Product: Cairn Fog v2.0 + Soft 24/192
Manufacturer: Cairn by Ezo - France
Approx. price: 1750 $/Euro (with Soft upsampler)
Reviewer: Lucio Cadeddu - TNT Italy
Reviewed: June, 2003
This is not the first time we review a Cairn/Ezo HiFi component. You may remember a recent article on the Nanda preamp + K1 monoblocks combo. Cairn by Ezo is a lively French Company which specializes in building amplifiers (integrateds, preamps, power amps) and CD players. Actually there's only one player in their catalogue...but one equals two in this case. Indeed, the Fog (weird name for a player, isn't it?) CD player is sold with or without the upsampling chipset called Soft. Since upsampling seems all the rage nowadays, I was curious to put this player on a test.
Aesthetically quite different from the competitors, the Cairn Fog looks gorgeous in its anodized suit, well mated to the 1 cm thick solid aluminium front fascia. The circular display looks weird at a first glance but, when powered on, its sexy "blue azur" backlight certainly makes it more attractive.
The player weighs in a solid 8 kgs (± 17 lbs) and appears to be sturdy and quite well finished. The jog-dial knob (from solid aluminium as well) matches the shape of the display, but its use is less than intuitive (more on his later). Three small switches, with no explaination of their use, are everything you can find on the front panel. Reading the owner's manual is hence a must.
The Fog has been designed to stay permanently in stand-by mode. The electric blue display turns off after a couple of minutes of playing and can be deactivated via remote control. Still from the remote you can adjust the output level and, hear hear!, choose from two different digital filters.
The "default" finish is the one you can see in the pic above (anodized aluminium) though a black finish should be available on request.
On the rear panel you have two pairs of analogue outputs, balanced XLR's and standard gold plated RCA's. There's only one digital output though, a TosLink optical (no coaxial!).
There's no headphone output jack though the mains cable is detachable thanks to a IEC-standard socket.
The designers seem to have done their homework with respect to vibrations minimization: the four feet are _NOT_ the usual stuff you can find on other players. These appear to be CNC'd from aluminium and include a small rubber point at the center.
As you can detect by looking at the pic below, the Cairn Fog is nicely built even at the inside: law and order everywhere! The CD transport is a Sony CDM14BL equipped with a KSS-213B laser unit. The "energy" is provided by a massive 200VA (!!!) toroidal power transformer supplied by Toroid International S.L. I wouldn't be surprised to see the same toroid spec'd on a high power integrated amplifier.
The circuits lay on a double-sided high-quality PCB. The well known Crystal 4392 chipset takes care of the digital signal while the rest of the machine is controlled via a Sony CXP 82832 100-pins chip. The Soft upsampling chipset, which can be installed on the circuit board very easily (plug & play) is based on another well-known audiophile-fame chip, the Analog Devices AD 1896.
The Cairn Fog, without upsampler, is a 24/96 CD player. With the Soft upgrade, that can be bought and installed subsequently, it becomes an upsampled CD player, like the North Star 192 combo, the dCS stuff, the Tjoeb etc.
The price of the upgrade is a bit steep, at 550 Euros, and matches the price difference between the standard Fog and the Fog + Soft.
The only technical details which are available claim a 50 Ohm output impedance and a 120 dB dynamic range.
I tested the Fog together with its Soft upgrade already inboard. Of course I tried to unplug the chipset but the player refused to allow me to do so, answering an authoritative "DAC Error". Clearly, a "false" circuit board is needed to replace the upsampling one, otherwise the player doesn't work.
The Italian distributor asked me to keep the player for two months, not more than that. Now, I can use very good and realistic excuses but the naked truth is that packing this player was something I didn't want to do. Reading the subsequent listening notes you'll understand why.
Of course I beg the distributor's pardon for this rather unprofessional attitude but, at least, I can say to have had the time to carefully evaluate this player in a variety of systems and partnerships.
