PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium CD Player

Whenever I’m asked to suggest a CD player that’s warm, romantic, and “anti-digital,” I always recommend a player with a vacuum-tube output stage. I nominate the same player TONEAudio contributors Bob Gendron and Jerold O’Brien use—the PrimaLuna ProLogue 8, now labeled the Classic. It takes the harsh, digital sting out of CDs. Sure, some digital players are more accurate and refined. But if you are a hardcore analog nut, many end up sounding thin in comparison. PrimaLuna recently took its vacuum-tube digital disc player a step further with the improved Premium.

For those not familiar with the name, PrimaLuna has been in business for more than a decade and boasts a fantastic reputation for sonics, build quality, and wonderful fusion of old-school and modern aesthetics. Available with satin black or silver faceplates, the new player’s chassis is covered in a deep metallic-blue finish that’s hand-polished to display a mirror finish—a PrimaLuna hallmark.

My only complaint with the Classic? It lacks a digital input. But PrimaLuna addresses this and more with the Premium. To its credit, the company has not simply tacked a vacuum-tube buffer onto the end of a traditional CD player to soften things up. All the gain stages utilize vacuum tubes, and the Premium is the only player we’ve seen that uses a tube for the clock circuit, as well.

Arguments about system synergy and tonal coloration aside, the approach works well, and in much the same way an analog enthusiast would choose a Grado Statement or Koetsu Urushi phono cartridge over a Lyra Titan i or Ortofon Winfield. It’s not better or worse, but it’s a specific flavor, and if it’s the one you crave, nothing else will do.

Beginning listening sessions with discs on the harsh side of the spectrum, it takes only a few minutes to see the brilliance of this approach. No, the Premium still can’t make the brightest CD ever made, Stevie Wonder’s In Square Circle, sound like an LP, but everything else on my toxic list becomes considerably more palatable. Tinkly percussion bits in “Thunder,” from Prince’s Diamonds and Pearls, float around the soundstage as they should, with the electronic drums now slightly subdued, and making all the difference in the world.

While I won’t define what this instrument produces as a tone control, it is a different set of tonal values, and even on the best CDs, an enjoyable presentation. For those new to TONEAudio, my listening bias favors an overall tonal balance just a touch on the warm side of neutral. So if you possess canine hearing and want a system than can remove wallpaper from the walls, you know where I stand.

New Versus Old

Costing $1,000 more than the Classic, the Premium adds a larger, dual mono power supply, upgraded active and passive parts, and a different analog stage featuring four 12AU7 tubes (the original uses a pair of 12AX7s and a pair of 12AU7s). The dual 5AR4 rectifiers are retained to excellent effect. One of the biggest improvements arrives via the incorporation of a second Super Tube Clock, further reducing jitter and increasing low-level resolution.

Borrowing O’Brien’s Classic for a side-by-side comparison proves illuminating. Where the original player sounds more like a Dynaco Stereo 70, i.e. “classic tube sound,” the Premium sounds more like a more modern tube amplifier; think BAT or ARC. It still possesses a wonderful and tubey midrange, but also more extension at the top and bottom end of the frequency range, and more inner detail and punchier dynamics.

Brian Eno’s latest work, Lux, illustrates the aforementioned characteristics.  Another of his ambient works, reminiscent of Tuesday Afternoon, the composition rolls along gently with bell-like keyboard sounds that ease in and out of consciousness. Where the Classic cuts the decay short, the music lingers longer and fades further out before going to black via the Premium. A similar experience manifests on the title track of Jack White’s current Blunderbuss, with the newer player doing a better job at keeping sorted individual elements in a mix. Every disc I play with a relatively dense mix yields the same scintillating results.

Long-Term Pleasure

The Premium never gets on your nerves and proves great for extended listening. The vacuum tubes also make it easy to tune the sound. Stock PrimaLuna tubes will be fine for most, but with a plethora of vintage 12AU7s on the market (and at significantly less cost than 12AX7s), one can tube-roll to infinity. Scour the Internet, or brainstorm with Kevin Deal at Upscale Audio, PrimaLuna’s importer, to enjoy different perspectives on the player when the mood strikes.

Full-day listening sessions are free of fatigue and, on more than one occasion, I’m lulled into thinking that I’m not listening to digital. Comparing the Premium to my Linn LP-12 turntable, I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Switching back and forth between CD and vinyl versions of the Tubes’ What Do You Want From Live? surprises me, with critical cues like audience claps and hall ambience nearly identical in texture and rendition.

A wide range of source material reveals no obvious shortcomings, although the slight warmth added by the all-tube design lends something special to rock and solo vocals. The grungy guitars of Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter on the classic “All the Young Dudes” overflows with texture and overtone, sounding like a pair of Marshall stacks right here in the listening room, with their Celestion drivers flapping at maximum excursion. Cat Power’s “Manhattan” is equally enthralling, her wispy vocals hovering just above the main mix—another example of a modern disc sounding better than it ought to.

One Input Makes All the Difference

When PrimaLuna introduced its first CD player about three years ago, computers were not the ubiquitous music sources they are today, and the company’s players had a closed architecture. The Premium’s USB input allows for a computer to be directly plugged in and utilizes an M2Tech HiFace USB/SPDIF converter internally, a touch that tremendously increases the player’s value.

Feeding high-resolution files into the Premium’s USB reveals the DAC’s merits.  The bass riffs in Charlie Haden’s The Private Collection instantly disclose the advantage of extra resolution from the HD download versus the excellently recorded CD. Texture abounds, and the player sounds more neutral when playing high-resolution files, with the slight bit of upper-bass warmth fading further into the background.

Comparison listening puts music played from the tray on equal footing with the same 16/44.1 files played via USB input. Still, high-res files via the server gain the edge in clarity and dynamics. All digital files are upsampled via a Burr Brown SRC4192 24bit/192kHz upsampling circuit and converted to analog via Burr Brown PCM1792 DACs. While some audiophiles condemn upsampling, it works splendidly here.

