When it first entered the Neill reference system with about 200 hours on it, the effect was sensational and…destabilizing. Ultra-wide sound-stage, warm and full presentation, lots of apparent detail and low-level information through the mid-range. We were awash with sound and music. Very tactile, very affecting, very…desirable. A call went off to Barry of Backwoods Ontario immediately, announcing that we might well have discovered a player both households could agree on. We lived with this highly engaging new audio experience for several days and then, to sober up, put our reference Naim CDS2 back into the system. Immediately the sound stage shrank by about 25 percent (which, to be honest, felt a little more natural) and presence, palpability, and tactility diminished. But the beauty, clarity, refinement, and the satisfying overall firmness we were familiar with appeared in their wake. It would be facile to say we were being confronted by the almost always mystifying contrast of the analogue and digital faces of audio. But that's what it felt like.
It continued to feel that way for several days. The Capitole sounded and felt more like a live performance in a public place - air, space, fullness, and warmth. The Naim felt more like a private performance in our living room. You are there vs. they are here? The Capitole felt life-like, the Naim felt more like an ideal and perfect performance, more intense and contemplative - music as the composer might hear it in his mind - each instrument sounding clear and fresh, not a whole lot of venue and reverberation. Which sounded more real? More true? Are utter smoothness, refinement, and clarity real? True?
Homing In On The Capitole II Sound
The Naim CDS2 has always struck me as singularly real and true. I have written rapturously of its remarkable ability to cut to the heart of the real sound of instruments and have accused approaches that cannot do this of being capricious and sullied with artifice. After a few weeks with the Capitole II, I am not so sure all of this will fly any longer. The excellence of the Capitole at expressing its different point of view has forced me to re-examine what it really is that causes me to prefer the Naim view; and to cut the outside world a little more slack.
Barry has always teased me that my system probably plays "Platonic Mingus," based on how he hears it in his mind from reading my endless descriptions and also on the glimpse of it got from a pair of borrowed Harbeth Compact 7's. He thinks I probably hear something close to what St. Cecelia herself hears in her private listening bower. With his Reynaud speakers and Audiomat Arpege, Barry is a converted François in the world of audio who, like Jean-Marie Reynaud himself, wants to hear music as it comes to us in public performances, as much from the backs as from the fronts of instruments, full of venue and warm air. Huskier, warmer if also a bit less quick and clear. And I'll have to admit that virtually every time we switched from the Capitole to the Naim that first week, we were struck immediately not by how 'live' and real it all sounded but by how much more beautiful, smooth, and clear it was. Switching back to the Capitole, everything suddenly expanded into bloom, warmth, and fullness and I was back in the concert or jazz club with Barry and Jean-Marie. Or at least something very much like them.
Then a week or so into the audition, another difference between these two players emerged. I'd heard it before, but because it didn't fit the simple-minded critical paradigm I was building, it had been set it aside. The Capitole's spatial expansiveness and dramatic presence were masking something I recognized. On a string quartet of British composer, John Pickard's on Dutton , the sound was full, expansive, and tactile but there was a slight coppery (?) midrangeyness to it that had the violins, though textured, sounding a bit like violas. Ah, where did I hear that last? Right - Spendor BC1's. And Reynaud Offrandes. Was this finally the 'price' of the wonderful spatial effects? Must there be a price? It was, as always with the Capitole, a very pleasant and engaging sound; but as the quartet proceeded, the music became slightly cloying and then just a little claustrophobic. Again, flying in the face of this impression was the spatial breadth of the presentation. But there it was nonetheless. There was a sense of sonic restriction in the midst of a spatial expansiveness. Not a big thing. Not something that had really bothered me much all week, especially on orchestral music but here, perhaps because of the smaller forces involved, it was exposed. Back to the Naim and while the characteristic 'you are there' disappeared, so did the slight coloration and sense of restriction. Violins sang free and clear - above and separate from violas. Hail, St. Cecelia! From this point on, I found myself inclined to think of the Capitole as a Reynaud and Spendor lover's front end.
But as an owner and fan of the Naim player, I did not entirely trust my tendency to stereotype the Capitole II so early in the audition, so once again this image was set aside and we plowed into some music, with nothing in mind but getting to know and understand the obvious appeal of this player better.
