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The Cyrus 8x CD Player
Pursuing The Ultimate in CD Playback

 

Sept 2006





My history with the CD format has been stormy and tortured. To my ears and musical sensitivity, the CD has been the torturer. Repelled by its poor music-making abilities and grating sonic shortcomings, I never embraced the CD format, investing only minimally in both hardware and software. 8000 LPs and 5 turntables can keep you busy for a long, long time.

Still, there’s no denying the improvements in CD playback performance in the last decade, and particularly in the last few years. Consequently, I have been investigating contemporary CD players and have reviewed two musically noteworthy players for The Stereo Times. As the CD approaches 21 years of age it is fair to ask if the format has indeed matured, especially as other source media challenge its monopoly. The analogue LP continues to flourish among aficionados; new higher-resolution digital formats (SACD and DVD-A) have been launched, though admittedly, to an indifferent mass market whose enthusiasm for mediocre gadgetry has made the low-rez, compressed i Pod and MP3 portable formats the success story of the times. The stereo CD is now becoming just one format out of many. Universal players, geared to Home Theater/DVD Video and attempting to enforce multi-channel playback, dominate the inexpensive section of the market; their list of compatible formats dizzying with acronyms. Potential buyers of new players are faced with a confusing set of choices: straight CD, CD with up-sampling, combination CD/SACD, or CD/SACD/DVD-A, et. al. Demanding high or ultra performance adds ambivalence to ambiguity.

The primary difficulty the CD format has faced is its incorporation into very high fidelity, musically communicative audio systems. While the analogue LP (and the almost forgotten Open Reel-to-Reel tape) continually benefit from increases in a system’s resolution, naturalness, and music-making ability, the CD’s limitations are too often just more vividly pointed out. Increasing a system’s ability to correctly reproduce timbre, low-level information, rhythmic thrust, subtle dynamic variation, and punctuation quickly becomes self-defeating when faced with the CD’s weaknesses in even basic requirements of musical fidelity. Futility looms when the CD is faced with the more rigorous demand of aesthetically moving music-making. One of the large ironies of that last great growth in overall consumer interest in upgrading audio components (I include the rise of The High End) that occurred roughly for a decade after the CD began to dominate the market is that a CD-based, ultra fidelity, musically communicative system is ultimately oxymoronic.

Now that higher resolution and wider bandwidth digital formats have been launched (SACD and DVD-A,) even the vested interest companies now admit that the CD was never a high fidelity medium and that its goal was to offer remote-control convenience and mid-level fidelity to mid-level audio systems and below. And to make record companies gazillions of bucks. “Perfect sound forever?” I guess that lie is now "inoperative."

Specifically, the CD standard is plagued by time-based errors (jitter), a truncated high frequency bandwidth that would earn an “F” on an Electrical Engineering 101 project, and its most elementary and egregious flaw – low-level signal resolution so awful that noise (dither) has to be injected into the A/D converting process during recording to capture any low-level signal at all.

It is known (and every music-loving audio enthusiast should know) that every musical sound, no matter how soft or how loud, begins and ends in silence. The initial transient of each note arises out of silence and localizes the position of that sound. The frequency of that sound determines its pitch or note value, while the simple multiples of that note’s frequency, rising up to beyond audibility, form a distinct pattern of relative emphasis of overtones that identifies the instrument producing the sound. Each note thus has simultaneously occurring varied levels of sound: the overtones, or harmonics, can be far quieter than the actual loudness of the note itself. After the note reaches its peak of loudness, it decays back into silence. To correctly identify an instrument, its position in space, and the note it is producing requires an absolutely precise sequence in time.

Since dither changes, i.e. distorts, the true volume of a low-level signal, and moreover, changes its amount of distortion from moment to moment, it’s no surprise that the integrity of each musical note is butchered. It’s like watching James Brown, Fred Astaire, or Rudolf Nureyev trying to dance with their legs amputated at the knee. Add the time distortion produced by jitter, then add the phase distortion of the CD’s narrow high frequency bandwidth (and the phase-corrupting sharp filters necessary because of it,) multiply all of this by the number of notes in a given piece of music, and then again by the numbers of instruments playing, and it’s no surprise that the CD is not high fidelity. As a computer model of music it is tragically inadequate: inherently a-musical would not be too harsh a description.

Given these inherent limitations, what is a manufacturer of CD players to do? Some attempt to artificially prettify the CD signal, either by dumbing it down, using tubes to sweeten and fill in its distorted harmonic reproduction, or by tailoring its response to avoid revealing sonic limitations. Others have opted for extracting the maximum from the CD, implicitly arguing that we cannot be absolutely sure of the sonic and musical effects of the format’s inherent limitations until we’re reasonably sure that we’ve gotten everything off the CD that we can get. Since providing 100% perfect playback is likely an unachievable project (completely eliminating jitter is proving a tough nut to crack), high-accuracy CD players face the likelihood of being tarred for being the bearers of bad news.

