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I don’t like compact discs. I don’t like them for a few reasons. First; when CD was launched as the new and revolutionary music reproduction format, I thought it would come up with a sound quality far better than vinyl. No ticks and pops ha? That simply means better sound. Wrong! The sound was unquestionably inferior. Ok, I have to confess that I was initially fascinated by my first CD player’s ticks and pops free performance, but I soon realized that it was not capable of conveying any emotion. It simply didn’t draw me into the music. I felt as if I were cheated. Second; the music industry gave up vinyl and focused on producing CDs. I felt as if I were confined to inferior living...downtrodden and hopeless. Third; since there were almost no new releases on vinyl and my collection had become the victim of my divorce –I was only 28 and had no clue how cruel a broken hearted woman can be– I had no objections in selling many of the LPs that survived to friends (?) who had their eyes on some rare pieces and persistently making offers to get them. Should I blame CDs for that? Sure, because many rare recordings I had in my vinyl collection were being released in CD format, so I let them go without any hesitation. I felt as if I were tempted by the Devil of the age, the so called DIGITAL. What an unforgivable sin! I was left alone with a handful of LPs, say 20 or 30 whilst the number of CDs at home increasing deviously.
There are other reasons too, like for example, the fall of the Micro Seiki. Sounds weird? No! Micro Seiki was a legend –and still is for many including me– and I had made myself believe that I would own a Micro Seiki turntable one day. But like many analogue brands devastated by the digital revolution, Micro Seiki too withdrew from audio business, and turned back to its origins, which is micro engineering, to operate in other sectors.
My dreams were shattered. If you want to kill a person’s soul, kill his dreams.
Ok, I will stop here. There is a time for every man to face the reality and learn not to blame others for what has happened to him, and this we call maturity. Nobody had pulled out a gun at me to impose to sell my beloved LPs, right? Or, nobody had forced me to dream about owning a Micro Seiki turntable one day. All were my choices. A mature man should also learn to comply with the Zeitgeist. That is, to accept the fact that the world is digitalising. So I ignored all the arguments I made against compact disc in time and continued my audio journey by placing the CD player at the centre of my system as the main source.
For the last 25 years I owned many CD players, from moderately priced ones like NAD, Denon or Marantz to some exotic ones like Meridian, Audio Aero and so on. Although I never gave up keeping a turntable in the system, CD playback dominated the listening experience. And in years, still not managed to like CD sound, I lost my interest in high end audio, so that until the industry decided to go back to black. What an unexpected retroactive move! Were the betrayers forgiven? Probably yes. I changed the whole audio set up, putting analogue back to where it once belonged, just at the centre as the main source. CD player? An Oppo 95 blue-ray player was more than sufficient to play some background music in low volumes when we had guests over or when I was busy writing up my articles and essays. Speaking within the limits of CD playback, Oppo is a remarkable player, a very reliable and versatile one at least, of course with some reservations, though not very major. And if you consider its price, you can easily shut your eyes to them. No more chasing after better sounding CD players, no temptations. Keep Oppo until it stops playing. Music and peace at home again.
TEMPTATION OF AN ANALOGUE LOVER
Last year in Munich High End 2015, Ypsilon Electronics room was my first stop. As all the amplification in my new set up was from Ypsilon, I wanted to meet Demetris Backlavas and say hello to him. The demonstration system in Ypsilon room comprised of CDT-100 CD player (used as transport), DAC-100 D/A digital to analogue converter, PST-100 Mk.2 pre amplifier driving the Aelius monoblocs. On the analogue side a Bergman turntable was accompanied by VPS-100 phono pre-amplifier and MC transformer. Speakers were Perfect8 Point MkIII. And the sound?
Disappointing! There was an impressive sound stage, incredible amount of detail, but the overall sound lacked body and impact. A more modest version of Ypsilon gear at home sounded unquestionably more convincing compared to what I was hearing. Second and third days, the sound improved, but still far from what it is supposed to be, or should I say what I was expecting it to be. On the third day, I had a chance to listen to the analogue and digital front ends consequently and surprisingly couldn’t point out the difference. Or did I? Did the digital front end play with more impact?
Then last year in December, I had the chance to make a critical listening in George Heropoulos’ house in Athens, as mentioned in a previous article. There I witnessed the impressive and tempting musical power of Ypsilon CDT-100 - DAC-100 D/A combo. They played so impactful, so real, so out of the digital play back experience that I hardly believed it was not analogue play back. Hard to confess, but actually Ypsilon digital front end performed better than Thorens Prestige - Fidelity Research FR-64S - Shelter 901 combo.