Ticking the remaining boxes

Since it’s a tube player, the Premium takes about an hour to stabilize. It sounds a bit slow with some upper bass bloat for the first 15 minutes, but within an hour, the issue completely dissipates. The Premium comes triple-boxed and includes a tube cage and pair of white gloves to keep the player’s smooth finish free of fingerprints—or provide amusement when you play Thriller. The posh aluminum remote also controls any PrimaLuna preamplifier or integrated amplifier, keeping room clutter to a minimum. But don’t lose it. You can’t access the USB input or change phase without it.

I appreciate that the Premium only has a 2-volt output from its RCA jacks (instead of the more common 4-volt output), allowing the average linestage to stay in the sweet spot of its operating range and offer a wider range of volume adjustment.

No, PrimaLuna’s strategy isn’t for everyone. Detail fanatics demanding razor-sharp leading edges on transients might be better served by a solid-state player. But if digital still leaves you cold after all these years, and you’re wondering why you still aren’t enjoying your CD collection (or digital files) as much as you should, give the ProLogue Premium CD player a spin.

PrimaLuna Premium CD Player

MSRP: $3,999


Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE
Power Amplifier Pass Labs XA200.5 monoblocks
Additional Digital Source Mac Book Pro/Pure Music
Speakers Sonus Faber Aida
Cable Cardas Clear

Plinius Tiki Network Audio Player

New Zealand firm Plinius has a long history of producing excellent sounding components that also please the eye. Founded in the mid-1980s, it has a legacy of cutting edge products with exotic names. The brand is now distributed in 35 countries, and it continues to bring new products to market. In every previous encounter with Plinius electronics, these ears have come away no less than highly impressed.  The brand today enjoys dedicated North American support and a solid dealer network.

With digital audio moving away from optical disc playback, nearly every company in the high end is scrambling to offer up solutions of every flavor. Those solutions range from USB DACs, music servers with onboard storage, network media players, and file players, as well as hybrids of all these approaches.   The task of standing out is a difficult one for digital source component designers due to the lack of any consensus as to the best approach, the myriad of variables, and the constantly changing landscape.

Enter the Tiki:

Plinius has entered the fray with its own spin on things.  It has introduced the Tiki network player, priced at $4775, in a purist approach.  It has decided to eliminate all unnecessary parts and so-called features that have the potential to harm sonics. This means there is no WiFi and no display. This is commonly known as a “headless” approach, with control exclusively via smart device.

On the back panel there is an Ethernet jack, a pair of RCA and XLR outputs, an IEC inlet, and a ground switch. That is it. No digital inputs or outputs. One could call this a “closed” approach. Admittedly, one can also be forgiven for being a bit skeptical at this design, but as you will see, based on performance of the Tiki, Plinius clearly is on to something.

The Tiki handles PCM up to 192 Khz, 24 bits and is compatible with FLAC, AIFF, WAV, and MP3. The unit is DLNA compliant and can be used with a variety of server software.  One can use a number of free and paid controller apps for Android, iPad, or iPhone. Plinius offers its own unique app called Arataki, which is available for sale at the iTunes store. More on that later.

The Tiki is ruggedly built, with clean lines and a beautiful half-inch thick curved front and side panel. The top panel is ventilated, so the unit still runs cool if left on 24/7. The Plinius logo is engraved on the front, and there is a single blue LED power indicator.  The Tiki is available in black or silver. The review sample was finished in a chic matte black.

Plug ’n’…Play:

The Tiki takes all of five minutes to install. It is truly plug-and-play. Attach an Ethernet cable, analog interconnects, power up, and one is ready to stream music. I  have terabytes of music in FLAC format on drives attached to a 2011 Mac Mini. With MiniMServer and Twonky software installed, the well-organized library is accessible within seconds. A variety of apps is used with the Tiki for the review, including mConnect, Kinksy, and Plinius’s own Arataki. Tap the artist folder you desire, then the album, and the file plays. The Tiki works with a NAS attached anywhere on your network running DLNA software as well.

To get right to the big question, the Tiki offers superb sound and may be one of the best digital source components auditioned in the reference system. It offers truly remarkable transparency and unveils new layers even on very familiar recordings. It is astonishing to hear more depth and recorded detail on classic Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span albums, all well recorded.  Jacqui McShee’s voice on Pentangle’s classic Soloman’s Seal was silken, and and Bert Janch’s acoustic guitar was all wood and steel.

The Tiki provides wonderful soundstage width and depth, with a tonal balance that is as natural as we have experienced from even more expensive digital players. The Sun Dogs, the debut album by progressive revivalists Rose Windows on the Sub Pop label sounded epic. Their stunning blend of acoustic instruments, electric guitar, and orchestral sweep was well served by the Tiki. Bass was deep and taut, and dynamics were standard setting.

The Tiki shows its true potential with high resolution material. The 192 Khz, 24 bit files of various classic Blue Note jazz titles proved a revelation. Beautifully recorded and well-mastered albums from Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, and Lee Morgan are a joy to experience via the Tiki, and the natural timbres of the horns, piano, drums, and acoustic bass were stunning. The Tiki managed to stay out of the way, and just let the natural flow and rhythm of the music take center stage.

At the other end of the spectrum, the 192 Khz studio discography of Texas blues rock legends ZZ Top positively explodes out of the speakers. The fuzzed out guitars, sleazy grooves, and funky bass lines are rendered with aplomb and show the Tiki is no one-trick pony. If the ultimate purpose of a source component is to connect the listener to the music, the Tiki hit the mark without a doubt.

