The resurgent market for CDreceivers suggests a couple of things to me. People want greatsounding audio in rooms other than dedicated listening environments. They also want small-footprint audiophilequality gear that is proportional to the space at hand—the den or guest room, for examples. And finally they believe that current technology should be able to provide a high-end listening experience in one box.
Apparently, the good folks at Audio Analogue of Italy—makers of an extensive line of “serious” audio electronics, including CD players, integrated amps, and separates—have been listening. I was familiar with Audio Analogue’s reputation; however, it was only at last year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest that I saw its snappy little CD-receiver out of the corner of my eye and stopped dead in my tracks. Turned out it was the Enigma, and it immediately became clear to me just how cleverly Audio Analogue had married nostalgia with Euro-style space-saver necessity. For the former, it’s the incorporation of a tube preamp stage with a solid-state amplifier section. (Audiophiles of a certain age will recall that in the early days of transistor amplification, matching a tube preamp with a solid-state amp was a common way of deriving greater bass control, due to solidstate’s higher damping factor, without sacrificing the sweetness and bloom of tubes.) For the latter, it’s the innovative packaging, which transforms the prosaic into a component you literally can’t wait to get your hands on. Leave it to the design instincts of a culture that gave us the Renaissance, the Ferrari Lusso, and Sophia Loren to transform the traditional horizontal layout of a stereo component into a vertical arrangement whereby the front panel appears nearly as tall as it is wide and all the controls are positioned in layer-cake fashion. That is, the volume control, the operational buttons, the CD tray, and the display sit one atop the other. And the display isn’t just any display— this is a low-emissions type designed to minimize noise pollution of the audio circuitry.
In spite of its name, at its core the Enigma is no mystery. It outputs a smart 54Wpc. Its power section is built around a pair of LM3886 power packs, eight different regulation sections, and a robust toroidal transformer. The preamp output stage uses a single ECC88 tube, which can be seen glowing behind a tiny window in a corner of the front panel.
Ergonomically the Enigma operates adequately, but is not quite up to the segment-defining standards of the Arcam Solo. You’d need the eyes of a fighter pilot to make out the front-panel display and buttons from more than a few inches away, and the remote control’s layout isn’t helpful, either. And—mama mia!—the inconsistent nomenclature is also frustrating. For example, the remote control uses a pair of buttons labeled “Input” to toggle through the available sources, but the front panel of the Enigma inexplicably uses a button labeled “Select” to do the same thing. Another bummer is that the unit won’t automatically switch to CD playback when you hit the button to open the drawer. In contrast, the tuner section was excellent in operation and memory storage, and it’s RDS-equipped. FM sensitivity seemed right on the money with its competition.
Fortunately, when it comes to communicating the essence of the music, little is lost in translation. The Enigma’s sound is easygoing, with a warm midrange emphasis. Although bass response doesn’t plumb the depths, the right speaker pairing reveals plenty of refinement and control. The rounded treble may not be the last word in extension and transparency, but in its own way it is comforting in its lack of hype or edginess. And this leads to the Enigma’s most arresting feature—vocal reproduction. Whether it’s Tom Waits tar-and-gravel baritone from “World Keeps Turning” [Orphans, Anti] or k.d. lang’s translucent “Hallelujah” [Hymns of the 49th Parallel, Nonesuch], the Enigma imbues vocals with a harmonic presence—a pleasing uppermidrange “push”—that tube aficionados will immediately recognize. Maybe it’s not purely accurate in the tonal sense, but that subtle tubey-ness is hard to resist.
I think the Enigma’s slightly darker overall character is the most sensible road a CD-receiver can take, particularly given the range of speakers that the unit will likely be paired with—i.e., intelligently designed two-way compact speakers of good sensitivity and reasonable 8-ohm impedance. It is a synergistic fit with something like the latest-generation PSB Alpha B2. A warm speaker with solid midbass response even with lowerpower amplification, the B2 has a slightly cool treble, which the Enigma seems to soothe. For example, the solo guitar intro from Yes’ “Round About” on the newly remastered Mobile Fidelity Ultra Disc II CD of Fragile (reviewed this issue) is all about harmonics, speed, and a bit of transient sting. The Enigma’s warmth and openness reminded me more of the vintage Analogue Productions LP than of the antiseptically clean MoFi compact disc. Sure, it’s slightly rounded in the top octaves and a bit forgiving of transient speed. And like the vinyl, the Enigma also sacrifices some of the guitar’s inherent steeliness. For guitar players, it’s a bit like the difference between a newly strung acoustic and the same instrument with a few hours of sweat on the strings—a little richer and darker tone, without that initial brilliance.
On symphonic music, the Enigma adds an overall richness to the various string sections, but also slightly diminishes layering and inner detail. Brasses have their characteristic golden aura and bloom, yet lack some of their native stridency. Imaging is naturalistic in the best sense—players individually defined, yet not isolated—and soundstage depth is also good. The pulse-driven hip-hop dynamics of Ice Cube’s Laugh Now, Cry Later [Lench Mob] are reproduced with surprising verve at all reasonable levels.