Presenting their top-of-the-range, two-box CD player, Paul Rigby gets to grips with the Densen B-475
Are you brave enough to consider the music? Do you find it hard to trust your ears? Pounded, as we are, by public relations and marketing, it is sometimes difficult to remain truly impartial. There are manufacturers and, yes, even some reviewers who spend a lot of time talking about this array of specifications and that bank of features whereupon they sit back with the knowledge of a job well done.
Thomas Sillesen, founder of Denmark’s Densen, begs to differ, “I’m into food,” said Sillesen. “Frankly, if I take the top ingredients and put them together, I cannot make a good meal. Yet, a good chef can make a great dinner from relatively low quality ingredients. This is also the whole point of creating good hi-fi. It’s all about how you put things together.”
Sillesen has a problem with the ephemera of the industry and how it pushes musical truth onto the back seat. After all, he says, it’s easier to talk technology than music. Music is emotion — how many sales people can talk emotion for an hour and a half? Give them hardware to talk about, however…
The problem is that this approach to marketing hi-fi can cause anomalies which pushes customers down the wrong hi-fi path. “Take modern DACs,” said Sillesen. “The supposed ‘best’ DACs are 32-bit designs but I believe that one of the best that I’ve ever heard is the original Philips 14-bit DAC. So, if bits are everything then the Philips should be pure shit. It isn’t.”
And this is the guy who has designed his company’s, top-of-the-range CD player, the B-475. With a philosophy like that, you can tell why I was so eager to get my hands on it. Even the core design precept of the B-475 is ‘individual’, “I don’t listen to what my competitors do, I just do what I think is right. I have a pretty good understanding of how music sounds because I’ve been to over 500 concerts. I also have musician friends and I get to listen to their masters in the studio. I also feel that a lot of high-end equipment has a tendency to be a little bit dark sounding and voluminous. I believe that hardware should exude passion and be light on its toes.”
You’d expect the B-475 to be a design apart from the crowd, therefore, and it is. Firstly, it arrives as a two-box system. Looking at the outside first, using a one-piece, extruded, light but rigid, aluminium chassis that was originally designed in 1994, the power supply sits within its own box while, on the outside of the additional transport box, apart from the usual transport controls, you have a Select button to turn the CD player into a DAC plus a Status select for additional play information such as the time remaining on your CD, the remote adds further functions.
Incidentally, the remote has been inspired by B&O’s powerful BeoLink 1000. It arrives with its own charger, has a tactile response and doesn’t demand that you point the thing at the CD player for it to work.
There are digital ins and outs on the rear of the transport chassis plus two pairs of RCA outputs but no balanced outputs, “I don’t think that balanced sounds any better,” said Sillesen. “If you have heard balanced outputs that sound better than that product’s RCA outputs then you are right, of course. Problem is, the designer has probably focused on those balanced outputs. Any designer who has spent time properly designing single-ended outputs will find that they are superior.”
Moving inside now and the power supply internals comprise three transformers. Two are identical, offering 85VA with 200,000mF each. The third provides 110,000mF. When the three power supplies enter the CD player, the smaller power supply looks after the majority of the working components such as the digital receiver and transport. The two larger supplies are only used to power up the left and right channels of the analogue stage.
“The DAC is not the most important part of the CD player. The most important parts of the design are a well made power supply that doesn’t interfere with the rest of the CD player plus a very good analogue stage. That’s what makes the difference. Most manufacturers spend time on the DAC but insert cheap analogue stages. Frankly, if you get everything else correct, it’s not that important what DAC you use. That said, we have used a good quality DAC but we always hide the DAC in a metal box. We do this so that people don’t judge the product on the DAC.”
Sillesen goes further than that, he firmly believes that the transport is also over-rated, “The whole point of the transport is that it carries the CD from outside of the box to the inside of the box. Once that is done it shouldn’t have anything to do with the CD itself. It should have nothing to do with the sound quality. Our main criteria is not to have the coolest drawer but to have a good laser and a light spinner with a high torque to spin up and down quickly.”
This CD player is the product of much original thought. I couldn’t wait to listen to it.
The first few seconds of any hi-fi demonstration is always revealing. It sets the ‘tone’, as it where and provides an important precedent for your ears. It establishes an immediate personality, in other words. As I span Simple Minds’ Sanctify, a number of points immediately sprang forth. Firstly, I’ve heard a number of CD players that offer a broad soundstage but none that combine the sheer acreage of the Densen mixed with an intelligence of placement.
