As I mentioned already, the Mohican sounds more analog-like than any other CD player I have heard at anywhere near its asking price. It has very little of the hardness, glare, and extra “fizz” around image borders that I typically associate with 16/44—and even some higher-resolution digital playback. Rather, the Mohican sounds more supple and colorful, with finer-edged images. There is also considerably more density to instruments and voices than usual, another characteristic I associate more with analog than digital. I am not an engineer, but I think that some of Red Book’s slight image outline fuzziness has to do with noise-induced timing errors occurring elsewhere in the digital processing chain. Those errors lead to elements in the signal being slightly misaligned and manifest themselves more readily in smeared or slightly jagged image outlines. I believe the Mohican addresses these typical timing errors well enough to produce a more natural sound overall and particularly in its rendering of finer image boundaries.
While the Mohican sounds full, rich, and weighty, it does not have a ponderous, bottom-up tonal balance. Its presentation is rhythmically lithe and fluid, with plenty of accompanying midrange and upper-frequency content. Its tonal balance is somewhat similar to listening to an orchestra at mid-hall as opposed to the first few rows. You hear more of the stringed instruments’ burnished body or the wind and brass’ rounded bell and a bit less of the rosined bow or breathy embouchure. I attribute some of the Mohican’s sonic heft and warmth to its ability to greatly reduce typical digital artifacts that emphasize a splashier, hyped-up treble. The Mohican rendered timbre and tone in ways I recognized right away as sounding more lifelike than most Red Book and even some higher-resolution digital.
The Mohican’s lovely tonal balance, coupled with its clean overall presentation, imbued all music with an ease and clarity that I found deeply rewarding. I think this gets to the heart of its greatest attribute: natural-sounding musicality, the sort one recognizes with a “That’s it!” impression. I don’t mean to suggest that the Mohican is perfect. Rather, it simply comes across as making Red Book sound less artificial, which, in turn, allows the inherent dynamic verve and lilt of music to come through more readily. The Mohican can make some music that falls below the “worth listening to” threshold rise above it and become very much worth a listen. Some of the odd and moody songs on the ECM label from the likes of Tord Gustavsen and Bobo Stenson can seem so sparse and aimless as to sound empty on some systems. In the deft hands of the Mohican, Bobo Stenson’s 13:40 minute-long “Pages” on Cantando, with its slow intro and a few subsequent free-jazz-like sections, sounded intriguing and artistically fulfilling. The quirky percussion clicks and scrapes on drum rims, cymbals, and (presumably) found objects conveyed meaning rather than sounding obscure or even pretentious because they don’t “sound like real music.” I returned to this track a few times, such was the musical difference the Mohican made. Similarly, music that can sound merely quaint took on new significance. On the indie-folk duo Kings of Convenience’s Declaration of Independence [Virgin], Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe’s lovely singing and acoustic guitar playing (usually one nylon-stringed and one steel) were made compelling enough to merit close listening rather than being relegated to nice background, mood-setting fare. The song “My Ship Isn’t Pretty” was achingly beautiful.
Conversely, music that could sometimes challenge my tolerance for hard-driving, forceful sound like the heavy-metal-leaning cuts on Jitterbug by Bushman’s Revenge [Rune Grammafon] piqued my interest because the sensation of being confronted by the music was largely replaced by a feeling of exhilaration. The Mohican cleared up much of the clangy harshness I thought was part and parcel of the way this genre is often produced. So, on the whole, subtle music became more evocative, and aggressive music became more accessible. The Mohican did not homogenize music. On the contrary, I heard illuminating musical qualities that are usually slightly obscured by typical Red Book’s harshness and glare. Readily compelling pop, rock, and classical just skipped along as fleet-footed as ever. Sure, I could hear lots of information through other good players, but the Mohican had a particular knack for stringing musical elements together in a way that simply made more sense. A nifty talent.
More expensive players like the Esoteric X-01 D2 CD/SACD player (around $19k in 2009) and Ayre Acoustics C5-xeMP universal player (around $7000 when last available, 2009) both conveyed more spatial information, including soundscape cues, as well as individual image information, but with a significant caveat: Both of these players sounded more digital, more electronic, and more “forced” overall in direct comparison to the Mohican. The subtler soundstaging and more rounded images of the Hegel sounded more natural to me, even if some spatial cues were a little clearer through the Esoteric and Ayre. All the players conjured a similarly sized soundscape for Red Book—in all directions. Depth layering was notably good with the Esoteric, but the Mohican kept up quite well, given its much lower price.
So, while the Esoteric and Ayre players revealed more spatial details, they also exacted a price in the form of greater listener fatigue and apparent electronic artifice. On the side of tonal and timbral accuracy, the Hegel just sounded more true-to-life than either the Esoteric or Ayre.
Which player would satisfy “fidelity to mastertapes” listeners, or “absolute sound” or “as you like it” ones, to follow Executive Editor Jonathan Valin’s listener groupings? I would say that the Esoteric would appeal to “fidelity” folks. The Hegel would probably appeal to both “absolute” and “as you like it” listeners. The Ayre would likely split its adherents between “fidelity” and “absolute.”