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Reviewer: John Potis
Analog Source: Rega P9 turntable, RB1000 & Hadcock GH Export arms, Rega Super Elys & Garrott Bros Optim FGS Cartridges
Digital Source: Accustic Arts Drive 1/Audio Aero Prima SE DAC, Moon Audio's Level 2 Modified Original CD-2008MkII player [in for review]
Preamp: Bel Canto Pre2P
Power Amp: Art Audio Carissa, Bel Canto e.One REF1000 and Canary CA 160 Mono Blocks, Musical Fidelity A5 Integrated Amp: Melody M880 monos [on loan]
Speakers: Tidal Audio Pianos, Hørning Perikles, Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference 3.1, Ohm Acoustics Walsh 4 with 4.5 mk.2 upgrade
Cables: JPS Labs Superconductor and Superconductor FX interconnects and speaker wire, Furutech Digi Reference digital
Power Cords: ZCable Heavys, Red & Black Lightnings, JPS Power AC, Analog AC, Digital AC and Kaptovator power cords
Powerline conditioning: Balanced Power Technology 3.5 Signature Plus with ZCable Cyclone Power Cord
Sundry accessories: Sound Mechanics Performance Platform, 2-inch Butcher Block platforms with Quest for Sound Isol-pads, Vibrapod Isolators and Cones, Ultra & Heavy Zsleeves, Viablue QTC spikes under speakers, Auric Illuminator
Room size: 12' by 16' with 9' ceiling
Review component retail: $1,800
If it's not already obvious, the Moon Audio Level 2 Modified Original CD-2008Mk-II CD player began its life as the Original CD-2008 MK II CD player. Original began its life as a Chinese manufacturer in 1999 when two graduates of top Chinese schools got together and started designing components. In March of 1999, they introduced the first domestically designed Chinese 24-bit HDCD/CD player.

Enter Kevin Carter of K&K Audio in Apex/North Carolina and Drew Baird of Moon Audio in Holly Springs/North Carolina. Drew is a retailer/manufacturer who will be glad to sell you a stock version of the Original CD-2008Mk-II because he believes that at its $900 asking price, it's a real winner. Featuring true balanced outputs, a high quality Philips transport mechanism and an oversize shielded power supply with rugged good looks and build, these gents also saw an opportunity to pop the lid, dig in their heels and make it better.

Kevin Carter is the US importer and distributor of Lundahl transformers which now feature prominently in their joint CD player modifications. From Moon Audio's website: "Ever wonder why the old recordings from the 50s and 60s sound so good? Well, one of the reasons for this is the presence of transformers in the signal chain between the microphone and the recorder. While it is popular 'market-speak' to talk about excessive phase shift and the limited bandwidth of transformers, the ears tell a different story. Lundahl transformers are world famous in the pro audio business for their quality. They are used in high-end microphones, microphone preamps and mixers. They convey the full harmonic structure of music to the listeners."

The Original CD-2008Mk-II CD player makes use of conventional differential op-amp current-to-voltage converters after the PCM1792 DAC as well as anti-aliasing filtering after that followed by capacitive coupling to the RCA output jacks. Also used are op-amps to invert the signal to create the aforementioned balanced signal. Moon Audio’s conversion involves the removal of all of the op-amps and other assorted components after the DAC in favor of replacing them with Lundahl transformers to execute the current-to-voltage conversion and setting of output levels. The transformers also provide the unbalanced and balanced outputs with no additional circuitry, creating a shorter and cleaner signal path.

Moon Audio then upgraded the op-amps in the filter circuit of the HDCD DAC. It was determined that op-amps would remain there due to the much poorer aliasing performance of this DAC without filtering. However, the output coupling caps and op-amp balancing converter were replaced with Lundahl transformers, again with the commensurately shorter and cleaner circuit path. In the Level 1 conversion, two Lundahl LL1591 (HDCD) and two Lundahl LL1630 mu-metal core transformers are inserted in the circuit path. Price for the Level 1 is either $550 for the mod or $1400 for a new modified player.

