Blame the end of the Millennium, the coming of DVD, the arrivals of HDCD/20-bit remastering/XRCD, what-have-you. All I know is that we're experiencing a flood of deliberately off-the-wall CD players, and if this is anti-digital backlash, then it's over a decade too late. Even before recovering from the stress of the Rega Planet, here's a French offering to wrack my brain. Worse, it veers sonically (as I recall it) from the YBA CD2 I reviewed - what? four years ago? - enough to make me wonder who lost what beat. What was once a race to make CD sound like analogue has turned into a movement which attempts to redefine analogue in digital terms, when most of us liked analogue just as it was.
This 'redefinition' results in a sort of
What these CD players do, these CD-players-which-are-ashamed-to-be-CD-players, is succumb to an extreme form of denial, that of transference, like a tabloid editor calling a paparazzo a 'sleazebag'. They deny over a decade's worth of fine-tuning and honing and reassessing, a period which created not an analogue surrogate, but a more acceptable form of digital. We've learned to listen in 70 minute spells rather than in 20 minute snatches. We've grown accustomed to the total absence of tracing noise. We've taught ourselves to compensate for CD's finite frequency response. In other words, we've grown up and learned to live with CD, while keeping analogue close to our hearts
YBA's CD3a, blue light or not (see Paul Miller's panel), is a player which errs on the side of audiophilic attraction, betraying political as much as sonic motives. What at first seems like an only slightly odd player soon emerges as a machine imbued with the kind of hobbyist mythos which we haven't seen since the heyday of Peter Belt. While I adhered to the instructions regarding mains cable selection, polarity, positioning, lid open vs closed, I did so not so much out of any slavish adherence to nor belief in such concerns, but to pre-empt any flak from the distributor or manufacturer. Polarity, cable quality and the like are now such an intuitive part of audiophile practice that labouring the issues serves only to set up a smoke screen. I also tried the player with a flimsy rack, with the AC polarity inverted and with crap AC cables, and yet the primary characteristics remained unchanged.
The CD3a looks like the '1 and '2, sharing the YBA philosophy which states that a single chassis player betters separate transport/DAC set-ups because there is less jitter, the two primary stages are directly linked, a (digital) cable connection is removed and there's no chance of mismatches. You won't hear me arguing against this position, based as it is on clear logic, but equally persuasive arguments can be made for separates. I'm not prepared to side exclusively with either, because the proponents are evenly matched and there are good and bad single-chassis and two-chassis CD players. But this, along with over-specified power supplies are part of the YBA CD experience, so it bears mentioning, in case you want to know why there are single-chassis CD players at prices well above what will pay for separates: a sobering £2250.
Read more about the CD3a on Page 2.
As with the other models, the Gallic touches include a clever central logo/badge which acts as the power-on button, there are beautifully weighted toggles with decidedly luxurious action to access the various transport operations, and YBA continues to employ a series of combinations which double up the functions. Yes, the player still has to 'initialise' a disc, which adds a slight delay and can confuse the machine if you perform steps out of order, all of which makes the CD3a not entirely user-friendly: you actually have to push the play switch up twice to get things rolling. In other words, you read the instruction manual if you're to avoid frustration. The display, however, is conventional, the infra-red remote control handles all the basic operations while adding a few niceties like numerical track entry and scrolling through the display options.
Then there's the business with the lid. Like any top loading CD player, the YBA employs a puck to keep the disc from doing a frisbee impression. YBA argues that the sound is better with the lid open, but I'm growing more hypochondriacal in my old age, and I want my eyes to be the last thing to go. PM tells me that the laser in a CD player can do a real number on one's eyes, so be careful: the laser remains active when the lid is open. But did I hear a difference? Not as much as I did when I kept the lid closed, but used different pucks and mats.
Which tells you that, in accordance with YBA's image, yes, this is a player highly susceptible to tweaking. So despite my doubts, I respected every one of the manual's commands, and I didn't even bother with testing the most amusing contradiction of all: the CD3a has digital outputs, despite YBA arguing that a single box player beats separates. (Curiosity did force me to connect them momentarily to an X-Series X-DAC and Theta's Chroma, but you know what I'm going to say, so let's give YBA a break.)
Unlike the Rega, the YBA was consistent from pre-amp to pre-amp, so I used it with packages consisting of the Audio Analogue Bellini/Donizetti, the Roksan Caspian or the Unison Research Simply 845, with Quad ESL63s, Quad 77-10L and Opera Platea speakers. God bless Yves Bernard Andre: the CD3a's character was undimmed from system to system.
But the music sure was. Whatever claims of transparency are made for this player, I found its sound to be accompanied by a slight but perceptible haze which I could only describe - wry smile intact - as a freakish attempt at making the music sound like an old LP. Oh, it worked alright, and the performance was smooth and relaxing and somewhat distant, but the bloom of an LP was missing, the warmth hadn't been retained. Still, I can imagine this charming the hell out of a certain kind of listener, whatever my own reservations.
Let's be perfectly clear about this, especially as I have gone on record more than once defending cranky valve amps which err on the side of softness, warmth and smoothness. But never have I favoured compromising transparency. There is a difference, and all you have to do to illustrate the two approaches is to A/B the YBA with a tube CD player or tube DAC, or a normal CD player with an X-10D. You will, in effect, hear two different methods of 'de-digitising' the sound of CD for those who can't cope with its de-nuding effect on music.
While the difference between tube and solid-state digital hardware seems to be a 'de-fatiguing' effect, a removal of aggressive artefacts, the net result (in the finest example of the genre) includes retention of details, clarity and spatial coherence. The YBA seems to bury the small clues which provide detail and an impression of dimensional verities. This is the price paid for a reduction in transparency. But, again, I can understand how some would find it appealing, especially owners of systems with bellicose solid-state amplifiers or shouty, in-your-face speakers.
The YBA pulls in the reins. Mono recordings appeared to emanate from a line behind the speakers (actually a desirable effect in small rooms), while wide stereo appeared congested. Vocalists gave the impression that they had stepped back from the microphone. It's as if an extra stage had been inserted in the chain. Conversely, the YBA exhibited sharp transients at both ends of the spectrum, bass had a pleasing wallop and I couldn't fault the way that decaying notes had a smooth transition into silence.
It would be easy for me to succumb to Francophobia (I've lived in the UK way too long...) and write this off as an aberration like the 2CV, escargot or that stupid pyramid in front of the Louvre. But that's a cheap shot. Instead, as with the Rega, I'll display largesse by recognising that one man's meatloaf is another man's steak tartare. And the only thing I eat raw is vegetables.