With the Audio Note CD 3.1x/II CD Player, analog as well as digital music lovers may have finally found their dream come true.!
I first met Peter Qvortrup, the architect of Audio Note (UK), last year at the California Audio Show. After cruising around many of the fine companies displaying their products, I wandered into the Audio Note room, as some exquisite vocal and jazz vinyl records were displaying some incredibly natural sound qualities. There, he was displaying the most recent version of the CD 3.1X//II CD player with built-in output tubes, and no oversampling in its DAC. The CD3.1x/II player is under evaluation here and now.
Thinking back to that day, some of the company’s more recent and exquisite analog components were combined with the CD3.1x/II; some of which included the TT3 turntable with the ARM Three and the IQ3 moving magnet cartridge. It was quite an experience watching and hearing the prodigiously received “Arm3 doing its work as well! Finishing things off was the beautiful sounding and striking in presentation of the Meishu Phono Tonmeister. In case you weren’t aware, Audio Note has a plethora of excellent loudspeaker designs, exploiting the music of which first attracted me to their demonstration room. (The Audio Note AN/ED loudspeaker will be intricately examined in an upcoming post.)
Peter Qvortrup is an adamant confidante of classical music, jazz, and opera. He also loves analog playback. His historic collection of analog records and first-rate CDs is something to envy, and believe me, he knows every detail of their recording dates, pressings, and when they were first issued. Acknowledging the above, should it be any big surprise that he should know and understand a bit about what “accurate” reproduction of music and speech sound like?
Anybody who loves music and high-quality audio reproduction worth his salt will acknowledge that the human voice is the final test and conclusive standard by which to judge the ‘accuracy’ of a high definition sound reproduction system, and the loudspeakers involved are quite certainly our final destination
Although Peter was influenced by the late Peter Snell’s speaker designs, particularly their crossovers, the AN/E loudspeakers, by some definition being a bit uncommon by today’s audiophile standards in set up, by no means sound or look like the Snell loudspeakers, which were originally built in the 1970s. But now, on to the CD 3.1xII.
AUDIO NOTE DAC CONVERSION
Needless to say, there are different competing methods for DAC conversion when evaluating some of the highest quality DACs currently available to the audio enthusiast. Each method, if implemented correctly can and should deliver some of the most exceptional sound quality from high-quality digital files, CD’s and of course, first-rate streaming. Individual preferences aside, Audio Note prefers to use no sampling on their CD player/DACs.
Interestingly, (or maybe not), many engineers, when technically measuring DACs produced by Audio Note could very well consider them as ‘unacceptable’ upon implementing formal measurements
To quote Peter “Oversampling is the digital equivalent of feedback, and it causes a colossal amount of damage. All we can do is to minimize the damage being done in the digital domain.” He added that products without digital filtering “will have more of the qualities you associate with analog. Not all of them, mind you—but more.”
BUT WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
Audio Note solely introduced the use of non-oversampling in CD replay as they threw away the ubiquitous “Brick Wall Filter. If your DAC imposed the same brick wall filter as required for 44.1 kHz on all resolutions, then upsampling wouldn’t make a difference. However, many modern DACs all use gentler filters where they can get higher resolutions. Upsampling enables lower resolution content to be filtered using the gentler filters enabled by higher resolution. Theory notwithstanding, many high-end designs do not utilize filtering at all and the results can often be impressive. The top of the line, Audionote DAC-5 Signature as an example, is considered one of the very best converters on the market today.
“So, the question remains whether unsampling vs. oversampling makes a difference in sound quality and if one or the other makes music sound ‘better’. One might also ask, “What is the motivation for oversampling”?
Most people have heard the term “oversampling” applied to digital audio devices. While it’s intuitive that sampling and playing back something at a higher rate always sounds better than a lower rate—more points in the waveform for increased accuracy—that’s not what oversampling means. The truth is much less intuitive: Oversampling means generating more samples from a waveform that has already been digitally recorded! How can we get more samples out than was recorded?!
The effects of upsampling (oversampling) are still greatly debated. While it is true that upsampling does help us in attenuating the amount of jitter caused by sampling errors and an inaccurate clock, whether this jitter is audible or not depends on how acute the listener may be. There is no doubt that wide bit words and super-high sampling rates that are touted by the latest audiophile products have a lot to do with marketing the product specified.
