Audio Research CD3 CD Player
It's hard to find a CD player these days that doesn't
incorporate upsampling -- upsampling's the buzz word du jour. The only problem is,
few people agree as to what it is perzackly, much less how best to do it (see: "Upsampling: Threat or
Menace?"). But, of course, if you're going to build a new CD player, you'd better
pick a definition and chuck the buzzword into the marketing mix -- otherwise your new
player will be thought of as hopelessly passť.
Audio Research's engineers aren't fools. When they started
planning a successor to their immensely successful CD2, they reckoned that upsampling was
indispensable. Then they went and actually tested their conviction by building two
versions of the player: one with upsampling; the other as a control without it. They were
sure that the second player would prove the worth of the upsampling technology. There was
just one catch.
In listening test after listening test, everyone there
preferred the control model.
So much for Plan A. The CD3 came out sans
Habit with him was the test of truth: it must be right,
I've done it from my youth
At $4995, the CD3 sure ain't cheap, but Audio Research
views it as the replacement not for the CD2, but for the CD2/DAC3 Mk II combo, which
together sold for $7990. And again flying in the face of convention, the CD3 is not a
universal or combination player -- it reads and plays only Red and Orange Book CDs (CDs,
Dave Gordon of Audio Research explained, "We know
there are a lot of people out there with large CD collections now. We have no idea
which music formats will be with us for the long haul, but we know that people will want
to hear their CD collections sounding as good as possible for a long, long time, so we
optimized performance for a single format, rather than compromising it for all
That goal, Audio Research claims, dictated the simplicity
of the CD3's design. It doesnt use a drawer -- it's a top loader that employs a
self-centering disc clamp. How come? It wasn't the way Audio Research conceived it, but
when the company's engineers began testing CD mechanisms, the only one they found that
performed to their satisfaction was the Philips CDM Pro 2, a cast-metal unit designed for
heavy-duty professional use -- it just happened to be a top-loading unit.
The transport is mounted to a massive machined-metal base
for additional stability. The unit employs Crystal's newest 24-bit/192kHz DAC, but, as
mentioned, it doesn't upsample. The DAC is mated to a differentially balanced Class A
J-FET analog output stage. Massive power regulation utilizes exotic capacitors, both for
the bulk supply and the bypass functions. Most parts are damped or otherwise deadened. The
CD3 is built to a high standard -- and from impressive parts, although nothing was used
that wasn't proven to be better than "standard" parts through listening tests.
The sliding door that grants access to the drive mechanism
works smoothly. I inserted the CD3 in a standard stereo shelf and had lots of room to load
and remove discs, although I did have to do so carefully. Unlike some players, which will
play CDs with the top open or closed, the CD3 won't accept commands with the door open.
And woe unto the man who forgets to insert the clamp! The drive takes on a banshee tone
and pitch and threatens to launch the disc at lethal velocities. I can't imagine anyone
who, having spent $5k on the unit, would have the nerve to forget the clamp twice.
As a matter of fact, I suggest all CD3 owners go ahead and try it early on -- you'll never
repeat the experience and you might as well get it out of the way when you're expecting
The CD3 has a display where the drawer
was located on the CD2. To its left is a line of touch-sensitive controls, using the
ever-popular light-gray-on-black labeling system that is completely unreadable to
middle-aged eyes like mine. If you're of a certain age, stick to the remote.
The CD3 has coaxial RCA and AES/EBU digital outs, as well
as single-ended RCA and balanced XLR analog outputs. An IEC mains plug allows you to swap
AC cables if you're of a mind to -- personally, I found the 14-gauge three-pronged cable
ARC includes extremely good, as is.
The test of any man lies in action
I've auditioned many home audio products with balanced
connections and, for the most part, I remain a tad skeptical on the merits of balanced
connections in the average home environment. Most of the time I have heard no difference
at all between single-ended and balanced setups. In a handful of cases I have heard
differences, but for the life of me I could not have chosen one as sounding superior to
the other. However, in a tiny group of cases, the balanced connection offered a
substantial improvement over single-ended operation -- Ayre, Krell, and Mark Levinson
spring immediately to mind. Add the Audio Research CD3 to that short list: Switching from
single-ended to balanced mode turns a very good CD player into a remarkable one. I won't
go so far as to recommend that you not consider the player if your system is
single-ended, but if your system does run balanced, you have to hear the CD3. Wowsa!
