|Fringe with Greg Smith
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CEC CD-2100 CD Player
I had just received a packet of information about the dorm room I would be living in during my freshman year of college, and it included the dimensions of a space designed for a small refrigerator. Having already dined on the barely edible cafeteria fare at the school for a month over the summer, I knew that foods from other sources were going to be an essential part of my sustenance during that year. A trip to Circuit City revealed the widest array of frigery, and after much pruning of the choices I settled on a nice unit from Sanyo. Not too expensive, not too cheap, and it seemed well made. It's still working to this day, so I certainly can't complain about the long-term reliability.
Two years later, I moved in with a roommate who had selected a similar model from that company. He also had a pair of Sanyo speakers, which were immediately relegated to storage once he sampled my budding audiophile rig. Alas, some early experiments gone wild would demolish the tweeters in my speakers, leaving us without tunes. I shuddered to connect his poor little boxes to my Adcom GFA-555, but it was better than silence. Since my main speakers were floorstanders, we needed something to sit his smaller ones on. You know where this is leading, right? Yes, we positioned each speaker on top of a matching Sanyo refrigerator. As space in our room was limited, this seemed like quite a waste. Why not just build the speakers into the refrigerator, we conjectured? Think about the advantages. You would get improved voice coil cooling, increasing power handling and lowered distortion. And, best of all, we could tune the bass response of the speakers by adding more beer! Think of the tweaking this would encourage: "I found the bass a bit on the fat and mushy side when the fridge was filled with bread, but replacing it with Molson really tightened things up."
Most audiophiles think of Sanyo as a company you might buy a refrigerator from, but not a high-end audio product. So when you find out that the CEC CD-2100 CD player is manufactured by the Optronics division of Sanyo, that's likely to be a turn-off. But this is a CD player you shouldn't dismiss just based on a brand name. CEC was an independent company with a quite successful business making CD transports before they were purchased by Sanyo. While not as familiar as companies like Sony or Pioneer, you'll find CEC parts inside a number of products well known to audiophiles. The Parasound C/DC-1500 I own (and its single-disc cousin the C/DC-1000) are both based on CEC transport units. The CEC CD-2100 certainly has a lot more in common with those units than it does with the kind of products you'd normally associate the Sanyo name with.
Available in the US from mail-order audio retailer Audio Advisor, there are two inexpensive CD players with the CEC name. The less expensive CD-2100 features a gold finish and a coaxial digital output. Audio Advisor sells them for $299. The CD-3100 adds an AES/EBU output and costs $50 more. I believe it's actually the cheapest player on the market with that capability. Their product line goes up to a dreadnought transport mechanism retailing for $5000, so they are obviously doing some pretty serious work at the higher-end of the market as well.
When you look at it from a distance, the CD-2100 looks like it's made of fancy machined metal. It's quite an impressive illusion; it's not until you get very close that you see it's actually all just plastic. While the overall construction quality seems fitting for the modest retail cost, some parts really stand out as exceptional. The RCA jacks are easily the best I've ever seen on any component that's under $500. It wasn't until I stacked the CEC and Parasound players on top of one another that I realized the jacks are actually the same ones used on the $650 C/DC-1500. Along with the coax digital output, the CEC CD-2100 has a detachable IEC power cord, so it has excellent upgrade potential. I found the actual disc tray a little on the flimsy side, even compared with the less expensive AMC CD9. But there doesn't seem to be anything that's easily breakable on it, so I'll chalk that up to a look and feel issue rather than a performance one.
A prominent label on the front of the player alludes to improved performance from a "3rd overtone oscillation" circuit. CEC uses a quartz oscillator that's been tuned to cut the fundamental to 1/10th of its normal value. The 3rd overtone harmonic is used instead for the system clock, a change that they claim significantly reduces jitter in the DAC section and allows mating with a broader selection of digital chipsets.
My first attempt to compare the CD-2100 with another player, the AMC CD9, quickly turned sour on me. I connected both players to the AMC 3020 integrated amplifier, driving Magnepan MMG speakers with AudioQuest Type 4 speaker cable. Switching between the CEC CD-2100 and the AMC CD9, I found it totally obvious that the CD-2100 was the superior player. Wait -- I didn't use the same interconnects. The CEC was using the DIY Belden 89259 cable I looked at a few months back, while the CD9 was connected with the cables in its box. After connecting both players with the Belden cable, I listened again. Now the AMC player was clearly superior. More so than it had any right to be, I thought, so I grabbed my multimeter. I measured something I'd have noted if I ever read manuals: the CD-2100 outputs a standard 2V RMS, while the CD9 gooses things up to 2.2V. No wonder it sounded so much better; it was simply louder. While it's fun to pick on meter-reading audiophiles who dismiss simply listening, the level-matching part of their philosophy bears following. it's really easy to fool yourself with this sort of mistake if you're not careful.