As such, The CD3.1X//2 will not play 24-bit/96kHz (or higher-res) files. What it does quite superbly with its quality, untampered data streaming transport is reveal tons of transparency and information as well as fine musical tonality you may have missed on your best CD’s or CD-R rips (16-bit/44.1kHz files).
FROM A PURISTS POINT OF VIEW
Most audiophiles (which I assume would include most, if not all our readers) want no additional processing on their signal and want whatever comes in from the source to preferably–come out as analog. They talk about zero oversampling DACs and such that are completely filter-free both in the analog and digital domain. That is one extreme that some may argue is the most pristine since it avoids any digital artifacts and its quality relies on the human subjective perception of music and sound.
However, will it sound better without all the digital processing and filtering even with the image of the signal sitting just past fs/2? How will the tweeter react to such out-of-band frequencies that are present? Furthermore, sending such a signal that is not limited in bandwidth could cause stability problems with wide-bandwidth amplifiers that have a high unity-gain crossing. Will the overall system’s signal-to-noise- ratio be adversely affected as well? The DAC could also introduce frequency spurs all over the place. If we don’t filter them at all, what will their presence do to the sound?
While this may be a complicated problem in terms of absolute measurements, in the end, it is the ultimate subjective sound quality that a DAC or any component ultimately delivers that is quintessential to the enjoyment of our systems musical reproduction.
Those audiophiles who passionately support Hi-Res will say that while they cannot hear anything at these frequencies, they can ‘feel’ a difference in the music. Often this is suggested as an enhanced aural cognizance of depth, or tonal clarity. It is more probable that what the Hi-Res fans hear is a possible amount of transparency to the sound as a result of the higher frequency sampling and, of course, the ADC components used in 192kHz recordings are most likely going to be of good quality which, itself, will write its signature on the final sound.
On the other hand, I have compared some similar high-resolution music files that have sounded somewhat worse than the standard 44.1kHz discs cd’s or ripped CD-r files on my system. At times, they can sound a little “sharper’ on the upper mid/treble range yet alternatively, on other recordings a bit more detailed, and maybe— closer to master quality particularly with supremely recorded musical performances. I am certainly not against the use of Hi-Res music files, but the whole darn thing, in most cases, can be summed up in a nutshell: How well. and by what means was the performance originally recorded by the engineer(s) at the original sessions.?
It is interesting that, especially within the field of classical music, many audiophiles have favorite recordings that are usually recorded with outstanding concert hall fidelity. Thankfully for us, in the past 15 years or so, this has usually become the rule, rather than the exception. The process of capturing and reproducing folk, jazz, and acoustical music recordings will have its unique qualities as well.
The sensitive qualities of fine classical instruments combined with the brilliant perfection of the concert halls where this music is performed are only properly captured by the microphone-placement technique known as minimal miking. That is, usually two or 3 microphones only, placed at particular distances apart for an orchestra or soloist in a typical recording venue, with a small amount of absorptive substance between them.
As we have all come to learn in this hobby, music is not just about specifications. Musical performance is the defining factor and, often, the ability to capture this performance using minimalist microphone techniques and solid engineering skills will make the difference. The CD 3.1x/II will downsample your 24-bit downloads to 18 bits. Nevertheless, as you will see further on, with this CD player/DAC it won’t make a bit of difference as to the musical experience that waits ahead. This, my friends, is what Audio Note is all about!
DETAILS – CD 3.1X/II
The digital circuitry in the CD3.1X/II use the most highly regarded AD1865 digital to analog converter chip; this being the same one used in their separate and more costly DAC models. They have found it to outperform every chip technically and sonically. The audio section features an ECC88 tube output stage with Audio Note copper foil capacitors and tantalum resistors. In effect, the CD 3.1x/II use a hybrid DAC and is currently 3rd in line between their CD4.1X and the CD2.1x/II; their CD 5.1X is currently the top of the Audio Note CD player line. All Audio Note CD player/DACs are constructed with extreme and meticulous sensitivity to detail and of the highest quality; notably, a sensation to look at and work with.
As mentioned above, The Audio Note DACs are designed with no oversampling, upsampling, or other such corrective measures and no filtering whatsoever, so what you hear from the transport is the raw data from the CD with the clock encoded on the CD. As such, the DAC is 18 bits, and will, therefore, truncate all higher sampling rate signals.
Speaking of the transport used for the CD 3.1x/II, it is the now well-proven and quite exceptional in-house modified Philips front-loading CD mechanism, designed to read true RED BOOK CD’s which Audio Note believes to be the best possible Digital music format currently available at this time.
