Review: Resolution Audio Opus 21 CD Player

Category: Digital

Resolution Audio is something of a cult legend. This small San Francisco based company makes CD players (Resolution 50 and 55) but decided to stop manufacturing altogether for two years while bringing their new Opus 21 to market. I had checked their web site and was very impressed from an engineering standpoint of what they trying to do.

Resolution sells direct now, with a 30 day in home audition. If you don't like it you can return it for a 5% restocking charge. After talking to Jeff there, I decided to order one. That was back in March. Jeff anticipated they would be shipping in April but as with any new product there were problems. Jeff called to keep me informed and to make sure I was still interested. Although Resolution wanted to use a slot load CD-ROM based drive, they found it just was not suited to audio use. A change necessitated a redesign of the box, and a longer delay.

Finally in June, I got a call informing me the Opus 21 was on the way via FedEx Ground service. Since I live in Southern California, I knew it would arrive quickly and sure enough the next day
the player arrived very nicely packed in a fitted wooden crate

The Opus 21 is a unique two box design incorporating the power supply & display into one box; and the transport & DAC into the second. This design is intended to reduce the EMI noise from the display and power supply from the transport. The DAC section also has an external digital input for another source such as a DVD. The Opus 21 has four Burr Brown D/A converters and is set to permanently upsample to 96/24 kHz. And has a built in remote controlled volume control with 98 steps (01-99).

The manual suggests placing the boxes on different shelves or side by side, however their odd size (approx. 9.5 inches each) will not fit side by side on most racks. Included is a very familiar plastic remote with just 14 buttons, but no direct track access.

Upon power up the Opus 21’s large blue led matrix display comes on and accompanied by a Star Wars like chirping sound begins INITALIZING. The drawer opening/closing and TOC reading is very fast, and you are ready to hear music in blinding speed.

My audition took place with the following equipment over a period of over two weeks:
Plinius 8200 Integrated, Plinius SA-102 direct, and Plinius SA-102/CD-LAD combo. Speakers were Alon Capri and my own DIY two-ways with Scan Speak 8545/9700 drivers and a first order serial crossover. My speakers are extremely smooth and detailed and provided an extraordinary match with the Opus 21. Also for direct comparison was a Cary 306/200 which is my favorite CD player (until now).

Let me get one thing out of the way first, the Opus 21 does have a somewhat irritating whine when a CD is in the drive. This is audible when no music is playing but cannot be heard while playing because it is of course, drowned out. Perhaps Resolution should look into some noise insulation in the box.

After leaving the Opus on for the first few days, I first connected the Opus 21 and the Cary into different inputs on the Plinius 8200 and put in Keiko Matsui’s “Deep Blue”. She is a so-called “smooth jazz” pianist and this in my opinion is her best CD to date. The Opus was first and it sounded very, very good. I listened to three tracks and switched to the Cary. Making sure the volume was the same was difficult until I switched back to the Opus and readjusted it to compensate and listened again.

The two players are very similar in sound and performance but vary in texture. Bass is quite good in both- a sign of good power supplies, although the Opus 21 is much smaller and lighter. Mid range is also very smooth and rich, and a blindfolded person would find it very difficult to discern which unit they were enjoying. It is when the music hits the high notes I think the differences become more evident.

The Opus 21 is more lifelike and realistic in it’s high range presentation. It is quite amazing that a piano key sounds organic while a steel string sounds like steel and a chime sounds exactly like it is made of metal. It was not until I heard the Opus 21 that I even realized this quality is missing from every other CD player, (I have heard), including the Cary. The Opus 21 just sounds exactly right.

Because of this I put the Cary into it’s upsampling mode and listened again. The 306/200 while very musical and accurate in it’s own right is harsher than the Opus 21. The difference is subtle and I doubt most would ever notice (me included) unless they experience them side by side. While the Cary has perhaps more “punch”, the Opus 21 is more emotional.

Another startling quality I noticed of the Opus 21 is it’s clarity. On several tracks of quite a few CDs I was able to clearly understand lyrics I was never able to before. Even on Norah Jones’ debut album, this was evident, as well as on Vanessa Mae’s “Storm” where she sings in French, for once I was able to hear it clearly enough to translate the words.

Another major difference between the two is that the Cary has HDCD decoding while the Opus does not. Many think that the HDCD filters actually increase distortion so Resolution opted not to include it. Now until I got the Cary, I didn't even know I had many HDCDs so I was able to compare this directly. I didn't miss it at all on the Opus 21. Plus, when you turn on the upsampling on the Cary, the HDCD seems to be defeated anyway.

After a few hours this last session, I gave up on the Cary and just enjoyed the Opus 21. I listened to Norah Jones all over again. “Seven Years”, “Come Away With Me”, and especially “I’ve Got To See You Again” sounded like new arrangements. The goosebump factor of the Opus 21 makes it worth many times it’s asking price. I tried connecting the Opus 21 direct to the amp and using it's built in volume control. While this worked very well and the volume change was smooth, I preferred the CD-LAD preamp in the circuit.

So is it perfect? No. The remote has no direct track access, it did balk at one or two CDs but after a few times of opening and closing the drawer finally agreed to play them; and that whirring noise will bother some. I am probably making too much of this since by now I it is barely noticeable. Is the Opus 21 the best CD player? At $3000 or even twice that price, yes it probably is; I can tell you one thing, I will not be returning mine.

Associated gear
Plinius CD-LAD Preamp
Plinius SA-102 Amp
Empirical Audio Cables
DIY Speakers with Scan Speak 8545/9700

Similar products
Cary 306/200
Arcam CD72
Nohr CD-1
Audio Note AN-CD2.1x
Sony CE-775
Did you compare to the AN CD player? I am interested in how you experience the difference between oversampling and no oversampling.
I enjoyed the thoughtful review of the Opus. I assume the sound will only get better as the unit breaks in.
Yes, as a matter of fact I auditioned and reviewed the AN CD2.1 and did not like it at all. Compared to the Opus 21 it seemed rather lifeless to me.