June 2000Audio Aero Capitole CD Player
by Doug Schneider
When I was a young, budding audiophile, a very good salesman told me to shop for "black box" components.
"Forget the looks, and most certainly forget about all the knobs and dials a component has," he hammered home. "And dont worry too much about the specifications either. If it sounds good to you, forget about whats inside. Remember, its the sound that matters."
Of course there are other factors a person should take into account when buying a component -- build quality, warranty, reputation of the company and various other things -- but the point this salesman made is correct. You must concentrate on the sound of the component. Remember, your ears are the part that has to live with your purchase.
The Audio Aero Capitole CD player is a "black box" component in the sense that it performs to an exceedingly high standard, but exactly why it performs at this level is not completely clear to me. Some will undoubtedly attribute it to the tubed output stage. Perhaps this is partially true, but it cant be all there is to it because other players that dont sound nearly this good use tubes too (and look at all the great players that dont use tubes at all). Audio Aero does something to affect jitter, but so too do a lot of other companies that dont get the same sonic result. No, I dont think it's any one thing that I can point to, but I do think that Audio Aero achieved a certain synergy with the Capitoles sound.
However, Im not saying the Capitole is perfect; it isnt. In fact, I have a few nits to pick with it. But when it comes to playing music, this player has very few rivals and stands tall among the best CD players Ive heard. Whats more, Ill bet that turntable aficionados who just cant bear to listen to digital for any length of time will open their ears to this sultry player. It blends the strengths of analog with those of digital in a way Ive never heard. Its not cheap, mind you, because any way you look at it, $4200 is a lot of money for any CD player. However, whether youre in the market for a CD player in this price range or not, youll want to read on because the Capitoles sound quality is really something special.
Like many other CD players, the Capitole is based on a Philips transport mechanism, this one a top loader, and Bitstream DAC section. Some people like top-loading mechanisms, but I suspect that is mainly because they usually look a little more snazzy and impart a sense of nostalgia because they tend to remind us of turntables. I dont know if they really perform better, although such mechanisms may give companies a little more leverage with how they mount the transport inside the component. Truth be told, I actually find top loaders to be a bit of a pain. Usually you have to place them on the top of an equipment rack, which is fine if you have a top of the rack. And then there is the little "puck" that must be placed on the CD. Lose it and youre out of luck -- the player wont play without it, although it will try to. And if you dont put the puck on when the transport revs up, the disc will spin off the spindle and whirl around inside the player until you jump up and press stop. If youre lucky, the CD wont have too many scratches to play again when it gets finished with spin cycle.
Ive found that some of these top loaders can get mixed up and think the drawer is open when its closed and vice versa. This can happen if you only open or close the door part way, just enough to make contact with the points that send a signal to the processor to tell the player if the door is opening or closing, and then go back or forward at that point. To get it thinking straight again, you just have to do the same thing with the door again, but sometimes it takes a few tries to get it right. This is no real problem, but it is something I had to contend with a few times.
Peering inside, I noticed that Audio Aero has made use of the fact that the Capitole is a top-loading design. The transport mechanism sits on an MDF base that runs front to back and is suspended on small pieces of foam to give the mechanism a degree of isolation. Underneath this MDF is the Philips digital board, which is shielded by a copper plate, as is the analog board that sits to the left of it. The company is basically tweaking and improving upon the Philips technology, like many other companies do. Peering around I see Kimber Kaps, a high-quality transformer and, most notably, the tube-based output stage with a volume pot attached. This tube stage is not Philips; it is all Audio Aero, a single 6922 doing the honors.
With the ability to adjust the output level up to a maximum of 3.5V from the knob on the front panel, the Capitole allows you to drive a power amplifier directly from the output stage, either through the single-ended or balance outputs on the back. This, in turn, can eliminate the need for a preamplifier. For people who want the ultimate in simplicity of signal path and resultant transparency, this is the ticket providing you dont need switching capability for other source components. Dont worry, though. You can run the Capitole into a regular preamp too.
On the bits and bytes side of things, the company implements something they called an Antileon Maxiclock to reduce jitter in the digital stage. Should you wish to use the Capitole as a transport only, coaxial and BNC connectors are also located on the back. Oh yes, the player has a volume control on the remote control, but dont set it at anything less than maximum for critical listening. As with the companys Prima player, the remote controls an entirely separate digital volume stage that can decrease resolution of the player if set at a lower position -- not good for audiophiles looking for every iota of performance.
