Based in Toulouse, Advance Acoustic is yet another brand taking advantage of Chinese manufacturing to offer products with apparently astounding specifications for the price.
If it were built in Europe to this standard, the MCD-203II would certainly cost well over £1,000, featuring as it does a sturdy metal chassis, a quarter-inch-thick aluminium front panel, valve-driven balanced output, substantial internal screening and a complex power supply based on a toroidal transformer.
Indeed, if looking suitably high-end is your most important criterion, this player walks away with the honours before we've even begun the test. Seriously, though, even in China, is it possible to put this much CD player together without economising horribly somewhere?
Well, there are some cheap bits (the XLR connectors, for instance, are plastic-bodied, and the valves are unbranded), but most of the rest looks fine.
The transport is nothing surprising, but behind it is a circuit board with a recent Analog Devices DAC chip, and while the op-amps and passive components are nothing special, they're not by any means the cheapest that can be found. Even the remote control has a solid metal body.
We found this quite a pleasant player to use on the whole, though it has a couple of slightly irritating features. For one, the CD tray conceals the 'Open/Close' button when open, and the model will also go into standby automatically if it isn't used for a while.
For reasons obviously related to the valves, coming back into full operation takes a whole minute, so breaks can last a bit longer than expected. We found the display a little brash and hard to read too.
Sadly, this player's high-end pretensions aren't fully backed up by its sonic performance, which our listening panel found a little lacklustre and lacking in involvement.
It did attract praise for its 'big and bold' overall picture, but at the same time, that was felt to be a bit too vague, lacking subtleties and specifics. Bass is quite well extended, but not all that tuneful, lacking real snap and a degree of polish.
Of all the music excerpts, the solo piano track generated the most detailed criticism of this player. Although the decay of isolated notes was praised, where there are several notes together (in chords or in quick succession), the Advance fails to separate them and presents a rather jumbled version of events. Also, the attack is lacking in crisp leading edges, and the overall result is bland and a little colourless.
Rock and pop fared better, with good sound effects in the Michael Jackson track and a reasonable degree of drive and attack. Even here, though, the sound could use more bite, particularly on vocals and lead guitar, and once again the whole sonic image is a bit generalised.
Talking of 'image', this is quite good laterally, though not ultra-precise, and it lacks anything much in the way of depth.
Heard over a longer period, the player still failed to make a lasting impression. It's never less than pleasant, but seldom more than that.
No tonal area seems vastly under- or overdone, dynamics are decent and there's a fair degree of detail, but you'll have to look elsewhere for deep analysis or real musical involvement. Even at such a tempting price, we can't go overboard or wax lyrical about this one.
Most of the MCD-203II's measured performance is par for the course, with distortion below 0.01% under pretty much all conditions (strangely, it's rather higher via the balanced output), noise fine, albeit not truly state-of-the-art, and frequency response flat in-band and slightly too gently rolled off around 22kHz.
What does cause us some concern, however, is the measurement for jitter, which at something like 3ns (depending on the weighting one applies) is among the worst we've seen in many years. It has a strong component at 3Hz which sounds as though it's related to the rate at which the transport apparently re-reads data off the disc - it being a high-speed transport.
The audibility of this jitter is subject to some debate, but that figure is clearly way too high and probably accounts for the player's lack of success in our listening tests.