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Subtle by day, Martian mothership by night, the blue mood lighting hovering above the player could prove too much for some. A nice future feature might be a switch that turns it off altogether. While on future features, I've been curious for a while why tube-based pieces with elaborate light displays choose blue and not orange to augment the natural thermionic action. Regarding light, the blacked-out display currently does not temporarily revive when you input a remote command. A software rewrite could probably address this to show confirmation of remote commands for one second before the display resets to the prior off.

From a user perspective, nothing else warrants mention out of the ordinary except that, as a top loader, the laser pickup needs to be prompted to read the TOC. Many top loaders use a mechanical trigger. This automatically starts the TOC protocol when the well cover is inserted (or a door is closed). The CD128 omits a mechanical switch. Hence TOC has to be called up manually. Simply hit the stop/open button on the remote. Open only confirms on the display but the subsequent close triggers the laser. TOC is displayed and play now commences from this table of contents. Mind you, just hitting play if you've run another CD before still gets you music. But if the former CD had 11 tracks and the new one has 16, the last tracks won't be found. Plus, trying to access higher tracks directly based on the old table of contents will send the laser pickup on a fool's errand. Things aren't where it expects them. Simply make it a habit to press open/close -- this is very similar to how 47Labs does it for the Flatfish -- and you're off to the races. (Renaming the open/close button TOC and consolidating the present two commands into one would be an elegant future revision. Unless of course Raysonic has a drawer-type player in the works that'll use the same remote).

If one separated digital into two basic camps, there'd be entries like the AMR, Audio Aero, Audio Note, BAT, Opera Droplet, Kondo, Lector, Metronome, Reimyo, Resolution Audio and Zanden on one side; the Benchmark, dCS, Dodson, Linn, Meitner, Wadia and Weiss units on the other. That the first group often uses tubes isn't an essential qualifier; nor that some of its machines shun up/oversampling or filtering. That those in the second group nearly categorically avoid such retro approaches is probably emblematic though. One school approaches digital from analog precedents. It attempts, by various means, to reintroduce certain organic ingredients that its makers feel digital compromises compared to vinyl or master tape. Measurements of such machines may suffer compared to the second school which focuses on ultimate detail retrieval and dynamic range. Boundaries here of course are fluid. The best designs will focus on the common ground in the middle without pursuing extremes. How they parlay is additionally contingent on system voicing. Still, for purposes of categorization, such a separation into classes is useful to quickly capture general flavors.

From first cue up, there was no doubt that the Raysonic belonged into the first group. The only question was one of degrees. Even coming off my Zanden separates which have served as ultra-reliable reference of what's possible when money's no issue, the CD128 didn't disappoint. Running it balanced, I was taken right off with its full-toned and robust presentation, stygian bass and dense staging. I did suspect that I'd lost inner transparency in trade for image density - especially at subdued volumes. Yet without A/Bs, this was more of a suspicion, not a categorically certain faux pas. No, first impressions were very happy indeed. I heard no obvious shortcomings - confirmation indeed that this machine was not merely an advanced exercise in industrial design but a real player. Time to set aside hedging and bet firmly on
sonics to match the previous comments. In street talk, from hoity toit to hotsy totsy.

Connecting a set of Crystal Cable Ultra RCA leads in parallel to the balanced set netted identical output voltages. Was this machine not truly balanced? After all, you'd expect twice the signal strength. In which case, why four 6922s? SRPP totem pole output stage perhaps? While an e-mail inquiry made its way to Canada, I confirmed that A/Bing between either feed not only generated no loudness offset but wasn't identifiable any other way either. Recalling a similar test with Esoteric's X-03, I focused particularly on dynamics, bass and transients. I used Franc O'Shea's Alkimia [Azula 001] which pits the e-bass player against a formidable cadre of Flamenco fusion players including Jorge Pardo, Juan Manuel Canizares and Rubem Dantas. There's growling bass, incisive leading edges from Pardo's Cuban-style flute riffs and
plenty of percussive mayhem. I couldn't tell the difference between RCA and XLR streams. The CD128 sure sounded balanced with its sheer physicality, utter assuredness and basso profundo. It clearly was also a forest, not tree type of player. No gratuitous detail for detail's sake; no treble fatigue; no etchiness, bleach or flatness

