Once I watched an Olympic play-off between two spectacular gymnasts. They were both superb—skilled, swift, lithe. Mastery of form and flesh fairly radiated from both.
In that scenario, one had to win. In the play-off between these two CD players, neither has to win. I have never liked "shoot-outs" as a concept in audio reviewing. It seems to me that the emotions surrounding a cutthroat competition obscure a deeper appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses in the "contestants." Indeed, between these two players, neither does win. With both, I am hearing CD playback as I have heard it only once before in my life, and that was in The Absolute Sound founder Harry Pearson's system in Sea Cliff, New York, which then had some $60,000-plus in Burmester digital equipment. The two players here, on the other hand, are reasonable in price. The Musical Fidelity A5 sells for $2500—less than 10% of what the digital player in that big system cost. The Lector, which I had been told ran around $3000, now sells for a stillreasonable $4290.
I don't have a megasystem. I used these units in my modest reference system (Be One 308 loudspeakers, Musical Fidelity X-150 integrated amp, Nordost Blue Heaven cables throughout), and then, trying to test them thoroughly, I upgraded parts of that system around them. Harry Pearson has played this Lector, but not the Musical Fidelity (at least not yet), in his megasystem, and has described it elsewhere as a revelation of what can be done with CD sound at a price whose modesty in no way reflects the unit's performance. He expected the Lector to wipe out the MF.
On my side, since I'd used the astonishingly clear and extended Musical Fidelity trio of digital playback units (X-RayV3 CD player, X-DACV3, X- 10V3 tube buffer) for some time, I expected the A5 CD to show up the Lector.
Neither happened. What actually occurred was interesting and surprising as only the best audio explorations can be.
First of all, both are tube players, and the Lector has a separate power supply. The Lector had somewhat higher output, and in my reference set up, with the 150-watt amplifier, this gave it the advantage of a greater "ease." There was no sense of strain, no queasy sensation of being about to run out of head room. When I switched from the Lector to the Musical Fidelity, the MF's lower output meant I had to turn up the volume to attain the right level. By "right," I don't mean "loud." Music needs a certain volume to bloom, even on LP. If you're comparing gear whose output levels differ, you need something simple as a key. In this instance, I used a solo male voice—Leonard Cohen in The Essential Leonard Cohen [Sony], turned up till his voice had the same power and presence in both systems— and Mercury CDs of several orchestral recordings. On these I turned the MF up till the tape hiss in the seconds before the music starts was at the same level as on the Lector.
In this initial listening, both players revealed an unusually fine soundstage. Like LP, the stage extended back in depth on music recorded in "live" halls and cathedrals and up into the rafters. Both gave music a bloom in the listening space, an expansion, and a sense of appropriate height to singers or performers in the foreground. These two qualities are unusual in CD players at anywhere near this price range, particularly in the clarity with which these two players perform these feats. So far these two were close in sound, and breathtakingly good.
It was in the reproduction of the layers of instruments in complex music that some differences began to show up. On the Mercury CD of Kodaly's Hary Janos Suite, in "Song," a cimbalom, a hammered-string folk instrument of Eastern European origin, is used to underscore the changes that war has brought to Janos and his lover, and to ordinary life. This instrument has a twanging, plucked/struck string sound that reverberates eerily, and here, it sings and flutters romantically. With both players, in this initial set up, I heard the instrument take its place in the foreground for its melodic contributions, and the clarity of its notes raised the hair on my arms. On the MF, I also heard, clearly, the cimbalom as part of the orchestral fabric before its solo. It was there as a whisper, a hint, not overwhelming, but a participant in the fabric of sound, and then it swelled up and took the stage with its nostalgic cry for a time and a place gone by. With the Lector, I got a greater sense of the power of the orchestra, but details like this one were somewhat obscured. After listening to this passage on the MF, I went back to the Lector to check if the cimbalom had actually been missing from that fabric, and it was there. I had not heard it, that is, registered it, until its presence via the MF made me go back and check. I don't want to hear every violin in a string section, of course. And with neither player do you get this sort of false detailing. But the composer and conductor would not have used the cimbalom in this way unless they believed it made a musical and emotional statement. That statement was moving and lovely with the MF, and downplayed by the Lector.
Both players were showing extraordinary transparency and clarity. Their balance of frequencies was a bit different. In the system with the small amp, the MF was "crisper" and transients were more dynamic. Details in the highs and upper midrange were magically present. The Lector revealed a somewhat cleaner very low bass, which in moments such as the opening of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G (Left Hand) [Chandos], when the lowest instruments in the orchestra growl out a sinister melody, sent a chilly finger up my spine. In other recordings and in other kinds of moments, though, the Lector seemed to emphasize the midbass arena. And the subtle layering of instruments in the orchestral wash of sound was at those times obscured.