Using the Arataki app to control the Tiki is snap. It is one of the more elegant control apps I have used, and the graphical interface is attractive. However, it is a work in progress.  With engineers still trying to keep with iOS updates and market demands, it is difficult to keep up. The Arataki will prove frustrating for those with large libraries as currently the only way to select music is by tapping an album cover. Other apps offer a folder structure which allows for quick, pinpoint access to particular albums or songs. As noted the Tiki can be controlled by a number of other apps.

The dead quiet backgrounds, flawless operation, quick file access, and headache-free set up make enjoying music priority one. The Tiki is firmware upgradeable, and that provides peace of mind to the purchaser in a changing digital landscape. The Tiki may just be an anti-tweaker’s paradise.


Plinius is banking on potential customers who are sophisticated enough to set up a home network, but who also have little patience for computer audio and its endless variables. Simply plugging in an Ethernet cable gets you halfway there. Of course, there will be audiophiles confused by the lack physical interface with the Tiki, but this is its strength. With no display, and no noise-generating WiFi and digital inputs to spoil things, the sonics shine brilliantly.

Plinius thinks the network approach is best since there is total isolation between the computer or NAS and the DAC, and it provides for multi-room capabilities with one library. No need to have a bank of hard drives and a laptop in your HiFi rack. The Tiki works exactly as advertised and sounds superb. If a “set it and forget it” digital source component floats your boat, your ship has has come in.

Plinius Tiki

MSRP: $4775


Speakers Thiel CS2.4    Genesis G7c
Amplifier Audio Research VS 55    Rogue ST 100    Hans Audio 300B SE
Preamplifier Channel Islands Audio PLC-1  Mk ii
DAC Bryston BDA-1   Simaudio Neo 380D
SACD Player Marantz SA-14S1
Cables Kimber    Transparent    DH Labs    KingRex    Acoustic Zen
Accessories Audience adeptResponse    Shakti Stone    Symposium

Naim UnitiQute 2 All-in-One Player

When Naim introduced its all-in-one UnitiQute player a couple years ago, everyone here went bonkers over the damn thing, drawing the obvious references to the legendary Naim Nait. The original Nait, with only 15 watts per channel, came packaged in a similarly sized (i.e. small) chassis and had the ability to drive a pair of moderately sensitive speakers to musical heights not experienced for that price tag. Back in the mid 1970s, a Naim Nait fetched about $699 at your favorite hi-fi dealer, but it was worth every penny to those who owned it. Today, a spotless example still commands nearly the same price and loyalty. That’s product longevity.

The original Qute substituted a high-quality DAC for the phonostage and allowed streaming, in addition to providing an FM tuner and a sweet sounding 30-watt-per-channel power amplifier. Adjusted for inflation, this is still a bargain at $1,995—especially if one takes into consideration all those power cords and interconnects that you won’t have to buy. You can read our review of the original UnitiQute here.

The Qute 2 nudges the sticker price up slightly, to $2,195, with a substantial increase in power. It’s more robust 50-watt-per-channel amplifier gives this mighty product even more system flexibility in terms of the speakers it can power.

The Qute 2 is a perfect solution for anyone wanting a compact yet high-performance component, essentially a receiver, that can power your favorite pair of speakers and call it a day. It is tastefully styled, well built and highly functional. And best of all, it’s easily expandable, should you desire to build a more elaborate system at some point—a hallmark of Naim products. Those living in a small space will appreciate the subwoofer output, making it easy to add a sat/sub speaker system with a powered subwoofer. This is almost always ignored on even more expensive all-inclusive components.

A Little System Matching

As part of a compact high-performance system, with the KEF LS-50 speakers, the Qute 2 proves impressive, however, it does require a few days of constant play to sound its best. Right out of the box, the sound is slightly constrictive, but it opens up quickly. I push the Qute 2 even harder by replacing the LS-50s with a pair of 3-ohm MartinLogan Aerius i speakers, which are notoriously tough to drive, and the Qute 2 doesn’t miss a beat.

Listening to Graham Parker’s 2001 release Deepcut to Nowhere quickly reveals the Qute 2’s ability to create a believable three-dimensional soundstage and maintain rock-solid pace, which are Naim hallmarks. A similar effect is realized when listening to the last set of remastered Beatles CDs. At the beginning of “All You Need is Love,” the violins, horns and chorus all have a distinct placement between the speakers, while John Lennon’s vocals stay anchored slightly stage left and McCartney’s signature bass brings up the foundation of the track.

It should be noted that, for the Qute 2, you will need a pair of speaker cables with banana plugs on at least one end, as the Qute 2 is pressed for real estate on the rear panel. Like the Wadia Intuition we recently reviewed, the Qute 2 only has space for a pair of banana plugs. On one level, this pays homage to Naim’s past and keeps the setup tidy. There wouldn’t be any room for massive audiophile plugs behind this petite amplifier even if the clever Naim engineers could squeeze a pair of binding posts back there. We ran the same pair of AudioQuest Meteor cables that were used on the original Qute review with excellent results. Long gone are the days that you have to use Naim’s own speaker cables to properly interface with your speakers.

When keeping things at a reasonable pace and volume level, there is nothing in the TONEAudio arsenal (or my own collection of speakers) that the Qute 2 can’t push effectively. Bringing back a friend’s Qute reveals that the original still possesses a bit more midrange sweetness (which can easily be taken for coloration, depending on what side of the fence you’re on), but the extra power far outweighs a smidge of midrange magic for this reviewer, who really does like to rock.

Broadening the perspective and taking advantage of the Qute 2’s analog input, I add a Naim StageLine phonostage and a Rega RP6 turntable with Exact cartridge to the system, nearly doubling the cost of the Qute 2/LS-50 combination—which will also double the pleasure for the analog lover. Spinning the recent MoFi remaster of the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach is a ton of fun, and the Qute 2 delivers more than enough resolution to provide a great analog experience.

