At any given audio show 90 percent of the gear on display is of the statement kind. And that makes sense. After all most shows are bloody expensive for the exhibitors, and so in trying to maximize their brief and crowded moment in the sun they bring their best out. Additionally, since most shows are for press and trade only, no one there is actively shopping. And with no shoppers why pay to haul and exhibit the budget line when the guy down the hallway just brought out his $50k solid unobtanium cables to show off his $250k Mark XXVI amplifier? Even worse, there are those cynical and jaded knuckleheads of the Fourth Estate who, when given the choice of reviewing a GM or Volkswagen car always opt for the Corvette or a Porsche. And since the poor manufacturer is trying to get their attention, he knows that giving them a VW, yes even the great and glorious GTI, simply fails to raise their pulse. Well, while I'm certainly a knucklehead and only barely a member of the Fourth Estate, at least I'm not jaded... yet. So I spend a lot of time at audio shows seeking out the 5 percent or so "entry-level" gear that is the real gateway drug for this hobby (a side benefit of actively looking for bargain gear is that I get to skip right over a great many rooms and so have more time for extracurricular activities).
It was while cruising for affordable gear at the 2006 version of the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest that I encountered a dealer for CEC in the April Music room. Showing a great sounding but modestly priced headphone and speaker setup, he was using the $690 CEC CD3300R CD player as the source and was getting fabulous sound – and that's when I was hooked. Being the zealous consumer advocate that I am… ok, being the self-centered, audiogeek that I am and wanting to see if that sound was real I begged for a review sample. The dealer said he'd clear it and then get back to me, which he did and that's why we are here now, getting ready to dissect the CEC CD3300R.
When the player showed up I carefully unpacked it and was amazed at what I saw. While not a heavy unit, the finish is solid and nicely machined – and with a smart grey script on white metal fascia the look is rich and elegant. On the left side of the front plate lie the power button and a headphone jack and volume control. The right side has the standard set of controls while the CD tray is located top dead center with the blue-lighted display right below. But the real surprise is around back. Besides the IEC power receptacle, the CD3300R has both RCA and balanced outputs. Even more astonishing, it has RCA, optical and AES/EBU digital outputs! I have to give CEC an enthusiastic round of applause for adding the full complement of outputs to a player in this price range.
On the inside, CEC shows continued attention to design and manufacturing with precise and well-made boards. However, if you are looking for the famous belt-drive transport please go back and look at the price of the entire unit. No, at $690 it's not inside the CD3300R, but be not disappointed as this CEC has other tricks up its sleeve. First, the DAC is the well-respected 24-bit Burr-Brown PCM1738, a very unusual choice for this price range. But the most significant feature of the CD3300R is the use of CEC's proprietary LEF (Load Effect Free), class A output modules. And these modules are the same as those found in the more expensive and famous belt-drive CD players. These modules (one for each channel as well as one for the headphone jack) eschew negative feedback and offer a short, direct signal path – not to mention having detailed, smooth and musical sound – or at least that's CEC's plan and what we are here to find out.
To that end the CD3300R saw duty with a wide range of gear, starting with the recently reviewed Conrad-Johnson CA200. It also was used in conjunction with my reference First Sound Presence Statement pre-amplifier, a Superphon Revelation III pre-amplifier as well the ModWright SWL 9.0 pre-amplifier. Reference power amplifiers were an Art Audio Carissa and my Blue Circle BC6. Loudspeakers were my reference Merlin VSM-Ms, Devore Fidelity Gibbon Super 8s and the next up for review Merlin TSM-MMe. Primary digital opponents… um, benchmarks were a Cary CD-303/200, a Berendsen CD1, a Blue Circle BC501 DAC and my extremely customized Assemblage DAC1. Cabling was from Cardas, Acoustic Zen, Audio Magic, Stereovox and Shunyata Research – the last of which also supplied power conditioning.
First off, the CEC CD3300R will not replace your dCS, Meridian or Esoteric gear, but at twenty to thirty times the cost of the CD3300R those big guns better offer stuff the CEC can't. With those expectations shelved, the CD3300R immediately impressed me with its super silky, detailed, smooth and inviting sound that certainly invites comparison to the at least some of the megabucks stuff. Take, for example, the way it rendered "Ganges Delta Blues," my favorite track from the Ry Cooder, V.M. Bhatt collaboration A Meeting by the River [Water Lily Acoustics WLA-CS-29-CD]. This track is the most dynamic and 'western' on the album. With Cooder's son, Joachim, on dumbek drum and Sukhvinder Singh Namdhari on tabla, the percussion drives the song and adds depth to the soundstage while the dueling bottleneck lead instruments from the east and west circle, hammer, dive and cascade around each other. Through the CEC each bend of the string – whether fast or drawn out – each tap of the drum, each exchange of lead and space is so delicately, precisely and yet powerfully reproduced that I truly felt I had been transported to Santa Barbara CA, 1992.
