February 2006Vincent CD-S6 CD Player
by Aaron Weiss
"Hybrid" is quickly emerging as one of the zeitgeist concepts surrounding us. Hybrid cars, of course, try to combine the best qualities of gasoline combustion and electric power. Adventurous chefs at multi-star restaurants are mixing and matching tastes from East and West. Agribusiness conglomerates genetically modify soybeans and corn to selectively leverage the most desirable traits of multiple species.
But for all their apparent modernity, hybrids go as far back as Greek centaurs and mandrakes. Mary Shelley warned us that we fear Frankenstein monters because we dont understand them. Are audiophiles more open-minded than the citizens of Mrs. Shelleys 19th-century world? Thats a debate for another time.
What is clear is that tubes have long held a special place in audiophile circles and the unique position of being both old-fashioned and very modern at the same time. And what could be more hybrid than that?
The Vincent audio brand was created about six years ago as a division of Sintron, a German distributor of the Thorens brand. Thorens itself is a partial owner of Vincent, whose products are designed in Germany and manufactured in China.
The Vincent lineup includes a few hybrid designs. Among these is the CD-S6 CD player ($1795 USD), which features three 12AX7 tubes and one 12AU7 tube in a true class-A output stage. The player sports a hefty but smooth Philips VAM 1202 transport mechanism and Burr-Brown PCM-1732 24-bit/96kHz DACs paired with a Pacific Microsonics DM-100 HDCD decoder. On its rear the CD-S6 includes one pair of unbalanced RCA outputs and one digital coaxial output. The included IEC power cord is removable. A CD-S6 Mk II ($1995) with balanced outputs is available on a special-order basis.
Weighing a substantial 20 pounds, the CD-S6 is a solid hunk of CD player. Nothing here feels cheap -- and it isnt. At 17" wide, 5" high and 13" deep, the player is slightly thicker than most. The thick faceplate features a round center window through which the tubes appear to glow. In fact, the orange glow produced is not from the tubes themselves, but illumination in the window that mimics a warm glow. The "glow" can be dimmed or turned off entirely with a switch on the rear of the unit. Black and silver are the finish options.
At the lower left on the faceplate is the power button, the remote sensor, and a warm-up LED. When the player is powered on, the LED flashes for several seconds, signaling that the tubes are reaching operating status. To the right are stop, play/pause, open/close, back/next buttons, an HDCD indicator LED, a 1/4" headphone jack, and rotary headphone level control.
Like the unit itself, the CD-S6's remote is a solid chunk of metal. All player functions are available from the full-featured remote, including a dimmer button that can lower the display to dark, a feature only accessible through the remote. The remote can also enable program, repeat or shuffle play modes, as well as control the players output level. Thus, you can use the CD-S6 without a preamp, a feature I couldn't test because I use an integrated amplifier and not separates.
The Vincent CD-S6 was evaluated beside considerably lower-priced units: a Music Hall CD25.2 and my stock Marantz CC65SE five-disc carousel. All players were connected to my Primare A60 integrated amplifier with DH Labs BL-1 interconnects. All were run with and, more usually, without an Audio Harmony TWO harmonic filter. I run Canare 4S8 speaker cables in single-wire configuration to a pair of ProAc Response 2S loudspeakers. The speakers are set atop sand-filled four-pillar stands, which are substantial enough to be the last items standing on Earth after the Great War of 2150.
There is a richness to the CD-S6's sound that is nearly addictive. I put on the Pet Shop Boys' Discography: The Complete Singles Collection [Capitol 97097] and a pair of leg warmers for a trip back to the '80s. The Boys' well-produced synth tracks like "West End Girls" and "Opportunities" sound, above all else, lush on the CD-S6. Yet they remain crisp and rhythmic, embellished with all the electronic flourishes that give the Pet Shop Boys their half-dance-club, half-show-tunes pageantry.
I hear that same rich sound in the opening strums of "Ode to Boy" from Alison Moyets EP Solid Wood [Columbia 662326 2]. Her chords sound plush, but with a steely edge, giving the tangible sense that her guitar is a real physical object. Theres something so meaty about the CD-S6's sound that you can almost taste it. Grab and knife and fork and tuck into it like a filet mignon. (Or, for vegetarians, a marinated portabello mushroom. Theyre good, too.)
The sensuousness of the CD-S6 is at first mesmerizing. I even managed to sit through several tracks on The Sheffield Jazz Experience [Sheffield Lab 10046-2-G], a disc that Im fairly sure is used as backing music on The Weather Channel. They dont call this smooth jazz for nothing, and it couldnt be more velvety on the CD-S6. Pat Coils opener, "Sierra Highways," is probably the track they use when a high-pressure system is in place and the outlook is sunny. I found myself appreciating its musical textures, as well as those of David Benoit and Jerry Heys "Things Change" (storm front moving through), in a new and frightening way. Then I clicked Eject and regained my composure.
Yet the CD-S6 isnt just about a musical pretty face. It gets the fundamentals right. Moyets live recording of "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" presents a clear soundstage on which her feet (and voice) are firmly planted. Her controlled but passionate vocals are strong and fill the space, but without ever becoming ungrounded. My standard soundstage litmus test continues to be "Recitativo in Scherzo For Solo Violin" from Mark Levinson Live Recordings at Red Rose Music Volume One [Red Rose Music RRM 01]. The CD-S6 precisely projects Adele V. Anthony at the rear center of the soundstage to a degree that is eerily realistic. Her position never wavers, and the sense of space and air around her seems wider than the distance between the loudspeakers.
In my experience, soundstaging and imaging are two of the most fragile elements of audio reproduction. Changes to any component in my system often affect the soundstage, sometimes shifting it dramatically, sometimes blurring it, and sometimes enhancing it. Images suffer commensurately. My ProAc Response 2Ses are capable of wonderfully broad soundstaging, but arent always paired with capably accurate partners. The Vincent has been an exception in my system, absolutely meeting the ProAcs on even terms.
