Featured Pick:

Audio Aero Capitole 24/192

     For music lovers, this is probably the best sounding CD player you can buy. At $6200 (USA) it is priced competitively with other high end CD players, most of which can't even approach its sonics. The Capitole surpasses other great CD players at three virtues that are of primary importance to music lovers.
     First, for most of the spectrum the Capitole has a natural musicality that helps all your digital recordings sound more like live acoustic music, more like great analog recordings. The Capitole brings the same musical benefits as great sounding tube amplification does.
     Second, the Capitole penetrates deeply into the texture of music, revealing subtle inner details. In comparison, other CD players reveal only the outer gloss or outline of the music signal, thereby making it sound slightly artificial, canned, sterile. The Capitole's wealth of subtle detail reveals the true texture and timbre of live instruments and voices, so they sound more like the real thing and less like a canned recording.
     Third, the Capitole boasts superb stereo imaging, displaying a stage that markedly wider than other CD players. This naturally even further helps your digital recordings to sound more like real live music, since the music blossoms forth on a wide, airy, open expanse of stage space, instead of sounding confined within a canned, restricted stage space.
     Notice that all three of the Capitole's key sonic virtues help your digital recordings to sound more like real live music. That's the most important bottom line to music lovers. And that's why the Capitole is the best CD player for you.
     The Capitole breaks the bonds that have heretofore shackled CD, that have kept CD sounding somewhat sterile, canned, artificial, and opaque. The Capitole brings your existing CD library closer to the more natural, open, transparent sound one hears from the new super resolution digital formats, from great analog, and of course from live music itself.
     The Capitole's special sonic virtues are no accident. Its natural musicality, similar to great tube sound, is doubtless due to the Capitole's unique tube output stage. And its transparency, its penetrating revelation of a recording's subtle musical details, surely owes a large debt to the very special digital processing accomplished by the Swiss Anagram module on board. The Capitole's superior stereo imaging is chiefly a byproduct of its superiority at revealing all kinds of subtle musical information (since stereo imaging cues are themselves subtle details on a recording).
     Some other CD players have employed tube output stages, but the Capitole uniquely uses a subminiature 6021W glass tube, about the diameter of a pencil, the same size overall as a couple of vertically stacked 6CW4 Nuvistor metal cased tubes, and looking as if it came out of a Russian military airplane. The metal leads coming out of this tube's glass envelope are flexible wires that are soldered directly into the circuit, thus avoiding the imperfections of the usual tube pin and socket (suboptimal conductor materials, suboptimal dielectric materials, and questionable contact interface). This unique tube and its supporting circuitry give the Capitole a very high class tube sound, with most of tube sound's best qualities but few of its weaknesses.
     In contrast, most other CD players that have used a tube output stage have not fared nearly as well sonically (ARC being one of the few exceptions who have gotten tubes and CDs to work well together). In most other tubed CD players, the tube has acted as an excessive filter, curtain, and thick gauze veil, softening and veiling the sound excessively. Admittedly, it has reduced digital's frequently hard sterility and fatigue, but in the process it has also eliminated much of the true musical information on the recording. These other tubed CD players have represented the weaknesses of poor tube sound, without much of the strengths of great tube sound.
     What are the special features of the Capitole's tube sound? The Capitole's midranges and lower treble have a natural, easy liquidity that makes most digital CDs sound more like live acoustic music, more like great analog recordings. This combats the hard analytic glare that plagues the midranges and lower treble of many CDs. The Capitole's warmth and upper bass regions are rich and full, with good weight, heft, and body. This combats the lean sterility that plagues many CDs, and helps them sound more musically natural.
     Furthermore, the Capitole's tube sound does an excellent job of not taking tube sound too far (in some other tubed products, too much of a good thing turns a sonic virtue into a sonic vice). For example, the Capitole's upper bass is rich, but in our judgement it does not cross the line into boomy overhang as some other tubed products do.
