Associated Equipment:
Digital Front End
Amplification
Loudspeakers
Cabling
Power Conditioning
 
Opera Audio Consonance CD120 Linear
Will the real Michael Jackson please stand up

 

May 2006




I take very seriously any product that comes with a white glove. The Opera Audio Consonance CD 120 Linear CD player came with a pair. Serious indeed. Eyeing the very well packed 120 on arrival, I initially couldn’t figure out exactly why I’d need a pair of white gloves to handle this very utilitarian looking all-aluminum player— but still, nice touch. I promptly put them on and watched TV in them while awaiting warm-up of the now hooked-up 120 Linear. Yes, I admit the thought of a Michael Jackson comment and/or joke crossed my mind, but this is one of America’s most respected entertainers and I want to preserve his dignity, wherever he may be.

Of late, Consonance has been making ripples in the HiFi pond with its sumptuously styled and (reportedly) equally delectable sounding Droplet 5.0 CD player, and I was itching to know if the CD 120 Linear was a drip off the old Drop (ouch—that one hurt, huh?!). So let’s get to it!

System
My “absolute reference” system (for this review anyway) consisted of a Lector CDP 0.6T CD player, a Modwright Instruments SWL 9.0SE preamplifier and a Bel Canto eOne S300 amplifier, all lashed together with (depending on my mood) either Stereovox HDSE interconnects or the ‘budget reference” Audio Art IC-1 and IC-3 interconnects. All (stock) power cords were plugged into either a Chang Lightspeed CLS-305 conditioner or simply into my Naim-approved Wiremold outlet strip.

The system delivered signal by turns to Magnepan’s MMG’s or 1.6QR’s, and to Totem Arros and Hyperion HW-586’s (in for review), always via Audio Art’s excellent SC-5 speaker cable. I also listened at length to the CD 120 Linear via the electron microscope that is my trusty pair of Sennheiser HD600 headphones plugged into either my Creek or Cute (yeah, that’s its name—what of it?!) headphone amps.


Zen and the art of DAC design
Utilizing a Japanese-designed Kusunoki non-oversampling DAC (no digital filter required), built in China, and distributed liberally in America, I suppose the Opera Consonance player is among the poster children for modern HiFi egalitarianism. Its international flavor aside, a new product these days, much like a new pop song, needs a ‘hook;’ something that’ll serve to set it apart in this my-technology-is-more-unpronounceable-than-yours HIFI market. With regard to the Opera CD 120 Linear, that ‘hook’ is this non-OS (non-oversampling) technology that’s been around since 1996; a technology that enables those players and DACs using it to operate entirely without the un-musically consonant effects of a digital filter.

To this end, a bit of cursory internet research reveals that the father of the non-OS DAC, Ryohei Kusunoki, a Japanese audio writer and designer, felt that many of digital’s perceived sonic ills could be laid squarely at the feet of the obligatory digital filter utilized in the circuits of DACs employing oversampling. Noted audio luminaries like Junji Kimura of 47 Labs refined/modified things a bit and implemented it in their seminal digital products, popularizing this approach as a viable audiophile-approved alternative to your run-of-the-mill, “perfect sound forever” oversampling DACs. Judging by how well regarded many companies’ digital products are that employ this technology (think Audio Note, Zanden and 47 Labs), there is bound to be something to this design in musical terms.

Having owned two such DACs myself over the years, one cheap, and one, well… far less so, and having lived with several more for varying periods of time, I can both vouch for the “analogue-ness” of this technology when well implemented, and tell you about its most common failings when less well done.

Audio Note is a company that I feel, for the most part, does non-OS well. Their DACs, whether (relatively) affordable or much less so, all share a certain ease and presence, particularly in the midrange, which do indeed put one in mind of a good analogue rig and more to the point, of live music when conditions are right.

On the flipside, non-OS DACs I’ve had in my system from other companies (such as…. nah, why create trouble) have sounded dull. That’s the best word for non-OS done badly; dull. The details simply aren’t there and there’s a closed in, torporous, bass-deficient, lack-luster quality to the sound which some audiophiles I suppose would call “musical.” I call it hearing your recordings through a blanket or through one of those soft-focus filters of the kind they’ve been putting between Barbara Walters and the camera of late. Not pretty.

So which camp do I think the CD 120 Linear falls into?

Sonico Fantastico

I absolutely friggin’ LOVE this CD player! Okay, review’s done. Not quite though; let me at least tell you why. You owe me that for breaking the suspense so early.

