February 2008North Star Design Sapphire CD Player
by Alfred Fredel
Italy has given us many great pleasures in life, including opera, art, clothing, culinary delights, fast cars and Sophia Loren. As with most things Italian, there is a sense of sophistication, elegance and style with an attention to detail that catches your eye, just like a Ferrari blowing past you and soon vanishing in the distance.
North Star Design is a relatively new Italian audio company that's proud of its "Made in Italy" moniker. North Star produces electronics that are quite refined and utilize some of the latest technologies. The company's philosophy is simple: give the customer a quality product and a good value. North Star Design also believes in consistency, choosing to replace a product within a line only when the performance of a new unit is significantly better than the last generation.
Best known for its M192 CD transport and Extremo DAC, North Star Design now offers the Sapphire, the company's first integrated Red Book CD player. It's designed to provide consumers with a more affordable way to experience the sound that is derived from the company's flagship digital-to-analog converter.
Taking a good look at the chassis, one immediately can see that visual design plays an important role in the creation of the Sapphire. The front is tasteful, featuring very modest controls with operational symbols discretely etched into the faceplate. The unit has a very symmetrical look, where its easily read visual display panel and drawer mirror each other in shape. They are visually connected by a central triangle that houses LEDs, which give information on whether the unit is fully operational or in stand-by mode. The Sapphire is a solidly built product weighing in at a hefty 26 pounds; it measures 17'W x 3 1/2"H x 13 3/4"D -- it will not be overlooked or ignored on your rack. To complete the look, an optional machined metal remote control will soon be available instead of the mismatched yet functional plastic remote that is currently provided.
Under the hood, the Sapphire is ready to perform with some very solid electronic architecture. North Star Design uses the Philips L1210 CD transport, a mechanism that is known for its dependability and good performance. Guiseppe Rampino, the company's president, explained that similar to his Extremo DAC, the Sapphire CD player utilizes Burr-Brown PCM1796 chips to achieve 24-bit/192kHz resolution. The analog stage is designed with the same structure as the Extremo DAC's -- double balanced with one stereo digital-to-analog converter per channel. Rampino also noted that the company uses an I/V current stage and a summing circuit for the balanced outputs of each channel, which he feels increases the signal-to-noise ratio. There are no digital audio outputs, because the company believes strongly that if someone would like to use an external DAC, it would be better to invest in one and a separate transport. North Star believes that the digital output can be realized at its best in this manner. Regardless of philosophy, I would have liked to at least have the option of a coaxial digital output for this unit.
Around back, there are two pairs of high-quality analog outputs, one balanced XLRs and the other unbalanced RCAs, and a main power switch. The unit also has a detachable power cord (standard IEC) that can, of course, be swapped for an aftermarket power cord, which is highly recommended by the company.
Priced at $2500 USD, the Sapphire seems like a solid value given its build quality, aesthetics and use of top-tier internal components. But how does it sound?
Taking the Sapphire for a spin
I still remember when LPs were king (OK, I'm dating myself a bit) and the harsh, grainy sound of the digital domain was painful to my ears. Well, digital, you've come a long way, baby! Today's CDs have come of age along with the equipment that decodes the information from those little discs. In my search for audio happiness, I have always yearned for musicality and transparency from the equipment that I use. I expect audio gear to reveal as much information as possible, bringing me closer to the live-performance experience. CD can now certainly achieve this.
Let's just get this out of the way: I fully enjoyed listening to music with the North Star Design Sapphire. I found the unit to be extremely transparent, allowing me to enjoy delicate nuances in several selections without ever getting in the way. The musical information conveyed was smooth, with none of the glare and shrillness that can be present at higher frequencies. Along with this, there was a refined balance that allowed for just enough openness in the music to create a natural and airy soundfield, allowing me to hear and dissect more subtle passages in much of the chamber music that I played. By the same token, the bass reproduction was clean, tight and accurate but in no way overbearing.
When I sat down to hear Lyle Lovett sing "Friend of the Devil" on Deadicated [Arista ARCD-8669], I was truly impressed to hear the soundstage and image placement that the Sapphire CD player offered. The instrumentalists and Lovett were presented clearly, as I imagine they would have been located during the recording session. I played this track over and over, and it was as if I had stepped into the recording booth and was looking straight at the musicians. I could even hear Lovett's lips smack in front of the microphone.
I found the Sapphire to have very good spatial accuracy with a believable soundstage. Testing this observation, I pulled out Cobb's Corner [Chesky SACD 327], a solid jazz recording by the Jimmy Cobb Quartet. Based on the excellent liner notes, I knew the recording venue here -- exactly where the musicians were and where the one microphone was placed for the recording session. This recording is not compressed, as is the case with all Chesky recordings, which helps to keep the integrity of the music's dynamic range. With the Sapphire, I could hear the distinct timbre of the Fazioli Concert Grand, the same instrument that I have heard live on several occasions, during Ronnie Mathews' opening of Monk's classic tune "Ruby My Dear." Again, the Sapphire turned in a remarkably dynamic and realistic performance of the music on this disc.
From here I moved on to one of my favorite songstresses in the world of bluegrass. Alison Krauss has one of the most angelic yet fragile and expressive voices I have heard, and she uses it to great effect on one of my favorite tunes, "Empty Hearts," from an early album called Forget About It [Rounder 11661-0465], a collection frequently overlooked in her catalog. In this sad song, Krauss's soft, breathy voice is front and center. The Sapphire convincingly reproduced her anguish and controlled despair with openness and delicacy. Staying within the bluegrass vein, next on the list was Cherryholmes [Skaggs Family 6989020142] with a straightforward cover of "Workin' Man" originally recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The mandolin, bass, fiddle, banjo, guitar and vocals all blended together well, and the Sapphire's presentation was filled with clarity and devoid of fatiguing elements that can be present on recordings of this nature. With a smile on my face, I thought that the Sapphire really hit its mark with this cut, showing off its sheer musicality and transparency.