First up, one of Allesandrini's wonderful recordings of Monterverdi madrigals [Opus 111 30348]. Attacks were not as incisive as we are accustomed to hearing and the overall presentation not as firm. This takes some of the appeal from both treble and bass viols. Their sweetness is intact but not the firmness and authority that grounds them. The strings have a delicious and very affecting quality though. Easy to like. Voices are rich, natural but again not as firm and clear as some prefer. How romantic is Monteverdi?
Tony Rice Unit, Unit of Measure [Rounder 0405]. Wow! A great album, which is much more spacious, full, and palpable on the Cap II than on the Naim. Not as refined and smooth, but we are sucked into the performance big time. Warmer, huskier, breathier. On the Naim, it's less immediate, more focused, a tad cleaner, but nowhere near as alive and present. If this were the only test cd in the audition, I would consider the Cap II the best cd player I've ever heard. This is the performance that led me to call Barry and rave.
"Shake Your Body," a hot dance number that my six-year-old had just performed in the summer day camp talent show with his buddies. This is a burned CD and we have no idea what it was burned from. Onto the familiar Naim first to make sure it was a decent recording - and it was better than decent, which was a surprise. It's included here in the audition at the insistence of Tom Neill. On the Capitole, we all noticed that the high-hat cymbals hiss too much and that the whole thing has less energy and impact than it does on the Naim. "More brittle," my wife comments. It is husky rather than snappy and this is immediately reflected in my son's dancing, which is less energized. St. Vitus has left the building.
Andras Schiff's recent Schumann recital [ECM, New Series 1806/1807]. The middle of the piano reaches out to us, notes seem to bloom. From the kitchen - during a quick break - it sounds great, usually a good sign. Back in the room for another listen: now the top has a slightly hooded quality, as if it's being forced down into the midrange. Bass notes are clear enough but not quite as percussive, firm, and authoritative as we like and are accustomed to. The whole thing feels as if the piano has been shut down a bit. It is appealing but not as dramatic as Schumann is. How would someone who prefers this presentation describe it? "Naim people don't appreciate that just getting an 'accurate' copy of a piano strictly as recorded on a CD doesn't really 'get' the piano. A piano blooms, dammit, and if 16-bit/44kHz can not bloom, then the digital front-end designer needs to be more resourceful than they usually are. He needs to understand the limitations of the medium and use some art to overcome them. Naim players provide great photographs - the CDS2 may be a Leica. But we want the piano itself and even a Leica can not get a piano." Hey, who let that guy in here?
Haydn's Symphony #6 from Roy Goodman's set [Hyperion A66523]. The presentation is airy but alas, the backbone seemed to be missing. Strings sound a bit like wind instruments. The music is definitely in the air, on this recording beautifully so. When it's just violins together, there are wonderful ribbons of sound, absolutely scrumptious. But when the harpsichord comes in, its texture doesn't provide the expected and probably intended contrast. There is no real percussive feel to it. And when the full orchestra comes in, again, while there's lots of air and fullness, again, it's as if the music has no backbone. It's all wind and billow. How would someone who prefers this version of Haydn respond to my objections? He might say that the Naim makes the backbone too prominent, makes Haydn sound like Stravinsky. I do hear and write from within Naim's straightforward sonic perspective. But I can hear and appreciate what's affecting and attractive about what the Capitole is doing here. It makes Haydn sound like a lovely Monet seascape. (Did Monet paint any seascapes?) I can hear what the Capitole is doing here; but what it's not doing is also evident and we miss that. We miss the eighteenth century!
At this point, a very helpful audio correspondent, who also happens to be auditioning the Capitole II, Mike Lavigne of Seattle, reminded me that it was time to try the Capitole straight into my Blue Circle AG8000 mono-blocks. Did I say I have been auditioning it exclusively through my pre-amplifier? Okay, I have always preferred a pre-amplifier in the chain and so it's been in. But Mike's right. The designer put an (analogue) volume control on the Capitole II presumably because he thinks it sounds best that way. So out comes the Blue Circle AG3000. How does the Haydn sound now? Textures seem trimmed a little and the whole show loses a bit of its appealing warmth and huskiness. It is definitely a step toward the Naim's view of things. But now the overall feel is a bit light, compared with both the Capitole with pre-amplifier and the Naim, (always with pre-amplifier). It feels a bit less closed in and coppery, but there is still no backbone; and now that rich, lush midrange is thinned out. The whole system now presents a Conrad-Johnson version of music, the center moving from the heart of the mids up an octave. Textures light and clear. The bottom is weaker. Also, instrumental colors - woodwinds especially - are less rich. A solo bassoon has less character, as does the solo double-bass, so they are less fun. Contrasts among instruments are less prominent, less interesting to listen to. So, end of experiment, AG3000 back into the chain. You need not, of course, take this as a definitive judgment. Another magazine reviewer in his review of the Cap I found things improved with his pre-amplifier in the system in specific ways that it did not in mine. The AG3000 is a very neutral line-stage, the AG8000 mono-blocks only slightly less so. My sense is that the AG3000 helped the Cap II be a more compelling version of itself.
