March 2005Talk Electronics Thunder 2.2 CD Player
by Aaron Weiss
Being a compact disc player is an unenviable job. First, you have to read all the tiny bits off the surface of the disc. Youre never really certain if youre reading them correctly, so you go over your work again and again just to be sure. Next you have to convert those bits into analog pulses. Doing so requires following complicated recipes that tax your brain power. Some recipes are better than others, but all you know is what your makers programmed into you. Finally, you deliver the results of your work onto an assembly line where it is repeatedly massaged and fondled -- by a preamplifier, an amplifier, and finally a pair of loudspeakers. At the end of the day what kind of thanks do you get? Most casual listeners think your kind all sound the same, and those big, pumping speakers always steal center stage and take all the credit.
But being the CD player carries a lot of responsibility. Youre the first link the chain, and the rest of the audio system relies on you to pass along the music in its purest state. Sure, you may argue, but what about the factory that pressed the disc? And the recording engineer who mixed it? And the placement of the microphones? Surely these things are more responsible for the sonic outcome. Tough luck -- were not talking about all that stuff. It makes our heads hurt.
The folks at Talk Electronics are not intimidated by any of this. That might be why they named their line of CD players "Thunder," which presumably connotes the power of Thor rather than the power surges and high noise floor associated with the weather phenomenon of the same name.
Talk Electronics has been producing audiophile gear since 1996 out of Surrey, England, and before that, audio cables. The company now produces a select line of products named after weather phenomena, such as the Tornado 2.1 power amplifier and Cyclone 2.1 integrated amplifier. Each model is assigned a revision number, and the newly released Thunder CD player has been branded the 2.2 edition, which means it has been upgraded since 2001, when SoundStage! reviewed the Thunder 2. The differences are profound. The new 2.2 has separate transformers for the analog and digital sections, a new Sony CDM14-BD25 transport mechanism with CD Text feature, and an Analogue Devices AD1853 24-bit/192kHz DACs, which replace the older Crystal CS4390 DACs. There are also a completely new chassis and casework, and the addition of balanced outputs -- the Thunder 2.2 is fully balanced.
Because of these massive changes, a Thunder 2 can't be upgraded to a Thunder 2.2. However, the $1850 USD Thunder 2.2 also has a bigger brother, the Thunder 3.1B, which features 24-bit/192kHz upsampling courtesy of Anagram Technologies, makers of the STARS potted module used in some of the best digital components available today. The 2.2 can be upgraded to the 3.1B for $1500.
The Thunder 2.2 sports a high-accuracy, 50 PPM (parts per million) master clock that passes directly into a buffer fed from its own regulated and filtered power supply. By reducing timing errors from the incoming audio data stream, Talk aims to improve resolution and detail. The digital-to-analog conversion process involves 384x oversampling. There are differences of opinion as to whether oversampling and upsampling are sonically different, but there are concrete differences between how each process works. In this case, the Thunder 2.2 is essentially performing anti-aliasing on the sound data as it is converted from the analog domain into the digital -- in the process, minimizing quantization artifacts. If youve ever worked with text in Photoshop, you know what it means to reduce the "jaggies." Upsampling, on the other hand, increases the perceived resolution of the data entirely within the digital domain through interpolation -- something the 3.1B performs but not the Thunder 2.2.
Looked at from behind, the Thunder 2.2 offers two pairs of analog outputs; those listeners with balanced inputs should investigate the Thunder 2.2's balanced outputs first. Optical and coaxial digital outputs let you use the Thunder 2.2 as a transport with an external DAC. A removable IEC power cord is easily exchanged with something more exotic. There is an optional DC power connection designed only for use with Talks Whirlwind DC power supply. An internal modification of the unit is required to use DC power. A push-button main power switch also resides on the rear of the unit.
Available in either gleaming brushed silver or black, the 25-pound unit is solid indeed. At 17" wide, 13" deep, and 3 1/2" inches high, it occupies a typical footprint for a CD player. On its minimalist face are seven identical round push buttons set in a slight arc -- Open, Play/Pause, Repeat, Stop, Previous, Next, and Time. A button for dimming the display is set apart at the lower right of the face, typically where a power button might reside.
The cool-blue display is easy to read. While uncommon in many CD players, the Thunder 2.2 will scroll CD Text if it is available. This is a nice touch, although, sadly, this data is not widely included on many commercial discs. However you can easily include CD Text data when burning a copy of a disc onto CD-R media.
