ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

July 1, 2004

Ensemble Dirondo CD Player

Remember the early 1980s, when the launch of the CD was supposed to be the death knell of the LP? Since that premature death notice, and despite its shrinking market, analog reproduction has reached new heights of quality, with recent advances in pressings, turntables, cartridges, and phono stages surpassing what was the state of the art in those days. A surprising number of new analog products are coming out these days, and growing numbers of people express regret about having dumped their LPs and turntables. And a younger crowd that grew up in the CD era is now discovering analog’s attractions. It’s not just misplaced antiquarianism that’s behind this phenomenon; rather, it’s a response to the life-threatening challenge posed by CD.

Now the 16-bit/44.1kHz, "Red Book" standard CD is supposed to be an endangered species. Many of the same suits that once trumpeted CD’s "perfect sound forever" (literally the same: Sony pioneered both CD and SACD) now sing the same melody with different words -- new media such as SACD and DVD-Audio will make "Red Book" CDs and CD-only players obsolete. I’m a devout agnostic about these new formats, and am quite skeptical about the benefits of quad -- er, I mean, multichannel. But I am a believer in the proposition that CD software and hardware have now evolved to the point where audiophiles have to wonder whether the new, highly hyped formats are even necessary.

It’s reached a point where the once unimaginable sometimes occurs: that the sound of long-admired analog classics can be improved in CD transfers. For proof, doubters are referred to many of JVC’s XRCD reissues. By any high-end standard, today’s conventional CD players, whether single-box players or separate transports and DACs, are far better than they’ve ever been. Throw upsampling into the mix, and the disappointing sound of CDs played back by many multi-format players, and it’s possible that "Red Book" CDs and CD-only players will live on to bury their rivals.

Such musings are occasioned by the opportunity to review several upsampling CD players that have made listening more a pleasure than a duty. Some, like the Reimyo CDP-777 ($14,000 USD), are expensive by any standard; others, like the Cary 306/200 ($5000), are about where other excellent units are found on the price continuum -- and other Cary players deliver much of the 306/200’s excellence for less. And an all-too-brief listening session with the Lector CDP-7 ($3300) suggests that it’s fully competitive with the big boys. So there are plenty of players with a variety of engineering approaches and prices that get more from silver discs than was possible in the past.

The Dirondo

The latest to arrive in my system is the Ensemble Dirondo, a single-box CD player whose transparency and detail make it a standout. At $8980, it’s costly enough for the full-pocketed but insecure to feel as if they’re operating at the upper end of the scale.

When I asked Urs Wagner, Ensemble’s president, what Dirondo meant, I hoped for something exotic -- the name of an ancient Mayan king, or a variant of the samba. Alas, it’s more mundane: "The D," said Dr. Wagner, "is for digital. Rondo is a trifecta -- a musical term, also recalling round and turning."

Ensemble is a Swiss company with a full product line. Just mentioning the Swiss automatically calls up stereotypes of precisely engineered products and stylish design, both qualities evident in the Dirondo.

The Dirondo is a top-loader -- a smoothly sliding door at the top provides access to the CD well. Inside is a Philips CD Pro2M CD transport mounted on a milled-aluminum base, which in turn sits on a multilayered, resonance-absorbing damping block. A supplied clamp secures the disc, which won’t play unless so hugged. The Dirondo’s interior is partitioned to further reduce unwanted crosstalk and resonances.

Upsampling to 24 bits/96kHz is automatic. What chip Ensemble uses for this is a state secret that even delving into the Dirondo’s innards will not reveal; the chip’s markings are altered to prevent anyone from finding out. Wagner very reasonably says that too many audiophiles absorb misinformation about chips and get hung up on brand names without understanding that what’s really important is not the chip, but how it’s used. I can see his point. Anyway, it adds to the Dirondo’s mystique.

The Dirondo’s sleekly aristocratic visage is an appealing expanse of brushed aluminum punctuated in its lower third by artfully arranged pushbuttons and an oblong display window. Unfortunately, the smallish window means that those with aging eyes, a cohort for which I now qualify, may find it difficult to make out the readout from across a decent-sized room. The rear panel is as cleanly sleek as the front, fitted with proprietary connectors for digital and analog output. At 15.5"W x 5.4"H x 12.4"D, the player will easily fit in any equipment rack, and at 31 pounds, it won’t require the use of a forklift.