Yes, I know a lot of us cyber reviewers seem to love a lot of products. Why, I have three in for review now and, Cub Scout’s honor, all three as you will by turns hear are indeed excellent, or at least very darn good. In our defense though (reviewers—not Cub Scouts), and you’ll have to trust me here, there is an awful lot of good-sounding gear out there these days. What with our sector of the market dwindling and small to begin with, you would expect Darwin to be at work big-time here, and in my experience, he is (well, his theory anyway).

Controversial, non-faith-based scientific theories notwithstanding, the CD 120 Linear is in my view a very special player among price-point (and somewhat beyond) equals. Intelligent Design indeed. Going right for Nora Jones’ Come Away With Me (bad audiophile habit—I know) after warm-up without any break-in whatsoever, I was struck by the totally unassuming, un-hyped, intimate presentation on offer. The bass was present and full. Her voice was all come-hither sex and breath, as it should be on a great system. And most importantly, there was minimal if any loss of fine detail. Now this was a trick!

Alison Krauss’s sublimely beautiful “Ghost In This House” from their Live CD [Rounder Records] was mesmerizing. It always is, but I really did forget about reviewing the player and just let Alison do her thing. Played disc 2 after that and snuggled with my cutie on the couch. She said “this sounds so nice.” And that’s a direct quote ladies and gentleman. Your move.

The highs on this player are in no way rolled off and are never irritating (except when they are supposed to be) like with some of the well-played but brightly lit string quartet sets I have. No wet-blanket-over-the-speaker “musicality” here, just superbly well-judged and un-hyped playback.

And did I mention the PRaT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing)? No reviewer worth his salt leaves out the PRaT, and let me tell you this player has excellent PraT (read: natural, neither forced or slothful timing). I kept looking for the Naim badge somewhere. Must’ve fallen off on the plane ride over from China.

Five For Fighting’s hit song “Hundred Years” was moving and especially so because the 120 Linear picks up on all the little dynamic shifts, pregnant pauses and piano to forte swells that make this song so compelling. I know a piece of gear times well if I find myself tapping my foot along or thrumming my fingers on the arm of the couch in time to even the ballades.

In terms of tone, through the Hyperion monitors, my favorite countertenor David Daniels as served up by the 120 Linear was beautiful, but not artificially so, as he can be made to sound on some cheap players with tacked on, tubed output stages. I enjoyed the even production of his voice as he emoted his way through Handel aria after Handel aria. There was no syrup to be had; only fluffy Belgian waffles sans powdered sugar. (Can you tell it’s brunch time as I write this?)


Comparison: the ‘secret sauce’ in my review stew

When I read that a reviewer thinks a component is great, I want to hear what he thinks of it in the context of other components, similarly priced and above. The British HiFi magazine What HiFi (which some on-line wags now think would better be called What Plasma and iPod) may not be the most honest, non-advertising-driven journal around, but one thing I like about it is their five-star-filled shootouts. That and the photos - pure audio porn - yum yum.

You can get something of this flavor from the good work our own Nelson Brill is doing. Blessed with a small room, the man is selflessly reviewing great mini-monitor upon great mini-monitor in rapid succession. That way if he loves one, he can at least tell you how it fares in direct regard to others of its ilk. Bob Reina has a similar gig going for Stereophile (for which he somewhat less selflessly gets paid a lot more) in which each successive month finds him getting up close and personal with yet another would-be ‘budget reference’ speaker.

In this spirit, I own the Lector CDP 0.6T CD player; the baby Lector. It retails for around 1900.00 bucks and at a bit of a ‘courtesy’ discount, it’s worth it. It’s well built, beautiful to look at and manages to blend tubes into the mix without sweetening the aural pot too much. Well done. The CD 120 Linear gets close. In fact, to my ear, I’m gonna say TOO close for comfort, bettering its financial superior in terms of pace and microdynamics. The Lector fights back with marginally more potent bass and a bit more ambient detail. Despite the fact there’s nary a tube to be found in the 120 Linear, the two are at least in the same ballpark tonally. Neither one errs too far in either the Yin or Yang direction, at least in my system.

I used to love my Rega players—both the Planet and the Jupiter. I also had a Rotel 1072 in house for a time. With apologies to these estimable British brands; it was no contest. I’d take the Opera Consonance CD 120 Linear any day over any one of them. The Regas were and are, as many of you may know, very enjoyable players, but simply lack both the 120 Linear’s way with micro and macro dynamics, natural, unforced pace and most saliently, its un-etched way of illuminating what’s up on high.