Working my way through the usual list of familiar recordings, the initial impressions held steady. The CD128 does body and density in spades yet it doesn't feel thick or opaque. But it's not a PRat first machine like the Reference 2.2 Linear. That's leaner and less bass-endowed but does timing exceptionally well. Ray's overall gestalt reminds me more of the Droplet. With bigger cojones. Returning to the Zanden for reference, the CD128's inner detail -- ambience in general, micro events around and between notes -- wasn't as preternaturally present and refined. For tone color and image corporealism, the CD128 gives up a bit of ultimate transparency and separating power. That's a perfectly sensible trade when you're not spending seriously committed green. In fact, it's the perfect antidote for common solid-state qualities and the terribly degenerating mastering habits that choke the life out of popular recordings.

The CD128's warmth and color saturation go hand in hand with wallop to present crescendos, climaxes and boisterous bass lines with impact. There are no fuzzies that would give the anti-tube brigade reason to complain. It's simply that decays don't extend as endlessly as elsewhere. Those who value highlighted airiness and plenty of overtone spray coming off struck metal might find Ray too copperish and amber. Fair enough. Many, myself included, find Mapleshade CDs far too top-heavy. It's all about identifying a flavor that works for you. When thinking Raysonic, don't think ultra-resolution machine or pace setter. Think balanced powerline conditioners. Their impact on timbral hues, heft and image fleshiness is very similar to the CD128.

While this player then wears its tubes more openly (for reference and to my ears, the Zanden doesn't at all), it's more of a push/pull type flavor than single-ended. In general, the former favors the grand over the tiny gesture to sound bigger and more massive while not as fleet of foot and finely articulated. Needless to say, tube rolling will introduce variables into this equation. Still, it's a suitable character sketch for our purposes.

Put differently, the CD128 does not pursue an extreme near-field perspective such as hyper-detailed machines manage. Close to stage and without benefit of the reverberant field, sonics in real life will be very separated and distinct but also brutally sharp and incisive. The Raysonic's balance of transient versus bloom lengthens listener distance as it pertains to those qualities. Yet its uncanny robustness sounds nothing like the somewhat diffusive far field experience of sitting in row 20. So the actual qualities here are a mix of the near field (tone color, mass and dynamic impact) and far field (a soft rounding over and blending) but the player patently stages behind, not in front of the speaker.

This blend of qualities also describes the player on a larger scale. By not pursuing particular attributes to excess, one can readily identify key strengths while feeling far more handicapped to assign equivalent weaknesses. That's a sign of healthy balance. It's why the CD128 should not be filed away with a "uses tubes, must be slow, fuzzy and pleasant" tag.

In fact, its output stage quite obviously exerted excellent drive on my preamp's input stage. This suggested low output impedance among other things. As I've described in my review of the Supratek Cabernet Dual, a superior active circuit makes its presence felt in very similar ways as the already described core traits of the CD128. Sounds become more robust and material, less spectral. Bass and body fill out. Macro dynamics increase. The Raysonic sure sounded like it was gifted with a rather well-conceived and robust analog output stage.

On that subject, Shanling's CDT100 uses two of its four tubes for the headphone socket. The CD128 lacks a headphone port. The partsconneXion's Ultimate modification uses 2 x 6922s in its aftermarket tube output stage to create a true dual-differential output. As do Opera Audio's twin 6H30s in the Droplet's balanced feed which provides twice the RCAs' signal voltage as expected. Musical Fidelity's external X-10 v3 tube buffer uses 2 x 6112s. The list goes on. What were the 128's two spare valves doing - drive down output impedance similar to CJ's paralleled valves in the ACT2 preamp's composite super triode? Time for Steven to explain Raysonic's circuit: "For the CD128, we use the HDCD decoder to accurately reveal every single detail from the data. Then the hi-speed BurrBrown 2604 dual op amp low pass filters the signal and the 6922s buffer the output." Though I tried a few times, my real question remained unanwerered: is this a dual-differential machine? Bel Canto's new CD1 has a true balanced socket that outputs the same 2.1V as the single-ended one. Meanwhile their DAC-3's XLR outputs twice the voltage than its RCA. In either case, the respective paths are dual differential. The actual output gain is simply a function of a conscious design decision. Not knowing more, the CD128 thus could be fully balanced. Or employ a cascoded cathode or White follower instead.

