Droplet CDP5.0



Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Bel Canto PLayer PL-1A; Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; PrimaLuna ProLogue 3 [on review]
Amp: FirstWatt F1; FirstWatt F2 [on review]; PrimaLuna ProLogue 5 [on review]
Speakers: Zu Cable Druid Mk4; Zu Cable Method
Cables: Stealth Audio Indra; Zu Cable Ibis; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; Z-Cable Reference Cyclone power cords on both powerline conditioner
Stands: 1 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for tube amps; GPA Apex footers underneath DAC and preamp; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell and IsoClean wall sockets
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan and significant 'active' cubic air volume of essentially the entire (small) house
Review component retail: $3,000

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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Bel Canto PLayer PL-1A; Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; PrimaLuna ProLogue 3 [on review]
Amp: FirstWatt F1; FirstWatt F2 [on review]; PrimaLuna ProLogue 5 [on review]
Speakers: Zu Cable Druid Mk4; Zu Cable Method
Cables: Stealth Audio Indra; Zu Cable Ibis; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; Z-Cable Reference Cyclone power cords on both powerline conditioner
Stands: 1 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for tube amps; GPA Apex footers underneath DAC and preamp; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell and IsoClean wall sockets
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan and significant 'active' cubic air volume of essentially the entire (small) house
Review component retail: $3,000
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The Droplet series by Consonance of Opera Audio/China currently encompasses two models. There's the top-loading, tube-powered, Sony transport CDP-5.0 digital player under review. There's also the matching $4,000 Droplet LP-5.0 turntable. Despite origin and still-affordable pricing, these droplets -- thus named for the included glassy water drops that can be placed atop the very substantial aluminum top plate in whatever arrangement pleases you -- are ambitious luxury items. They're squarely aimed at the type of buyer who shops not just with his ears but her eyes as well.

This kidney-shaped beast is huge and heavy. If you were to build the smallest possible box to contain it, said box would measure 20.5" across, 17" deep and 6.75" tall, with a vent in the middle for the grab handle of the CD well cover.

In time-honored butcher-block or stave fashion, the massive 2.75" thick wooden cradle making up the bottom layer of this player's sandwich construction is a solid affair spliced together of pieces, then routed into shape and finely sanded, stained and lacquered. Three massive bolts hidden inside hollow standoffs connect the base to the 1" aluminum top plate to make for a semi-floating appearance due to the circumferential recess. The only visual item that seemingly ties together upper and lower layer from the front is the elegantly curved display block.

Made popular by BAT and dubbed "the Russian super tube", two 6H30 small-signal triodes are the chief attraction of the guts once you've disconnected a ground wire and temporarily unplugged four wire looms fitted with push-on sockets.

The clip-tensioned tubes are mounted horizontally for a low profile and atop a mother board that's completely separated from the power supply board.

Replacing the tubes here is the one aspect where external beauty causes a bit of practical complications. Getting inside isn't quite as simple as popping the usual sheet metal top cover. With balanced and single-ended outputs as well as an RCA-carried S/PDIF digital output, the specs claim a S/N ratio of 100/115dB respectively for the RCA and XLR paths, suggesting true balanced operation of the circuit. A "special super-clock" is said to drive down clock jitter to less than 14ps. Converter resolution is given as multi-level sigma-delta 24-bit-192kHz. The Crystal 4398 chip handles asynchronous upsampling as well as the remote-controlled attention on both (variable) outputs. The RCAs output 2.3V. The black all-metal remote sports 22 small buttons of identical size. Those are laid out in three columns without any offset groups. It makes navigating in the dark impossible until you have memorized the layout. Functions include direct track access where dual digits are entered in sequence rather than requiring a +10 button; time elapsed/remain; repeat 1/all; volume up/down; next/previous track and fast forward/back. The latter two are labeled "rewind" and "wind".

For an imaginary Mk2 iteration, an overly critical product evaluation consultant would ask for a revised layout on the remote including bigger buttons; the inclusion of a "program" feature and either a simple "display off" or three or four stages of gradual dimming. As a dream-list feature, there's the digital input.