Beauty is the first test -- there's no permanent
place in the world for ugly mathematics
Relaxed and grainless are the words Id use to
describe the CD3's sound. To many analog-loving audiophiles, digital's biggest shortcoming
is a relentlessly "in your face" musical presentation. I'd say that's a mild
exaggeration with the best players I've heard, and with the CD3 I'd say it was way off
base. Of course, my tried-and-true worst-sounding CD of all time, Mitch Woods's 1988 Mr.
Boogie's Back in Town [Blind Pig 72888], still possessed harsh, strident PCM sound of
the worst kind -- that's what's on the disc, darn it. (Woods and his band, the Rocket 88s,
deliver a hyped-up version of Louis Jordan's jump sound with a hip, knowing wink. The disc
would probably never stray far from my CD player if only it didn't sound so awful -- but
remains a useful test for excessive sonic sweetening.)
Well-recorded music, on the other hand, was simply
ravishing. Antony Michaelson's powerful clarinet tone hovered amidst the pillowy acoustic
of Blue Heaven Studio on his recent recording of the Mozart and Brahms clarinet quartets (Mosaic
[Stereophile STPH015]). While it's true that Antony attacked the compositions with an
intensity that was breathtaking, the sound he and his fellow musicians achieved -- and
which John Atkinson captured -- was far from aggressive or strident. Intense, yes -- but
also full-bodied and natural, built from the ground up.
Lyle Lovett's recent compilation Cowboy Man [MCA
170234] is a strange duck. It's an anthology, but it sure ain't no greatest hits disc. It
seems as though MCA is pitching Lovett as a country artist to all the fans he alienated
when he sang "Stand By Your Man" and married that actress-lady. More than
anything else, it collects the best material from his first two albums and, no way around
it, it does make a strong case for Lovett as a pure country artist -- no need to
qualify him with an alt or any other prefix. It also makes a strong case for
Lovett's career-long commitment to exceptional sound quality. There aren't many recordings
from the mid-'80s that could have held up this well sonically. (This does beg the
question: Why hasn't Lovett released an album of original material since 1996?)
Cowboy Man balances an intimate perspective with an
astonishingly natural timbral palette -- which Lovett exploits to the fullest with some
decidedly non-country instruments, such as Edgar Meyer's acoustic bass and Josh Hagen's
cello. The disc has full-bodied sound and positions the individual musicians within a
completely credible soundstage.
That ability to resolve extremely low-level details was
another defining attribute of the CD3. Large orchestral masterpieces, such as the
CSO/Barenboim Le Sacre de Printemps [Teldec 8573 81702-2] simply rocked -- but
never at the expense of the telling detail, such as the sound of the bassoon's plaintive
wail striking Orchestra Hall's walls and gently bouncing back during Le Sacre's
opening bars, or the sense of sound almost physically filling the hall's vast acoustic
during La Mer's gently swelling crescendos.
But watch out! The CD3 will seduce you into never-ending
explorations of your CD collection. If you don't have the time, don't drop the dime.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to
hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to
I still had the $7500 Krell KPS-28c on hand when the CD3
arrived, so it seemed only natural to compare the two before I packed the Krell back up to
meet its maker. The Krell is also set up for differentially balanced performance, but it
benefits even more from its CMT (Current Mode Technology) signal transmission system.
Using the Krell Current Tunnel preamplifier, I connected the CD3 via balanced cables and
used Krell's CMT connectors for the KPS-28c, reasoning that would allow each to perform at
its best (as claimed by each component's manufacturer).
And the winner was . . .
. . . me!
The two players were far from identical, but their
performance was unquestionably first-rate. What they shared was sound of phenomenal
resolving power and detail. They both sounded natural and unforced, and they both allowed
me to hear a mosquito fart in the third balcony on the Stravinsky recording.
