Anthem CD-1 CD Changer: Multiple Appeal
by Doug Schneider
Today the world buzzes with proposed changes to the existing digital-audio format. The future is a given, and there's no doubt in the audio world that there will be a successor to the current 16-bit 44.1kHz standard introduced in the early 80s and still serving us today. In fact, at the recent CES in Las Vegas, a new format based on the current DVD video specification was announced. Dubbed DAD, it's pretty cool and fits nicely into today's hardware standards, with some nifty backward-compatibility features built in. It's primarily a high-end-led endeavor that a few purist music companies have backed with a small supply of releases. Will DAD become the standard, or will something else take hold? It's still too early to tell.
What is for sure is that there will no drastic industry turnaround even when the dust does finally settle and one technology is pronounced king. Certainly, well-heeled audio- and techno-philes will jump on any new music format faster than they run through their endless hardware upgrades. But for the rest of the market, which is really almost the entire market, there will be a slow and progressive growth--one that's fueled by selection and choice, not me-too and I'm-first sentiments. Years will go by before any dent is made in the music library that is currently available on CD. Therefore, the CD player bought today will be put to good use for years to come and can be considered an investment in your musical future.
What makes a purchase today even more attractive is the abundance of single-box CD players from reputable manufacturers coming to us at real-world prices. Many of these new players come from companies who have for years specialized in cost-no-object digital components--some of which cost more than entire systems. Such is the case of the Anthem CD-1, brought to us from the high-end folks at Sonic Frontiers. With their impressive track record, Sonic Frontiers thinks that they know a thing or two about digital audio, even if it's for the common crowd.
The CD-1 is a single-box player that differentiates itself from the majority of audiophile players by offering--hold your shorts--multi-disk capability. Until now, sonic purity in the audiophile sense has been closely aligned with technical simplicity--at least among the straight-wire-with-gain following. Oh, but the times, they are a changin'. The heart of this player is a transport mechanism sourced from Sony. Place a disc on a tray, close the drawer, and after a whirl, a gulp, and a growl, your CD will be snuggled safely inside and begging to be played. The CD-1 can be fed up to six discs. The one caveat to this type of mechanism surfaces when you realized that you may have to remember exactly which disc was loaded into which slot in order to take advantage of accessing it directly. Without ejecting, there is no way to know, so skipping disc to disc is the usual method. Still, this minor irritant was solved by simply stacking the jewel boxes on the top of my player in the same order as I loaded them for quick visual reference--technical simplicity rules again, I guess.
If you find yourself wanting to use the CD-1 as a transport only, AES/EBU and S/PDIF digital output connectors flank the rear. Likely, most will use the CD-1 as it's intended--a complete CD player with standard single-end RCA outputs. For digital-to-analog conversion, the CD-1 uses the Burr-Brown PCM 1702 20-bit DAC chips. These DACs find their way into many well-regarded and higher-priced digital units. The CD-1 also contains the Pacific Microsonics HDCD digital filter, meaning that it will support the established HDCD music-software encoding scheme of squeezing up to 20 bits of resolution out of a plain old 16-bit CD, providing that the disc being played is HDCD encoded. And finally, since this player arrives from one of the most well-known tube purveyors in the world, it would seem naked if it didn't sport a valve somewhere. The glass-audio gods have managed to sneak a tube into the circuit to act as an output buffer. Feel creative? New Old Stock tube gurus tell me that substantial benefits can be reaped from a bit of tube-swapping. Although this comparison may occur and be reported on in a follow-up evaluation, I ran the CD-1 for this review with the supplied 6922.
The CD-1 is a feature-rich player with everything needed to operate the player, shy of the power switch, contained on the remote control. I must confess that I never once cracked the Owner's Manual for operating instructions, meaning that the CD-1 is quite easy to operate. The look, feel, and sense of quality of the CD-1 are all very good, with not a single operational problem for the three months that I have used it. The CD-1 powers on gently with a mute-delay cycle that lasts about 20 seconds. After that, you're ready to roll.
It didn't take long to flesh out the CD-1's sonic strengths: excellent clarity, grain-free highs, liquid midrange, impressive bass weight, and top-notch dynamics. Nasties normally associated with digital reproduction such as tizzy high frequencies and a midrange laced with edge and grain (symptoms of what some call "digititis") were absent. The CD-1's smooth and tuneful nature sang of its high-end lineage. Fiona, Sarah, and Jewel all wailed with impressive clarity, purity and realism. Tom, Leonard, and Bruce growled, spoke, and strummed with impressive heft and definition. Large-scale works, such as the soundtrack to Titanic (Sony Classical, SK 63213), were as expansive, and at times inspiring, as the vessel itself. Surprisingly delicate, smooth and refined while able to impress at the right moment is how I've come to describe the CD-1. This combination of smoothness, image separation and the ability to display a rock-solid soundstage are also CD-1 strong points. Further, the CD-1 tended to place vocalists more focused and slightly forward of the speaker plane, while my Theta Data Basic and Prime II presented the same music with a bit more distance and diffusion. The Theta combo would be considered laid-back in comparison. To the Thetas' credit, mind you, they managed to extract a notch more depth and a slight bit more air.
The CD-1 will likely appeal to customers shopping under a budget, but looking for top-notch performance. At $1595, the CD-1 is still not exactly cheap, but it represents very good value among audiophile-grade products and offers a level of performance that did not exist in this price range even a few short years ago. A good, lower-priced player is the Rega Planet, which retails for less than $1000. I recommend it to people who can't spend any more money. The Rega is highly musical, particularly for the price, and manages its sonic compromises accordingly to avoid most of the edgy, grainy pitfalls normally associated with lower-end digital. Carefully balanced is what I call it--but it still isn't ideal. To me, moving upscale to something like the Anthem is a logical investment for long-term listening enjoyment.
On the other end of the scale, those who possess budgets in the thousands would be wise to take a step back and see what the CD-1 has to offer at its price point. You may wonder if you really need anything more. Sure there are more expensive units, some from Sonic Frontiers, that may squeak out a bit more sonic performance on an absolute scale, but at what cost? Diminishing returns are rapidly setting in at this point, and buyers like me enjoy value for their dollars, which makes the CD-1 a winner.
Had I acted strictly as a consumer I would have bought the CD-1 for myself. It's been with me for three months, and I use it for listening almost daily. I enjoy its sonic performance, and the multi-disc capability, much to my surprise, is a tremendous convenience that has me listening to more music for longer than I used to. However, as a reviewer, I get called upon to evaluate various digital separates, so having like gear as my digital source is a must. Too bad, because the CD-1's rich feature set and strong sonic performance provide almost everything a music-loving audiophile needs. If you're in the market for fine player to carry you into the next millennium, check out the CD-1.
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