January 2000Audio Aero Prima CD Player
by Doug Schneider
Were at the advent of some very exciting times for digital audio. DVD-Audio and SACD are just starting to duke it out, and by some time next year well have at least an idea of which next-generation digital format will dominate our audio playback systems. With the talk of "combination" players, those able to play all known discs, perhaps both formats will take hold. However, experience tells us that the consumers like simplicity, so more than likely only one format will survive. Its not hard to see another VHS vs. Beta war brewing, is it?
So what good, then, is a CD-only player today? Well, experience also tells us that new technologies are notoriously slow to catch on. Walk into any music store like Tower Records or Virgin Records and ask about the new digital formats. Try mentioning jargon like DSD or MLP, and more than likely youll get a deer-in-the-headlights stare from the staff with a squeaky response like, "Huh?" Chances are that the major music stores wont see any significant stock of the new discs for years and, therefore, neither will you. I believe that CD players have many years left in them and that even at this fork in the road a CD player can be a worthwhile purchase.
Audio Aero is a relatively new company thats headquartered in France. They introduced their product line to North America at CES 99. Shortly after that, our editor-in-chief, Marc Mickelson, reviewed the Capitole amplifier -- "gorgeous looks and sound," summed it up nicely. The Capitole series is the companys upper-end product line, while the Prima series, which this CD player belongs to, appeals to a more budget-conscious sect. Also in the Prima line is a tube-based integrated amplifier.
I cracked open the cover of the Prima to have a look at what Audio Aero is doing inside this player. Like many CD players, Audio Aeros Prima is based on a Philips transport mechanism and digital-to-analog conversion section. The stock transport and digital board are mounted in the middle of the chassis. There is a coaxial digital output on the back panel (RCA) that is taken straight off the digital board. The digital output allows you to hook up an external DAC (unlikely, mind you, since anyone who buys this will likely be doing so to get a complete player). Underneath the transport and D/A, Audio Aero has shielded the section with a copper plate.
On the right side of the chassis you can see a largish transformer that is of French origin. On the other side is Audio Aeros own tube-based output stage with a single Sovtek 6922 tube. One novel feature of this tube section is the analog volume control with the small knob mounted on the front panel. This allows you to adjust the output of the player and gives the option of running the CD player directly into an amplifier. The well-finished chassis is made entirely of metal, including the faceplate, and is fairly substantial in its build quality. Its all painted in gloss black and finished off with attractive gold accents.
Except for the analog volume control, the features of the Prima are pretty standard, and Audio Aero has included a lightweight Philips-based remote control that works well. The only strange thing worth noting is that there is also a volume control on the remote control, but it operates an entirely different volume control from the one on the front panel, one thats in the digital domain (built into the Philips D/A board). Thus, the analog volume control located on the top left of the player does not have any remote-control functionality. Dont be fooled, though, into thinking that just because something is digital, its better. As most audiophiles know, and as one manufacturer recently said aloud to me, if not implemented properly, digital volume controls can "screw up the sound!" The main reason is that some digital controls work in such a way that results in a loss of resolution. This is definitely not a good thing given the fact that audiophiles pay exorbitant amounts of money to hear everything from their recordings. Globe Audio Marketing, the Canadian distributor who supplied the review sample of the Prima, recommended leaving the digital volume control at the maximum level, which will result in no loss of resolution. After playing with this feature I wholeheartedly agree and only change the digital volume setting for convenience -- say, when the phone rings.
I left the analog volume control at its 0dB setting, which is marked on the faceplate, and ran the player into my preamplifier. If you run the player directly into an amplifier, the preamplifier and associated cabling gets completely bypassed. This simplified path may result in improved performance, but can obviously only be done if you dont need the switching capability of a preamplifier.
With the Prima running into my Blue Circle Audio BC3 Galatea preamplifier, the rest of my system consisted of the Blue Circle Audio BC2 monoblock amplifiers with speakers that varied between the Merlin TSM-SE, Cliffhanger CHS-2/W-2, and the new Mirage MRM-1. Cabling is all by Nirvana Audio, and I use an API Power Wedge on all source components. A Brick Wall surge suppressor specially designed for high-power amplifiers is used on the BC2s. Power cords are all by Nirvana Audio except for the JPS Labs Digital AC that I experimented with (with good results) on the Prima CD player. The Prima operated without a hiccup or a burp for the entire review period. It was also able to play some CDs that, for reasons Im still trying to figure out, my Theta transport cant.
I compared the Prima primarily to my separates-based digital source consisting of a Theta Data transport feeding a Camelot Dragon Pro2 jitter reducer that ultimately ends up in a Theta Prime II DAC. Digital cables are again by Nirvana Audio.