Sticking to India as the source for musical inspiration, though with a decidedly less traditional result, playing the Talvin Singh produced collection Anokha – Soundz of the Asian Underground [Quango 314-524 341-2] the CEC delivered a more driven but no less accomplished result. The opening cut, "Jaan," by Singh with vocals by Amar usually drives my wife, the ever suffering Robin, from the room. First, she is no great fan of either of the styles of music synthesized on this album. And second, if any part of the playback system is too sharp the vocals on this track can be used to slice your Chicken Tikka. But when I spun the track (with the First Sound, Blue Circle and Merlins playing supporting roles) she actually came into the room to sit and listen with me. Why? Because with the CEC as the source, the vocal line was pure, extended, beautifully clear and yet not the least bit crispy. Meanwhile, the bass was deep, powerful, detailed and propulsive. As for the mids, the second track on Anokha, "Flight IC408" by State of Bengal, opens with a sample of the Indian Airlines call for the departure of Flight IC408 from London to Calcutta and with CD3300R they were fully fleshed out, and with the deep reverb precisely placing the sample in an entirely different place than the rest of the song. If you know the recording you know that's pretty easy to do, but the CEC made the alternate space a real location rather than merely a computer construct.
Moving west, Chris Whitley is one of my all time favorite artists and his death in November 2005 is still a personal shock. His US debut album, Living With The Law [Columbia CK 46966] remains a masterpiece of voodoo blues and roots rock and is filled with the mysteries of life, lust and loss. The highly atmospheric Daniel Lanois recording adds considerably to the end result, but one of the most astounding tracks is the least tricked up, "Phone Call from Leavenworth". With only voice, a National acoustic guitar and foot stomps Whitley lays down a first person tale of a death row convict in chillingly stark and emotional raw terms while Lanois allows us to hear each vocal inflection, each catch of breath and each microphone overload in equally naked terms. In my standard reference setup the CD3300R rendered a fully fleshed out, vivid and yet biting set of images. The foot stomps were palpable, the guitar edgy and the vocals absolutely live – and terrifying.
For a more beautiful take on life I turned to the Jon Hassell recording Fascinoma [Water Lily Acoustics WLA-CS-70]. The recording is, at times, willfully opaque but always musically compelling. The first track, a duet version of "Nature Boy" with the flute of Ronu Majumdar wrapped sinuously around Hassell's trumpet, is appropriately melancholy and achingly lovely. Fortunately it is also the cleanest recording on the set and through the CEC the revealed textures were both vibrant and detailed while retaining a haunted intimacy.
I know this has been an impressionistic review so far, so let's put some concrete detail out there. The CD3300R offers up a very detailed and involving tonal palette that, starting from the mid-bass on up to the mid-treble, is smooth and natural. Dynamically, it packs a solid punch, with excellent rhythm as well. The stage is deep and, though not quite as deep as the best digital out there. In all, the CEC is a sweet player, sweetly voiced and very well mannered.
As for the flip side, the errors of the CD3300R are of the right type – subtractive and minimal. Compared to a five times more expensive Blue Circle BC501 the CEC can sound just a touch thin on large scale (and scary) recordings such as the sonically middling but oh so musically stimulating Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 by Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra [Philips 422 442-2]. Another example of the slight and subtractive nature of the CEC could be heard when listening to "Last Goodbye" from the Jeff Buckley album, Grace [Columbia CK 57528] where the opening shimmer and spray of guitars, drums and cymbals had touch more bite and texture with both the Blue Circle and the Cary CD-303/200. Still, these are small deviations and the overall performance of the CD3300R is way above expectations.
SummaryI don't know about you but I wish the format wars would end. I'm sick of the alphabet avalanche of CD, HDCD, DVD, DVD-Audio, SACD, Blu-ray and DVD-HD – and sick of trying to figure out which one or ones will win. And so I've been sitting on the sidelines, holding off on investing in the wrong acronym. It seems to me that this (as well as the entry-level buyer) is exactly the market the CEC CD3300R is aimed at – someone who is waiting for the price of an ultimate universal player to fall into the reasonable range, but someone who also knows good sound and will not settle for less. If, like me, that describes you, then I can heartily recommend the CEC CD3300R. It has an open, detailed, rich and rhythmic sound that, while just short of the top tier, is so close that it would be a bargain at $2000. At under $700 it my no-brainer pick for great sound on the cheap or while waiting for the affordable and good sounding universal player to appear. Quite highly recommended.
Type: CD player and transport
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 20kHz (0.3dB)
Chipset: 24-bit/192kHz Burr-Brown PCM1738
Digital Output: AES/EBU (XLR), Coax (RCA), and Optical (TOSLink)
Analog Output: Stereo balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA)
Total Harmonic Distortion: XLR: 0.008%, RCA: 0.01%
SNR: XLR: 101dB, RCA: 92dB
Channel separation: XLR: > 105dB, RCA: > 95dB
Dimensions: 435 x 312 x 104 (HxDxW in mm)
Colors: Available in gold or black finish
CEC Company, Ltd.
North America Importer