Brand loyalty is one of the strongest selling forces in hi-fi. Develop happy customers and maintain the standards and you could hang on to them for life. So strong was the brand loyalty for Radford valve products that the company was able to take a hiatus (or remain very low-key) for over a decade without jeopardizing the worth of the name. Woodside Electronics, the licencee for the Radford marque, has re-established the company through a range of fine valve amplifiers and pre-amplifiers; now it's ready to enter the digital arena.
No, the WSCD1 CD player is not a valve-equipped device. The decision to go for solid-state circuitry does not mean that Woodside is about to abandon vacuum tube technology, and if the
designers thought that they could make a better CD player with valves and still stay below the #1000 mark, we'd probably see glowing bits under the lid. As it is, Woodside chose to create
what they believe to be the best single-box player on the market using chips of silicon instead of cylinders of glass, and they only just missed a four-figure price-tag by a scant six quid.
What your #994 inc. VAT gets you is the latest in a run of British CD players to confound foreigners. Following the incredibly successful players from Meridian, Mission, Arcam,
Cambridge and a few others is a sleek, well-equipped machine which finds just the right balance between tweak appeal and commercial potential. Few thought that the small, specialist makers would be able to compete with a technology that seemed to be the province of the electronics giants, but the British makers are doing it, and at prices far below those of the audiophile players from foreign lands. No Accuphase or CAL or Micro Mega pricing here; this one's for the real world.
Granted, the WSCD1 is Philips-based, but that's the only way it can be done if a small maker wants a CD player in its catalogue. And I think it's high time we all accepted the fact that
specialist brands are entitled to purchasing OEM transports in the same way that the vast majority of parts are sourced from outside. (Go on: name a hi-fi maker that manufactures its own reisistors.) Woodside raids the Philips parts bin for their best die-cast transport (the CDM1 Mk II), servo system, hand-held remote controller and front-panel display. But it's Philips only up to the 4-times upsampling digital filtering, and even the control PCB for the display is Woodside's, as are the 16-bit D/A converter, the entire analogue section, the case and the fascia.
A key part of Woodside's CD player philosophy is isolation of all stages, however compromised this may be by the cost considerations which led to a single chassis design. (A dearer two-box player is on the cards for 1990.) The WSCD1 employs 12 separate power supplies, the four in the original Philips stage and eight more for the D/A section, derived from two separate mains transformers. This concern for minimizing the interaction between stages is near-fanatical and has led to a unique operating condition (which I'll describe below) that allows the use to switch off all but the most essential stages during listening sessions.
Internal construction was only 'OK', the review sample bearing a pre-production board which I am assured will be cleaned up before the player's release date. Even so, it bristled with
no-compromise components -- real chi-chi bits and pieces for the kind of people who wear clothes with the labels on the outside -- and all internal wiring is done with silver plated copper core wrapped in a PTFE sleeve. Woodside's paranoia about interference includes a fear of RFI breakthrough, hum and any other invasion, so the works are housed in a 430x340x90 (WDH) all-aluminium, non-magnetic case for better RF shielding.
Despite the clean, uncluttered appearance, the WSCD1 is no exercise in sacrifice. The front sports the minimum number of press buttons (engineered with a nice, positive feel), but the
Philips hand control allows for numeric track access, time elapsed/time remaining read-out, cueing, track scan and other facilities in addition to the basics. What Woodsie have added to
the conventional operations are the option to switch off the display for better sonics and a stand-by switch instead of main power on-off, the latter being relegated to the back panel.
The latter has been fitted because Woodside believes that the unit should be left on when not in use due to long warm-up times required by the Philips section before optimum sonics are
delivered. In stand-by, the display and transport controls are switched out, with the rest of the circuitry idling. More about this is a paragraph...
At the back, it's all gold-plated sockets for fixed output, variable outbput (a toggle selects either) and coaxial digital output. The variable output is operated by a passive rotary
control on the front panel which is completely isolated when the fixed outputs are employed. Although the Philips hand-held controller has volume up/down keys, they do not work with the
passive volume control and Woodside has decided not to fit a motorised pot for both cost and sonic reasons.
One thing which Woodside didn't mention is an added function of the stand-by switch. Having heard many times the gains made by using fixed output instead of variable and switching off the display when possible, nothing surprises me when new tweak practices are uncovered. It this case, I learned that switching the player into stand-by after you've pressed 'play' will produce further gains on a par with switching off the display. As you'd expect, playing discs with the machine in stand-by means that the display is off whether you like it or not, and the function keys are not operable. You either play the disc through to the end, or leave stand-by, perform some track selecting and then go back into stand-by. Remember: if you wish to operate the player in this manner that you have to press play first, then go into stand-by. What this does is by-pass or, more correctly, de-activate all extraneous circuitry, and the already clean-sounding Radford becomes even more transparent.
