The Cyrus CD6 SE CD player had been our favourite for some time, until last year that is, when the brilliant Audiolab 8200CD blew us away.

That doesn’t make this group test a foregone conclusion, though, oh no. Not only does it represent a fierce struggle for the Cyrus to regain its belt, it also introduces two new challengers that hope to throw a spanner in the works.

Ok, so “new” might not quite be the best phrase with which to describe the Roksan Kandy K2, which looks identical to its’ previous CDS model, but underneath the hood it’s undergone some quite hefty revisions, and as the previous model received a solid four stars, the portents look good.

The Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite also looks very promising. Essentially a smaller, more affordable version of the full-size Pearl that was released last year, it represents both the most forward-thinking player here, and also the only one with SACD support.

Weathering the digital-music storm

CD players have essentially changed very little over the years, so “forward-thinking” might seem an odd phrase to use, but we are suddenly starting to see progress, and ironically it’s thanks to the very thing that’s often perceived to be killing the CD: computer audio.

You see, as increasing numbers of people embrace PC and portable-based music, there’s a corresponding increase in demand for ways to integrate it into a proper hi-fi system – and the CD player is the perfect link in the chain for this integration to take place.

Why at the CD player stage and not the amplifier? Because an amplifier is already teeming with competing signals and currents, and adding a DAC there, though convenient, is fraught with risks. Sure, it can be done well, but a far simpler solution is to build digital inputs into the CD player, which (unless it’s a dedicated transport) already has a DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) to handle the digital data on CD.

That’s exactly what Audiolab and Marantz have done with their new players. Both boast optical and coaxial inputs, as well as a dedicated PC USB input. The Marantz takes this a step further with a front-mounted USB that will take digital signals from an iPod or iPhone.

Can those high-tech features sway the result in this closely fought test, or will outright sound quality seal the deal? Read on to find out…

Your Music Matters

As you’ll discover, the type of music you listen to can have a big impact on which CD player is right for you. This means it’s vital that you take your own music along when you audition a prospective player. Leave it to the salesperson and they’ll naturally pick tracks that make the unit they’re selling sound its best.

Audiolab 8200CD

The gold standard

It had to be really special to beat the Cyrus CD6 SE, and Audiolab’s 8200CD is exactly that.

We already know that the Audiolab 8200CD is brilliant; it took the What Hi-Fi? Product of the Year gong in the CD players category. last year. If even that high praise falls short of convincing you of the Audiolab’s quality, its performance here should seal the deal.

Organised but never clinical

In many ways the 8200CD has a similar sonic character to the Cyrus CD6 SE. Both players master in detail and neutrality, ensuring you hear your music as it was intended to be heard, but the Audiolab stretches ahead of its most well-respected of rivals in fluidity and dynamics, which adds up in the long run to greater musicality.

When playing our evergreen test favourite, Hans Zimmer’s The Dark Knight original soundtrack, the detail on offer is nothing short of stunning. Every note is perfectly, precisely placed, creating an overall presentation that’s flawlessly organised, even during the busiest, most cacophonous sections.

That’s amazing in itself, but what’s even more incredible is that it manages to combine this precision with natural, organic note degradation, brilliant, dramatic dynamics and a smooth flow. That means that when you play Aggressive Expansion, the drums hit with serious force, but there’s nothing clinical about the delivery; instead it ebbs and flows with effortless drama.

Get into the spec list of the 8200CD and it proves to be the gift that keeps on giving. Alongside the traditional RCA and balanced outputs are coaxial and optical inputs and outputs, and even a USB input, making this a seriously useful bit of kit for those who use a computer as an audio source.

In fact, the product’s designer describes the 8200CD as a high-quality DAC with a built-in disc drive, and while that might sound like an odd way of looking at it, the player’s performance bears the claim out: a WAV file fed from a laptop sounds very close to the same track played from CD. Indeed, you’d have to spend a good few hundred dollars on a standalone DAC of similar quality.
 

Filter tips

There are a couple of things to remember if you decide to buy one. First, as with many quality
CD players, there’s an option to turn off the display – and as with those other players you should do that to maximise sound quality. The second is more unique: the Audiolab has four digital filter options, but only the ‘optimal transient’ setting truly lets it realise its potential. These are minor points though. The fact is, the Audiolab 8200CD really is a seriously special bit of kit.

Silver medal for Cyrus

Though still effortlessly brilliant, the Cyrus CD6 SE is no longer the champion in its class. 

Given its competition in the shape of the Audiolab 8200CD, the Cyrus CD6 SE has its work cut out – but let’s not forget what a special player it is. Arriving on the scene (after many, long delays) back in September 2008, it didn’t so much beat the competition, as completely smash it.

Tight, punchy and precise

The key was a brand new, in-house-developed CD transport and accompanying software that minimised errors and maximised detail and precision. And boy, did it work – we described it as being ‘astonishing’, and ‘comparable with the very best machines around, regardless of price’. The good news is that it’s still astonishing.

The bad news, for Cyrus at least, is that it’s no longer the only astonishing CD player in its class.

Play Crystal Castles’ Empathy, though, and it’s hard to imagine a better-sounding unit. The CD6 SE is exceptionally tight, punchy and precise. The leading edge of the digital clap hits like a smack in the head while the bass is like a kick in the guts – in a good way, of course. As the track gets busier and more fractal, the Cyrus controls it like the conductor of the world’s most organised orchestra, with each note placed perfectly in space and time.

Cyrus kit has a reputation for being a bit bright and light weight, but a switch to Ludovico Einaudi’s Nightbook proves that these days that’s far from the truth. Here the strings and higher piano notes are sparkly and direct, but never harsh, and there’s weight and depth to the bass that creates real authority and solidifies the track’s early sense of foreboding and drama.

