August 2003Opera Audio Consonance Reference 2.2 CD Player
by Bill Cowen
DescriptionThe $2000 USD Opera Reference 2.2 CD player starts out as a plain black box, but it is dressed up for a night on the town with a thick silver aluminum faceplate. It then goes the extra mile with the addition of some beautiful solid-cherry "slats" on top, which not only enhance the aesthetic but likely help damp the chassis as well. Although the main box itself is in a standard rectangular form (17"W x 13"D x 8 3/8"H), the faceplate has a gentle arch at the top, which adds some depth and dimension and matches the same gentle arch cut into the cherry slats. At nearly 40 pounds, the Reference 2.2 has some brawn to go along with its beauty.
On the front panel, the blue LED display is centered over the disc-loading tray. Evenly spaced on either side of the display (and tray) are two knobs with a gleaming chrome finish. The knobs dont rotate as one might expect; rather, they tilt in polar directions to execute the action desired. The left knob is tilted up once to turn the main power on and tilted up again to turn it off. Tilting this knob down opens the CD tray, and tilting it down again closes it. The right knob supports disc-play operations, offering the standard stop, play, pause, and track selection, depending on which way the knob is tilted. While a bit unconventional, these knobs operate smoothly and positively, and they are actually quite intuitive.
Around back are the IEC receptacle for the mains cord, a coaxial digital output, a master volume-control potentiometer, and both balanced and unbalanced output jacks. The back panel is logically arranged and provides ample room for even the bulkiest interconnects and connectors.
The diminutive metal-cased remote control duplicates the front panel "knob" functions as well as offering a few more options: fast forward (labeled Wind by Opera), rewind (yes, fast backwards), repeat (either one track or the whole disc), and the digital volume control. The remote has a wide IR sensor pattern, meaning that I didnt have to zero in on a small area in order for it to operate. I loved this particular aspect, as Ive had more than a few remotes that had to be aimed perfectly at the receiving sensor in order to function.
On the technical side of things, the Reference 2.2 is a 192kHz upsampling player, using a Crystal CS4396 DAC. Those familiar with this particular DAC will recognize it as a multi-bit processor, rather than the 1-bit processor utilized in many other players and outboard DAC units. The upsampling is not switchable -- it is in use at all times. Resolution is up-converted to 24 bits, handled by the Crystal chip as well. The output section uses a single Sovtek 6H30 tube as a buffer, and the players output is specified as 2.1 volts, which is pretty much the standard for modern CD players.
Setup and use
The Reference 2.2 was perched atop my Target five-shelf rack, with the players factory feet sitting directly on a Greater Ranges Neuance shelf. Although I played with some different isolation/tuning schemes during the review period, the factory-supplied feet acquitted themselves quite nicely, and all listening notes were derived with them in place. I also noticed a significant improvement with the Shunyata Anaconda Vx power cord, but as this cord costs as much as the player itself, I used only the factory cord for the listening evaluation. I add these notes only to illustrate that the Reference 2.2 does respond to judicious use of tuning and power-related items, but that they are not necessary to hear what the player is capable of.
As the volume-attenuation capability of the Reference 2.2 allows it to be used without a preamp, I tried using it directly into my Cary V-12i monoblock amplifiers. Due to the lack of a pre-gain stage in the Cary amps, the total volume attainable was barely adequate. Note that this is not a criticism of the Opera, as it has a fairly standard output voltage. This is only an observation, and an observation that is wholly irrelevant if your amplifier has a normal gain arrangement. I swapped in the Audio Electronics Six Pac amplifiers (as they include the gain stage that the V-12is lack) and had plenty of gain and overall volume capability. The Opera player sounded quite good in this configuration, but I preferred it with a preamplifier in the chain. Adding complexity and components in the signal path is usually not a good thing, but I found that the inclusion of the preamplifier helped with macrodynamic swings, and also added just a bit more fullness to the resulting sound. I could have happily lived with the Opera without a preamp, but since I had it, I used it. What works for you may be entirely different, but of importance here is the fact that the Reference 2.2 sounds just fine all on its own.
Given the provision for both balanced and unbalanced (RCA) connection, I gave both a whirl with Shunyata Aries interconnects (I have both balanced and RCA versions). The balanced connection provided a lower noise floor and added to the overall aliveness via better dynamics, so I used them throughout the evaluation period. Running with the RCA cables sounded good, but was just a little softer and smoother. Neither of those traits are bad in my book, but I enjoyed the increased dynamics available with the balanced connection.
Finally, I ran the Reference 2.2 on repeat for about 100 hours prior to any serious listening. Fresh out of the box, it sounded a bit strident and forward, but it settled in nicely with some break-in time, and all traces of the pre-break-in stridency vanished completely. The Reference 2.2 played for over four months in my system without any problems whatsoever, and this is testament to its solid build quality and design.
After the player's aforementioned break-in period, the first disc to hit the drawer was Jimmy Thackerys Wild Night Out [Blind Pig Records 1914-85021-2]. On "Trouble Man," I was initially looking for problems. The highly dynamic guitar picks can sear your ears if things arent right, and my search for trouble ended fruitlessly -- the Reference 2.2 was devoid of any digital glare. More importantly, the strong traits of this player became apparent very quickly: a strong rhythmic drive, a very clean presentation, and a high degree of resolution without sounding analytical or presenting detail in an artificial (or trumped-up) manner. While this particular disc is not an audiophile recording by any means, it is decent and can actually sound quite glorious when played back through a good system. It can also sound a bit on the brittle and edgy side when things arent right, and Im happy to report that the Reference 2.2 firmly established its place in the former category.