But differences there were. Krell has always had a
reputation for the power and definition of its low-bass response and here, once again, it
lived up to its billing. Some audiophiles think there's too much of a good thing in this
department, but I'm not one of them. The KPS-28c's ability to start and stop the lowest
notes, and to articulate the subtle differences in room response and reinforcement that it
extracted from every recording, reveal it to be incredibly accurate. In my opinion, its
low-end definition sets the standard.
In comparison, the CD3's bass sounded softer and less
emphatic. Taken on its own, it sounded balanced and detailed, but the Krell's presentation
threw a different light on recording after recording.
The CD3's strength, however, was its grainlessness -- it
was astonishing how the sound from different extremes of the spectrum seemed cut from the
same cloth. No, I don't mean it blurred over details -- there's lots of detail -- but
there's a sound that musicians playing together achieve, a blend, if you will, that is
never addressed when audiophiles dissect sound into bass, midrange, and
"treble." The Krell certainly doesn't lack this quality, but it's a part of the
Audio Research's signature just as surely as genre-defining bass is part of the Krell's.
Preamplifier: Ayre K-1x, Krell KCT
CD player: Krell
Power Amplifier: Ayre V-5, Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300,
Loudspeakers: Dynaudio Evidence Temptation
Cables: AudioTruth Midnight, AudioQuest Dragon, DiMarzio
M-Path, DiMarzio Super M-Path
Accessories: Osar Selway Audio Racks, AudioQuest Big Feet
and Little Feet, Vibrapods, PS Audio Ultimate Outlet, PS Audio Power Plant P600
Room treatment: ASC Tube Traps, Slim Jims, Bass Traps
The overall presentation of the two was also
quite dissimilar. The KPS-28c stresses the immediacy and energy of the music -- which
gives it an exciting, visceral quality. The cohesiveness of the CD3's sound robs it of
some of that exuberance, but gives it more of a mid-hall blend of excitement and bloom.
If it sounds as though I'm describing essential differences
on the level of different listening positions in the same hall, then I've done my job
right. That's exactly what the differences amount to -- a matter of preference. I
tend to sit further back in the hall, myself. For years (and even now), this was partially
a matter of economic necessity, but I also love the sense of bloom and expansiveness that
a good hall can impart to a symphony orchestra, and you just don't get that way down
However, on the few occasions I have been seated in the
first five rows, there has been an excitement and physicality to the sound that is
intoxicating. Neither is "better;" both are "right." Each individual
listener will discover, sooner or later, which is "their" sound and that will be
where they sit by preference. Choosing a CD player is just as personal and just as simple
-- thanks to components as good as the KPS-28c and CD3.
Life, force, and beauty must to all impart, at once the
source and end and test of art
At a time when so much of the world seems to be
"spun" by marketing slogans and buzzwords, there remain a few companies, such as
Audio Research, with the courage to hew their own path. It took guts to create the CD3
without the benefits of "common wisdom" -- specifically that upsampling is the
future of digital and that only universal players will sell. Having the courage to buck a
trend doesn't necessarily make you right, but the CD3 acquitted itself honorably against
some of the finest players I've heard. It is well built and sounds musical and honest. It
certainly plays Red and Orange Book CDs about as well as I've ever heard them played.
The question remains, however: Is the Audio Research CD3
for you? It very well could be, especially if your system is differentially
balanced and capable of resolving the subtlest details. It has a unique sonic signature,
even among the first rank of players, and if you tend to favor ensemble and hall blend
over direct, immediate sound, it's definitely talking your language. It's not an
inexpensive player, but it is sonically competitive with single-box players, and even
transport/DAC systems, that cost even more. If the rest of your system is begging for more
information from its front-end and price is not your sticking point, then the Audio
Research CD3 should be on your must-audition list.
Go ahead, put it to the test -- I strongly doubt you'll
find it wanting.
Audio Research CD3 CD Player
Price: $4995 USD
Warranty: Three years parts and labor
Audio Research Corporation
3900 Annapolis Lane North
Plymouth, Minnesota 55447
Phone: (763) 577-9700
Fax: (763) 577-0323