November 1999Roksan Caspian CD Player and Integrated Amplifier
by Roger Kanno
Moderately priced components (especially integrated amps) are huge sellers in Europe and Asia, and the Brits have dominated this corner of the market with audio heavyweights such as Arcam, Cyrus, and TAG MacLaren (formerly Audiolab) leading the way. Having owned integrated amps from both Arcam and Cyrus in the past, I was interested to hear how Roksan, a relative newcomer to this highly competitive corner of the market, would fare with its initial offerings.
The components submitted for review were the Caspian integrated amplifier and CD player. OK, a moderately priced CD player maybe, but another review of an integrated amp? Didn't Marc Mickelson just finish reviewing a whole slew of excellent and affordably priced integrateds? Didn't Srajan Ebaen recently extol the virtues of the Audio Refinement Complete, and what about SimAudio? Yes, but integrated amps make a lot of sense to a lot of people, and although some might scoff at the idea, I use one in my reference rig. By placing the preamp and power amp in one box, manufacturers can decrease costs and theoretically pass on the savings to the consumer. In addition, there is the added convenience of having to deal with only one component instead of two and not having to purchase interconnects that can add significantly to the cost of the system. The same argument can be made for one-box CD players versus separate transports and DACs.
Roksan, you dont have to wear that dress tonight
The Roksan Caspian line of components features a simple and attractive, if somewhat industrial, look. They are covered with a matte-black finish and feature a 1/4" angular brushed-aluminum faceplate that some may consider elegant in its simplicity. Knobs and buttons have a reassuringly positive feel and are coated with heavyweight black rubber, giving the components an even more purposeful appearance.
I was surprised by the Caspian CD player and integrated amplifier, which are massively built for components in their price range. Picking up the player and amp simultaneously is not a trivial task, and the added weight reassured me of their quality. I was not able to open up the units to examine the interior build quality due to the use of some very small Allen bolts for which I did not have the proper key. The quality and feel of the Caspian components are probably some of the best that you will find at this price point and are in the class of some much more expensive gear.
Caspian CD player you dont have to put on the red light
The Caspian CD player is a solid, no-frills unit. It has a pair of gold-plated analog outputs, a single BNC coaxial digital output, and features a detachable IEC power cord. A simple remote is provided, and it controls the player and allows the user to access the programming functions. D/A conversion is accomplished via the TDA 1305T BCC-DAC2 (bitstream continuous-calibration DAC), but it lacks the PMD-100 chip required for HDCD decoding.
While the exterior of the Caspian CD player is all business, it features many extravagant internal design features. Roksan has obviously designed this CD player with great care. The analog output stage has a separate transformer and power supply for isolation from the other internal circuits. Further isolation is provided by separate circuit boards for the D/A conversion, microprocessor, and fluorescent display. Roksan has also implemented what it calls its patented Laser Environment Enhancer Light technology. This is essentially a system that bathes the CD in green light similar to AudioPrisms CD Stoplight, which is used to paint the edges of CDs. Whether this confers any improvement in audio performance is questionable, but it is an interest-provoking design feature nonetheless.
The operation of the player is straightforward and without any major quirks. The display unit is situated on a center-mounted hinged panel that flips down to access the CD drawer. The remote (which was different from the one shown in the owners manual) is simple to use, but is not as sensitive as I would have liked. The remote has to be pointed almost directly at the player before it will respond to any commands. However, the controls on the front fascia of the player (including the two play/pause buttons) have a very positive feel which combined with the sheer mass of the player are very reassuring and the unit operated faultlessly during the review period.
Every breath you take
The great care that was taken in designing the Caspian CD player translates into a sound that is both detailed and transparent. Individual instruments can easily be located in the soundstage, which is very wide and well defined. The soundstage also has good depth, but it cannot match the incredible width -- instruments image well outside the speakers. The uncolored and detailed sound may not appeal to vinyl or tube lovers, but this is a very resolving player that provides a lively and immediately involving sound.
When placed in my reference system, the Caspian CD player proved itself to be a worthy contender. Mighty Sam McClains vocals on Give It Up to Love [JVC/AudioQuest JVCXR-0012-2] just purr, and guitars resonate richly after each individual string is plucked as a Hammond organ warbles away in the background. The incredibly deep bass on Dadawas smoothly recorded Sister Drum [WEA CD 99592] is weighty, and her amazingly powerful vocals are vividly reproduced without strain. The Roksan also has commendable detail and low-level resolution. The Caspian CD player is definitely not a laid-back sounding component. Recordings that are somewhat forward to begin with, such as the Bare Naked Ladies' Born On a Pirate Ship [Reprise CDW 46128], remain up front when played back on the Caspian. Percussion instruments such as hi-hat and cymbals on "Shoebox" have fast attack and decay, but can become slightly smeared. However, snare drum exhibits plenty of snap that had me tapping my feet in time to the music. "Old Apartment," which is also from Born On a Pirate Ship, is remarkably dynamic, but with lush vocals and orchestration during the more subdued passages. On Elvis Costellos soulful a cappella version of "Full Force Gale" from No Prima Donna: The Songs of Van Morrison [Exile/Polydor 314 523368-2], Costellos voice is incredibly palpable with only the slightest hint of grain and coarseness.