On the plastic remote control youll find all of the front-panel buttons plus a few functions unavailable from the units face. With the remote you can forward and rewind within a track, or create a playback program of up to 24 tracks. The remote includes direct track access through digit keys, and additional buttons that may be compatible with other devices such as volume control and mode switching (CD, Tuner, Photo, A/V, Aux 1 and Aux 2). Bizarrely, the Thunder 2.2 features two "hidden modes" -- shuffle and intro (which plays the first 10 seconds of each track in sequence). Apparently the term "hidden" means just that: Although the player supports both functions, there are no buttons to access them on either the front panel or the remote control. As the manual explains, if you own another RC5-compatible remote control with the appropriate buttons then youre all set.
The Thunder 2.2 took the place of my aging Marantz CC65SE, a five-disc changer that, aside from anything else, is worth something to those of us born in the generation without attention spans. Yeah, I know -- when you veteran audiophiles were kids you had to listen to one disc at a time, outside, while walking uphill for five miles in the snow. In the age of the iPod, even a five-disc changer seems like measly crumbs. Moving on, DH Labs BL-1 interconnects connect the Thunder 2.2 to an Audio Harmony TWO harmonic 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 stands that might pass for public art in front of some city hall somewhere.
Ive listened to Mark Levinson Live Recordings at Red Rose Music Volume One [Red Rose Music RRM 01] many times. So imagine my surprise when, about a quarter of the way through the very first track, "In a Sentimental Mood," my ears perked up. "What was that?" It was a sound -- a sound Id never heard before. I endeavored to identify it. I think it may be a very subtle tap on the drum. Or possibly a very light pluck of the bass. Honestly, Im not exactly sure. Then I heard it again and again -- hey, this was part of the music! And Id never once heard it before. Later in the track there is an extended piano solo. I heard another unfamiliar sound, which I think is some kind of wheezing or humming coming from George Cables as he tickles the ivories. Chalk one up for the Thunder 2.2's sheer resolving power.
There isnt any audible breathing in Adele Anthonys rendition of "Recitativo in Scherzo For Solo Violin," also from Mark Levinson Live Recordings at Red Rose Music Volume One, but there is still ample detail. Ms. Anthony somehow finds a tone on the strings that is nearly grating, without actually crossing over into grating. In other words, it walks a very fine line. As I make out the squeaks and squawks of the bow lifting and landing, it becomes clear that the Thunder 2.2 possess a very low noise floor. In video terms, this would be called the "black level." A deep black level means that low-light details become more distinct rather than gray blobs. Essentially, the Thunder 2.2 is a CD player with a very deep black level.
Ms. Anthonys performance is always a favorite test track for imaging. She seems to stand (or sit?) dead center toward the rear of the soundstage. She can sound eerily present with the right gear, and the Thunder 2.2 passes this test easily. With lesser equipment Ms. Anthony can seem to waver just slightly, like a mirage, or a hologram experiencing transmission interference. Not so with the Thunder 2.2 -- her position in the soundstage is as sure as thunder.
Turning to Jesse Cooks Gravity [Narada 63037], I find that the Thunder 2.2 reproduces a soundstage of multiple layers. Many early video games relied heavily on a coarse parallax trick, where multiple visual layers stacked on top of each other and moved at different rates. Cooks mix of acoustic guitar, Middle Eastern-influenced wind instruments, strings, and percussion are similarly arranged in parallax fashion. But unlike those old video games, the layers do not feel disconnected to each other. They move together as a whole -- a feat easily accomplished in todays video games, and sonically with the Thunder 2.2 as well.
Sometimes, as Freud never said, a detail is just a detail -- like a wheezing pianist (Freud may have said something about that as well, but thats for another time). But detail also adds intensity. Take the electric guitar solo break midway through the Rheostatics "Claire" on Introducing Happiness [Sire 61791-2]. As Martin Tielli inspires air guitars throughout the world (well, Canada at least) I hear more than an echo of Adele Anthonys "Recitativo in Scherzo." The precise imaging is nearly identical. And the thick sound is really a compound of details -- lots of little harmonics clumped together to create one giant, intense wave.
At the very end of "Take Me In Your Hand" from the same album, the song cartoonishly switches gears into a bass-and-recorder solo that surely drives all the (8-year-old) girls wild. But the coda is an effective test of bass articulation -- gloopy and indistinct on some systems. Again, that deep, black noise floor of the Thunder 2.2 pays off -- each low bass pluck is thick and resonant, each note easily discerned from the next.
