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From Hi-Fi World - October 2008 issue
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Sporting the famous Philips CD Pro2 mechanism, Musical Fidelity’s new A1 CD Pro silver disc spinner is more than just par for the course says David Price...
As we’ve often said in these pages, the importance of the transport to a CD player’s overall sound cannot be underestimated. Tragically though, with so much talk of 24bit DACs, upsampling and valve output stages, this is precisely what has happened. If you believe some of the hyperbole coming from certain manufacturers, it’s almost as if sticking the latest DAC in the box, or whistling up a simple tube buffer in the analogue section, is a guarantee of performance. Well, it isn’t.
As I explained last month in my review of Cyrus’s new CD8 SE, everything begins with the quality of the read that the laser does on the disc. If this particular part of the chain is wrong – or to be more specific, not right enough – then no manner of re-clocking, fancy DACs or glowing bottles under the bonnet will properly compensate.
The key point here is that CD’s way of reading the disc is such that it masks its errors at a very early stage – the robust Reed Solomon code makes it hard to tell the difference between the laser misreading the data and interpolating (“guesstimating”) what’s on the disc, and it actually getting it right. Well, it’s hard to tell from a crude measurement point of view, but the most finely tuned measuring instruments (our ears) still know when all is not well.
Cyrus’s solution to the riddle, as we saw last month, was to design their own bespoke transport. Musical Fidelity have taken a different route – to buy in one of the very best commercially available ones. Both companies are to be applauded for taking the issue of CD mechanisms truly seriously. Either could have saved sizeable amounts by specifying the cheapest OEM mech in their parts catalogue, then taking the money and running – but then neither would be the beasts that they are. Musical Fidelity say the Philips CD Pro2 mech “recovers more data, reads a wider variety of discs and has no apparent shortcomings... whilst this is the best available, regrettably it is also the most expensive”.
This said, Musical Fidelity’s Antony Michaelson is effusive about the Burr Brown 1792 DAC and 4392 sample rate convertor used in the A1 CD Pro. He claims it gives this £1,499 machine generally superior numbers to the £8,500 Nagra CDP [see MEASURED PERFORMANCE], what he calls “state-of-the-art measurements”. This, in conjunction with the “fanatically careful detailed implementation of the printed circuit board design” and the aforementioned mechanism form basis of the A1 CD Pro’s appeal.
This may be, but I’d have to add this machine’s industrial design. It is truly odd to see that iconic shape re-emerge from the shadows some twenty plus years after it last graced dealers’ shelves, but there it is. The build quality is just as good as it ever was, although, as with the excellent matching A1 FBP preamplifier reviewed last month, we have to draw attention to the tiny, fiddly buttons which won’t be for everyone. As for me though, this machine worked very nicely – once again we have a top loading machine appearing at this price point, which is no bad thing.
Regular readers will know that I’ve endeavoured to personally review almost every new £1,000 to £1,500 CD player released over the past couple of years. This came about thanks to me foolishly nominating myself for a group test of the darned things, on the grounds that being a vinyl junkie I was well suited to critically assess digital disc spinners! Oh well – since then I’ve heard some fifteen or so designs around the price of this new Musical Fidelity, and have used Astin Trew’s AT3500 as my yardstick. This isn’t the very best in every way, but is still arguably the most musical of the breed, making it a fine reference.
The AT3500 was duly pressed into action against the new A1 CD Pro, and the latter acquitted itself very well indeed. So it should at over £300 more you may say – and you’d be right, but its price tag hasn’t stopped the AT inflicting body blows on a good number of more expensive designs! The Musical Fidelity however, was not to be the Astin Trew’s latest victim – showing the reference machine a clean pair of heels in a number of respects.
The most distinctive facet of the new machine is its clarity; strings on 4hero’s ‘Morning Child’ were almost supernaturally tangible, as if the song itself had been remixed. The AT gave its usual fulsome and expansive rendition, pushing the soundstage out wide left and right, while the MF was a little narrower and deeper (being directly comparable to Michell GyroDec and SME 10A turntables in this respect). Within the recorded acoustic however, the A1 CD Pro offered dizzying insight, telling me more about the timbre and location of the strings, whereas the reference CD player merely obfuscated.
Sometimes this extra detail wasn’t welcome; a recent remaster of Steely Dan’s ‘Doctor Wu’ showed the remastering work up a little via the MF; the soundstage being very detailed and dry but tonally a little thin whereas the AT garnished the proceedings somewhat, making for a more palatable listen. The opposite was true on Soul II Soul’s ‘Keep on Moving’; here was an original 1990 mastering with a full and smooth balance, and the A1 CD Pro was on top of things while the AT3500 struggled to keep up. Female vocals from the MF had just the right ‘breathy’ quality to them, the electronic bassline was fast and superbly syncopated and the mix open and dimensional. By contrast, the AT seemed a little loose and ponderous.
Tonally, the Musical Fidelity is quite brightly lit across the midband. For example, Linn drums on Café Jacques’ ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ had great impact, with pronounced spaces between the notes, pushing the song along energetically. Closed miked vocals were also quite striking, this player really imparting the grain of the voice. Indeed, it gives a very immediate presentation, placing you right in the stalls – by contrast the Astin Trew is up at the front of the balcony. This really suits some types of music – its rendition of Xpansions’ ‘Elevation’ was almost euphoric – but also makes it picky about the recording quality and mastering. As we’re discovering to our chagrin, many modern CD remasters have been compressed up to 0dB, making them sound harsh and strident, and the A1 CD Pro doesn’t cut such recordings any slack, Jack!
Such a criticism cannot be leveled at Linn Records’ recording of JS Bach’s Matthew Passion (Dunedin Consort & Players). The new Musical Fidelity conjured up a cavernous recorded acoustic, the soundstage falling back further than I’ve heard from any other similarly priced player. It displayed superlative violin timbre, and imparted the shimmering harmonics of the accompanying recorders. Female voices weren’t harsh, but had an appropriately icy quality for the music. Meanwhile, the cellos bowed away broodingly in the background, the player unswayed by the demands placed on it by this dense, complex acoustic recording. Indeed it is excellent at letting individual strands of the music play by themselves, completely unsullied by what’s going on in close proximity.