufacturer makes the break in period long enough then the customer will run past his period to return the item to get his money back. Nice racket to be sure and there is probably some truth to this in a large audio industry where not all makers are created equally. I have had equipment that I heard no break in from and some equipment that made rather large very audible differences over a period of time.

One of my first experiences with break in came with B&W 302 speakers. These were entry level speakers in the $250US price range and for the first 10 hours I experienced rather loud popcorn popping sounds coming from the woofers. Anytime I put the volume up I would sometimes hear these loud consecutive pops. After about 15 hours I never heard the noises again. That is clearly an issue of the drivers working something out to settle in or “break in.” I think even those without a belief in break in can probably see the possibility of speaker breaking in. With cables, CD players or amplifiers I have to say I have not really bought in. There are too many known psychological factors at play to really buy in that we have the ability to detect these differences. Spending large sums of money makes us want to believe that the unit we bought sounds better over time. Our ears may also just be getting used to the new piece of gear.

Well, here sits an Audio Note CD player that actually really does have a break in period, similar in fact to my B&W 302 experience. This player uses Black Gate capacitors, which those familiar with caps swear take many hours to really start sounding good. My experience though has been more profound than that. Several early auditions had the player stop during play and go back to the beginning of the disc. I assumed that perhaps my CD was scratched or dirty. After all this player is a zero times oversampling player – it will read the disc once and perhaps it is more finicky to dirt. The player did this several times for the first 25 hours or so and I sent a message to Peter who replied that this happened to his machines at home using that same transport mechanism. The advice was to wait awhile. And so I did. Keeping the machine on 24/7 I have used the player steadily since and it has not had a single recurrence of reverting back to the beginning of the disc. Whatever needed breaking in, capacitors, power supplies, the tube, etc, broke in and the player has been flawless since. I have kept the unit longer than usual at a little over 4 months to ensure that this is not a lingering problem.

I don’t wish to belabor the point about aesthetics and ergonomics but one last note: this player is not going to win any beauty or build quality awards. It’s not badly built but it is small, lightweight and feels a little skimpy compared to some of the similarly priced units from competitors on the market that seem to me to be able to serve as a black box unit for a Boeing. The CD 2.1X II looks exactly like the less expensive 1.1x and both do not have much in the way of connections. Many other less expensive players have balanced connections, for example.

It’s all about design

I have often been surprised by how brand- and or price-conscious people are when it comes to audio products. The assumption is that if it costs more it is probably better, or worse – if it weighs more it is probably better. Looking at the Audio Note CD 2.1X/II it neither feels impressive in build or ergonomics, it uses a rather old 1543 16-bit multi-bit digital-to-analogue converter chip combined with tube technology, it does not read SACD and it is light on features. It’s also the best digital sound you will get from a Compact Disc. Why? The design.

Audio Note digital sounds as natural as the format is capable of offering in my experience. I first heard Audio Note about 7 years ago. A one-box CD player for about $4,000 up against a competing, well known $30,000 player from Scotland and there really was no comparison. And I felt it must be due to the design of the player because one would assume that a $30k player would be using superior parts, or at the very least more expensive parts. It makes a lot of logical sense to design a player which impedes the signal as little as possible and it seems to me the Audio Note approach does exactly that. By adding noise shaping, various filters, switches etc., each one leaves some sort of sonic footprint on the initial signal. These footprints may make some discs sound better or “smoother” to the ear but they also leave their own artifacts or digital noise that generates listening dissatisfaction long term.

The Audio Note approach is probably similar to that of the SingleEnded Topology of amplifiers where feedback is a form of correction that may pretty up the measured response but at the expense of sound quality.

Ok so perhaps there is a certain “logic” to the simpler-is-better design, and using no filters or noise shaping may make a degree of sense; but the early players used no filters or oversampling and sounded truly terrible. So of course, the theory has to be matched by practice and it’s safe to say that the theory has been put into proper, fully realized practice here.

Sound

Discussing the sound of this player has been a challenge because to be blunt, if you have not heard Audio Note CD replay then you have not, in my view, heard what CD replay can achieve. There are players that have loads of detail, spatial cues, and bass lines that are deeper perhaps, or players that have lower noise floors which give a better sense of “layering”. All of those things may be commendable achievements but what the AN designs do that I have heard from no one else is their ability to sound tactile in a sense that approaches the best analogue. I would make the case that if you are a vinylphile and generally hate digital, then Audio Note is probably the only CD player manufacturer out there that could convince you to invest in the shiny silver discs.