The Cyrus CD8x CD player attempts to take the straight stereo CD format to its ultimate performance. It is whiskey drunk neat: straight, no chaser. At $1995, (the PSX-R optional outboard power supply adds $795) the CD8x is priced far short of the stratospheric and lunatic High End, yet is expensive enough to allow uncompromised design choices. Cyrus is a long established UK company, whose products have consistently garnered the highest praise. I have been aware of them for a long time and have been curious to hear them, though lack of US distribution in the past had me stymied. Now imported by The Sound Organisation (the US distributor of Rega,) Cyrus is destined to make a large splash in the US high performance audio market, particularly if sonic merit and rational pricing are the criteria.

Cyrus products are built on their signature compact chassis, much narrower and slightly deeper than conventional products. Measuring 4” H by 8.5” W by 14” D, the size of the Cyrus chassis allows a Cyrus CD player and a Cyrus integrated amplifier to fit into the width of a single conventional component. Their compact size and unobtrusive appearance brought immediate approval from two intelligent women who happened to see them. The space-saving size of individual Cyrus components is, however, somewhat mooted if one chooses to add their optional PSX-R outboard power supply, whose short XLR-terminated umbilical cord necessarily places them adjacent to the CD player or integrated amp; or if shelf spacing allows, immediately above or below. Cyrus products are available in either silver or black finishes, and strike me as a refreshing appearance alternative to conventional audio products.

In addition to the Cyrus CD8x, Steve Daniels of The Sound Organisation also sent me the optional PSX-R power supply and the Cyrus 8vs integrated amplifier . I will be covering the excellent 8vs amp in a separate review. Cyrus sells both interconnects and speaker cables to match the sonics of their products. Since these bear near-identity to DNM/Reson Solid-Core interconnects and speaker cables, I mostly used the DNM cables in my auditions.

Like many UK companies, Cyrus’ products are designed with long-term ownership in mind: owners of their entry-level “6” series products can have them upgraded to full-blown “8” series models. Purchasers of their top-level products can upgrade performance by adding the PSX-R power supply. The CD8x/PSX-R combination can be further upgraded by using the CD8x as a transport to feed the up-sampling DACX outboard converter from Cyrus’ ultimate “X” series. I find much to commend about this design approach, especially compared to the US market’s penchant to view CD players as throwaway items.

Cyrus recommends at least 48 hours of warm-up time before listening. The CD8x continued to mellow and improve with playing time. Timing and rhythm, the prime essentials of music, were the last performance aspects to come fully into song, these appearing suddenly and seemingly out-of- the-blue at about 3 weeks use. This late blooming is worth noting, as until it happened, timing and rhythmic thrust were somewhat turgid and mechanical. A noteworthy feature of the CD8x is the ability to control absolute phase from the handset. Experiments with interconnects revealed that the solid-core DNM/Resons were indeed an excellent match. Known for their superb communication of rhythm and timing and blessed freedom from glare and false brightness, the DNM’s retail price of $140 per meter pair (state-of-the-art Eichmann Bullet RCA plugs included) means that owners of the CD8x will not have to invest heavily to get the CD8x to perform as intended. I also had synergistic results with the Origin Live Reference interconnects. These offered equal timing coherence with an additional level of detail and harmonic fullness, at twice the price.

Experimenting with other electronics, speaker cables, and various forms of AC connection in two additional rooms revealed no particular temperament or neurotic demands. I used the stock AC cables into an Eichmann AC strip with a DNM solid-core AC cable plugged straight into the house current. Bright-sounding, multi-stranded speaker cables are best avoided. And yes, not surprisingly, the Cyrus 8vs integrated amp was a superb match, offering equal virtues of speed, control and high resolution.

Adding the optional outboard PSX-R to the CD8x proved a significant sonic alteration. The PSX-R takes over the powering of the mechanical aspects of the CD8x’s transport, including driving the motors, adding an additional level of sophistication to the CD8x’s already complex power supply design. The PSX-R adds more muscle, skin and flesh to the CD8x’s foundation: the ambience of the recording venue is significantly enhanced and overall verisimilitude is improved. Listeners of acoustic music, I suspect, will find the PSX-R’s contribution of grace and subtlety indispensable. Dynamic control develops an iron grip. Fans of rock and jazz might actually prefer the CD8x solo: the rawer sense of drive can produce a sense of higher energy, arrivals and points of punctuation more excitingly rendered.

Sonically, it is immediately obvious that the CD8x/PSX-R attempts to extract as much information off the CD as possible. Recording quality and overall production values of each CD are revealed with stark clarity, grabbing and retaining one’s attention throughout each disc. Compilations and “Best of” CD’s, with their varying recording venues and often varying recording quality, are sharply delineated. One hears the good as well as the bad: very much a two-edged sword. On one hand, one can hear what the recording engineers intended (many Pop record producers and engineers, fancying themselves “artistes” in their own right, bemoan the lack of appreciation for their efforts;) on the other hand if, what they attempted was lame and a-musical, the CD8x won’t gloss over their folly.


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