The matching remote handset, universal for Ensemble products, is as efficiently organized, though the profusion of multiple-use buttons may take some getting used to. Even if it saves clutter, it’s counterintuitive: to pause a disc, you have to press Play. Give me a clearly marked Pause button any day. On the other hand (or fingers), the remote’s buttons are recessed into round depressions that fit the ball of the finger. A neat touch.

But kudos to Ensemble for putting a Phase button on both the front panel and remote. Some players don’t have a Phase option at all, while others put it on the front panel but not on the remote, which is incomprehensible -- the whole point of switching between in and out of phase is to check on which setting sounds best from the listening position. With most discs, phase doesn’t matter at all. With some, however, it can mean the difference between a wide soundstage and a shrunken one, a strong, firm bass and a soggy one, a singer in your lap and one placed more realistically behind the speakers. Of course, masochists whose idea of bliss is connecting and disconnecting speaker cables can adjust phase by reversing cables at the speakers’ input jacks. Give me the convenience and efficacy of a remote with a phase control, like the Dirondo’s.

Ensemble’s 1.5-meter Powerflux FSF power cable ($345) is included with the player. I learned a long time ago that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and presumably the Dirondo’s price tag might have been slightly lower without it. But it’s convenient, and I like the statement it makes: that a high-end CD player deserves a high-end power cable. Also included is a brilliantly recorded CD, about which more anon.

Listening to the Dirondo

I plugged the Dirondo into my reference system, which includes the Wyetech Opal preamplifier, Jadis JA-80 monoblock power amps modified with Siltech internal wiring, and the Von Schweikert VR-4 Gen III HSE speakers. Wiring consisted of the Siltech Classic SQ-110 interconnects and LS-188 speaker cables. Ensemble sent along their top-of-the-line power cords, the Metaflux ($720/2m), and the Ensemble Isolink Duo, a hefty isolation and power station ($2980).

To keep digital electronic hash from polluting the system’s power, I was advised to plug digital sources into an outlet separate from the AC line feeding the other components -- good advice applicable to all systems. That’s where the Isolink Duo went, and the Dirondo was plugged into it, as per instructions. The result was lower noise and distortion, especially with older CDs afflicted with the nasties.

Great-sounding discs sounded even better, a prime example being the one that’s included with the Dirondo: a carefully chosen sampler from the Simax catalog that amounts to a one-stop tour of your system’s potential. It’s available from Artistic Audio, and at $25 can serve as the only CD you’ll need when auditioning new equipment.

In the excerpt from Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony, "Playful Pizzicato," the Dirondo threw a wide soundstage, conveyed the strings’ precise articulation of unison plucking, accurately sustained the harmonics of the massed cellos and double basses, and gave a good feel for the venue’s acoustical properties. In Giacinto Scelsi’s C’est bien la nuit, I could hear the air moving through Bjørn Ianke’s double bass, its woodiness, and the size of the instrument. In two excerpts from another masterly Britten work, A Ceremony of Carols, the delicacy of the harp figurations was breathtaking, as was the purity of the choral trebles, all wrapped in the acoustic of a Norwegian church. Also impressive was the scaling of the slow buildup to the central climax and the decrescendo to the quiet ending in the work’s "Balulalow" section. The final track, Kåre Nordstoga’s rendition of Bach’s Toccata in F for organ, BWV 540, displayed the Dirondo’s firm bass and its ability to clarify the music’s dense contrapuntal strands.

Similar listening thrills were provided by Kiril Kondrashin’s classic version of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien, a revered RCA "shaded dog" LP brilliantly transferred to CD in a new JVC XRCD reissue [JM-XR24013]. The shamelessly brassy bite of the opening trumpet flourish snapped me to attention, and the warmth of the strings in the following section swept me away, only to recover in time to note that the dueting winds at about 2:30, each instrument in its own space and pocket of air, had a tonal integrity rarely captured on CD. Impressive, too, were the wide, wide soundstage, the slow decay of the cymbal crashes, and the crystalline purity of the bells and triangle.

