Oracle DAC 1000/CD 2500 CD Transport and DAC Reviewed

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Conditioning, no matter how strong your will, is hard to defy. As a former Oracle Delphi owner, I learned the true meaning of 'love-hate relationships' over a period of many years. No matter how utterly gorgeous the device, no matter how sublime the sound, the Oracle was - purely and simply - a pain in the arse. And if you think I'm having a tough time resisting sexist analogies about high-maintenance women, you're absolutely right.

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So it was with recognition I received the Oracle CD2500 CD player and DAC1000 converter/pre-amp for review. I knew, to my very DNA, that this would be the digital equivalent of The Prettiest Turntable In The History of the Known Universe. And that it would frustrate me as much as did its analogue forbear. Oh, sure, the guys from RPM set up the Oracle components with the deft swiftness needed to install headphones, but, hey, the review sample was already configured and run-in. They couldn't fool me.

Maybe sodium pentothal would have gotten them to admit to some long, drawn-out set-up procedure, about springs and damping material and imbalances and scored knuckles and cursing and frustration. No matter how much they may deny it, the CD2500 floats on a suspension derived from that of the record deck. And if I never have to assemble another Oracle Delphi, I wouldn't feel cheated of any audiophilic bliss. It made a Hadcock look like a Rega.

But here's why Oracle still sets hearts a'fluttering: the CD2500 and its matching DAC/pre-amp are so dazzlingly beautiful that they shame all others. The original Delphi is, a quarter-century on, the most handsome record spinner of all time, the one that truly broke the wooden-rectangular-plinth mould. And it performed. It just needed constant readjusting, while its owner needed infinite patience. I suspect that the CD player/transport has evolved beyond that, but I felt my sphincter tighten the instant I saw the dreaded spacer tool for levelling the pillar suspension.

Be that as it may, I would expect the dealer to suffer this, given that the CD2500 costs a heady �7699. For that, they should also throw in a kilo of Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee and some Advil. Once it's up and running, there are only two twinges in the tush to contend with, and I would put up with neither, the first because I cannot abide top-loaders.

It's not enough that the Oracle uses a puck. It also has a separate domed cover to prettify what is already the Ava Gardner of CD players. You can leave off the outer lid when you play a disc, but not the puck. And it is a fiddly little bastard to use.

Pain No. 2?: You have to memorise the five buttons across the front, because Oracle chose not to provide icons identifying them. Call me a complete moron, but even after a couple of months, I found myself hitting disc re-set when I wanted stop. And play is second from the right. Bloody French (Canadians).

Beyond that, there's not a lot to worry about with the player. (It's also available in a transport-only form as the CD2000.) The outboard power supply connects with a computer-style plug, and outputs are limited to a pair of analogue outputs via Cardas rhodium-plated RCA sockets, and a single digital output in the form of a 75 ohm BNC socket. Oracle uses Philips' CDM 12.4 Pro turntable mechanism, which they selected because, '...of its ease of upgrade to next generation technology, and of course its sonic capabilities.' To commend Oracle, the Delphi was always upgradeable if you had the fortitude, and this carries over to the digital players. The DAC? A Cirrus Logic Crystal one-bit chipset.

I ran the analogue output of the CD2500 into the McIntosh C2200 pre-amp for standalone assessment, alongside the DAC1000. I also fed the CD2500 into the Marantz DAC-12 and the Musical Fidelity X-DAC V3, for comparison with the DAC1000. This, of course, is much more than a mere DAC, and is something of a bargain at �4199. You see, it's also a full-function, remote control two-channel pre-amp.

Its DAC section upsamples to 192kHz/24-bit, its heart is a true 24-bit Delta-Sigma DAC with sixth order low pass digital filter, and it offers fixed or variable Cirrus Logic CS3310 volume control with 120 steps for direct connection to a power amplifier. The front panel controls deal with input selection, record selection, upsampling levels of bypass (44.1kHz), 48kHz, 96kHz and 192kHz, volume up/down and standby, while the remote adds mute, display functions and brightness.

Specification is typically impressive: harmonic distortion 133dB; dynamic range 142dB; signal noise to ratio 120dB; dynamic range 110dB; distortion 0.003%, 10kHz;
frequency response 10-55kHz. Inputs and outputs are more than ample for even complex installations, although you might crave more analogue inputs.* For digital inputs, there are two AES/EBU XLRs, two coaxial and two Toslink optical, while digital outputs include one AES/EBU XLR, two coaxial and one Toslink.

Analogue input is handled by one RCA unbalanced stereo and one XLR balanced stereo, with an RCA unbalanced stereo and an XLR balanced stereo analogue output . Additionally, the rear panel contains pair of inputs to allow the DAC1000 to integrate with a multi-channel home theatre system, a 12V trigger and a switch to choose between fixed and variable output. The 12kg DAC1000 occupies a space of 480x100x400mm, and you can site the CD2500 on top of it.

