April 1999Primare D20 CD Player
by John Stafford
Primare is a relatively unknown company to most North Americans. The design and head-office functions are based in Denmark, and the manufacturing has recently been moved to Sweden. The distribution of products is handled in North America by Divergent Technologies, which also distributes the products of other prominent European manufacturers like Copland, Audio Valve, and van den Hul.
While the TNT look is gone, there are still a number of design points that Primare has added to create a different look with the D20 while improving its sound at every possible turn. The chassis is made from two U-shaped pieces of 2mm-thick steel to ensure that the case is rigid. The front display panel is actually separate and extends out from the main chassis to reduce RFI and other noise from the display electronics. From the front view, the D20 looks like any other rectangular 17"W x 11"D x 4"H CD player, but from the side, you can clearly see the extension. While the D20 is not unattractive, it certainly caused some strange looks from friends and family.
The charcoal-gray aluminum faceplate is quite lovely, particularly as it is offset by the brushed-aluminum CD drawer and function buttons. There are a minimal number of buttons on the front, with a strange multifunction button that acts as the start, stop and eject control. It tries to anticipate what you want to do with rather surprising success. If the disc is at rest, pushing the button means play, and the next time you push it, the player stops. To eject, you just push and hold the button. I am not fond of machines that try to anticipate what I want, but Primares way worked quite well. Also included were the scan and track-skip buttons, and the on/off button included a handy standby position to keep the CD player at the ready while you wait for your tube amp and preamp to warm up.
The remote is quite art deco-like with its off-white plastic housing that curves back at the top end. I suspect that the curve helps you look at the remote while keeping the infrared transmitter aimed directly at the CD player. It reduces the "find the button and sight the player through the crosshairs" syndrome. As is common these days, the remote houses all of the commands, the programming functions and track-number choices. While this is not the most extensive list of functions, the remote does include an eject button -- something that more remotes should have. The remote also served as a conversation piece because it reminded me of a circa-1970 electric razor for reasons I have not yet fully understood.
The electronics feature two separate power transformers, one for the digital section and one for the analog. I consider this to be an important feature in delivering the fine sound that the D20 dishes out as I have recently done some upgrades to my own DAC that include a new outboard power supply. My own experience has led me to believe that power handling is one of the key ingredients to great sound, and the sonic improvements from my tweak were not subtle. In fact, a friend recently described the difference as "it sounds broken without it." Further power supply features on the D20 include four separate stages of power regulation.
Other than with the drive mechanism, Primare also seems to have strayed from the norm in their choice of electronic components. The transport is the well-known Phillips CDM12.4 with custom servo software. The digital conversion, however, is handled by a less well-known 24-bit AKM device that combines filtering and D/A-conversion duties. Dont get confused by the 24-bit label, though. The D20 can only play standard CDs, but like many decoders on the market it is capable of handling 24-bit word lengths. In high-end audio, overkill tends to rule, and D/A converters that are capable of handling more than the 16-bits that are found on a CD tend to do a better job sonically. The D20 also has no HDCD decoding, but it is hard to argue with the results, even when comparing the D20 to HDCD-enabled machines playing HDCD discs.
The transport handled all of my discs flawlessly without a skip or a misread. I have the CD Check test disc that measures the machines ability to read problem discs and correct errors, and the D20 scored the second-highest rating -- four out of five. My Rotel 955AX CD player is the only transport I have used that has actually scored five out of five. The four-out-of-five rating means that the Primare gets a very good score on its sound reproduction/error correction. Although it handled itself well as a transport, it seemed a waste to relegate it to mere transport duties even though it does have a coaxial digital output through an RCA jack. I spent very little time listening to it as a transport only.
I have hinted rather extensively that I like the sound of the Primare D20 and I consider it to be on my list of outstanding components at its price. The D20 presents a smooth yet detailed sound with plenty of depth and dynamic range. In fact, there are no weak links in my book, although some may find the sound a tad laid back for their tastes.
Even without an HDCD decoder, the D20 can more than hold its own with similarly priced units playing HDCD-encoded discs. I spent a great deal of time on this as I felt that it was going to be one of the pitfalls of the D20. Ensuring that levels are even is important when comparing any two pieces of equipment, but is even more important when dealing with HDCD due to the louder signal that the decoder will enable. The best track for comparison was a Joni Mitchell tune called "The Wolf That Lives In Lindsay" from her Misses collection [Reprise CDW 46358]. While the Assemblage DAC2 that I used for comparison was perhaps more dynamic and forward, the D20 displayed a wider dynamic range and more subtlety. Remember, dynamic range usually means that the quiet parts are more quiet so that the difference between loud and quiet becomes greater; it doesnt mean that it is just plain louder. Along with these nuances came better depth and focus to images, which can be quite appealing on this track.
Digital hardness was nowhere to be found when playing well-recorded discs on the D20. I do have some discs that sounded harsh and brittle, but they are just plain bad CDs that have managed to remain in my collection for some unknown reason. Perhaps I am subconsciously trying to find a digital front-end that will fix them and still sound good with everything else. My optimism will likely die a slow death.
Despite the D20s smooth presentation, there was plenty of detail to go around. At this price range there are some CD players that offer lots of detail, but they are often a little overly bright, and the ones that avoid this problem tend to be somewhat lacking in the resolution department. Thats what really turns my crank about the Primare D20. I will not sit here and say that this is the best CD player around, but at its price, it does the things you want out of a CD player and that you would normally have to spend quite a bit more money to get.
There are a number of recordings that get pegged as demo discs because they sound good with a wide range of equipment. These often become the discs du jour at the audio shows and retail outlets. We all have them and use them, but they should improve as you improve your system, and not all of them do. I find Holly Coles Temptation [Alert Z2-81026] is one of those discs that can keep giving you more as your system gets better, even though it sounded pretty darn good to start with. There just seems to be plenty of hidden bits that will come out to play if you find a more resolving digital front-end. The D20 is very popular with the bits, and many more of them were inclined to join the crowd once the fun got started. The results were better resolution of the double bass and more sheen to the brush strokes across the snare drum. Coles voice, too, became more textured and rich on tracks like "Jersey Girl" and "Little Boy Blue."
The sound of the D20 was well balanced and with no real emphasis placed on one end of the frequency spectrum or the other. On hearing a new piece of equipment, you often hear one part of a recording jump out at you as being better or more emphasized than another. But the music just seems to come out of the D20 with an ease and a sense of having nothing to hide. There were no musical types that I preferred over others either. Whether it was a baroque quartet or the Green Day trio, the D20 was equally appealing to me.
I feel like I have discovered a rare jewel of a CD player. The D20s smooth operation, quirky good looks, funky remote and killer sound make me one happy reviewer. I was not overly fond of the multifunction button, but most of the operation of any CD player these days is done by the remote, which in the case of the D20 is well laid out and easy to use. I liked the lack of digital artifacts without losing overall resolution, and at this price point, you normally give up one for the other. The depth and finesse of the D20 show the players pedigree as a high-end component with little compromise, and the D20s balanced sound evoked the emotional content of each type of music with satisfying results. Give it a listen.
Copyright © 1999 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved