The little machine by Matthias Böde

The first CD-player by Nagra looks rather explicit and traditional, an Fischer technique-like. Yet this small equipment has something special about it: in the listening room it competed well with splendid brands and accomplished in a brilliant manner...

test system
(SA)CD player: Esoteric X-01, Krell EVO 505, Pathos Endorphine
integrated amplifier: Krell FBI
pre-amplifier / power amplifier: Soulution 720/710
loudspeakers: Dynaudio Evidence Temptation, Verity Rienzi, Wilson Sophia 2
rack: Finite Pagode Reference
cable: HMS Gran Finale Jubilee (XLR/Cinch), Kimber KS-1036, Nordost Valhalla

„Stop, what are you doing?!" This outcry of consideration was triggered by Sina Kovacevic from Nagra Vertrieb Gaudios, who brought to our editiorial office the first CD-player, CDC model, of the renowned Swiss company. Of course, we wished to test this jewel weighting about four kilograms, by examining its heart (or, rather, hertzes). But not like that!

Kovacevic, who grabbed the opened drawer, waved with it bravely in the air: in case of any other player it would mean its inevitable end, yet the CDC, unlike ourselves, remained unimpressed.

Very likely it would be hard to demonstrate the mechanical solidness in a more drastic manner. We were captivated by this unimaginably solid, „little machine", as we soon nick-named Nagra CDC and we remain under its spell, for many reasons, until today – this much, I guess, I can already reveal. These devices, made with watchmaker’s precision, are produced in Chescaux near Lausanne, possess, especially in professional circles, the celebrity fame, and still also in HiFi sector the Swiss achieved much more substantial success than simple confirmation of their class. The tube Pre PL-P made again in the same, handy shape and size as the CDC, or mono VPA operating on glowing tubes (tests in STEREO 3/98 and 3/99), are among, of course, the top attractions of Nagra’s offer. And moreover, they feature this „special thing": the Nagra’s aura, making the product origin recognizable even without a glimpse at the company’s logo.

Also this CDC is a player like no other. It is offered even in three versions with different implementations and designation: the presently tested CDC costs about 13 500 euro, it is a full version with volume and balance control through an engine potentiometer and with Nagra’s typical „modulometer" – an indicator differentiated for each channel, informing a listener about a level of processed music. The CDP model offered for about 12 200 euro does not feature this function, and the CDT model (for about 11 300 euro) is a version stripped to a driving mechanism.

This seemingly minute concession in favor of the solution of the driving mechanism placed next to a converter and output posts indicates what has been invested in at the most: the mechanics. Shifting the tiny switch on the front panel upwards makes the drawer slide open with an accompaniment of a light purr. This experience, related to the precision mechanics, may cause sensitive persons be "captured by Nagra" once and for all. And there is a reason: indecently expensive engine for this gear was designed by a Swiss specialist who equipped with similar drives, for instance, robots sent by NASA to the Mars.

Nothing dares vacillate or quiver here. There is no way to compare it to some competitors’ pitiful plastic drawers shielded with metal panels. When one takes a closer look, it turns out that the Swiss combined two philosophies here.

Already the CD driving mechanism by Philips Pro 2 possesses a uniquely stabile and twist-resistant frame. And the driving mechanism itself, which, by the way, did not emanate the slightest hiss during performance, is settled by Nagra on oscillating support silicone block - its regulation, neither too firm not too soft, required much sensitivity and patience even from the detail and precision oriented Swiss.

Even though the „CD" series is the first trip of Nagra to this area, still the company has at its disposal a huge experience in binary solutions. One of examples could be an unusual digital tape recorder D II, that has recently delighted us with reproducing master tapes from live performances as no other source before – both analogue and digital (see: Workshop STEREO I/07).

On the basis of this long standing practice they created the VCXO device – „Voltage Controlled Crystal Oscillator". Letter „X" stands for quartz, and the stream of data from a compact disc directly after leaving the drive and its control is formed anew with great precision. One may precisely set the demanded frequency by changing the voltage. This regulation Nagra itself considers as the "heart" of its unconventional CD player.

But not too much can be hold in view. After removing an aluminium cover of the CDC we see an interior of meticulously organized casket. One immediately notices a golden, metal envelop of a converter section about which it can be learnt as much as that they applied here the Burr-Brown-Chip with the most modern construction. Signals from the previously mentioned Reclocking Station are delivered here by means of the „balanced line", that is symmetrically.

From DAC it moves directly to the section with an option of volume and balance control by means of the top-class system Alps-Potis, with handwheels or a remote control – it applies as well to a headphones’ amplifier with a splendid performance.

Volume regulation option is always on the signal path. Since Nagra assumes that clients purchasing the CDC wish to control the power amplifier by means of the CD-player. A person not wishing so, may decide for model CDP, and save 1 300 euro; this seems logical. However, in practice clients order almost exclusively model CDC. It seems that the fascination with the precisely calibrated modulometer outgrows, quite understandably, sheer calculation.

Let’s imagine that someone takes this handy "little machine" for a holiday, or to a resort cottage, to enjoy it while listening to this "noble iPod" on the headphones or a pair of over-there active loudspeakers. Would that be considered an extreme sophistication, or maybe decadence already?

Never mind. Let’s keep looking since behind the controls there is a strong section of volume output gear, leading to two pairs of sockets: Cinch and XLR. Processing of signals remains symmetrical also in the analogue area, and the Swiss, with the help of the new chip, aim at realization of the signal building „sinusoidal process" without transformers.

The CDC player intakes the direct current of 12 volts from a separate power supply – the voltage is next divided and processed into individual supply voltages. The feeder cable is long enough to place a power supply in a sufficient distance from the CD-player which prevents any interference of its ring-shaped transformer.