Once you've stopped drooling over the pair, you can settle back and assess its style. The CD2500 is clearly aimed at the user who just can't break away from the topology of vinyl records, and you enjoy a frisson of that procedure every time you use it...despite my reservation about top-loaders. This player is functional sculpture that simply arrests the viewer. So, too, the DAC, which shows that rectangular chassis needn't be ugly. The sides swoop into the centre, not unlike Tim DeParavicini's flagship Yoshino preamp, and the brushed satin finish, protected by a clear lacquer, is worthy of a fine wristwatch.

Read more about the DAC 1000/CD 25000 on Page 2.

HTR Product Rating for Oracle DAC 1000/CD 2500 CD Transport and DAC

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Once you get used to the fact that this player bounces on its suspension - here we are witnessing LP isolation practice applied to CD spinners - and you get used to the puck, and you memorise the button positions, and you've figured out the pre-amp, you're in for a treat. No, this pairing does not re-write the rules of CD playback in the 21st Century, and I'm still baffled by the survival of costly CD-only players in this day and age. But there's something going on that analogue lovers must be made aware of, in that the Oracle seduces and then lies to you just like that gorgeous woman who's after the keys to your villa, yacht and Ferrari.

First, let's deal with the CD player as transport: it's perfectly fine, even when A/B'd with the Marantz CD12. I'm not one who obsesses over transports, believing that the DAC plays a bigger role in determining the sound, but I did hear minor differences. Using Transparent Ultra digital coaxial cable, I detected a sweeter, smoother sound from the CD2500, while the Marantz offered slightly greater detail and the impression of a lower noise floor. That's it. The rest is style and ergonomics, and if you like the look, well, there's nothing this side of China that comes near the Oracle.

A brief interlude involved using it with its own DAC, and this was the biggest surprise of all: it's pretty damned good. I mean, it almost obviated the need for the DAC1000. Used as a stand-alone machine, the CD2500 offered great coherence, allied to openness and transparency almost on a par with the CD12/DAC12. The latter creams it for lower octave control and solidity, but the CD2500 was not embarrassed. Not at all. Trying it with other DACs, including the Musical Fidelity and fed into the severely underappreciated Quad 99CDP Mk II, suggest that the onboard converter can hold its own with separate DACs in the 1000- 2000 sector, which makes sense: the CD2500 costs 1500 more than the CD2000 transport.

What the CD2500 lacks, of course, are digital inputs, so the built-in DAC cannot be accessed on its own. Suffice it to say, I could live with the CD2500 as a player in its own right, and was impressed with its scale, with the warmth on vocals and the overall consistency. But you could tell that there was more to be had, especially for low-level detail and transparency. So enter the DAC1000.

Let's dispense with its role as a pre-amp. Aside from its flexibility as a digital control unit and styling that makes me swoon, I have to admit that the lack of analogue inputs, the absence of a rotary volume control and a mildly transistor-y glare to the treble made me return to the McIntosh C2200. Note that the DAC1000 had no problems driving the MC2102 power amp, so mismatches are not part of this equation. It's just that I found it only slightly better than, say, the pre-amp section of the sub- 1000 Quad 99CDP Mk II in terms of dynamic contrasts and 'kick'. Don't get me wrong: it's no dog, and I'd put it up against any number of DAC-less solid-state pre-amps in the same price category, but I crave slightly more transparency and refinement.

For all that, it has a sleek sound, and this is reflected in its behaviour as a DAC. Having amused myself sufficiently with the upsampling capabilities, cable choices and so on, I fed the CD2500/DAC1000 combination a number of titles from Chesky, Telarc and Analogue Productions on the audiophile side, along with a bunch of great if conventional CDs including Aimee Mann's , recent Bobby Darin and Dean Martin collections, both of Eric Clapton's Robert Johnson tributes, Wilson Phillips' and Keb' Mo's .

The upshot? No matter what minuscule failings this combination may exhibit in high-end terms, it simply cossets vocals. Sure, you could fault the absolute transparency, and I still heard greater amounts of detail from the Marantz, but the Oracle package is rich and warm and very un-CD-like. I won't go so far as to say it closes the gap between CD and SACD, but, damn, I sat there listening to it for hours, which is surely the test of musicality.

With tough-to-portray voices, ones oozing with character such as Mann's ('feel the hurt') or Dino's ('hear the booze'), the Oracles compete with that slight haze that compromises their absolute transparency by restricting it to the frequency extremes: this combo suffers nothing in the midband, and vocal textures and traits come through with delicious realism. Mann's, in particular, possesses unique and delicate nuances, so she benefited from this - her feelings, always on the edge of control, is conveyed with perfect finesse. With gutsier voices, like Rory Block's or Keb' Mo's, the Oracles maintain both the texture and the power.

It was clear, however, that the maximum performance came from feeding the DAC1000 in fixed output form into the McIntosh. It was more dynamic, 'bigger'-sounding and no less lush. Man, is it seductive. But you have to put up with so many niggles to get there. Which brings us back to the politically incorrect analogy of a high-maintenance woman.

This equipment is so easy on the eyes, so sonically elegant, that you have to ask yourself only one question to know if it's for you: if you found a Charlize Theron look-alike in your bedroom, but she had the soul of an avaricious chav queen, would you let her stay? If the answer is yes, well, you gotta for the Oracle. Just make sure you insist on a pre-nuptial agreement....

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