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Audio Research Reference CD8 Review
December 28, 2009 By Steve Guttenberg
The Long Run
Have you ever heard a live band off in the distance and instantly knew it was the real thing? I can't tell you why, but there's something about the sound of live music that recordings always miss. So hi-fis, even the best ones, never sound realistic, but they can get close.
Audio Research's CD8 Reference player does just that. It's one of the least "digital" sounding CD players I've ever used.
That sort of statement is usually followed by something like, "CDs now sound a lot more like LPs." That's not the case here, but the CD8 is considerably more musical than other state-of-the-art CD players. Why? Maybe because Audio Research doesn't approach digital design as a game of spec-manship or flaunt new cutting-edge doohickeys. That's not their style.
This is my first Audio Research review for Home Entertainment, so introductions are in order. In 1970, vacuum-tube audio was considered obsolete and solid-state ruled the roost. Audio Research's founder and chief engineer William Z. Johnson thought otherwise and his company played a big part in the American tube revival of the 1970s. The company has since crafted a number of landmark vacuum tube and transistor designs in its Minnesota factories. Audio Research is as American as apple pie.
The marriage of vacuum tubes and CD players isn't new; designers started sticking tubes in CD players in the 1980s. But most of those players use just a pair of tubes, typically as a "buffer" output stage. The CD8's tubes are responsible for audio as soon as the digits are converted to analog. The tubes are configured much as they are in Audio Research's very best stereo preamplifier, the Reference Pre ($12,000). Measuring an imposing 19 by 5.25 by 15.3 inches, the CD8 is the size of a pretty serious power amplifier.
Under the hood you'll find five 6H30 vacuum tubes and one large 6550C regulator tube; the digital zeros and ones are processed via a 24-bit digital-to-analog converter. The CD laser/drive system is a beefy professional unit, sourced from Philips. The CD8 doesn't have a disc-loading drawer; the drive mechanism is located under a sliding door on the top panel. Disc loading involves placing a small magnetic clamp on the disc. I like the "hands-on" approach, maybe because it's more like playing an LP.
Don't get the wrong idea: The CD8's tubes aren't there to merely smooth over any residual digital edge. No, this player resolves more detail and low-level ambiance than most solid-state players. With the CD8, dynamics seem to have more of a "live" visceral punch, and instruments and voices have a more believable, vivid presence.
The rear panel houses stereo RCA and XLR main outputs, plus BNC coax and XLR AES/EBU digital outputs. The CD8 is available in natural brushed "silver" aluminum or black, with matching front handles.
Black rack handles have graced Audio Research compo...