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A308CR CD player
as reviewed by Ed Morawski
This is the first in a series of reviews of CD players in the $3000-$4000 range. I will discuss the Musical Fidelity A308CR, the Meridian 588-24, and the Accuphase DP-57 by themselves, then I will compare them. The winner will serve as my reference digital source. In the final article of the series, I will also review a top-secret current turntable and compare it to the digital contenders. Stay tuned!
No matter how good our systems sound, we always think they can sound better. Notice that I said "we," as I include myself in this group. I wish I could be satisfied with my system, but I can't. On the positive side, this has led me to make vast improvements in my system over the years. On the negative side, I have sometimes regretted selling a piece of equipment that I later learned was about as good as it gets. The component I most regretted selling was my Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista CD player. I bought it after comparing it to the Cary 306/200, the Resolution Audio Opus 21, and the Accuphase DP-65V. All of those players sounded great, but in my system, the Nu-Vista was more musical and satisfying. I kept it for a few years, but then got the upgrade bug, and mistakenly assumed I could replace it with a computer-based storage/playback system. While that system sounded good, and was the utmost in convenience, it couldn't match the performance of the Nu-Vista.
After a while, I broke down and called Upscale Audio, where I had purchased the Nu-Vista, in the hope that Kevin Deal had another one buried in the warehouse. No such luck, but Kevin suggested the Musical Fidelity A308CR: "If you liked the Nu-Vista, you'll like the A308. It's 99 percent there, but doesn't have the Nu-Vista tube. Some people like it better." The A308CR is a 24-bit, Delta-Sigma, up-sampling design (96 kHz), based on the Nu-Vista. It is not a current model—Musical Fidelity has replaced it with the A5—but it was actively sold in 2003 and 2004, and some dealers may still have one in stock.
First let me describe this marvelous machine. I won't use the cliché, "It's built like a tank," as it's built like a bloody bank vault! Its build quality is a cut above anything you're likely to find at twice the price. It weighs nearly 40 pounds! I assume that designer Anthony Michaelson's fondness for power supply chokes accounts for most of that weight, but the casework also contributes. Aside from making you feel like you got your money's worth, the extremely solid, rigid chassis contributes to the damping of vibration from the high-revving CD drive. Jitter is claimed to be less than 150 picoseconds. The dual chokes, which are used on both the positive and negative sides of the power supply, not only serve to keep the A308's sound clean, but to prevent electrical noise from getting into other components.
The user interface of the A308 is quite good, including a large display that is capable of showing CD text—if a CD has the enhanced feature set (artist, title, genre), the A308 will display it in a scrolling, marquee style. Its Sony transport loads and plays extremely fast, unlike some units you may be familiar with. I know it's a small thing, but I really appreciate having the music play instantly when I hit the play button. My one and only complaint about the A308 is its remote. While functional, its cheap plastic look simply doesn't match the quality of the unit.
I listened to the A308CR with Musical Fidelity's A308 power amp, which was a match made in heaven. I wanted to use a tube preamp, and the BAT VH-31 proved to be a good match for the Musical Fidelity components. Musical Fidelity apparently doesn't believe in balanced outputs, so the A308 units were connected with RCA cables. The A308CR took a long time to break in. It sounded really good out of the box, but only revealed itself fully after 200 to 300 hours. Its sound is extremely rich and musical—warm, if you prefer. It is also noticeably forgiving. No CD sounds bad. Even 80s-vintage music, much of which was poorly recorded and compressed to death, is very listenable.
Two tweaks considerably enhanced the performance of the A308CR—a cryogenically treated power cord and some Sound Fusion spikes (usually made for speakers) to replace the standard rubber feet. Both noticeably improved the player's high-frequency response. The power cord gave the 308 a cleaner, blacker background. Other isolation devices rolled off the highs, but the spikes focused the highs into sharp relief without sounding harsh.
I use several CDs to audition components, which happen to be some of my favorite music. When I played Norah Jones' debut album on the A308, the word "smooth" came to mind over and over, but the player's exquisite detail was also obvious. Jones' voice sounded rich and smooth, like velvet. Her piano, and the band's guitars, exhibited the same richness and detail. Alison Krause's So Long, So Wrong may not be her best-known recordings, but I feel it is her best to date. The title track is an exhilarating arrangement of acoustic guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, with a driving beat and uptempo vocals. I started at a low volume, then cranked it up. The considerable power of the A308 amp, in combination with the A308 CD player, created an absolutely "live" performance. Every member of Union Station was in his or her proper place within the soundstage, with Alison Krause dead center as her glorious voice filled my room.
She slows things down a bit on "Deeper than Crying," but matches her power perfectly with a pounding electric bass. The emotion of the song came through clearly, while the beat tracked my heartbeat. The best track on the album, and perhaps my favorite of all her songs, is "It Doesn't Matter." Its deceptive verse is a masterpiece of both simplicity and complexity when played by Union Station. The arrangement is fairly slow, with just Krause and an acoustic guitar starting off. Just over halfway through, the tempo abruptly increases, a mandolin kicks in, and the guitar shifts downward an octave or two. At high volume, this can really test a system, and it is a great test of a component's ability to handle bass without boom. With the A308 in the system, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. This is what high-end audio is all about, and why I keep seeking the holy grail of the perfect system. At the end of the song, Krause's voice slows again and tapers off, drenched in emotion. The A308CR never failed to maintain the emotional tension of the song.
Diana Krall's Look of Love is a recording I know like the back of my hand. I play it for enjoyment as much as for review purposes. Krall's vocal style has been categorized as cold, I think unfairly. Her talent is in the nuances—the little intake of breath, the hesitation here and there. I have noticed that she sounds good on low-end systems. At the bottom end, there is enough distortion and loss of detail to smear the vocals, and since Krall's arrangements are top notch, the recordings sound pretty good. On mid-priced systems, though, the voice and instruments are detailed enough to make the recording sound sterile. The real inner detail doesn't come across. To fully appreciate Dianna Krall, you have use a system of high resolution, one on which you can hear all of those subtle details. Compare Diana Krall to Julie London, the singer that made most of her songs famous. The older singer's renditions are always more heated, more rich, and more emotional. Do you prefer the heat or the cool? With the Musical Fidelity A308 CD player, you get the best of both worlds. It sounds smooth and sophisticated, and while it lacks any cold digital harshness, Krall's coolness comes through quite nicely.
Madonna is my choice for rock/pop. Though American Life is one of her lesser sellers, it is my current favorite. Every cut on the album is killer. Madonna has always sought out the very best recording engineers and producers, and this CD is no exception. If you listen to it on a really good player, you'll hear the soundstage bend around the room! And that's not to mention the bass, which is plentiful. I like to play this CD loud, and the A308 had no trouble keeping up. It never, ever lagged or sounded compressed. For classical music, my tastes run to Vanessa Mae. I like her rebellious spirit and the way she often combines classical and rock music. My favorite album of hers is Storm, but I like her pure classical stuff as well. The Musical Fidelity A308CR did not disappoint in any way. It was quick enough to keep up with Ms. Mae, who can play blindingly fast. The A308CR had perfect pitch on her violin, and on piano. I am quite happy with the A308CR, but can't help wondering if there's something better out there. Next up—the Meridian 588-24. Ed Morawski
Ed is currently involved in the manufacturing of Olympic Loudspeakers.