     The Capitole also really shines at the spectral extremes, where most tubed units run into trouble. Many tubed CD players have heavy upper bass, but then very weak lower bass, so there's no support for the overly heavy upper bass, and no true impact and kick. The Capitole's lower bass is excellent, especially for a tubed product; this gives the Capitole's rich upper bass a real foundation, and a musically realistic impact and kick. At the other spectral extreme, the Capitole is surprisingly articulate, fast, and extended in the trebles. Most other tubed CD players turn fuzzy soft, defocused, and veiled in the trebles (perhaps going overboard in their attempt to compensate for the analytic hardness of digital CD sound). The Capitole proves that you can get the best of both worlds, with the virtues of tube sound and also very good performance out to the spectral extremes.
     The Capitole has a built in volume control, which makes it very handy for directly driving a power amp. This direct connection of course gives you the best access to the Capitole's wonderful tube sound and also its remarkable transparency. Interestingly, we found that a direct connection from the Capitole into excellent solid state power amps produced a combined system sound which imparted just enough tube sound and liquidity to tame the solid state nature of the power amp's sound. And, if you want a richer dose of tube sound, then of course you can use the Capitole with a tube power amp.
     The Capitole's other outstanding sonic virtue, its incredible transparency and revelation of music, relates to the on board module made by the Swiss Anagram company. What is this module, and what does it do? Let's explore this topic in some depth, because it's so important to the superior sound of the Capitole, and because you need to understand why the premium price you pay for this Anagram module feature in the Capitole is justified. This extensive exploration is separated out as a background sidebar. The Anagram module employs a Sharc DSP computer with 32 bit resolution, which gives it powerful calculating capability with high precision for high detail resolution and high accuracy. Incidentally, the resulting output from the Anagram digital processing is then passed on to an Analog Devices DAC chip, which is capable of supporting high sample rate input (192 kc) and high bit resolution (24 bits). The analog output of the DAC chip subsequently goes to the tube output stage. Digital inputs (up to 24/96) let you use the Capitole as a superb D-A processor too.
     The sonic benefits of Anagram's engineering are awesome. There is much extra detail revealed, compared to other CD players. But, interestingly, this detail does not sound analytical or overwhelming. It is not artificial, glossy, surface detail pasted on top of the music. Instead, it is almost subliminal, woven into the fabric of the music itself. It is subtle inner detail, which enhances the reality and naturalness of the musical reproduction. Clearly, this extra transparency and detail is bringing us closer to the original music waveform, because it is so integral to the music, becoming a key ingredient in the more true to life, more natural musical sound emanating from the Capitole. As the sidebar explains, sophisticated digital processing, by Anagram's on-board computer, can enhance the bit resolution of the 16/44.1 signal coming off the CD, and can re-create a music waveform that is more accurate to the original music waveform. This greater accuracy and improved bit resolution naturally implies that you'll hear less digitally induced error and more of the original musical information, including more transparency, more inner detail, cleaner purity, and more natural musicality. It also implies better stereo imaging, since the cues that establish good imaging are themselves simply subtle inner details embedded in the recording (details about hall wall reflections, ambience decay, etc.). All these implied sonic benefits are precisely what we hear as the Capitole's most remarkable sonic strengths.
     The Capitole's superior transparency and musicality are most evident at music's middle and lower frequencies, which is precisely where sophisticated computational processing algorithms can provide the greatest sonic benefits by enhancing resolution and waveform accuracy. Through the Capitole, you'll better hear and better appreciate the smoky breathiness of a singer, the subtle liquid resonance of a nylon guitar string, the angry buzz of a plucked double bass string. Through the Capitole, you can clearly hear that a piano has a large wooden sounding board, and that the hammers are made of wood and felt (through lesser CD players, digital recordings frequently make a piano fatiguingly sound as though steel hammers are hitting steel strings). Similarly, through the Capitole you can hear that a violin bow has gut strings and rosin stroking the main strings, whereas lesser CD players make violins sound like steel on steel.
