Review: Audio Note CDT 2 Transport
Hear that sound?
It’s the sound of two worlds colliding. Or at least a meteorite and a planet.
It’s Audio Note UK – high-end iconoclast or simply opinionated audio bad boy depending on where you sit –bumping rudely into the establishment. Like him or loathe him, Peter Qvortrup and his Brighton, England-based company will not go away.
Audio Note UK is perhaps best known for its vinyl turntables and expensive single ended, directly heated triode, zero-feedback amplification. A pair of its flagship GAKU-ON monoblocks will set you back £159,500, (power cords included.) Sign up for a complete system and you can expect me to make an appearance as your long-lost cousin from Akansas angling to claim on the inheritance. You never had a cousin? Oh well.
Audio Note is actually about much more than esoteric systems at stratospheric prices; the company’s range includes plenty of interest to those with less deep pockets, but who nonetheless yearn for quality music reproduction in the home. The £2500 AN Zero system – if not quite music for the masses, still a comparative bargain basement package – apparently compares very favourably with its peers.
But in preferring vinyl and tubes, Audio Note is not alone in the wider audio world. It’s in the area of digital technology that the company differs from the mainstream – and radically too. As owner of what is probably among the world’s largest private record collections Peter Qvortrup might appear an unlikely champion of Red Book CD. But champion he is, spending for a comparatively small manufacturer big R&D money in an effort to make CD deliver similar musical satisfaction to vinyl.
The work led Audio Note UK to pioneer a fundamentally different approach to D/A conversion than that taken by the rest of the industry, rejecting oversampling and digital filtering in favour of an architecture that takes the native data stream, converts it to analogue, then passes it through a simple filter. Others, including 47 Labs, now tread a similar path.
The resulting output, as Qvortrup readily admits, measures horribly on a spectrum analyser. And yet, and yet…it sounds glorious – natural, organic, with none of the brittle edginess that leaves so many audiophiles deeply dissatisfied with CD.
My own conversion from sour sceptic to true believer was virtually Damascene. I borrowed a pre-production prototype balanced version of Audio Note’s existing single-ended DAC 3.1 and was hooked within the first few bars of the first disk. Never having owned a definitive vinyl rig I’d simply lived with CD in complete ignorance of what real pace rhythm and timing actually sounded like. Now I understood.
The balanced version of the DAC 3.1 being then some months away from production, I bought the single-ended version, upgrading later to the balanced model as soon as it became available. (See my review of this DAC on this site).
At that point the only Audio Note component in my system was the DAC. I used a Meridian 500 Series transport, Bryston BP25 pre-amplifier, two 7B ST power amplifiers and a pair of PMC IB1 monitors. It’s probably about as far from the Audio Note ideal as is possible to get, being solid state and with huge horsepower. My affair with it has prompted Peter Qvortrup to award me the epithet – said with a smile, naturally (he is not really a bad boy) – of ‘misguided’.
It may well be an accurate observation because with the DAC in my system, rather than rush to embrace Audio Note amplification, I got curious about what the effect would be of swapping out the Meridian 500 transport for something of more contemporary design.
Did Qvortrup have a view, I wondered? His own preference is for the CEC TLO II at a cool £13,000 in the UK – very nice, I am sure, but not quite the sort of price I had in mind. The CEC 51 at around a tenth of the cost looks more affordable and yet still offers the potential benefit of belt-drive. I resolved to borrow one from a French pal who I knew was planning to visit his parents for a week in the UK. Meanwhile Qvortrup, always ready to help the misguided, said: “The little CEC is OK, but you’ll find the AN CDT 2 much better value for money.”
Here’s a challenge for anyone reading this review: find the CDT 2 on the Audio Note Web site. Exactly. Apparently it’s been available for some two years now and has still to make it onto the product section of the Audio Note site. That’s a shame, but I can’t imagine Audio Note will sell any fewer because of it. Most of the company’s products and systems are go through specialist dealers and they know exactly how to win a sale: simply plug it in, turn it on and let the music do the selling.
The CDT 2 is a rectangular brick in extruded, ribbed aluminium. Its aluminium face plate houses an oblong multi-function liquid crystal display. There are no controls. At the rear of the unit is a switched IEC power socket, and AES/EBU and 75 Ohm digital outlets. A plate on the top surface of the player lifts to reveal the CD drive. A disc is seated on the spindle and then secured with the magnetic top clamp. Replacement of the lid actuates a micro-switch making the player ready for operation via the supplied infra-red handset.