But that's playing the habitually discontented super-finicky customer. For everyone else, the Droplet is complete as is and I for one see no need for user-selectable dither settings and various upsampling steps. Whatever sounds best to the designer should be set in stone. Anything else is gimmickry.

The ubiquitous magnetic (black) puck must be placed atop the CD before the lid seals the well. Closing the hatch automatically depresses a tiny trigger to commence the TOC protocol that activates the track readout.

The lid supplied with my loaner looks different than some of the early promotional photos of the unit. Another minor difference is the number of top-mounted controls which now are five rather than the earlier six - play; stop; back; next; and, importantly, power. If you're the kind of stubborn guy who fails to ask for directions when lost and refuses to read owner's manuals - well, it could take you a while to figure out how to turn this beast on. Don't ask how I know.

For a bit of exercise, you could now use the Droplet's 46.5 pounds to practice lateral arm extensions until your rotator cuff blows. Yes, this player is one solid candidate. Even the box it ships in is positively gargantuan, suggesting a humongous Class A amp hiding inside rather than a modest CD player. Clearly, the Droplet isn't about modesty. It's squarely aimed at fierce competition against the current tubed CD player champs made by Audio Aero, BAT, Cary and Lector. So much for what can be ascertained from a purely visual inspection.

Very rare is the modern power amp that cannot be driven to full output by the industry standard 2 volts most CD players put out. The presence of a stout 2 x 6H30-based tube output stage plus variable outputs exclusively for both its RCA and XLR paths indicates that the Droplet's designer anticipates more than one owner to run a minimalist Droplet system CD-direct. That's how I'd kick off my review. Inserting either my 5687-based ModWright SWL 9.0SE [$2,200] or the on-review PrimaLuna Prologue 3 with its 12AU7/12AX7 circuit [$1,295] would then report on the -- positive or negative -- effects two active tube preamps contributed over no preamp at all. In general, preamps fall into three camps: those you can't hear; those that make everything sound better; and those that improve only certain systems. The first camp believes all a preamp should do is switch sources and control volume. Needless to say, if you're running a single source with variable outputs (or an amp with an input level control), a "sonically absentee" preamp is redundancy personified.

The second kind of preamp improves dynamics, image density, soundstage dimensionality and tonal body without reducing resolution. It thus makes a powerful argument in its own favor since source-direct is often accused of being too lean, spatially compressed and a bit sterile by comparison. The third type of preamp shall not concern us. It's a hit'n'miss affair. If one -- or both -- of my preamps didn't unequivocally improve things or incur partial shadows? We'd have to mark 'em "type 3" anyways and move on back to source direct. Here remember that with the Droplet, volume changes can only be made via remote. Don't misplace it or wear out your batteries on a Sunday evening with no backups in sight.

By remembering your last volume setting even after a hard power-down (truly vital to avoid blowing up high-efficiency speakers), the Droplet makes up for not duplicating volume up/down controls on the chassis - though I'd like to see them there regardless since source-direct operation is so clearly encouraged. Volume changes proceed in 50 steps. 0 equates to full attenuation or mute as it should, 50 is full tilt or volume control bypass. That's where you'd set it with a preamp.

Most my listening via the 101dB Druids and 10wpc FirstWatt F1 amp occurred between 20 and 40 on the readout which reverts to the usual track time elapsed display within seconds of inputting a volume change. While a mere 50 steps between mute and full boogie might seem insufficient to find the exact desired playback level, this turned out not to be the case. I never felt the machine forced me to a level I'd have preferred slightly higher or lower than I was allowed - except for a bigger-than-anticipated step from 0 to 1 where my preamp gives me the option to dial in even lower background levels. Since the efficiency of my speakers increases the effective size of the Droplet's volume steps, it's fair to predict that owners of more conventional loudspeakers should have zero issues in that regard. Just like expected, listening confirmed that the Droplet's output stage is a de facto single-input preamp such as you'd find on the excellent Audio Aero Prima SE (which is a DAC/pre with two additional analog inputs).

As is true also for the $3,500-direct Resolution Audio Opus 21, the Consonance CD player can be used in variable-out mode without suffering "passive preamp" depression of white-washing tonal colors, flattening out the soundstage or subtracting dynamic drive to become anemic and listless.

