Opera Audio Reference 2.2 Linear CD player
I reviewed the more modest CD 120 Linear from Opera Audio by Consonance for The Stereotimes a little while ago and was so impressed with it, particularly at its price point ($995.00), that I simply had to ask USA Opera Audio distributor Stephen Monte of ‘Quest for Sound' for a sample of the ‘high-priced spread.' Plus—I didn't feel that the one pair of white gloves that came with my CD 120 was quite enough for my needs. A fresh pair was definitely in order.
The CD 120 Linear CD player I reviewed for ST employs a Kusonoki-type non-oversampling DAC and I surmised that the blame for its natural, un-hyped sound-- one competitive with many a more expensive player (including my twice-as-pricey reference Lector), might be laid squarely at the feet of this filterless DAC. As with the 120 Linear, the 2.2's ‘Linear' designation signifies that this unit too employs a non-OS DAC. However, by way of justifying the thousand dollar jump in price, in addition to a much more solid and elaborate build, this player has yet another goody up its partly wooden sleeve; namely a triode output stage utilizing the vaunted C6H30 ‘super tube.' The 6H30 is the very same ‘super tube' used by some of the high-end BAT products in which, I understand, scores big-time in terms of dynamics and detail over units using the ‘less super' equivalent.
The same chunky ‘aluminum brick' remote you get with the 120 Linear also comes standard with the 2.2 and you still get to choose via a button on it from two different digital sampling rates—44.1kHz or 88.2 kHz. Regarding the two sampling rates, while I enjoyed testing the ‘goldenness' of my ears by periodically swapping between them, and while you may clearly prefer one or the other, I ultimately concluded there was a pretty slight sonic difference between the two, with perhaps the former sounding a bit more ‘rough and ready' and the latter a touch more smooth or ‘refined.' Though the differences were relatively small, I did appreciate the extra measure of control over my sound this choice afforded me. Stephen Monte of Consonance and ‘Quest for Sound' tells me opinions vary even among company employees/engineers as to which is the ‘better' rate, so don't feel too bad about it if you can't decide on the ‘better' rate yourself!
So let's see—a non-OS DAC and a ‘super' tubed triode output stage, user selectable sampling rates, plus another pair of crisp white official Team Consonance gloves? Whew Stephen, you had me at ‘hello!'
Including the cost of the white gloves, the Reference 2.2 Linear retails for 1995.00 and holds the office of ‘vice-president' in Consonance's digital hierarchy, sitting at the right hand of the Consonance Droplet 5.0, a curvaceous top-loading player with a polished hardwood casing cleverly styled to evoke the aesthetic of a drop of water. This player too employs tubes, though is (curiously?) fitted with a more audio-standard 24-bit, over-sampling DAC in the engine room. Aesthetically, the Ref 2.2 Linear has in common with that sultrily styled player a finished plank of hardwood planed to a gentle arc, and seated regally atop its otherwise traditional silver box casement. A bit of artistic one-upmanship as compared to the humble CD 120 Linear, this sculptural addition serves both to soften the otherwise traditional line a bit, (without going over the top into ‘chinciness'), while at the same time shoring up and/or preventing the otherwise ordinary aluminum casing from ringing or vibrating to some degree in ‘consonance' with your music.
The player sports two large polished chromed knobs on its front, one on either side of the thick silver faceplate. The one on the right allows you to tell your elegantly styled player how to please you-- play/pause etc., and the other serves the dual function of power on/off and opening or closing the rather sturdy drawer. Interestingly, you do not turn these knobs (I spent the first five minutes with the player dumbstruck as to why it wouldn't obey its new master). No sir—that would be too pedestrian. Rather, you nudge (and that is the best word) them toward the North, South, East or West depending on what you'd like you 2.2 to do. She quickly gets the hint and track access time is mercifully short. Moreover, the drawer opens and closes with a reassuring solidity, unlike the CD 120 Linear, with whose drawer mechanism I had some difficulty.