MOISTEN WITH SPITTLE
During the listening session in Athens, one little case gave me a significant hint on how an ingeniously designed and meticulously manufactured CD player/transport is capable of sucking out the musical information from those little stupid silvery-shiny plastic discs. We were 6 people ( including Demetris Backlavas and Fanis Lagkadinos of Ypsilon Electronics and a boy, my son at 13) listening to a live jazz performance from LP (Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, if I can remember rightly), my son who plays piano and saxophone, turned to me and said that there was something wrong with the sound of the saxophone at a certain passage. I told him that I didn’t hear anything wrong. As he insisted on his claim, I asked him to tell what he thought was wrong to Demetris. We listened to the same passage of the track for several times and we all heard a very tiny distortion on some certain notes, a kind of rustle or crackle, not distinct though, clearly audible with a some attention. We couldn’t decide whether it was sourced from the audio chain or the performance itself as it may sometimes happen with the brasses or the winds. We were about to convince ourselves that it could be the rustling sound of the mouth piece moistened with spittle as my son reacted and said, “No! Moistened mouth piece doesn’t sound like that. This sound we heard doesn’t belong to the music.” What a presumptuous behavior!
This discussion could have lasted for hours if George had not appeared with the CD of the same album in his hand. So we gave a listen to the same track with pure attention and surprisingly didn’t hear a hint of that rustling sound; clearly no moist in the mouth piece. And there is more. The sound was so open, so charming and so close to the real thing that we preferred to continue the listening session with CD.
CDT-100 AS A STANDALONE CD PLAYER
Ypsilon CDT-100 is intended to be used as a CD transport in combination with DAC-100 D/A converter. But probably for the ones who would not be able to afford the two, it comes equipped with a modest (?) internal DAC unit so that it can be used as a stand-alone CD player as well. Contrary to the market trends, CDT-100 reads red book CDs only.
It is not an easy task for a reviewer to describe the external and internal designs of CDT-100 separately since its construction is an extension of the top loading disc drive, the good old and highly acclaimed Philips Pro-2, a rarely found mechanism, modified due to the construction needs. I don’t know if Ypsilon supplies this unit directly from Philips or from some intermediary dealer who holds a stock. All I know, using rare devices in the circuits is something very typical of the brand and they have enough of everything in stock and if you consider the very limited amount of production, this is not a big deal. The Pro-2 disc drive is mounted on massive sandwich assembly made of aluminium and stainless steel which carries the vibration and resonance of the mechanism to the pillar like feet with spikes, located at the corners. Beneath the stainless steel feet are four matching spike dampers again in massive stainless steel.
Attached underneath the drive block, a rectangular aluminium box houses the electronic circuit and the power supply. On the front side of the aluminium box, a thick acrylic window display is mounted. In the back panel there is an IEC socket with power switch, an S/PDIF output terminal, a Neutric 5-pin output terminal (to use with DAC-100 D/A converter) and a pair of RCA analogue output terminals. That’s it. No control buttons, no nothing –you should control functions using the heavy solid aluminium remote.
This is how the CDT-100 is constructed and how it looks. The outlook is an integral part of its mechanical and electronic design. It looks simple and pristine except the heavy milled aluminium lid on top that you have to lift to place the CD. This wouldn’t bother me if my wife, who is also a chef, hadn’t made fun of it saying that it looked like the lid of those cast iron pans she used in the kitchen. She asked me laughingly if I needed a torchon to grip it. Funny ha? In fact you need to have a space on your rack to place the lid during loading your CDs as you also have to place an aluminium magnet weight on the CD before you operate.
Inside the electronic box there is a custom made toroidal transformer; a simple circuit board to control the drive mechanism; and next to it the D/A converter section comprising of two Burr-Brown PCM 1704 24-bit chips acting as a ladder network. Digital to analogue conversion is done with no oversampling and up-sampling, thus accepting 16-bit signals and no digital filters are used. Demetris Backlavas claims that digital filters that are done by oversampling in a DAC or decimation in A to D are the cause of so called “digital sound”. The sound produced by non-oversampling high quality multi-bit DAC chips has an “analogue like” character compared to the sound produced by an over-sampling DAC. Sounds very simple and straightforward ha? Not that easy actually. Since 1704s do not carry any voltage, two in-house built C-core transformers coupled with single low noise J-fet gain stage feed the Mundorf power supply caps that form the output stage of the CDT-100. In short, CDT-100’s DAC section is one good example to Ypsilon’s “simpler is better” philosophy but at the cost of expensive parts and labour for the sonic edge it provides.
