A fellow tweaking and writing audiophile lives an hour away from me and we'll simply call him Nick. I had a JAS CD player to review. Moreover, I couldn't wait to hear Nick's copy of Donna the Buffalo's doing "Man of Constant Sorrows" again. After procrastinating and postponing several weeks, we played stereo. In my book, playing stereo means lots of food and drink, music and equipment swaps. I brought Amber Bok and Nick made spaghetti. I carried two armfuls of gear up to Nick and his wife's clean, sage-colored apartment.
At $1100, the JAS GP-120CD is classy in appearance. It is silver, a top loading disc bay with a green glow and charming little gold buttons on the front. Its sliding glass lid activates the CD drive, spins the disc up when the lid closes and stops when it opens. While the JAS GP is standard width, it is a top-loading model, so nothing can rest on top of it. The player uses a digital to audio converter (DAC) chip, a Burr Brown by Texas Instruments, the PCM1798 chip. The JAS player is energy efficient, hence the Green Power designation. JAS are located in Hong Kong and make/design all their own equipment. Reviews of their equipment began appearing a few years ago - mostly favorable too. They currently manufacture some interesting loudspeakers as well as tube pre/power amplifiers, tube CD "Musik" player with DAC, power cords and equipment racks. The company's products result from a collaboration among three partners. Product development is guided by listening tests. The simple manual says some useful things, like:
I also brought my $299 Oppo DV-981HD universal player. Its Cirrus Logic CS4360 it is a 24-bit, 192 kHz DAC chip like the Burr Brown DAC. Yet the Oppo DV player looks nothing like the GP. It is a thin and wide unit, looking more like an "under the laptop" cooling unit than a powerful stereo component. Its remote too is nothing like the GP. It is silver, with a jumble of white buttons, not one of them easy to find. Nick synched up my CDs with his Mac Book Black system, through his MHDT Labs Havana DAC ($872) so we could hear two units at a time, side-by-side, within the same second of each other. He checked sound pressure levels (SPL, slow, C weighted) on each song with his iPhone, just to make sure each unit wasn't putting out higher voltage that might affect our comparisons. For me, this was one more dose of iEnvy!
Nick started with Pink Floyd's "Time." On the charts for 741 weeks, Dark Side of the Moon is the ultimate reference disc for tweaking, middle age audiophiles. We all know it and some of us love it still. One of us switched rapidly between the two inputs, so the other couldn't know which unit was playing. The rapid switching created a simple blind test; the switcher knew which unit the input knob selects, but the listener did not. In a double blind test, neither listener nor switcher would know which unit was playing.
Mac & DAC
Using the enormous functionality of the Mac & DAC, Nick copied the disc, then balanced the time and SPL for Diana Krall's All For You (Impulse, 1996). For me, this was a really hard review to write. After the 2010 CES show, our publisher Steve wrote that "physical CD is dead IMHO, as are transports. If a DAC does not have modern USB/FireWire/Ethernet inputs, it is like a 60's sedan - outdated and unloved." So, since neither the GP nor the DV players have such digital inputs, you can call both players outdated and unloved! Despite evidence to the contrary at the March AXPONA show that the CD format is withering, what made this review hard to write was that I can't see a lot of tweaking audiophiles going the dedicated CD player route anymore. Here's why...
In our comparisons, Nick and I slid the DV into the mix. For a much lower cost and lighter unit, the DV was surprisingly close to both players and the Mac & DAC combo in sound quality! Though we could not hear the switch, the DV bass had less impact bass and the mid-range was more forward.
All Things Touchable
On Led Zeppelin's classic "The Lemon Song" from Led Zeppelin III, my beloved Robert Plant (#1 seller on HDTracks) wailed "Squeeze me baby, till the juice runs down my leg." Here, the GP seemed sharper, with more prominent cymbals and edger riffs. The GP's leading edge transients seem quicker, better defined.
So is our publisher right?