Overall build quality of the Capitole is OK, but not outstanding at its price point. Frankly, this is my only real issue with the player. This isnt to say that the Capitole doesnt look good; it most certainly does. The black color and gold trim are quite sharp together. That fact is confirmed by everyone who walks in the room and looks at the Capitole and immediately says, "Niiiiice!" Mind you, these people usually dont even know what they're seeing at first, but once they learn that it is a CD player with a drawer that opens on the top, the reaction is a nearly unanimous -- "Way cool too!" The top of the player is capped off elegantly with an acrylic drawer lid with a gold-colored button. The bottom is set off with big, gold feet. However, I must say that these feet are strange in that they have threaded ends that stick out. It is these threads, not the bottom of the feet, that end up resting on the surface that the player is placed on, likely scratching it if you dont put anything underneath. Luckily, the threads are perfect for Black Diamond Racing Cones, which the Canadian distributor who supplied this review unit, Globe Audio Marketing, includes free of charge with the units they sell.
No, it definitely isnt styling thats an issue with the Audio Aero Capitole. Its really the lack of substance that I see when I look closely around the very large chassis and peek inside. Whats more, the supplied remote control is just a stock Philips unit, the same as the one that comes with the $1500 Prima CD player and one supplied with much lower priced players from Philips. This point about build is further reinforced when you take hold of the $5000 Simaudio Eclipse, $5000 Sony SCD-1 or the $5000 Mark Levinson No.39 players. Certainly beauty is in the eye of the beholder and each person will have a visual favorite, but one thing for certain is that those machines are built like they are going in for military service. They all have exceptionally well-machined chassis of thick metal, and their fit and finish are exemplary. The Simaudio player in particular is a unique-looking beauty to behold that weighs as much as some amplifiers. Open them up and the guts are almost works of art. These set the benchmark for players in this price range. Granted, at $4200 the Capitole isn't quite as expensive, and without doubt some will feel Im criticizing something irrelevant. But at the Capitole's price point, some really cool stuff can be done with design. End of sermon.
System and sound and comparison
So what do words like extraordinary mean? About as much as incredible, which was the way one manufacturer who came by to drop off some equipment summed up the sound when he heard the Capitole in my reference system -- a system he has heard many times. These words mean just about as much as words like musical, involving and exciting. They are certainly words that are applicable to the sound of this player, but in reality they dont do one thing to describe exactly what this player sounds like. So, as difficult as it is, I will attempt to describe the almost indescribable -- a CD player that is not perfect over every aspect of performance but as a whole comes out in such a way that redefines my thinking about how CDs can sound.
I used the Capitole in two systems. It became part of one system that included the $3699 Cliffhanger Audio Bulldog speakers and the $2775 Magnum Dynalab MD 208 receiver -- all products I had in for review. As well, I used it in my reference system consisting of the Cliffhanger Audio CHS-2/W-2 loudspeaker combination (approximate retail is $3300) and my $6300 Blue Circle Audio BC2 monoblock amplifiers. Normally I would have included the BC3000 preamplifier in this system, but instead I ran the Capitole straight into the amplifiers. For both systems I used Nirvana Audio S-L cabling throughout, and in my reference system I plugged the Capitole into a $700 Richard Grays Power Company "unconditioner" for a time, which seemed to help with a slight issue the CD player had with my power -- it seems a tad sensitive to line noise.
I dont necessarily believe in the incredible break-in time for components some claim is needed, but I do believe in sufficient warm-up. Still, the moment I plugged the Capitole in and threw on just any ol CD, I knew something was very different with the sound. Its family heritage with the $1500 Audio Aero Prima CD player I reviewed a few months back was readily apparent. Both have a very smooth, incredibly liquid presentation, meaning a complete absence of grain, grunge and hashiness that plague even some very expensive players. The Prima, though, has a few deficiencies, namely a lack of large-scale dynamics, overall impact and weight. I noticed right off that the Capitole does everything the Prima does right, and then makes amends for any of the less expensive player's deficiencies. Straight out of the box the Capitole sounded fantastic; once it warmed up, though, it became almost startling.
