Cairn Tornado review

Can Cairn’s £850 Tornado CD player whip up a mid-market storm?

TechRadar Verdict

The Tornado is a bit like a Caterham – a full on experience that shuns compromise and delivers intensely real sound for its price. It will be too exciting for some and needs good system matching, but there’s no denying its appeal.


  • +

    High-intensity, electric sound

  • +

    Can be upgraded to an upsampling player for a £250 supplement

  • +

    Handy volume control


  • -

    Can sound a little bit exposed and over sharp with less refined discs

  • -

    Some polish and finesse is lacking

  • -

    French ergonomics

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Earlier in the year, we took a closer look at Cairn's obscurely named Fog 3 CD player.

Manufactured in France, it had its fair share of Gallic charm and provided more thrills than we've encountered in digital audio for some time.

Small, but perfectly formed

Now we have the first sample of its new stablemate, the Tornado - a similarly designed player that manages to bring the price down quite dramatically by cutting back on luxuries. While the Fog 3 will set you back over two grand, the Tornado is only £850.

The Tornado is the base disc player in Cairn's small, but attractively formed range (there are two further one-box players, including the aforementioned Fog 3 and the Via, which is only available built to order).

Described as a simplified version of the Fog 3, the Tornado is smaller and is less lavish; the former's attractively ventilated silver casework being replaced with a standard black finish behind a 5mm front panel. It is not quite as smart as the Cambridge 840C, but is very much on a par with most of the competition.

Inside the box, savings have been made by shaving off the XLR output and the digital inputs. More significant, perhaps, is the change of DAC board, with the Tornado having a standard 24-bit/96kHz chipset and filtering.

Sound effects

The four filter settings on the Fog 3 offer a broad range of sound tailoring, far wider than the filters we've tried on players in the past, with everything from relatively smooth and relaxed all the way up to 'in yer face'. So the way that Cairn has set the filter on the Tornado will probably have a distinct impact on the impression it makes.

The analogue output stage is a Fog-like bipolar design that runs in class A and is devoid of negative feedback, an approach much vaunted by the valve amp designers.

But Cairn is also an amplifier maker with three integrateds and a pre/power on its roster, so the chances are that it has its own ideas in this department.

For the newcomer, the Fog 3 had some peculiar operating procedures and the Tornado is no exception. Opening the disc tray or playing a disc, requires holding in the operation button for a longer period of time. Turning the unit on requires you to double click the on/off button.

Simple connections

Nonetheless, the remote handset now has a conventionally arranged numerical keypad and once you've located the 'tray' and rotate symbols for 'open' and 'repeat', it's not so hard to find them a second time.

The Tornado boasts a simple socket layout, with analogue outputs on RCA phono and digital outputs on coax and Toslink connectors. There's even one extra phono socket for wired remote operation.

Cairn offers an optional 24-bit/192kHz upsampling board called SOFT for £250, which is featured in the £2,000 Fog 3.

As standard, the Tornado is supplied with a 24-bit/96kHz Crystal CS 4398 DAC with fixed filtering. The SOFT board not only ups the sample rate, it also offers the four filter settings that allowed us to tailor the sound on the Fog 3 to quite a significant degree.

The question, of course, remains as to whether adding this board to the Tornado gives you Fog 3 sound at nearly half the price, Cairn calls SOFT "the magic bullet", claiming that it "intensifies all the qualities and brings a refinement that you find sometimes only in very high-end stuff." But, of course, they're naturally biased!

Sound quality

In action, the Tornado is extremely reminiscent of the Fog 3 in its F3 filter setting. It has the same highly detailed midband and a tendency to emphasise instruments in the upper midrange and treble.

Cymbals and percussion instruments are a little more obvious with this player and it doesn't quite put the music in the room to the extent that its sibling does. But it does have a very engaging presentation, which takes a well-tempered system to keep from getting too close to the edge.

We used the Tornado in two set ups (Classé/B&W and Border Patrol/ATC active), and found it more revealing than we would expect at this price point. But, in neither instance was it out of its depth, so long as the output level was reduced accordingly.

We set its output to match a Cambridge Azur 840C (which meant reducing it by 2.5dB) and this took away a slight edginess from the sound, probably produced by high output discs overdriving the input on the preamps in use. In less revealing or warmer systems, this is probably not necessary, but if your amplifier and speakers are already on the lean or bright side it could be essential.

Heard after the 840C with its 24-bit/384kHz oversampling, the Tornado produces an electric result that's significantly sharper and more crisp. It lacks the sophistication of the more affordable Cambridge, but trades this for a level of realism and excitement that is enthralling. Timing isn't quite as poised from the French machine, but it does dynamics to greater effect.

With a good recording - such as Manu Katche's Playground on ECM - the Cairn puts the musicians right there in the room with you. Some of the polish and finesse is missing, but what you get in exchange seems remarkably real.

We wondered if this magnification of the sound might be a little too much for lesser discs and so put on Grace Jones' The Collection. The bass sounds great, chiselled and taut, but the eighties style electronic percussion is a little bit busy and hard-edged.

So the differences in recordings are pretty obvious. But you'll want this from a hi-fi component, so long as it's not achieving the result by colouring the tonal balance. In this instance, there are other factors at work. This is an extremely nimble player that lets you follow what the various contributors to a musical piece are doing.

It does this by being more sensitive to the dynamics and timing than the timbral qualities of the voices and instruments. The Fog 3 is better balanced in this respect and it's possible that the SOFT board upgrade would bring the Tornado closer to that result.

What you can't help but be impressed by, is the way that singers like Rickie Lee Jones are seemingly placed in the room by this player, a trick it pulls off with greater skill than we've previously encountered near this price point. There's an element of 'seat of your pants' to the experience, but that is part of the thrill.

The Tornado will not be to all tastes, but it does deliver an awful lot of detail for the money. This places more emphasis on the smoothness of the recording than usual,
but has the potential to deliver results that would usually cost much more.

It's a bit like a supercar - you don't expect an easy ride but you do get carried away with the adrenalin it produces. So the question is, are you ready to listen in the fast lane?

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