The Level 2 version uses two Lundahl LL1684 transformers (HDCD) and two Lundahl LL1674 cobalt amorphous core transformers in place of those used in the Level 1 conversion. These are two-and-a-half times the price. In addition, all power supply capacitors around both DACs are replaced by the highest quality Black Gate caps. In total, 18 capacitors are changed out. The price for Level 2 conversion of your machine is $950 or you can purchase a modified player for $1800. According to Moon Audio, "the cobalt amorphous core transformers in the Level 2 mod simply add more detail and sparkle to the sound. There is more air/depth as well, giving a greater sense of the performance space." It is the Level 2 converted machine we have under review.

Let us get back to the stock Original CD-2008Mk-II for a few moments and peek under its hood. There we'll find a modified Philips VAM12 laser pick-up and CD7 digital servo system. D/A conversion is accomplished with Burr-Brown's PCM1792 24/192 chip. The HDCD decoder uses the Burr-Brown PCM1732 24/96 chip. Two sets of specially designed heavy-duty toroid power transformers with sealed metal enclosures provide separate power for digital and analog circuitry. Six voltage regulator circuits are said to provide for very stable and clean power throughout different circuit blocks. The CD-2008Mk-II uses heavy-duty aluminum alloy case work with adjustable feet and comes with remote control. It utilizes two sets of analog outputs, one single ended RCA and one balanced XLR. Digital output is carried on one digital coaxial and one optical. An IEC power inlet completes the connectivity options. Output level is said to be <1.99V and frequency response is 5Hz~20 kHz. Distortion and noise are given as 0.002% (-60dB) and S/N ratio is a claimed 102dB. Dynamic range is 110dB (102dB for HDCD). Dimensions are 16.9" wide by 4.3" tall by 12.6" deep. The CD-2008Mk-II tips the scale at 23.1lbs.

On the equipment rack, the CD-2008Mk-II is a good-looking piece. Heavy textured metal casework and cone feet present the appearance of a thoroughly styled piece. The milled remote control is about the heaviest I've ever picked up per square inch. All its buttons are the same size but the most used buttons have easily memorized locations and it's easy to use in the dark. Functionally speaking, the only thing I wasn't fond of with the 2008Mk-II was its blue LED display. For those who do most of their listening at night, my complaint is an asset because what I found too dim and difficult to read during the day was very suited for night time viewing. Its subdued luminance won't distract or become bothersome then.

Frequent readers may note that I don't often write about digital gear. The reason is simple. Writing about digital is often laborious and sans real excitement. Differences between modern digital sources are never as broad as the differences between solid-state and tubes; between the 300B and the EL34; between this speaker and that. I find that most reviews are all about making mountains from molehills where describing differences are concerned. I don't mean to indicate that such subtleties are unimportant to the buyer trying to assemble a synergistic system. Quite the contrary, such subtle shades of gray can often be very meaningful when choosing the digital front end that will be at home in your system. I just don't happen to find the subject much fun to write about. The Moon Audio Level 2 Modified Original CD-2008Mk-II CD player is a different story. Sort of. I wouldn't want any reader to listen to the Level 2 modified player and expect to hear the kind of component differences I hinted at above because we are indeed talking about shades of gray here. That is a good thing. If two CD players sounded drastically different, then the likelihood is great that one or both players had something drastically wrong with them. But as compared to my Accustic Arts/Audio Aero system at five times the price, there are some real differences by which to recommend the modified Original player.

First, the modified CD-2008Mk-II gets all the basics right. Its overall character is lively without being brash or harsh. It has a lively and rhythmic character without being jittery. Soundstaging is very good if not quite up to the standard of my own rig. Images, however, are extremely vivid and sharply outlined. Eric Johnson's Ah Via Musicom [Capitol CDP 7 90517 2] benefits greatly from the Level 2 modified CD-2008Mk-II's presentation. This slightly bright recording is never made harsh by the CD-2008Mk-II, which is otherwise highly illuminated and very ethereal and spacious. However, there's a lot of there to the instruments and vocals. Bass performance is also very good in both power and definition.

