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The phone rang. The connection was clearly long distance. The unfamiliar voice on the other end was cultured, with an East-Indian flavor but a peculiar island lilt. A good hour later, this audio importer for a Caribbean island had enlightened me on how the mighty Droplet player by Opera Audio had trounced his personal reference, a 390S Mark Levinson with $1,000 worth of upgraded parts. How it had kicked royal arse on a famous balanced line of electronics and their hot-rodded player for double the coin. How he had personally observed a UPS driver drop the shipping box from China off the truck too lazy to do it properly, certain that his delivery from the Orient had just been rendered DOA. The piece didn't show a scratch nor acted peculiar in any way. How he'd read my review of the Droplet and thought to himself "this reviewer is full of crap - there's no way in hell a player from China for $3K could be this good." However, the photographs in the review told their own story. The kidney-shaped beast was certainly built to very high standards. This made him wonder. How bad could it possibly sound when the blokes designing it had clearly paid extreme attention to cosmetics and construction? To date, he's already sold five Droplets. Considering his sunny island paradise in the West Indies -- "our kind only knows how to party, play loud music and hang by the beach" -- that's quite the handful.

He then mentioned how his daughter had won a scholarship and was studying in Florida, quickly rising to the head of her class. She confided to dad on the phone that most of her American classmates were "dumb and lazy". It is true that for years, 60-80% of our best American institutions of learning have been filled with hard-working students from abroad. They return to their homelands with a Class A education and bright futures. Bright as in designing products that can beat the bejeesus out of our own for a fraction of the cost perhaps? Lest knee jerk reactions invoke "foul" and "reliability", my caller from the island assured me that every single component by a classy Canadian company he used to represent failed so he dropped the line. That pretty much the same could be said for a famous US line he was still holding on to. That another CDP from Middle Earth had begun acting up within weeks of arrival. This is the kind of intelligence from the trenches us reviewers rarely hear about. Most the gear we receive works as advertised throughout its brief stay. Over how it behaves en masse out in customers' homes day in, day out? Most of us have to plead protection from prosecution by disgruntled consumers and disenchanted dealers/importers if long-term reliability is funkier than our short-term experience.

For a clincher, my caller relayed how a high-power American amp with the designer's initials in its nomenclature had begun to act up. Putting the ailing amp on the bench, his 60-year old technician of many years had pronounced that its bias needed readjustment. The only problem? Any instructions on how to do so were conspicuously absent from any documentation on the amp. So the technician had called the factory and managed to get the same initials on the phone. He quickly put the connection on hold, turned to his employer and fumed: "You deal with this idiot. He has no idea how his amp works, no idea how to bias it. He clearly did not design it. I doubt in fact that anyone there designed it." So much for tropical anecdotes with spice.

The message is clear. Good and bad product, reliable and unreliable products, helpful and jackass people behind those products exist regardless of where they're from or who designed 'em. Even a company like Mercedes-Benz can trade its rep of strassen panzer -- street-legal tank -- to something far less aspiring in today's Germany. Or as my dad in Schlewsig-Holstein puns, you want a reliable German car, buy Toyota or Mazda. Ouch.

All this by way of setting the stage for a $1,850 Chinese luxury player that comes within spitting distance of its even more luxurious $3,000 stable mate. There's two areas where it is bested by the Droplet. Bass weight or amplitude down in the gutters; and ultimate midrange palpability. However, it's far closer to a wash than you'd think. And there are things about the Reference 2.2 that some might actually prefer or at least consider a seductive option worth lengthy deliberations. I don't know who coined the phrase "letting go of the notes". It sounds like something always poignant Art Dudley would say with his distinctive flair for the easy-yet-informative read. Well, today's player has that quality in spades. Neither pressured nor slow, aggressive nor ponderous, tunes over the Linear don't stick. Easy come, easy go. There's something very organic, natural, flowing and simple about how the 2.2 delivers the music. I instantly cottoned to it. It felt comfortable and familiar like slipping into a well-worn hemp shirt (which, as you know, gets better and better with each washing and is perfectly legal as long as you don't smoke it).