Having used this modified transport mechanism now for 5 months, I can tell you that it is not only lightning fast on opening and closing, but ergonomically splendid, decidedly simple and well built. It is quite a pleasure to use and work with.
Audio Note quite aptly keeps their CD player designs simple; and they concede that this is how they want it. Two sets of analog outputs are provided for connection to your amplifier. You can use your current preamplifier or integrated amplifier to control the volume.
The single digital output can be used with another DAC, although they blatantly say that this output will normally be ‘disused’. In retrospect, I smile now because the DAC in this CD player is so musical and luxurious sounding, it may be understandable as to why they have the chutzpah to mention it!
To evaluate the sound of the CD 3.1XII, I used a variety of the finest recorded CD’s I had on hand as well as some superbly ripped PCM or WAV downloads of live concerts from Carnegie Hall and the BBC Proms. FLAC studio master sound quality (24–bit downsampled) and CD-quality (16-bit) downloads.
The recordings used were mostly classical with some acoustical folk and light pop vocals mixed in for good health. I had a plethora of older CD’s that were tried, although quite unfortunately, some of them were recorded in the days when microphone placement and technique were much less flattering on many state-of-the art systems enthusiasts currently use today. To that point, the Audio Note just presented them as they were; nothing more or less!
One should not be obsessed with the fact that this player uses no oversampling. The noise floor is so uncompromisingly quiet, you can hear a pin drop. This is even more compelling when hooked into the Inakustik AC-3500P power station.
From the moment I hooked this unit up to my P.S Audio Gain Cell DAC, or more pertinently, the preamplifier section of the Peachtree Audio Nova 300, I knew things were going to be more than interesting.
Initial impressions begged for some reorganization of my listening proclivities although not as much as I expected. The CD3.1X/II will reproduce well-recorded program material with unsurpassed smoothness, depth resolution, a distinct and clear presentation of concert hall ambiance, but most of all– a sublime widening of the soundstage and an “airiness” encompassing its breathtaking instrumental tonality. Admittedly,I have not this heard in many other CD players before. I found out quite quickly that Peter Qvortrup and Audio Note knew exactly what they were after when designing this player and particularly its DAC.
The tube output stage was found to add much to the distinguished and musical sound this player produced. Orchestral transients, dynamic range, and subtly of tone and harmonics are in abundance while this player/DAC when used alongside other state of the art component hookups can throw out stereo images on a majestic scale within the expanded soundstage. The emerging sound is totally open, engaging, and extremely aurally satisfying.
The treble response of the CD3.1X/II is quite exemplary, and combines the perfect amount of smoothness as well as the right amount of transient bite when called for—but never harshness; providing your equipment and just as importantly, (so I’ve found) your room acoustics are adequately managed.
Although once in a while, a particular recording (usually violins) could bring on a “snap” of ominous bright texture to the transient strike of the bow hitting the violin strings for a split second– this was undeniably the result of a particular recording; the exception rather than the rule.!
The heart of this player, however, is its luxurious, sweet, and natural-sounding midrange response. It is harder to give a definite evaluation of this when using anything but the simplest and most revered engineered recordings. Fortunately, I had an abundance of this type of program material in my possession.
Operatic voices as well as live acoustic folk music recordings showed this to be the case most affirmatively. I tried a wonderfully recorded 1950’s Sinatra album (16bit/44Khz CD) in my library that contained ample amounts of outstanding vocal naturalness to this late Capitol performance.
A truly outstanding sound was rendered by the Audio Note player with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Many of the ’60s and 70’s EMI classics, as well as some remastered folk music groups gave ample opportunity for the CD 3.1X/II to show off its prodigious reproduction qualities. By far, the greatest and most thrilling sound, CD-r ripped musical files and discs happened to be from some live concert PCM Audio discs and many live recordings from the BBC Proms. Here, the performers and orchestra almost literally came to life at a natural and consistent “sound stage” expanse and perspective in the listening room.
To be more exact, I was able to extract, in minuscule measures, just how distant or ‘upfront’ the recording engineer placed the musical performance he was monitoring. In this sense, the sources that contained a more “natural” acoustic distance on the performance stage venue set forth a huge layering and separation of the vocalists and orchestra in question. The sound was perceived with a hanging, nuanced, and deeply penetrating, easy to listen to 3-dimensional illusion. While its biggest strength comes from that midrange, the frequency extremes are presented closer to “live concert broadcast” standards, which in effect make this player extremely musical and neutral. (Do any audiophiles still listen to live or ripped online re-broadcasted high-resolution files?)
