Unusually for me, this is a head-to-head review of two components. It's not that I have a problem with such face-offs. It's just that one has to be a winner and the other a loser. I'd rather write about any individual component in terms of its own merits.
What's intriguing is that a couple of (relatively) below-the-radar brands are able to compete, and do so realistically, with older/larger/better-known makers of the ARCAM/Marantz/Quad variety. With good reasons - experience, advertising muscle, large dealer networks, the list goes on - such brands own the sector above entry-level, but below "insane" pricing. On a personal note, I will admit right here to spending more time using and enjoying the sub-$2000 Quad CDP99 Mk II and Musical Fidelity X-RAY v3 than I do any of my dearer machines.
Conversely, you don't need a marketing wizard to tell you why the likes of Talk (or, more precisely, their sister range Saxon) and Jolida have their own special appeal over what we will call "the usual suspects." Bluntly, some of you do not want to be "Me, Too!" consumers. Fair enough: that's as good a reason as any to make a purchase, regardless of product type, provided that you're not sacrificing desirable traits just to be different. That would be mere masochism, not individualism, or even eccentricity.
While the Saxon CD700 MK2 SE from Talk and Jolida's JD100A share the appeal of being lesser-known brands, their styling, as far as one can differentiate between silver boxes, is in the modern, Arcam-y vein. With all due respect, they could wear any badge on the market; I could easily mistake the Saxon for Roxan's Candy, while the Jolida is simply Bauhaus in its non-design.
Equally, they differ radically from each other in many ways. Jolida, for example, uses a valve output stage and single-ended phono connections, while the solid-state Saxon allows the user to employ balanced connections. Jolida, like hardcore audiophile brand, provides a coaxial digital output, while Talk/Saxon went for TOSlink. Prices also further separate the two: Jolida is asking a bargain £699 (approximately $1400) for its player, while the Saxon, unfortunately sharing its name with a heavy metal band, retails for £995 (approximately $2000). I say "unfortunately," because "heavy" it most certainly is not. Its price tag puts it smack up against my personal fave, the Quad CDP 99 Mk II.
Saxon's CD700 MK2 SE uses a Philips L1210 mechanism with sample rate conversion a Burr-Brown SRC4190, up-sampling to 192kHz and feeding twin differential Wolfson DACs. The digital and analog sections have separate transformers for their 14 different regulated stages with "over 30,000 uF of smoothing for the analogue stages alone." The digital sections' regulated PSUs employ low ESR solid aluminum capacitors for optimum performance. A nice touch to the generous, three-year guarantee (excluding the laser and carriage) is the £100 option of an all-inclusive five-year guarantee.
Jolida's JD 100A carries the Phillips CDM 12 Transport System, 24/96 Burr Brown DAC, two transformers and - most importantly, as it's the Jolida's raison d'etre - a gain stage incorporating two 12AX7A vacuum tubes. Proudly stated, the player "does not utilize op-amps." At £699, it's one of the more affordable valve-output stage CD players in the market.
Both are roughly equal in build quality, both possess all the taken-for-granted facilities relating to programming, and both come with remote controls. For the latter, Talk's is a generic type, while Jolida went for a bespoke metal object.
Compact Disc Players in Action
To ensure that everything was equal, I used two identical mains cables, the same mains block, identical interconnects from Atlas and CDs of which I had two copies. The most revealing turned out to be Keb' Mo's Peace ... Back By Popular Demand because 1) it's sublimely recorded, 2) it possesses perfect-for-assessment acoustical elements, 3) Keb' Mo's voice is heavily textured (and, yes, I've heard him live and met the man!) and 4) there's enough bass on this to emphasize the main sonic difference between the two. I also used material from Led Zeppelin, Prince, Kodo drummers, the Shins, assorted George Clinton incarnations and Julie London. Beyond that, the players were inserted into my reference system, with only one caveat.
Because you have a choice of balanced operation with the Saxon, which adds the usual extra few dB of output and, for some of us, a tighter sound, the Saxon can have its improvement enhanced over its single-ended playback. For this review, everything was set up to be equal. Suffice to say that with careful level matching, the Saxon's performance relative to the Jolida remained pretty much the same, as you will see.
Back to the conventional usage, working from the proposition that both are very enjoyable players indeed that represent decent value, and that I could probably live with either with little complaint, A/B comparisons and long-term listening both revealed the same character traits. They're strong enough to sway a potential owner either way, which is why the scoring tables we use are a mockery. Put it another way: if you prefer detail over warmth, you'll prefer the Saxon despite the extra cost. If you would rather have valve sonics and more bloom, the Jolida will win you over, despite its lack of XLR outputs.
No one said this was gonna be easy.
Instantly and vividly, the Jolida sounds bigger in every way. If this were an amplifier shoot-out, it would be 200-watt vs. 100-watt. The soundstage is wider, deeper and more open, but the main trait that separates it from the Saxon is a distinct sense of fullness. Or maybe that should be richness. I found out later that the Saxon has odd measured performance at the low end of the frequency scale, and you won't need a 'scope to convince you of this. but that behavior determines much of the overall character.
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