GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published October 1, 2006

 

Original Electronics CD-A8s CD Player

Conventional wisdom says that if you’re on a budget, the easiest, quickest way to upgrade -- or simply change up -- the sound of your system is to replace the speakers. It’s the logic I’ve always followed, and with so many speaker brands to choose from, it’s the same logic that has led me from RadioShack to Bose to Paradigm to Epos to, currently, Athena Technologies. It was with this in mind, as the desire for change once again overcame me, that I went to my local audio shop to audition yet another brand of entry-level speaker.

The salesman was friendly and courtly and patiently willing to play whatever speaker I wanted to hear. As we listened, we talked about the system I already had and the system I was trying to assemble. He asked what amplifier I had and the size of my listening (living) room, and agreed that the NAD 320BEE integrated amp was well suited to my needs, even though his shop didn’t carry it.

When the talk turned to my speakers, however, he began to speak in terms of plateaus and the importance of upgrading components equally, in parallel. I had an amplifier of good quality, and although he’d never heard the Athena AS-B2.2 speakers, he made the reasonable assumption that all speakers that cost around $300, made by companies that know how to make good speakers, are on the same plateau. He suggested that perhaps I should consider upgrading the third part of my system: the source. I was then using my trusty Pioneer DV-353 DVD player, and just as I was about to say, "It hasn’t given me a bit of trouble," he said, "You’re probably going to tell me that it hasn’t given you a bit of trouble."

It was the best retail experience I’ve had in some time, and I left with my wallet still in my pocket. But that conversation got me thinking, and led me to seriously consider buying the Original Electronics CD-A8s CD player ($400 USD).

Original Electronics Ltd. was founded in March 1999 by a pair of graduates from two of China’s top universities. I wonder what the conversation was like when Original’s chairman, Xiao Qingyong (who studied mechanical engineering), and its president and chief designer, Du Yue (a renowned computer designer), told their parents that they were going to turn their hard-earned educations toward a passion for high-end audio equipment. It must have been like telling your dad you’re quitting law school to go into bartending. Blame it on the pernicious influence of the West: they love music and the equipment used to reproduce it, and their admirably stated goals are to "create art, create value, and seek perfection."

By now, we’re getting more used to seeing Chinese gear of exceptional quality at reasonable prices, but memories of the $30 DVD player linger. On the one hand, specialty audio products from China, carefully designed and built, demand to be taken seriously. On the other, the deluge of Chinese products in the mass market tends to establish a reputation for disposable items that undermines China’s developing reputation for excellence. But China’s production runs the gamut of quality, so it helps to have a reliable, approachable distributor behind a young brand such as Original. Near the end of 2005, Original was introduced to the North American market by Ping Gong’s AAA-Audio (www.aaa-audio.com), whose operation is "dedicated to importing and distributing high-end audio/video products for North American audiophiles, with class-A quality, service, and price." In the brief period of time that Original gear has been available here, they’ve already gained some attention for the exceptional styling and sound of their top-of-the-line player, the Leonardo CD-A9.3. At $1600 less, the CD-A8s represents the other end of the Original spectrum.

Description and setup

On arrival, the CD-A8s was impressively clean and sharp on the outside, its black metal enclosure and heavy-duty faceplate of brushed aluminum serving to remind me how thin and flimsy mass-produced DVD players are. The CD-A8s is of average size, and sturdy at 15 pounds. In front, on the lower left side of the unit, I was happy to see at least the basic playback functions duplicated from the remote control, in an intuitive order from left to right, labeled in a slightly uncommon but appealing font: Open/Stop, Play/Pause, Skip Back, and Skip Forward.

The remote itself is a thing of beauty. Packaged in its own silk-lined box, batteries included, with a supplied wrench to change them, the metal control is sleek, heavy, and fits comfortably in the hand. In addition to the basics, the remote adds buttons for Scan, Track/All/Section Repeat, Time Display, Program, and a numeric pad.

The CD-A8s’ Power button is properly sized, tight, and responsive, but can’t be controlled with the remote. When the player is on, a tasteful square illuminates the brand name in blue, perhaps in subtle tribute to the distinctive cool glow of McIntosh products. If you insert a disc with HDCD coding, a small blue light indicates that as well. With the controls on the left side and the smooth, secure tray in the middle, the display occupies the right side of the machine. Also blue, it tells you which track you’re on, how many tracks are on the disc, and helpfully counts down to the final number, blinking the current track along the way. Time display is available up or down per track, in addition to counting down a disc in its entirety.

