There are more expensive sources than these but beyond the selected price band, the CD landscape grows noticeably more sparse as an expected no-compromise package around £3,000 presumably gives way to almost mystical levels of hand-built perfection.
Spending this level of cash on a CD player arguably buys the listener into the audio equivalent of a supercar - specialist manufacturer expertise with purpose-built assembly are just some of the similarities, but unlike your average Lamborghini, ownership of this home-based exotica can be a pleasure at all times.
Upper strata CD players share many common elements such as solid, well-damped construction to reduce vibration which sometime includes a clamping device for the disc. DAC (digital/analogue converter) design, mostly integrated at this price level, is the biggest variable but the target will always be perfect conversion using lots of digital trickery. Attention to clock control and jitter can be expected to be of a far higher specification than lower-priced stuff, and rigorous filtration methods will be employed throughout - usually by an obsessed band of geeks who sleep, eat and dream about the perfect digital to analogue interface.
Our equipment used for testing included the superb Canadian-manufactured Bryston amplification comprising the BP 26 and MPS2 pre-amplifier and power supply (£2,750 the pair), and the 4B SST C Series power amplifier (£2,950). Atlas Mavros three metre speaker cable and one metre Pseudo-balanced RCA interconnects linked it together, (£1,355 and £750 respectively). Several speakers were tried to see whether one pair was more compementary than another to the system as a whole. They included PMC FB1 (£1,950) floorstanders and Cello Stradivari Grand Masters.
Media for listening included a concentration of old school tracks from albums such as Bela Fleck - Flight Of The Cosmic Hippo, Buddy Holly - The Master Tapes, Rickie Lee Jones and The Civil War (soundtrack) on Electra.
Listening included detection of timing, dynamic capability and emotion. Other areas of concentration were about the differences in vocal resolution, mostly about whether the smallest nuances could be fully reproduced - tiny areas where detail could be heard, or not. Tests also included the ability to isolate tonally similar instruments and translate bass texture. All players were competent in these areas, but as always, some were more competent than others.
Price: £2,950 More info: Classé Size: whd 445x121x419mm Weight: 11.8kg Formats: CD, HDCD, DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, MP3, WMA, Video-CD and S-VCD discs Line out: Stereo phono, XLR Digital out: Coaxial, optical, XLR - AES/EBU DAC: Cirrus Logic CS4398
The Canadian-built Classé with fascia hewn from solid aluminium and a cool-looking touch display screen, comes with a three-year warranty. It is physically the biggest player in the group with a wide media-playing ability in areas where others didn't bother to tread. It is compatible with both DVD-Audio 96kHz audio and conventional video discs. DVD sound processing includes PCM for minimal two-channel compression, Dolby 5.1, Pro Logic 1 and 2, and DTS. Selecting 'automatic' in the menu will allow the machine to choose the stream with the greatest number of channels.
Blue lighting also extends to the well-finished brushed aluminium remote control - all 46 translucent buttons glow at the first touch. The proliferation of buttons is partly due to the additional DVD controls plus four customisable buttons to allow the user to pick an action deep into the menu layers. If more than one Classé product is in use, it allows two things to be activated at the same time such as 'CD' preamplifier input and 'play' on the CD deck. The 102 also has CAN BUS ports for inter-Classé component communication.
The monochromatic touch screen arrived in blue but it doesn't have to be that way. There's a choice of a nice pinky-red, green, and a whitish grey which kind of looks like Classé's description, silver.
For anyone interested in multi-room audio, the 102 has an array of features including daisy-chaining options for infrared control and an RS232 socket for interactive control using a programmed UMPC or one of the well-known branded control touch-panels.
Lots of electronic logic happens inside the player as signals are escalated to 24-bit/192kHz and re-clocked on their way to the DACs. Filtration and DC regulation is all well within recognised industry standards. Other attention to detail makes this the only player with nice bungy absorbent feet.
In use, it likes to have a bit of a think when the disc goes in, dwelling a little longer than most at about 13 seconds. The image of a pulsating disc disappears and a gratifying array of information comes up on the screen.
What follows is a really smooth sound full of detail allowing the listener to sit back and relax. The Classé injects its own character onto tracks previously heard on less sophisticated players to reveal areas which hadn't been fully resolved in the same way before.
Looks a bit special with its touch screen and allows the user to play even when the remote is down the back of the sofa. Smooth and detailed presentation with excellent stereo imagery Minus points
Perhaps just a tad too much processing which has a tendency to inhibit some of the more raucous test tracks producing a slight thinning of the mid to upper registers
Price: £3,150 More info: Moon Size: 430x110x360mm Weight: 12kg Formats: CD Line out: Stereo phono, (XLR optional at £300 extra) Digital out: Coaxial DAC: Burr-Brown BB1730E
Moon CD 5.3 RS
This player has been used several times with a Moon amplifier for AVReview speaker tests but it has never been compared with rival CD machines until now.
My impression of this deck has been one of a machine that wasn't shy to reveal some of the more attacking and almost discordant music tracks which were used to force speakers into revealing their true character.
It's another Canadian-built device and outwardly an interesting combination of the aesthetically adventurous with a seriously conventional heart. Its shape for instance, is a little bizarre with its central hump and column feet (with the option of using supplied screw-in spikes). It also has some machined-from-the-solid credentials coupled with a conventional set of buttons across the front for the most-used functions.
Adding to its almost Art Deco looks is the large red LED display which, being restricted to seven chaplets per character, means that upper and lower-case letters are jumbled together when say, it indicates 'no dISC.' As with most high-end equipment, the display can be turned off to reduce possible interference with the sonics.
It has the almost obligatory heavy aluminium remote control with a scant 20 buttons. Part of the button count covers other equipment allowing control of Moon amplifiers and other peripherals.
It has a conventional Philips computer-style motorised loading tray and is ready to play in a comparatively quick seven seconds or so. During play, signal resolution is helped with the use of eight stages of DC voltage regulation inside the machine and archetypal Burr-Brown BB1730E 24-bit/192-kHz DAC and 8x oversampling digital filter. Internal upsampling runs at 24-bit/352.8kHz.
Listening to our test tracks shows a CD player with grip and speed in revealing the texture of instruments down to the tiniest dying resonance. Pinpoint focus was attained along with good depth of staging. It was also impressive at acoustically resolving the room space evident on some of the tracks.
Revealing performance refuses to be polite - strong on reproductive truth. Art Deco flavour to the styling. Ten-year electronics warranty Minus points
Quirky styling fits nicely with Moon RS equipment but perhaps a little uneasy with more conventional components