The Neoteric Listener and the AudioBlock C100 CD
"There's nothing to do around here..."
So goes the time honored teenage lament, as true now as it's ever been. This time, it's spoken by the eldest daughter of friends who hosted my wife and me during our vacation to the sublime Pacific Northwest. Frankly, this smart graduating high school senior has had quite enough of spectacular views of forests, rivers, and wildflowers, and wants to bolt from her sleepy town just as fast as her SAT scores and AP classes can transport her out of here. Why she would prefer to dance in the smoggy urban sun of my home state, the one her parents fled two decades ago, is only somewhat of a mystery to me. The bucolic splendor that tempts me to quit my job and run away in the wilds is same the sort of Evergreen prison that drove Kurt Cobain and his tribe to hack an escape swath using Stratocasters and Randall amps. Just a matter of priorities, I guess, the sort of little of this, little of that bargaining that governs all manner of enterprises... such as high end audio. People like you and me can't wait to discover and debate the newest DAC, media player, or competing audio files. But here in this land of timber and Kimber, where manufacturers produce great audio products that the surroundings tempt you to ignore, nature is eternal and novelties are for greenhorns fresh on the trail. Until computer audio is nothing more than a thumb drive and an app, the only likely two channel audio purchase for most people my age will be the same item that made them care about sound the last time: the redoubtable compact disc player. Face it, shopping for sampling rates and thirty dollar downloads is a tough sell. My friends are too busy and their iPod loving teenage daughters are moving way too fast in all directions to slow down and wait for the high res file to dooooowwwwnnnloooooad. In the end, you can't argue with the instant gratification that is the compact disc of Beyond and Back: The X Anthology sitting there on my friends' coffee table. Fortunately for the product under review, that old Sony CD player is skipping not-so-slowly into obsolescence...
The AudioBlock C-100 Compact Disc Player is one of many new products from this German based company that started out as a distributor of audio products and, in 2009, began manufacturing affordably priced products that "would satisfy the needs of German HiFi enthusiasts." Ignoring what that implies about my sitting here decomposing in my personal decline on the edge of a fading empire, I'm happy to benefit from the exacting manufacture and unrivaled fussiness of my European cousins, especially if it helps me to better enjoy der Nina Hagen collection. Right out of the box, the AudioBlock player exudes a welcome combination of sturdiness and sleek minimalist design aesthetic. The 9mm milled aluminum front plate is marked by function buttons arranged in a sensible "D" configuration that makes changes on the fly particularly easy. The large blue display contrasts nicely with the Sapphire Black finish of my review model, and the ribbed aluminum cooling grids on the side panels promote both form and function. Although I wasn't about to pry open the lid to confirm this, the manufacturer touts the C-100's "large toroidal transformer and extra shielding of the drive," which should appeal to consumers (German and otherwise) who like a little power in reserve while speeding down the audio autobahn. Hey, bigness counts in this arena (sprechen sie MBL?). The heft and solidity of the AudioBlock player ought to give buyers confidence in the long-term durability of this player. Being a master of rapid-fire CD playing, I've learned to appreciate a loading drawer that's able to fend off errant strikes and dropped CD cases with impunity. The C-100's loading drawer opens with a confident whoosh, and seems solid enough to endure my clumsy inattentiveness over the long term. The solid build quality makes the $599 asking price an excellent bargain, as long as you just want a great sounding CD player. No external DAC, no SACD, no wireless multi-zone sonic music player and portable martini bar. Just CDs spinning merrily into that good night...
Of course, I already have a decent CD player, bought years ago for around a grand, the Arcam CD-82. I have several DACs, too, and they work great for streaming MOG and using iTunes Genius to punish myself for countless ill-fated impulse buys. So why would I need a new CD player? Well, after spending plenty of time going back and forth between the Arcam and the AudioBlock player, I guess because it's a definite sound upgrade. I suppose I should disclose that, even though it may shame me in the eyes of many audiophile commandos, I really like the sound of CDs. I like SACD better, but most of the things that I listen to on SACD have been remixed by the band's sole surviving member––usually the replacement drummer––and, thus, not the same album at all (although the sand blocks really stand out). I like the tactile experience of holding a CD or tossing it to a friend to check out the cover, and I like how CDs have a rough but immediate sound. To illustrate, I compared Paul McCartney's "My Valentine" from Kisses on the Bottom, both on standard Red Book CD and from the 24/96 kHz download from Detracts. To me, the high resolution file (as rendered separately by the AudioEngine D2 wireless DAC or the CEntrance DACmini PX) sounded more delicate, airy, and open, but the presence and definition, the sense that the music was palpable and immediate, was best expressed via the CD and AudioBlock C-100. You might chastise me, as did one Positive Feedback scribe when I preferred a SACD rendition over his very expensive DAC on review, Fortunately, I don't have to choose between the two mediums, but that's also why I'm not boxing up my CD collection just yet.