Wayne Shorter's remastered Ju-Ju [Blue Note 99005-2-3]. With the Cap II, Shorter's sax is not as crisp, clear, and firm as I am accustomed to hearing it. It is warmer, perhaps a bit sexier. Percussion is not crisp. The whole presentation is sweet actually. It is all very much of a piece, which seems to be the Capitole's point. The Naim separates the forces more, making the piano a much more active player. Two remarkably different versions of Shorter. If you prefer the Capitole's take on it, you will say it keeps the music together, while the Naim takes it apart. Remembering Tony Rice's "Unit of Measure" as well, you might call the Capitole's version more "musical" or "emotional," the Naim's more "intellectual." I wouldn't but you might, and I'd know what you meant. Platonic Shorter?
Okay, some factual stuff and then let's wrap this up. Audio Aero tells us expressly that The Capitole II has been designed to enable redbook CD's to compete successfully with SACD's and DVD-A's, from which are expected more of the analogue virtues. The chief innovation in this design quest appears to be some "state of the art digital processing," which I will let Audio Aero describe for you.
Our exclusive STARS process (Solution for Time Abstraction Re Sampling), a combination of very high speed 192 kHz RE-sampling (a new jitter free clock is created), a 24 bit re-quantization and signal enhancement technique (extraction of "hidden" information from 16 bit data, improvement of dynamic, precision, soundstage, and details), developed for Audio Aero by Swiss company Anagram Technologies SA. The core of the system is a 32-bit SHARC DSP, which, by performing hundred millions of calculations per second, rebuilds a high precision 24/192 Hz signal, independent from the input clock, and keeping total dynamic range in all stages. Then, after a 1024 times up-sampling on demand, D/A conversion is performed at 6.144 MHz by a high performance 24 bit/192 kHz DAC. Analogue output stage features sub-miniature tubes and high precision buffer with built-in high quality volume control for a perfect match between high-tech digital treatment and musicality.
"Re-sampling," "signal enhancement," "'hidden' information," and "up-sampling" seem to be the critical terms to think about here. Re-sampling and up-sampling are not the same thing. Most CD players re-sample. Only recently have some begun to up-sample, and the jury appears to be out on whether this process is a net gain. It's not clear to me what is really going on here, but I would guess an innovative form of re-sampling. Signal enhancement and retrieving hidden information would seem to be contradictory claims and I am curious why 'hidden' is in quotes. My guess is that there is enhancement going on here that creates an impression of retrieving hidden information - hence the quotes. And this enhancement, to my ears, comes at a cost of other information; a condition that one would think would not be the case if what we were getting is pure additional retrieval. And to repeat what is always said during discussions of this kind, you can't retrieve information that's not on the disc, you can only interpolate and thus synthesize. Of course if it's done with great technical imagination, as a few of my audio friends tell me it is done by dCS, such that the result is utterly convincing, who cares whether it's real or not? Right? Right? This is the extent of my commentary on the situation - as you can tell, I'm already over my head.
The Capitole II uses "the high-end CDPRO2 laser mechanism from Philips." As reported above, there is a built in volume control, which works in the analogue domain. The remote is modest and plastic but works well, once you master its ergonomics. It also includes - hallelujah! - a phase reversal control and - hallelujah! - information on the player's display screen whether phase is 0 or 180. There are, unlike any Naim CD player, both digital outputs and analogue inputs. Hallelujah for those as well.
The Capitole II appears to be well made and sturdy. The only misstep we experienced was due to having the top-loading, sliding drawer sensor jarred in shipping such that we had to play it open about ¼ inch. Globe Audio Marketing, Audio Aero's North American distributor, assured me this was a matter of a simple adjustment. Reportedly, the problem has only occurred when ground rather than air shipping is used from Hamilton, Ontario, the company's home base. They also have a US operation in Niagara Falls, New York.