It certainly resolves enough musical detail to easily discern the difference between the $2,000 Rega table and the $500 Pro-Ject I also have on hand. With the Rega in the mix, the soundstage is more expansive in all three dimensions, with a more airy, fleshed out and better-defined upper register. Don’t let this compact package fool you; the Qute 2 has far more substance than its small size suggests. It’s a full-bodied Naim component in every sense.

The Qute 2 is Apple friendly, so it will snag the digital bitstream from you iPod or iPhone, making it easy to take advantage of your music collection. MP3s with 320 kbps play back with startlingly good clarity. Upping the game to CD-quality files demonstrates just how good the iPod can be in an audiophile environment when loaded with better software.

Taking advantage of the Qute 2’s high-resolution DAC makes listening to high-res audio files via the Astell&Kern AK100 and AK120 portable players a real treat, and this arrangement is in keeping with the compact ethos of this component. Listening to the slinky vocals on the recent HDtracks download of Joni Mitchell’s Hissing of Summer Lawns reveals layer upon layer of detail when compared to the original CD rip.

A Joy to Use

Even though the Qute 2 features a wide range of functions, it is surprisingly easy to use. While it is critical that you don’t lose the remote, as none of the functions can be accessed from the front panel, the app that is available for iPhone users is far more handy and convenient to use, giving a graphic display of the Qute 2’s functions. When synced with your home network, the Qute 2 app allows you to control inputs and volume anywhere within range. This comes in handy when the phone rings, and it also means you can have one less remote control lying around.

Once the Qute 2 is powered up, a quick run through the front panel allows you to optimize its settings. You can select relevant sources and choose big or small speakers; the bass rolls off a tad for small speakers, giving you some extra headroom in the process. Should you be leaving the Qute 2 unattended, I suggest taking full advantage of the maximum volume setting, which will save you from blowing a tweeter or upsetting the neighbors.

If seven digital inputs and an analog input aren’t enough, you can also use the USB socket on the front panel to play music from a USB flash drive. You can also summon files from an UPnP music server via a hardwired connection or via the built-in Wi-Fi. Naim suggests a hardwired connection for best digital performance and we concur, especially if your music collection consists of CD-quality and HD-quality digital music files. Those with large collections of low-res MP3s will not suffer terribly from the wireless connection, should a wired connection not be convenient. Those not streaming digital files, or if you’re just listening to music via a CD player (like Naim’s excellent CD5si, which we currently have in for review), can still use the Wi-Fi antenna to connect your iPhone to the Qute 2 for full remote functionality.

Running the Qute 2 through a gaggle of different headphones reveals that the on-board headphone amp is up to snuff and that it will drive all but the most difficult headphones with ease. The only ones we really had trouble with are the HiFiMan HE-6 headphones, which are notoriously tough to drive with even some of the world’s best dedicated headphone amplifiers, so no fault there. Those of you with Sennheiser, Grado, Audeze and Beats phones will thoroughly enjoy the headphone performance of the Qute 2.

Last but not least, the built in FM tuner (DAB for our European friends) does a spectacular job foraging for signals, providing high-quality sound in the process. Those having decent FM stations nearby will be pleasantly surprised at just how good the Qute 2 sounds in this mode—far better than satellite radio any day. Adding a modestly priced Terk antenna to the Qute 2 further improves performance.

Little It Can’t Do

After living with Naim’s UnitiQute 2 for a couple of months, I have found that its luster remains. The quality of sound provided is utterly fantastic and the range of functionality is tough to beat.

Though not packaged in as sexy of a shape as the Wadia Intuition, or the Devialet 110 also featured in this issue, the Qute 2 is mega-affordable and keeps with the easy-to-use yet high-performance ethos that we think the high-end audio industry desperately needs. For less than a top of the line Bose system, you can pair the Naim UnitiQute 2 with a great set of speakers and have a serious hi-fi setup. And for all the same reasons we found the original UnitiQute worthy of merit, we award the Qute 2 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

Naim UnitiQute 2

MSRP: $2,195 (company website) (U.S. Importer)


Digital Sources Meridian Media Source 200    Astell&Kern AK120 portable player    Naim CD5si
Analog Source Rega RP6 turntable    Exact cartridge    Naim StageLine phonostage
Speakers KEF Blades    KEF LS-50    Harbeth Compact 7    MartinLogan Aerius i
Cables AudioQuest Colorado interconnects and Meteor speaker cables

Oppo BDP-105 Universal Player

After a few months with the Oppo BDP-105, I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s the perfect digital anchor for just about any system.  If you’re a music lover, this player will allow you to listen to anything your heart desires on any kind of media.  If that weren’t enough, it’s also a 24-bit/192-kHz DAC that lets you play all the digital downloads in your music collection—I can’t think of a better DAC for the price.  Those collecting music files in the DSD format are also covered, the BDP-105 can play DSD files from any optical or USB storage too. And if you’re a movie nut, Oppo throws in an awesome DVD/Blu-ray player with the deal.

But that’s just scratching the surface.  If you’d like to get back to listening to music, just go online and order a BDP-105.  It rules.  I’ve auditioned a lot of great digital players over the years, with reasonable to ridiculous pricetags, and the BDP-105 makes the entire process so painless; it’s a wonderful thing indeed.  It’s hard to believe that the MSRP is only $1,199.

The earlier Oppo players of just a few years ago came across as slightly lacking in mechanical finesse, though they represented an excellent price/performance benchmark.  But you can forget whatever you thought you knew about Oppo.  The BDP-105 is a world-class product, from the casework to the thoughtful packaging.  If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear that you were unpacking a $20k Meridian player, right down to the nice bag that the case is wrapped in.  Also included is a concise owners manual that easily guides you through all of the setup procedures—an essential read for those using both the audio and video portions of this player.

The remote is straightforward and all business.  This is where the $1,199 Oppo differs from the $20k Meridian player (and even trumps the mighty Meridian).  In addition to the standard-issue backlit remote, Oppo also provides a free, downloadable app for Android or iOS users, allowing you to leave the remote in the box.  For someone always losing remotes (like me) or despising clutter (my wife), this is an outstanding solution.  The menus are easy to read, and the app separates functionality into two screens: one that acts as an express remote, and one with the full feature set of the remote.  This is a brilliant move that I wish more manufacturers would duplicate.

