Impressed by the Cairn electronics setup in Beautiful Systems a few months ago (HFC 297), we thought that it would be a good idea to take a closer look at the heart of the system, the bizarrely named Fog 3.

Just to recap, Gilles Bélot started Cairn in 1994, when he left speaker maker Triangle. Six years later, he teamed up with Benoit Rabozzi to form Ezo designs, which manufactures the Cairn range. This includes a more affordable CD player, alongside integrated and pre/power amplifers that share a theme of modularity. The company is also big on software as well as wireless systems, its latest products being transmitters and receivers for wireless audio systems.

This is, therefore, not one of your run-of-the- mill hi-fi companies, a fact that's evident in the Fog 3, Cairn's top-ranking integrated player. As well as being a disc spinner, it is also a digital preamplifier, with three digital inputs and analogue outputs in both single ended and balanced forms. The latter, reflects the balanced digital to analogue converter inside the machine, rather than being a pair of XLR sockets for the sake of market appeal.

Nice to look at

The Fog 3 is very nicely made, too, the aluminium front panel is 12mm-thick and the steel chassis has square perforations, which suggest the influence of Philippe Starck. It is finished in grey Nextel as per Meridians of yore. The remote is a system type and rather confusingly, has big volume control buttons, which do nothing for the kudos of the player.

If you want to change the output level, look for the smaller level plus/minus buttons: these allow direct connection to a power amp, which is an attractive option if you don't have analogue sources to hook up.

Operationally, this is the most idiosyncratic player we've come across in quite a while. There are no legends on the front panel, so that switching the player on requires a double push of one of the buttons. To activate the disc drawer, you also have to press the right button for a little longer than average. It's worth persevering with the controls, however, as the Fog 3 is a cracking player. Just make sure that other members of the household use the remote instead, which functions in a far more conventional way.

The largest button on the fascia gives access to the various set up options available, most importantly the alternative filter settings which make a small, but significant difference to the player's sound. There are two variables that modify the anti-aliasing digital filter: group delay can be set as 'long', in which, "most of the time sound is precise but can be unnatural" or 'short', described as "a specific filtering method to avoid harshness at high frequencies".

It's not hard to tell which one Cairn prefers. The other choice given to users is whether to optimize frequency or time domain performance. Here, Cairn's preference is clearly for the latter, because it describes frequency optimisation as 'seeing the music', but the time optimisation as being 'in the music'.

You can change these settings but it's a rather slow process, using the large fascia-mounted button, or the filter button on the remote - the only drawback being that the display merely shows filter numbers for each of the four settings available.

Cairn's designers have selected four Crystal CS4398 D/A convertors in the Fog 3, which are 24-bit/192kHz devices that are fixed at these bit rates and sample rates (despite the alternative settings for these features as shown in the specifications).


Sound quality

In its preferred F3 filter setting, the Fog 3 produces an uncanny all-enveloping sound. It allows listeners to get immersed in the music, such is its physicality and presence in the room. It's as if you are sitting beside Keith Jarrett's piano, rather than gazing at it from afar.

It's a realistic audio experience, but one that probably owes more to microphone placement during the actual recording, than any affectation in the player. Unfortunately, the coughs and sounds of the audience are also enhanced, to the extent that you can easily sympathise with the musician's well-documented intolerance of such things!

Tonally, the Fog 3 not as sophisticated as our admitedly more expensive comparision player, the Resolution Audio Opus 21 (£2,850).

The treble, in particular, is a little more splashy and forward, although this only proves an issue with less impressive recordings. Elsewhere, it has a sparkle and openness which seems highly convincing, as well as the fact that the extra 50 per cent asking price of the Resolution player could be put to better use.

Both players are very capable in the dynamics department, but the presentation differs significantly. The Fog 3 is not the player for those after a smooth, laid back performance. It's not aggressive either, but it does put the sound right there in the room with you. And we love the way it does this, bringing the soundstage alive in an almost holographic form and getting up close and personal with all your favourite discs.

Timing is one of the keys to its appeal, but while not as rock-solid as say, the similarly priced Bryston BCD-1at £2,050 (HFC 300), it's very much on the money for a player with the rather more fluid presentation given here.

It works extremely well with less busy pieces such as the voice and guitars on Gillian Welch's (Time) The Revelator. You can hear the way the voice is doubled to produce harmonies with absolute precision, drawing you right into the centre of the mix and making a well-worn test track seem interesting once again.

Engrossing sound

This suggests that the Fog 3 is doing something subtle with the balance, by emphasising parts of the mix which are usually less obvious, but this is probably more to do with the way Cairn approaches digital filtering, rather than a variation in frequency response. Either way, it makes for engrossing sound from all manner of discs and at proper replay levels, too. And when you connect the player directly to a power amp (with balanced cables) it becomes even more addictive!

Grace Jones' The Collection delivers a kick, weight and girth that you just don't get with a preamp and interconnect in the signal. The Fog 3's unconventinal configuration also lends itself well to other recordings and this reviewer could easily get sucked-in to a preamp-free set-up - albeit keeping a pre on hand to swop in for analogue sources like vinyl.

The Fog 3 easily makes up for its operational peccadilloes by delivering a truly exciting and involving sound. The way it puts the music into the room is also very impressive and makes for high levels of detail and realism. Those looking for a smoother sound may not be so impressed, but if you prefer to be 'at one' with your music you'll find this player extremely rewarding.

Although it's not an established brand name here in the UK, if Cairn's other products are as good as the Fog 3, then that situation that will change pretty quickly.