Let me quote again from Moon Audio's website: "The cobalt amorphous core transformers in the Level 2 mod simply add more detail and sparkle to the sound. There is more air/depth as well, giving a greater sense of the performance space." This is precisely what I heard in my room. High frequency percussion has more presence and sparkle, as if suddenly the CD had greater frequency extension. That seemingly added extension brings with it an easily perceived sense of air. Depth? Well, I don't hear more depth per se. Rather, the instruments step forward on the stage without any changes at the rear of the soundstage. Johnson's guitar steps forward with greater delineation against the background. Percussion and cymbals do likewise as they possess more shimmer and seem to occupy a more physical presence in the room.

Female vocals do the same. Eva Cassidy's Live at Blues Alley [Blixstreet G2-10046] isn't the most transparent CD and her voice isn't nearly as immediately recorded as I sometimes wish it were. But on the modified CD-2008Mk-II, it's greatly improved. Her voice pops with greater detail, liveliness and life as it becomes decidedly less veiled. Cymbals do likewise but there's little change to the more subdued guitar tones and none at all to the underlying bass, which is perfectly fine.

There is an added sense of brightness with the modified CD-2008Mk-II. More accurately, there's a more heightened sense of luminance. You can hear into instruments with a keener sense of acuity. It's nothing like turning up a treble control. It's simply that certain instruments whose fundamentals inhabit the midrange but whose harmonics exist within the upper midrange just pop out a little more. Not enough to be irritating or unnatural, they just take on a bit more presence.

At this point, I asked Kevin Carter to comment on the origins of what I was hearing. I was also interested to know if what I was hearing was the result of some measurable change in one parameter or another. Here's what he had to say: "The measured frequency extension differences aren't really significant compared to the perceived differences. In removing most of the active analog circuitry after the DAC, we have removed a large number of opamps. I attribute the increase in apparent frequency extension on the high end of the frequency scale to the removal of audio amplification that is accomplished with dramatic amounts of global negative feedback. In my experience, whether the technology is tubes or solid state, the use of global negative feedback shifts the distribution of harmonic information in a way that removes the impression of spaciousness from recorded music. The reduction of spatial information imposes a kind of dark, somewhat dead quality to the music presented. It allows the listener to focus more clearly on the primary musical event (the drum stroke, plucked string or whatever), but robs the listener of much of the "contextual" information that identifies the space that the music is being played in. Some may like that focus, but my diet of live music tells me that it's not really the way music sounds in a real space.

"I don't have the equipment (other than my ears - which are good enough) to measure such shifts in musical harmonics distribution but it seems logical that to identify reproduced music closely with the real thing, you need to carefully preserve the harmonic relationships. In addition to the above, audio transformers in the signal path provides galvanic (DC) isolation from the CD player environment, probably reducing noise transmission to the preamp. This will have the effect of better high frequency resolution."

I was very aware that as I compared the modified CD-2008Mk-II to my digital reference gear, any mismatch of levels would skew the listening results in favor of the louder presentation. Furthermore, these are exactly the kind of differences I'd expect to hear from a louder source. My Bel Canto PRe2p preamplifier remembers different volume levels for different inputs and those distinct levels are maintained as one switches between inputs. Before I listened to the first CD, I used the pink noise on the second Stereophile Test CD to match the levels of the two CD playback systems at my listening seat. Once I identified the sound of the modified CD-2008Mk-II, I wasn't content that I'd been able to match levels accurately enough using my Radio Shack SPL meter. Therefore, I decided to tip the scales against the modified CD-2008Mk-II. If the louder of the two players would sound brighter and more vivid, then I decided to adjust the volume of the modified CD-2008Mk-II down one decibel and listen again to see if my perceptions would hold.

