Review: Resolution Audio Cantata Music Center CD Player


Category: Digital

Background

Resolution Audio has made some of the most satisfying CD sound that I have heard. About five years ago, I bought a Resolution Audio Opus 21 CD player from Great Northern Sound Company in Stillwater, Minnesota. I owned that CD player for approximately one year to give it ample time to break in and for me to get accustomed to its sound. I liked it a lot and did not see much room for improvement. Even so, I am an audiophile. Ever subject to seeking too much of a good thing, I sent the Opus 21 off to GNSC for their Reference modification. It took about three weeks, I think, and by the time it came back, I could not so specifically say what all of the improvements were as I might had I gotten two units to compare in direct A:Bs. What I was confident of, though, was that the Opus 21 had gained deeper and more dynamic bass and a bit more flesh on the vocals. I also got a better sense of front-to-back soundstage depth. I thought that it was a worthwhile change to make. I had happily listened to the GNSC-modified Opus 21 for about four years. Then I got the better of myself.

Late this summer, I bought an Opus 21 stack that had been modified by GNSC to Reference level. I thought that it was cute. I thought that it would be nice company as I did laundry. Before establishing this system in my laundry room, though, I put it in my big rig. Put otherwise, I compared the Opus 21 stack against my Wadia S7i CD spinner, Nagra PL-L line stage and Nagra VPA amplifiers driving my Verity Audio Parsifal Ovation loudspeakers. Yeah, it wasn’t really fair. Individual pieces of the Nagra stuff each cost more than the whole Opus 21 stack. Yeah, it isn’t really fair to make a 30 watt solid state amp face off against a 50 watt 845 push-pull set of amps. Just remember this: I owned all of the gear. It was my stereo room in my basement. And it was fun.

The Opus 21 stack sounded great. Most surprising was its bass. Taut, tuneful, articulate: It sounded like way more than 30 solid state watts. The vocals had an ease and naturalness that were just not to be believed for a system so relatively modest. Even so, the Wadia/Nagra stuff inched away when the music was dense, dynamic and complex. Put otherwise, the Wadia/Nagra gear had an authority and ability to put across a bass-laden rock tune or to get that last bit of detail and air out of even smaller scale material. Jazz recordings and female vocals just had that last bit of believability composed of air, midrange naturalness and weight that made it better. I thought, however, about the kind of car I could have gotten if I had just bought the Opus 21 stack and skipped the Wadia/Nagra stuff. I would have liked that car a lot. As consolation, I put the Opus 21 stack in the laundry room and it sounds fantastic. Anyone want to challenge my laundry room audio system dominance?
So there I was. I had two Opus 21s and a Wadia S7i and systems in my stereo room, laundry room and workout room. Jeff Kalt began shipping the new Resolution Audio Cantata Music Center and I decided that maybe I was just one CD player short of my needs.

Listening to the Resolution Audio Cantata

I got the Cantata just about two weeks ago. Steve Huntley brought the unit to my house because he and I both live in the Twin Cities area and he was in my neighborhood on other business.

The Cantata comes in the company’s signature wooden crate. This time, the crate is smaller than the Opus 21 boxes and the Cantata itself is petite. I reached into the box to remove the Cantata. Though the player itself is small – only about two inches high, 16 inches wide and eight inches deep – it is heavy. I was surprised by the density of the unit because I understood that Jeff Kalt is a DNM disciple. DNM espouses the wisdom of lightweight Lexan cases with a minimum amount of metal. The scalloped top of the Cantata is carved from a solid block of aluminum and it likely contributes significantly to the unit’s weight. I learned later that it dissipates a fair amount of heat, too.

The display on the front of the Cantata features letters that are almost an inch high and can be seen at a significant distance. The remote control offers a brightness control that makes it easy to turn the display from a very bright daylight setting to completely off. It is a unique look with the LEDs shining through perforations in the face of the aluminum billet top. It reminds me of the scoreboard from my hometown football field but cooler. It’s hard to describe but everyone I know who has seen one digs it. Me, too.

