That big slab of aluminium takes a while to get up to temperature and likewise, the sound takes a while to reach full formation. But when it does there is no going back.
We have never heard a digital source that can deliver as much of the sonic envelope as the Cantata. It reveals all the decay of each note or sound and provides an incredibly three-dimensional picture of the music. This really is one of those components where you have to start going through your music collection to hear what else is on each disc, something that happens very rarely when you've tried as many top-notch CD players as we have.
There are a few very detailed players around, such as the Moon 750D and Boulder 1021, but neither of these compel you to play as many of your discs as you can in quite the same way as the Cantata.
The more familiar an album, the more you appreciate just what it's pulling out of the mix, the end of Genesis' Supper's Ready for instance, revealed layers that have never been hinted at by previous machines. This is nothing short of astonishing, given that we've heard the SACD layer plenty of times before and the Cantata is finding even more on the CD layer.
That particular revelation was assisted in no small way by a Mark Levinson No.326S preamp, which made quite a useful contribution, but didn't stay long enough (it's coming back though, see next month's Hi-Fi Choice).
Fortunately, the full envelope effect continued after it had gone. Despite coming from the same mind and DAC chip as the Opus 21, the only similarity between these two players is in their ability to involve you in the music. This isn't quite in Rega Isis territory, but it's unfeasibly gratifying for both head and heart.
Zappa's Sleep Dirt album isn't the cleanest of recordings, but there is a lot more grunt, dynamics and timbre to be found on it that is usually apparent thanks to the extra resolution. The title track is a guitar duet with Zappa on an odd sounding instrument that's usually rather clattery but it's not clear why, the Cantata showed that this is because of the way that echo was used in the recording.
The considerably slicker Love Hater by Outkast, has monster bass that has obviously been laboured over to give it such a distinctive shape and colour and this ability to hear right into the character of each part of the sound (in a way that allows the musical flow to grip you) is very rare.
Given the effort that Resolution Audio has gone to on the USB input, we also gave that a spin using an Apple Macbook running iTunes with the output set to 16-bit/44.1kHz. The result is a bit warmer and slighty softer than with CD, the disc giving greater focus from a drier balance but not necessarily bettering it in all respects.
With a lot of material the USB route is very appealing and musical, it delivers the same quality of timing as the disc and virtually as much detail. This is the best result we've achieved with this approach and quite an ear opener to the possibilities of digital files.
In case it isn't abundantly clear by now, we are pretty much smitten with the Cantata Music Centre. It reveals so much more of the music that we have to wonder how it is achieved. Jeff attempts to answer that question in the Q&A opposite, but in an earlier exchange put it more simply "I suppose I have the worldwide slowdown to thank for giving me the space for design work."
The fact that it looks so good and can bring such high standards to music stored on a hard drive is equally relevant for the modern audio enthusiast. If you really want to hear just how much effort was put into making your favourite albums such an unforgettable experience than make a date with the Cantata.
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