Opera Audio Consonance CD120 CD Player
by Aaron Weiss
"I want the truth!" demands Tom Cruise. "You cant handle the truth!" shouts Jack Nicholson, in what amounts to the one zillionth time this dialogue has been quoted. But do we want the truth? We audiophiles say that we do. But is there one truth? If there were and all of the available gear communicated it, thered be no point to these reviews. Presumably that is not the case, because here we are. Still, the question remains unresolved -- are we on an eternal quest to find the gear that tells the one truth, or do we want to find the truth that we can handle?
Where does the truth begin? A modern hi-fi system has to carry the truth a long way. Does it start at the source and then flow through the preamp, the amp, and into the loudspeakers? Or does truth begin before any of that -- in the recording studio? Truth is a slippery slope. Just ask Bill Clinton.
Opera Audio products invite this line of philosophical thinking. The company insists that their gear reproduces "the original musical sound, purely and naturally." Opera declares that their products are "created with acoustical instruments in a concert situation as a point of reference." They proclaim that "the music is reproduced exactly like the original. "
In other words, Opera Audio promises the truth. But can the truth be bought? And can it be bought for $1200?
Opera Audio is a Chinese producer of high-end audio gear, with a wide range of products from the Consonance line of tube-based amplifiers and preamplifiers to solid-state amplifiers, digital sources, turntables, loudspeakers, and even cables. The CD120 is a solid-state CD player, the baby brother to the Consonance Reference 2.2, which SoundStage! reviewed in August 2003. The Consonance Reference 2.2 features a vacuum-tube output stage on the inside, wood grain on the outside, and retails for $2000 USD -- $800 more than the CD120.
The $1200 CD120 features a Philips VAM1202 drive mechanism and 24-bit/192kHz multilevel sigma-delta upsampling. As with its big brother, the 2.2, this processing comes courtesy of the multi-bit Crystal CS4396 DAC. The unit upsamples all material to 192kHz but does not support HDCD decoding. It will play homebrew CD-Rs.
On its rear, the CD120 is equipped with two pairs of analog outputs -- RCA and XLR. It also features one digital S/PDIF RCA digital output, which you might use to connect the CD120 as a transport to an external DAC. The IEC power cord is removable and thus can be replaced with a power cord of your choosing.
The CD120 features a brushed aluminum finish all around, despite what the manual says (the cherry wood described is actually used on the Reference 2.2). At about 22 pounds, 17" wide, just over 11" deep and just over 3" high the sturdy unit feels substantial and meaty for a CD player. The face offers several round push buttons -- on the left, main power, previous and next; on the right, open, stop, and play. Although not indicated on the unit, the play button doubles as the pause button when hit during playback. The simple, clear display features blue LED characters. It cannot be dimmed.
The remote control is an oddity. High-end audio manufacturers seem to have a difficult time designing remote controls. Why this is so is one of the great mysteries of our time. The CD120's remote is thick and stubby, almost square. When you shake it, you can hear it rattle inside. You need a screwdriver to remove the back cover to replace the two AAA batteries. Each button is the same size and shape. There is no program or shuffle button on the remote because the CD120 does not support either. To the remote's credit, the volume buttons changed the volume of my Primare integrated amplifier -- very thoughtful of Opera.
For most of its time in my system, the CD120 replaced my usual Marantz CC65SE source, although I had the Eastern Electric MiniMax CD player on hand for comparison as well. DH Labs BL-1 interconnects connect the CD120 into an Audio Harmony TWO filter and from there into a Primare A60 integrated amplifier. Canare 4S8 speaker cables are run in single-wire configuration to a pair of ProAc Response 2S loudspeakers mounted to four-pillar sand-filled iron-man stands. If my house ever burns to the ground, those stands will remain in place like ancient Greek ruins.
Chico Freemans tenor sax that spirals right out of the first track, "In a Sentimental Mood," on Mark Levinson Live Recordings at Red Rose Music Volume One [Red Rose Music RRM 01] is always very up front -- and never more so than with the CD120. It hangs palpably in midair, practically casting off floating black notes as in a cartoon. This is a strong, distinct image. Detailed, too -- the saxs reedy sound feels positively bristly, as if looking at cilia under a microscope. The last track, "Alligator Crawl," is an exercise in busy precision. The August Forster concert grands bass notes articulate clearly. Throughout the spectrum, each key strikes a note so distinct and precise its almost distracting. When does a sequence of notes gel into an integrated sound? When does it become more than the sum of its parts? The CD120 shines a bright light on those parts.
Tori Amoss Little Earthquakes [Atlantic 82358-2] combines passion and detail. In "Silent All These Years" Amos's voice transforms into a sound nearly hyperreal. Are accuracy and realism the same? Can a sound be too real? The CD120s impressive, almost holographic projection of Amoss voice does not diminish the lump-in-throat quality of "Winter," perhaps her most powerful track to date. She sings from dead-center on the CD120, a solid image that anchors the song and adds to its power. Still, nuances and variations in production quality throughout the track and the disc as a whole become apparent.