They did. On Stevie Ray Vaughn's The Sky Is Crying [Epic EK47390], his guitars maintained their same intensity and vibrancy. It was also as if they'd taken another small step forward in the arena of microdynamics as well. They were unquestionably highlighted as they stood out gently in relief against the rest of the musical canvas. "Little Wing" was big and effervescent. The modified CD-2008Mk-II also gave slightly more prominence to the reverb surrounding SRV's guitars, which gave slight emphasis to the sense of space. Once again, cymbals shimmered and Shannon's bass pulsated from beneath. "Chitlins Con Carne" is a slightly more energetic recording and it was the first cut where the modified CD-2008Mk-II's added energy almost became too much. Almost.

Supertramp's Some Things Never Change [Oxygen/SilverCab 63245-90002-2] is a much fuller, darker and denser CD that I wanted to hear. Not darker in the sense of rolled-off highs but darker in that the music emerges from a blacker canvas. In fact, it's a fairly bright recording. I wanted to see if the modified CD-2008Mk-II would make it brighter - or even too bright. It didn't. In fact, with this tune I had some of the most fun yet. While the modified CD-2008Mk-II still didn't quite present the sense of ultimate expanse in quite the obvious way my reference pieces do, it threw highly focused and sharply defined images well beyond the boundaries of the speakers. The opening chimes on "It's A Hard World" went wall to wall and I felt as though I could almost reach out and touch them, so vivid and present were they. Ditto for the rush of the cymbals that came across as uncannily arresting.

A more complicated recording with many more layers of sound, this Supertramp CD was promising even greater insights into the modified CD-2008Mk-II's capabilities than I'd heard before. Where I'd previously wondered if the way this player threw certain instruments forward in the mix would distort the spatial relationships on more complex recordings, I was clearly observing how it didn't as I heard layers and layers of depth in the recording. The way the stage was laid out made perfect sense and there were no oddities such as cymbals placed in the foreground while the rest of the drum kit was deep to the rear of the stage. No, what I'd observed before was that certain instruments had greater presence and detail, albeit without any spatial distortion as to the location of these performers within the overall context. Trumpet was vivid and I could hear an increased sense of air and space around it. Despite the subdued level of the acoustic guitar relative to the other instruments, it came across with every bit of nuance as everything else on stage. Bass lines were as immaculately and powerfully produced as they should be and vocals were naturally familiar. It was everything above the upper midrange that sounded different. It was all more vital and full of life, with added immediacy and clarity but no downsides.

Some weeks ago, a friend of mine flew across the country to pay a visit to the one place in the US where one can compare the Hørning Perikles loudspeakers to the Tidal Pianos - my home. The visit allowed two marathon listening sessions of seven hours each before he cried uncle for having heard quite enough. Throughout all that listening, there was one and only one time when I was mildly disappointed by what I was hearing from my own system. We were listening to Carl Orff's Carmina Burana [RCA Victor/Red Label 090261673-26-2] and it was the only time all weekend where my system was to fail me even if only in an extremely miniscule way. I could tell by Chris' reaction that he enjoyed it. But as I listened to the various solo voices against the orchestral backdrop or the huge chorus of singers, I was missing just a little of that pop that I've mentioned. Rather than standing in almost visual contrast to the rest of the music, the solo voices weren't popping off the canvas; they weren't differentiating themselves with the kind of delineation against the cacophony as I would have liked them to.

I can't even say for sure that I'd ever heard it sound better anywhere before but it was just something I found myself wishing for. Interestingly, inserting the CD 20008MK-II brought to the disc exactly what I was looking for. And not only did I find that the solo vocals stood with higher contrast and delineation but Sylvia McNair's extraordinary soprano voice seemed stripped of one last veil as it came across like silk with greater purity of tone. The CD 20008MK-II still lacks in comparison to my reference rig when it comes to its representation of the sense of the music taking place in a hall. I just don't close my eyes and hear the hall's dimensions. Rather than spotlighting the venue, it seems to prefer to spotlight the performers therein. And by spotlighting I mean that the CD 20008MK-II brings the performers into brilliant focus as it imbues them with real dimensionality.