My findings here were duplicated by my listening friends (whom I did not cue. They had no clue which player I was using at any time, or when I switched. When I changed recordings, I sometimes switched players, simply pushing a button, and sometimes I did not. Sometimes I switched back and forth on a bar or two of a CD I had in duplicate.) The listeners reported "resonance" in the bass when the Lector was playing. It was a phenomenon that all found to obscure musical details further up in the frequency range.
When I mentioned this to Harry Pearson, he said the Lector did not do that in his big system, and suggested that I get hold of a more powerful amp. "I'm sure you're hearing this in the 60-80Hz range," he said, "low registers of the male voice and cellos and basses." He was right. This is exactly where we were hearing it.
First I tried, because it was in the house, the Myryad 140 amp, which I reviewed (and liked) some months ago. It did not have more power than the X-150, and it changed the sound environment, as it were, without curing the problem. So I borrowed a Musical Fidelity kW500 integrated amplifier, a huge two-box affair (it has a separate power supply), deliberately choosing MF after hearing the Myryad, because now I knew I wanted to avoid introducing a new "family" of sound to the mix.
With the larger amp in the system, I no longer had to turn up the volume in order for the A5's "bloom" to match that of the Lector. And magically, I could hear, on both players, the studio room in which the first Cohen song was recorded (this CD is a compilation and the pieces were recorded in different places). That was a surprise, for I'd never before heard this kind of detail—the walls of a room— except on LP. The Lector's bass emphasis, however, was actually increased.
I thought next to try the two with different speakers. I had just received the Spendor S8E for review, so I set it up. This speaker is extraordinarily clear in the highs and mids, as one expects of Spendor, and has more than satisfactory and clear bass as well. (Incidentally, the addition of a subwoofer did nothing to enhance the musical experience of the two CD players in any of the system configurations.) So after a brief break in, I sat to listen. And sure enough, now with the Lector, the sense of midbass emphasis was much reduced. There was not, curiously enough, a corresponding faintness of heart in the midbass of the MF A5, to match. The change in this frequency range was audible only through the Lector.
With the Spendors and the big amp, clarity throughout the frequency range, top to bottom, was increased with both players, which more clearly revealed their strengths: The MF has addictive highs and midrange, and a frequency balance that brings all the musical details into their proper place in the envelope of sound. The Lector has clearer deep bass, but its still slight emphasis in the midbass obscures some of the details and transients that are so sparkling and so enchanting in the MF.
For testing these things in the "revised" system, I used not only the Kodaly, but again the Leonard Cohen. And here is a telling illustration: In "The Sisters of Mercy," there is a tinkling, rustling instrument behind Cohen's voice. Through the Musical Fidelity, this was clear and exciting. "Spine-tingling," said one listener. Through the Lector, this effect is much less present. The instrument, whatever it is, is largely swallowed up in the power of the overall sound. And the same is true of some subtle backup singing in other cuts on this recording. The power itself, of course, has great appeal. And it expands the sense of space both in depth and in height. Still, I missed the nuances.
I am willing to lay all kinds of odds that these two players are the best in the world, at this moment, short of top units $10K and over in price. These two really do reveal CD sound as far more wonderful than you have ever suspected. Never before have I attained in my system such clarity in voices, in instrumental details, in the sheer magic of music. If I had never heard the Musical Fidelity A5, I would have fallen in love with the Lector. And on some recordings, the Lector's edge in the clarity of its lowest octaves and in the wide, deep, powerful wash of orchestral sound, makes itself felt. The MF's strengths, on the other hand, are in the overall "balance" of the sound in all kinds of music and an almost indescribable excitement in transients and in dynamic details. Its revelations of the layering of the orchestra in the Mercury recordings are addictive, reminding me of sitting in Avery Fisher Hall listening to the rich layers of instrumental sound coming from the New York Philharmonic. I love this quality. I bought the A5 for it, and because it sounds perfectly magnificent in my original, modest reference system. The Lector, which costs nearly twice as much, needed the bigger amp and finer speakers to perform at its best for me.
These are both powerful and revelatory performers. In such a situation, I for one will never declare a "winner." Indeed, you may very well adore the Lector. You should, certainly, buy one or the other. No question. But my advice is to see if you can listen to both. The Musical Fidelity A5 CD may make you happy forever, or for 5 years, whichever comes first in the audio sense of time. The Lector will make you want to change things. Now. Or so I predict...