September 1, 2006
Aurum Acoustics Integris CDP CD Player/Preamplifier
The Aurum Acoustics Integris CDP is a deceptive device. At first, I thought the "CDP" portion of the name stood for CD player, which made perfect sense because the Integris CDP looks like its only a CD player. On the other hand, $12,000 for something that only plays CDs is lot to ask no matter how nicely a product is built and how good it sounds.
But hidden behind the faceplate is also a full-function, feature-rich preamplifier, meaning that CDP really stands for a CD player and preamplifier. And while 12 grand is still a lot of money, it doesn't seem nearly as steep when you consider that the Integris CDP is a world-class component that can compete successfully with the very best separate CD players and preamplifiers, making this all-in-one unit a statement in design and performance.
Probably the reason the Integris CDP looks more like a CD player than a preamplifier is because its a top-loading unit that has just a modest number of small buttons on the front panel and no big volume knob. Instead, volume is controlled by two of the small buttons on the front panel, with all the other features of both the preamp and the CD-playing portions controlled by the rest.
Build-wise, the Integris CDP is a tank, which is what youd expect given the premium price tag. After all, you dont want something flimsy and light when youre paying almost as much for audio gear as many people pay for a good used car. The Integris CDP measures 19"W by 14"D by 4.4"H and weighs about 30 pounds. Much of that weight comes from the chassis, which is thick aluminum all around. The styling is good in a muscular, audiophile way, but the Integris CDP doesnt have the swooping curves and polished-to-the-extreme precision of products from, say, Classé Audio or other such rivals.
The transport mechanism is a Philips CD Pro 2M. A cover slides open to reveal the tray surrounding the mechanism; one of those heavy little aluminum pucks holds the disc in place. The open/close and puck-placing are done manually, which seems to give some audiophiles a bit of a charge, almost as if they are cueing up an LP. Honestly, I find it to be a bit of a nuisance.
The Integris CDP also incorporates a Quantum digital-processing board developed by Anagram Technologies of Switzerland. Its purpose is resampling. Resampling, upsampling, and oversampling -- or whatever you want to call it -- seem to overlap so much that many audiophiles have given up trying to understand it, and digital experts continually debate if there is any difference. In the end, confusion still reigns. The Quantum board uses Motorola SHARC processors and outputs a 24-bit/192kHz signal for decoding by the DACs, a pair Analog Devices AD1893s for the right and left channels.
The Integris CDP doesnt play SACDs or DVD-As, obviously -- its called CDP, not SACDP or DVD-AP or even DVD-VP. Thats A-OK with me, though. SACD and DVD-A have less influence today than vinyl has, and CD is going to reign as the hard format of choice for a long time. I mention this only because if you are considering purchase of a universal audio player, the Integris CDP isnt one.
The preamplifier portion is stacked. For analog signals, there are three single-ended and two balanced inputs along with one set each of balanced and single-ended outputs. Although the Integris CDP has balanced inputs and outputs, its not a fully balanced design throughout, meaning dual "inverted" circuitry from input to output. All inputs can be individually level adjusted to compensate for different source-component output levels -- a handy feature that every preamp should have. There is also the ability to configure any of the analog inputs for home-theater-bypass use.
For incoming digital signals, there are also five inputs: two S/PDIF, one BNC, one AES/EBU and one TosLink. There are two digital outputs as well: one S/PDIF and one TosLink. All of the incoming digital signals pass through the same resampling and D/A circuitry as the CD section.
Finally, the backside also has a main power switch, an IEC receptacle for a detachable power cord, and an RS232 port that allows for updates.
Aurum supplies the Integris CDP with a decent power cord; however, they also have their own upgraded cord based on Cardas-supplied cabling. It costs $800. For that kind of price, you really need to be a believer in power cords. Aurum sent me the upgraded cord, and I definitely heard an improvement; however, I still gasp and choke at the notion of spending that much money on a power cord. Still, the Aurum cord made enough of a difference in my system that Id certain consider it.
The front panel has an easy-to-read display. You can see what youre doing as youre pressing buttons on the panel or if youre using the remote control, which also controls all functions. The remote is actually a Logitech Harmony 676 custom programmed for the Integris CDP. The front-panel display can be dimmed or turned off completely if you like listening in the dark.
Overall, I cant quibble about the Integris CDP's build quality or features. Ease of use was also good, although there was one minor thing. The front-panel switch and the remote control were sometimes out of sync -- where one was on and the other was off. Theres an easy fix, though. Just press the button on the remote control once while covering its output, so it doesn't trigger the Integris CDP, or I simply push the Standby button once to accomplish the same thing. This gets both the front-panel switch and the remote control back in step. Aurum Acoustics has addressed this issue with firmware updates in both the CDP and remote, a sign of the forward thinking in the Integris CDP's design.