I equipped the Cantata with DNM RCA interconnects and kept the standard molded power cord. These may work to the disadvantage of the Cantata because I have left the Wadia with its Cardas Golden Reference interconnects and Virtual Dynamics Genesis power cable. Since I understand that Mr. Kalt likes the DNM cables with his player, I was willing to comply with his wishes. It is, after all, his design. I understand that to make a valid comparison between my Cantata and Wadia, I would need to make sure that the power cables, interconnects, shelves and placement are the same. I intend to experiment with the power cables and interconnects and will post my impressions once I have formed them. I just did not want to wait to post this review because playing with combinations and permutations of power cords and interconnects can take a lot of time and it may be months before I figure out the optimum set up. So I settled for the recommended Resolution Audio set up and the Wadia stuff that I believe puts it to best advantage.

The first night I listened to the Cantata, I was not all that impressed. The bass was a little hollow and lightweight in an absolute sense. I did not need to compare to the Wadia to get the difference or deficiency. I also did not take these impressions seriously because the player had been off for several hours and I understood that the Cantata needs to be on for at least four hours before it is properly warmed up.

I have now had the unit plugged in for more than two weeks and have gone back and forth with the Wadia many times. I would say that in an absolute sense, the Cantata does not leave anything to be desired. It has a naturalness that reminds me very much of analog gear. The bass depth and weight are wonderfully full and dynamic. The midrange is outstanding, warm, smooth and natural. The highs seem correctly proportioned to give air but I doubt my abilities to judge high frequency extension too much; I am a 52 year-old man. My hearing probably does not go all that high into the frequency range.

A tonal comparison would suggest that the Cantata seems to have a bit more emphasis on the midrange up and that the Wadia emphasizes the lower frequencies with the effect that it gives music just a bit more ease. Still, the Cantata has a natural quality that is “all of a piece.” It does not suggest great bass apart from natural midrange apart from extended highs. The Cantata presents everything in a smooth, integrated whole that makes listening to CD much, much better than it was even just a year or two ago.

The comparison to the Wadia S7i with Great Northern Sound Statement mods is really not fair, at least from an expense perspective. The Wadia is better to my ears. The Wadia has an overall ease that derives from its weight very low into the frequency range while it is simultaneously more detailed. The Cantata does not lack deep bass but it can’t compete with the Wadia for full dynamic impact way down low. That gives the Wadia an ability to provide bass that you feel more than hear. The Cantata does fine all the way down to the end of the stuff you can hear.

In comparison, the Wadia S7i sorts voices out of the mix and brings them toward the listener while the Cantata leaves the voices a bit back in the mix and soundstage. The Cantata’s comparative reticence is pleasant and just a bit subtractive if it is to be faulted as an error. The vocals on the S7i are just a bit more natural, residing in a bit more air and arrayed with a bit more solid front-to-back and left-to-right spatial definition.

The Wadia has a swagger and swing that may come from the low bass dynamics. The Cantata has swagger and swing, too, just not to the degree of the Wadia. (Cost disclaimer to be restated here: The Wadia’s bass is not two times better but the cost is two times more.) The Wadia just pulls me into the music a bit more. It has that extra drive that makes my foot tap in time with the music for some cuts that are not quite as compelling with the Cantata.

I still hope to more fully compare the abilities of these two players with high resolution computer audio sources but have not really gotten very far into the computer audio scene. Steve Huntley demonstrated a 24/96 download from the Robert Plant/Alison Krause album “Raising Sand.” Steve also had the LP and CD. The 24/96 through the Wadia sounded most like the vinyl but the Cantata was not properly warmed up, so I don’t put much stock in that preliminary comparison. Suffice it to say, however, that the 24/96 scene offers a lot of promise and either the S7i or the Cantata will get you into computer audio via USB inputs.

I should really compare the Cantata to the Opus 21 but everyone I know who is familiar with the sound of both the Cantata and Opus 21 says that it is not really close, including the daddy of both, Jeff Kalt. Everyone I know who has heard both says that the Cantata is a substantial improvement. I am going to trust my sources on that one. Besides, my Opus 21s are perfect for my laundry and workout rooms. I don’t need to foment discontent in those venues.