One gets used to handle this – also in this respect – an unconventional player. The CD-player is switched on with an inlet handwheel on the right that, along with an above switch for a title activation, controls driving mechanism functions. When positioned on „R", then all functions, except a drawer, operate by a delivered metal remote control. In case when we positioned our dreamer’s pre amplifier Soulutions 720 at a demanded volume level, and Nagra’s decibel calibrated volume control was on maximum, this configuration performed even better than Nagra directly connected with the 710 power amplifier.

It was better still. It is a right expression since the day when Nagra’s „little machine" arrived in our editorial office was a lucky day: considering the sound this day moved us a great deal forward. Esoteric X-01, so deeply loved by us, has already attained an intimidating Goliath’s pose, ready to swallow up the Swiss David for breakfast. 25 kilograms versus good four – that’s not fair! And yet the CDC player drubbed it mercilessly with „fat" impulses of the „Red Baron" song by the Rippingtons from a brilliant Christmas sampler by „Monster Music". So precisely, so directly and homogeneously with respect to dynamics and musical structure, so clearly and swiftly as fresh water, our Esoteric – seemingly more „sticky, rounded, artificial" and, on the whole, more plain – simply does not perform.

I never thought that I will ever use these words towards the splendid model of X-01. But the CDC player simply surpasses it. It goes without saying that for both competitors we have created completely identical conditions: they were both ready next to each other on a Finite Pagode Reference rack, supplied through Vibex Power-Block – of course, with the application of identical power cords. In such circumstances there are no excuses.

With some respects, this Swiss „firecracker" defines parameters anew for both ear-friendly, natural sound reproduction categories, as well as for emotional categories. Special attention draws the Arts painted infused soundstage of the so far unmet quality.

The CDC player grades width, depth and height and creates within this spectrum a 3-dimentional structure which, when compared with our so far top-references, make them more narrow, flat and less „full-bodied".

Now we should assume that in the digital sector and in case of this class of CD-players, time faults do not occur. However, the comparison test indicated that it so happens in case of Esoteric. One had an impression as if different layers of frequency shifted slightly against each other. Bass was thicker, more resounding, one had an impression that it slightly delayed, when compared with Nagra where bass was equally as clear as firm, and still full of substance. As a result, in the middle register delicate discolorations and dissonant interferences emerged that, due to much more obvious faults of other CD-players, had never drew our attention before.

And, when one moved on to the CDC player, all these effects and artifacts disappeared, each type of music was reproduced as, to use the cliché yet here fitting as a glove expression, the „precision cast". Never before have we experienced our Soulution amplifiers with Wilson Audios Sophia 2 so perfectly, while applying digital sources. It concerns especially the Cinch output. Nagra explained that much technical effort is required concerning the application of outputs of symmetrical cables XLR, with high noise immunity. Simultaneously, in ordinary conditions, the equipment should offer a better sound performance from unsymmetrical cables. And so it does, as we checked with the help of identical HMS cables. With an application of XLR cables the sound is slightly veiled and not so definite.

And at last the most important issue: all that results in an overwhelming and fascinating musical effect. Whether it is Judy Collins singing her tiny „Turn, turn, turn", or a complete orchestra reaching the full tutti – a man becomes attracted in an instant and cannot escape. At once you ask yourself about own account resources. One experiences moments that, with their impressions and delights, wish to be shared immediately with other HiFi fans, knowing that several seconds of such listening offers more than a thousand of beautiful words.

No one expected this, since, for instance, Nagra’s preamplifier PL-P, even though remarkable too, did not reach the very top. However, the CDC player can be a „killer". We tried to be so much brave that we „fed" with our Hybrid SACD both competitors, when Nagra played a role of a CD-player, whereas Esoteric played a role of a stereo SACD player. Namely, in this situation, X-01 player was obviously put forward. And indeed, it offered bigger and flourishing with more colors sound image from SACD discs. And yet, it did not come closer to an authentic naturalness of Nagra’s CD player that „consumes" exclusively compact discs.

And so the party was over: a group of CD players has finally received the genre appropriate top references. Esoteric and Krell share the throne among SACD players, whereas Nagra’s „little machine" with a big musical heart wins at once a permanent position in a listening room. And when someone dares grab its open drawer to swing it in the air once more – I will personally give him a slap on the hand!

I will accept every bet that Nagra’s „little machine" is becoming a dream of every HiFi fan. This device, that is very likable, yet first of all is a gem of technique and mechanics, is going to strengthen Nagra’s company renome further on. The player worth every euro, even if only for an incredible quality of sound.

Laboratory: Also in the laboratory the „little machine" performed with a precision of a Swiss watch. At least in the splendid majority of cases, since with the classical filter construction there is rather no reason to obtain a frequency shift of –1,3 dB at 20 kHz. And, apart from this, all top class performances: 0,16 % of noise (400 Hz/-60 dB), 0,011 % of aliasing distortion (-30 dB), maximum non-linearity of converter up to 90 dB is the minimum of 0,2 dB. Distances of noises for digital zero/quantization is a fantastic value of 110/98 dB. Reactions in a rectangular and reactions to impulses are good, damaged compact discs are effortlessly read by the soundless driving mechanism. Output impedance of 48 Ohm enables the application of long cables, from a CD-player to a power amplifier or active loudspeakers, while using a CD-player to control volume. Output power of 3,2 V at 0 dB may be reduced by a half through internal „jumpers". At a standby Nagra player consumes 11 Watts of power.

Equipment: Level control, volume and balance control with engine potentiometers, analog outputs in Cinch, XLR and in a form of a socket 6,3 millimeter for phones, digital outputs in Cinch, XLR and optical, external power section, separate terminal for earthening. A metal remote control with a decimal keyboard, switched off display with swift regulation. Time setting. Repeat and programming functions.

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