Getting Down to Business

Those wanting to skip the manual and just concentrate on playing with their new shiny thing (or in this case, matte black) can get pretty far without the manual.  CDs and SACDs play without needing the user to access the remote control or external monitor.  Playing the discs in your DVD-A or video collection requires a monitor, so that you can set the correct multichannel aspects for your system.

While I’m not much of a videophile, it’s worth mentioning that this player integrates fantastically with my Anthem MRX 700 home theater receiver.  (Be on the lookout for this combination being mentioned frequently in upcoming concert-disc reviews.)  The video performance of the BDP-105 is simply stunning, and I’d happily pay the 1,200 bucks asked for just the video section of this player.  Operation is quick, color rendition is excellent and the noise floor is supremely low, resulting in a very saturated picture.  But that’s another review for another day.

Regardless of disc chosen, the BDP-105 plays them quickly and effortlessly with no long boot-up sequence required.  When listening to audio discs, users can access a “Pure Audio” mode from the remote to shut down all of the video processing circuitry, providing optimum audio performance—and this is worth doing.  On the extended “Mountain Jam,” from the recent MoFi release of the Allman Brothers classic album Eat a Peach, the midrange frequencies open up, and the Pure Audio mode removes a layer of grain from the high frequencies.  The extended drum solo on this record reveals good attack and transient response, while the audience mixed in confirms an excellent sense of the three-dimensional spatial perspective.

For someone with a wide range of music, all in different formats, the BDP-105 helps to bring the fun back to music collecting.  Now, when you’re shopping at the local used music store, or eBay, it won’t matter what the format is.  While this reviewer is not on the DSD-download bandwagon yet, it’s nice to know that new BDP-105 is already equipped to handle this format, and the other Oppo player I have needed only a quick firmware download/install to be fully capable; perhaps at a later date we will explore this option.  For those interested in the full media capabilities of the BDP-105, please click here.

Ins and Outs

Those moving away from optical discs will enjoy the DAC performance of the BDP-105.  With coaxial, Toslink, asynchronous USB and HDMI inputs, the BDP-105 is a perfect digital hub for any source, whether it’s a computer or a transport.  RCA, HDMI and balanced XLR outputs (along with full 7.1 outputs) make the BDP-105 equally easy to merge into any system.  Those just starting to assemble a component system can even take advantage of the BDP-105’s variable outputs and work without a preamplifier or linestage.  Stepping up to the main system in room one, utilizing identical Cardas Clear interconnects, I find no difference in sound quality between the RCA and XLR outputs, and the BDP-105 has no problem driving long interconnects of either style.

The BDP-105 works well in the context of a system built around a PrimaLuna ProLogue power amplifier and a pair of Dynaudio Confidence C1 II speakers.  Nothing in the owner’s manual specifies whether the volume control is in the analog or digital domain, but the volume control works effortlessly from the remote or phone app.  Those wanting to build an all-digital system could easily live with the Oppo player and a power amplifier.

My reference Sooloos Control 15, via the S/PDIF input, provides excellent synergy, as do high-resolution digital files played from the Aurender S10.  I use the Meridian Audio Core 200 to sample the Toslink input, and a MacBook Pro for the USB input, running iTunes and Amarra.  All inputs work without a hitch, providing good fidelity and the ability to easily switch between them without noises or glitches.  This player is positively painless to use, no matter what the source!

To make sharing music even easier, there is a USB input right on the front panel that lets you plug a USB stick directly in, provided the music files are in standard formats.  When the player is hooked up to a video display (which you’ll need for DVD and Blu-ray formats anyway), you can even stream music files from your NAS.  If there’s a format that the BDP-105 can’t handle, I haven’t got it.

Comparisons Big and Small

The BDP-105 does so much right and nothing wrong.  Unless you put the player head-to-head with something like a dCS stack or the DaVinci DAC (on a world class system), you won’t even miss the resolution that these flagship players offer—and those comes at a much higher price.  While the following is a somewhat silly comparison, it does outline the boundaries of the BDP-105’s performance envelope:  Jumping into a friend’s Ferrari F430 immediately reveals what my little Fiat Abarth is incapable of; yet, when I’m back in the Abarth’s drivers seat for 10 minutes, happiness returns and I’m not missing the F430 one bit.  And let’s not even talk tune-ups.

Comparing the BDP-105 to similarly priced hardware, and even players costing twice as much (some even more), the Oppo is ahead by a country mile.  There are a few DACs in the $1,000-to-$2,000 range, the Rega in particular, that sound slightly more “analog-like,” revealing a smidge more music than the Oppo, but none of these players have the format diversity that the Oppo offers.  It even has an onboard headphone amplifier that works as well as anything you’ll pay a couple hundred bucks for; the Oppo headphone amp proves compatible with all of the headphones at my disposal.

Whether rocking out with Alice in Chains or a peaceful Mozart symphony, this player always delivers a highly musical experience.  Highs are well rendered, and, if anything, the tonal balance of the BDP-105 is ever so slightly on the warm side of neutral, which is a good thing with most digital files.

Fans of acoustic and vocal music will be thrilled with the natural sound quality that the BDP-105 reveals.  Even after a few months, I remain impressed with just how much performance is here for this price.  The title track from Dessa’s 551 sounds fantastic, with the combination of vibes, her husky voice and the deep bass beats.  The mix stays coherent with the lead vocals well out in front while the vibes occupy a larger-than-life, diffused part of the recordings space.