Although I play music all the time, I waited until about 100 hours of break in time before I really started listening to the C-100. As you might deduce from my previous comments, I'm prepared to trade a little edge for a more lively presentation, and the Arcam player suits certain tunes like an AM radio belting out the oldies. It may not be high end, exactly, but it's all sound and soul, if you get me. On Steve Cropper's new recording Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royals, the song "Baby Don't Do It" (featuring vocals by B.B. King and Shemekia Copeland) is more rollicking when played on the Arcam CD-82. The AudioBlock CD-100, in turn, digs out far more detail––you can really hear the initial "b" on Copeland's refrain "But baby...", for example––but this rocking rouser doesn't need the audiophile treatment to swing. Unfortunately, this song is the only round won by my trusty British player. Moving on to "English" from the Fleet Foxes EP, Sun Giant, the opening kick drum bass rhythm is more pronounced with the Arcam, which does "boom" much better, but the subtle layering of highly reverberated voices and instruments is much more delicately conveyed with the AudioBlock. The Arcam may make everything a louder, edgier affair, but this track shows that, compared to the C-100, it's also a bit of a muddle. The AudioBlock player is much more effective in conveying the panning and location effects in this recording. The most striking discovery about what a decade's worth of CD player evolution, however, is how the fullness and reduced grain of the vocals makes the AudioBlock player so engaging to listen to.
Switching to the exquisite CD Existir from the group Madredeus, the long opening organ drone goes deeper with the Arcam, but the AudioBlock is more controlled and musical, and the wide soundstage of the mix is nicely conveyed so that each emerging vocalist is accorded more dramatic presence. Again, the panning of the reverberated voices as they trail off is discernible with the AudioBlock, but barely heard with the Arcam player.
Clearly, the AudioBlock player is more resolving, possibly owing to the lower overall internal noise and the improvement made in DAC chip technology over the years. My observation notes only reinforce the AudioBlock C-100's accomplishments: The control of the paper thin female vocalist on "Go" from the Civil Wars EP, Poison and Wine, while ably conveying the emergence of the bass and keyboards that expand within the soundstage. The horns in "Your Heart is Black as Night" from Melody Gardot's My One and Only Thrill that play clear but don't squawk. The improved depth and absence of glare and harshness on the vocals on "Ballad of Weaverville" by Mary McCaslin from her album Prairie in the Sky (a tale of shady gamblers and the women who love them). Even Dick Dale's "The Wedge" from the Rhino Records collection, King of the Surf Guitar: The Best of Dick Dale and His Del Tones, benefits from the C-100s sophisticated touch. Compared to the Arcam, there is a much wider soundstage, the reverb is more skillfully reproduced and not nearly as mushy, and, most importantly, the really bright and edgy electric guitar rhythm accents sound like a stringed instrument, as opposed to the final buzzer at a high school basketball game. The C-100 CD Player reads all standard formats such as CD, CD-R, MP3 as well as HDCD, and comes with a remote that also can be used to control other AudioBlock audio components, if so desired. I found the remote to be somewhat busy with all of the other commands, and my round fingers snagged on the square corners, but it's a CD player, so the remote is perfectly functional enough to make it play, stop or repeat.
The AudioBlock C-100 made me realize how much I enjoy grabbing a CD and playing it in its entirety. It may not have the encyclopedic virtuosity of a computer audio set up, but it's easy to use, probably won't crash and erase my entire music collection, and has a sound that appeals to me. It's not hard to be swayed by the glamour and excitement of a pretty DAC (I'm currently running three different ones just for comparison!) but the CD player still has a place at home, and the AudioBlock C-100 is a fine one to consider. Recommended.
AudioBlock C-100 CD Player