"Little Dogs Day," another track from Mark Levinson Live Recordings at Red Rose Music Volume One, doubly demonstrates imaging and bass articulation. Kim Cattrall manages to give a sultry reading of a poem about a freedom-loving dog, while her then-husband Mark Levinson himself slaps away at his large double bass. Levinson stands firmly at the left edge of the stage, and his bass notes rumble through the room with quickening pace. If theres anytime a playback system can get indistinct its here, as Levinson's playing is deep and articulate. The Vincent CD player doesnt seem to drop a note. But more than that, the notes themselves are so full-bodied and, to overuse the word, rich, that I wanted Levinson to just keep on playing long after the poem was done. I wasnt really that interested in the dog anyway. It was that bass!
There is also plenty of meaty bass on Afro Celt Sound System Volume 1: Sound Magic [Real World 62359], a collection of loose, carefree tracks which are a hybrid (!) of African and European styles. The second track, "Whirl-Y Reel 1," sounds like a stew of traditional percussion, bass, strings, fiddles, wind instruments fashioned out of hollowed-out tree branches, and maybe some sampled drum loops. And thats just one cut. The CD-S6 thrives on the bounty, with its deep, propulsive bass and silky highs, viscerally accurate pacing, and rich tones.
When audio gear gets so much right, as the Vincent CD-S6 does, a rift widens between music that is vital with a live-recording feel and that which is processed and flattened like packaged slices of cheese. To take two examples, I turn to Radioheads The Bends [Capitol 29626] and the Super Friendzs Mock Up, Scale Down [Murder 017]. Both were released in 1995, a high time for the alt.rock scene. I am seemingly one of the few who preferred Radiohead when they played rock music rather than made artistic statements. The Bends falls in that pre-art-rock category with famous radio tracks like "Fake Plastic Trees" and "Just." But on the CD-S6, they sound like radio tracks -- compressed and stuffed into a box. Where is the sensuousness I heard on The Sheffield Jazz Experience, or the intimate but strong vocals from Alison Moyet? Sure, Thom Yorkes falsettos are still pretty cool, and its obvious that "Fake Plastic Trees" laid the template for Chris Martin on Coldplays "Yellow." But The Bends sounded better in my car, which is probably how it was meant to be heard.
The late Canadian act the Super Friendz, on the other hand, probably didnt have Radioheads bank account, and as a result went the lo-fi route. Aside from the fact that the stripped-down sound is just now becoming cool, with the popularity of The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, and countless others, lo-fi rock is actually perfectly suited to quality hi-fi gear. What you hear on Super Friendz tracks like "10 lbs" and "Come Clean" is all that air, space, and dynamics that are squeezed out of the processed stuff. The lead guitar squeaks and chunks, and the riffs may not be played cookie-cutter alike every time. It may not sound pristine, but it sounds real, and thats where the energy is.
Ultimately, this is the essence of the Vincent CD-S6. It delivers all the enthusiasm recorded on a disc, and it has the tools to do so. There are no obvious compromises here, be it across the spectrum, across the soundstage, or in terms of rhythm and timing. But the CD-S6 is not a paramedic. It is not designed to breathe life into something thats already dead.
This is usually where we describe a comparison between products, but there really is no comparison here. The Vincent CD-S6 costs considerably more than either the Marantz CC65SE ($550 when available) or the Music Hall CD25.2 ($599) to which I compared it. And just as the CD-S6 outclasses them in price, so it does in sound. Both the CD25.2 and CC65SE are budget players designed with necessary compromises.
When I listened to the Music Hall CD25.2 beside the Vincent CD-S6, one of the most striking differences played out on Jesse Cooks Gravity [Narada 63037]. On the Music Hall player, the opening track, "Mario Takes a Walk," had a clinical vibe; it sounded a bit thin and cold. On the CD-S6 it almost sounded like listening to a completely different mastering. Jesse Cooks acoustic guitar is silky and full-bodied. It plucks and slides effortlessly. The sound is rich but not bloomy. There is articulation in the bass line Ive never heard before, and the propulsive backing percussion maintains vitality rather than going muddy. The rendition, quite simply, is without any apparent flaws. Maybe it could sound better, but I couldnt hear how.
Where the Marantz CC65SE sounds dark, the Vincent sounds rich. Where the Marantz sounds a little slow and out of breath, the Vincent sounds barely winded. Where the Marantz soundstage wavers, the Vincent sounds solid and three-dimensional. Its not looking good for the Marantz. Did I mention it can hold five discs? There is that. In my review of the Music Hall CD25.2, I said the differences between it and the Marantz were subtle, and the comparison still holds.
One reason I typically use an Audio Harmony TWO filter with the Marantz is to lower the noise floor and boost detail. It also adds a touch of brightness to a perhaps overly warm sound. But the TWO is unnecessary with the CD-S6, and in fact only gets in the way.
When I bought my ProAc Response 2S speakers secondhand on eBay, the seller -- an advanced audiophile with loads of gear -- extolled their praises matched with tube equipment. At the time, I thought tubes were mostly the things they fed you through at the hospital. Since that time, several tube and hybrid products have entered my system for evaluation. Im starting to think Mr. eBay was right. The ProAcs do enjoy a good piece of tube gear, and so it turns out that the Vincent CD-S6 is a wonderful and natural match.
Is it a match worth $1795? The CD-S6 is not a player designed to meet a budget, but rather to meet a high standard of performance. Its designed for sound. If you can afford to put sound above price, this is a CD player worth getting to know. From build to performance, it's the best CD player I have evaluated.
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