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Finding the Perfect High-End Stereo Equipment Can Be a Journey into Musical Madness
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

High-end audio is its own rarefied world, a community so self-contained that new arrivals are barely noticed, although welcome. It is a club whose access, though democratic, still somehow smacks of initiation, usually with a price tag that can cause gasps.

So why bother? The answer comes not from the audio folks, but from the poet e.e. cummings: "Listen: there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go." That's it in a poetic nutshell. All of your life you've been listening to recorded music--rock, classical, soul, R&B--and there's a hell of a universe right next door that you've never heard. It's as simple and unbelievable as that.

My journey began during a visit to one of the better stereo shops in town, a conventional sort of place that sells at least a few brands that we've all heard of. The object was simple--a new compact disc player and an amplifier. I am not an audiophile, as the initiates call themselves. I was, and still am, just a guy who has always liked listening to music. I was prepared to spend some money, but I most definitely did not want to be bothered by my stereo setup. I wanted to play my compact discs and enjoy my music. I did not want to be--nor have I become--what audiophiles call a "tweak."

After doing a bit of research in the audiophile press, I concluded that Rotel was the brand of choice. An English company using Japanese parts, Rotel is a producer of moderately priced gear that even the audiophiles concede offers a lot of bang for the buck. You can pick up a Rotel compact disc player for about $450, which is peanuts by audiophile standards. I also was interested in Rotel's RB980 amplifier, which lists for about $600 but is available for less ("Excellent value for the money," says Stereophile magazine).

Within hours, a loaner unit was in my living room, and I discovered that it sounded great, but it didn't fit in my space. The spot where my wife and I have to put all of our stereo stuff is a deep, but extremely narrow, niche. The amplifier was no problem: I just stood it on its side. But there was no way that the compact disc player, which has to be flat on its feet, would fit. Still, I sat it on a table and strung a long wire (an "interconnect" in audio lingo) to rig it to the amplifier and preamp (a separate box that has the volume controls) so I could listen to it. The sound was great. The new amp made a difference, but it was the new compact disc player that really stood out. Who could have imagined a compact disc player could make such a difference?

But I needed something smaller. When I called the store, the salesperson noted that the Rotel job was one of the smaller ones. No help there. So I went to another store that mixed a little high-end equipment with more mainstream stuff. Feeling like a pervert confessing an intimate problem, I told the salesperson about my embarrassing space limitation. Did he have anything that sounds as good as the Rotel (which his store didn't carry) but would somehow fit into a foot-wide space?

To his credit, he didn't laugh out loud. He agreed that the Rotel was a good-value CD player. He had others that would equal it, but they, too, were of a similar size. "I do have one item, though, that would fit easily," he said. "But it's a lot more money." I was getting desperate. There was no going back. I had to find something. "Let me show it to you," he said, all choirboy innocence. Without my knowing it, I was about to step across the threshold into audiophilia. He lead me to a compact disc player of a sort I had never seen before: It was in two pieces. And it was wonderfully tiny. "This is a compact disc player?" I asked incredulously. "Why is it in two pieces?"

"This," he said, pointing to one small box, "is a California Audio Labs Alpha DAC (digital-to-analog converter). And that," he added, pointing to the other tiny box, "is a California Audio Labs Delta Transport." The "Transport" is the machine that spins and reads the disc; the DAC is the electronic guts of the gizmo that unscrambles the digital code. Every compact disc player, no matter what the price, has both. But usually they are enclosed in one box. This, I discovered, is not the high-end way.

I goggled at the two units. "Boy, those will fit in my space with no problem," I enthused. "How much is this CD player? And is it as good as the Rotel job?" Here, he finally allowed a small, faintly smug smile. Yes, he confirmed, it was as good as the Rotel--better, in fact. As to the price, he did warn me that it was significantly more expensive. "But how much more expensive could it be?" I riposted in my best swaggering, Diamond Jim Brady voice. He replied briskly: "The CAL Alpha DAC is $1,495 and the CAL Delta Transport is $895."

Math was never my strong suit, but by my calculations that was more than two thousand bucks! "$2,390 to be precise," he suavely replied. "But the Rotel job was $450," I protested. "You're showing me something that's five times as expensive." He conceded the point happily and then suggested that I take the two units home for a spin. "Look," I said firmly, "there's no way I'm going to spend two grand on a compact disc player."

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