Im noticing a very positive trend in what seems to be the twilight years for CD audio -- moderate- to low-priced players are really getting good, and I mean REALLY good. Not too many years ago a CD player had to cost thousands of dollars to give really top-notch performance that was devoid of digital nastiness like tizzy and brittle high frequencies and to offer liquidity through the midrange. Today, any CD player that costs thousands better walk on water because what you can attain to for much less is truly extraordinary. This doesnt mean you can get great sound for next to nothing. I have yet to find a sub-$1000 player, for example, that gives me everything I want. The Rega Planet, for example, is a really fine-sounding player and is a bargain at the price, but it lacks the large-scale dynamics, liquidity and resolution of the cost-no-object players. With a budget up to $2000, though, I believe you can get almost there.
From the get-go it was apparent that the Prima is one smooooth CD player. There is not a hint of grain or harshness that plagues many other players. A tizzy sound in the high frequencies is common among lower-priced players, but it is not prevalent here. In fact, the Prima came across as so silky and smooth that I wondered for a time if I would have to sell my $4000 worth of digital separates. But not so fast; while the Prima is good, it is not quite that good, and I found that while you can get extremely good sound, sonic nirvana is not quite possible at $1500, although aspects of the Primas performance did better my reference setup.
The Prima is nicely extended with a clean treble presentation that is well extended that can give life and sparkle to cymbals and the such. As a result, music is lush and involving without ever sounding bright or irritating. To further characterize it, I would say it leans more to having a laid-back sonic signature. However, it is not thin and distant -- warm and smooth is more its style. I played Five Days in July [WEA CD 93846] by Blue Rodeo, a big and smooth-sounding recording itself. Jim Cuddys soaring vocals were rendered with pristine clarity without a hint of edge that shows itself on some players. Piano, which is prevalent on many tracks, has excellent weight and definition with an almost bell-like clarity through this player. Music has the body, fullness and dimensionality that you hear from some of the best CD players. The soundstage is well defined with rock-solid placement left to right and good, but not outstanding, depth.
It was when I matched output levels and went head-to-head with my Theta-based gear that I heard the differences in the players highlighting what the Prima does so well, and pinpointing the few areas that it falls back. It was true that the Prima is smooth, smoother than my Theta separates on the top end. There is a hint of hashiness that creeps into my reference rig, and I do prefer the Primas easygoing nature. However, I found that the Prima does not have quite the resolution or impact of my Theta gear. One astute listener to my room noted a very low-level thumping on one track on Bruce Cockburns excellent Charity of the Night [True North TNSD 0150]. We quickly switched between players and found that although it was apparent on the Prima player, the Theta portrayed it with more firmness and a slight bit better clarity. Playing music with plenty of percussion. I noted that the Theta sounded consistently quicker and with more force and impact -- a subtle difference, mind you, but apparent and quite easy to discern. While the Prima is certainly no slouch in the bass, it just doesnt have the wallop that my regular system is capable of. Voices were rendered with body and liquidity with the Prima, but the Theta was able to flesh out just that little bit more texture and fine detail. There is a little more of what I call "grunt" and "growl" through the Theta. While this may seem small in the grand scheme of things (and it is), in the crazy audiophile world, these are the types of small traits that differentiate many products.
Honing in on other recordings it was consistently noted that the Theta has better impact and weight that added greater drive and impact to music. Drums, piano, low-level room rumble and the such, have more impact and resolve through the Theta gear. Kick drums have slam and weight that is diminished and softer sounding through the Prima. The sense of air and space was also slightly better rendered through the Theta, although as mentioned, the Theta does let in just that little bit of edge.
On the other hand, the Prima has such a warm and involving sound that is so inviting to listen to I wondered if, what I hear through my Theta, is just a little too analytical at times? Whats critical to note, here, is that these criticisms go for the jugular vein on this player. Had the Prima not so impressed at the beginning I may not have been so inclined to reach so deeply to find the flaws. Make no mistake that this is one smooth and seductive player that is simply a pleasure to listen to. People used to listening to the bright and edgy players of the past will likely enjoy this ones lush and relaxed presentation. Only a few years ago you would be hard-pressed to find a player with this type of smoothness and liquidity for less than a few thousand dollars.
The Prima is a smooth and inviting player, and its not hard to hear that this player comes from a company that knows what music sounds like. No, in the end, this player does not negate the need for the high-priced CD player market since achieving perfection, as most have found out, is usually a costly exercise. Simply put, yes, you can still do better in absolute terms. After all, Audio Aero has a much more expensive CD player that I have not had the chance to hear. Given its price, though, the Prima definitely offers high sonic value and will appeal to listeners looking for a smooth and seductive-sounding player. The fact that today, in what are the twilight years of digital audio, exceedingly fine sound can be had for $1500 should be celebrated, and this player is definitely worth a lengthy audition.
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