I did not own the CDT 2 that I auditioned so did not remove the cover in order to take a look at the internals. Readers (and I) will therefore have to make do with Peter Qvortrup’s description of what’s inside. The drive itself is a Philips CD 12 Pro with a Sony digital front end – Qvortrup and Audio Note’s talented designer Andy Grove prefer the Sony. So far so good - just an unconventional pairing of the conventional. But here’s where the Audio Note bad boy makes his appearance. There is no de-jittering circuitry or any other kind of digital processing. None.
It’s easy to see why Qvortrup’s views on jitter and processing shake two of the central pillars of the mainstream audio industry and elicit reactions ranging from insults to studied indifference. While companies like DCS throw ever more sophisticated military-grade digital processing at CD in an effort to achieve perfect measurements and make it sound acceptable, Audio Note is suggesting that far from being the solution, processing is actually the problem. Qvortrup: “I know. I know. This will astonish many people, but I have to tell you that we have done a lot of work in this area and we cannot with any consistency say that more or less jitter makes any difference to how a transport sounds. What always does make a difference to how it sounds is if you try to correct measurable jitter by re-clocking and other methods. Sometimes you lose bass, sometimes it just sounds harsh and clinical, but it always sounds worse. You lose the sense of organism in the music.”
The rest of the circuitry of the CDT 2 is relatively conventional, except that it pays a lot of attention to reducing power supply noise and interference, features a pair of in-house designed and made copper wound digital pulse transformers, and specifies Black Gate capacitors for every application on the circuit board bar one.
I am not going to describe the physical or electronic aspects of the CEC TL 51 or Meridian 500 Series because sonically they did not come close to the Audio Note transport. The Meridian has given me much pleasure over the years, but in comparison to the CEC TL51 it sounded slow, polite and un-involving. The TL51 is lively and articulate compared to the Meridian, with a quieter background to music. It was my new reference for a week until the CDT 2 arrived.
My review of the Audio Note 3.1 Balanced DAC was my first attempt at written subjective evaluation of an audio component and I now cringe at the fomularised, poor man’s Stereophile approach that I took. So here’s a stab at an alternative, hyperbole-free review.
The CDT 2 does not present the rest of my audio system with as much low-level aliasing as either the Meridian or CEC transports. (is this due to the lack of digital processing?). A number of recordings that on the Meridian were virtually unplayable because of low-frequency roar are now genuinely enjoyable.
The sonic background of the CDT 2 is blacker than a very black thing. Notes start. Then they stop or decay and it goes black again. This makes quiet and subtle noises very clear and dynamic peaks very, well, loud really.
Notes are more than ‘just’ notes. Overtones and harmonics are distinct and joined coherently to the fundamental. The sense that a gut-strung acoustic guitar is made of natural materials each with its own resonance is conveyed strongly. I have a number of recordings from the same master tape on vinyl and CD. For the first time, cymbals on CD now sound virtually identical to those on the vinyl. What one hears are clearly discs of metal that are vibrating having been struck by a stick – a crude description but you get the idea, I am sure.
There is also much more top-end information. By comparison, both the CEC and to an even greater degree the Meridian sound rolled off. The CDT 2’s extension does not seem forced or forward – just natural and with notably more air. It is also sweet and unfatiguing.
At the other extreme, by comparison, the Meridian has a flabby bottom end. The CEC is tight, but does not go as low. I am tempted to think that in the virtual absence of the aliasing I mentioned earlier (it IS still there on some discs), and the great attention paid to power supply noise reduction, the CDT 2 lets more of the low-level recorded information come through. Footfalls on stage as performers move around come through as feet moving, rather than dull thuds, for example.
I think there’s something very fundamental about piano that poses an acute challenge to audio equipment, maybe because of its percussive nature, maybe because when a single key is struck and the damper is off other strings vibrate in sympathy giving rise to a very complex sound. Whatever. The CDT 2 simply puts much more piano in my listening room.
I played a few of my favourite recordings in series on the CDT 2 and just sat on the sofa blinking in mute disbelief and profound shock, so great was the new sense of musical performance conveyed. It’s not that the Meridian and CEC transports are bad, just that the CDT 2 is a leap onto a whole new plain of musical enjoyment.
The Black Gates, the lack of digital processing, fairies at the bottom of Peter Qvortrup’s garden? I haven’t a clue why it should be so, but at $2950 the CDT 2 is, frankly, an outrageous bargain.
Music used in review: Chamber to jazz
Duration of review: One week
Finally, the author has no connection with Audio Note UK commercially or otherwise.
Audio Note DAC 3.1 Balanced, Bryston BP25 pre-amp, Bryston 7B ST power amps (X2), PMC IB1 monitors. Kimber Select interconnects. Kimber high-current mains cables.
Meridian 500 Series, CEC TL51.