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The A8S, A8T, 2008, and Leonardo 9.3 CD players
as reviewed by Larry Cox
A friend of mine recently purchased a pair of Chinese amplifiers with which he was absolutely giddy—until one of them failed. In the United States, we're not accustomed to this being a problem. We send the product to a service site and get it back in a few weeks, but my poor friend waited more than four months while the replacement part took the proverbial slow boat from China. That long a wait is totally unacceptable.
Original has a better business model than most Chinese manufacturers. Original's designers studied at China's best engineering schools. The company's US importer, AAA-Audio.com, and its man in charge, Ping Gong, point out that the company's designs do not consist of circuit boards produced by another company, then cobbled together and tinkered with until they sound good. Unlike many CD players, the electronics of Original CD players are on a single board. If your player fails, you send it to Ping in Massachusetts. He'll pop in a new board, and your player should be good as new, and back in your hands, within a short time. You will also have a thirty-day money back guarantee, and a three-year parts and labor warranty.
The originality of the Original players does not extend to their outward appearance. Each of the Original players looks different, but each looks like a player made by another high-end company. The A8S ($498) looks like an Arcam, the A8T ($698) looks like something from Mark Levinson, the 2008 ($998) looks like it could have been made by Chord, and the visually striking Leonardo 9.3 ($1998) looks like a chrome and black version of the Bow Technologies ZZ-8 of a decade ago.
I would not be comfortable reviewing most Chinese audio products, but Original doesn't engage in OEM activity, and that reassures me. OEM, for those unfamiliar with the acronym, is the production of a product by one company (the Original Equipment Manufacturer) for another, the "branded" product. For instance, Levis® jeans bear the Levis® brand name, but are made by another company, one that may not be owned by Levi Strauss. An OEM may operate Monday through Thursday producing the Super Double 300B for the Gizmo Company, but may keeps its employees busy Friday through Sunday making the same amplifier with its own brand name on it. The practice is not only common in audio, but in running shoes, furniture, you name it. The problem is that the OEM company will often sell its amplifier in the very same market where the Gizmo Company branded amp is sold, but at a substantially lower price. Without Gizmo providing the know-how, design, and parts list, the OEM would have manufacturing capacity, but no product. In other words, this type of activity is a kind of theft, and I won't support it.
All of the Original players are well built, with fit and finish appropriate to products costing $2000 and up rather than $500 and up. The entry-level A8S weighs over fifteen pounds, while the top-of-the-line Leonardo weighs nearly twice as much. There isn't much plastic in any of the players, the weight comes from sturdy chassis and the like. Connectors are solid, and spaced widely enough so that even thick interconnects and behemoth power cords are an easy fit. The quality of the parts and assembly suggests durability.
The A8S (the "Arcam"-looking player) is priced at $695. The player is a very good buy. The only obvious price-cutting measure is the fact that it has only single-ended outputs, unlike the higher-priced players, which have both balanced and single-ended outputs. Even out of the box, the A8S sounded musical. While it is not a bloodhound for detail, it has more focus and weight, and a sweeter sound than I've heard from other products at or near its price. The fact that it looks like an Arcam is appropriate, as it reminded me of the 8α and 9α players of about five years ago, but with a more refined and robust sound. With those older Arcams, the finest musical details sometimes seemed get be lost in a mist, the A8S produces "chunks" of detail. Don't take this to mean that the player sounds hard, harsh, or unrefined. It doesn't. In fact, it sounds rounder than, say, an NAD player. It sounds more like a Rotel with a better bottom end. Is the A8S a world-beater for $500? No. It lacks a specific, defining characteristic. It is well worth your attention if your CD player budget is limited.
The A8T was initially my favorite Original player because it sounded warmer and richer than its stable mates. The player has two completely separate sets of outputs, one tube (using 12AU7s) and one solid-state. The two sounded surprisingly similar when the stock tubes were in place. The solid-state outputs sounded just as warm and full-bodied as the tube outputs, and both sounded equally extended. Contrary to my expectations, I preferred the solid-state outputs to the tube outputs (with the stock tubes), as the solid-state outputs had less grain. With the stock tubes, the player hinted at analog sound, but swapping the stock tubes for some NOS Mullard CV4003s was a very worthwhile upgrade. The Mullards offered a dramatic increase in precision, detail, dynamics, and body. I much preferred the NOS tubes, and even with their added cost, the A8T is still a bargain (don't forget, it retails for $698). With the stock tubes, the A8T is not a big step up from the A8S—more of a sideways move. If your system is leaner than you'd like, the A8T might be the ticket. If it's on the bright side, I'd go with the A8S, buy some music and have a couple of nice dinners.