The Sound of ‘Super' Tubed Filterlessness
Fortunately, upon first hooking up the 2.2 I still had the CD 120 Linear in-house. For once I didn't have to rely on audio memory, which, as many of you can attest to, isn't terribly accurate for terribly long! Had I not been happily listening to the 120 Linear just a few short hours prior, I wonder if I would have been quite as dumbstruck as I was by the relatively striking sonic differences between them; differences which were quite obvious initially, seemed to run counter to ‘audio intuition,' and which were readily audible despite periodic changes in ancillary equipment. Firstly, the 2.2 Linear was somehow ‘faster' sounding than the 120. Every single
CD I played, from the Philips three CD set of Mozart's String Quintets [Philips 422511-2], to my girlfriend's fave band ‘The Fray' seemed to have been, to borrow a phrase that did NOT originate from Harry Pearson's pen, ‘kicked up a notch.' No need to cite specifics here I feel, as this was an across the board phenomenon and was immediately apparent on head-to-head comparison with both my tubed Lector CDP 0.6T and the 120 Linear.
By way of corroboration, my good audiophile buddy and fellow psychiatry resident David Street borrowed the 2.2 Linear and noted precisely the same effect via his Gallo Ref 3's. He too listened to the unit right after having heard the 120 Linear for a few days—itself no slouch in the timing department—and reported the 2.2 was pacier and punchier. Of note, changing the sampling rate did not seem to have any impact on this particular sonic quality.
In speaking of the 2.2's propensity to ‘turbo charge' rhythms, I shouldn't neglect to tell you that, after having had several Consonance products in for review, including most recently their excellent mid-priced M400 tube mono-blocks, all of them seem similarly gifted rhythmically. In so stating, I do not mean to imply they are overly ‘fast' or ‘twitchy;' merely that with the Consonance line, you don't have to worry that a sprinkling or even a generous helping of tubes in your gear will equate to superb tonality at the expense of taught rhythms. Secondly, as compared with the CD 120 Linear, a player I liked as well as my Lector, the 2.2 sounded slightly sunnier and more forward. The choral singers and soloists for example on one of my fave oratorios, Haydn's The Seasons [HMC901829.30], seemed to have moved themselves toward me a few feet. The stage they occupied seemed to define a broader arc and there was more separation of the vocal parts.
Indeed there was more detail on offer with the 2.2 Linear in general and this coupled with its pacey nature resulted in musical transients (the pop of a drumstick on wood or the twang of a guitar string) that were literally(!) startling at times. The rimshots and percussive sounds punctuating and driving the infectious Latin rhythms on Bebo & Cigala's Lagrimas Negras CD [Bluebird RCA 55910] now took on a punch and snap that could almost be taken for live. Cymbals on CDs such as Emmy Lou Harris's Wrecking Ball [Asylum 61854-2] were a bit brighter and more shimmery; more metallic. As I mentioned above, the 2.2's sonic signature—brighter, sunnier, more forward faster-- ran counter to what my intuition told me to expect. I reasoned that the tube employed in the 2.2's circuitry would likely sweeten the tonality a smidge, hamstring the unit's PraT to some degree and perhaps even sheer off some detail in the process. I was wrong on all accounts.
I should say that at times there may have been a slight thinning of the sonority of tones from the lower middle registers on down. This did not seem to result in any curtailment of bass quantity and perhaps the 2.2's generally more forward presentation served to highlight this a bit. This may also simply have been the 2.2 Linear revealing a given recording for what it actually was — rather than giving me the slightly more plumped and pleasant view to which I may have grown accustomed. In this vein, the 120 Linear does bear a certain tonal resemblance to my Lector which itself is a bit ‘bloomy.' Thus both players might have sounded ‘fatter' by way of comparison.
News Flash: Audiophile's boredom results in shootout
So how would the three different players in my possession fare against one another if took the same track of music and fed it to one right after the other, making only slight adjustments to the volume when appropriate? Glad you asked. Bored and lacking for vibration damping platforms, one Saturday I decided to stack the three players directly atop one another, let them all warm up for an hour or so, and have a go at a favorite operatic moment of mine — the Pavarotti/Battle … Esulti pur la Barbara” duet from ‘L'Elisir D'Amore [DG 429744-2] — via all three players in relatively rapid succession.