A Fantastic Buy

The BDP-105 feels substantial when lifted from its box, and removing the cover reveals a tidy layout.  A miracle of surface-mount efficiency, the Oppo has separate boards for power supply, analog circuitry and the DAC section, all tied together with flat cables.  The construction suggests Mark Levinson–level quality more than anything else.  This player is a benchmark for sound at its price, as well as for build quality.  I’ve seen more than a few $5,000 players that are mostly air under the hood.

While we are more than happy to award the Oppo BDP-105 one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013, it is worthy of even more.  This is a rare component that ticks all the boxes from both a sonic and an engineering perspective, and that is tastefully designed and luxuriously packaged to boot.  No, you don’t get a dCS Vivaldi for $1,195, but you do get a digital player that can deliver every format imaginable, doing so at a level better than every one of its peers.  And there’s that free video player thrown in with the deal.  It doesn’t get any better than this.

For an encore, we will be comparing the BDP-105 to its lower-priced sibling, the $499 BDP-103.  Watch the Comparo section of our website.

Oppo BDP-105

MSRP:  $1,199


Music servers Apple iMac w/Amarra    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Preamplifier Nagra Jazz
Power Amplifier D’Agostino Momentum Stereo
Speakers Sonus faber Guarneri Evolution
Cable  Cardas Clear
Power IsoTec Super Titan

Parasound Halo CD 1 Player

As I dislodge the packing material from the shipping box containing the Parasound CD 1, it’s easy to have a positive first impression of the flagship of the Halo product line.  I set aside the cardboard and Styrofoam layers to find the player carefully wrapped in a bag of blue velvet.  I can’t help but recall the lyrics that Bobby Vinton made famous:  “She wore blue velvet.”

Physically, the CD player complements the Parasound Halo product series.  As one might expect from name of the collection to which it belongs, the CD 1 sports blue LEDs that cast lighted halos around the buttons flanking the red power indicator in the center of the player’s faceplate.  The CD 1 is built from the ground up to play only Red Book CDs and CD-Rs, plus the standard CD layer on SACDs.  I have to admit that my own digital collection is about 95 percent Red Book CDs, but I prefer to have the ability to play SACDs or DVD-As without needing a second player.

Users have a few options in the unit’s setup menu.  One function worth noting is the “CD eject” option.  The default is to eject a disc when the unit is powered off, but overriding this is a good idea if the player is behind a cabinet door with limited clearance.

The provided Halo remote facilitates access to common features, many of which apply to the CD 1 only, while the others apply to the Halo JC 2 or P 7 preamplifer.  The remote allows users to select a CD track by number, or by the forward or back buttons.  Fast-forward and fast-reverse are also nice touches, should you want to relive a particularly striking musical passage.  The remote also offers a polarity switcher for phase matching as well as a display dimmer.  While the remote has very accessible and practical functionality, it’s very utilitarian and made of a light, somewhat flimsy-feeling plastic.  For a unit of this build quality and price point, I’d prefer to see a more elegant metal remote.

Ours a [CD] I held tightly

Connecting the unit is simple and flexible.  The CD 1 offers both RCA and balanced XLR analog outputs, as well as three digital output options—BNC, coax and optical—for those who might want to use it as a transport.  The Halo’s software takes 20 seconds to load before it’s ready to play a disc.  When the desire for a music fix strikes, this boot-up time feels much longer.

The CD 1 is a slot-loading player, and discs require a fair amount of pushing before the player decides to accept them.  When about an inch of the disc remains outside the player, the CD is sucked in with startling grip and speed.  Once the CD disappears, the player ponders for 10 seconds while evaluating the disc’s contents, and then plays the first track automatically—giving you just enough time to reach the listening chair and catch the first few notes of the song. While it’s pondering, the CD 1 is actually buffering the first 30 seconds of disc data, helping to reduce the error correction associated with a more traditional CD player.  The end result – a less digital, less fatiguing sound.

As I sit down for my first listen, I notice that the display is too small to see any information from my listening position.  This isn’t too much of an issue if you’re familiar with the disc being played, but if you’re not so familiar with the material you might need to use binoculars, or wait for the chorus, to determine which track you are hearing.

Warmer than May Her Tender Sighs

Any quibbles with the user experience quickly fade from mind once this player starts singing.  For analog playback, the Parasound offers a toggled choice of discrete or op-amp analog outputs.  In the discrete setting, the sound is produced from the transistor output stage.  In the op-amp setting, the signal is sent directly from the op-amp output stage.  The different options impart subtle changes to the overall sonic signature.  While the settings are similar, the op-amp setting lends a bit warmer feel, with a slightly more relaxed presentation; the discrete setting offers a bit more perceived detail, but on poor recordings this sonic edge proves more obvious.  Experimentation for your own preference on each disc is encouraged and there is no right answer, so it’s great to have both options.

Music from this player sounds smooth and natural, with all the nuance and subtlety one could hope to coax from a CD.  Bass, mids and highs complement each other wonderfully, and no particular region of the audio spectrum appears to stand out from the others.

I seek out my best CD source material to put the CD 1 though its paces, and Mobile Fidelity recordings prove a great starting point for evaluation.  It’s exciting to experience the player’s portrayal of Beck’s Sea Change on the MoFi disc.  The triangle strike in “Lonesome Tears” offers a beautiful, natural-sounding ring and very long decay rivaling the best I’ve experienced.  Beck’s vocals are equally beguiling as the lyrics and emotion spill from his voice.  The Parasound does a stupendous job of layering front-to-back musical elements, even when they may overlap in the perceived left-to-right stereo image.

During “On the Run,” from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (MoFi), it’s easy to pick out a man panting and running from right to left, as well as his 90-degree turn to run away from the microphone, thereby fading into the background.  “Us and Them” offers a similar experience, as gentle echoes pan and spiral around the perceived source of David Gilmour’s vocals in the center.

Madonna’s “Candy Perfume Girl” starts with a synthesized, pinpoint sound bouncing left and right.  The CD 1 manages to put that element in front of the speakers, rather than being recessed between or behind them.  I have not experienced this effect to the same degree with very many pieces of equipment.

