Review: Musical Fidelity CDpre24 vs Cary CD 308 vs Nixon TubeDac+ vs Xindak SCD CD Player
So much to review! I hope I can get it all out coherently, but in case something is unclear do not hesitate to ask for clarification and comments are most welcome! I was going to post the reviews separately but the comments about the distinct sound characteristics always make more sense in a relative context, I think. Reviews always seem more useful when one owns one or more of the pieces of gear in review. By comparing ones own take on the shared gear, one can see if the reviewers opinion is agreeable with their own or, quite possibly, conclude that the reviewer is Coo Coo for Coco Puffs when it comes to discerning what is quality sound in this aesthetic, subjective hobby! Anyways, with no further ado’s, the reviews:
Scott Nixon TubeDac+:
I picked up this little dac a month ago for giggles, to see what all the fuss was about. I hooked it into the Musical Fidelity CDpre24 and let it burn-in for about a month with the Stereophile burn-in track and also my favorite dynamic music before evaluation, giving at least 400hrs of run-in with lots of power ups/downs for thermal-cycling. I always go through this ordeal with new gear, especially with digital gear as it seems to take the longest time to settle-in. I tried a handful of digital cables with it, slightly favoring silver coated cables, and I tried a Theta transport and a few lesser transport but thought the $3K MF CDpre24 was the best transport I had on hand.
This dac is not very ‘tubey’ sounding at all in its midrange presentation. In fact, a couple of SS CDPs I’ve owned sounded more “tube-like.” However, it did do the imaging thing typical to tubes, being highly focused and open, really superb imaging overall. The piece is dead silent in terms of any tube hiss and having a very dark background from which notes emanate. Also like a stereotypical tube piece its bass wasn’t anywhere near world class, being a bit slow, soft and polite, especially noticeable on trip-hop, rock, alternative and electronic tracks. Fans of light/soft/mellow jazz and classical may never realize this fault. It’s a great dac for forgetting about the gear and just slipping into the music with an ethanol containing beverage with your lady-friend, or for just relaxing with after a long day. It is easy to listen to casually and for an extended period with this piece, which is high praise and presumably why many love it. There are many components which excel in various areas over this dac but ultimately grate on the nerves long-term. However, a few digital sources keep the natural, musical ease in tact while making up for the dacs shortcomings, though none I’ve met at its price.
In summing up its flaws, I feel the SN dac lacking in the bottom octave in terms of weight and speed, and feel its biggest fault is being a tad slow overall. It doesn't have the PRAT, ambiance or dynamics of the Musical Fidelity or even Marantz gear, which are very important to me, as I find PRAT vital to conveying the energy of a live performance, the dynamics and ambiance essential to creating an illusion of actual music being played in the room. The Nixon also pushed everything on the stage back 1ft relative to the Cary or MF players. It is eminently listenable, musical and super smooth piece of digital gear, but maybe smooth to a fault as I missed small ambient details, things to cue in on hall size and shape, missing some slight cracks in the lips and faint breaths, and that sort of thing. It offers one of the blackest backgrounds I’ve ever heard, yet the black backgrounds seem to act as a tiny black holes for microdynamics, ambient detail and leading transients. The top end seems rolled a touch as well, though I imagine this would be a good thing for most of the systems that this dac would find its way into giving its asking price. I’ve had 2 other SN dac owners/recent sellers tell me that they had the exact same complaints about this dac, so maybe it’s not just me….
Anyways, I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent listening to this dac. It’s not by any means the SOTA piece that a few budget-freak zealots make it out to be but it is likely better then anything one will find out there under a grand in redbook dac land. At the price it offers a great opportunity for most to get a taste of true hi-fi. I think it would even be an upgrade for a lot of players under a grand or two. Even among some of the well regarded (by others, at least, not by me!) SACD players I've owned, including the Sony SCD777ES, 9000ES, 999ES and 555ES, the Philips SACD1000, 963 and the Denon universals, to name just a recent few, I think this dac is a solid overall upgrade in redbook playback. Though I feel, relatively speaking, the redbook playback of non-flagship SACD and SACD/DVD machines bluntly sucks, especially the clinical, sterile and a-musical offerings spewing from Sony and Denon, just so you know where my biases are.
It's a close call with the SN compared to the Cary 308, and I initially favored the Nixon upon a quick listen, but over time the PRAT and detail of the Cary won me over, and it was just as easy to listen to but more engaging musically, less romantic overall, yet it was a bit lush and up-front.