Knowing personally how much difference there can be between interconnects, we made sure we used the same cables on both units under comparison. Even with blind A/B switching between discs and units, Nick spotted the GP every time. It was close between all three units though. Only after listening carefully for a while, did we notice a razor's advantage to the GP over the Mac & DAC. The analogue needle of the iPhone SPL application was not accurate enough to spot any definitive difference in levels between the units (mid to high 70s), so it is possible the GP might have a few decibels more of output, which might enhance its sound.
Even if that is the case, the slightly better GP quality is not worth giving up the play lists, downloading music and movies, recording and burning benefits of PCs. As music servers, computers can store, manage and play about a thousand albums! A PC ain't no simple, one function or two function stereo component either; it is a city of capability. Its entire user interface and experience is vastly different from the other three dedicated disc players.
True, we are comparing apples and oranges, but a used or refurbished Mac Book Black is $200 to $999. Plus, there is apparently a quality DAC with USB adapter for only $150. Therefore, we are comparing an extremely powerful and useful solution, for as little as $350, to a thousand dollar dedicated disc player. The GP's magnetic clamp to hold the disc in place is a nice touch. Yet we both thought the GP was not superior enough to give up all the functions of a PC. I think other stereo components, like VIP and Real Trap acoustic panels, improve sound quality more than the difference between these sources.
When separation is un-congested, you hear all of the instruments on the recording in a unique spot on the illusory soundstage. Orchestral music, in particular, benefits from the wide soundstage effect that a urbane system like Vince Christian's E6c (reviewed here) can create with proper amplification. All of the players exhibited enough accuracy in the mid-range to satisfy all but the most finicky audiophile. Folk music and small group ensembles, in particular, benefit from a smooth and even balanced mid-range.
The dynamic snap and pop of music reproduction is so important to making stereos sound alive and emotionally involving. A good player -- vinyl, disc or digital -- should open a magical gateway for musical enjoyment and provide much-needed realism. With each of the players reviewed here, including the Mac and DAC, the dynamics are very good to excellent. None of them seemed to slow or slur the attack of the notes. Percussive instruments are clean and quick, without a lot of compression or edginess. The vast majority of popular recordings are artificially and unpleasantly brightened, yet each player reviewed here treated them quite forgivingly.
CD players can seem hard and edgy; either their jitter or wrong order harmonic distortion (discussed here) can eventually wear out your ears; making them seem tiresome and no longer enjoyable. Yet the treble on all of these players did not hiss or bite. Given the capabilities of the amplifier and speakers, each one seemed to provide enough sizzle. CD players should be able to follow the vocal line with ease, showing distinctive vocal timbres with adroit competency. None of the units lacked in this regard. Their mid-range is satisfyingly open and airy, without muddiness. The highs were not overplayed. The treble pulls neither apart, nor stands-alone, from the musical mix. The flat mid-range response of the players opens up a charming, easy-to-listen-to, timbral palette.
Unless long term listening proves otherwise, theirs is not a cold, sterile, or monochromatic musical world. Because of their even balance throughout the mid-range, the midrange of these players is involving, natural and musical. This does not mean each player had an immediately intoxicating effect. Neither one was noticeably lush, rich and full. These are the kind of players that do their job -- thank you for very much -- they get outta way and let you enjoy the music. Their competency slowly grows on you; neither had any glaring deficiencies. Each one of them tempts you into late-night, low-light, listening sessions with a cold glass of beverage and your the feet-up.
Yet despite the competency of the JAS Audio GP-120CD player, both Nick and I preferred the awesome music and movie management capabilities of the Mac Book and tube DAC. Plus you can download 10 billion iTunes (compressed rubbish junk audio files) and high-def lossless audio tracks like the dynamic percussion tracks of THTST from HDtracks! I plan to add a PC source to my main HT system. Our second choice though is the Oppo DV. At one-third the price of the sharp looking GP, the DV also up samples to high def TV and plays movies too. Yet its sound quality is not that much different from Mac and DAC or the GP!
In conclusion, making the comparisons was educational and a lot fun! Next time Nick, my house. I will cook fish, but you must bring "Man Of Constant Sorrows!"
Oppo DV-981HD Specifications
JAS North American Distributor
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