Adding an Audio Alchemy DDE v3.0 DAC to the Roksans digital output smoothed the sound out, but also shrunk the sense of acoustic space conveyed by the players internal DAC and added a layer of haze to the presentation and takes away from the Roksans transparency and neutrality. The DDE v3.0 does have a major sonic advantage over the non-HDCD capable Caspian player when playing back HDCD-encoded discs. Mark Knopflers guitar seems to come from further back behind the loudspeakers and his voice is smoother with more body on the HDCD Golden Heart [Vertigo 314 514 732-2]. Eugene Istomins piano on Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 [Reference Recordings RR-68CD] also has a more tangible presence, and the English horns of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra led by Gerard Schwarz sound wonderfully woody and robust when decoded by the HDCD-equipped Audio Alchemy DAC. Overall, I preferred the sound of the Caspian CD player through its internal DAC for its more detailed and transparent presentation of standard 16-bit CDs.
Caspian integrated amplifier an Englishman in New York
Like the CD player, the Caspian integrated amp is a substantial piece of audio gear. Unlike the CD player, the integrated has only one transformer, but the logic and microprocessor controls are on separate boards from the main circuit board and are mounted away from the amplifier section to minimize interference. Rated at 70Wpc into 8 ohms and 100Wpc into 4 ohms continuous with both channels driven, it should be able to drive all reasonable speaker loads without a problem. The appearance of the amp is almost identical to that of the CD player except for two relatively large black knobs that flank the center-mounted display. One knob scrolls through the inputs and the other controls the volume. Illuminated indicators on the display show the input that is selected or an additional indicator labeled "Mode" signals when the amp is in standby or mute operation.
There are five line-level inputs and one tape loop on gold-plated RCA jacks as well as two preamp outs and one direct input. This flexibility in connection allows for the addition of a subwoofer or crossover, a power amplifier for bi-amplification, or even integration into a home-theater system. The power cord is of the detachable IEC variety, and the binding posts will accept bare wire, pins, and (although they do not appear to be specifically designed for them) banana plugs. A phono section is not included, not even an optional one, but this is understandable. For as much as we hate to admit it, phono sections are rarely used these days, and for those that require them, there are many high-quality external units available.
Although a basic remote is supposed to be supplied with the amp and an optional system remote is available, my review unit was lacking both. Fortunately, I had another remote on hand that was able to control the unit by cycling through the inputs and adjusting the volume, which is all that I required.
Every little thing she does
The sound of the Caspian integrated is similar to that of the CD player, but less detailed. The amplifier is also not as transparent, but it possesses exceptional dynamics and the wide soundstage and excellent imaging are still evident. When the Caspian integrated was placed in my reference system, very little was lost in terms of sound quality. Bass was full, instruments and vocals exhibited pinpoint imaging, and the overall presentation was warmer and more "musical" than that of the Caspian CD player.
The Caspian integrated also has a more laid-back character than that of the CD player, and many will find this appealing. Music is reproduced with wide dynamics and plenty of resolution, but with little of the leanness and brightness that many attribute to solid-state amplification. For instance, Jewels Spirit [Atlantic CD 82950], which can sound overly bright and etched on some systems, still has the impact of powerful vocals and forceful acoustic guitar, but with little of the edginess that is often associated with this recording.
This "musical" nature results in a presentation that is forgiving of less-than-ideal recordings and source components such as the Caspian CD player, which can reveal shortcomings in recordings. Because of this, the amplifier may sound rather staid when played at low volume, but it still has plenty of muscle to play at party-approved levels when required. The Caspian integrated also does bass the way I like, with authority rather than with politeness. One of the few complaints that I had with my previous amp, the otherwise excellent Cyrus III integrated, was that the bass; although controlled and articulate, it rolled off too quickly. The bass of the similarly priced Caspian is not vise-like, but extends much lower and is exceptional for an integrated amp. In this regard, the Caspian is much more like my reference Krell KAV-300i.
Dont stand so close to me
Although the Caspian is an extremely detailed CD player, it could not match my more-than-twice-the-price reference Teac/Audio Alchemy/MSB set up in that regard. The reference rig extracted minute details from recordings that were obscured by the Caspian player, and the noise floor was significantly lower, resulting in much greater low-level resolution. For instance, Dadawas title track from Sister Drum has a passage where her melodic vocals image dead center while a sort of soft muttering emanates from half right and a rhythmic wailing originates from half left. The reference rig bettered the Caspian player by extracting every nuance of the vocals that hung delicately in between the two loudspeakers with a greater sense of depth and more air. The Caspian CD player never sounded harsh, but there was sometimes a slight edge to the sound that the reference digital rig was able to smooth over. I attribute this, at least in part, to the Audio Alchemy resolution enhancement and jitter reduction. Although the Caspian CD player may lack the depth and air of my reference rig, it still has outstanding imaging and transparency as well as the ability to extract all but the last bit of detail from recordings.