Finally, I decided to go with a work that is always in rotation. It is powerful music that is frightening to some and glorious to others, and it can make some components beg for mercy. I have to admit that I have a weak spot for Wagner. Back in the '80s and '90s when the Metropolitan Opera of New York presented The Ring, I saw each performance in the cycle. One of my favorite recordings has become Die Walküre performed in 1999 by the Metropolitan Opera with James Morris as Wotan [Deutshe Grammophon 423 389-2]. The highlight of this recording is when James Morris sings "Leb wohl" in the final act. This last section of the opera moves from delicate passages to unrivalled orchestral density, with rapid dynamic and tempo changes. The Sapphire handled the demands in the music with grace, giving me an open and pleasing experience with moments that were quite wonderful and truthfully reproduced.
An Italian CD player does German opera. That's audio without boundaries.
The Italian challenger vs. the resident French incumbent
I have long been a fan of the sound that Yves-Bernard Andre has given the world of high-end audio with both his Audio Refinement and YBA lines. His sense of sonic refinement and musicality is very clear in all of the components that his company has brought to market over the years. To my ears, what YBA brings to the table is a sound that is smooth, pure and accurate. The company relies on its proprietary technologies and custom-designed parts whenever possible, with hand-soldering employed even for the most budget-friendly products.
I have several YBA components at home, and even today I have chosen to stay with my Audio Refinement Complete CD player over all comers. It is no longer available and retailed for $995 in 2003. I have compared this unit to many other more current Red Book players, including some with higher sampling rates and higher prices, but for the most part I have always come home to the sonic signature that Andre infuses in the design of his pieces. While many newer CD players may be more accurate, frequently their sound tends to be too bright for my tastes and thus uninviting.
Enter the challenger from Italy. Looking at the Sapphire and Complete side by side, it is interesting to see how similar they appear, with the exception of the sleeker, more contemporary mien that was part of the Sapphire's design. The two players are roughly the same size, share the same remote codes, and their digital LED displays are very close in appearance.
In 1994, the Eagles released Hell Freezes Over [Geffen GEFD 247252], and it includes an acoustic version of "Hotel California." During this recording, the percussion is prominent and the guitar work in the introduction is really strong. The Complete handled the percussion and guitar in its usual subdued and refined manner, producing a very polite sonic experience. When I played the same cut on the North Star Design Sapphire, the guitars came alive and the percussion was much tighter. The Sapphire sounded leaner yet faster, refined yet accurate.
The next track on my list to explore was "Bayaty" on the self-titled recording from Orquestra Popular De Camara [Adventure Music 1012 2]. This track, a song from Turkmenistan that was originally recorded by the group Ashkhabad on Peter Gabriel's Real World label, was transformed by this group of Brazilians into a lush and haunting 12-minute world-music romp. Again, I began with the Audio Refinement CD player and listened as all the beauty of the exotic instruments and vocals on this tune just melted into place. After listening several times to this wonderful piece, I placed the CD into the Sapphire. The instruments sounded clearer, the harmonies were more luscious, and the piano was more realistic than with the Complete.
Having heard the Holly Cole Trio live on several occasions, I wanted to compare how both these units handled the intimate recording Blame It on My Youth [Manhattan D153261] and Cole's unique vocal style. One of my favorite cuts on this recording is "Calling You," which features haunting vocals and solo piano in the beginning of the tune. The Sapphire made Cole seem as if she were singing just for me and brought the intimacy of the recording's night-club-like setting closer, while the Complete seemed to put more distance between us.
Finally, Peter Gabriel's Up [Geffen 0694933882] found its way into the CD players. In "Sky Blue," Gabriel features the Blind Boys of Alabama in a beautiful song with a dramatic choral ending that has the feel of a small and intimate gospel choir surrounding the listener. When I placed the CD in the Complete, the sound was very nice but lacked vitality and energy. With the North Star Design Sapphire, the soundstage was rich, the voices were coherent, and the choir just sounded alive and spiritual. It was a truly decadent experience to hear all those beautiful voices so clearly and with such a realistic presence.
The conclusion of this comparison? Nothing too mysterious -- you get more speed, transparency and accuracy when you pay more for the North Star Design Sapphire. It clearly bettered my (now vintage) Audio Refinement Complete.
All's well that ends well
At this point, it will come as no surprise that I enjoyed my time with this Italian CD player. When playing recordings on the North Star Design Sapphire, it was as if the proverbial veil was lifted and the true sound and emotion of the music was exposed. With poorly produced recordings, the Sapphire was merciless, and I could clearly hear all of the imperfections, including any badly managed compression and dubbing. However, its sonic accuracy and transparency were tempered with a smoothness and refinement that are uncommon among many of the CD players that I have heard to date. The unit's visual aesthetics are unique, with its pleasingly subtle faceplate.
In a fairly crowded field of CD players at the $2500 price point, the North Star Design Sapphire is definitely a first-rate offering and one you shouldn't overlook. I find it to be a well-conceived design with a well-balanced sonic character. It is a straightforward component that does everything well without obviously cutting any sonic corners. Automobiles are one of Italy's best-known exports, and my suggestion is that you take this Italian racer for a test drive.
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