Overall, either in terms of mechanical or electronic design approach, CDT-100 is a retroactive drift towards the basics, the good old days when the industry had not chosen the path of avoiding costly operations like trimming of internal resistors for high accuracy of ladder networks (i.e. R-2R) and so on. Business wise it may not seem logical to be an opponent to the mainstream design approaches but Demetris Backlavas has a solid argument against Sigma-Delta modulator DACs dominating the market as sonic performance is concerned and it sounds convincing, at least in theory. He says, “Even the swanky 32-bit Sigma-Delta modulator DAC chips of today are internally 1-bit in fact. Sigma-Delta DAC’s sound more processed most probably because of the non linear (digital) feedback involved in the modulator itself. The length of the data (24-32) has nothing to do with the mechanism which is responsible for the sound character.” So the fuss about high digit bits seems to stand for creating a marketing edge rather than a sonic one as my listening sessions inarguably proved.
Recommended burn in time for CDT-100 is a frustrating 1.000 hours and I strongly recommend not judging its performance before 400 hours of playing time. My impression during the first serious listening session in the distributor’s demo room was quite disappointing. When it arrived for review it had already spinned 400 hours and I spent another 200 hours with it, just playing music in the background. So this review is written on its performance approximately after 600 hours of playing time.
If there is one thing to emphasize on the CDT-100’s sonic performance, it is the “out of the digital” listening experience that it provides. It plays with a graceful authority, attracting the listener to its presentation from the first moment of listening. Its transparency and timbral accuracy are of a standard to be associated with the analogue of the very high echelon; and so is the soundstage that it creates. Underneath the rich and finely woven sonic texture lies thrilling dynamics with deep and articulate low end. However, CDT-100 has absolute control on instant ascents, so nothing slaps on your face, but rather touches deep into your heart, so you don’t feel harassed at all. How can a CD player perform relaxed and immediate at the same time without a single hint of harshness or stress? My prejudice on digital playback aside, it is a quality that you can rarely experience even with high-end analogue playback. I guess it is because of its speed revealing the inner detail and micro dynamics of the recording. And it is also the air that comes infused into every single note. This may be a result of its straightforward and no-nonsense circuitry as well as the pains taken with controlling the mechanical vibrations. Whatever the reason is, the sound produced by CDT-100 flows with profound ease and authority on music.
Listening to Mahler’s Symphony No.5 (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly, DECCA) made it clear how skilful the CDT-100 is to reveal the space between every pulsation of musical notes. Dynamics come without any hint of strain, crescendos raise with thrilling reality. Micro dynamics and inner detail are exemplary. CDT-100 portraits the cymbals in a crystal clear way, especially with the harsh strokes in fortissimos where most CD players fall short. The music comes with a rich texture, palpable nuances and an enveloping sound stage. Reflections in the recording environment are subtly revealed providing a more believable musical experience. Presentation of double basses has depth, articulation and a sense of “thereness”. But CDT-100 never attracts your attention to all these attributes, unless you try to analyse what’s going on as there. It just lets you to listen to music only.
Yon Sun Nah’s Bitter Ballad, one of my favourite songs of her, appears both in vinyl (Voyage) and CD (as a bonus track in The Same Girl), so it was a good opportunity for me to test the performance of the CDT-100 against my analogue front end, which comprises of a Thorens TD-550 turntable-Ikeda IT 407 tone arm and ZYX Omega Premium Gold cartridge feeding Ypsilon step-up transformer and VPS-100 phono stage.
Through the CDT-100 the music came with more energy, more timbral reality and better articulation in the bass region. Actually the sound was so captivating that through the end of the track I gave up with the comparison test and switched to the CDT-100 to continue with the rest of the album just to listen to music. It was that good! In the track Peace, the acoustic bass was enchantingly rich in harmonics and I got the feeling that only a pair of speakers with matching harmonic richness (i.e. Raidho D level to my experience) would do justice to its presentation.
Another side by side comparison I made was with the MSB Universal Media Transport-Platinum Signature DAC IV-Signature Power Base combo from 2013. MSB has upgraded the components to series V a while ago (Universal Media Transport is still built around an OPPO disc drive mechanism though) except the Signature Power Base and this combo costs EURO 42.000 currently. I saw no harm to compare the CDT-100 with the older version of the MSB combo since the CDT-100’s launch already dates back to 2009 (it was introduced as a transport only in 2006) and to my knowledge nothing has changed in its circuitry since then. I listened to the same tracks one after the other on both. Well, as being convinced with the Ypsilon’s musical performance during the early review period, I was expecting it to perform quite close to the MSB, but I was surprised with what I heard. Ypsilon not only did perform better, but it also outclassed the MSB combo in terms of emotional impact. The difference was so evident, evident as dead and alive. So what is the reason for such intriguing distinction? MSB’s DAC unit seems to be based on a similar principle in design as the Ypsilon’s, even carrying it to a step further (in theory of course). Should we therefore blame the transport rather than the DAC? Well, not easy to guess as I did not try the MSB DAC separately with the CDT-100. Even if I did, it wouldn’t make much sense because I wouldn’t be able to use the Ypsilon’s recommended 5-pin output (see next paragraph). To my understanding, a significant portion of Ypsilon’s sonic edge comes from the care taken to minimize the noise caused by electromagnetic and mechanical resonance. Less function means less circuitry, hence less resonance. Same principle is valid for the rock solid mechanical design. And this in practice seems to be working.
