The Bel Canto DAC-2 and the Fog's coaxial and balanced outputs, via identical Analysis Plus Solo Crystal interconnects, were wired up to the PRe1 which connected to the AUDIOPAX monos with the HMS Gran Finale. The WireWorld SuperNova III+ glass-fiber Toslink created the digital patch between Cairn and Bel Canto DAC which -- rightfully -- is such a popular and hence known quantity that using it as a comparator would create useful context. Not that I really needed it. The Cairn's served as my bastion against uncivilized digital Romans for a year and featured in all its reviews. Incidentally, that's also the reason for the relative delay. I was more concerned with handling proper review submissions in a timely manner than transforming personal acquisitions into formal commentary. To which we've now finally arrived, however:

First off, if you can take advantage of the Fog's XLR outputs, do. The sound gets fuller, as though the power transformer's already robust 200VA had increased. There's more drive, especially in the bass, more image heft particularly to the soundstage rear. You need to account for the increased output voltage of balanced operation to do a level-matched comparison, of course, but the difference isn't at all subtle unlike the two digital filter options. There, the "left" wave filter setting is marginally drier, the "right" a bit airier - not exactly hair-splitting territory but not far from it either. You can probably hear a very slight difference, but you may not be sure exactly what is different - never mind better.

Gilles, Monsieur Cairn
Comparing the DAC-2 to the Cairn's single-ended outputs? Very, very close. At the end of the day, the box from Minneapolis turned out to have a bit more presence or weight in the lower midrange/upper bass band, manifesting as an extra degree or two of body. While I could attempt to dazzle you with imaginary listening skills by unearthing endless scrolls of notes on how else they differed, I prefer honesty - that's the only extent of otherness I could eventually cotton on to.

Switching to the Cairn's balanced outputs was akin to turning up the volume, lowering the noisefloor or both - an across-the-board increase of image density, slightly better focus and image separation, a small sense of lateral soundstage expansion, more defined bass. John Stronczer, my preamp's designer, would likely remind us that his circuitry sounds better balanced. Hence, responsibility for the CDP's advantage in this hookup might have to be somewhat shared. Naturally, this type of math was beyond me, so this possibly contributing scenario is mentioned only to cover all bases.

What we can conclude for certain? While the French versus American coaxial race came to an essentially dead heat -- the DAC 2's very minor advantage the kind which, to prove, Olympian short-distance sprints require high speed camera sync'd with atomic clocks -- the balanced Cairn's lead was obvious to the naked eye. Ear. Hence, the illustrious DAC-2 did not improve the Cairn Fog v2.0 with the upsampler card installed. Put differently, hitching the Bel Canto DAC to a decent transport should likely get you to within spitting distance of the equally illustrious Cairn - or perchance catapult you into the very same place. Such is the bane and promise of truly well-engineered, similarly priced digital these days. The performance qualifiers are going the way of Assurancetourix, the French nom-de-plume of bard Cacofonix. The locals hip to reality knew better than to listen to him. Instead, they sought out chief druid Miraculix whom their Breton neighbors more properly identified as Getafix - for the short-term effects of his magic potion.

only the tourists can stomach his singing
Which brings us to the Cairn's sound. It offers a very smooth yet extended, utterly non-fatiguing and elegant treble - without one of those increasingly popular, not always effective valved output stages. If you're familiar with how the Wadia house sound treated the high frequencies, look no further. The bass is very agile, delineated -- with an extra dose of punch and impact when run balanced -- but, like the French Triangle speaker brand, not possessed of the sheer weight or growl of, say the Sim Audio Eclipse or a Dynaudio floorstander. In the vocal range, the Cairn lacks the last word in body - not something that ever troubled me but was apparent in comparison with valved contenders. Its truly strong suit is low-level resolution, particularly ambient retrieval, an area where it beat the pants off the 47Lab 4715 Shigaraki. Combined with its airy treble, this spatial quality of finely lingering traces caused me to go for the specific wine mentioned in the earlier oenophile reference.

It's a light, detailed, quick-sounding player that values refinement and transparency over mass and impact - like good single-ended tube amps compare to their push/pull brethren. Unlike its name, the Cairn doesn't congest or congeal when the going gets thick. Rather, it dares you to throw your most complex material at it, to discover between-the-lines detail you didn't note before - the kind that enhances realism rather than overloads the brain. It also means that like the Naim players, this piece excels at rhythmic timing subtleties. It's a snap-pop-kick-bopster, a quality heightened in balanced mode when, on the right material, the intensity of the beat-keeping nearly begins to crackle.

Those who know my tastes -- hornspeakers for dynamics, speed and immediacy, single-ended valves for timbre and purity -- will understand why I have so comfortably settled down with this machine. Those who know my tastes but, themselves, fancy a different take on the aural truth? They could, in these very same descriptions, recognize that the Cairn Fog may not be their cuppa expresso. C'est la vie 'l'audio.

Except for the lack of a coaxial digital output and the low contrast of its display, this German has zero nits to pick weez zees francaix. Rather, silly little things like the word "song" instead of "track" on the read-out warm my heart, the soon-intuitive logic of the controls is delightful, and the immaculate finish a feast for the eyes. While digital domain attenuation reduces bit depth and should only be used sparingly (thus advising against strapping this player amp-direct into a reference system), in conjunction with the second set of outputs, it does offer a convenient option for a secondary, less-than-critical minimalist system.

The US/Canadian distributor alerted me that his French supplier will be offering a summer-special on the Fog/4808 integrated combination. Final US retail pricing for this promotion package should be fixed shortly and will then be posted here. But even sans de-francing, the Cairn Fog v2.0 is a very competitively priced product that deserves to find a wider US audience already - highly recommended.

Gilles replies: Hello Srajan, thank you so much for your review.We appreciate your critique and your...humour! By the way, in the mountains, a cairn is an assembly of stones to show a way or a summit (and it is the same meaning and the same word in English and French).

Kindest regards

Gilles Belot

Which, with Gilles' explanation now, makes the Tibetan-style stone mount in his picture above a proper Cairn. The company name hence is a sly reference to "leading the way" or "you've arrived at the peak". Duh...

Distributor's website
Manufacturer's website