The 2008 (the "Chord"-looking player) is a clear step up from both the A8S and the A8T. I think it is the best buy in the Original line. It employs separate toroidal transformers, one for the digital section and one for the analog section. A separate power circuit is employed for the clock input in the digital power supply, and Original argues that this reduces clock error. The player also allows you to choose between two algorithms, one with a longer decay than the other. This sounded interesting to me, possibly opening the door to new delights, but no. I tried many times to distinguish between the two algorithms, but if there is a difference, I was unable to hear it. Nor was I alone in this—three other keen-eared listeners were unable to hear any difference.
The timbre of the 2008 was similar to that of the A8S, but it had better resolution. The A8S and A8T were misty sounding, while the 2008 sounded more liquid, with more timbral color. It sounded bolder, more full, and less reserved. It also had better dynamics. Think acrylic paint rather than watercolors. While the pace of the player was not affected by the increase in resolution, its bottom end was tighter, and its soundstage had greater depth than that of either the A8S or the A8T. I found myself listening to more upbeat CDs, with music that was more driving than reflective. Rock and roll and blues were best served, but vocalists like Mary Black seemed to be missing something. I found myself waiting for the Mary Black type CDs to be over, rather than becoming immersed in her emotionally evocative vocals. Treble extension was good, reaching higher than the A8 machines but never quite reaching the sparkling expansiveness of some players. That expansiveness may just be an attractive coloration. In any event, though the 2008 sounded fully extended, it didn't sound especially open.
The buttons on the 2008's faceplate are small, and require you to press quite precisely and firmly to get them to work. The remote control is a breeze, however, and is better than that of most players, at any price. (Incidentally, the A8S and A8T use the same remote control.) For $900, the 2008 is a silly good bargain. Okay, it looks like a Chord unit, but it's a good-sounding player that requires no excuses for its performance, especially with more upbeat music.
The Leonardo 9.3 has clearly received the lion's share of attention from Original. The player is visually striking, to say the least, but it will probably not be welcome in homes with an understated style. The Leonardo elicited more comments than any other component I've had in my house, both good and bad. The controls stand out from the top like pawns on a chessboard. Cutouts in the acrylic seem to be slots for the movement of the controls, but that's not how they operate. Depressing the "pawns" activates the controls. The labels are silk-screened grey on black acrylic, and look nice, but the fact that they are not back-lit makes them very hard to read in low light. Instead of the usual rectangular wand, the Leonardo's remote mimics the circular, dome-shaped top of the player. The control layout was a little confusing, and again, wasn't back-lit. I ended up using one of the other Original remotes, which was less taxing on the brain.
Another ergonomic misfire is the loading and unloading of CDs into the Leonardo's well. The dome shaped top is not attached to the player chassis. And, underneath the dome is a "puck" for CDs. So, to replace a CD, you'll remove the dome, remove the puck and find a place for both of them. Remove the CD, place a new CD, seat the puck, seat the dome and then you're back in business. I'm not sure what affixing the dome to the chassis would cost, or how it would affect the visuals of the Leonardo, but having the dome attached would remove some annoyance. Francisco Duran found he couldn't get his fingers around the puck and dome at the same time, making the task cumbersome for me. If the Acrylic top weren't so appealing, it would be easy enough to just place the dome on the acrylic, but that's eventually going to lead to scratches. Why buy a player you know you're going to eventually ruin?
