POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 32
3300R CD player
as reviewed by Larry Cox
A few months ago I wrote about CEC's TL51XR CD player. I concluded that it was a very musically detailed Redbook player and a screaming bargain at its $1690 price—it is a resounding success and would still be an excellent CD player at three times its price. Its excellence in retrieving musically meaningful detail, while retaining a natural timbre and realistic scale to music, was a "home run" in my estimation. I thought it the second best player I've heard at any price—something I preferred to two $15,000 players.
A CEC dealer emailed me to suggest I give CEC's 3300R CD player a listen, saying it was eighty percent (80%) of the TL51XR. At $690 US and $790 CAN, it's $1000 less than the best buy TL51XR, and as such, a product even more people can think about. Given that, I thought I should check it out.
The 3300R is a drawer based CD player, unlike the TL51XR which has a "well" with a spindle that you place CDs and its "puck" —to stabilize the spinning CD. The 3300R does not have the TL 51XR's lauded belt-drive mechanism—apparently the belt drive module could not be implemented into a product at the 3300R's price. The CD3300 player uses Burr Brown's PCM1738 DAC chips, while its more expensive brother deploys the Burr Brown PCM1796 chips.
Regrettably, the CEC "international" website (www.cec-web.co.jp) isn't yet in English, and at the time of the review Mutine's site (CEC's North American importer) lacked any specific details on the 3300R (They do now - Ed). Therefore, all I can tell you about its design and implementation is what I found searching on the internet:
I'm trained as a lawyer not an EE, so I am not going to pretend to understand what the hell all of the engineering specifications are supposed to mean. I surmise that at the TL51XR's price, the mix of design and parts selection added up synergistically to make an exceptional player for such a low price. I surmise that the amplification implementation may be an important feature to share. Whether it overcomes any weaknesses exacerbated by using lower priced parts, I don't know, but the TL51XR is an excellent performer to share parts and designs with.
The 3300R's faceplate is non-descript. It does add a headphone amp and jack with its own dedicated volume pot. The remote is a plastic one, missing an "eject" button, though one is apparently able to power up and switch components in an all CEC lineup. The remote seems to have a narrow signal broadcast, so you'll have to be a little more accurate in pointing the 3300R's remote to get it to work right. Not big deal. Around back, the 3300R's outputs include coaxial digital, balanced, and unbalanced outputs.
Some audiophiles entering the high performance environment want scads of detail, subterranean bass, highs to the heavens, etc. in the products they're buying. Despite the often much higher prices, "entry level" priced high performance products only provide a glimpse of that of the big boys. Meaning that sub-$1000 products are often poor cousins of high-end audio.
What does one settle for? Entry into high performance audio means different things to different people. In the early 1990s, ProAc Tablettes were the bee's knees because of their preternatural soundstaging. However, their rendering of timbre was anything but natural. They sounded more like a bass deficient table radio than a high fidelity product.
Products have improved since then, though some products trying to sound "smooth" do so by making the sound somewhat "misty", thereby avoiding hardness, or harsh sound. Nevertheless, you miss out on a rich timbre, which is what a violin can sound like "up close". In delivering a "misty" sound, such components remove some of the color of the music's timbre, much as Bilbo Baggins said of himself in The Lord of the Rings, that he was "a little like butter scraped over too much toast".
I often found products that are amazingly adept at fragments of the big picture, e.g. they image like bandits (ProAc Tablettes), they're detailed (Acurus DI100 amplifier), or some other facet, to be trumpeted as "giant killers". Nevertheless, in my mind they are all too often abject failures when viewed as a complete product. Who could listen to these products and think recordings played through them sounded like the real thing?
For my interest to raise enough to write about it, entry into high performance starts with a truthful rendering of timbre. Said more plainly, given a proper recording: does that recording sound like the instrument it's supposed to be reproducing? In this light, the 3300R is an obvious sibling to the TL51XR. Truth in timbre is its strong suit; reproducing a rich and natural timbre with sufficient detail to engage this listener.
What's really excellent about the 3300R is its ability to deliver realistic timbre not just in the sustained tone, but also in the decay—its aliveness. Often, decay in more expensive products ends up sounding like hash, or splash, or anything but the timbre of the sustained tone that is supposed to be decaying. On this account, the 3300R's palette of realistic instrumental timbres is quite broad and believable in this ability.
"Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster" is a wonderful CD with beautiful, full and rich timbre. The little CEC was easily up to delivering the music on that disc. Ditto for Sonny Rollins and the Big Brass. My usual assortments of female vocals (Pink Martini, The Story and Pepe, and The Bottle Blondes) were all well treated by being very luscious sounding. Ditto male vocals. Even so, female voices were slightly less rich and deep than I'd hoped for, though Yulunga from Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth fell just short of being most mesmerizing. Jonatha Brooke from The Story on "So Much Mine" and "Fatso" were nearly bell-like in clarity and tone, as well as conveying the ironic humor in the latter composition.
Other instruments fared differently here. Guitar is easier to get right and the 3300R certainly passed tests from The Gypsy Kings, Ry Cooder and VM Batt, as well as the Romero Family. Piano was only okay, missing the weight and timbre it reproduced so well with vocals. Yes, piano is difficult to do and I'm not saying the 3300R can't reproduce a piano but that its abilities with the piano weren't as excellent as they were with vocals and guitars. In this area, it's a step down from the TL51XR's excellent performance.
It was on the finer details that I felt the 3300R was out performed by it's more expensive sibling. However, nothing was obviously "wrong" with the player—I didn't find myself as immersed in the performance with the 3300R as I had been with the TL51XR. Why this is so, is difficult to pin-point, but I will say that it just didn't deliver a heightened sense of the artistic choices being made by performers.
Perhaps, this is another way of saying that the 3300R's timing and other fine detail cues weren't as strongly replayed as heard from the TL51XR—or other components that need not offer any excuses. Some products hew to announcing their timing skills and so make timing an obvious characteristic on all music—or better yet, a coloration. You know the suspects here. "The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all" (Pablo Casals) and on this front the 3300R performed pretty well, even so.
Complaints heard from others are that the 3300R and TL51XR bass is a bit "off". What exactly that means, I have no idea, but I infer it to mean that they lack "slam", or that the bass isn't fast or tight enough. That just seems off the mark to me. Generally speaking, bass doesn't have well defined parameters, so their performance in this area sees quite acceptable. The 3300R's bass is neither as full, deep, nor as differentiated as heard with the TL51XR, but we're not talking about one note bass, or said differently, one timbre bass. Are there CD players with "faster bass", sure. Is faster bass a digital attribute or an enjoyed coloration? That I don't know.
By comparison my nearly $8000 vinyl setup is a nice performer with bass more in common to that of the 3300R than CD players with fast, tight bass. The nature of deep bass is that it doesn't sound fast, but is rather more impactful or forceful—that I'll give the 3300R. Finishing off my bass notes, I thought frequency extension was acceptable if not noticeable or noteworthy. Soundstaging was okay, but keep in mind I don't particularly care about that.
As to quibbles, the 3300R is bettered by players that are more detailed. It doesn't extract as much information as its big brother as a way of fooling you into thinking you're hearing live music. If I were to put a next wish on my list for the 3300R, it would be to have a bit more detail reflective of its stable mate. The 3300R may be "out detailed" by competitively priced products, but I doubt at this price point that the more detailed products will be as nearly "accurate" in rendering timbre.
I thought the 3300R to be competitive with the other two more expensive stand-alone DACs I had here during this review period. The PS Audio Digital link III ($995) and Stello DA100 DAC ($695 when available) were both more than competent DACs, but didn't clearly outshine the 3300R. The Stello was more detailed than the 3300R, though it lost some of the 3300R's timbre. I think the Digital Link III was the best performer of the three, but it retails for several hundred dollars more, lacks a transport and will require an extra digital cable, making it realistically three or four hundred dollars more expensive. And it did not have the timbre of the CES! That's pretty good company.
In writing my enumerated nits, I am reminded (and in doing so, remind you) that this is a player that retails for $690 in US dollars. For the money, and for half again as much money, it's not just recommendable but should be sought after. It's been a while since I've dipped into this digital terrain primarily because there has been so little that distinguished itself as engaging or realistic sounding.
While the 3300R doesn't warrant comparisons to $15,000 players, given its performance it warrants a lot of attention at its very modest asking price. If you can swing the TL51XR's price, it's the better player. If you're just dabbling in the high performance arena, the 3300R is an excellent first step. Even so, the TL51XR might be the end of the road for you. Both are recommended. Larry Cox