Here to stay
Since the arrival of the compact disc 25 years ago, Ken Kessler has listened to scores of
CD players in his system. He's kept two: one a tweaked two-box combo that now sells for
more than it did when unveiled in 1996, the other the world's first player to feature a valve
analogue output stage. Want to know which players they are? Read on ...
While Paul Miller was writing
his epic history of CD [see
p94J, it occurred to me that
very few players have stayed
for long stretches in my system. Over 200
have been through my hands - nothing
when you consider that there may have
been as many as 5000 different models
since the format's launch - and one that
still serves me well is Marantz's CD-12/
DA-12 of circa 1989. Using it brands me
a Luddite because the Marantz is a 16-bit
player with a Philips COM 1 transport. It
should have 'died' a decade ago. It is. in
generational terms. positively primordial.
And yet ... while the Marantz appears
primitive when compared to players
boasting niceties like upsampling, it also
seems prescient. At a time when few
others did, it employed three power
supplies in the standalone DAC, and
exhibited build quality that denied any
feelings of transience as regarded CD's
longevity. It offered single-ended and XLR
balanced outputs. Toslink and coaxial
outputs and plenty of spare inputs on the
DA-12 DAC, as if foreseeing the need to
accommodate other digital sources. That
was nearly 20 years ago.
Recently. Meridian's estimable John
Bamford visited my listening room and
marvelled at the sound of the CD-12/
DA-12, while showing concern for the
inevitable demise of its mechanical
innards. It was the still-functioning state
of the CD-l 2 as much as the lush, liquid
sound that impressed him.
Mine was one of the handful tweaked
in 1996 by no less than Ken Ishiwata,
who found a stash of 'Double Crowns'
to replace the 1541 converter chip. Ken
hand-selected, measured and personally
auditioned the 'Double Crowns', seeking
the best linearity. New decoupling
capacitors were fitted, output op-amps
and power supplies were uprated and
numerous elements were replaced with
superior types. The results were, as I
wrote. 'mind-boggling, the performance
on a par with black vinyl:
Apparently, only 500 CD-12/ DA-12s
were sold in Europe. They cost £2500
back in 1989; they now change hands
for up to £4000. Why? Because they are
among the finest-sounding CD players
The Marantz replaced my first 'reference'
player. Memory being what it is, I'm sure
that some will contest my telling of the
California Audio Labs Tempest tale. What I
certainly recall is a conversation with Neil
Sinclair, later of Theta, at CES in Chicago
in 1985. toying with the idea of fitting a
valve stage to a CD player. The following
January. CAL appeared with the world's
first valve analogue output-stage CD
player, the Tempest. Whether I inspired
Neil or not may strike some as a wild
boast, but Neil, too, recalls that moment.
I would like to think it was the one thing
I contributed to high-end audio, because
many valve CD players since then have
been through my listening room, and I
loved a fair few. But CAL did it first.
That player and its successors, the
Tempest II with outboard power supplies
and the IISE with improved Burr-Brown
PCM58 DACs. were used consistently prior
to the arrival of the Marantz CD-12/
DA-12. What they did was remove a lot of
the artifice that marred early CD playback.
And no less than Ken Ishiwata told me that
he used the Tempests as yardsticks when
voicing the CD-12/ DA-12. Which explains
why I fell in love with the latter.
Which was convenient: the Tempest
was never reliable, and mine has been
sitting in a service bay for a decade,
three top engineers having given up on
it. so screwy was its circuitry. But when it
worked, it was magical. And I featured it
in 1999 in Hi-Fi News' list of the greatest
audio products of all time.
I can't pretend to know what the
unit sounds like compared to the best of
today's players, and I certainly preferred
the Ishiwata-tweaked CD-12/ DA-12 to the
Tempest IISE. But if you get the chance
to hear either the CD-12 or the Tempest.
you'll regret ever saying that CD sucked.