If you’re looking for rhythmic timing and punch, the Dirondo is more than capable of delivering the goods. On the rocking album Bar Room Blues [Telarc CD-83594], Bob Margolin’s "My New Baby Owns a Whiskey Store" testifies not only to the song’s protagonist’s wisdom in his choice of girlfriends, but also to the Dirondo’s ability to incite finger-snapping and foot-stomping -- a point confirmed by just about all the dozen tracks on this blues set devoted to the art of drinking oneself under the table.

The Dirondo also reproduced piano with aplomb. The Monty Alexander Trio’s Impressions in Blue [Telarc CD-83578] was revealed as a superb example of recorded piano, the instrument reproduced with lifelike clarity in all its registers. Even run-of-the-mill piano recordings had a life and zest to them that many other players don’t match.

Amanda McBroom’s Dreaming [JVC XRCD magxr001] is a mellow jazz disc that includes, as well as ballads, the uptempo track "The Way of the Heart," where the high cymbal and pounding drums loved by audiophiles came through with gusto. In All My Loving . . . [JVC XRCD24-10075], soft ballads and hybrid jazz/pop by a singer popular in Asia, Jheena Lodwick re-creates the feeling of being in a hotel’s cocktail lounge; all that’s missing is the buzz of the crowd and the tinkling of ice cubes in glasses.

The Dirondo’s analytic nature occasionally felt like too much of a good thing, especially with many major-label female operatic recordings. While the chief culprit was the indifferent engineering and transfer work that often characterize such discs, they sounded smoother and more liquid via other players whose treble extension was as impressive as the Dirondo’s. This did not dim my appreciation for the Dirondo’s high-resolution capabilities, but it’s worth mentioning if such recordings form a major part of your listening diet. Oddly enough, violin and other instruments did not suffer from this, perhaps because high, loud soprano notes have greater acoustic energy -- a big soprano voice can cut through a 100-piece orchestra.

Summing up

As I make my way through the lineup of CD players slated for review, I’ll try to indicate where each stands in the pecking order of today’s plethora of fine gear. As I do so, you should know that my preference lies with players that best simulate what I hear in the concert hall -- warm, rounded tonal images, smooth treble, and microdynamic subtlety are high on my priority list. Each of us has audio preferences (they’re prejudices if you don’t agree with them) that should be factored as such into any assessment or review.

That said, I felt the Dirondo excited more respect than love, though it did so much so well that many audiophiles will probably disagree. What I missed most was the emotional involvement I got from the $14,000 Reimyo CDP-777. The Reimyo was more involving because, more than any other player I’ve heard to date, it captured an analog-like fluidity and continuity in the music and at the same time was convincingly neutral. The Dirondo was a bit on the cool side of the continuum bounded on one end by the deep freeze and on the other by tropical stickiness. Although the Dirondo was impressive, with outstanding detailing, frequency extension, and dynamic punch, the Reimyo did these parameters even better: details emerged more naturally, dynamics -- especially microdynamics -- were more successfully delineated, the soundstage was wider and deeper, highs were more grain-free and liquid, and its deep bass was deeper than I thought my system could go.

In further comparisons, both the Cary 360/200 and the Metronome Signature C-20 and D-20 transport-DAC combo were on the warmer side of neutral; while they delivered involvement aplenty, they lacked the ultimate detail, extension, and power of the Reimyo or the Dirondo. But comparisons can be invidious, and the best is the enemy of the very good. Price is not a valid indicator of quality, but in this case the Reimyo is king of the hill, though the Dirondo warrants its price tag if its slightly cool demeanor suits your listening preferences.

Direct comparisons aside, I especially admired the Dirondo for the masses of detail it uncovered, the transparency of orchestral works played through it, and the presence with which it conveyed the music. The width of its soundstage is not bought by shrinking depth, and the you-are-there presence it lends well-recorded discs is natural, not the in-your-face kind that fatigues. But the, for me, ultimate criterion of inciting the spark of emotional involvement in the music, was wanting.

Still, its many excellences place the Dirondo among the ranks of today’s better CD players. If its analytic mode fits your listening preferences and its price tag fits your budget, it belongs on your short list of top players to consider.

…Dan Davis

Ensemble Dirondo CD Player
Price: $8980 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Ensemble AG
Bahnhofstrasse 34
P.O. Box 215
CH-4147 Aesch

Phone: (+41) 61 461 9191
Fax: (+41) 61 461 9325

Website: www.ensembleaudio.com


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