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Collecting special CD editions, searching for rare and unique titles, bargain hunting on CD Japan and eBay… this must be one of the coolest most fulfilling hobbies I know. Regular contact with music, continuous education, experience gained and the joy of owning a physical beautiful object is a unique experience. Fun for life. In the words of Mieczyslaw Stoch, owner of Poland's largest vinyl collection, "money is of no value in itself. It is a means to get things you love. That seems cool to me. Collecting things also expands our horizons and won't bring us down. It gives a sense of freedom. No need to go to the concert hall to listen to the best performance of your favorite music". While he refers to black discs, the mechanism is the same. So is the goal of music. "The collector has no doubt that vinyl is the most fantastic music delivery medium devised so far. Among other things it is very durable (really? how about needle wear? - Ed). But there are many more advantages. In this day and age when speed is everything, we slowly lose our humanism and I think it was Wojciech Mann who once said that the analog record is more human. I agree. Vinyl has retained a certain softness, a spaciousness of sound and friendliness. The analog sounds generate the calming alpha waves. And from what I heard neither plants nor animals respond to digital sound. Or so it was said on TOK FM."

CDs. Among the thousands of discs I own most are standard releases of the sort which used to fill all music stores when those were part of every town’s retail landscape. My collection includes a number of old and very old issues released by specialist labels that reissue recordings whose copyright expired, usually in the form of compilations. Judy Garland, Andrew Sisters, Bing Crosby, Vera Lynn, early Sinatra, Ivie Anderson, Tommy Dorsey, Mills Brothers, Perry Como, Mel Tormé and many others are amongst those. The necessary remaster of the source material, usually restored from shellac discs, is carried out in the analog or digital domains. The system commonly used for this purpose is Cedar. I have a continuous problem with these albums. Few CD players are capable of handling them. Interestingly no media player so far has played any one of them satisfactorily enough as rips to make me want to listen from beginning to end. It’s more than just the sound. It’s about something irritating and annoying as though someone shoved a finger into my eye, making me retch to switch off the playback.

I never had such issues with analog records of the same cuts or recordings from a similar period even if technically they seem weaker than their remastered digital versions. Analog enthusiasts will be quick to declare that this is quite common because digital media in general irritate. Audiofile apologists will claim that the problem lies with the Compact Disc and its limited resolution and bandwidth. I might offer another suggestion. The players we normally use apparently cannot handle this type of distortion. I know from personal experience that these CDs are capable of sounding at least good and sometimes simply phenomenal. There is always a give and take especially with low-cost components but the vindication of this format has recently accelerated significantly and things will only get better.

What’s the Reference CD9 got to do with this? It was one of the four or five CD (and SACD) players capable of properly playing the albums I mentioned above and make them sound similar to how they do on vinyl. The others are players from Ancient Audio, Mark Levinson, EMM Labs and Human Audio. That’s not to say others are rubbish. They have numerous advantages and often sound excellent. It’s just that their designers concentrated on improving other characteristics than those I will discuss. In the case of Audio Research and other players similar in this respect, the focus is on coherence and liquidity to result in a smooth coherent holistic sound. Another characteristic is the lack of treble harshness and a warm smooth absolutely non-irritating upper midrange. This trinity defines the CD9 sound and puts it in a league not particularly crowded. It does not mean being the best CD player in the world. My only or perhaps main point is that this is a player which plays CDs—and audio files about which more later—in an absolutely unique smooth and non-irritating fashion. That alone should draw to the attention of those who regard the digital medium as a plague or those looking for a final solution for their disc library. The Audio Research under review may indeed be something like it. It has its weaknesses and a clearly programmed own sound but what it does well it does brilliantly.

Its sound is shaped similarly to other components in this catalogue. I could quote entire paragraphs from my reviews of the Reference 5 SE preamplifier or Reference 75 power amplifier and it would suit. But since CD playback draws our attention to slightly other sonic aspects which we interpret differently, I will resist the temptation to copy and paste. The tonal balance here is shifted towards the lower midrange and upper bass. Attacks are slightly rounded which makes everything friendly and deep. This is helped by excellent vividness with lots going on amongst larger virtual bodies and layers. The sound creates a great first impression that lasts longer and holds our attention even after many hours. I say ‘many hours’ because the AR encourages long listening. It's not pushy but consistent in what it does.

As I said, tonal balance is shifted downwards. This was most audible on classical recordings with vocals recorded in a large space like Ramirez’s Misa Criolla. José Carreras sounded a little thickened as if he was farther away and the soundstage was even larger than I know it from other presentations. There was no problem if a recording was a little dry and lacked in the bottom end like Maria Callas' Tosca. Such albums actually sounded better. With everything in its place we get a lower deeper perspective. As noted earlier, nothing is for free and that’s the price we here pay for how absolutely the Reference CD9 distances itself from the digital realm.

Perhaps that’s why I spent most my time with other recordings. Quality components somehow direct our hand to reach for particular albums. With the ARC I listened primarily to the above albums recorded in the 1920s-1940s, to Rock from the 1970s-1990s and to Polish artists. With the latter the American player performed wonders I'd never before experienced with the digital medium. Take for example Nowy rozdział and Kombi 4 from the band Kombi. Released in 1983 and 1985 respectively, they bear all the blows that were once taken by Polish phonography. Their sound is rather dry and shallow. This often renders the rich arrangements completely invisible whilst the flat perspective kills the tension between space and color. The CD9 does a sort of remaster on this type of album. The sound becomes richer, more vivid and is built primarily on powerful deep bass. The recordings thus sound more balanced overall.