I mention this before discussing the sonics because I found myself using the Radford in this manner throughout the review period. The gains are not subtle, but some may prefer to retain
full control during play. I also thought you should know about this non-specified option when you assess the player in a shop or at home if you wish to know what it really can do.
The WSCD1 was used through the Audio Research SP-14, driving the Apogee DAX crossover, two Aragon 4004 power amplifiers and APogee Divas. Cables included Master Link, Lieder, YFERE/YBLENT and Mandrake, while the reference CD players were the California Audio Labs Tempest II Special Edition and the Marantz CD-12. Although it seemed a bit silly, I took the digital output from the Radford and tried it through the Theta DS-Pro D/A converter and the D/A converter of the CD-12; I describe it as 'silly' because that meant listening only to the part of the WSCD1 which Woodside didn't design. Mind you, I did learn how different two Philips transports can sound...
Even before the WSCD1 reached full warm-up from cold, I knew I was in the presence of a very special player. In the company of players costing 2.5 and 4.4 times as much, the Radford more than held its own, emerging as a middle ground between my two favourite machines. Although the Tempest II Special Edition and the CD-12 veer from 'the truth' in opposite directions, the Marantz favouring the cool and the analytical with the CAL opting for the warm and romantic, neither is so far out as to deserve less than respect even from an anti-digital campaigner. What the Radford does is emulate both at varying times, almost acting like it has personal preferences.
In other words, the WSCD1 sounded better than either of the two reference players with certain CDs, not quite so good with other CDs. What struck me as odd was the way it juggled the transparency of the CD-12 with the soundstaging capabilities of the CAL, approaching but not bettering either in those areas yet at the same time producing a compromise ideal for those who want the best of both.
In terms of transparency, the Radford really is an open window into the sound. With the latest HFN/RR test CD, it was possible to hear the striking before the ringing of Big Ben with absolute clarity, a sharper tap than heard via the CAL but not quite so crisp as via the Marantz. When the ringing occurred, it was full-bodied and resonant as with the CAL, with smooth decay. Even more remarkable was the way it matched the low end extension of the CAL with the control of Marantz.
Just how challenging are those bells for products other than amps and speakers I'm not certain, so I didn't spend too much time listening to London's major land-mark. Concentrating on vocals and acoustic recordings, I was rewarded with playback which I can only describe as near-analogue, and that is meant as a compliment. With 22 sets of CD/LP Vanguard reissues to hand, I was stocked up with mix of magnificent 'golden age' and beyond vocal recordings, especially the achingly beautiful Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte Marie releases. In addition to the clarity of these voice, the recordings are about as life-like as you can imagine; side-by-side comparisons of LP vs CD (using a complete Roksan front-end) revealed the following:
Ambience: The Roksan actually sounded a bit drier, but both it and the Radford recreated an impression of space and 'air' which seemed genuine. The CAL bettered the Radford in this respect, but mainly by yielding much greater stage depth. As far as the textures of the 'silences' were concerned, the Radford seemed more 'stark', primarily because of its incredibly quiet behaviour, and sounded more like the Roksan than it did either of the two CD players.
Soundstage: All three CD players were impossibly close in recreating a three-dimensional space in the left-to-right plane, but a pecking order created by price showed that the dearer the model, the wider the stage. We're talking inches, not feet, though, so this would only be revealed on systems with exception soundstage capabilities. The Roksan's stage width was in between that of the Marantz and the outright winner, the CAL. But the Radford, which cost the least of the four sources mentioned, demonstrated the architectural capabilities of a pro.
Neutrality: No surprises here. The Radford and the CD-12 sounded cleaner but drier than the CAL or the Roksan, but at the expense of warmth. With this particular quality, personal taste is the decisive factor, and I always opt for that extra bit of emotion -- even if it's slightly exaggerated. So sue me.
Transient attack: The Radford was the 'quickest' sounding of the three CD players, especially on plucked acoustic guitar. When I whipped out Test CD II for the rock track, I was staggered by the way the Radford dealt with the sounds of synths. Best of all, it worked this way for leading egdes, too, but no player could touch the CAL when it came to realistic decay, a sore spot for most digital material.
It's all down to matters of degree, and tallying up the points would show only that the Radford has few if any shortcomings, and then of a minor nature. It cannot quite emulate the richness or the warmth of the CAL, but there's a strong case for saying that it shouldn't.
I'm worried about the Radford. It just may be too good for its market profile, that of a specialist product from a small concern. I don't know what it will take to get this in enough shops to have the exposure it deserves, but it damned well should be on every shopper's list if four figures is the ceiling. What I've tried to describe above is the way that it challenged world-class players with much higher price-tags.