     Even though the Capitole sounds musically very natural, it still also sounds very clear. It does not make the mistake that some other CD players make when they try for natural musicality and wind up being too soft, defocused, and veiled. This brings us to the Capitole's trebles, which are very unusual for a tube product. The Capitole's trebles are very clear, direct, and articulate. This is just the opposite of the vast majority of CD players on the market. CD players using tubes tend to be soft, defocused, and veiled in their trebles. Bitstream CD players and many using sigma delta DAC chips tend to be soft in their trebles, with the Bitstream players being very fuzzy with noise as well. And even very high class solid state CD players or processors, such as the Oracle, 3D, and dsd units, have trebles that are delicate and feathery (rather than sharp) in outline. This treble softness in other units might be a deliberate design choice, trying to half-heartedly compensate for the hard glare many CDs contain, or it might in some units be an unavoidable limitation of circuit design. We have higher respect for the Capitole's design strategy of eschewing the veiling, defocusing, softening band-aids that some other CD players use (intentionally or inadvertently). Instead, the Capitole strategy first puts the maximum effort into re-creating the original music waveform as accurately as possible by sophisticated calculation, and then revealing that result without apology or softening (and revealing it via a very clear sounding tube output stage).
     At first we thought that the Capitole's trebles might be a bit too hard, which would be the only sonic nit we could pick with this wonderful sounding component. Sibilants on wide open recordings sounded a bit too hard and clogged, as if the singers were clenching their teeth too tightly with their tongue pressed too tightly against the back of their teeth. A clean, open sibilant should sound as if there are many little jets of steam hissing, with instants of intertransient silence among the random hissing sounds. The Capitole's version of these sibilants seemed to clog up the silences and harden the hissing a bit. This is still preferable to the smearing, defocusing softening most other CD players do to sibilants (changing a clean "ssss" into a fuzzy "zzzhh"), but it didn't seem exactly right. We even suspected that the Anagram module's complex ultrasonic calculations might be experiencing overload clipping when strong treble energy came along. However, we have been spending a lot of time working with the Capitole (proof of how much we respect this machine), and experience has tempered our sonic critique of even this small nit. As we progressively used the Capitole with a wider and wider variety of associated audio components (both active components and cables), we began finding that the slightly hard sibilants could be tempered into naturalness by appropriate choices in associated components. This changeability alerts us as scientists that the slight hardness we hear might not be a fault in the Capitole per se, but instead might be the fault of other associated components displaying some hardness when confronted with the very clear, wideband articulateness of the Capitole's signal. We're still reporting this phenomenon to you, first because our style is to be very candid about everything, and second because you too might encounter the same slight hardness, depending on your associated component choices. If we hadn't alerted you to the possibility of expecting this, you'd be surprised and disappointed, you'd wonder if it was intrinsic to the Capitole, and you wouldn't know that you could simply resolve it by varying your choice in associated components. Well, now you know it all.
     The Capitole is generally very well constructed, packaged in a sturdy and heavy chassis that is quite attractive, with a black and gold color theme. The CD transport is a rigid metal framed unit, mounted on a wood subchassis, which in turn is shock mounted within the chassis as a whole. Access to the transport is via a sliding top door (which you must slide slowly, else the sensing switch control gets fooled), and the CD is held in place by a magnetic puck. This layout helps assure good rigidity within the transport subchassis, and good isolation from the outside world, without having to worry about one of those common flimsy sliding trays rattling about.
     We found only one real flaw in this wonderful CD player. The most mundane and simple task a CD player must perform is to obey your pushbutton commands. You know, the pushbutton that commands the transport to play track 10, or skip to the previous track, or scan backwards (so you can hear that last beautiful minute of music again). Every CD player, even the $59 WalMart special, can do this perfectly, so we take this capability for granted and don't give it a second thought. Ironically, we have here in the Capitole arguably the world's best sounding CD player, thanks to brilliantly sophisticated electronics. Yet the production Capitole we evaluated stumbles badly in executing the simplest, most mundane electronic task, obeying your simple pushbutton commands. Audio Aero is aware that their electronic control system has, shall we say, foibles, and they have promised to improve the situation with revised controls, including a better remote control.