The CDpre24 I have on hand I still find preferable most of the time, largely due to superior dynamics, PRAT, detail resolution and bass weight and speed, though the Nixon imaged slightly better, was slightly more focused and seemed to offer a dead black background. I loved being able to switch instantly between the MF and SN depending on what type of music was playing or my mood, as the SN is very adept at female vocals and piano, being quite magical with Evanescence, Diana Krall, Daughter Darling and Frou Frou (***subliminal message to music lovers****Go find these last two artist if you love female vocalists***!). I highly suggest the SN & MF CDpre24 setup for those starting a system with about $1500 to spend on the used market for a source and preamp. CDpre24 is a real jem, I can't say enough good about its sound at its price on the used market, even though, at the original $3K MSRP I was hoping to find more inside of the box.
Cary CD308 vs. Musical Fidelity CDpre24:
Two players with analogue volume controls built in showdown! Such small differences here, it’s hard to know where to start! First off, running the CD308 direct to the amps there was a clear loss of dynamics and bass quality, and although it sounded very good this way at higher volumes I would suggest using a preamp with it, and that’s how I used it in the a/b tests. I used a Musical Fidelity A3cr, Musical Fidelity A3.2cr, PS Audio PCA-2 and the MF CDpre24 pre as a reference between it and the HCA-2. Though each preamp improved the sound of the system, one on a budget can run direct for a while until they can afford a preamp and still have very good sound, especially if they only have monitor speakers or prefer light/soft music!
First off, running the CD308 into the digital input of the MF CDpre24 I could NOT tell the difference between the MF and the Cary! That speaks well for the digital in of the MF and the transport quality of the Cary I suppose, though must add the running my jukebox and cheap, overrated Toshiba dvdp into it didn’t yield the same results. The sound was improved slightly yet still pretty poor when feeding the MF with cheap transports.
Running the Cary into the MF’s pre inputs the sonic signature was quite similar, the difference I felt only minor to trivial throughout with only a couple of exceptions. The Cary offered a stunningly sweet, extended, clear and smooth top-end that the MF just couldn’t match. If the MF has a weakness it is its upper extremes being ruthless on lesser recordings and often lacking some air, especially evident with direct a/b comparisons to the Cary and Nixon Dac. The Cary seemed to have more bass output but it was not a textured or as fast as the bass from the MF. The midrange was very comparable tonally, with the MF being slightly richer and more nuanced, the Cary slightly more lush and forward. The MF had a trace more ambiances as well, and overall I favored the sound of the MF. The MF’s versatility in terms of features is mind blowing at the price these selling for used ($900-1100, and $1500 new at closeout prices!). In my experience, you will not find a cdp and preamp combo at the same price that competes with this MF combo machine! They are both very solid performers at the price, and though not stand-out performers in any regard they are balanced and enjoyable nonetheless.
Regarding build quality, the Cary is rock solid and has great parts inside, more then one would expect at the price. It is also very silent and smooth operating, despite having the POS Philips tray! The MF, on the outside, I feel to be simply gorgeous! Everything on the outside lends itself to being a piece of gear selling for over $5K.
Looking inside the MF, however, I was a bit disappointing. Although it uses a top of the line Sony transport as found in the NuVista CD player and the dac chip from the NuVista, from the label you can clearly see that it has the CD board right out of the A3 CDII player. The preamp section somewhat resembles the A3cr’s but missing are the 2 huge transformers and there is not a PS choke in sight in this machine, which is a let down. This is not a true dual-mono machine, as there is only a single, small transformer to power everything, yet it was a very quiet piece nonetheless. There was more capacitance in the underrated A3cr preamp then many 100wpc power amps, however, the CDpre24 has very little capacitance in reserve, maybe 1/5th as much. The volume pot is also a bit finicky, a little stick at times. At $3k a msrp FROM MUSICAL FIDELITY I had hoped for more inside, at least going by the designers claims to favor function over form. I suspect a few hundred bucks in upgrades inside the MF could yield something spectacular, but it should have probably been more substantial from the start, especially in terms of the power supply.
Xindak SCD-2 vs. Jolida JD-100 on redbook and Marantz SA-14 on SACD/CD
Next up, a player with great potential on paper: the Xindak SCD-2. It’s a tube based, 2ch SACD/CD player full very good quality parts at its asking price. I owned the Xindak for 2 months and compared it directly to a Marantz SA-14 as being its closest competitor I had on hand at the time. To get right to it, I found that its SACD playback was not nearly as good as the 4yr old $3K MSRP Marantz, especially in terms of bass weight, speed and clarity, PRAT, ambiance and top end openness and extension (in short, a lot of big differences here, which was surprising). The Xindak was slightly ‘thicker’ in the midrange and it did have a bit more depth to the stage and a ever so slight bit more air around notes, yet the soundstage height shrunk greatly to the level of the speaker tops, whereas with the SA-14 voices would sore a few feet above the speakers, if the recording called for it. Its SACD playback, while still very good, was more in line with that had from the Philips and Denon DVD/SACD machines in the $1k-$2k price range, which are also good, but not great by any means.