My final attempt was to test the CDT-100 as a transport, connecting it to NAD Master Series M51 DAC (which I use at home for computer audio) via its S/PDIF digital output. This would give me the chance to compare the Ypsilon’s internal DAC with a highly acclaimed external DAC unit based on a completely different topology via its standard digital output. Between two components I used Acoustic Revive DSIX 1.OPA digital cable with digital signal isolation exciter. My listening proved that these two components clearly belong to different leagues.
Through NAD M51, the low end lost its articulation, somewhat softened and blurred. The vocals lost their believability and overall the sound lacked impact. Ypsilon’s internal DAC was unquestionably far more musical bringing lots of air and energy. I really don’t know if the result would have changed if I had tested with another digital cable, but having heard the synergy with between the CDT-100 and the DAC-100 connected with Neutric 5-pin digital cable before, I understand that using its dedicated 5-pin output is mandatory for carrying its performance to another level.
WHO NEEDS A CD PLAYER?
Really, who needs a CD player, especially a EURO 20.000 one in the age of high-rez down-loads? That was my first question when I started reviewing the CDT-100. Then I realized I had more than 1.200 CDs, most of which I was not listening to. I wasn’t, because I could not stand the harsh and superficial sound that my previous CD players reproduced. What a redundant investment. Until I heard the CDT-100 at home, I had put the blame on the CD medium. Towards the end of the review period I realized that I preferred to listen to the CD versions of the same albums because the CDT-100 performed unquestionably better than my analogue front end. I was surprised to hear how much musical information was buried into those shiny little discs. I wish I could have also tested it with the Ypsilon DAC-100 D/A to hear how far the musical feast would go with the set up at home. But I can easily make a guess as I heard how it sounded in Athens. Also in this year’s Munich High End I witnessed the audience visiting Ypsilon room being tricked into an innocent cheating that supported my findings in Athens. While the Döhmann Helix1 turntable was spinning with the Schroeder tone arm on the vinyl (it was not possible to detect under the dimmed light that the arm was raised so the stylus was not touching the groves), the music in fact was being played from the CDT-100 and DAC-100 D/A combo and everybody, including me, thought it was the analogue front end playing. Funny and provoking!
As I was about to finish this write up, Raidho XT-2 speakers arrived for review and I connected them immediately to the system to speed up their burn in period (they arrived with only 50 hours burn in vs. the recommended 250 hours). Now as the CDs spin all day long, I’m also realising that CD players are not the only suspects for the so called “digital sound” but it is also the speakers, at least the ones that visited my home during all those years. Yes, during the review period, CDs sounded great through Tannoy Canterbury and Wilson Sophia 2 speakers, but now I see they sound vibrant and fascinating through Raidho XT-2s. The string instruments appear in the sound stage not as strings and fiddles only but also as resonating wooden bodies, creating a listening experience much closer to live. And as I witness how much musical information the XT-2s suck from the system and how musical the CDs sound even with my veteran OPPO through XT-2s (though not comparable to CDT-100), I tend to put a good portion of the blame on the conventional speaker design as with the most CD players. I guess what disturbed me in most cases during the past was the noise caused by electrical and mechanical vibrations. Although their design philosophies are totally different, Ypsilon and Raidho have a very similar obsession with releasing these vibrations and letting only musical information to flow. Now more and more I get the feeling that we are still not hearing a significant amount of this musical information. And it is not because that they do not exist in those little shiny discs but because that they are blurred by the noise in the whole circuitry of the audio system.
My very personal observation in the above paragraph aside, the Ypsilon CDT-100 is hell of a fantastic CD player and should be considered amongst a very few that carry CD playback to the highest echelon of the audio experience. Despite its profound musical performance, it also cured my feeling of regression by showing the unconscious investment I made on CDs in years was not as stupid as I thought. And this I credit more than anything else.
END OF THE STORY
All good things have an end. As I was ecstased with rediscovering my CD collection during the review period, that sinister phone call came from the distributor saying that a customer was interested in buying the review sample as it was the only one in stock. In panic and without any consideration of how to budget it I said, “No! This machine is not going anywhere!”
If there is no suffering, there is no love. When a reviewer falls in love with the review component, the story ends up either with a sour farewell or with the sour experience of paying the invoice. What always remains in the end is the suffering.
- Senior contributing writer