Few modern hi-fi components create an impact that reverberates around the globe, but in 2001, a compact yet satisfyingly weighty lozenge of aluminum finished with an attractively ribbed top and bubble glass porthole that was softly backlit to show off the circuitry within, did just that.
All the more remarkably, it was a stand-alone DAC - the kind of product hitherto confined to the unglamorous backwaters of the accessory market.
The DAC64, as it was called, changed all that. Made by Kent-based British high-end specialist Chord Electronics, it combined in an entirely unprecedented way, killer aesthetics, innovative 64-bit conversion and filter technologies, plus the sublime build quality for which Chord had already carved itself a much-envied reputation with its amplifiers.
It made add-on DACs sexy and, more importantly, offered the opportunity for owners of aging, mid-market CD players to experience true high-end sound quality.
When Chord produced the dedicated Blu transport a few years later, many felt that the combo raised the bar for digital replay to new heights.
In any case, the DAC64 and Blu now form the cornerstone of the entry-level Choral range. Back then, if you wanted to build a full-fat, no-holds-barred Chord-based system (quite something if you're into XXL statement hardware) it had to be fronted by the dinky duo. The end result of this approach, while undoubtedly intriguing, formed a pretty spectacular visual mismatch to say the least.
What Chord's customers were crying out for, understandably, was a 'Big Daddy' CD spinner - something that combined the technical and sonic excellence of the Blu/DAC64 in one full-size and memorably impressive chassis.
A player, moreover, that would score a very definite line in the sand for Red Book standard digital replay. In other words, Chord's best game, with cost more or less no object. The best CD player ever? That's the general idea and given Chord's customary confidence in these matters, it's interesting to note that the word "probably" doesn't get a look in.
So here it is, the Red Reference CD, Chord's unique take on state of the (digital) art. In essence, it marries enhanced elements of the Blu transport with a supercharged version of the DAC64 to, in the company's own, rather dry, words, "give the most accurate reproduction of CD that can be obtained".
Talking to Chord's managing director, John Franks, while he's in a more candid mood, it's clear that were the statement directed at the likes of Naim or Krell, or anyone else with designs on owning the coveted "World's Best" tag, it would be rather more concise. To wit, "Eat this".
Unmistakably a design from the house of Chord, the Red Reference is a stunningly solid and exquisitely finished piece of work. Apart from the signature bubble glass porthole, the casework is manufactured entirely from solid aluminium and feels immensely rigid.
Perhaps that's an inadequate description. It feels rigid enough for a police hit squad to use it as battering ram to attack the front doors of slumbering villains. And, believe me, the doors would come off worse. Naturally, this makes it an ideal support structure for the CD mechanism beneath that distinctive and sturdy clamshell clamp that's reminiscent of the Blu's.
And here's the really neat bit (on paper, at least). Uniquely, the area allocated to the CD mechanism cuts back into otherwise four-square-with pillars casework at 45 degrees, the idea being to allow front access to what would otherwise be a top-loading mechanism, even if the player is placed on the shelf of a rack. This seems thoughtful.
An equally nice touch is the solenoid controlled fluid-damped door, a simply beautiful piece of precision engineering completely worthy of the asking price. The trouble begins - and we might as well get this gripe out of the way now - when you go to place a CD in the transport or, indeed, remove it.
There just doesn't seem to be an elegant way to perform either task thanks to the absence of any appreciable finger room around the disc.
It's just plain fiddly and, after a while, makes you long for a slide-out drawer.
Thankfully, it's the only real ergonomic foible and, in all other respects, the Red Reference is a delight to use. The front panel design incorporates ball-bearing push buttons for the commonly used functions and a dual display showing CD status on one side and input, buffer and frequency information on the other.
At the rear, connections are made via gold-plated phono or BNC coax, plastic optical fibre, or balanced XLR-style connections.
The transport is a Philips CD Pro 2 powered by a switch-mode power supply that has its own AC filter. It's re-clocked using what Chord calls "a highly accurate crystal oscillator" before the data is fed to the upsampling and filtering electronics.
