Copland CDA 266 Compact Disc Player reviewed

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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 ' 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.

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