Although once derided, the all-in-one system has now been restored to hi-fi credibility, thanks to such products as the Arcam Solo Mini and the Myryad Mi. Yet, typically of Consonance, the Ping's construction would have seemed the norm twenty years ago, while the Solo and Mi make the most of modern miniaturisation.
The Ping's CD transport is a perfectly normal one, the power supply is linear and based on a big toroidal transformer, while the monoblock power amplifier boards use, for the most part, through-hole components with a cool class A output stage. In truth, the highly integrated tuner module is smaller than those of yore, but there's room for a larger version.
More contemporary is the 'A-format' USB socket – which is intended for use with a PC. The same as those normally found on computers, it looks as if it might be compatible with an MP3 player, but the Ping doesn't read such devices and connects instead via the useful five-metre cable provided with the unit.
If there's one area where the Ping definitely blows away the competition, then it's in the solidity of the assembly. The front and side panels are 10mm-thick aluminium, while the entire unit screams 'high end' in a way that most affordable all-in-ones just don't. By contrast, the Ping loses out in the flexibility stakes.
The addition of a second line input, a line-level output and, perhaps, digital in and/or out would have been a real boon to this product. Other features that strike us as odd include the electronic volume control – '80 steps' is perfectly acceptable, but several at the top of the range do absolutely nothing and level '70' is just one dB lower than '80'. Normal listening levels will be around the '30' mark, at which point step size has increased from 0.5dB to 1.5dB, getting even coarser lower down.
When the component that actually regulates volume is capable of smaller steps (experience suggests that 1dB is about the resolution that one needs to find the 'perfect' listening level), setting up the control system like this strikes us as a wasted opportunity.
In terms of day-to-day operation the Ping is pleasant enough. It reads CDs briskly and quickly responds to buttons pressed on the front panel or remote control. The latter adds a few functions that are not otherwise available, including selecting the internal sampling rate (digital filter) for CD replay. Unusually, this also affects the playback level by a perceptible amount.
As with many units, its mains switch is at the back, but 'standby' uses very little power. An alternative red and black colour scheme is available for the visually bold.
Obviously there is plenty to say about a product with as many features as this, but if we had to sum up the Ping's performance in one word, it would be 'characterful'. In any mode, with any kind of music, it has its own view of things. In other words, if you are after the plain unvarnished truth this may not be the perfect product for you. But even though that implies that the Ping is ultimately untrue to the highest ideals of hi-fi, we aren't inclined to be dismissive.
Chiefly because there are plenty of products out there that meet the 'unvarnished' criterion already. We would rather judge it on its own terms as a musical performer, in which case it has plenty to recommend it. Above all, the Ping is lively. It's pretty hard to imagine that any music played through the unit could be described as 'boring' (unless the performance itself is simply dull and beyond redemption).
There is a cheerful, devil-may-care, energetic verve to the sound, which makes the most of rhythmic snap and rapidly changing soundscapes and, especially at high volume, this makes the sound most inviting. At the same time, there is a certain lack of subtlety and insight that may bother some listeners.
The extent of this depends on the recording, but with something complex and multi-layered like well-produced rock or symphony orchestra, we did find the sound a little congested compared with alternative renditions. Not surprisingly, the extent varies somewhat depending on how the Ping is used.
The only part which can be auditioned in isolation is the amplifier, fed via its line input. In this state, the sound has plenty of 'bite' and attack, but is a little short on fine detail. The treble can be a touch coarse, at times, but the midrange is good and the bass is really energetic. It may not be incredibly well-extended, but it's so engaging that one doesn't really notice.
With CDs played on the internal transport, though, the Ping's character really blossoms. This is where the sound develops a real sense of swing and excitement, contributing in a very positive way to the right sort of music – think of anything with a bit of grit in it as a matter of course and you'll have the general idea. From thrash to live nightclub jazz, there's plenty to like.
Even some classical recordings can benefit, but on the whole we found classical sounds less well favoured by the Ping interpretation, the life and energy outweighed by the lack of detail. It's not gross, but one does have to use a little imagination to hear the inner workings of an orchestra, for instance. Do try both digital filter settings, by the way, as the differences are quite noticeable.
Not withstanding those comments regarding different musical genres, if there's one sound the Ping really does get on with then it's solo human voice. In all kinds of songs, from Schubert Lieder to Ian Dury and Damien Rice, it reproduces both male and female voices very clearly and with admirable balance between vowels and consonants – always the key to good intelligibility.
The balance between voice and accompaniment is also generally good, although where the accompaniment consists of several instruments their individual tonality is slightly sacrificed to the vocal line.
Multiple voices are also slightly less well-favoured and a favourite test track of ours, involving quite a large chorus was a shade homogenised compared with the best renditions we've heard. That same track is also a great test of stereo imaging and it showed the Ping to be good on-extension in both dimensions, though slightly lacking precision within the space. The USB input shares much of the CD player's sound, not too surprisingly.
The FM tuner is good and has a quiet background and good resolution with tricky real-world radio signals. Its slightly slow tuning is about our only criticism. As usual, we ran a few technical checks which suggested that the amplifier has rather more distortion than the majority of others we've tested.
The CD player has considerably more and it's certainly enough to account for the subjective findings. At the end of the day, this is not a product that will suit all tastes, but it's sufficiently attractive for us to issue it with a recommendation, albeit a qualified one.