Given the CD120s knack for precision, it shines with the kind of carefully sculpted material put out by Steely Dan. Somehow the Dan managed to find a kind of soulfulness rather than rigidity in exactitude. Their classic "Reelin in the Years" included on Citizen Steely Dan Disc 1 [MCA MCAD4-10981] is more than just a light-rock radio staple. The songs energy is wickedly carved out by Walter Beckers scalpel-sharp guitar work. The CD120 revels in these sharp edges and projects them spot-on, unwavering in location three-quarters toward the right edge of the soundstage.
A bit of Steely Dan can also be found in Billy Corgans now-defunct Smashing Pumpkins, particularly Siamese Dream [Virgin 0777 7 88267 2 9]. Both shared a penchant for darkness, although the Dan leaned toward seedy street dark whereas Corgan is full of gothic angst. The CD120 doesnt ask questions -- it does what the music tells it to, and on tracks like "Today" and "Soma" it renders the Pumpkins thrashing sound as cleanly as Corgan could have possibly wanted. It works if you believe that "clean distortion" is not a paradox. Certainly the CD120 does not back down an inch from Corgans ferocity. When Corgan second-guessed himself on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness [Virgin 7243 8 40861 2 1] he produced a sprawling and muddy-sounding double set. The veil on these discs is striking. Where many other components have struggled under its weight, the CD120 reaches back and really finds the musicality behind this releases indistinct production quality.
However, that same tenacious, bulldog-like grip on accuracy doesnt always serve the material. While the Red Hot Chili Peppers By The Way [Warner 948140-2] is the band's most mature release, it is still the Chili Peppers. Theirs is not the sort of music intended for easy-chair listening, and the CD120s hyperrealism makes it difficult for the music to sound truly raw. Fleas bass line on "This is the Place" vibrates with such stringy resonance that its both impressive and out of place at the same time. The rhythm section pounds away with such depth that it all sounds too grown up for its own good -- as if the Peppers were rocking out in three-piece suits rather than one-piece socks.
In a way, I heard the same phenomenon on Nervous House [Nervous NRV2011-2], a prototypical NYC house mix that is soulful and smoky and impossible to stand still to. All of the pieces of the puzzle are reproduced perfectly by the CD120 -- Kim Englishs silky smooth vocals on "Time For Love," the articulate and deep bass, and those velvety soft house-music synth chords. But the CD120 doesnt produce sound like an underground club in Brooklyn -- it sounds like a technology demonstration at a convention. The pieces are all so real, theyre too real. The truth is, that might be exactly what some audiophiles are looking for.
This penchant for accuracy better serves the music of Nigel Kennedy. His Kafka [EMI 7243 8 52212 2 4] is replete with howling electric violin that somehow connects more with the intellect than the part that shakes its moneymaker. "Autumn Regrets" is intense and gooey, sonically dripping. The CD120 spares no detail, and here it works because the detail is key to its enjoyment. This players impressive ability to throw a three-dimensional soundstage comes fully to bear on "From Adam to Eve," an operatic ode to transsexualism. Kennedys music is more about style and texture than it is about rhythm or rawness, which plays directly into the CD120s strength.
The CD120 doesnt lack for any sonic capability -- it doesnt noticeably roll off the bottom end or shorten the highs. It doesnt lose pace or become congested when things get busy. It reproduces music with impressive detail, detail with impressive precision, and accuracy with impressive realism. All of which begs many questions about what one listens for in the reproduction of music, and how truth, accuracy, and realism really relate.
The Marantz CC65SE ($500 when new) is an aging model of CD player. Its carousel is, however, convenient. Still, the sonic difference between the CD120 and the incumbent was obvious. The Marantz exhibits a warm tone and its imaging, although reasonable, lacks the precision projected by the CD120. The Marantz casts a glow, a mood if you will, which, while pleasant, may well not represent the truth. If there is a truth, the CD120 probably gets a lot closer. Of course, it lists for over twice the price I paid for the Marantz seven years ago. Still, in todays dollars that economic comparison is favorable to the CD120.
More closely matched against the CD120 is the Eastern Electric MiniMax. Like the CD120's big brother, the Reference 2.2, the MiniMax features a tubed output stage. But at $900, it comes in under the CD120's asking price. The MiniMax experienced some low-end roll-off not exhibited by the CD120. And where the CD120 conveys an almost coldly precise detail, the MiniMax is more graceful and even flattering, particularly in the upper midrange, arguably at the expense of pure accuracy.
The MiniMax sounds open, spacious, and perhaps even a bit laid-back. While the CD120 is not overtly forward, it is more like a pure white light that avoids tinting whatever is under its glare. In effect, the CD120 and MiniMax differ not just in pricing, but in attitude. While the CD120 is a straight shooter that deals in the facts, the MiniMax is a romantic that wears slightly rose-tinted glasses.
Does the CD120 represent the truth? It clearly projects a sound that very much feels like it could be the truth. Truth, particularly in our digital age, has come to be a synonym for accuracy. High-definition television is often "seen" as truth because of its incredible accuracy. For some this is the Holy Grail -- to these people, the $1200 CD120 will be a bargain and worth every penny.
There is a legitimate philosophical question as to how accuracy and detail -- "truth" -- relate to mood and atmosphere -- "soul." Are the two complementary, or are they antagonists? The Opera Audio CD120 positions itself at the intersection of these questions -- intentionally and successfully so.
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