I understand that Steve Huntley is hard at work developing modifications for the Cantata. I have not heard a modified unit but suspect that if his mods for the Cantata have a similar effect on the Cantata as his mods had on the Opus 21, the gap between the Cantata and my Wadia S7i may close substantially. If I get a chance to hear a modified unit, I will try to update my impressions here. Likewise, if I completely lose my mind and perform power cable and interconnect comparisons, I will let you know.

Summary

The Cantata is a very natural sounding CD player and leaves nothing to be desired until I compare it to a modified Wadia S7i CD player that costs about twice as much. If I did not already have the Wadia S7i, I might find it tough to justify the additional expenditure because the Cantata is way closer than the gap in price would suggest. Jeff Kalt gets world class performance at a mid-level price from a piece of gear that looks like it should be in the Museum of Modern Art. It is a great CD player regardless of price.

Associated Equipment

Main System: Wadia S7i with Great Northern Sound Statement Modification CD player, Spiral Groove SG2 turntable with Triplanar VII uii tonearm and Koetsu Urushi Vermillion cartridge, Nagra VPS phonostage, Nagra PL-L linestage, Nagra VPA power amps (845 push-pull), Verity Audio Parsifal Ovation speakers, Martin Logan Depth subwoofer, Cardas Golden Reference cabling throughout, and Finite Elemente Pagode Reference stands.

Workout Room: Resolution Audio Opus 21 with Great Northern Sound Reference Modification CD player, Hovland HP100 MC preamp, Luxman 3045 power amps wired for KT88s, Harbeth SHL5 speakers, Sound Anchor stands.

Laundry Room: Resolution Audio Opus 21 stack (S-30, Extra Sources, and CD player) with Great Northern Sound Reference Modifications (CD and S-30), Spendor LS3/5a (15 ohm, single wire) speakers, and DNM cable - all of which is more than enough to tide me over. (Couldn’t help myself.)

Associated gear
See review.

Similar products
See review.
casaross
Thanks for your observations. While Steve was modifying my Wadia Series 9, he lent me a modified Opus 21, which had replaced my Statement 27ix/270se. I mention this, because it is typical of the service Steve provides - always sympathetic to stereo down time. But, I came to really appreciate Wadia much more after that. I don't want to knock the Opus too much because of the price differential, but to me, the sound the Wadia provided was more than justified. Again, the Opus was a decent value piece, but the Wadia was simply, as they say, in another league.

I'm sure Steve will find the optimal mods for the Cantata, to really extract its full potential. But the Wadia retains 'final destination' status.
nice review Casaross, it helps a lot for me on choosing a modern digital player

I have now had the unit plugged in for more than two weeks and have gone back and forth with the Wadia many times. I would say that in an absolute sense, the Cantata does not leave anything to be desired. It has a naturalness that reminds me very much of analog gear. The bass depth and weight are wonderfully full and dynamic. The midrange is outstanding, warm, smooth and natural. The highs seem correctly proportioned to give air but I doubt my abilities to judge high frequency extension too much; I am a 52 year-old man. My hearing probably does not go all that high into the frequency range.

that's the funny thing about audiophile equipment (in the ironic sense): when you are younger, you have better hearing, but don't typically have the cash to buy this stuff. when you get older, you are more likely to have the cash, but your hearing isn't as good any more.
As long as I still have the passion when I listen to recorded music, it does not matter if I "miss" a few notes.
For those interested the Cantata is featured on the cover of Stereophile this month with a review by John Iverson.

Disclaimer: I am an authorized Resolution Audio dealer.
Anyone heard the system 3.0 just came out?
I have what must be one of the very first Cantata Music Center 3.0 versions out there. While I have not had it long, I am really enjoying the sound.

Steve Huntley upgraded my unit a couple of weeks ago. The 3.0 upgrade represents almost four years of development work. Jeff Kalt (Resolution's founder and designer) and his business partner Steve Huntley (a really respected guy in the industry for a long time) experimented with numerous DAC topologies to try to improve upon the former unit’s Burr Brown PCM-1702 based DAC board. They now use some DAC chips (four per unit) designed for military and medical imaging use where bit accuracy is literally life and death stuff. To optimize them for audio use required a ton of effort.

