“You’re sending me a what?”
“Cairn… Fog3… Yes, really. Follow up to the Fog2, in case you were wondering.”
I was. Evidently, there had been enough takers for Fogs 1 & 2 to perpetuate the line.
Disappointingly, out of a scattering of meteorological product names, Mistral, Bora and so-on, there’s currently only the one unit celebrating the murky allure of cold, damp, airborne vapour.
A few days later, having arrived, the nomenclature made no more sense than it had on the phone. This is a substantial unit, its 10Kg weight making many amplifiers feel underendowed. No mileage in Scotch mist analogies here, alas. The casework is finished attractively in grey Nextel textured paint, with a substantial aluminium front plate bearing a curved chamfer at the bottom which, to my eyes, does nothing to enhance this otherwise attractive unit. A large circular display, adjacent to a large circular control knob (also finished in the suede-like Nextel finish), defines the look, while a scattering of buttons provide the regular control functions. There is a remote control, basic in feel and appearance and, although perfectly effective, not in keeping with the quality of the unit itself (a rather funkier system remote is available as an extra-cost option). The manual is somewhat vague, partly I suspect due to hasty translation. Basic functions are well-enough described, but a large part of this unit’s functionality lies in the user-configurable options available via an on-screen menu and selected by use of the control knob, a process barely more than alluded to in the brief manual provided to me. Owners are encouraged to experiment, it would seem. Similarly, if the distributor hadn’t mentioned it, I’d have been unaware that the unit is also a digital pre-amplifier, although the digital-in connections on the rear panel make it clear that the DAC can be used by an external source, not an option I tried. In fairness, I believe this unit is early-production, so items like the user manual should be sorted out by the time product hits the street.
Citroën owners may recognise the Gallic eccentricity of some of the controls. The manual suggests a long press of the power button to switch on, a short one for off. In truth, two short presses are rewarded by power-on, a long press producing naught but a long wait. Also, on most CD players, a gentle push of the open drawer will load a CD, but in the FOG3, the disc will be unceremoniously spat out again a second or two later. I chose not to interpret this as a comment on my musical tastes. Use the open/ close button or live in silence, apparently. The numeric keypad on the remote control is the wrong way up, like a computer keypad rather than a phone, as is more common. Finally, there’s a pair of large Vol+ and Volbuttons, which don’t do anything here. To adjust the digital pre-amp output you look elsewhere for a Level+ and Level- pairing. Bless! Mind you, to its credit, the Fog3 loads a disc rather more quickly than many high-end players, and direct-entry of a track number is simply a matter of keying in the digits.
The first impression is of a tight, fast, dynamic sound; Flat-Earthers form a queue here. But happily the baby is still in the bathwater, because the sound is also beautifully nuanced, colourful and with plenty of depth and sense of instrumental placement.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (DG 427 806-2) displays a very good sense of musical intent and interpretation, thanks to immaculate timing and pace, and a commendable lack of congestion in the denser sections. The Barber Adagio for Strings from the same CD betrays a slight papery sheen to massed strings, and the climactic, soaring crescendos still contain an element of tweeter-melting shrillness at their very height, but in this case the contrast with the immediate stillness that follows is very affecting, and I’d argue that you can’t have the one without the other, doubtless the composer’s intention.
At this point, it is probably appropriate to mention the filters. The Fog3 comes with four digital filter settings, labelled f0 to f3, accessed either by the control knob, or more quickly via the remote. They can be changed on the fly, but I found it instructive to pause, reset, then replay to best get a feel for what they do. Two characteristics are adjustable, what are described as “group delay” and “frequency” or “time” domains. You can opt for a short group delay, and optimisation of the interpolation in either frequency or time domains, or for a long group delay, again with optimisation for frequency or time, making four settings available to the user. The long group delay is, apparently, similar to most standard offerings, the short group delay promises benefits in avoiding harshness at the high frequency extreme. Optimisation in the frequency domain may offer a smoother frequency response, but at the expense of transients, while optimisation of the time domain is tighter, but frequency response may be compromised. In practice, the options are fairly subtle, short group delay sounds a little like a very gentle roll-off at the top end, and might be of benefit if you find the Barber Adagio just a little too acid for your taste. Frequency optimisation adds colour, but loses some coherence. Personally, I found f1 (long group delay, time domain optimisation) was my own Goldilocks setting, offering a good mix of tonal colour with energetic dynamics and flow, and I rarely switched after my initial experimentation, even for the Barber. The Fog3 sound is confident, somewhat removed from that of my regular Rega Saturn. Tonal colour is less expressive, but it more than makes up for that in timing and sheer tunefulness. Having grown fond of the Saturn’s fulsome sound over the months in its company, I dropped it back in the system for comparison partway through the review process. It didn’t stay there very long. The Rega is transparent but also lush, majoring on instrumental colour, but as a communicator of musical intent it is left far behind by the Cairn. To be fair, the Cairn costs half as much again as the Rega, so context is relevant as always, but I for one wouldn’t find it hard to justify the extra cost. A good example: large-scale choral stuff, Judex Crederis from the Berlioz “Te Deum” (Philips 464 689- 2), and the Cairn makes Berlioz’ intricate polyphony and mastery of orchestration very apparent. The dense, complex layering of large musical forces is very well controlled and presented. Even in the most dramatic passages the ability to follow any melodic or harmonic line, more or less at will, is enormously satisfying and much to the benefit of the musical message. The downside is that the sense of atmosphere and acoustic space is slightly compromised in the pursuit of that separation and insight. John Tavener’s Song for Athene (HMV 5 74050 2) is, I believe, recorded in Winchester cathedral, but that sense of vastness is diminished through the Cairn. To use wine-speak, it has a shorter finish.
Dusting down Rickie Lee Jones’ first album, and playing ‘On Saturday Afternoon in 1963’, the Fog3 was absolutely on the money. Tunefulness and timing, touchstones for musical communication, were both elegantly portrayed in this delightful vignette; ‘Last Chance Texaco’ was full of crystalline guitars but not short of richness either. Patricia Barber’s ‘Mourning Grace’ from Café Blue (Blue Note 7243 5 21810 2 5) was compelling: the tight, fast ostinato accompaniment had just the right degree of relentlessness and if the tonality was just a shade dry compared to the Rega well, to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve not yet heard a better account of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Unsquare Dance’ from Time Further Out, the rhythmic complexities leaving the Fog3 quite spectacularly unfazed. My experience of CD players in this price range suggests that you can either get timing and dynamics, or dimensionality and colour. To get both, you need to significantly increase your budget. The Cairn certainly leans towards the former camp, but as the latter are attributes I value greatly it is significant, I think, that I found myself drawn to this player regardless, and I will definitely miss it when it goes back. Messing with the filters will give more colour, but at too high a cost for me. The Fog3 has helped me discover my inner Flat-Earther. Make no mistake, it does have depth and space in abundance, but what it also has is an unshakeable sense of musical flow, an unbreakable steel thread which pulls you through the music. Mellow? Hardly. Fruitful? Abundantly; but piquant and definitely not too sweet. I’ve developed quite a taste for it.