That minor quirk, though, was more than offset by the faultless operation of the Integris CDP -- its well-though-out user interface, abundance of features, and great volume control that goes from -60dBu to +20dBu (more or less arbitrary numbers) in varying increments. From -60dBu to -40dBu, the quietest range, there are 2dB increments. From -40dBu to -20dBu there are 1dB increments. And finally, from -20dBu to +20dBu, the critical listening range, there are 0.5dB increments. Perfect.
I used the Integris CDP with two all-in-one active speakers systems: the NHT Xd system, which I reviewed for SoundStage! in July, and Aurum Acoustics own Integris Active 300B system, which I will be reviewing for SoundStage! this fall. Interconnects to the NHT Xd speaker system were Nordost Quattro-Fil; interconnects to the Aurum Integris 300B speaker system were Cardas Golden Reference. Each speaker system comes with its own proprietary speakers cables, which I used.
Listening to the oldest of my favorite demo discs, the soundtrack to the movie The Mission [EMI 811267], was startling because of how much detail the Integris CDP presented. In fact, Ive never heard quite as far into this recording as I heard with the Integris CDP, and Ive heard this recording a lot, and with numerous digital front-ends. There was a wealth of musical detail and the largest soundstage that this recording has ever created. I was stunned.
The same could also be said for "Everest" from Ani DiFrancos Up Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe 13]. Hearing past Anis voice and guitar into the room was a snap. The resolution that the Integris CDP is capable of is a revelation, with resulting imaging that was ear-poppingly precise. Furthermore, whether it was the tone of Anis voice, the sound of her guitar, or anything else that showed up on a recording, the sound was dead-on. Theres no tubey warmth or solid-state sheen from the Integris CDP, no deficiency or exaggeration in the bass, and no reticence or emphasis in the highs. The Integris CDP is as near-perfect a CD player as Ive heard.
So while the CD playback was as good as Ive heard, I also wanted to use the Integris CDP as a preamplifier to see if it would perform to just as high a level. To my ears, it did; it is an extraordinarily transparent preamp and dead quiet. Like the CD section, the preamp has no sonic signature of its own. In fact, the Integris CDP sounded so clean and transparent that it immediately reminded me of a preamplifier I auditioned in 2002 and Jeff Fritz reviewed: the Two from the Swiss company Orpheus Labs. The Two garnered a Reviewers Choice nod and the end-of-the-year Edge of the Art award, in many ways the top annual prize from the SoundStage! Network. It, too, is so clean-sounding with such see-through transparency that its like nothing is there -- a true reference piece, which is why it gained all that praise.
However, for over two years, Orpheus Labs products have not been available in North America, and the firm, once Swiss-owned, has been sold. Furthermore, I have no idea what the current Orpheus products are like, or if the present sound resembles that of the old. Thats the reason the company made such a big splash in our pages a few years ago, but hasnt been seen here since.
Now, the Integris CDP seems to fill that void for the same reason that I liked the Two so much: clean, clear, neutral sound. No doubt, if you were a fan of the Orpheus Two, youll be a fan of the Integris CDP. And even if youve never heard of Orpheus Labs or their products, youll still want to check out the Integris CDP for its superbly transparent sound both as a CD player and preamplifier.
With the Integris CDP functioning so well as a preamplifier, I was able to conduct an experiment and compare various DACs here to the Integris CDPs CD-playback capabilities. I hooked up my Theta Data Basic/Stello DA220 DAC combination (with an i2digital X-60 digital interconnect joining them) to the Integris CDPs balanced and unbalanced inputs simultaneously (I used Nordost Quattro Fil single-ended and balanced interconnects, just to be 100% consistent), and then matched the levels of those inputs so the volume of both analog inputs played back at exactly the same level as the Integris CDPs own CD-playback section.
With a handful of duplicated CDs, I synced up the Integris CDP and the Theta/Stello combination, and by simply pushing buttons on the remote control I could switch between the Theta/Stello combination on the singled-ended and balanced inputs, allowing me to compare the two, and then I could also compare those to the Integris CDPs playback. The results were quite revealing.
First, my Theta/Stello combination never sounded as good as it did played through the Integris CDP. The supreme transparency of the Integris CDP's preamp section let the qualities of my digital front-end show through splendidly. Second, I found out quite quickly that the balanced output of the Stello DAC sounded better than the single-ended output, at least as played through the Integris CDP. Finally, I found the Theta/Stello combination to come strikingly close in terms of sound quality to the Integris CDP, a result that surprised me in some ways, but didnt in others.