With John Lee Hookers The Healer [Mobile Fidelity UDCD 567], I got a wide and deep soundstage, with nicely outlined images. Front-to-back layering was good -- perhaps not quite to the level of more expensive digital front-ends, but surely commendable, and even more so for a player at the $2000 price point. Carlos Santanas finger work on the guitar came through with nice texturing, good harmonic information, and an appropriate amount of detail. Im well past the point of being impressed by components that offer hi-fi spectacular-ism. I want my reproduced music, above all, to sound natural, yet still present all the low-level detail and nuance that real music has to offer. In fact, components that sound larger than life, overly detailed (for details sake), or sound like, well, "stereo" dont get passing grades at all from me. Here, the Reference 2.2 gets away with more than a passing grade, bringing out what the recording has to offer without accentuation or a false sense of hype.
Next up was one of my standby test tracks for vocals: "Gaia" from James Taylors Hourglass [Columbia, 7464-67912-2]. Through inexpensive-sounding electronics, Taylors voice comes through with a somewhat raspy, electronic-sounding edge. The Reference 2.2, while not quite as refined as my reference Cary Audio player, was anything but inexpensive-sounding, imparting good tonality and a convincing sense of Taylor being right there in the room. I didnt get the full chestiness from this cut that Im used to, and this particular trait was one that appeared several times in my listening notes -- a slight thinning in the midrange and upper bass. This may be just the ticket for a system that needs a little less bloom in that frequency range, and while it wasnt distracting or bothersome, it was noticeable and mandates proper system matching to achieve the best balance.
Finally, and mostly for fun, I spun "Autobahn" from Kraftwerks The Mix [Elektra 60869-2]. Despite the age and "workhorse" status of this disc in my collection, its always been a good test for bass extension and macrodynamic abilities. The Reference 2.2 sailed right through, delivering pounding, visceral impact in the deep bass, and darn-near startling transitions from soft to loud. Bass notes were especially well delineated and had a good sense of decay along with incredible speed on the attack. This recording can exhibit some "digititis" occasionally, yet even when playing the Reference 2.2 at stupid-loud volume levels, I never had a sense of that ugly monster raising its head. This recording brought out a special sense of rhythmic vitality, which sets the toe a-tappin' and gets the emotional juices flowing.
Players on hand for comparison were the $5k Cary Audio Design 306/200 and the antiquated $1500 Audio Electronics CD-1. The 306/200 is all solid-state, while the CD-1 utilizes a pair of 12AU7 tubes as buffers in the output stage. Comparing the $5k Cary player to the $2k Opera player is not terribly worthwhile on a point-to-point basis, but it does provide a glimpse of what more money brings to the table on an overall basis.
In direct comparisons, the 306/200 had a bit more resolution, greater dynamic contrasts, and more weight and body in the midrange and upper bass. The Reference 2.2 didnt fare poorly in these areas by any means, but it was one-upped by the more expensive player. I mentioned that slight thinning in the midrange and bass earlier, and perhaps it was my familiarity with the Cary player that made it stand out in sharper relief. But were talking big differences in price here, so it should be expected that the Cary player would perform at a higher level. Nothing earth-shattering about this.
Comparing the Reference 2.2 to the Audio Electronics CD-1 showed the contrasts when reversing the price scale, and also showed how far digital playback has come in the 12 years since the CD-1 was released. I keep the CD-1 around for its marvelous midrange performance, as its qualities in this area are unapproached by many expensive players even to this day. The Reference 2.2 was every bit as good as the CD-1 here, and while certainly sounding different, it was just as smooth, offered as much information, and had the same believable palpability. Beyond that, the Reference 2.2 had much better extension at both frequency extremes, far greater resolution, and was more accurate and faithful at reproducing the notes on the recording. While the Cary/Reference 2.2 comparison is a study of different shades, the CD-1/Reference 2.2 comparison is a study of different colors. To say that the Reference 2.2 trumped the (dated) CD-1 would be an understatement -- it exceeded the CD-1s performance in almost all areas, and by a jaw-dropping amount in some of those areas. I still love the CD-1s midrange; the Reference 2.2s midrange, while enjoyable, didnt have quite as much "meat on the bones" in comparison. In every other respect, there is no real contest between these two units -- the Reference 2.2 is a thoroughly modern machine.
Simply put, the Opera Reference 2.2 was a joy to listen to, serving up a slice of musical pie that belied its affordable asking price. While not as resolving or full-bodied as the two-and-a-half-times more expensive Cary player, it made no excuses on an overall basis. With a gorgeous external appearance and a solid, hefty build, the Reference 2.2 offered a tuneful, rhythmic approach to the music that resulted in sheer emotional involvement. As with any audio component, proper system matching is crucial. Pairing the Reference 2.2 with a system that is already lean and/or threadbare would not be the best choice, but in conjunction with a full-bodied system that needed a touch of speed and/or neutrality, the Opera player could well add the final piece of the puzzle.
Anyone searching for a standalone CD-only player in this day of questionable, rapidly changing formats is highly encouraged to check out the Opera Reference 2.2. It delivers the goods without breaking the bank.
Copyright © 2003 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved