August 1999Audio Research CD2 CD Player
by Marc Mickelson
How do I write an introduction for a product from a company that needs no introduction? Audio Research is high-end bedrock, having produced countless critically acclaimed products over its 30 years in business. In fact, it could be argued that ARC founder William Z. Johnson single-handedly created the market for high-end tube equipment, and there is plenty of evidence to back this up -- from his important early preamp designs that are still making music today to his amplifiers like the Classic series, which made many audiophiles realize that tube amps dont have to be eternally tagged as "musical" because they lack treble and bass extension.
About a dozen years ago, Audio Research began to delve into solid-state designs, and even more recently into digital equipment. The CD2 represents ARCs third-generation thinking on digital design, having been preceded by a few separate DACs as well as a transport and separate CD player. Along with the DAC3 Mk II, the CD2 is the only current ARC digital product, and the company has no DVD-based products in the works at this point. Dave Gordon, Audio Researchs North American sales manager, has mainstream views on 24/96 DVD: little software, no guarantee that DVD-based hardware will play your CDs as well as a dedicated CD player, few players that will accommodate CD-Rs. For this reason, Audio Research is especially proud to sit tight for now with its CD2, which is still selling well and, I can attest, sounds wonderful.
At 19"W x 5 1/4"T x 11 3/4"D and weighing 17 pounds, the CD2 is a rather large and solid CD player. It uses 1-bit Delta-Sigma DACs, which provide a claimed 20 bits of resolution, in a dual-differential configuration and a three-beam optical pickup with digitally controlled servo. Its digital filter is not the Pacific Microsonics PMD-100, so the CD2 does not offer HDCD decoding. Youll find single-ended and balanced analog outputs, and balanced, BNC coax and TosLink digital outputs (ST-type glass is an available option). Around back theres also a receptacle for an IEC power cord.
The CD2s front panel is typical Audio Research. The rack handles are there as is the handsome scientific-instrument look, and you have your choice between ARC natural (silver) or black. Front-panel controls are via recessed pushbuttons, which are duplicated on the CD2s simple remote control. In terms of functionality, the $3495 CD2 is spare, having all of the requisite functions but none of the niceties of a player like the Mark Levinson No.39 -- or the No.39s $5995 price. However, I do miss a polarity switch as well as a way of turning off the LED display.
I used the CD2 exclusively in my reference system, which consists of ProAc Response Four speakers, Lamm ML1 mono amplifiers (supplemented with the fab Lamm ML2s too), Lamm L1 line-stage preamp, Timbre TT-1 2000 DAC, Wadia 20 transport, JPS Labs Superconductor2 interconnects, Audio Magic Tubed Interconnect, and JPS Labs NC Series speaker cables. I also used JPS Labs Digital AC, Analog AC and Power AC power cords, as well as power cords from Audio Magic and API. The electronics sit on Target sand-filled equipment racks, the amps and CD players on Bright Star Big Rock bases. This system is truly full range and displays an awesome amount of the highly coveted naturalness and resolution that we audiophiles seek. It is a terrific reviewing tool that makes reviewing difficult because of how easy it is to get lost in the music.
For comparison purposes, Ive been lucky enough to have the $5995 Mark Levinson No.39 CD player here. Coming from big-name companies as they do, the No.39 and CD2 are natural adversaries, although there are differences in price as well as functionality.
I put the CD2 into my system fresh out of its double-boxed packing. It sounded good immediately, but loosened up with overnight break-in. Unlike its days of yore when its equipment had captive power cords exclusively, Audio Research is now an advocate of IEC power cords, and accordingly supplies one with the CD2 thats claimed to be better than the cords you get gratis with other equipment. I used this cord initially, then switched to a cheapo cord that came with my DAC, then to the JPS Labs Digital AC. I have to admit that the Audio Research cord sounds darned good and may be all you need with the CD2. The cord from my DAC sounded all wrong -- something goofed with the pace of the player, as though the timing of the notes was somehow jumbled. The JPS Labs cord was quieter than the ARC cord and cast a blacker background, but it was not a night-and-day difference. Therefore, I would experiment with the cord that ARC gives you with the CD2 before buying an after-market cord. You may find that you need nothing more.
A few things about the CD2s performance are worth mentioning, but they also meld into the overall sound the CD2 creates so well that they become the domain of reviewer types like me more than of people who just want a CD player with top-shelf sound. First, the CD2 is a low-level-resolution champ. Small details -- the tick of drum stick on cymbal, a tambourine buried far back in the mix -- are very resolved and singular, but not out of scale with larger sounds or the CD2s overall character, which is just the slightest bit laid-back on an absolute scale. This gives the CD2 a fine sense of clarity, but it doesnt sound hyped, as though its low-level ability is its only merit. The CD2s perspective is a bit forward of mid hall, and as with a seat there, you wont have to strain to hear whats happening at the back corners of the stage, and neither will you get blasted out of your seat when the orchestra cuts loose.