Housed in the textured black metal case is a modified Philips Cam12 laser pickup and CD-7 servo system for improved laser accuracy and track access. The CD-A8s read discs quickly and navigated them swiftly. A Burr-Brown PCM-1732 (24-bit/96kHz) D/A converter, two Burr-Brown OPA604s, and two OPA5532s op-amps deliver a frequency response of 20Hz-20kHz, distortion and noise rated at 0.002%, a signal/noise ratio of 95dB, and a dynamic range of 97dB (102dB for HDCD). Around back are one set of RCA outputs, one digital coax output, one optical S/PDIF output, and a socket for the detachable power cord.

The Original CD-A8s replaced the Pioneer DV-353 in my system, which was completed by an NAD 320BEE integrated amp and Athena AS-B2.2 speakers, linked by 9’ runs of Element Cable’s Double Run speaker cable terminated with banana plugs. I did my listening through the Original’s RCA outputs with Monster Cable interconnects.

Sound

Separating the crisp, sterling highs of Greg Brown’s solo-acoustic guitar, recorded live In the Hills of California [Red House 180], from his irresistible baritone voice was short work for this player. The Original CD-A8s conveyed all the wistfulness and resigned optimism in Brown’s phrasing on "China," and was perfectly suited to his anxious plea to let his daughter get better soon on "Say a Little Prayer." An undercurrent of silence is suspended in these performances, and the CD-A8s’ ability to focus the ears on previously unrevealed details and subtleties across a vast dynamic range was startling, as if the music were being allowed to hover slightly above the soundstage.

On Branford Marsalis’ Trio Jeepy [Columbia CK 44199], Jeff "Tain" Watts’ cymbals rang like water sprayed on the bottom of a copper pot, and Milt Hinton’s old-school bass on "Makin’ Whoopee" resonated presence throughout the room, enabling the music to cross the artificial boundaries imposed by a mix with severe channel separation. Rounding out this rhythmically charged, melodically improvising trio session was the leader on tenor and soprano saxes, sounding forthright and emphatic on "The Nearness of You" and greasy on "Gutbucket Steepy." The Original CD-A8s made me want to hit Repeat again and again, but I was too eager to get to the next recording. This player suggested possibilities.

Once, while I listened to Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball [Elektra 61854] on a kitchen boom box, the kick drum of U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. on "Waltz Across Texas" stopped me cold. I had to turn it down so as not to disturb my elderly landlord. The CD-A8s handled every texture of Daniel Lanois’ atmospheric production, elevating that simple primordial thump to a wide-ranging low end. Harris earned her reputation with her clear voice and uncommonly pure tone, but in Wrecking Ball she let Lanois expose every vocal crack and crevice. In HDCD mode, the CD-A8s was able to convey the swirling, reverberating guitars with a buffed shimmer, and the raw emotion in the vocals with profound depth, while retrieving that little extra sweetness to remind you of Harris’ younger days.

More and more of my CDs these days are CD-Rs, and the CD-A8s handled every brand and disc length without the slightest hesitation or hitch. I cued up a burned copy of Keith Richards’ Main Offender [Virgin V2-86499], and Steve Jordan’s drums cracked, the guitars of Richards and Waddy Wachtel stung, and the contrast between the background voices and Keef’s wheezy croak up front was better defined, its spatial performance more convincingly wide and deep, than I remembered hearing from my reference DVD player. The CD-A8s retained the tension in the music while relieving it in the listener.

Comparison

If it’s true that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, I would add that it helps to be able to hook up your old player and see if you’re really hearing from the new one what you think you’re hearing. The CD-A8s’ build quality is clearly superior to that of my Pioneer DV-353 ($199), especially its smoothly operating disc drawer and rapid focusing ability. Its rhythmic performance was stronger, its frequency range better extended and more open sounding, its noise floor lower. The CD-A8s kept the sonic texture of the music intact, and made it easier for me to pick out individual instruments from the mix. The only thing it didn’t do better than the Pioneer was play DVDs. However, I was surprised to see that there is no "random play" function on the CD-A8s or its remote. Ten or even five years ago this wouldn’t have mattered, but iPod listening has made shuffle play an integral part of my listening experience; I expect it to be an option for playing CDs.

Conclusion

As the electronics industry has shifted its emphasis away from the music-only CD format and toward the DVD, and as SACD continues its long, slow disappearance even as the use and popularity of MP3 and its cousins continues to increase, it would be fair to wonder why anyone would build or buy a CD-only player. But counting CD-Rs, I seem to have more discs in my collection now than I ever did. And since I’m quite satisfied with my amplifier and speakers, having a player of comparable quality that’s optimized for music performance and independent of my video system begins to make sense. The minds behind Original Electronics think there is still a future in CD playback, and Original offers several options for the CD-A8, including the CD-A8T model. I’d understood the T to stand for tube, and that the s in CD-A8s meant solid-state. Original, however, says the s stands for super. I’m convinced.

...Jeff Stockton

Price of equipment reviewed


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