Using the potentiometer level adjustments on the AMC 3020 to match the voltage at the speakers on a 1kHz sine wave, I started my first fair comparison of the players. Out came my usual comparison discs, starting with Dead Can Dance: Into the Labyrinth [Warner Bros. 9 45384-2]. My first impression was that the CEC player was a bit warmer in the bass, while the AMC unit tended toward a more clinical but accurate presentation in that area. On transients like the pervasive percussion snaps during "The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove," the CD-2100 was quite a bit more realistic. Most impressive was the sense of recording space the CEC player portrayed; instruments were far better localized in the soundstage. Moving forward to "How Fortunate the Man With None," the CEC really pulls you into the enveloping opening. There's a very rich decay as the vocal reverberation fades that I rarely hear in digital gear this inexpensive. While the AMC CD9 couldn't match the high-frequency detail of the CD-2100, I'm fairly certain it would work well with a typical low-budget system. The CEC player, being a bit more on the forward and punchy side of things, might sound too aggressive if you combined it with the wrong equipment.
Meanwhile, "The Waiter," from David Baerwald's Triage [A&M 75021 5392 2], demands just that kind of energy. The CEC CD-2100 delivered the full fury of Baerwald's music with no hesitation. From the chilling scream during the opening to the little background effects imaging all around, the CD-2100 rendered a sonic landscape you could easily get lost in. The AMC CD9 was just plain too polite on this track. But I did prefer its very tight kick drum, finding the CEC player to sound a bit on the sloppy side in comparison.
Given the obvious similarities I'd noted between the CD-2100 and the Parasound C/DC-1500 I've owed for a while now, a direct showdown between the two was inevitable. This one was considerably easier to arrange, as both players have the same output voltage on their spec sheets, verified by my meter. Returning to "The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove," the Parasound gave slightly more resolution on the delicate cymbals taps through the song. This I was kind of expecting. What I was genuinely surprised by, especially after my experience with the CD9, was noting that the CEC CD-2100 actually had more control over the deep bass than the C/DC-1500. This pattern repeated on "How Fortunate the Man with None," and the CEC player continued to show a more solid low-frequency footing during "The Waiter." On that song, the more pronounced detail of the Parasound player made Baerwald's vocals sound more spitty and abrasive, which, depending on your viewpoint, is either an improvement or a problem. While my aging Parasound C/DC-1500 isn't matched in all respects by the CD-2100, it's a very close race. I'd have to call it a draw, with each player having a slight edge over the other in some areas. On less difficult recordings, it was difficult to note any significant difference in how the two sounded; there's a close family resemblance.
From a more technical perspective, the CEC CD-2100 is an impressive machine. Since it's obviously marketed with an eye toward being an inexpensive transport mechanism, I regretted that I was unable to compare its coaxial output with any other players. But I don't think that's too great of a loss. My experience has suggested that, given a similar style of digital output, the differences between transports are so dependant on the DAC and digital cable used that it's very hard to generalize about how good a transport sounds. It's obvious that coax sounds better than TosLink, and AES/EBU has the potential to sound better yet. But given two similarly priced players with a coax output using the same cable and DAC, I find differences in transports to be elusive.
What is obvious about a transport is how well it plays damaged discs. The CEC CD-2100 put in an outstanding showing in that regard. With the Pierre Verany test suite, it had no problem playing the 2.4mm defect on track 35. The 2.5mm pits on track 36 caused occasional skipping, and the playback was essentially useless by the time you get to the 3mm holes on track 37. Very impressive performance on this test, among the best I've ever seen. Using Digital Recording's CD Check, things didn't go quite as well. While track 1 played perfectly, there was some distortion even on track 2 (0.375mm defects). Since this discrepancy seemed kind of confusing, I tried a real-world test: my ancient, battle-scarred copy of Yes: 90125 [Atlantic 90125, of course] The gaping chasm during the middle of "Owner of a Lonely Heart," left behind by drunken handling during an event I have little recollection of, will cause all but the best players to skip. The CEC CD-2100 navigated the treacherous expanse with only a slight little glitch at the worst spot. The $895 Acurus ACD-11 is the only player I've ever had play that disc without any skip, so it remains its title of transport champion. But the CD-2100 is very close, though, and at around 1/3 of the retail cost it's certainly a better value to most.
The CEC CD-2100 is also pretty good at handling vibration. The big feet on the bottom and "vibration-absorbing cover" seem to be effective at keeping playback skip-free even when the environment is shaking. Its remote control isn't as impressive. The layout is good, but the buttons are too small for my taste. One very nice bonus on this player is its headphone jack. Even driving the difficult Beyerdynamic DT250 headphones I use at work, the CEC headphone output always delivered control and authority, even at higher volumes.
The CD performance audiophiles get for their dollar continues to improve as time passes, and the CEC CD-2100 is an excellent example of how far inexpensive digital playback has progressed in the last few years. Its formidable transport section makes it an excellent value even if used just in that capacity. And the analog output from the built-in DACs is good enough that it's quite competitive even as a standalone unit. Now if I can just get them to build the player into a refrigerator....
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