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Reviewer: Ken Micallef
Digital Source: McIntosh MCD 201 CD/SACD player, Opera Audio Consonance Reference CD-2.2 MkII Balanced/RCA Tube CD Player [in for review]
Analog Source: Kuzma Stabi/Stogi turntable/arm combo, Denon DL-103 cartridge, Auditorium 23 Denon step-up transformer [on loan]
Preamp: Shindo Allegro
Amp: Art Audio Diavolo, Art Audio Symphony II [in for review]
Speakers: DeVore Fidelity Super 8s
Cables: Shindo ICs, Auditorium A23 speaker cables, Crystal Cable Micro Speak ICs
Stands: Salamander rack, 2" Mapleshade platforms (8" x 15" x 2"), Blue Circle custom amp stand
Powerline conditioning: JPS Labs Kaptovator, Shunyata Black Mamba and Anaconda Vx Powersnakes, Hydra 4 [on loan]
Accessories: Mapleshade Surefoot and Heavyfoot brass points and IsoBlocks; (8) RPG ProFoam damping panels/ceiling treatment, Mapleshade Ionoclast for static cling
Room size: 24' x 12', short-wall setup
Review component retail price: $2,000
Opera Audio's product-packed line of preamplifiers, amplifiers, speakers, CD players and turntables has received extensive attention in the online and print audio press - and it's no wonder. This Chinese-made gear offers sharp styling, extremely good prices and capable performance - and more recently, a promise of responsible service warranties that previously evaded the Beijing-based company. I have heard some huffy audiophile types balk, saying that Chinese gear is inferior merchandise meant to fool the curious and uneducated. Yet serious listening and comparison tests simply lay that notion to waste. And while we certainly don't need more Chinese goods flooding the US market (which seems to be Opera's goal given the pure quantity of products they manufacture), it's awfully hard not to get excited about a piece like the Consonance Reference CD-2.2 MkII Balanced/RCA Tube CD Player, an upsampling, tube driven, volume control assisted, fantastic looking piece of kit.

I first heard Opera Audio's Consonance Reference 2.2 MkII at the New Jersey Vacuum Tube Valley show in the summer of '06, and quickly put in my request to review the unit for the now defunct site Opera's US rep Steve Monte (of Quest for Sound) was gracious enough to let me hang on to the CD player after AW expired and soon enough, Srajan (who gave positive reviews to Opera's CDP Droplet 5.0 and the Consonance Reference CD 2.2 Linear tube CD player) gave me the go-ahead for a full review in these pages.

Unpacking the Ref 2.2 MkII is a study in quality. Not only does the player look beautiful and arrive very well packed, but a pair of white gloves are included and they fit nicely, thank you! The MkII is a handsome machine, its brushed aluminum fascia complimented by a solid Cherry deck that is both cosmetically attractive and functionally useful in dampening the chassis. Two large silver knobs adorn the front and though they look like volume controls, they are essentially giant two-way and four-way toggle switches controlling power/open (left) and play/next/previous/stop (right). Two gold-plated sets of XLR and RCA outputs, power cord receptacle and RCA digital out conclude back panel facilities. You really have to see the MkII's cabinet work. It puts me in mind of a classic sailboat or perhaps an old Woody.

The MkII's palm-sized remote is equally minimal and just as stylish. Giant TV-sourced remotes be damned, this li'l honey is smart tech at its finest. Though its buttons annoyed me to no end with their noisy, rattling-in-place chatter -- kind of like a cheap maraca -- I got used to it. And the layout is weird if usable. Arranged in a grid pattern, we have play, open, repeat, previous, next, rewind (reverse), stop and wind (fast forward), with volume buttons marked - and +. A small circle encompasses a few buttons, making the layout easier to manage.

Steve suggests 100 hours break in time for the MkII and even with the 6H30 running the unit only slight warm to the touch (it's always on), I played it for hours and hours on end over a three-month period with no problem. I initially ran the unit in XLR mode, which does not use the 6H30 tube, but it still sounded very intimate and particularly resolving of treble frequencies, practically sparkling around my listening space. Bass was deep and potent if a bit soft. Heck, I thought the tube was engaged. It certainly presented a tube-like sweetness across the spectrum. Midrange was fleshy and human. Overall micro detail was very good, adding to the sense of intimacy and instrumental detail. Records I know very well, like Miles Davis' Miles Ahead [Columbia Legacy CK 65121] were cast in a deep, extremely palpable soundstage, brass and woodwind instruments presenting an almost chewy presence. Ambience extraction
was especially good on this disc, the giant CBS studio revealed in all its cool glory as Miles' big band played these romantic, Gil Evans influenced charts. Airy, resonant, lush, you could get lost in the big soundfield the MkII created. I seemed to hear heretofore unheard details in every track and the details were well layered and balanced. How would the MkII fare on a more electronic disc with contemporary production?

