CD 3.1x/II CD Player - All You Need is Love
as reviewed by Andy Schaub
"There's nothing you can do that can't be done.
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
My Theta Compli Blu universal disc player is a masterpiece of mechanical engineering; it comes partly, I would imagine, from the use of the heavily modified Oppo BDP-83 optical drive. There is a slight "clunk" as the drawer opens and closes; but at this price point ($2995), you can't expect much better, particularly with the thick aluminum faceplate and all the attention to detail like "Pure Audio" mode which shuts off the video circuitry for noise-free listening when playing audio-only discs. It makes a difference, too, particularly if you leave the player on all the time—as I do—and so does Theta according to an email from their technical support department. But why am I talking about my Theta Compli Blu when this is an article on the Audio Note CD 3.1x/II CD player? It's because, mechanically, the Audio Note (while reliable) needs a little more love and attention to function properly. Like you often have to gently lift the drawer to make it level to get the drawer to retract. So why would you pay $6500 for a CD player that needs so much love and attention? Because it sounds wonderful, equaling if not slightly bettering my CEC TL-0, Audio Note Pallas, and Audio Note DAC 4.1x Balanced that once took up the better part of my right-side custom built component stand, all sitting in one slightly larger than normal size component.
To look at the Audio Note, it seems simple enough: a large brushed aluminum face (although you can get it in black acrylic) with Audio Note CD 3.1x/II CD Player silkscreened nicely in the lower left hand corner. The CD drawer (it's front loading) sits centered near the top bearing the Audio Note logo. Beneath that you see a black and blue panel that displays track information (number of tracks, the track that it's on, how many and seconds remain, etc.) and beneath that are five buttons: OPEN/CLOSE, STOP, PLAY/PAUSE, and two buttons for skipping tracks, backwards and forwards respectively. In the far right hand corner, it says, "BLACK GATE INSIDE", meaning that it has Black Gate capacitors, which I do dearly love. I won't go into detail about the back panel except to say that it does have a S/PDIF out; but it's all single-ended, meaning that the analog outputs consist of two RCA connectors which go to my Tri TRV-A300SER integrated amplifier via Kondo Sound Labs KSL-LP interconnects. I should mention that the Tri has been upgraded a little with all NOS tubes save two contemporary Western Electric 300B's, which makes it really sing. In terms of architecture, here's what Audio Note has to say: "Integrated CD player featuring: in-house custom modified Philips front loading CD mechanism, non-oversampling digital filterless DAC, based on the highly regarded Analog Devices AD1865 chip, ECC88 [tube] output stage with Audio Note copper foil capacitors and tantalum resistors. Available with brushed [aluminum] or classic black acrylic facia." My unit apparently also has Black Gates, as I said.
Now how would I describe the sound of the Audio Note CD 3.1x/II CD player? The first word that occurs to me—and it is a cliché—is "open". I mean that in the best possible way. The treble soars to majestic heights without ever sounding etched or strident and the bass exercises my woofers in a way I only thought possible from the ubiquitous SME Model 30. There's depth and dimension to the midrange with superb imaging and soundstaging all in the best, most apparent, "analog-like" way. While my Rega RP6 turntable, Dynavector DV-20X2 low-output MC phono cartridge, and Audio Note AN-S2 MC stepup transformer do sound more like music, the Audio Note CD 3.1x/II has the capability to send my soul soaring on really well recorded music, all without record noise, and only requiring a little love and attention to keep it happy. I don't mean that you need to take it apart and clean the lens at frequent intervals or polish every CD that you play; I just mean that, as mentioned, you often need to elevate the tray a little to get it to retract and it's not always super happy about playing the CD layer of a Hybrid SACD. It will do it—particularly after cleaning the SACD—but I personally think playing the SACD in my Theta Compli Blu can have better sound. I guess what I'm saying is that best sound comes from a Red Book CD played in the CD 3.1x/II followed not super closely by an SACD in the Theta Compli Blu. The Compli Blu sounds great, but it's more of a "hi fi" sound whereas the CD 3.1x/II more closely resembles music played live or on a really good reel-to-reel recorder.
Don't misunderstand me. I just finished playing El Nuevo Mundo, a Hybrid SACD performed by the Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall, in the CD 3.1x/II. The results were stunning and Lori asked if I was listening to opera; however, when I put the same disc in the Compli Blu, I both lost and gained something. I lost a certain presence and musicality. I gained a sense of explosiveness and a greater dynamic range. So maybe for The 1812 Overture the Compli Blu playing the "pure" SACD would be musically more satisfying; but with El Nuevo Mundo, it was really close. I think I preferred the Audio Note's interpretation to the Theta's; but with the Theta, it was nice to get my hemp woofers moving. And, yes, I was using very warmed up machines in both cases and put the Theta in "Pure Audio" mode, which does make a difference. Of course, the Audio Note had much better cables; but the Theta had a specially-dedicated and optimized Equi=Tech. So, in both cases, there were, "cheats". Listening late at night to Number Five by Tom Harrell through my Audez'e LCD-2 headphones with Moon Audio Silver Dragon balanced cables driven by a Woo WA 22 with CV181-ZShugang 50 Years Treasure tubes, the CD 3.1x/II reveals the difference in each track in a startling way; you can almost hear the mood of the players change as you progress through the disc, starting out very "hoppy" but ending on a "cool" note. It's that kind of magic that I've only really gotten from the CD 3.1x/II.
As one test, I played all of Autumn Leaves by Jacintha on 45RPM double LP via my RP6 and on Hybrid SACD both in the CD 3.1x/II and in the Compli Blu. There was no doubt that, in terms of tone and texture, the CD 3.1x/II came much closer to the vinyl than the SACD, and there was lacking of bass or treble extension; however, there was a certain gutsiness to the SACD played via the Compli Blu that neither the vinyl nor the CD layer conveyed. So what does that mean? I guess it means you can't create a strict hierarchy; however, I do think that—overall—when I just want to play music and not think about flipping vinyl or getting that perfect audiophile "hi fi-ness", the Audio Note CD 3.1x/II comes about as close to perfection as one can reasonably expect; and that's why the most minimal system I can imagine would have the CD 3.1x/II, my Shugang 50 Years Treasure Woo WA 22 and my Moon Audio Silver Dragon LCD-2's, which is basically what I listen with each night before I go to bed. I also unraveled the mystery of Black Gate capacitors. The CD 3.1x/II does have them in the power supply; it simply uses Audio Note coupling capacitors as Black Gate never made coupling capacitors. So what else can I say? For $6500 you can buy an Ayre C-5xeMP—a very fine and reputable universal stereo disc player—or you can buy an Audio Note CD 3.1x/II and, if you must play everything, throw in the Theta Compli Blu for another $2995 which, if left on all the time and run through 4.5 meters of good old-fashioned Audio Note Lexus copper interconnects in "Pure Audio" mode, should server to satisfy nicely and dare I say somewhat economically plus play Blu-ray discs. Andy Schaub
CD 3.1x/II CD Player