Yes, a really good separate preamp will add just a bit more image density and perhaps even macrodynamic scale but in the same gesture, you could also notice a reduction in transparency (as with the PrimaLuna), this contingent on the pre's ultimate quality.

For the average listener who -- I'll cheekily assume -- will be attracted to the Droplet's value factor and ability to render a preamp unnecessary, this is a non-issue. To do better to any significant degree would entail at least a doubling of the Droplet's asking price and thereby defeat the entire purpose. Banish all common wisdom that might pertain to this subject then and look at this mighty kidney as a transplant for the usual preamp in a single-source digital system.

As an ex-clarinetist and to get started, I picked Brahms' famous Clarinet Quintet in B-Minor Op. 115, planning to cue up three different recordings thereof: my former classmate Sabine Meyer with the Vienna string sextet [EMI Classics 7543042]; Jazz monster Eddie Daniels who plays classical just as well [with the Composers String Quartet on Reference Recordings RR-40]; and Kjell Fagéus, the former principal player of the Stockholm Opera, here with the Zetterqvist Quartet [Opus 3 CD 19301]. Fagéus and Daniels play on clarinets with the Boehm fingering system, Meyer plays the German Oehler system. Tonally, Daniels' Buffet-Crampon is the leanest and most lit up, Meyer's Wurlitzer the fattest and dynamically most endowed, her choice of string partners and how they were recorded the keenest.

Inexplicably, the Droplet refused to recognize Daniels as a participant of equal chops. The player displayed "err" and "no disc" no matter how often I tried. This happened with a few other CDs as well, pressings my Zanden Audio Model 2000P transport on one end of the price spectrum and my Eastern Electric MiniMax player on the other end read without issues. While on this intermittent transport issue, the Droplet's metal CD well and suspended rather than hard-mounted CD spindle get very hot, making one appreciate the relative imperviousness of our silver discs to sun stroke while removing a crisply baked CD from the machine after play.

Informal reports from the field have recounted similar read-error issues with Sony transports used by Shanling. Does Sony sell inferior runs of raw transports to China? Whatever the cause, Consonance has to look into this issue promptly even if it means identifying a new vendor who doesn't sell unreliable merchandise to fellow Pacific Rim manufacturers.

That said, the machine resolved the kind of player technique details that would only occur to other clarinetists. It properly differentiated between the dissimilar overtone content of the two players it would read and elicited absolutely glorious string tone especially from the Viennese soloists, with clearly delineated soundstaging cues and plenty of ambient information as it pertained to the recording venue. Unlike the sub $1K MiniMax, the Droplet's use of tubes doesn't incur a slightly opaque layer in exchange for tone. For the extra cash, you get tone and superior resolution just as it should be.

After the phenomenal Lagrimas Negras album that juxtaposed an octogenarian Cuban piano ace with a virile young Spanish Flamenco singer, I was committed to finding at least one of the other El Cigala albums the web said this Gipsy singer had cut in Spain. Undebel [Crysalis 7243 4 94808 2 7] is my first catch on that particular fishing expedition, catapulting Ramón Jiménez Salazar 'Dieguito' straight to the top of my personal Flamenco heap next to Duquende, El Pele and El Potito. The Droplet player showed itself fleet of foot, finely articulated on Marcelo Fuentes' bass, superbly differentiated between El Cigala's' lead on the title track and Paco Ortega's intersecting background vocals. None of the vocal peaks got hairy though their glitter of metal shone through uncut - perfect balance between leading edge and bloom.

Different recording locations and microphone placement came across with superb visibility as I progressed from track to track. Ditto for the different guitars of Tomatito, Paquete, José Carbonell, David Amaya and Manuel Parilla who appear on subsequent numbers. This type of fiery music deliberately walks on the edge especially with its vocals. Any diminishment of fervor and intensity in favor of playback pleasantries is a move in the wrong direction. It's one the Droplet clearly wasn't guilty of. No rounding off, no blunting, no prettification. Yet no exaggeration either, no artificial sharpening. In other words, no thickness, fuzz or fog, no drag in the rhythmic department, no plumminess in the bass.

