Among the many exotic brands we found at the National Audio Show last September, was a name that has not been seen on these shores since the nineties - Onix.
Onix started in Brighton way back in the late seventies and went on to become a respected name in audio electronics, with amplifiers like the OA21 making an impression, thanks to solid sound and a particularly clean design in a half-width case.
The company disappeared towards the end of the last century, but according to the current owners, lived on in the far east and America, where it expanded its activities into loudspeakers. And it's these speakers that are now available in the UK, alongside a range of electronics.
Manufacture is by Shanling, which is why the two companies share Real Hi-Fi as their UK distributor. The Onix range consists of: two CD players (from £535) and an SACD player (£1,175); three integrated amplifiers (from £725); and a DAC with selectable upsampling.
There are four loudspeakers including a heavyweight standmount (Monitor-1 £2,265) and two high-end models, the XCD-50 (£3,250) and the XIA160 (£3,625), plus a matching integrated amplifier that's built as a dual-mono device with no-holds barred.
Having made its name producing components that competed with the likes of Arcam and latterly Cyrus, it's intriguing to see such a lustrous and heavyweight CD player sporting the Onix badge.
The finish on this player is so good that you get the impression that it's acrylic, but further inspection of the unit and the accompanying literature reveals it to be piano-lacquered wood.
Playing a CD is a simple matter of lifting the lid, which is acrylic with a metal handle and then taking off the large puck that holds the disc onto the transport mechanism. Place a disc over the spindle, put the two elements back on and off you go. Not as straightforward as pressing a load button twice, but quite a nice tactile way of doing things.
In fact, one that's reminiscent of changing a vinyl LP on a turntable with a clamp. What reinforces this effect is that you can remove the lid, while the disc is playing and so can change discs without touching a button.
It's a process made more pleasurable by the CNC-machined nature of the disc clamp which is rather larger than is normally the case, but presumably the Philips CD Pro2 drive can take the weight.
Inside the box there are re-clocking and jitter-reducing systems and a cirrus Logic CS4396 DAC that produces a dual-differential or balanced output. It has separate R-type transformers for the digital and analogue circuits and the player is supplied with a heavy-gauge Shanling mains cable, with which to power it.
Operationally it's pretty straightforward, the aluminium-faced remote works well and sits comfortably in the hand, but don't expect much response from the eject button!
The display sits at an angle, which means you can read it from above and the side which will be convenient for many. However, the top-loading aspect means that this player will always have be on top of a rack rather than inside it.
Build quality would appear to be as good as the finish suggests, with high-quality RCA phono and XLR sockets on the recessed back panel. We asked whether there was anything unusual about this player's design and were told that "There is nothing 'ground-breaking' about the player. Just solid engineering."
Onix ascribes its sound to "very low jitter levels due to re-clocking and overall design, circuitry and components chosen with low measurable distortion."
The XCD-50's dark, smooth exterior is something of an allegory for its sound, this is one of the most relaxed and smooth players we've encountered for some time. It's the sort of balance that will appeal to those who find many modern CD players to be too upbeat and lively, it trades this for a sense of refinement and calm that suits a lot of material well.
Iit's not slow, but it is relaxed and those who value pace will find more suitable alternatives elsewhere, but it times surprisingly well – a Saafi Brothers track of laid-back dub-style material picking up a good groove when the action got going.
There is also no shortage of power in the nether regions, the bass having weight and depth beyond the norm at this price point. With smoother/cleaner recordings such as the John Abercrombie disc Wait Till You See Her (on ECM), this chilled-out quality can get a bit much, the lack of sparkle from percussion and guitar robbing the music of its subtlety.
It does quite a good job of instrumental and vocal timbre, but lacks the fine detail or more obviously open designs like the Leema Antila II.
A player that brings quite a bit more of the acoustic of the studio or venue to the result, along with more of the energy of the performance. Having said that, the Onix's relaxed mien does lend itself to high-energy music because it never sounds like it's having to try to hard, it lets the material provide the excitement.
The Dan and the Electros disc of fifties style tunes works very well, the glorious saxophone parps and rich sonority of the keyboard combining to produce a big beat sound that is highly entertaining when you turn the wick up. It also works well with artists like Gillian Welch whose Time (The Revelator) song sounds positively open and spacious compared to less dedicated sources such as the Pinnacle Audio folio server.
And while it doesn't have the energy of many in its price bracket, it does have an ease and expressiveness that reveals low-level details quite effectively. There's something quite engaging about its considered approach, something that begins to get under your skin, but you do have to turn it up to get a sense of power – dynamics are not its forté.
Playing the opening track from Fink's Distance and Time album, it's easy to hear what the strings in the background are doing, the Onix makes time for everything to fit in. On this occasion, the Resolution Audio Opus 21 has more kick in the bass drum and stronger vocal presence.
It delivers each section of the mix in a coherent and timely fashion that does the music justice. It's the sort of player that will suit more up-front amplifiers and loudspeakers. In fact, if you find that your CDs sound a little bit up front and in yer face, a player like this is the perfect antidote.
Its style goes against the prevailing fashion these days, but there's no denying its potential appeal in a revealing system.
While Onix's owners are concerned that they need British input to give the company credence, this route could end up with them creating another 'me too' product, for the UK market, at least. By taking the route that they have, the new Onix deserves to carve out a niche, based on its own rather appealing products and qualities.
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