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bladelius design group
Freja multi-format SACD/DVD-A/CD player
as reviewed by Danny Kaey
Bladelius, a Swedish company under the helm of well-known audio designer Michael Bladelius, is a new entry in the realm of high-fidelity audio. Two entry-level components are currently available, both priced at a straightforward $3000. The Thor (reviewed in Issue 20) is a powerful integrated amplifier, while the Freja is a digital player. The Freja has a clean, minimalist, Swedish sort of look. (I am familiar with Swedish products, as my current reference loudspeakers, otherwise known as the Swedish Blond Bombshells, are the sensational Marten Design Dukes.) It is a multi-format, two-channel-only player. I don't know whether this is a trend, as I know of only one other player—the Ayre 5x—that follows this design principle. Their designers must believe that there is a market for two-channel multi-format players. It works for me, as I would be unwilling to spend the immense amount of money required to create a super-high-quality multi-channel playback system just to play the handful of available surround-sound SACDs or DVD-As.
The Freja is a technological tour de force that incorporates super-high-quality parts. Like all Bladelius components, it is a balanced design. It uses a highly regarded Burr Brown chip that plays SACDs while keeping PCM content at 24/192 (Redbook discs are upsampled). This is not bad for a player costing $3000, since most inexpensive multi-format players convert DSD signals to PCM for playback. A super-quiet Pioneer drive mechanism is inside the unit, while on the outside, only three controls are provided—Open/Close, Stop, and Play. A fourth selector on the left puts the unit into standby, though depressing any of the transport controls will also wake it up. I don't like all-in-one remotes, especially when they are of the cheap plastic kind. Fortunately, Bladelius can supply an extruded aluminum remote that also controls their other toys, though the remote normally supplied is of the el cheapo variety. You will need it to access tracks and for time info. While on the subject of quirks and oddities, the Freja had a few other firsts for me. Although this is strictly a two-channel machine, the display has a 5.1 logo in its upper left corner that lights up no matter what kind of disc you play. The second oddity is that each time the player awakens from sleep mode, it prominently displays the words "DVD Player," which is strange since it can't play video discs. Another quirk is that you can't switch between the CD and the SACD layer of a hybrid SACD. The distributor told me that since most people purchase SACDs to play only the higher-information layer, this should not be considered a fault. I would agree, except for the fact that sometimes the CD layer of a hybrid disc sounds better than its SACD counterpart.
The Freja is beautifully made for a $3000 component, with a nice, thick aluminum faceplate and an extruded case that is very well put together. I think it is one of the best-looking CD players I have come across recently. It doesn't scream for attention, yet it manages to convey the message that it is something special. I should note that I only have non-balanced cables in my system, so read this review with that in mind. I am told that the Freja does more of what it's good at through the balanced outputs. I also did not have any DVD-As on hand to check its sonics via 24/192 PCM.
After loading Yello's "Time Palace," from their last CD, The Eye, I sat back and took a deep breath. Would the Freja be up to the task? Would my current reference, the Modwright Sony 999ES (see Bob Levi's enthusiastic follow-up review elsewhere), which costs $2350, be bettered by this beautiful Swedish newcomer? The first thing I noticed was a far more recessed soundstage, with a curiously different presentation from the one I was used to with either the the Modwright Sony or the last player I reviewed, the awesome Zero One music server. Both had far more up-front presentations than the Freja. Although the Freja's soundstage was nicely lit and enveloping, I was expecting a more forward presentation. Dynamics seemed to head in the right direction, though they were a bit on the shy side. The heavy electronic bass notes on the Yello track weren't hitting me as powerfully as usual, and the slam and kick were ever so slightly behind the music. This may not be a bad thing, as it is a matter of personal preference. Since I know that track inside out, I was clearly able to discern the nice clarity of the female vocalist. Her voice was firmly planted, and sounded just right. There was no artificial midrange boost or anything else going on that brought out anything that was not there to begin with. The wall of sound that developed was a tad cooler than it was with the Zero One or the Modwright. I had been told that the player was fully broken in, so that was not the issue.
Playing the fabulous Harmonia Mundi disc of Pachelbel chamber works (HMC 901539) confirmed the player's coolness. Some might ascribe this to the revealing Thiel & Partner ceramic drivers in my Martens. I say it's the player! While on the subject of Pachelbel, the Freja elicited a warm, romantic feeling, due to its rhythmic timing. Your foot will not fall asleep with the Freja. The track "Cong-go" on Duke Ellington's Piano in the Foreground certainly had my toes tapping. The piano notes were executed with precision, yet seemed to lag. Soundstage width, depth, and imaging were good, though they again sounded more recessed than with my reference player. The Freja had a sense of increased soundstage depth, but proved a bit over-pronounced when I played Ionization on the stunning Decca CD of Varese: The Complete Works.
Mind you, these were all standard Redbook CDs that the Freja upsampled to 24/192. I next determined to discover its sonic signature with some of my favorite SACDs. First on the list was Brahm's Piano Concerto No. 1, with Artur Rubinstein masterfully playing the piano, from the second set of remastered-to-DSD RCA titles of the golden era. While this piece is of tremendous historical value, not to mention its beauty, it simply isn't a realistic recording of a piano concerto. (For that, try Kavi Alexander's recently-issued hybrid SACD of the Svetlanov Piano Concerto, recorded live-to-DSD in Saint Petersburg, Russia.) The piano on the Rubinstein recording sounded like the largest ever made, stretching at least forty feet wide. The orchestra, by comparison, appeared to be Lego-sized, fiddling around in the background. This wasn't the fault of the Bladelius player, of course. Curiously, the illusionary extension of the soundstage sounded smaller when I played this SACD on the Freja. Sure enough, the Freja seemed to shine when playing SACDs, more than it did on Redbook discs. Portraits in Jazz by the Bill Evans Trio, a fine recording of the jazz pianomeister, exhibited the superiority of the Freja's SACD playback. Evans' piano was delightful, with nice authority and weight, though again it sounded slightly cooler than it did on the Modwright Sony. Missing was the glitz and glamor, the dot on the i, the icing on the cake. The Modwright is such a masterpiece of modification that I wonder why Sony hasn't offered Dan Wright a full-time position designing CD players.
At $3000, the Bladelius Freja is a good player, one that will reward its owner with straightforward, no-nonsense design, and sound that is good enough to warrant the price. It is beautifully built, and its sleek design will look striking in any system. The fact that Bladelius has a service/distributor network throughout the world also helps in case anything goes amiss—something the Modwright Sony can't offer. Michael Bladelius has created a two-channel-only CD/SACD/DVD-A player for those of us who can't (or won't) afford a full-blown multi-channel system. Danny Kaey
Freja Multi-format CD player
Bladelius Design Group
In the US:
A number of months after this review ran, Danny became the US Importer/Distributor for Zero One through conversations with Alvin Heng.