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The bottom line of this little experiment is that the CR-H500NT’s phonostage is no giant killer but perfectly adapted for the type of tables and cartridges it will most likely be associated with, say a Rega P1 or Project Debut III. If you were looking at connecting a serious analog source, a separate phonostage is mandatory. But I rather think that connecting a pricier table or cartridge would defeat the purpose and spirit of the CR-H500NT. It’s about being able to enjoy music easily from as many sources as possible without breaking the bank. In that vein, a Project turntable with an Ortofon 5E is as good as it gets. Their slightly dry bass-shy presentation will be well compensated for by the TEAC’s phono input.

CD: Getting closer to the heart of the matter was using the internal CD player. It’s surprisingly good. I compared it to the Accuphase DP55 (the DP55 sold for €4.000 over 15 years ago and its DAC shows serious signs of its age). For giggles, I also compared it to Esoteric's own X03SE connected into the Gryphon Diablo (tapping the CD signal from the TEAC through its tape output). This second comparison meant sudden death, no prisoners taken.

On occasion it’s actually gratifying to check and confirm that an $8.200 player does utterly and completely smoke a deck that’s incorporated with an $800 receiver. If for no other purpose, this justification for my own considerable digital source investment made me feel good. That said, the CR-H500NT was perfectly listenable and enjoyable compared with the X03SE. It had neither the same extension and resolution on each end nor the ability to resolve fine midrange textures. It also certainly won't image and soundstage like the pricier machine. Yet it delivered music without any major flaws and its easy, slightly warm relaxed sound actually made crappy CDs far more palatable.

Compared to the Accuphase, the CR-H500NT could not match the imaging and soundstaging ability of the older player either but had overall sweeter timbres and sounded tonally righter. The Accuphase DAC suffers from the digital glare of early digital machines although to a lesser extent than the first CD players. This comparison revealed just how much progress has been made since even with entry-level machines. I had admired a more advanced version of the AKM chip in Esoteric's own D05 DAC and now was able to enjoy a somewhat watered-down version in the TEAC receiver. Admittedly not as resolved, refined and commanding, the surprisingly undistorted treble signature I so admired in the D05 was also present here but coupled to a shelved-down slightly rounded profile to insure that even poorly recorded material sounded acceptable. The bottom line? Unless you are willing to spend $1800 on a Raysonic CD128 for the next level up in performance, the CD player in the CR-H500NT is actually pretty good – not so surprising from the makers of Esoteric.

iPod direct vs. CD: Now we are getting to the meat of this review and one of the CR-H500NT’s truly original features. It was actually surprising to me to find iPod direct access on a product like this. I view this feature as a purely audiophile obsession and nothing the target listener would likely ever worry about. Yet here it is enabling digital data transfer from the iPod directly to the AKM DAC via the iPod/USB cable that came supplied with your player and into TEAC’s frontal USB port. After thinking it through, I realized that this was TEAC's way of making the CR-H500NT attractive to folks like us - neurotic obsessive audiophiles wanting an office system or secondary rig.

Truth told, it works! iPod direct brings significant improvements over CD playback when using 16/44 files encoded in Apple Lossless (ALAC). The primary difference is midrange openness and resolution. It improves very notably, making the CD player warmer but also closed-in and opaque by comparison. Smaller improvements were heard in bass depth and treble extension. Overall the higher resolution of the iPod direct feed translated to more audible and complex harmonics and tonal nuances.

While the iPod direct input was clearly superior to the Accuphase DP55, it did not match the X03SE. Still, the gap was reduced significantly. What iPod direct could not match were the resolution and bass control of Esoteric’s own pricier player or its ability to transport the recording venue into the room. That requires a level of resolution and respect of micro details/dynamics which remain out of reach of the receiver.

I compared iPod direct also to feeding the USB input of the NuForce Icon from my iMac and tapping the analog signal from the Icon’s pre-out into the TEAC’s auxiliary mini jack just to see if an entry-level USB DAC could compete with the AKM chip fed directly from my iPod Classic. The quick and brutal conclusion saw that the Icon operated a number of levels below the TEAC on resolution, dynamic and drive. Actually even the receiver’s CD player outperformed the Icon’s analog output. My clear assessment is that unless one were willing to spend about $2000 on a separate top-notch CD player, the iPod direct feature of reading non-lossy files directly to the AKM chip is far from a side show act. I actually see it as the star billing of this TEAC concert. The question you want to ask now is how this feature compares to the iDecco. I don’t know. What I do know is that it turns the CR-H500NT into a very credible solution for a second small system if you pair it with some high-quality easy load like Harbeth monitors or a even a pair of Zu Soul

FM & AM: I tried analog radio but the reception in the hills of rural Pennsylvania is such that no tuner manages to pull in more than a few rather useless stations from the air. The CR-H500NT was no exception so I can’t really weigh in on its tuner quality. In light of Internet radio, FM or AM might be an altogether moot point unless you don't have high-speed Internet.

Internet radio: Until now I covered features that do not require access to an Internet network. As the NT suffix indicates, the CR-H500NT is made to also network and interface. This receiver can connect to your network either wireless or by cable. If you can, pick the second. Not only will you avoid having to find and enter the password to your wireless network but the cable connection proved just a bit more robust with no data dropouts. Wireless on rare occasions turned temperamental especially when searching for Internet radio stations. I doubt my brand-new Apple time capsule was to blame but handling from three to six wireless connections simultaneously (3 computers, a Wii, a Squeezebox and the CR-H500NT) might explain the occasional issues I had.

Using the setup wizard for wireless networks proved easy enough. The wiz had no problem finding the two networks available in our house. The actual pain was the less than friendly interface to enter the necessary password. It's not complicated per se and the directions are clear but scrolling through character lists to enter them one at a time is frustrating. The good news? Once set up, you won't have to worry about it again unless like me you move the unit to connect it via cable for a test. Then you need to set up the wireless network again once you put the unit back where it was originally. A way to memorize settings would be swell.