As with all lyrics, the full impact really requires the music. Still, the imagery is disturbingly powerful. The bridge of the song continues with "hearing the cars roll by". We get a low background hiss of distortion. Actually, Nick stuck his Walkman out the window and recorded cars driving by. As the song moves towards fulfilment, the car track grows louder and louder, threatening to flood the melody's delicacy. Powerful stuff.

Naturally, I've heard this track many times, over many a system. However, this was the first time -- on CD -- that I felt the resigned sorrow which is the actual key to the song's peculiar power. On other players, Nick comes across as whispering - meditating. The Mephisto II effortlessly revealed the tiny inflections we all register instantly when hearing someone not just sad but committed to feeling sad indefinitely. This underhanded emotional gesture communicated a quietly despairing defeat. It became the nexus, the talismanic ingredient that turned mere words into genuine carriers of poetry - the stuff that makes us feel more alive and connected to other Earthlings.

And so it went track after track: Rediscovering my CD collection not on the basis of what but why, obtaining not just a greater insight into musical structures but unearthing emotions hidden behind and within the performances of great music.

This wasn't coloration. And it worked both ways. The other day, someone sent me a contemporary Jazz record. Unfortunately, it turned out to be pure trash. The musicians -- incidentally all exceptional live performers -- were corralled into a studio for the first time in their lives. The results? An amateurishly metronomic precision the exact opposite of what Jazz is all about - muscle-bound stasis instead of tight swing. On the Mephisto, these qualities were instantly, painfully obvious - far more so than via most other players. The Audiomeca instantly identified that the musicians were being flogged by the formality of the -- new to them -- recording process.

To characterize Mephisto's core audiophile signature, think poised, delicate, agile and sophisticated. However, none of this finesse can disguise the underlying power and speed. If we called the Wadias and Levinsons robust and controlled, the tubed Metronome and Audio Aero lush and vibrant, the Mephisto I is leaner like a cheetah and thus surely the fastest cat on the block, with the most explosive powers of acceleration. It's also uncommonly sensitive to ancillaries like cables, distributions blocks, mains cords and supports - a finnicky eater.

Just one sluggish piece in the puzzle will have this beast gorged, slow, lethargic and generally wanting a good nap. (I've experienced the Wadia 861 equally lumbering - apparently it doesn't like being moved at all. Hence it rarely shows up at audiophile shows. I've heard the Levinson 390 sound overly dry, ultra-detailed but frenzied - as though amphetamine monkeys had taken over the string section. Inevitably, the sound of such exotic players is markedly system-dependent.)

Get your ancillaries right and this French player rewards with spectacular sonic vistas. Bass isn't of the American 16-cylinder monster variety but beautifully precise, controlled and fast, without any of the hyped artificiality that bedevils digital. It's particularly well integrated, neither emphasized nor withdrawn.

Across the spectrum, this player has redefined neutrality to let me hear the intention of the mastering engineer or producer. In that respect, I now trust it more than my vinyl set up. That's partly because of RIAA issues, partly because the phonostage was built for a previous cartridge with .31mv output rather than the Allaerts' .5. Because of these issues, I fear it may not be as neutral as it could be to the vinyl source. Phonostages, one has to admit, do have a most difficult job.

My prior reference? The Cary 303, a machine I then took as a model of neutrality while avoiding the harsh and crude dynamics that can characterize digital. It got its musical priorities straight, I thought. The soundstage had excellent width while not being particularly deep, with very little image drift. The player didn't exaggerate leading edges to produce an artificial sense of speed but allowed notes to swell, crest and spend themselves in a realistic fashion. Or so it seemed. I just wasn't prepared for the gap in performance when I first auditioned the Metronome T1-I and Mephisto II against it. Suddenly the Cary seemed bright, forward, veering on tinny even. It also was considerably less resolved. Worse, micro-dynamic aspects of pitch, tone and timbre accuracy were crude and loose by comparison. The only competitive aspect was soundstage width. The other two displayed far more credible depth. My wallet and pride took a nose dive. The scale of difference was akin to pool reflections of still versus slightly agitated water. One is immaculate, the other fuzzy and disturbed.

Mephistophelean shortcomings other than bartering for my soul? Apart from the plastic remote (which is fine with me), the Perspex chassis is a dust magnet needing daily wiping, preferably with chamois to avoid ready scratching. Given all its sharp angles, this isn't an instant job. A second reservation? The maker's instruction to extend life expectancy by always switching the unit off when not in use. I'm a bit obsessive about warm-up. My turntable platter always spins, my Lavardin amp is always on. I'm convinced digital sounds better powered up indefinitely. I wish Pierre Lurné would take a second look at this issue. Another small grievance is the absence of HDCD. Though this format enjoys only limited support, I have a lot of time for it. But perhaps this is a mute argument. The Anagram DSP engine already extends words to 24- or 32-bit length.

Astonishing for a suspended player, heavy footfall below my DIY rack on suspended wood flooring occasionally prompts skipping. Presumably the primary purpose of the suspension is the dissipation of centrifugal micro vibrations incurred from spinning the discs. Possibly, I've misdialed the suspension. I'll be looking into this. If planned improvements to the rack won't work, I'll be fashioning little sandwich blocks of hardwood and cork to place underneath the RDC cones.

Confession time, When I first planned this review, I was worried about nailing Mephisto's sonic signature according to the usual audiophile parameters. It seemed important to attempt justifying its exorbitant $6,800 cost in absolute terms. Apart from the greater image density, I wanted to give a stab at what else you might expect to hear. I thought up a graph, a three-part spectrum of faults that might characterize High-end CD players. I decided on the poles of detailed/dry, lush/vivid (though less resolved) and robust/solid (but lacking in finesse). I saw these three aberrations as spokes on a wheel and began placing different players into its pie-shaped wedges .

In the end, I abandoned this exercise in spurious objectivity as taking attention away from what really matters. It aimed lower than what the dignity of this special machine required. For an "objective" judgement, I would simply say this: The Mephisto II is competitive with other top players I've heard in its elevated price range. At this level, we're far removed from frequency response or any other gross errors that would be readily identified. At this level, it's about finesse, about small details that may or may not add up depending on what you value. At this level, prospective buyers will have well-formed priorities and be keenly aware of how the different bits of the audio puzzle fit together - for them.

I do feel very comfortable suggesting that if you're in fact looking for not just a machine with its audiophile-approved credentials proudly on the shingle for all to notice; but if you're looking rather for a source that can get you emotionally closer to the music like good vinyl -- unearthing those organic cues that put your finger directly on the pulse of what makes the musicians tick -- then the Mephisto II is running at the very front of the pack. Never mind that it makes a most excellent transport foundation regardless of price. And who knows, listening to it might compel you, like me, to invoke Kurt Vonnegut's mysterious harmoniums that are animated directly by the etheric pressure waves of sounds?

P.S. During the process of writing this review, Pierre Lurné announced the release of the Audiomeca Mephisto II.X, which I believe contains a revised transport as well as Anagram's second-generation ATF MKII asynchronous upsampler. I'm hoping to get a go at the new machine itself. Meanwhile, this consideration's next installment will look at the revised upsampler to see how it impacts the Mephisto II's performance - remember, this player's open-ended architecture was designed for ongoing plug'n'play upgrades to keep up with them Jones in Switzerland.

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