“Song for Olabi,” from Quiet Letters by Bliss, combines vocals with drums, shakers, rain sticks, flutes and synthesized notes.   Not only does the CD 1 present these instruments with sound that is surprisingly organic, but it also places them on the stage so that a front-row listener can both hear the instrument and visualize it.  I find myself looking for a musician “behind” the person at the front of the stage holding the shaker.  While many pieces of audio equipment tend to blur and compress sonic elements together into a more two-dimensional space, the CD 1 stitches together all the subtle sonic queues in a recording to extend and separate the musical experience into three dimensions.

On Dirty Martini’s “House on Fire,” the CD 1 renders the glockenspiel with more realism than I have heard in a recording.  Okay, there aren’t a lot of songs in my collection that include glockenspiel, but you get my point; the delicacy and decay of the notes sound both lively and lifelike.

Lower quality CDs, like Sisters of Mercy’s First and Last and Always, proves a little bright-edged, as I’d expect, but the Parasound still manages to encourage the vocals to come closer to the front of the soundstage, instead of being recessed within the mix.  The CD 1 does not sugarcoat the CD experience, but it does make the most of the material provided.

As a transport, this player offers equally stellar experiences.  It manages to chisel out each and every digital bit on the CD before sending it to an outboard DAC.  Several experiments confirm the capability of the DAC within the CD 1, proving itself competitive with my reference digital processing gear in many ways, though the musical presentation is not quite as wide with the CD 1.  I find myself wishing the Parasound included a digital input to allow experimentation with its interpretation of other digital sources, like a computer.  But for those needing only CD functionality, this player is sublime.

In My Heart There’ll Always be…a Memory

At $4,500, the Parasound CD 1 is a significant financial commitment for a device that plays only Red Book CDs.  At the same time, the sonic portrayal of music is every bit as good as many transport plus DAC combinations I’ve heard over the years.  The discrete and op-amp settings provide the ability to do some sonic tailoring to match your system—and being able to switch on the fly is a bit like having two CD players in one.  For those in the market for a dedicated CD player in this price range, the Parasound CD 1 offers exceptional sound and a very rewarding musical experience.

Parasound Halo CD 1 Player

MSRP: $4,500



Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Mark Levinson 335
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Digital Sources Audio Research CD3 MKII    dCS Purcell processor    EAD 9000 MKIII DAC   Genesis Technologies Digital Lens
Cables Jena Labs Valkyrie and Symphony interconnects    Jena Labs Twin 15 speaker cables
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Haley
Power Cords Cardas Golden and RSA Mongoose
Accessories Mapleshade SAMSON racks and shelves    ASC TubeTraps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels

Rega Isis CD Player

Rega has established a solid reputation over the last thirty years now for building reasonably priced components packed with value beyond their price point. Rega turntables have always been a triumph of function and simplicity, with a legion of fans that span the globe. Founder Roy Gandy is a champion of giving his customers high performance without a high price tag, and didn’t even start building CD players until about ten years ago. His sense of humor is evident in their website, where it’s mentioned that Rega was “the last major high end company to build a CD player.”

About that same time Rega also introduced the P9 turntable. Then $4,000 and now $5,000, ten years later (with the tonearm upgraded from the RB900 to RB1000 status), this was Rega’s only entry into more expensive components. One of my reference turntables for the last few years, the P9 is a very special table, offering performance well beyond its pricetag, just like every other Rega product.

In 2008 that trend was continued with the introduction of the IOS phono stage and later on in the year, the Elicit integrated amplifier. Something was definitely up at Rega. Though still very reasonably priced in market terms, at about $3,000 each, these components were still a considerable step up from the Fono and Brio.

A visit to the Rega factory this year revealed a company more committed to performance and value than ever. Rega is a fantastic mix of 21’st century modernization and early 20th century craftsmanship, with their own spin applied. Towards the end of our tour of the plant, the group I was with was taken to an assembly room where something very different was going on.

A $9,000 CD player, from Rega?

That’s not a typo. Yes, that’s right, $9,000 for a Rega CD player. But it’s a very special CD player. In the past, Rega has always been fanatical about offering the highest value they feel that they can build. Because they only outsource a tiny percentage of their production, they have become very efficient and eliminate multiple sources of markup that eventually get passed on to the consumer.

They have not varied from their chosen path with the ISIS a single millimeter, however the focus has changed somewhat. The ISIS is the first product Rega has built that has not had a target cost attached to it; it’s simply the best player that Gandy and his staff feel they are capable of building, with cost no object. Coming full circle to Rega’s core values, the pricetag is only $9,000. The average Rega customer that’s been raised on P3 turntables and Apollo CD players ($800 and $1,000 respectively) is freaking out at the thought of a $9,000 CD player from their favorite British HiFi manufacturer. Has Roy Gandy gone mad?

If anyone should be freaking out, it should be the manufacturers of CD players in the $20 – $50k range. It’s definitely a contender and in typical Rega fashion, offers value way beyond its price point. Even if you haven’t had the chance to see them assembled at the factory, the minute you open the box, the attention to detail is apparent.Rega crate

The ISIS comes packaged in a very sturdy yet tasteful mini-crate with the ISIS logo cut in the high-density, closed cell foam internals. It gives you the feel that something special is inside, without being extravagant. When you remove the 55-pound (25kg) CD player from the box, you know it. The massive aluminum chassis reveals a look not unlike past Rega players, with their famous “spaceship” top loading door and red LED’s on the front panel, but seriously fortified all the way around.