The bass of the CD2 is powerful and driving, but again, not out of proportion with the overall sound produced. Favorites like Keith Richards Main Offender [Virgin 86499 2], whose bass-drum whomps are about as explosive and youll hear, sound powerful, but they flow right along when heard via the CD2. The bass also has superior pitch definition and resolution -- no straining, once again, to hear things like the way the plucked bass strings from "Too Rich for My Blood" on Patricia Barbers audiophile war-horse Café Blue [Premonition Records PREM-737-2] project into the room, or the effect this particular sound has on the recordings sense of space. The CD2 also lays down a solid foundation for discs like Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream [Virgin 88267 2], making them more satisfying at something less than neighbor-annoyance levels. Although no other CD player or DAC that Ive had around does bass in a wholly unacceptable manner, the CD2s bass is a little more charged, enhancing the foundation of the music, as it should.
The digital trouble zone, that lower-treble/upper-midrange area where CDs tend to sound a little too prominent, is handled very well, as though the intrinsic forwardness of the format is virtually gone. With a small-ensemble recording like Hot Club of Cowtowns newest collection Tall Tales [HighTone HCD8104], some hip country swing music that Ill have a review of soon, the CD2 shows that it can resolve lots of detail without sounding etched or grainy -- or stunted. The Mark Levinson No.39 also handles this region well; however, in its case, theres a obvious smoothness at work -- the music just blows right past the problem like a monster truck through a puddle. With the CD2, its almost as though that area is very slightly reduced in energy, which may not be true in any measurable sense, but to my ears its the case.
Although the CD2 displays no overt warmth, it is certainly not cold or clinical either, remaining perfectly between these two characteristics and several others. In fact, the real accomplishment of the CD2 is its deft blending of sonic traits. Its not too much this or that, or too little. Its the Switzerland of CD players -- forever neutral. Although I can single out its ability to resolve fine details and its powerful bass, these sorts of things are not easy to focus on -- they certainly arent immediately noticeable on their own, and end up being more the artifacts of comparison to other top-flight CD players like the Mark Levinson No.39 than obvious characteristics. Some may find that the CD2 doesnt charm, and theyd be right in the sense that it doesnt try to euphonically enhance the music, or strive for ultimate resolution either. It doesnt strain to do anything except play your CDs with a minimum of editorializing. Call this neutrality or transparency, but I would rather refer to it as balance.
The CD2 is also an exceptional CD transport. Its more resolving than my reference Wadia 20, but lacks a bit of the 20s tonal richness. Overall, I prefer the CD2, which is probably the best transport Ive heard. It seemingly delivers all of the data each disc has to the DAC, again without editorializing. One thing to keep in mind nowadays with digital equipment is the future. If you have a mind to upgrade to 24/96 DVD, SACD or DVD-Audio in the future, the CD2 would make a fine CD-only transport that will, of course, play CD-Rs; and you can use it with a new high-powered DAC when you make the switch. And whats best about this is that the CD2 sounds so good as a CD player, youll be able to be selective about whatever you adopt next.
Head to head
A direct comparison of the CD2 with the Mark Levinson No.39 CD player proved to be very enlightening. As Ive mentioned, many of the things I observed about the CD2 were shone in greater relief when heard next to the sound of the No.39. Specifically, the perspective of the No.39 is more up-front and immediate than that of the CD2. I wouldnt call either more clear or resolving of musical details, but the No.39s treble is just a bit more extended, giving its presentation a little more air and liveliness. The CD2 is a touch more harmonically rich and presents images with slightly stronger outlines and presence, but the No.39 is certainly no slouch in this regard. The bass of the CD2 is weightier and subjectively more powerful, but in terms of depth, the No.39s low end matches it.
Which is the better player? This depends on your priorities. In terms of sound, neither is the clear winner to my ears, but potential buyers may think differently. In terms of functionality, the No.39, with its built-in volume control and rich feature set, walks all over the CD2. The No.39 is more elegant too, with its all-brushed-aluminum exterior, cool display and whisper-quiet loading drawer. However, the CD2 is $2500 less, which aint peanuts. In fact, I would choose the CD2 for use as a transport because of this price difference.
If by some miracle the performance of the Audio Research CD2 were available five years ago, there certainly would not have been the complaining about digital there was back then and there still is today. This is a terrific-sounding CD player, one whose position between just about every audio attribute is ideal and especially welcome in a digital component. Although Ive been able to identify and explain the CD2s characteristics, I wouldnt buy it for any of them except its balance, which shows that ARC really aimed at getting the sound here about as right as it could.
The Audio Research CD2 is a few-frills player that seems optimized for reproduction, as it should be. If youre in the market for a top-flight CD player in these supposedly waning days of the CD, dont let the CD2 slip by you without hearing it first, even if you have your heart set on spending more -- or on some future digital standard whose only effect on you now is the waiting it causes.
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