Talking about musical feel can amount to so much airy poppycock. Is it imaginary? Peculiar to a particular listener and thus not repeatable or of relevance to another? Such concerns may often render a writer speechless who was prepared to let go of his notes but then lost his nerve. Why look like a buffoon? Better stick to the basics and insert cautionary disclaimers, about how even basics may find themselves contradicted by the measurements. But what is more basic - frequency response squiggles or how the music makes you feel? Soundstage effects or whether the rhythm grabs you to nod your head or tap your fingers? Super-tweeter extension or life-like jump factor? Cyborg bass or unselfconscious gushing of melodies? If you sympathize with the even-order aspects (the second half of each question), the Linear unabashedly is for you.
That's right, even coming off Cloud Nine where the mighty Zanden separates live, nothing about the basic gestalt gets ruffled when "making do" with the Consonance player. In fact, I was in no hurry to get down and dirty to determine how much separated it from the state of the art. But in the end, that's of course why people read reviews. First up in the comparative stakes then was the CDP-5.0 Droplet. Its analog output stage, one assumes, is similar or perhaps even identical to this version of the Reference 2.2 expect for being fully balanced rather than single-ended (with two 6H30 dual triodes instead of the one in the Linear). Then there's the drawer versus top-loading mechanism difference. I wired up both players to my Passive Magnetic from England with identical runs of Zu Cable Varial, then hung a balanced run of Crystal Cable Reference off the Droplet's XLR outputs just for shits & giggles. I loaded two identical copies of our 6moons m.a. recordings sampler into the machines and, using one remote, cued them up simultaneously. For 74 minutes of glorious music making and the very highest recording values, I could now switch inputs like a trigger-happy Las Vegas slot-machine fiend. Or I could manipulate track or section repeats in stereo -- okay, tandem -- via a single remote command. Whatever differences there were to be detailed out, I was all set.

Tonally, the Linear isn't quite as developed as the Droplet. It sounds texturally slimmer. The apparent energy in the soundstage seems farther away from the listener though the performers themselves don't move one bit. Texturally, the Linear is more laid-back, the Droplet more forward. However, don't confuse those terms with altered treble energy or a shift of perspective regarding what row in the audience you sit in. Because its harmonic threads seem woven tighter, the Droplet is simply a bit denser and also fuller in the bass.

Comparatively speaking, this actually makes the Linear more transparent when it comes to lingering decay trails, the finest spider webs of spatial trickery such as dominate the opening guitar duo track taken from Krushevo. The Droplet not only fattens up the performers but also their echoes. The effect is akin to lengthening the RT60 times of the recording venue. The Droplet makes reverberations apparently louder but also a bit blurrier. Background items wash into each other which the Linear keeps separate. Mind you, everyone listens for different things. I key into timing pretty much before anything else, especially now that the Zu speakers have conditioned me to hear percussive events without blurring (with the correct instantaneous alignment) and recognize it when something undermines that quality. If you listen like me, you'll call the Reference 2.2 Linear the -- gasp -- better player of the two.

Needless to say, that's a highly conditional statement. There's no doubt that in a harmonically lean system, the Droplet rules because it adds more body. The Linear is a close second but second it is nonetheless in that department. Ditto for apparent heft in the midbass and lower bands. The Droplet's weightier, the Reference 2.2 perhaps ultimately more - um, linear? Americans are infamous in the international audiophile community for liking big, bold bass. But not everyone shares our fascination/obsession. If your system is already americanized, the Linear might in fact strike you as more honest. Likely because its outputs are tube buffered, it never defaults into bleached or flat territory and just like the Droplet, avoids treble nasties like the plague.

Engaging 88.2kHz by pressing the remote's "B" button during "stop" mode adds a whisper of sweetness. This is a very subtle matter, however, not something I see most prospective owners sweating over either way. Returning to my Zanden Audio 2000P/5000Sig bleeding-edge combo, I arrived at a superior combination of the Droplet and Linear: the latter's timing precision, the former's textural finesse, both taken up a few notches.

