SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published June 1, 2002

 

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 upsampling.

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, CD-Rs, CD-RWs).

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 formats."

That goal, Audio Research claims, dictated the simplicity of the CD3's design. It doesn’t 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 it.

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 I’d 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 function

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 . . .

(Ahem)

. . . 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.

Associated Equipment:


Preamplifier: Ayre K-1x, Krell KCT

CD player: Krell KPS-28c

Power Amplifier: Ayre V-5, Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300, Krell FPB-300c

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 front.

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.

...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com

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

Website: www.audioresearch.com


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