The best analogue has a certain threeimensional sensation and naturalness that digital, at least CD digital, often lacks. Some good tube CD players add a degree of “warmth” by basically serving as a buffer to soften the edge of digital but that is a very different thing than what the Audio Note CD players are doing and that goes back to the fundamental simplest-path-is-the-best-path approach. The tube CD players that use tubes as mere tone controls to soften the edges are just a form of noise shaping or filtering process. At some point those players will likely cause the owner to be bothered by the presentation because pleasing as it may be, they tend to create a homogenized presentation by stamping the same “buffered warmth” onto every single CD. So while they may help out bright recordings by making them enjoyable, they will also blur or add a level of veil to well recorded discs which over time can be just as bothersome.

I listen to a wide array of music from several genres and I was impressed at not hearing the CD player’s voice. Disc after disc sounded wildly different from each other and in some cases from track to track. Nikki Yanofsky’s first CD is a mix of jazz standards, and pop songs from Ron Sexsmith and compression was easily noted in the pop songs while the larger dynamic range of the Jazz tracks was dramatically more realized. While other players can get those difference to varying degrees, I found it rather more startling here.

As with all Audio Note gear there is nothing fatiguing about the sound, nothing that draws attention to itself as being too much of one thing over another. I find that many audio products are often revered for a certain audiophile trait such as imaging or treble extension but often times it is those very accepted strengths that over time is the reason they’re replaced. The 2.1X/II does the balancing act better than most. The sound is crystal clear and possessed tremendous bottom-end when the disc had such content. Whether I played Iso Mike’s High Altitude Drums SACD/CD or limited dynamic discs such as Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster the player continually presented a sense of truth to the source disc for good or ill.

I have heard better CD replay from Audio Note, so putting things into perspective this player isn’t as good as the upper models but nor does Audio Note put in an upgrade-itus sound. By this I mean that the CD 2.1X/II lies by omission. It is less resolving than higher-end models but at the same time the 2.1X/II does not really seem to be missing anything until you audition the next model up. As a teacher I can’t recommend staying ignorant in our collective hobby but you would be tempted to wonder if CD replay could get any better if you did not hear the upper models. It simply never puts a foot wrong on any and all music that I tried. It possesses the speed and impact required for hard rock and metal of AC/DC and Nightwish to the ballad pop/country singers like Faith Hill or Johnny Cash.

The player negotiated high impact large scale music while retaining the lighter touch of single performer single instrument live acoustic music such as Jackson Browne’s two solo albums. The player does rhythm and decay and transients as well as anything I’ve heard. You can hear the decay from one instrument and the transient of another and never get the washed-out blur that many other players, including my Cambridge Audio, offers. In fact, my Cambridge Audio sounds so poor in comparison that I can’t believe there was a time that this was considered entry level high-end, or that I considered it entry level high-end.

Why CD?

I have wondered if CD truly has a market left with the iPod generation in full force and people downloading music for free. While this is illegal in the U.S., it has no such teeth in terms of lawsuits from many other countries. The big selling CD outlets have cut their floor space dramatically and almost removed their classical sections completely. Many manufacturers including very big name high-end manufacturers have dropped production of CD players, including that Scottish maker mentioned earlier, in favor of digital streaming and high resolution players. Companies like Meridian with their impressive Soolos interface system can have a user store tens of thousands of songs with almost instant access to any track from any artist. I suppose the same thing was said in the late 1980s when CD was in full swing and offered features that vinyl simply didn’t possess such as storage capacity, ease of use and portability. Vinyl survived and is now better sounding than it has ever been. The CD format faces the same kind of fight.

Fortunately, so many people have very large CD collections and the sound quality of the 2.1X/II is such that for those looking for sound quality over convenience they should have absolutely nothing to worry about. While very good vinyl, for many, still sounds superior to the best CD players, even to the guys at Audio Note, at least this CD technology has a horse in the race. And if you are wondering, yes, my next CD player will be from Audio Note.

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