The Caspian integrated also could not match my more costly reference Krell KAV-300i in terms of detail, imaging, or sheer output. The added power of the Krell gave recordings greater dynamics, more snap and allowed every recording, no matter how demanding, to be reproduced almost effortlessly. Where the Caspian did excel was in the reproduction of bass. Although not as controlled as that of the Krell, bass reproduced by the Caspian integrated was deep, solid and very satisfying. The Caspian was also not as transparent as my reference amp. With recordings such as Sarah McLachlans "Angel" from the City of Angels Soundtrack [WEA CDW 46867], the Krell presented all of the subtleties of MacLachlans lilting voice, and the rich reverberant sound of the piano created in the seemingly endless acoustic space of the recording studio. With the Caspian integrated, the faint inflection in MacLachlans vocals was slightly homogenized in comparison.
The Caspian CD player and integrated amp are both excellent components, but their price targets them at people who are not necessarily going to place them in reference-level, cost-no-object systems. It is necessary to put their performance into perspective; however, my reference components should sound better considering their higher cost. To be fair, I decided to audition the Caspian separates together as a system with some more reasonably priced loudspeakers that are likely more indicative of systems in which the Caspian gear will be used.
First up were the Paradigm Monitor 9s, a sizeable floorstander that I find to be a good all-around speaker for music and movie soundtracks. Because of their slightly dark sound and forgiving character, the Monitor 9s sounded excellent with the Roksan duo. This combination provided a very coherent sound from top to bottom that would satisfy everyone but the most discriminating audiophile. The bass was on the rich side of reality and the midrange and treble were not as transparent and uncolored as they could have been, but this was probably more of a function of the loudspeakers rather than of the source components. Front-to-back depth was lacking slightly, but the soundstage was very wide, dynamics were impressive and the overall musical presentation was remarkably balanced in every respect.
The other reasonably priced pair of speakers that I had on hand were the NHT 1.5s, a revealing bookshelf speaker of an acoustic-suspension design. While I have always been impressed by the accurate sound of the 1.5s, I find them to be a little forward and very revealing of source and amplification components. The NHTs have never sounded better than when I drove them with the Caspian components. There seemed to be just the right combination of detail from the CD player, laid-back sound of the amp, and controlled but attenuated bass from the speakers. To be fair, this system lacked some of the depth and effortlessness of my reference rig and did not image much outside of the speakers, but after listening to it for just a few minutes, I found the sound so seductive and enticing that I just sat back and enjoyed the music. In fact, on some recordings I was enjoying myself so much that I forgot that I was listening to the Roksans and tried instead to change the CD on my reference system, which sat alongside.
Live recordings such as Bruce Springsteens "Thunder Road" from Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Live/1975-85 [Columbia CK 40567] and Bruce Cockburns "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" from Columbia Records Radio Hour, Volume 1 [Columbia CK 66466] had an immediacy and intensity that were extremely involving when played back on the Roksan gear and NHT speakers. Springsteens vocals were full of all the earnestness and urgency of youth that are the trademark of his earlier albums, and Cockburns guitar and Rob Wassermans bass lines were reproduced with a sense of purpose and conviction. There was just enough inflection in the vocals and resolution and detail in the instruments to bring out the nuances of these sincere performances.
The sealed enclosure of the NHT 1.5 provides tight bass response down to 53Hz, but rolls off quite quickly below that. The combination of the integrateds low-frequency control and the NHT speakers not trying to extend beyond their lower limits provided very taught and punchy bass. The NHT 1.5s are also not particularly efficient speakers at 85dB/W/m, but the Caspian amp drove them to very high levels before audibly distorting, suggesting that the 70Wpc rating may be conservative and that there is plenty of available headroom.
Playing back Mozarts Piano Concerto No. 21 on the Roksans along with the NHTs reminded me of a concert that I had recently attended at the Artec-engineered Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia. That very same piano concerto was performed that evening, and the extraordinary acoustics of the concert hall along with the gifted soloist brought the Steinway to life in a way that can only be experienced live. The Roksan components were almost able to transport me back to the concert hall and reminded me of the fine performance that I had witnessed on that beautiful summer evening.
Roksan has designed and manufactured two accomplished components in the Caspian CD player and integrated amplifier. Both units have innovative design features and build quality that is second to none. The two pieces look handsome and purposeful when stacked one on top of each other, and they have that high-end look and feel, which confer a certain pride of ownership.
The integrated amplifier has a laid-back, but powerful sound that worked well with several very different loudspeakers. The CD player is detailed, but with little of the edgy quality that is often associated with very revealing and transparent digital front-ends. The two Roksan components worked wonderfully together as a system, especially when mated with the NHT 1.5 loudspeakers. I listened quite happily to this system for several weeks and often marveled at the synergy among the loudspeakers and these two components.
Although the Roksans are both excellent performers, they are up against some serious competition from the likes of Acurus, Anthem, Arcam, Audio Analogue, Audio Refinement, Bryston, Classé, Cyrus, SimAudio, TAG McLaren -- I could go on. However, the distinctive styling and impressive build quality of the Roksan Caspian series are not surpassed by any of its competitors and the audio quality is definitely in the same league as the highly regarded components from these respected manufacturers.
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