With a few of my reference loudspeakers, the CD3.1X//II seemed to allow the speakers to offer more—-subtle detail and rich reverberation times. It brought forth a natural sense of fluidity and affability with its exceptional musical presense; while the perception of verve was always present in the overall sound reproduction.
What was so particularly special and out of the ordinary with these live orchestral (video) broadcasts with the CD 3.1X/II? As with many other players (DACS) I’ve used, the full orchestra was displayed in its entire stage depth, height, and width, However, this player seemed to give me a sense of a touch more “liquidity” not only in its midrange and high frequencies but it was able to generate an overall systematic abundance of “delicacy” and a serene sense of the musical performance emanating pertinently on the stage before you.
All this was captured while never missing a beat of deep bass or mid-bass articulation. The tight and precise bottom end helps to convey the acoustic of the recording and gives the performers a strong physical presence. Again, if your listening room is pretty well reconciled acoustically, certain live performances and impeccably engineered recordings will bring forth a huge amount of detail and spaciousness to the soundstage—while never losing a touch of stereo image accuracy for every soloist and orchestral performer!! (Separation levels are closely tolerated to within or less than .05db per channel).
Having spent as much time as I have with the Audio Note, it is quite hard to forget the immense sound quality that this player brings forth. Indeed, the CD 3X.1/II exhibits a beautifully subdued yet quite definitive flair to all types of music while still adding that discerning touch of weight and detail within its deeply satisfying musical presentation. With the Audio Note CD 3X.1/II you just want to keep putting on more program material to see what new surprises may be hidden beneath the surface of a particular recording.!
In a somewhat ironic sense, The Audio Note CD 3.1X/II can bring forth a yearning to want to evaluate Audio Notes higher level players and particularly their separate DAC’s. to see if, and how much more musical pleasure could be derived from Audio Note’s products. (By the way, the CD3.1X/II is available as a separate balanced DAC, which can be used with your favorite streamer, or just as a separate DAC to match any of the other most illustrious components you may be harboring in your system.)
For an engineer and music lover like Peter, who generally speaking, may prefer analog reproduction, the Audio Note CD 3.1X/II is an unmitigated success story. Even if you take into account that this unit costs a bit over $6,000, in terms of value it is overtly competitive, if not more so, for what has been achieved here.
If and when you happen to put on a few discs that were just monumental in the way they were engineered, the CD 3.1X//II will deliver a quality of sound reproduction that, at times, can make you believe you’re listening to an exemplary analog vinyl system. I said ‘vinyl system’ however, one can not and should not throw out the digitally recorded formats that are currently in abundance to the music lover and audiophile. Most of them are exceptionally engineered and recorded along with many reissued titles of the highest quality. While these files can be streamed, I put many of them on HQ CD-rs for playback on the CD 3.1X//II. (Note: I am not an analog/vinyl zealot and do not always find current vinyl analog replay to be as exceedingly natural as some other people in this industry do!)
Yes, the technology may appear to be outdated; but the sound quality and realism this player produces are indeed quite thrilling. This is not Audio Note’s most expensive player by any means. However, its transport and combined DAC does contain almost all of the technology and sound quality of their top of the line products.
Of course, those familiar hardcore vinyl enthusiasts will undoubtedly find something here that may not completely suit their fancy; no doubt. However, to be quite blunt, once you hear some of the most towering digital recordings that the medium has to offer through the CD 3.1X//II, you may just forget about vinyl for a long time.
REVIEW SYSTEM: DIGITAL -Wyred4Sound 10th Anniversary DAC/ Amplification ● Peachtree Audio Nova 300 2019 (preamp) / PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblock amplifiers ● Loudspeakers •Audio Note (UK) An-E/D / Spendor BC1/ Quad ESL 63 USA, Graham BBC LS5/9 loudspeakers ● Cables Conditioners: Inakustik AC-3500p, LS-4004 speaker cables, AC-2404 reference Air Power Cord/ Silversmith Audio ‘Fidelium’ loudspeaker cables/ Wireworld Eclipse 8 interconnects & Electra 7 power cords/ Audio Art 1 e” AC Power Cord.
WHERE the AUDIOPHILE BEAT MEETS THE MUSICAL ELITE! !
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