     The remote control merits special mention because, on our production Capitole unit, it was a French contradiction, creatively complex and sophisticated, yet erratically dysfunctional at the basic meat and potatoes. The remote is a handheld computer with a touch panel, software driven LCD screen. In different software modes the LCD screen changes personality and menus, allowing this remote to control any of your household appliances, possibly even being able to instruct Mimi the maid to take Fifi the poodle out for a programmed walk. One of the controlled appliances is of course the Capitole CD player, and in this mode the whole LCD screen becomes a CD player controller. It's all very complex and sophisticated, and probably overly intimidating to the average music listener.
     On the other hand, when it comes to the simplest meat and potatoes functionality, this sophisticated and complex computerized LCD remote control collapses faster than you can say souffle. Example: press track numbers 1 through 9 and you go right to that track; fine. But press the button for track number 10 and nothing happens. Press the track button >10 and key in a number higher than 10; nothing happens. Want to simply skip to the next track? Fine. Want to jump back to the previous track? Can't do it. If you try pressing the previous track button, you simply go back to the beginning of the present track. Press it twice quickly in succession, and you still simply go back twice to the beginning of the present track.
     Want to scan quickly forward or backward? With common remotes you hold down a scan button and the CD scans at moderate speed for a few seconds, and then faster, and then faster yet. With the Capitole remote, you hold down a scan button and the CD scans for a couple of seconds, then quits scanning and starts playing (while you're still holding the scan button down)! If you want to scan forward, you can only accomplish a couple of seconds scanning for each button push, and you have to learn to keep manually releasing and re-pressing the scan button for each two seconds worth of forward scan you want. If you want to scan backward, you're in for torture. The machine scans backward for two seconds worth, but then immediately starts playing forward, thereby losing some of the little backward progress you've just made. You have to learn to release and re-press the backwards scan button in very precise timing, so the automatic forward play doesn't eat up the backwards scanning progress you just made before you press the button again for your next two seconds' worth of backwards scan. It's the French version of two steps backward, one step forward.
     These electronic control foibles are funny and trivial, the only Achilles' heel in what is otherwise a great machine. They do not detract from the spectacular sound and music one hears from the Capitole. Of course, these control foibles should not exist in even a cheap CD player, let alone a machine of such awesome achievement as the Capitole. And it does make one wonder how the engineering team who designed the incredible sonic circuitry could have allowed such incompetence in the control circuitry. Most of the time, we can overlook the Capitole's eccentric control foibles, and concentrate on the pure joy we experience from its music playing. We learn to think of the Capitole as a manual turntable in a world of automatic changers, and we're willing to put up with the occasional control inconvenience in exchange for the better sounding music. Once in a while, though, when we simply want to re-hear a minute of beautiful music, and we press the backwards scan button but can't get to it, we curse a bit. And then it is that we most eagerly anticipate the forthcoming Capitole with the revised control electronics, which will hopefully get these simple meat and potatoes issues right (a new, simpler, hopefully better remote is now shipping).
     We also look forward to the inevitable day when Audio Aero and Anagram turn their talents to a unit for the playback of DVD-A and SACD discs, for hopefully their ideas can improve the sound of these as well (and both these new super formats do need improvement, each in a different way). Meanwhile, as soon as the Capitole's control electronics can be made right, you have here a magical box that can make your whole treasured library of CDs sound like super format digital, like you've never heard them before, like the original music sounded.
     If your local dealer doesn't carry Audio Aero, they can be reached at: audioaero.com. Mailing address is: 2, rue Louis Breguet; 31700 Cornebarrieu; France. The North American importer/distributor is Globe Audio Marketing, at: globeaudiomkt.com. Mailing address is 17 Maplewood Ave, Hamilton ONT L8M 1X1, Canada.

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