I first compared the Capitole to the $1250 Bel Canto DAC1 being fed by my Theta Data Basic transport (a $1500 transport at one point in time, but a fraction of that price now) linked coaxially by Nirvanas Transmission Digital cable. The DAC1 provides simply outstanding performance, not only for the price, but when compared to all modern-day digital playback. It is an acid test to gauge whether spending lots more money is really worth it because many more expensive players do not surpass the DAC1 in overall performance.
Not surprising to me, the 24/96 upsampling DAC1 actually provided a little more resolution and overall spaciousness than the Capitole. Its not as gutsy- or robust-sounding, but it throws a bigger stage with greater image width and depth. This is a real strength of the DAC1 and one of the reasons why it achieves such a high level of performance even when compared to very expensive players. In contrast, the Capitole was a little more closed-in and has a slightly foreshortened stage. The same result was heard when I placed the Capitole against the $5000 Simaudio Moon Eclipse CD player. When played in its 24/96 mode, the Eclipse can squeak out more detail than even the DAC1. In terms of all-out resolution for CD playback, the Eclipse is as close to the ultimate as it gets. When it comes to image specificity, though, all players are comparable, if perhaps a little different. The warm and vibrant Capitole and the fast and visceral Eclipse seem to throw the most holographic stage and have the most up-front character, whereas the DAC1 is a little drier and a little more laid-back.
Comparison against the Simaudio player also brought out another difference that is not necessarily a deficiency of just the Capitole or the DAC1, but is rather a strength that the Eclipse has over almost all CD players. For sheer slam and weight, Simaudios CD player eclipses virtually all its competition when played in 24/96 mode. It's capable of pounding the deepest frequencies home without mercy -- and with infinite detail and neutrality that are almost a revelation. If you think that specs tell the whole story then youll be scratching your head as to why all CD players, with frequency response that measures 20 to 20 and then some, dont have bass performance that the Eclipse has. That said, the Capitole is greatly improved in terms of weight and impact when compared to the Prima and holds its own with any player Ive heard including the DAC1/Theta combo. If I didnt have the Simaudio player, I would have said the Capitole's low-end performance was great. Deep bass frequencies rumble through the room, and drums are rendered with tightness, depth and control. Furthermore, the nature of the bass performance of the Capitole is a dead-on match to the rest of the frequency spectrum. It has the rhythm, weight, coherency and natural ease that extends just like the midrange and high frequencies. Ive heard the term "organic" used to describe this type of presentation, and if Im understanding the term correctly (dont you hate audiophile jargon?), then it applies here in spades.
The Capitole does not reach the pinnacle in resolution or in ultimate weight and impact, but it offsets these with its own set of strengths that make gauging what is better, rather than simply different, all the more difficult. It wouldnt surprise me if someone heard the exact same things from the Capitole that I do and not think it so special. After all, many times evaluating what differences are actually better can be a matter of preference. However, ears I trust have backed up my impressions of the Capitole.
To people who dont hear any real differences between CD players and think that investment in a player like the Capitole is all hogwash, I would say that you haven't experimented properly -- or enough. Ive learned that CD players can be made to sound very similar, even identical, when playing certain types of music. This often fools many listeners into thinking CD players all sound the same. However, you can quite easily demonstrate just how different players sound with the right type of music. Done right, those differences will stand out in stark relief.
Differences in reproduction of the human voice are one of the easiest things to discern. When playing both the DAC1/Theta combo and Capitole for a friend not used to listening to the differences between CD players, I first used some pop music, and some differences were thought to be heard. Frankly, though, things were pretty close, and there was nothing that I could get really excited about. Then I put on "Tiptoe" from Ani DiFrancos Not a Pretty Girl [Righteous Babe Records, RBR007-D]. Its a spoken-word track that highlighted the differences between the two digital sources so well that even a novice listener could easily discern which was which, and also which one he or she preferred. The DAC1 presented a vast sense of space and openness; however, DiFrancos voice sounded somewhat hollow, a little bit dry and a tad distant. The Capitole was a little more intimate and upfront; it had a fleshed-out and robust sound. The DAC1 has a little more bite and inner detail, while the Capitole, though not quite as detailed, has more texture and fullness. It also presented an extraordinary balance of liquidity and presence that made Ani seem almost there.