Back to the earlier question of degrees. Take a recording like DG's 1978 Schubert String Quintet [416 373-2] with the Melos Quartet and Rostropovich. The first thing to strike you will be, yes, dynamics. Having grown up playing much chamber music including Brahms' Clarinet Quintet, I know how loud a string quartet can get when everyone leans in. That's especially true in contrast to the common dolce parts. The Raysonic seems emphatically realistic. Its scope of contrasts makes for riveting encounters and the player gets very high marks for dynamic mettle.

Naturally, string tone is another highlight for the previously noted amber quality, the utter lack of irritating high frequencies and a refusal to go hard and compress on forceful peaks. Checking into solo piano recordings for damper pedal action, the CD128 gets good but not top marks for visibility of those faint decays of bygone notes that deliberately linger and blend with newer ones. Albums with extremely wet ambience such as the m.a.s too confirm this minor shortening action. It puts the focus squarely on the performer rather than inhabited space.

Massed voices on my Russian liturgy albums were appropriately huge and deep and definitely on the breath. Boy's chorus with prepubescent falsetto voices avoided all shrillness. Yet the choral experience lacked that heightened sense of head count which something like a Zanden will introduce. Flighty ghosts like solo harp filled out a bit to sound less disembodied. Unhinged fare like amplified Bulgarian wedding music or big band salsa/mambo with vein-popping trumpets was just that vital bit less irritating and plaster peeling. To retain such tone and projection strength and add even higher degrees of stage depth action, rear wall solidity and ephemeral spatials costs more money. In this realm, the far more likely terms to suffer are flat, mechanical and hollow. Of which the CD128 is compellingly and utterly free.

In fact, there really isn't a whole lot more to say. Tubes are used here to excellent effect and the common liabilities -- especially in the affordable sector -- have been nicely downplayed. This is a warm player with real balls and drive. From what I've heard in this price range and above, the Raysonic CD128 might be the current one to beat if you share my listening bias. When I took the 2.2 Linear for a few spins to reestablish a same-priced reference, I soon missed the Raysonic. The Opera player was texturally coarser, thinner and lacked the sheer oomph factor the CD128 brought to the table. I also knew what the Raysonic ultimately left under the table - the finest of detail, nuances and spatial finesse the Zanden does so extraordinarily well. Yet this mental note never intruded in the musical enjoyment. Again, balance. Add superlative build quality and designer cosmetics. The only question mark really is the Aliens-have-landed nocturnal aspect. The aura of blue then becomes very Shanling-esque. It could strike certain would-be owners as too - um, bleu.

Otherwise, no downsides. The chassis acting as one giant heat sink runs pretty hot but not as prohibitively so as did the infamous Aleph 3 Pass amp of yore. The remote is very responsive even 30 degrees off axis. TOC capture isn't lazy. If Raysonic's reliability and customer service end up matching the player's other powerful virtues, we'll have us a real winner on our hands. It should be on anyone's list who is shopping for an analogue-ish digital keeper at $3,000. Or in our case, considerably less. Hey, I didn't know Raysonic from Adam when this assignment was first proposed. As it turns out, I'm truly thrilled and honored to have made the company's acquaintance with this, its very first digital component. It's also the first one to cut literal corners on its chassis. But no corner cutting elsewhere. In fact, this unique CD player packs more under its hood than seems fair to the competition. That clearly mandates a special award. Welcome then CD128, to our small club of components of special merit and appeal!
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