Still running in XLR solid-state mode, the MkII did a good job with Donald Fagen's Morph The Cat [Reprise 49976], revealing the artist's persnickety attention to sonic detail, not always a good thing but honesty is the best policy, right? The MkII aptly presented the disc's slightly dry sound. Overall a very accurate, honest relaying of the audio facts. And very, very easy to enjoy and listen to. No nasty digital effects to aggravate the ears. No artificial sharpening but sometimes the treble could grow a tad hard. The bass was occasionally ripe-sounding but I admit to a fondness for such lower depth editorializing. And this with the tube out of the loop!

With the tube in the loop running the unit from its RCA jacks, things began to change - and for the better. Playing a variety of discs -- Dave Holland Big Band's What Goes Around [ECM], Raul Jaurena's Te Amo Tango [Soundbrush SR-1009], Barb Jungr's Walking In The Sun [Linn AKD 283] and James Newton Howard's James Newton Howard & Friends [Sheffield Lab CD23] -- the sound grew in stature and slam and everything became much more dynamic, richer and robust. Like the Incredible Hulk awaking from his mild-mannered existence, the MkII launched a new attack on my ears and I enjoyed every minute it. The 6H30 supercharged the signal and fattened the output. And with no loss of fine detail as one audio company is fond of saying. The resultant sound became faster, more dynamic, punchier, even -- dare I say -- athletic. I always assumed XLR connections would provide all these characteristics over RCA but the 6H30 blew that notion out of the water. My notes on the change: "Excellent, killer dynamics and control... and great extension in general, good weight. Bass came out and prowled..."

I had a blast pulling out different discs and the MkII played them all without problem. If a disc dealt impressive ambient cues and long decay trails, the MkII got them right, reveling in the reverberations. Correctly reproducing the leading and trailing edges of notes is definitely one of the MkII's strengths. Upfront first row sonics as on the Jungr disc? Tons of snap, crackle and pop, with particularly tight bass reproduction? The Howard disc, a 70s audiophile classic, came through like a twister, all of its micro detail and wood-paneled studio ambience replicated with power and panache. The MkII excels at ambience retrieval as well as a forceful presentation. Nothing soft or euphonic here.

This was all about power, energy, turn-on-a-dime dynamics and crackling transient response. Occasionally it was too dynamic, too startling. It had me running for the volume lest my head explode. I'd always heard that the 6H30 tube would supercharge my old BAT 75 amp, some even said it would be a completely different sound than with the amp's stock 6SN7s - and they were right. The overall picture also seemed better connected through the frequencies with the 6H30 in line. The XLR connections heightened treble response though with a touch of shimmer. The RCAs presented a more cohesive sound top to bottom. There was no sense that the head was apart from the body, all was whole, punchy, slightly warmed like a morning bun but very well illuminated.

With its internal preamp feature, you can plug the MkII directly into a power amp and while I have never cared for the results of CD-direct mode, I dutifully rearranged the wires and got out my pen. And as with past experiences, the MkII fell in line. Resolution increased (I could now detect sibilance in Donald Fagen's voice) as did a sense of forwardness that I didn't care for. But the MKII revealed greater details on the Holland big band disc: cymbals and subtle horn lines leapt out at me, accompanied though by a minor thinning of instrumental weight. While I felt that I was now closer to the music, that something had indeed been eliminated between me and the sounds, it was accompanied by a general loss of body, tone and even tube warmth. Back to the Shindo preamp!

I have had the McIntosh MC201 in house for some time, scheduled for review in my bi-monthly hi-rez column at Downbeat magazine. The McIntosh has many of the qualities describe above, along with the benefit of SACD reproduction. It too presents a cohesive sonic picture with little editorializing, is smooth across the spectrum and is quite dynamic and easy on the ears. How would this $4,000 machine fare against the $2,000 Consonance?

Ultimately, $2,000 might buy you the barn but not the farm. The McIntosh bested the Consonance for resolution, dynamics and ease of listening as well as being more relaxed and less forced. At times the Consonance sounds like its super tube is operating at maximum output, which can result in a fantastic rush of sound or a startling kick in the head. The McIntosh was oh-so laidback, never aggressive and just plain better in terms of resolving micro and macro events while in ultimate terms lacking the Consonance's magnanimous character. Perhaps the Consonance was more fun to listen to. Such is in the nature of tubes if you are so inclined (I am). The Consonance had the golden glow of tubes while the McIntosh sometimes sounded like the all-digital unit it is. But I had to give the Mac the edge for all the reasons stated above, as well as better left-to-right channel balance and overall resolution (though it was close!).

Like its big and lil' brothers, the Opera Consonance Reference CD 2.2 MkII is a special, even surprising machine. Other players (though not many in its price range) might trump it in terms of absolute resolution, attention to detail and whisper-to-scream dynamic control but I haven't heard many with its sense of fun. This machine has a true sense of purpose, its super tube firing the joint into overdrive on every disc put to it. I never wanted for anything until a more highly refined player entered the picture. I wished the 6H30 was engaged in XLR mode and the jiggling buttons on the remote bothered me but the Chinese player brought a great sense of passion and enjoyment to some of my favorite recordings. A warm bottle glow, tremendous drive and exuberant personality make it a hands-down winner.
Manufacturer's website
US distributor's website