Additonal flexibility that the 3.0 offers is also really nice with flex inputs. Right now on my unit, there are two pairs of analog line level inputs. Other flex options are in the works including a future option of built in mc phono, though when that will arrive I am uncertain. 

The 3.0 version also uses the same t-network capacitors that they use in their amps. It appears to be a whole lot more capacitance than in the original Cantata. A nice touch on the new version is the ETI RCA jacks (formerly Eichmann). The upgrade consists of a new DAC board and new rear panel. It is a factory upgrade done at the facility Steve operates in Minnesota.

Resolution Audio sells this as a new version of the Music Center but an upgrade path is available from the earlier versions. Cantata owners can contact Steve Huntley for all the details on that. The price of the 3.0 unit is $9500 and the upgrade cost is $3000.

So far as sound, the thing I notice most is involvement, whether standard Red Book or high resolution (24/96 or 24/192). The bass seems more solid and dynamic, spatial presentation is deeper and, maybe, just a bit more extended left to right. The sound is definitely more detailed without making it harsh or tipped up on the top end. In short, it just sounds a lot more like real music. I am really, really happy with the 3.0. I had a chance to hear the 3.0 before I committed to fork over the money to do the upgrade. To me, the improvement in sound and expanded flexibility make both the expenditure and the wait for the 3.0 very worthwhile. 
Hey Casaross,

I can pretty much say with confidence that you have the best laundry room system ever : )  My story pretty much mirrors yours. I had a GNSC statement modded Opus 21 for years. It replaced a $15K Audionote DAC and transport and sounded much more natural and musical. Jeff Kalt of Resolution Audio (RA) is a digital genius and when he teamed up with Steve Huntley they pretty much make up a dream team for audio.

For the past several years, I've owned and enjoyed the Cantata Music Center and recently added a couple of RA's power cords. RA's digital players have been a main stay in my systems for more than 15 years. Last week I got my Cantata back from getting the 3.0 upgrade. I was expecting an improvement, but I was quite taken back with the level of improvement. It's insanely good!

From the very first note, I noticed something was different.  The upgrade really does something neat with voices, which now really seem to jump out at you and give you that feeling that the singer is truly in the room.  The 3.0's spatial recreation and musical detail is unbelievable. There were many songs in my older cd collection where I could never make out or understand the words being sung.  Not any more.  With the 3.0 upgrade you hear everything. Dynamics and bass weight is also greatly enhanced. Bass, now socks you in the chest. With the enhanced spatial recreation, you get imagining and sound staging like never before.  Lastly, music is even more relaxed and organic sounding, dare I say, like vinyl.

The 3.0 upgrade still maintains everything you liked about the original Cantata Music center, but the improvements are not subtle.  This is one of the best digital players I've heard and well worth $3K upgrade.  If you have a Cantata Music Center, the 3.0 upgrade is a must!  Take care.

   
thanks for the reviews of the 3.0!!!! are you guys using the usb input? does the 3.0 use the same usb receiver as previous model, or was it updated for the 3.0 version?
It is my understanding that the 2.0 upgrade dealt with the USB/Processor board...that brought the Music Center from 96k capability to 192k and allowed for UPnP network playback too. This 3.0 version/upgrade is primarily a DAC board upgrade and although the unit needs to be (or get) the 2.0 upgrade to become a 3.0 unit, the USB part is unchanged from the 2.0 version. There evidently was no necessity to change that processor board again. That is my understanding anyway...
I recently returned from a trip and could swear that my Cantata 3.0 has changed a bit for the better. It seems as though the bass is a bit more extended and a bit fuller. These changes are a further enhancement to my involvement. After having been away from a system, it is always hard to remember precisely what it sounded like before the trip so my perception is not subject to saying exactly how much the Cantata 3.0 has changed in the interim.

Another subjective item: If someone asked me whether the upgrade was worth it, I would have a hard time answering for anyone else. These sorts of aesthetic to dollar value judgments are hard to make for other people. In my case, I was fortunate to hear a 3.0 upgraded unit against my 2.0 unit. I would have trouble going back to the 2.0 after that experience, though I hardly suffered with the 2.0. Rather, I found the improvement compelling and hard to pass up. 

I don't know if these additional reflections help anyone but I thought I would post them just in case they might.