There's apparently good reason -- other than marketing distinction -- for the nickname "super tube" the 6H30s have garnered nearly as a model designation. As implemented in the Droplet, they remind me very much of the 5687s in my ModWright preamp. Unlike the more romantic 6SN7s -- the octal bottles of the big tone -- the 5687s and 6H30s major in dynamic drive and linearity. They do do tone (no doodoo here) but with a small rather capital "T". It's a faster, tighter, far more modern tube sound than those diehard notions keep equating with valves. Where we cash in on preconceptions is with the heightened dimensionality and plasticity of soundstaging and performer presence.

From the top loader to the unusually stout construction; from the XLR analog and RCA digital outputs to the amp-direct functionality; from the designer cosmetics to the valve-powered output stage; the Consonance CDP 5.0 is heavy on sonic and visual impact but -- relatively -- light on the sore pocket book. In fact, for the money asked and what it buys you, this is a very high-value proposition and luxury item. The most obvious competitors are the Lector, BAT and Cary machines, none of which offer the Droplet's outrageous styling cues. That's solid company to be sure. How the Chinese upstart would compete head-to-toe remains for someone to write about who owns one of those challengers. Unlike Chinese-sourced machines without proper distribution, Consonance/Opera Audio enjoys the kind of right stuff customers should insist on with anything that has moving parts and tubes: domestic service support.

For the usual at-a-glance summary you can find elsewhere, let's recap today's story. The Droplet cues up in 4 seconds once the massive lid is in place. It doesn't make any whirring noises nearfield listening would frown upon. The remote has good off-axis response. The player is a high-definition affair with nicely developed though categorically not overdone tone. It offers the body and weight we expect from active preamps but don't always get with CD players run amp-direct. It has no problem with realistic dynamic scale or complex passages. It has a special fondness for well-recorded string tone particularly of the bowed variety. Vocal lock and presence is typical of valves, i.e. excellent. Despite uncompromised detail retrieval, this player presents music in a holistic fashion full of tonal color and textural density.

As we expect from proper power supplies and output stages, this machine has drive and control which translates into solid bass extension and definition without sloppiness or unnatural ripeness. Except for the occasional read error -- no skipping of any sort but simply an outright refusal to read a few discs which other resident players will read just fine -- there's nothing here that would require caution on part of a prospective buyer. Quite the contrary. If $3,000 is within your budget -- and especially if you've always wanted tubes but exposed power tubes don't appeal and even a preamp is low on your list of must-haves -- the Consonance Droplet CDP 5.0 is one of those creations you must face to feel good about having done due diligence on your needs and what would best satisfy them. While the digital output here is a de rigeur item, purchasing the Droplet as a stand-alone transport is sheer heresy. It pays for but then throws away the very reason you'd want this player in the first place - for its exceptional analog output stage and ability to render a preamp mute and passé. For sheer performance for the money, this player would deserve one of our carefully administered Blue Moon Awards. What precludes it at present is the transport issue and the lack of volume up/down controls on the chassis proper to prevent a misplaced or malfunctioning remote equating

with a shutdown of systems in which the Droplet controls playback levels. All in all, a mighty debut for Consonance's top-tier product category which has clearly taken lessons from US and European design to not only compete on price but now also firmly on luxury cachet and sonics. Besides the already launched Droplet turntable, expect a 6H30-based hybrid amplifier of about 120wpc and an El-34-based remote-controlled integrated at roughly 45 watts per channel.

Opera Audio responds:
It was great to read such a professional review. We are very appreciative for the chance of being reviewed by 6moons!

As for the disc reading issue of Droplet CDP5.0 the reviewer mentioned, since the sample sent to 6moons belonged to our distributer Stephen Monte at Nat Distribution, it was the unit Stephen used at the CES show and thus did not yet have the new software installed. Before we shipped the first batch of units to the US, we identified the reading problem and rewrote the software. This fixed the issue already months ago.

To date, we have had no reports of any problem with the first batch sold. We basically rewrote the software and installed a new chip into the players to fix the problem ...

It's a very high compliment that "this player would deserve one of our carefully administered Blue Moon Awards." With this correction, we hope the Droplet CDP5.0 still has a chance to get the very respectable award.

Thanks again!

Liu Zhaohui and Ma Wei
Opera Audio





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