Further Thoughts: mbl Corona C31 CD Player

Old Digital & New Digital

Disc players,
Digital-to-analog converters
MBL North America Corona C31
Further Thoughts: mbl Corona C31 CD Player

When I reviewed the Corona line of electronics in conjunction with the mbl 120 compact Radialstrahler in Issue 228,  I concluded that of the three Corona components that made up the system, seeing the C31 CD player go out the door would make me the saddest. Thanks to the kind souls at MBL however, I was afforded some overtime with the C31 and those tears haven’t been shed, not yet at least. I was curious as to how the player would stack up long term both as a USB/DAC and CD player.

To summarize, the CD31 can just as reasonably be considered a DAC with transport. It’s a  slot drive loader but has inputs for USB, Toslink and SPDIF with both RCA and XLR outputs. The DAC supports sampling rates up to 24-bit/96kHz resolution, and no higher but MBL’s designer Jürgen Reis responds by citing the superior jitter performance of his DAC design, and the psycho-acoustically optimized filtering and the measured timing accuracy that is the equivalent to a 192kHz sampling rate. The output of the USB signal has a very low jitter in part due to MBL’s Master Clock Mode which is similar to asynchronous USB. Internally, the digital inputs and outputs employ galvanic isolation between each other and ground to prevent high frequency eddy currents. High precision buffer data reading is provided by the combination of digital frequency synthesizer and nested analogue phase lock loop (PLL). Noteworthy is the innovation whereby only a single crystal oscillator is ever running at a given moment. If the CD drive is operating, both oscillators of the USB input are switched off and similarly, if the SPDIF input is active, the CD drive goes into sleep mode after a ten second delay. Functionally it’s also a gorgeous piece of electronic architecture and operationally a dream with a full function remote, and intuitive soft button control above the display.

What impresses me most about the player, is a subtle yet consistent thread of analog-like warmth and fluidity that removes the cold edge from digital reproduction and all the while physicalizing images more strongly and fleshing out the dimensional soundstage. Even the USB reveals this refinement–a less aggressive characteristic. When I listen to solo piano, I expect to hear the fabric of the felt hammer striking the string, and the bloom and resonance and decay that follows. The CD31 does this. It doesn't  scrimp on transients or micro dynamics, yet it also doesn’t lean on these too heavily to the exclusion of timbre.  During Tom Waits’ “Georgia Lee” the close-miked vocal dynamics of  Waits’ iconic baritone grows ever more expansive, instrumental and ambient detailing assumes a more discrete character.  On a track like Holly Cole’s “I Can See Clearly” it’s DAC was unveiled and more open and slightly less sibilant then every other DAC I’ve had in for review (save a couple weeks spent with a dCS Puccini last year). In these ways–micro dynamic gradients, dimensionality and bloom–the mbl suggests to me attributes I normally associate with SACD playback   

The mbl CD31 reminds me that there is still a whole lot of life left in the 16-bit/44.1kHz compact disc, that all discs (like all vinyl LPs) are not created equal and that it’s easy, even lazy to jettison a proven and well-supported format like the compact disc for the latest greatest thing–namely computer audio. Streaming sound quality via USB is no slam-dunk, nor a newly discovered digital panacea. And even many downloads of the highest sampling rates or average recordings and so-so remasterings often offer no sonic advantages to the so-called lower rez versions including 16/44. 

The larger takeaway for me is that when a new format shows up (computer media in this instance) we’re expected to nod and move on. What I’m saying is that I’m not ready to just move on. And that’s what I like about the mbl CD31. I can have both, and enjoy both. Old digital, and new digital.

mbl C31 CD player
Inputs: Digital, SPDIF, Toslink, USB
Outputs: Analog,  RCA, XLR,: Digital, SPDIF
Dimensions: 17.7** x 5.7** x 17.5**
Weight: 34.2 lbs
Price: $9200