This is where the Red Reference begins to show some serious processing muscle. The latest evolution of the Watts Time Alignment (WTA) filter, which has a 4096 tap length, is used to put the squeeze on transient timing errors - something Franks reckons we humans have evolved to become especially sensitive to - and reconstruct the digital data to either 44.1, 88.2 or 176.4KHz (the default setting) sampling frequencies.
The digital signal is converted from 176.4KHz to analogue audio using 1024 tap filtering and a 64-bit digital signal processing core. This is followed by 64-bit seventh order noise shaping, 2048 times oversampling rates and improved pulse width modulated elements. The upshot, according to Chord, is unprecedented low level detail resolution.
The DAC also features selectable RAM buffer technology that sequentially takes in all the data, re-times it and then sends it out giving jitter-free operation. Digital data from other sources can also be fed into the Red via the optical or AES balanced XLR connections.
But Chord know that today's cutting-edge is tomorrow's blunt instrument.
The Red Reference uses Field Programmable Gate Arrays that can be reprogrammed by simply changing the EPROM memory chip. Future-proofing is thus assured, as is flexibility. The provision of digital inputs and outputs means the Red Reference can be both a CD transport and a DAC for other components.
We were fortunate enough to be given the luxury of testing the Red Reference over an extended period of several weeks. During that time, it was slotted into a couple of visiting Beautiful Systems, as well as performing front-end duties in this reviewer's regular reference set-up, partnering a Musical Fidelity kW500 integrated amp and Monitor Audio GS20 speakers.
The results were as consistent as they were extraordinary. In the case of the Beautiful Systems - with electronics from Leema and Ayre respectively, both of which tote highly regarded "giant killing" CD players - the Red Reference effect was far from subtle.
And it wasn't what we were expecting. Both the Leema Atila and Ayre are wonderfully grown up-sounding CD players - clean, smooth, detailed and effortlessly musical with a generous dose of the analogue-like warmth that has become a hallmark of high-end digital replay.
Yet, returning to them after listening to the Chord, each sounded curiously dull and listless, as if the lifeblood and vitality had been sapped from the music.
In fact, it didn't matter which system the Red Reference was plumbed into, its contribution was always the same: not necessarily a big improvement in refinement and smoothness, but a huge leap in the sense of space, physicality, energy, drive, dynamics and 'life'.
Systems simply sounded more powerful and authoritative with the Chord in situ, as if a more muscular, transparent and expensive amp had been drafted into the mix, as well as the superior source. And here's the most remarkable thing.
The Red Reference, unlike some five-figure CD spinners, doesn't try to sound as if it possesses the more superficial attractions of an expensive turntable: the silky, finely textured top-end, and an alluringly organic character. There is no obvious 'analogue flavouring'.
Rather, it puts forward the case for CD like little else we've ever heard - perhaps, for the first time, as a sonic equal in the things that really matter such as the sense of 'performance', and the feeling of 'being there'.
Drum kits, for example, assume a palpable presence in the listening room, taking on a startling power and intelligibility. Bass instruments are presented in a new light too, displaying hitherto unsuspected layers of subtlety and harmonic shading that elevates their usual underpinning role, too often blandly executed, to that of a major contribution.
The frankly amazing resolving power of the Chord has huge benefits in conveying the character of the performance space as well as the performers - not just the subtle reverberations and reflections, but, you'd swear, the localised fluctuations in air pressure. If the best hi-fi is about the suspension of disbelief, the Red Reference's attention to this particular detail is second to none.
The Red Reference's intoxicating sense of energy and musical conviction is, understandably, most compelling with exceptional recordings - Elvis Costello's version of Edith And The Kingpin from the album A Tribute To Joni Mitchell is especially scalp-prickling - but, to varying degrees, the Red Reference seems to raise the game of any CD regardless of the style of music and production values.
No, it doesn't sound like a turntable. In truth, it doesn't sound like any other CD player in our experience, either. It simply gets you closer to the music.
Hot-breath-down-collar close, in fact. In this respect alone, the Red Reference, it seems to us, is worth every penny of its considerable asking price. The stunning design and bullet-proof build complete the seduction, but it's the sound we really fell in love with. We were blown away by it, but you've probably guessed that already.