Remote transport functions include play/pause, next and previous tracks etc. The only shortcomings operationally speaking are the absence of an eject button on the handset and the rather well hidden ‘next’ and ‘previous’ buttons, but familiarisation is, as I said, pretty quick. And because the remote unit excludes some functions, you get to use the nice stainless buttons on the unit itself, and soon learn which ones are useful. The drawer mech is smooth but nothing special – a top-shelf TEAC mech would be too pricey for a player at this level. So with the CD2 under my command I used it with both a Townshend Allegri+ and, far too briefly, an Allegri Reference preamp, as well as assorted power amps including ATC’s P2 alongside several speakers, chiefly Bowers & Wilkins’ revealing 802 D3.
The characteristic sound of this player is very hard to pin down because actually it doesn’t exist. And this raises that ornery old hi-fi debate about truth versus consistency. It goes something like this: is hi-fi meant to embellish all music, however badly recorded, for greater listening satisfaction, or turn well recorded work transcendental, while brutally exposing the deficiencies of a rotten mix? I think I know which side I’m on and declare that the CD2 has been engineered to be neutral and transparent, without a sound of its own. For this reason it can come across as dull and uninspiring by comparison with the fruity balance of many DACs; there is no apparent voicing of the output stage to make it sound particularly open or tonally lush, as is often the case when engineers attempt to generate a ‘house’ sound. Adding character in this way can make a piece of kit sound exciting and impressive on first listen but after a while its coloration of the music becomes obvious and favours some music types over others. This ATC, like all other ATCs, is a ‘tell it like it is’ product, one that does its best to stay out of the mix so that you can hear more of what went into the recording. It’s enough to make you question whether the sparkle you get from some digital sources, or the analogue smoothness from others is merely a factor of output stage tuning.
In practice this means that the CD2 does not draw you in immediately with a big, shiny soundstage, rather it lets the music get under your skin and make its message clear. It’s less of the aesthetic treat you get with more polished players, from Marantz among others, and more of a direct emotional connection. For instance, through the CD2 it’s quite hard to sit still to music with a strong rhythm and plenty of energy, as I discovered when playing ‘16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six’, a fabulous bit of jazzy blues from Tom Waits’ underrated Swordfishtrombones album [Asylum]. I should point out that I don’t usually resort to such extremes of activity but after the way the player belted it out there really was no other option. Another old favourite, La Folia [Atrium Musicae De Madrid, Gregorio Paniagua, Harmonia Mundi] is less ‘dance floor’ but has its own compelling traction. It reveals the only obvious characteristic of the ATC to be an unflappable foundation for any form of music – in the case of La Folia it’s a strange mix of ancient music fused with Indian tabla, the roar of a Land Rover, car horns and original instruments, revealing a broad range of tonal colours from the solid low-end of a big acoustic bass to the sparkle and reverberant ring of many tiny bells. I’ve heard more from far pricier streaming systems, which are better at revealing the finest detail, but the ATC allows you a close encounter with the essential drive of the music. It engages heart and soul in a way that more refined digital sources cannot always manage.
It does subtlety as well, especially with a decent recording like Jack de Johnette’s In Movement [ECM], where the drummer is joined by horn player Ravi Coltrane and bass/electronics meister Matthew Garrison. The ATC brings out the shimmering cymbals, glowering bass and full bodied tenor horn to full effect, the sax in particular delivering a blast of brassy goodness. Image depth could be greater by comparison with more expensive alternatives, but the emphasis here is once again on the spiritual message – the bit that bypasses intellect and goes straight for your endorphin generators. The title track on this album builds particularly well with a simple initial synth line providing the tempo for the band to work around and the sax to strike out in distinctly fluid fashion.
Timing from the CD2 can seem a little lacklustre at times but that’s because there is no emphasis on leading edges, and the way the player delivers rhythms straight to your beat detectors suggests that it has no trouble in keeping everything happening exactly as it should, when it should. Importantly you don’t get any sense of listening fatigue in the process, even though the ATC does nothing to soften or sweeten the sound. It’s as if the effort of many designers to deliver a plusher portrayal actually has a negative effect on the musical appreciation overall, sounding a little contrived and less obviously natural. Or maybe I’m just imagining this. It’s just that the CD2 has me questioning some of the things that I have hitherto taken for granted.
Keith Jarrett’s Testament Paris/London [another ECM] is one of his best sounding solo releases and the CD2 lets you know as much right from the start. Play ‘London VII’ and while the piano sounds solid, the stage has a hollow ambience when Jarrett’s fingers begin to tap. This machine’s ability to focus on the music means that the track remains transfixing throughout, despite Jarrett’s characteristically sporadic vocalisations. The emphasis here is firmly on the playing and the sound he gets from the instrument, which is full of dynamic subtlety.