But here's the thing. At 1/20th the financial pain, the Consonance Reference 2.2 Linear is the first player I've come across that gets a big dose of that part of the Zanden magic right. I call it timing accuracy. It's most apparent on percussive events, in extended micro decays on ambient-rich reverberant recordings. The clock-linked Zanden combination then adds what the Droplet more than hints at but without allowing its tone and texture to undermine timing by incurring thickening. That's a mean and very costly trick. Back on terra firma with its sense & sensibility -- and if I had to chose on either my Yamamoto 45-based SET or FirstWatt's F3 Power JFET loaner -- I'd opt for the Linear over the Droplet. I fancy its timing acuity over the last word in textural density. I trust that reinvoking its magic $1,850 sales figure underlines not only my own surprise but also speaks loudly for how impressive an achievement this new Opera Audio player really is.

For listeners oriented along the SET/single-driver axis with its peculiar glories -- and who lack overly enthusiastic funding or couldn't justify it even if they had it -- the Linear player strikes me as the magic bullet. It puts the non-filter and valve magic into one attractively styled, very robustly put together box and calls it quits and sayonara on complexity and insanity. If you insist on direct track access functionality, spend a few extra dollars and order the Droplet remote. Otherwise, don't bother. The stock remote lacks no other essential feature (pressing 'play' during play becomes 'pause', pressing 'play' with the drawer open closes the drawer and commences playback). I've had no mishaps with this player during its stay -- i.e. no refusal to read certain CDs or commit tracking errors -- except for the very occasional start-up weirdness whereby a loaded CD would elicit audible spinning noise as though it was uncentered and the transport would whip it around for a number of revolutions before the CD settled down steady. In fact, I suspect that a slightly sloppy insertion of the CD into the tray caused this on my end. Once I paid attention, this never recurred.

Let's recap then. Play something majorly raunchy like the Klezmer-meets-Thrace explosion of Army brass, hammered cimbalom, Indian vocal percussion, wailing clarinets, Gypsy violins and incendiary vocals [Mahala Rai Banda, Craw 31] or the equivalent Carnival Conspiracy of Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars [Piranha 1902] - unhinged music with lots of mechanical noises, complex rhythms and plenty of blat, bite, screech and croak.

This type of high-impact, high-energy fare beautifully captures the strengths of the Linear - rhythmic drive, potent snap & crackle and realistic attack factor when the oompah tubas begin to shake loose dental fillings like amphetamine elephants.

I can only play this stuff when my beloved wife is out of the house. Then it's crank city and I transport myself to Algerian bazaars, Gypsy juergas, Arab rap sessions, muezzins calling the faithful to prayer or back alleys in inner-city barrios where musicians play in the streets and let it all hang out. Unleashing the energy inherent in such gatherings; transposing the startle of car doors slamming in the background, people crying encouragement, clapping their hands, background din - these are the challenging stomping grounds where the Linear player is fully in its element and distinguishes itself in a special way. It removes some cotton-batting indecision that other players insert to sound somewhat tame and civilized. Yet the Linear doesn't achieve its energetic liberation by hyping transients. It's a rhythmically taut, fast, accurate and micro-resolved sound rather than romantically enhanced. If that's what your sonic doctor and musical therapist prescribed for you, the Reference 2.2 Linear should be on your list of good medicine!

A loud "bravo" to the engineers at Opera Audio for the foresight to go Kusunoki with a one-box player and add valve buffering to the recipe. They're on to something relevant in a big way. I truly consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to hear it for myself. There's something new in town that deserves your attention and the cost of entry is far lower than expected. So forget all about reverse engineering. Our Chinese friends here are in the innovation business to lead this particular parade. It takes the filter-less digital recipe out of the esoteric, pricey or DAC-only sectors and makes it into an attractive turn-key proposition. Now that I've heard it for myself, about bloody time I say. It makes listening to music fun because your body starts to respond to the rhythmic cues that are no longer skewed but properly aligned. And fun in audiophilia is definitely a good thing, especially when it coincides with the kind of resolution our sort demands...
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