The Leonardo is supposed to be a "true balanced" player, which means that it not only sports balanced (as well as single-ended) outputs, but the balanced configuration is honored throughout its signal path. I suspect that the player truly is balanced, as it was quieter in that configuration than it was in single-ended. I preferred listening in balanced mode. My initial—and lasting—impression of the Leonardo 9.3 was that it was the most resolving player of the Original line, with the least grain. Voices were far more finely reproduced than with the 2008, with the Leonardo having a "lighter," different feel. Though not as obviously upbeat as the 2008, the Leonardo showed the 2008's dynamics to be a bit hyped up. With the perspective of hearing the Leonardo, I realized that the 2008's drive came with a truncation of dynamics, instead of dynamics from one to ten available, the 2008 only played dynamics from four to ten, everything was just a little hyped up. The 2008, in retrospect, was juicing up quieter musical sections, and taking away some of the relaxed feel of quiet passages that were portrayed more naturally through the Leonardo.
Along with the Leonardo's more realistic dynamic range, delicate nuances were slightly yet distinctly more apparent. I slipped in one of my regular test CDs, Israel Kamakawiwo‘le's Facing Future, to see what the Leonardo could do with his angelic voice. The Leonardo correctly captured the sweet, almost wispy quality of Israel's voice, without turning him into a woman. Although some of the male heft that went with Iz' 600-or-so-pound frame was missing, the performance was quite good for a $1998 player.
I tried Pink Martini's two CDs, Sympathique and Hang On Little Tomato, as well as Pepe and The Bottle Blondes' Late Night Betty—not to test the Leonardo, but to enjoy them. Either Pink Martini CD is an excellent choice if you only want to carry around one test disc, as their music is very eclectic. They may lack Govt. Mule's intensity, but their music has a broader range of colors and drive. I saw the band perform while the Leonardo was at the house, and I was hoping that the Leonardo would be able to capture their taut, dynamic, nimble, bottom-end drive. Alas, the Leonardo failed to do so (as has every other player to date), but I took this to be a failure of the recordings rather than the player. While the Leonardo could not make CDs catch Pink Martini's in person drive, it communicated the beauty of their sound quite well.
Over the course of several months with the Leonardo, I tested the Leonardo with a wide variety of music, including Bach's ethereal Passion of St. Matthew, Tom Waits' coarse and gritty Blood Money, The Muddy Waters London Sessions, and many other CDs. Whereas the 2008 invited me to play upbeat, rambunctious music, the Leonardo sounded best with lighter-weight music. It favored delicate, emotionally engaging performances. I found myself playing more female vocalists—Fiona Apple, Mary Black, Pepe and the Bottle Blondes, Eva Cassidy—as well as Bach. I don't mean to suggest that the Leonardo softened music, or glazed it over, but it certainly conveyed the lighter aspects of music very well, with special attention to the finest filigree. The Leonardo had more nuance, the 2008 more boldness.
While I found the Leonardo quite captivating, its preference for lightweight music was coupled to a lightweight presentation. There was a lack of musical foundation. Muddy Water's London Sessions sounded effete rather than, well, manly. Ditto for "Donde Esta Yolanda" on Pink Martini's Sympathique. The Leonardo seemed to cut off the bold, full growl of music, the part of the frequency spectrum from the midbass down. Switching the Leonardo's filters did not affect the sound at any frequency, so I am certain that the player's airiness was not a function of the filtering. Don't forget that the Leonardo costs "only" $1998. Its performance is more than acceptable at that price, and many people will find it very satisfying. It will appeal to listeners of small-scale music, perhaps those who listen through two-way, stand-mounted loudspeakers. It will also appeal to those with a taste for avant-garde design. And, for what it's worth, you cannot buy the player I heard, as Ping has requested upgrades to improve the perceived lack of drive in the bottom end. It will be here in a month or two.
All of the Original CD players are good buys. Whether or not you will like their sound, I cannot say. I believe that my job as a reviewer is not to define what will work for you, but to convey a sense of what I heard so that you can decide whether the product is worth checking out. I feel that the 2008 is the best buy in the line. The Leonardo is a more refined player, but it is missing a certain amount of weight and drive, and as presented at this time the 2008 satisfies more of my my musical tastes. The Leonardo may sit at the top of Original's line of CD players, but it cannot compete with other top-of-the-line, horrific cost players, although at $2000, it isn't priced to do so. The A8S is an excellent player for the price, and looks to be built to last. The A8T is the sonic anomaly within the Original line, and while I found it appealing at first, I finally decided that it was the least appealing player of the four. Larry Cox
Francisco Duran has heard the group of players (at Larry's and at his place) and chimes in with his observations here... Editor.