For the purposes of the following, the 2.2 will serve as the ‘reference' unit. First up- the Lector; and in switching to it directly, it quite obviously sounded warm and weighty—almost too warm and weighty. The cellos and basses of the Metropolitan Opera Symphony took on a definite ‘pluminess,' though the effect was not really objectionable — just probably not strictly accurate.
It is important here to note that the treble on the ProAc Response 1.5's I use as a reference has always sounded slightly tipped up to me and it is entirely possible the 2.2 was simply revealing this to a greater degree than the Lector. Pace was obviously slower than with the 2.2 driving and sudden musical entrances and staccato instrumental or vocal bursts lost a bit of their dynamism and startle factor. (There was in fact a track on the …. conducted ‘The Seasons' recording on… that contained, if memory serves, a sudden cymbal crash that was positively heart stopping via the 2.2 Linear! Well —recorded door knocks in operas such as ‘La Nozze Di Figaro' were also arrhythmia-inducing). There seemed to be slightly less overall detail on offer with the Lector, and the soundstage may have perhaps been less broad, though it maintained its dimensions in terms of depth. On to the CD 120 Linear then. Some of the Lector's plumminess was removed and now there was a touch more pace—though just a hair. This player portrayed detail to about the same degree as the Lector and had similar imaging properties, though I do feel it just edged the Lector in dynamics.
Essentially therefore, the 120 Linear walked a line Johnny Cash style between the precision and speed of the 2.2 and the slightly ‘bloomy' Lector while having about the same facility with detail as the latter. In sum then, the two tubed players are at opposite ends of the tonality spectrum, with the pure solid state player sandwiched between.
Of note, several reviewers have commented to the effect that 2.2 is somewhat on the ‘sunny side of the street' as compared with Consonance's own much beloved Droplet 5.0 player, causing me to believe that the Lector players likely have a good deal more in common with a player like the Droplet—a warmer, err…wetter sounding player.
There are those who feel the Reference 2.2 Linear excels its baby brother the CD 120 Linear in all areas. Do not count me among them. Both players (and I am not being paid to say this- trust me) are absolutely superb examples of value-for-dollar sonics and style and I for one could live happily with either. The two Consonance players bracket my Lector in terms of price, if not quite in terms of sonic temperament, with the 120 almost managing to sound like the twice-as-pricey Lector minus a touch of mid-bass emphasis (pleasing though it is!) and with perhaps a shade more dynamic punch. The 2.2 on the other hand, steps it up a notch as compared with the other two players in terms of detail, pace, macro dynamics and soundstage width. It is also more solidly built than the 120 Linear with more luxurious ergonomics.
I think it goes without saying that if you're in the market, the 2.2 is a player I would strongly recommend you consider adding to your own little music box collection. Then again, I would also strongly recommend you consider its little brother, and not just if you're less thick in the wallet. The 120 and the 2.2 make different musical arguments to be sure, though both speak eloquently.
Along these lines, I would conjecture that if your system tends toward the warmer, perhaps slower side of things, the 2.2 Linear might be just the kick in the glen-plaid pants you're in need of. Likewise, if you're the proud owner of say, a pair of older Thiele speakers and a big ol' Krell amp set up just so in your imported Italian marble room, the detail of the 2.2 might be too much of a good thing.
In other words, the 120 Linear is a bit more forgiving and probably gets along better with a broader range of equipment, whereas the 2.2 is more demanding in terms of ancillary equipment and system synergy, but offers in return the aforementioned gains in resolving power, dynamic punch and pace.
I really have to hand it to Consonance. I have now reviewed two of their CD players and a review of their jewel-like M400S monoblocks is forthcoming. I have yet to hear their components do anything untoward. To the contrary, all three of these pieces have given me hours of listening pleasure, sport tasteful- even artful styling, and don't cost the earth. Let's see—only 50 or so more delectable Consonance products left to review and I'm done—Stephen Monte are you listening??!!
Non-Oversampling, No digital filter
J-FET/ Transistors made of analog filter without any op-amp
6H30 Tube output stage
Sampling frequency: 44.1kH/88.2kH (selected manually using remote control unit) Output voltage: 2.35V
Digital output: 1 group, Unbalanced
Non-Oversampling, Digital-filterless DAC
Retail price: 1995.00