In addition to the player, a substantial billet remote control is included that is on par with what you would expect with the world’s finest audio gear as well as a pair of high quality RCA interconnects and a substantial power cord. I would value both of these items in the $500 – $1,000 range if you bought them as aftermarket items. A very nice touch I’d say, but I’d love to see you being able to have the option of them being terminated with XLR’s.Rega remote

Which leads us to something else you’ve never seen from Rega, a pair of balanced XLR jacks on the back panel. This takes advantage of the ISIS having fully balanced, differential circuitry throughout. There are also standard RCA outputs for those requiring it. The DAC in the ISIS uses a pair of Burr Brown PCM 1794 D to A converters running in parallel dual mono mode. Analog and digital stages have their own separate power supply transformers and there are ten individual voltage regulator stages in the digital section along with another ten for the analog stage. This is indeed a very serious bit of digital hardware.

Those worried about the viability of the CD format and getting your player serviced in the future, fear not. Inside the owner’s manual, there is a signature from the technician that assembled your ISIS, another tech that QC’d the electrical and mechanical systems and the tech that tested and archived not one, but two spare laser units. I think it’s safe to say that the ISIS will last longer than most of its owners and I appreciate this attention to detail, with CD transport mechanisms getting scarcer all the time.Rega rear view

An outstanding DAC that happens to play CD’s, or the other way around?

As the market for high performance CD players is probably nearing its end, Rega gives you the option to use the ISIS as a USB DAC as well. Personally, I’d love to see an SPDIF input on this player, but considering the recent success of the Ayre USB DAC, I’m guessing this is not a deal breaker for the current crop of audiophiles that are more computer based.

While you might be clinging on to your shiny discs for now, the ISIS gives you the options to go both ways and that’s what makes the ISIS such a great value. The DAC performance of the ISIS was also outstanding when streaming files from my Mac Book Pro via the USB input, which is switchable from the front panel or the remote. The only serious drawback to the ISIS is it’s inability to read 24bit/96khz files and this may be the Achilles heel for someone wanting to make this player part of a more computer based system. With 24/96 files becoming the new standard, this will limit your music choices going forward. Personally, I see the ISIS in the same light that I do my Naim 555, a statement CD player for someone with a large collection of physical media.

Which $800 bottle of wine would you like with your dinner?

With the ISIS in short supply worldwide, the question everyone has been asking me is how does is stack up ultimately to the five figure players I have here as reference components? Damn good, I say. Comparing the ISIS to my reference Naim 555 was an interesting study in presentation. It was a big help that we had the ultra revealing YG Acoustics Anat II speakers around for the duration of the review. As part of a six-figure reference system, the 555 still had the ultimate edge in terms of overall analog-like smoothness, but not by a large amount.

Interestingly, the edge went slightly in favor of the ISIS in terms of tonal contrast and transient attack. When listening to the cymbals at the beginning of “Euthanasia Waltz” on Brand X’s Livestock CD, the Rega player offered slightly quicker attack on the leading edge, but didn’t decay as smoothly as the Naim. However, when comparing the playback of this track to the Wadia 781i, the ISIS had a definite edge in upper end refinement, though it did not have quite the subterranean bass slam of the Wadia. (Neither does the $32k Naim player)

But this level of tonal contrast is what I kept coming back to with the ISIS and I would say that is it’s shining virtue. It has more than enough extension at both ends of the frequency scale to keep the fussiest audiophile happy, with plenty of weight to the presentation, but much like the YG Acoustics Anats, the ISIS has a delicacy about it that few players at any price match. Acoustic instruments have a layer of texture that is unmistakable with the ISIS and makes the player a lot of fun to listen to. Spinning “Down On the Farm” from Guns N’Roses The Spaghetti Incident, you can really distinguish the difference between Izzy Stradlin’s guitar setup and Slash, better than I’ve ever heard on this disc. And of course your favorite female vocals will sound just fine.Rega lid open

Tonal accuracy is also a strong suit with the ISIS. Lovers of acoustic music will notice the extra layer of detail and tonal body that the ISIS provides. Going back through some of my favorite jazz standards from Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins underscored what a fantastic job this player does at nailing the tonality of acoustic instruments. Naysayers of high end digital will be taken back at how natural this player sounds with violin and piano.

Of course we’re splitting hairs here, but that’s the kind of things that people purchasing five figure CD players do. A bit of madness if you will, but all good fun. The ISIS is a player that allows you to make that last jump to where you become immersed in the music, instead of thinking “this is really good for digital.” Again, there are only a handful of players at any price that achieve this lofty goal.

Perhaps not for the typical Rega customer

The Rega ISIS is a digital audio player that is worthy of being on the top shelf with the world’s best components. I own a couple of those players myself, and after extensive listening and close comparison, this player delivers the goods. If you own one of these players, you probably won’t be trading in your Naim, Wadia or Meridian player for the ISIS, but that’s not who I feel this player is aimed at. If you are someone who has always lusted after one of those $20 – $50k players, but can’t or won’t write that check, the ISIS is the way to go. I’ve had the privilege of listening to most of the world’s best CD players, some with pricetags that you’d swear should be on the window of a Porsche instead of a CD player and I feel the ISIS will deliver 95% of the performance of the five figure players for nine grand. It’s well worth the asking price; If I had to start over, I’d buy an ISIS, pocket the other $20k and go shopping for a nice used Boxster.

With that in mind, the Rega ISIS has stayed true to their core values by offering a product that offers the best performance in its price class. This is why we chose this player as our Digital Product of the Year for 2009. It makes a stellar match to their new OSIRIS amplifier, that will be reviewed in the December issue of TONEAudio. And, yeah it’s that good too.

The Rega ISIS CD Player

MSRP: $8995.00 (USD)

Manufacturers Information: (US Distribution)


Preamplifier: Burmester 011 Preamplifier

Power Amplifier: Burmester 911mk. 3 Amplifier, Rega OSIRIS Amplifier

Speakers: YG Acoustics Anat II Studio

Cable: Shunyata Aurora Interconnect, Shunyata Stratos SP spkr. cable

Power: Running Springs Dmitri Power conditioner, RSA HZ power cords