Serious sonic character

It is true, though, that you wouldn’t want to partner the CD6 SE with kit that’s already very excitable, as the cumulative giddiness could go a little too far. It seems peculiar to talk about weaknesses when referring to the Cyrus – we’re far more used to extolling its many virtues – but the arrival of the Audiolab 8200CD does shift the goalposts a little.

The new rival evinces a smooth fluidity and dynamic nuance that just about outshines even the staggering performance of the CD6 SE. Of course, the big dynamic shifts are beautifully rendered here, but tiny, low-level dynamic details – from the slight change of pressure on the piano keys to the ever-so-gradual decay of a note from a violin – are slightly less compellingly presented. 

That said, It’s not a huge difference in absolute quality: the CD6 SE has a gorgeous sonic character all of its own, and such a breadth of qualities, that it fully deserves to retain its five-star rating. While its lack of digital inputs is significant, the Cyrus’s exceptional performance and endless upgradeability make it the only conceivable alternative to the all-conquering Audiolab.

A valiant contender

The Marantz would come up trumps among lesser competition, but not against these rivals.

Ken Ishiwata knows a thing or two about hi-fi. He’s the key designer, developer and brand ambassador for Marantz, and signs off on all new products – if he doesn’t like it, it doesn’t get made.

To celebrate 30 years of working together, the company released the KI Pearl amp and SACD player, which Ishiwata himself then demoed around the world. He discovered during these demos that a huge number of people loved the kit,
but with a strictly limited production run and a hefty price tag, few stood any chance of ever owning them. This, he says, is what inspired him to create the SA-KI Pearl Lite CD player you see here.

 

Warmth and character abound

The SA-KI Pearl Lite does contain some of the components from the original Pearl CD player (the DAC, for example), but it’s more about a shared musical treatment and sonic character. This approach is largely based on faithfully reproducing the original recording, but with a touch of added warmth to the mid and mid-high frequencies. Broadly speaking, it works very well indeed.

Play Norah Jones’s Come Away With Me and it does a wonderful job with the lilting vocals, reproducing them in warm, flowing and sexy style. The languid double bass is deep and full-bodied, and the cymbal and electric guitar are well-defined but rounded and smooth. Each instrument is also given space to breathe in the wide soundstage, and the whole delivery floats from the speakers.

These are qualities that make the Marantz ideally suited to smooth, jazzy music, as well as the more relaxing classical recordings like Bach’s Air on a G String. However, play something more modern and attacking, and the Pearl Lite begins to struggle. Take Eminem’s W.T.P. for example, it’s is all spit and swagger, full of hundred-rounds-a-second rapping underpinned by heavy, deep bass drums and electronic high hat, but the Marantz struggles to properly define those all-important leading edges.

 

iPods and SACDs? No problem

Still, the Marantz does trump the competition on the connections front by offering not only coaxial, optical and USB inputs on the back, but also a USB socket on the front that’s designed to take digital signals from an iPod or iPhone. The SACD functionality will also please those who’ve stuck with the hi-res discs. 

That’s not enough to secure it the full five stars, though. It’s not that the Marantz isn’t a good CD player – on the contrary, it’s a great one – but the level of competition in its price range is extraordinary, and the SA-KI Pearl Lite is just outclassed for sonic quality.

Sweet succes for Kandy

Don’t let the four stars fool you – Roksan’s latest Kandy K2 is a great, fun, all-rounder.

R

oksan does things differently to other manufacturers. Rather than releasing a product and spending years designing and developing an all-new replacement, the company constantly experiments with new components and releases minor but regular upgrades. The names stay largely the same, as does the styling, so although this may seem identical to the Kandy K2 (2009), on the inside much has changed.

This Kandy K2 has a new CD mechanism, an improved transformer and power supplies, improved noise isolation, and a more stable master clock, all of which is meant to enhance detail retrieval, dynamics and timing.

 

Enthusiastic but never annoying

Has it worked? Yup. Compared with previous versions this is far cleaner and more precise, but the essential full-bodied and enthusiastic character remains. Play God Particle from the Angels and Demons OST and the early strings and ethereal whispers build the tension tantalisingly. When the violins join in they twinkle the treble without sounding piercing, and when the track reaches its first crescendo, the Roksan proves to be effortlessly dynamic and authoritative. There’s huge body and depth to the soundscape,
but it’s also nimble and thrilling.

It lacks the precision of the Cyrus and Audiolab, but in this case that isn’t a bad thing. The Kandy’s marginally wider brush means it finds it hard to illustrate the finest details, and there’s a slight rounding-off of edges, but it’s more insightful and driven than the Marantz and really gets to the core of the music.

This approach means the Roksan can turn its hand to any music. Foo Fighters’ Wheels is bouncy, weighty, big and supremely clear and open in the vocals, The Unthanks’ Here’s the Tender Coming is authentically mournful and nuanced and The Chemical Brothers’ Swoon is club-fillingly open, dynamic and chunky. 

 

Roksan remote is swank zapper

What this all adds up to is a genuine all-rounder that’s impossible not to love, unless you hate the glossy-panelled styling, of course (and there are some who do). Also, although there’s an optical output to allow the K2 to be used as a simple transport, it lacks the digital inputs that allow rivals like the Audiolab to be used a DAC.

Still, we give praise to Roksan for providing a programmable touchscreen remote that makes those that come with most other CD players look like dim-witted poverty sticks.

But it all comes down to sound, and if you want to hear everything on the disc precisely as it’s supposed to be, you’re probably best off looking elsewhere. However, if you want a player that will find the fun in any recording, the Roksan could be for you.