The next track on the same disc is "Cradle and All," which opens with some very fast acoustic-guitar strumming. The sound of an acoustic guitar is another very good way to show up the differences between CD players, particularly if you concentrate on the upper frequencies. Both sources achieved very good performance, but with specific results that varied. The DAC1 has a little more top-end sparkle and shine with a bit better resolution of space and air. The pluck of a guitar string extends just a tad more. The Capitole, on the other hand, projected a warmer, richer, more vibrant sound that makes the acoustic guitar sound more robust and palpable and a tad less mechanical. I would suspect that preferences in this regard could be system dependent. If you have an abundance of warmth and fullness in your system already, the DAC1 could be a better match. Systems that need a little more warmth and guts will like the Capitole. When I had the Capitole in, the Bulldog/MD 208 setup fleshed out the presence of the Capitole and really made it sing. What I also like about the Capitole is that it does not attain the warmth and vibrancy at the expense of what is subjectively called "speed." In other words, it is not overly warm, muddled, and plodding.
I recently received Autumn Leaves, The Songs of Johnny Mercer by Jacintha [Groove Note GRV2006-2]. Groove Note is a label becoming well known for producing some outstanding recordings in terms of their musicality and recording quality. This is an exceptional-sounding disc of jazz done live in a studio. In ways, Jacinthas beautiful voice reminds me of Holly Cole's. Here its recorded with crystalline clarity, and there's an open, airy and spacious sound to her voice and the accompanying instruments. Inherent in the recording is wonderful warmth and liquidity that will make almost any system sound better than it really is. I must say that running the Capitole straight through to the BC2 amps resulted in such stunning clarity, transparency, and tonal accuracy that I heard without a doubt some of the very best sound Ive achieved in my room.
The same thing held true when I slid the soundtrack to Leaving Las Vegas [Pangea 72438 36071 29] in through the top-mounted drawer. This disc is a varied blend of jazzy instrumentation done mainly by the films director, Mike Figgis, along with some tracks featuring Sting and Don Henley. Male vocals, such as the tracks by Sting, are rendered with the same sort of presence and clarity with which the Capitole handles female vocals. The sound is warm, vibrant, textured, sufficiently detailed and never overly mushy or syrupy. Guitars, horns and drums have an excellent sense of dynamics and weight and display vibrancy and life. The Capitole doesnt have quite the bite and attack of Eclipse and DAC1/Theta combo, nor does it render space quite like these, but the music definitely doesnt suffer. What it does in terms of liquidity, though, the other players dont touch (although the Simaudio player comes very close). As a result, I think most will find the Capitole a completely non-fatiguing source for long-term listening. Dare I say analog?
The Capitole is the perfect example of a "black box" component. Although I could guess as to why it sounds so good, theres really no use since its pure speculation. No, it doesnt do everything perfectly, but then what player does? (This may shock those who have been telling us for what seems like forever that weve had perfect sound since CD was introduced.) My experience with this product also piques my interest to follow up with the newest addition to the Capitole family. Audio Aero has just released a 24/192 upsampling Capitole for some $2000 more. However, the inner workings of that machine are vastly different, so whether it will have the same type of sound is not clear. The company tells me that both the player I review here and the new model will remain in their product lineup.
Despite the high level of performance and given that you can still spend lots more for a CD player, it must be said that $4200 is still not cheap, so think long and hard before making a commitment like this. Something like the Bel Canto DAC1 with a suitable transport really does offer extraordinary value. This is also a changing time for digital playback, and the Capitole plays only CDs, not 24/96 discs, SACDs, DVD-As or what have you. Both Marc Mickelson and I agree that its hard at this point to call any CD-only player high value, even if it sounds fantastic. That said, though, I must add that the sonic performance of this player impressed me more than any demonstration of SACD or DVD-A has. And that fact has caused me to rethink what I have come to expect from CD sound and makes me question whether anyone should rush out and buy into any new format until we have an extremely clear picture of whats happening.
Perhaps all of this seems like a contradiction, and maybe it is, but thats likely because the Capitole is such a musically enticing package that I would hazard to guess it will give many years of sonic pleasure to listeners before they feel the need to make a change to a new format. If you are in the market for a player like this, or even if youre not, I encourage you to listen to the Capitole to hear what some of the best digital playback can sound like.
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