My Theta Data Basic transport has long since been discontinued, but in its day (mid-90s), it was a standout. Its price today is hard to determine. On the use market I suspect youll pay in the low hundreds of dollars. On the other hand, Stellos DA220 DAC is one of the true high-end bargains available today. When I reviewed it, the price was $1195, but its build quality and performance indicated something about three to four times as much. Stello showed a DA220 Mk 2 at the last CES. It's priced at $1495, but Ive never seen it since, so I consider the DA220 "current enough." The DA220 is a steal, and most people would be crazy to pay more for a DAC, even if theyre filthy rich. The DA220 can outclass almost everything right up to the very best gear.
However, some people are crazy, particularly when it comes to the best of high-end audio, and thats who the Integris CDP is for. It represents the very best out there. The Integris CDP is better than my Theta/Stello combo; however, its important to recognize that the CD playback of the Integris CDP isnt ten times better than my Theta/Stello combination, or even five times or two times. Its a wee bit better, thats all. But in high-end audio, a wee bit here and a wee bit there is what the whole thing is about, and thats what you pay the big bucks for.
The Integris CDP has a little more air, a touch more detail, and it can cast a wider and deeper soundstage. I believe these traits all come down to the Integris CDPs superior resolution, which is simply the best Ive heard. As well, rapid back-and-forth switching reveals that the Theta/Stello has the smallest hint of inherent steeliness, particularly noticeable with guitar, whereas theres none of that with the Integris CDP. The CDP makes the instruments sound like themselves -- nothing more or less.
Finally, theres the very top end. Now, no one is going to say that the Theta/Stello combination sounds edgy or unrefined, even with back-to-back comparisons against the Integris CDP. However, the Integris CDP is a touch tidier up there. Theres a pristine quality and a last gasp of air that the Theta/Stello combo cant quite match.
In summary, the Theta Data Basic/Stello DA220 combination is great for the money; the Integris CDP is great, period. Of course, their prices are worlds apart.
A better comparison price-wise is Zandens Model 5000 Mk IV DAC ($9800), which, again mated to my Theta transport via the same digital link, provides flawless CD performance thats a match for the Integris CDP. In this case, its more about whats different than whats better and worse.
Any quibbles I had with the Stello -- the steeliness and ever-so-subtle lack of air compared to the Integris CDP -- just dont exist with the Zanden Model 5000 Mk IV. Furthermore, some listeners would probably feel that the Theta/Zanden combo betters the Integris CDP by being a little bit richer- and more immediate-sounding. The Integris CDP isnt recessed at all, but in comparison, it just doesnt jump at you the way the more voluptuous-sounding Model 5000 Mk IV does. On the other hand, if supreme neutrality is what youre after, the Integris CDP is the frontrunner here.
The Integris CDP trumps the Theta/Zanden combination in terms of resolution. Ive never heard any digital gear that's more resolving than the Integris CDP, and that quality makes listening to well-known older CDs that you might have played hundreds of times seem like a fresh experience again. I know its an old reviewer's saying, but it is also the literal truth: The Integris CDP really did make me rediscover much of my music collection.
There was one thing I didnt mention at the start of the review, preferring to keep it until the end. Aurum Acoustics is a small operation based out of Conception Bay South, Newfoundland, Canada. Ive never been there, but from what I know, its not big or well-known. The company is headed by Derrick Moss; I know Derrick now, but I had never heard of him before encountering his products at Montreals annual audio/video show a couple years ago. After talking to Derrick, I suspect that Aurum Acoustics is as small as where it's located.
The point of mentioning all this is that I didnt want to start the review with a story about a small upstart taking on the world; instead I wanted the review to be about the product, because the Integris CDP deserves such focus. Still, such background is worth mentioning, because its amazing to me that a company like Aurum Acoustics from a place like Conception Bay South, Newfoundland can build industry-leading products. Quite simply, the Integris CDP has the best overall performance of any CD player Ive heard. Nothing Ive heard equals it in terms of resolution, neutrality and transparency. "Perfect sound forever" -- the Integris CDP defines it. And while the preamplifier section may not surpass all the best solid-state preamplifiers on the market, I suspect that it can equal them. Its as clean-, clear-, and neutral-sounding as the CD section.
As a result, this all-in-the-same box front-end solution that popped into the world seemingly out of nowhere is a world-class performer thats unique as well as sonically extraordinary. Its asking price, while hefty, can be justified by the fact that youll be hard-pressed to find a better-performing CD player or preamplifier. In fact, the Integris CDP is such a complete one-box solution, it could convince almost anyone that separates arent always the best solution.
Aurum Acoustics Integris CDP CD Player/Preamplifier