Since Im plumbing the depths, its a little bit fun and a little bit unfair to throw Metallica at review products. And Justice For All [Elektra 60812] is from the time I like to refer to as "when Metallica was good." Depth, in this case, isnt a judgment but a description. Metallica, obviously, drives a system hard. Their music isnt really designed for the audiophile and typically sounds too restrained on gear with strong self-control. The Thunder 2.2 fares well -- it sounded intense and deep. The track "One" climaxes around a machine-gun barrage of prototypical heavy-metal guitar and the Thunder 2.2 delivered a lot of punch. Soundstaging is basically irrelevant to this music, but for what its worth Hetfield and company stand firmly about a third of the way back in the soundstage. This is not what I would describe as forward, which may be a limitation of the recording. As expected, heavy-metal distortion always comes off as a bit too refined on a non-thrasher system, and thats probably due mostly to my ProAc speakers more than anything else. What "One" and the title track prove is that the Thunder 2.2 can bring it -- if your loudspeakers can deliver it.
Whats interesting about detail is that it can bring a track together or tear it apart. Some systems dissect the music -- the details are there, but they dont connect to each other. Its important to stress that the Thunder 2.2 doesnt separate details. Its a uniter, not a divider. Does that always serve the music well? Maybe not so much on Tori Amoss latest, Scarletts Walk [Sony 86412]. The production here is basically the opposite of Amoss more emotionally intense debut -- where that was cold, hard, and spare, Scarletts Walk is warm, soft, and lush. The tracks are loaded down with details -- a kind of producers jungle courtesy of ProTools. Perhaps on the radio this works, acting to plump up the tracks like a quick squirt of Botox. The Thunder 2.2 reproduces all of those details, but it doesnt know where to put them, because the track has almost no soundstage. With everything in the recording on an even plane, we get something two-dimensional and busy. The Thunder 2.2 is following its instincts in bringing all the details together -- its just that they werent really meant to be that way in the first place. Or if they were, they shouldnt have been. What works on radio does not necessarily excel on finer gear.
Thankfully we hear the exact opposite result from the Thunder 2.2s personality on the soundtrack to Big Night [TVT 8040]. The fourth track is a vintage recording of Louis Primas "Oh Marie." Like many tracks in its day, the recording here is basically a live performance. On the surface its easy to hear a period piece -- theres no doubt this is a 1950s-era sound. On radio thats about all youd hear. But the Thunder 2.2 relays so much ambient detail that it breathes life into what could be a relic. I hear so much air around the performers that a huge soundstage forms, drums far to the rear of Primas hoarse vocals. Its easy for someone of my generation and robust youth to be instantly bored by this old music. But I found myself really getting into it. The Thunder 2.2 brings together the natural details of the performance's space to produce a lively rendition of an old recording -- exactly the opposite of how Amoss production team produced a lifeless rendition of a new recording.
It all comes back to the black level. On the screen, "inky" blacks, as they say, improve dynamic range and contrast, and reveal low-level details. The Thunder 2.2 is not a video projector, but it brings the same effect to music.
Despite the lazy convenience of the Marantz CC65SE, it really doesnt have the legs to challenge the Thunder 2.2 on sonic merits. But at one-third the price, what would I expect? The Marantz player sounds warm and somewhat forward. It images well for its price class, but it lacks the rock-solid precision put out by the Thunder 2.2. The Marantz player casts a shadow over details that are easily revealed with the Thunder 2.2. And while the Marantz can reproduce a few broad levels of soundstage depth, the Thunder 2.2 creates many more -- levels between levels that I didnt know existed on some recordings.
I previously reviewed the $1200 Opera Audio CD120, a CD player that prided itself on accuracy and truth. To its credit, the CD120 was relatively convincing at achieving its goal. Its difficult to say that the Thunder 2.2 assumes the same ambition. Talk Electronics itself uses the word "organic" rather than "accurate." And the company's own promotional literature emphasizes "passion, soul, involvement" over surgical dissection of "clarity" and "soundstage." The Opera player was more liable to dissect music into its component parts, like shining a bright light on a subject. The Thunder 2.2 simply takes a different approach, and seemed to project a more coherent whole, without drawing as much attention to the individual bits and pieces. Its quite possible that this is not the kind of "accuracy" some people seek, but it is the kind of listening experience others ultimately want. The UK-bred Thunder 2.2, at one and a half times the price of the Chinese-made Opera CD120, comes from a different place indeed.
With a stated emphasis on "the organic whole," Talk Electronics is marketing along the right track. This isnt the kind of sound Id claim to be "accurate" above all else -- that term carries a clinical feel that just doesnt feel right here. "Engaging" and "integrated" are more apt descriptions of the Thunder 2.2's sound -- along with "detailed."
But its hard to avoid the question of value. At the end of the day, the worth of a dollar is an entirely personal decision between oneself and ones banker. For budget-minded consumers, the $1850 asking price of the Thunder 2.2 is going to be better spent -- sonically speaking -- on componentry further downstream, where a more dramatic sonic impact can be had. Then again, if youve already invested in your loudspeakers and electronics, the Thunder 2.2 may just be the perfect complement.
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