That said, on redbook, the Xindak had a midrange magic that was truly intoxicating. CD’s were detailed yet smooth, rich yet with great clarity and ultimately engaging. Compared to a fellow import tube-based CD player, the Jolida JD-100, the Jolida offers vastly superior quantities of bass with a similarly soft top-end, yet the Jolida didn’t come close on the midrange in terms of clarity and even presence, though the Jolida did image slightly better in 3D. Some systems will take this as a blessing, but in mine the Xindak had a definite rolled off 'tube-like' top-end akin to the JD-100’s that I didn't much care for, but vocals where yummy and imaging was stellar in the price range--the typical tube signature in budget gear, I suppose. I found the Jolida slightly bright and sibilant with most tubes I used, and the Xindak was anything but. I’d say CD playback on the SCD-2 was vivid, engaging, warm and layered, overall very easy to listen to. It’s ultimately colored by the tubes used yet nonetheless enthralling, which is hard to find in redbook playback!
Although from 80Hz up to about 12 kHz I though the Xindak flat out sung on redbook, a killer machine for Jazz music for sure, on either format I couldn't get the bottom 2 octaves even close to acceptable no matter what I tried. I used various isolation, cable, power filtering and speaker placement tricks to get the bass out of the box, all to no avail. If there is a tube or other tweaks to improve the bass (it need a LOT of help here) and pick up the pace a bit it would be a keeper. Not much else to fault at its price sonically, but….
A final note on features: You can’t turn the display off and the built in volume control in the Xindak is useless. The volume control is rather horrible sounding compared to every preamp I tried, and worst yet it doesn't attenuate enough to be used w/o a preamp anyways, as even at full attenuation you’ll still have to yell over the music if you want to talk to someone. Forget about late night listening at low levels if you skip a preamp here. Even when using the RCA rather then XLR outs it is still way too loud when at -30dB. I used both XLR and RCA outs throughout my audition and found that, although the XLR outs where slightly more dynamic and maybe a touch quieter, I wouldn’t loose sleep over not having a balanced preamp or amp when used with this machine, which is usually my experience with balanced vs. unbalanced connections in my system.
That all said quality control is the biggest fault with this machine, and ultimately its reason for exiting my system. My initial machine was a skipping POS that would often read the MCH layer of a SACD. It also had a 4 second delay between tracks, which I found painfully intolerable. This is piss-poor quality control from Xindak. This is a recurring problem that others have experience with this machine, not an isolated incident. This player has potential if it has had the many bugs shook out, and along with a lot of tube rolling it could be something amazing at its price. I thought it to easily be better sounding then every SACD/DVD based machine on the market up to $2K on redbook, including the Sony 9000es and 999es, Marantz DV8400, Philips SACD1000 and 963SA, Denon 2900 and 5900, to name a few I've owned, but just behind all of the flagship Marantz and Sony players overall on SACD playback, while competitive with redbook. I would definitely take the Xindak over the CDpre24 or Cary 308 if it could get the bottom 2 octaves right AND if it came in a MKII version with substantial software and QC improvements. In the end, however, I would not recommend it to anyone due to QC issues and the fact that there is not a service center in the US that I know of. I tried another SCD-2 that sounded exactly like the one I had, but it also skipped on a few CD’s, though it didn’t have the other issues.
-Full range Von Schweikert VR3’s (w/VR5 upgrades), spiked on granite slabs
-PS Audio HCA-2 or Bel Canto eVo2 or Coda Continuum amps
-PS Audio PCA-2 or Musical Fidelity A3cr, A3.2cr and CDpre24 preamps
-Marantz SA-14 and Wadia 301 as reference SACD/CD players
-Cabling all DIY with v. high quality wires and connectors (WBT, silver solder, DH labs, etc, both balanced and SE interconnects where applicable)
-Dedicated power lines
-PS Audio power cabling
-Monster 2500 PC for the digital and pre
-Various Room treatments and a million hours spent on speaker placement
-Various Isolation devices
I listened to at least 50 discs on each machine, repeatedly for many favorite albums, and here’s a short list of various performers on CD and SACD used, having most every recording from the artist available unless the title is listed:
Bjork, Beck, Floyd: DSTOM, Diana Krall, Era: The Mass, Shaggy, Allison Kraus: Live, Santana, Al Di Meola, LAGQ, Mahler, Orf, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Stones: box set, Kinobe, Miles, Coltrane, Billie Holiday, among others that escape me!
Daughter Darling, Frou Frou, Radiohead, Portishead, Lamb, Martina Toply-Bird, Gorillaz, St. Germain, Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man, Stereophile test disc 3 (used for setup and level matching), Emilina Torrini (sp), Dido, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jethro Tull, Bob Dylan, Ian Anderson: Divinities, Massive Attack, Hooverphonic, Morcheeba, Goldfrapp, Nina Simone, Ella, Satch, Evanescence, Beck, Peace Orchestra, Sigur Ros, Verve Remixed vol 1 and 2 (great music!), among others!