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Reviewer: Frederic Beudot
Financial Interests: click here
Digital Source: Esoteric X-03SE, Accuphase DP55
Analog Source: Acoustic Solid Classic Wood, AS WTB211, Grado Reference Sonata 1, Denon DL103, Esoteric E03, Clearaudio Nano, Nagra BPS [on loan]
Pre-amplifier: Wyred4Sound STP SE
Amplifier: Genesis Reference 360, McIntosh MA2275, Yamamoto A08s, First Watt F5, Gryphon Diablo [in for review]
Speakers: FJ OMs, Rogers LS 3/5a, Zu Essence
Cables: Zu Varial, Zu Libtec, Slinkylinks RCA, ASI LiveLine interconnects & speaker cables
Power Cords: Zu Mother, ASI LiveLine power, Cobalt Audio Ultimate Power
Powerline conditioning: Isotek Nova [on loan]
Sundry accessories: Isolpads under electronics, ASI resonators and sugar cubes, ASI HeartSong racks
Room size: 21' x 13’ x 7.5'
Review component retail: $799

TEAC is Esoteric's mother company and also maker of Tascam pro gear. TEAC’s renaissance over the past few years as a credible component manufacturer in the US market has come from a line of versatile value receivers. They bundle high functionality for what passes for very little cash in our hifi world. In recent months, TEAC's Reference Series started closing the gap between their traditional electronics and Esoteric's upscale line. Even so, it retains the founding spirit of reasonable prices, high functionality and versatility which put TEAC on the map.

The probably most attractive and complete component in TEAC’s reference range is the subject of today's review, the CR-H500NT CD receiver. CD receiver actually shortchanges things a bit. If that's all it did, $799 might seem a little ambitious. Actually, the CR-H500NT includes a phonostage, two auxiliary inputs (one mini, one RCA) and connectivity to a computer network either wireless or via CAT5 cable. This adds Internet radio access and music-server capabilities. Now that looks more like a fully loaded receiver - except that the CR-H500NT still adds an iPod-direct connection to retrieve digital data from Apple’s mobile player and decode it with high-performance AKM silicon to bypass the iPod's own DAC and volume control; and the ability to record any of the digital sources to either MP3 (on a USB stick) or analog (via the line level tape output).

Did I forget any feature? That’s surely a lot of can-do for a $799 little black box, making it one seriously interesting package - especially when the $999 Peachtree Audio iDecco received our Lunar Eclipse Award not that long ago whilst offering less than half the functions for 25% more money. Knowing Esoteric’s engineering pride, I couldn't imagine the CR-H500NT as anything less than deal-of-the-year prospect. When Srajan's EU review sample fell through but US inventory had stock, it thus took me less than a split second to sign up.

Before I get detailed to cover as many functions as possible, some perspective. As a reviewer it’s not easy to judge equipment that does so much for $800 when my set of references is made up of far pricier separates. Although I tend to favor value over ultimate performance at silly prices, I do review very exclusive gear (the Gryphon Diablo being in house at the moment). It’s easy to fall into the extreme of waxing poetic over cheap components just because they aren’t as bad as we feared they would be; or the other extreme of seeing no value just because they fail to approach what we’re used to. The only way to avoid either is to have a set of high-performance high value references on hand. That’s where my own hardware collection admittedly lacks somewhat. Most obviously I do not own an iDecco. That’s probably the closest competitor to the CR-H500NT today. Nonetheless I tried my best to make relevant comparisons and when not available, find reasonable ways to assess the TEAC's performance. If in the end I do wax a little poetic, be assured that it’s a true reflection on the fun I had whilst listening to music through this little box.

Amplifier section:
Since all sources and signals entering this receiver are likely to pass its amplification stage to benefit from its strengths or suffer its weaknesses to impose marks on my conclusions about all inputs, I deemed it best to assess this first and become fully intimate with the amp’s sonic signature. Power is specified as 40 watts into 6 ohms with -3dB points at 20Hz and 60kHz. The most relevant comparison I could make was with my Onix/Melody SP3. That’s a 5881-based push-pull integrated delivering 37 watts into 4 and 8 ohms which sold for between $699 and $999 when last available in the US (endless Internet promotions make it impossible to pin a firm price on the machine). Many—including apparently the designer—regard the SP3 as one of Melody's best models and a real overachiever. I bought mine based on Srajan's review well before joining 6moons. It's been a very reliable performer powering my Rogers LS 3/5a for the past 5 years without a glitch.

All tests were conducted with an Accuphase DP55 source connected to the Aux1 input of the TEAC with Zu Gede cable. Both amplifiers were powered using Cobalt Cable's Ultimate power cords whose price is somewhat in line with the price of the review component. Connected to the Rogers with their AB1 bass units for a combined 6-ohm load instead of the 12 ohms of the monitors solo, the CR-H500NT quickly revealed a very friendly and easygoing temperament. It does not possess the openness and resolution of the SP3 in either the midrange or the same transient snappiness but on both counts comes fairly close while offering a far more forgiving treble and deeper if slightly boomier bass.

The overall feeling is of a slightly warm component with good drive and dynamics that carefully sidesteps any aggression, which could be an issue with the entry-level speakers one might be tempted to pair up. As I moved to the FJ Oms, the CR-H500NT controlled the sealed woofer of the German speakers a little better than the SP3 but not with the same precision that high-current amplifiers can achieve. This translates to a boomier bottom end and again overall warmth. On the other hand, the TEAC had enough control to not pollute the pure midrange of the FJs and the association ended up working quite well if one did not expect perfect control and the tight, tuneful bass the speakers are actually capable of.

Switching to the Zu Essence, the TEAC was in heaven with their higher sensitivity and impedance. Those speakers revealed all there was to hear about the CR-H500NT's slightly rounded transients, blurred micro resolution and lack of low-down control. It also showed that the association dished out some seriously fun music - easy to listen to, forgiving yet never lazy or boring by any stretch. The TEAC in many ways reminded me of an entry-level McIntosh integrated with fewer watts. That's not to everybody's liking but a proven reference when looking for a comfortable sound.

Phono: Since I’ve been on a phonostage reviewing frenzy of late, the phono input of the TEAC was next on my list. For perspective, the last phono preamp I reviewed was Ray Samuel's F117. It sells for the exact same price as the entire TEAC receiver and won a Realsization award for exceptional value. My own reference is the  >$6.000 Esoteric E03. I obviously had to adjust expectations to make a realistic assessment. Because the TEAC accepts MM cartridges only, I changed my customary Denon DL103 for the Grado Reference Sonata 1 and compared the performance with various phonostages connected to the Auxiliary 1 input of the TEAC. I admit to not witnessing any real miracle. The $350 Clearaudio Nano was closest in warmth and forgiveness yet went further in resolution, control and dynamics. So did the phonostage of the McIntosh MA2275 integrated tapped from the tape output into TEAC’s auxiliary input. The McIntosh offered far greater midrange resolution and an overall tauter presentation. A quick comparison with the Nagra BPS and Esoteric E03 proved useless. Their performance level was simply on a very different plateau.

At this point I realized that my cartridge costs roughly as much as the entire receiver. I was probably not listening to a combination likely to happen outside my own listening room. I thus unearthed my old $60 Grado Black. That clearly narrowed the gap with the Clearaudio Nano to the point of being hardly noticeable.