The Capitole is an impressive digital front end, which exhibits all of the virtues of the 'analogue lovers' camp of music reproduction. It sacrifices less than any other player I've heard that shares its particular sonic goals - the Accuphase 85, BAT's VDK-5, and the Sonic Frontiers SFD2-II. (I have not heard the Audio Logic DAC, nor those by Altis and Dodson.) To these ears, the Capitole delivers more than any of the others. Like all of these components, it appears to resolve a great of detail through the middle - the Capitole may actually do more than the Naim here, unless it's a matter of a slightly over-rich midrange thrusting information slightly forward, which is what we felt I was getting from Reynaud Offrandes and Grand Operas. Monica Huggett's violin on her recording of the Bach sonatas for violin and harpsichord with Ton Koopman [Philips 410 401] definitely seems more present and 'olde' on the Capitole than on the Naim, if less beautiful. I really can't say which is more accurate here: is what we're hearing more previously "hidden" information, enhancement, or a boosted midrange? In any case, this appears to be where the STARS software is strutting its stuff.
Along with its undeniable sonic virtues, most of which the Naim does not have, the Capitole II in my system has a slight coloration and sense of sonic restriction through the midrange which, based on other 'analogue lover' components I have heard, seems to go with the territory. If, like me, you've come to prefer the fronts of instruments, the purity and freshness of the Naim's directness, "the beauty of inflections to the beauty of innuendoes," this may be a problem for you; just as the slight leanness and hint of Platonic austerity of the Naim is a problem for those who have welcomed this player onto the current stage. Of course, the welcomers in all likelihood own somewhat warmer gear than mine - and it is altogether possible that were the Capitole II to be heading a system that included an Audiomat Arpege with its EL 34's, either Reynaud or Spendor loudspeakers, and perhaps some Stage III Monument cable, equipment which sings something closer to the Capitole's song through the midrange, this story might read differently.
At any rate, I am pleased to report that what the Capitole II delivers for what it takes away in my Blue Circle/Harbeth/Valhalla system has taken its toll on us. We will not soon forget those first few days in our living room, when the tide was in. I would love to have the Capitole's ambient fullness and warmth if it could be had at no cost in other areas - to hear more of St. Cecelia's back as well as her front. And finally, thanks to the Capitole, this reviewer no longer believe his Naim CDS2 gets everything: I see now, in an incomplete world, where my priorities lie and know that I am more of a Platonist that I would ever have believed. But then I doubt that's news to anyone around here.
As with the Reynaud Offrandes, which appear to have similar sonic goals, the numbers do not tell much of the story here, since the Capitole II does not seem to as much interested in absolute information retrieval as in getting more of the sense of a "live" performance, for which Enjoy the Music has not yet devised numerical parameters.
In reviewing my ratings for the Naim CDS2, I blush a little at the numbers, which now strike me as affected by moderate grade inflation. I gave the Naim a 100 for imaging, which is too high. The Capitole II is superior to the Naim in imaging and in matters of spatial extension in all directions. The spatial qualities of the Naim strike me as entirely satisfactory but far from sensational, which the Capitole II's can sometimes be. The Naim seems to me superior to the Capitole in matters of tonality and in overall resolution. None of this, of course, matters a whit, if you prefer the overall results of the Capitole II. The price of the Capitole has gone from $4200 to $6200 to its current $8695, as it has moved through its model evolution. Sitting on an $11,600 Naim, I am not exactly in a position to say that especially this last step up is unjustified. But prospective buyers who count their coin should probably do a close comparison between the Cap I and the Cap II to see if the $2500 premium represents 'value for the money' or not. Perhaps if I still had the Naim CDX/XPS ($8,250) on hand, I could assign a value rating with more confidence. On the instinct that the Cap II might be 20% better than the Cap I (which I have only read about), I'd say as a "value" it's probably running $1,000-1,200 high. But if in fact, it is the best of class, maybe not. I know no direct competition. Buyer's call.
Frequency Response (with 24-bit/96kHz input signal): 3Hz to 48kHz (- 1dB)
Output voltage: up to 5.0 V RMS
Output impedance: 100 ohms
Signal to Noise ratio: 125dB
Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.3 %
Analog Outputs: RCA and XLR
Digital Inputs: BNC, RCA, AES/EBU, AT&T, and TOSLINK
Digital Output: BNC
Chassis: 15/10 stee
Lid: 20/10 brushed aluminum
Weight: 32.6 lbs.
Dimensions: 17.82 x 17.72 x 4.72 (WxLxW in inches)
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