The Rotel 1072? As I say above, no comparison again. The 1072 to my ear is a very good budget CD player. Workmanlike you might say; an excellent value for the money in terms of both sonics and build. But that’s it. No giant killer this one. And please—no nasty letters from Britain. I love your Quads—honest!

What’s that dear? Collect call from Britain you say? I’m at Starbucks for a skinny latte and some apple pie; take a message.

Continuing, having owned an Audio Note DAC 2.1x Signature for some time, a component which employs a similarly non-oversampling DAC in its engine room (all AN DACs sport such an engine), I will go ahead and comment on this somewhat financially lopsided comparison as well. The AN set-up I had, much like the CD 120 Linear’s big brother the Reference 2.2 Linear, employed tubes in combination with this type of DAC, to (mostly) musical acoustic ends. While I did feel it to be somewhat lacking in punch and pace as compared with my fave ‘reasonably’ priced CD player, the Naim CDX2 (which itself could sound a might ‘rushed’ at times), the AN got the mids right, as they say, and also had space galore on offer in which to place those mids.

The AN DAC long having been sold off to a more well-heeled owner, this is from memory, so don’t shoot me. Here goes. On points, I think I might just have to call this one a sonic draw, giving maybe a slight nod to the AN’s way with voices and space, and a slight nod in the other direction to the 120 Linear’s way with timing and dynamics. I should confess I have not yet had the pleasure of hearing the new AN DAC’s though, which may indeed be a leap or so better than their predecessors, as some say (I know- at this rate I wont get to!).

I’d still, truth be told, rather own the CD 120 Linear simply from the standpoint of one box convenience and tube-less, worry-free functionality. Plus, my Lector’s remote control works on the Consonance player- a neat ancillary benefit. Conspiracy theorists start scratching your chins and cooking something up! Italy… China… spaghetti and chow mein… hmmmm.


Conclusion

The CD 120 Linear doesn’t make coffee. Plus, I have a bone or two to pick with the build quality. Well, one anyway. Namely, half way into my review the drawer mechanism started developing its own ideas about when to close. I’d push the ‘open/close’ button either to eject or put in a CD, and the player would open wide—then close before I could get what it is I wanted; like a 4-year-old at the dentist. This was about the only annoyance I found, and I am hoping it’s peculiar to my review unit and not some designed in ‘game’ with which the feeble-minded may amuse themselves.

Independently minded drawer and Sumatra roast brewing ability aside, the Consonance CD 120 Linear CD player does everything else you’d ask of it, most especially playing CD’s emblazoned with any genre of music very very well.

So well in fact, that in my humble estimation, at this price point—a thousand bucks or so-- this is the player to have. For the money, I’ve never heard a more musically balanced digital component, and I’d be proud and pleased and happy to own one, feeling freed from the tyranny of digital upgraditis. Free that is, to upgrade all the wires and amps and such around it for a long time (Hey—I’m still a card-carrying member of multiple internet audio forums!).

Call a dealer and take one out for a spin. Write and tell me if I’m lying.
N.B.: Address all negative correspondence and phone calls (especially those from Britain) to Dave Thomas – Editor, The Stereotimes Magazine…


As TV’s Frugal Gourmet used to say, “I bid you Peace.”

David Abramson

                            _______________


Specifications:
DAC resolution : 16bit TDA1543
0dBFS signal output : 2.35V RMS
Output Terminals : Gold plated Tube RCA unbalanced
Frequency response : Less than +/- 0.5 dB deviation 20Hz-20kHz
Phase response : Less than 5 degrees deviation 20Hz-20kHz
Signal-to-noise ratio : More than 100dB
Crosstalk : Less than -100dB
Distortion (RCA) : Less than 0.12 %
Remote Control : Philips RC-5 compatible IR system 36kHz modulation frequency
Dimensions / Weight : 8.5cm x 43cm x 32cm (HxWxD) / 10kg
Price: $995.00

Address:
Manufacturer
Opera Audio Co., Ltd.
C-1501, Building No.9 Kingdom Garden, Xiaoxitian
Haidian District, Beijing, China
Tele: 86 10 6220935
Fax: 86 10 6220935
Website: www.operaudio.com
E-mail: klep@public.bta.net.cn


US Importer/Distribution:
NAT Distribution
2307-R Bristol Pike
Bensalem, Pa. 19020
Tele: (215) 953-9099
Website: www.natdistribution.com
E-mail: info@natdistribution.com