It was toward the end of the review period when much of the listening notes were done that I stopped listening to the CD 20008MK-II and got back to listening to music. Out went the reviewing war horses and in went some music that I enjoy listening to but whose recordings are mediocre or worse. Because these poor recordings are lacking in one context or another, there's usually little reward for sitting between the speakers with the eyes shut. But suddenly, this was not so much the case. As I'd already found with the Carmina Burana disc, I was shortly to find that when listening to such discs as Smashmouth's Astro Lounge [Interscope INTD90316], Bowling For Soup's Drunk Enough to Dance [Jive 01241418192] and Queesryche's Empire [EMI Capitol GZS-1138], the CD 20008MK-II was digging in and bringing out dimensionality and details from these otherwise flat recordings that I had no idea were there. Suddenly these recordings were vivid and interesting to listen to again. As I switched back to my Accustic Arts CD1/Audio Aero ensemble, everything went back to flat and amorphous. As I switched back to the CD 20008MK-II, I sometimes found that not only was the bass bigger, it was better focused. "Who's There" from Astro Lounge was transformed by the CD 20008MK-II. It really tightened up and placed, in an almost visual sense, the bass before me as it threw a wall of sound that filled the upper front corners of my room and went wall to wall. It also brought those instruments and effects out into the room as if I was listening into a sharply focused holograph. Okay, it wasn't the deepest of holographs but the point is that there was now real dimensionality where previously there had been none. As noted earlier, both voices and instruments took on a new luminosity so here's that word again - life.

I think that in some ways, the modified CD-2008Mk-II player is an amazing product, especially when you consider its price. But I wonder if it wouldn't actually be most at home in more expensive and sophisticated systems than with components in its own price class. The only caveat I have is that the buyer should be careful about placing it in systems that are too bright and forward. In such a system, I would not worry so much about the music getting overly bright, gritty or edgy as I really don't hear any of that here. I would worry about the presentation getting too forward, too supernaturally vivid, a bit garish if you will. As you read this you, should be able to get a feeling for whether or not the modified CD-2008Mk-II is for you or not. Is your system too forward? Do you suffer a little too much leading edge and upper midrange prominence? You may want to pass. But are you looking for a veil or two removed from your midrange? Looking for a little added life, a little more immediacy and sparkle? Then this version of the CD-2008Mk-II quite possibly could be exactly what you're looking for.

Am I ready to trade in my Accustic Arts/Audio Aero system? Well, I have to admit that certain aspects of the modified CD-2008Mk-II were great fun to hear and I did enjoy the aspects that I've described. And without doubt, on some recordings such as the SuperTramp CD, I had a clear preference for the modified CD-2008Mk-II. However, upon returning to my system I did enjoy the tube smoothness and rich density of the Audio Aero Prima SE DAC.

Overall my reference gear suits my sensibilities and my system just fine. But then again, when I switched back to my system, on some discs, I really missed that added sense of life which the modified CD-2008Mk-II imparted. And when I look at
the incongruity in price, I have to ask myself which machine I'd buy today if I started over again. In that context, Moon Audio's Level 2 modified Original CD-2008Mk-II's asking price of only $1800 makes an extremely strong case for itself. If I were standing in the store, credit card in hand, I might have a real difficult time making that decision. But then, eventually, I'd consider the look on my wife's face. I'd remember that at the end of the month, I have another tuition check to write. I have a very strong feeling that I'd walk out with the Moon Audio Level 2 Modified CD-2008Mk-II player. Unless you have money to burn, I think you would, too. And I know you won't be sorry.
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