Around the back, the CDA 266 wears only an IEC mains input, a pair of
substantial gold-plated phono sockets for analogue output, and a single
coaxial digital output with an on/off toggle switch right next to it.
Despite my bleating about single- vs two-box players, I'd love to see
this offered as a stand-alone transport, just because it's such a joy to
use and there's a need for a classy sub-£1000 spinner-sans-DAC. If
Copland could sell it less the converter section for, say, £699, there's
be queues at every dealership.
But that's wishful thinking and it has nothing to do with the '266 as
a single-box player. I hooked it up to systems including the Roksan
Caspian amp driving Quad 77-10L speakers, the GRAAF WFB Two and 50/50
amplification feeding Quad ESL63s and the NVA Personal amp with Tandy
LX5 Pro speakers. Interconnects included Shinpy Black Hole, Nirvana and
Discovery, the latter being used the most. No other goofy tweaks were
employed, other than the use of XLO AC cable.
Copland's smallest CD caused something of a double-take, given its
origins with a company best known for valve and valve-hybrid amplifiers.
I expected a unit tailored and tuned to sound like a tube-carrying
device, yet the '266 betrayed little or no obvious legerdemain in the
'voicing' department. Instead, it was polite and refined without being
so lean and hygienic as to set one's teeth on edge. It's that walk along
a tightrope which all concerned CD player manufacturers face, the act
of addressing both subjective concerns which favour pure analogue, and
the exploiting of CD's intrinsic qualities, such as scary background
silences. So far, the best balancing act I've heard in a single-chassis
player is Krell's new KAV-300cd; the Copland - while not a substitute
nor rival for that £3499 machine - emulates it with a skill equally
devoid of cynicism.
As various players have shown, it's easy enough for a canny designer
to feed in the requisite distortions or colorations which pander to the
tastes of analogue die-hards. And, hey, I keep nursing an elderly CAL
Tempest II just because I love the almost squidgy, cuddly, mushy
softness it applies to the generally brittle sound of CD. But far more
challenging is the discipline which tries to make the most out of CD,
treating it not as a substitute for the LP but as the first domestically
viable, currently dominant digital medium. A decade-and-a-half after
its launch and we're still learning how to make it work. We've come a
long way from the time when a famed turntable manufacturer could say in
print that helping to make digital better would be to '...help spread a
nasty disease'. What Copland must have decided, after releasing the
blatantly 'analogue-ish' CDA 288, is that too much pandering to the
retro set is to do a disservice.
It was imperative, then, that the CDs I auditioned ran the gamut from
archive material which has been through the latest 're-conditioning'
(the Jimi Hendrix re-masters, the Sony-fied version of the Stooges' and the best of the JVC XRCD jazz reissues) and clean, intelligently produced, truly , post-CD era recordings (James Taylor's , Marshall Crenshaw's ,
a couple of Sheryl Crows and various 'unplugged' titles). The Copland
promises nor delivers miracles, and those expecting the Western Electric
300B version of the truth had better look elsewhere.
What emerged from system to system, consistently and dependably, was -
like Baby Bear's porridge - 'just right'. The soundstage was blissfully
three-dimensional without causing frissons of agoraphobia. The image
height was perceptible without making the listener feel either a giant
or a dwarf. Bass? Extended, controlled and rich, but never overwhelming,
tubby nor aggressive. The midband was clear, uncoloured and deliciously
precise and controlled, as if the LS3/5A had suddenly turned into a CD
player. Amusingly, the Copland also exhibited that speaker's famous
penchant for projecting sounds slightly in front of the speaker 'line',
without exactly dumping them in the listener's lap.
But it was the treble which sold me on the small Copland. Sweet, fast
and extended, crisp enough to complement a rapid transient, detailed
enough to ensure that every ambient clue ensured that no listener would
feel for even a moment that there was any loss of information. But,
again, it was so polite and well-behaved that it could lead to a
different kind of malaise.
Instead of the artifice - however appealing and 'more-ish' - of a
tube-based CD player, the Copland errs on the side of decency. Even when
asked to expose the base behaviour of Iggy and Co, it never lost its
grip, never sounded too raucous, never acted as if it was about to
implode. And for an Iggy fan or a Crue member or some sad, pathetic
decibel junkie, this may be asking too much. Like wearing a jacket and
tie at a rave.
But this is one of the oddest times ever in hi-fi's history. We have
the digitoids at one extreme, the SET worshippers at the other, a gap
which couldn't be spanned by the Golden Gate Bridge. So I, for one, am
glad to welcome the Copland as the voice of reason. Maybe it's old age
telling me this, but the appeal of a centrist policy is so-o-o inviting.
Must be a Scandinavian thing, but the Copland CDA 266 is the most
diplomatic CD player I can imagine using.