There are some CD units that provide you with a massive empty room and then turn to smile at you as if the job has been done, like some aural estate agent, leaving the band to fend for themselves, sitting awkwardly within, not really knowing how to fit into the space. With the Densen, the band had obviously taken a good look at the space beforehand and booked an area that agreed with them because this particular soundstage made real sense. Each aspect contributed positively to the musical experience. Also, with this epic space, the Densen had an uncanny ability to not only introduce excellent instrumental separation but it even managed to ‘unstick’ tough, associated instruments from each other. It’s all very well a CD player separating the drums from the lead guitar but disconnecting two closely related synthesisers is tougher and could, with other machines, result in a gloopy melange. Here, the Densen performed a surgical separation. Thus, instruments had freedom to build their own character, giving body to each and a sense of ownership for the space that they occupied.
The presentation of a track is also important for the CD player. Will it be too clinical? Will it try to become analogue and warming to avoid the dreaded ‘metallic’ criticism? The Densen does neither of these things. If I was going to describe its effect within this area, it would be ‘honest’. Thus, spinning a series of highly compressed chart CDs, the Densen refused to lie. It didn’t swamp the tracks with sweetness in the hope of being heard as a piece of vinyl and neither did it punish the CD, like a Victorian, switch-wielding, headmaster by emphasising the harsh frequencies until your ears bled. No, the Densen told me, calmly and quietly, that this CD was suffering from compression but then proceeded to provide a playback rendition of top quality, telling the ear just how far the CD could go but also enlightening the ear as to the CD’s major limitations.
Returning to the Simple Minds’ track, the general impressions were intriguing. Overall, there was a clean, unhurried and wholly natural tone to the music. Midrange and treble featured almost too much detail to take in within a single setting. Combined with the soundstage and instrumental separation, the upper frequencies provided a many layered arrangement that had my brain bouncing from one to the other, scanning the layers to take everything in.
Bass was very interesting because I could hear no bloom at all. I emphasise that point because, with all CD players, I hear bloom on a sliding scale. In excess, the bloom takes the form of a squelch sound where the low frequencies have no recognisable form or structure. At the other end of the scale, slight bass bloom can fool the ear into thinking that you are hearing something wholly more organic. The human beat error that is a real live drum kit, in fact. The Densen does away with all of that nonsense. Here, bass was trim but punchy, lean yet fast and efficient, focused but also weighty and better balanced. It didn’t dominate or intrude, like a jealous actor trying to steal a scene by attracting the eye, unnecessarily. The bass played its proper part and sounded better for it.
Moving to jazz vocal now and Stacey Kent’s Les Eaux de Mars. Kent’s luscious, intimate delivery on the Densen sounded larger than life but also nearer to the ear as if she had taken a step closer. Her more detailed delivery provided a dimension of emotion that, despite the song being in French and my knowledge of the language being restricted to phrases I’ve picked up from a Citroen manual, still conveyed an attractive sensuality resulting from the sonic boundaries being lowered by the B-475. As the frequency range was extended, the extension was aptly demonstrated by the supporting analogue instruments. Hence, the guitar string pluck told you more about the material that the strings are made from, drums had a relaxing focus, driving the song that also implied a power potential while the treble-infused cymbals held a delicate fragility and a long reverb tail.
From jazz to rock and the big sound of Skunk Anansie’s Hedonism. The principle point of interest upon spinning the rock track was the new found clarity that this well produced, early generation, CD exuded. It really encouraged me to increase the volume to get the best from the highly dynamic and stomach-crunching drum sequences plus the magnificent power chords from the lead guitar. But that wasn’t all. Immediately noticeable was the structural change from the point of the vocal delivery. The lead singer, Skin, now sounded as if she was sitting on a floating platform, disconnected from the instruments around her. Previously, she was struggling amongst them, elbowing her way through to the front. More than that, though, her double-tracked vocal, during the chorus, had a deliciously dichotomous quality to it. At one moment, the harmony sounded both complex (due to the interweaving of the vocal) but also simple (because the Densen teased each harmonic voice apart to reveal them as being instantly recognisable).
Turning to Gagarin’s avant-garde electronic album, Biophillia which provided electronic ‘moments’ and ‘happenings’ combined with a soundscape wash, the LP addressed alternative areas of the sonic spectrum that the Densen found intriguing. One thing that I did notice was how free the music sounded. This was partly a product of the amount of reverb that the player was able to access. Because it was allowed to reduce distortion over a wide aural canvas, the subtle elements were free to come to the fore. Hence, tiny electronic squeaks and squiggles in this piece sounded crisp and rhythmic. There was a distinct musical aspect to the CD that only appeared because of the air and space that the Densen created around it.
The Densen’s design has specifically been targeted at keeping various flavours of distortion to minimal levels or eradicated altogether. The isolation techniques alone have allowed the Densen to relax into the music instead of fighting to extract it from the background din. This results in a lean, mean presentation that lacks any sort of excess. The Densen’s sound is pure muscle. A superb design, carefully considered and implemented, the B-475 makes the CD format a valid musical platform for audiophile ears. Which is probably the biggest complement that I can give any CD player.
Tel: +44 (0)2477 220650
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