Among audiophiles and reviewers it is considered common wisdom to avoid judging any HiFi component before a couple of days, to say the least. Right out of the box, it seems HiFi gear sounds pretty awful. Well, this may be the exception to the golden rule....since the Cairn Fog sounded "right" since the very first minutes!
Suddenly, I understood reviewing it was going to be an unusually easy job and that I was not doomed to spend countless days before picking up its real character.
Indeed, this player is easy, easy to understand and love. Its sound is smooth, notes flow effortlessly in a very natural way. All of a sudden, you feel at home. I'm sure you know that feeling. It's like driving a new car as you have always been driving it since you got your license or like meeting a woman, never seen before, and feeling like you knew her since your childhood days.
Something special happens, not exactly a deja-vu...no, it's more like feeling immediately comfortable with something never seen or tried before.
The funny thing is that the Cairn Fog is NOT like anything I have at home, so I'm not saying it plays like my Wadia combo, for example. Actually, it mostly reminds me the sound of that NorthStar 192 transport + DAC I tested some time ago.
They share the very same effortless "beauty" and sense of harmonic richness.
This also means the Fog doesn't sound "explosive" or extremely punchy. There's nothing which can be considered or felt like highly spectacular and, perhaps, some listener may find it too far from the "digital sound" one may be used to (high dynamics, extremely detailed highs etc.).
But! If one listens more carefully one can't help but notice all the needed detail is there, gently offered by this machine like it was the easiest task on Earth. High definition, harmonic content and detail in spades: they're all there. Only, these don't get sprayed at your face as sometimes happens with more aggressive digital machines.
Tonally, I'd define the Fog as a bit lightweight, open in the highs and dry in the bass. This is the first time a component with a less than powerful bass range conquers me, considering the bass freak I am :-)
The point is that you notice the bass to be a little bit "light" in the first octaves but somehow you don't care much, as the whole rest simply amazes you and makes you forget that weak spot. But Please, oh Lord, don't get me be misunderstood! :-) There are players with more bass (earlier Rega Planet's, the recently reviewed Teac VRDS 9 modded by AM Audio and others) as there are others with less bass (the Holfi Xaurus Rex NFB). What I'm trying to say is that if you're not the bass freak I am you probably won't notice the lightweight bass.
The whole enjoyment comes from the performance with vocals and strings. The natural breath and touch of "reality" the Fog is able to give is something that should be heard to be fully understood. No, again, nothing's shocking here, just natural sound in spades. No matter how complex the musical program may be, the Fog plays with ease, it never shouts or sounds harsh.
The usual test with the piano, a real pain in the neck for many HiFi components, seems an easy task for the Cairn Fog. Right hand and left hand parts appear extremely realistic, thanks to the spot-on percussive sounds of the piano (after all, it's small hammers that hit metallic strings...).
When playing pop and rock, including synthetic sounds, the Fog doesn't forget its "natural" approach. Hence, every kind of musical program is reproduced with a "just right" sense of realism. Of course, there are CD players that can do better with this kind of Music (Naim's, that modded Teac VRDS 9 etc.) but, believe me, the Fog isn't that far.
To cut a long story short, this CD player does exactly what it should: it extracts every bit from the discs and brings the Music closer to the listener in a very gentle manner. This doesn't mean it sounds sweet or whooly. Not at all, it succeeds in offering a very natural "mix" of grace and liveliness.
Readers beware!. All of the above (and of the following) is referred to the Fog playing with the standard digital filter setting (the one by default) and with the output volume at its max. Of course I've tested the second setting and played a bit with the volume control but: the second setting destroys the magic of this player, adding a touch of harshness and some kind of "metallic" to the sound.
I doubt someone will find this setting useful but one never knows, as every HiFi system is a different situation. Moreover, the volume, if set far from its max position, makes the Fog sound awful. Absolutely not recommended.
To me, the best sounding situation is the "default" one, volume at its max and first digital filter setting. No wonder they chose it as default :-)
When a CD player sounds natural one may expect the very same behaviour in the dynamics department. And yes, the Cairn Fog offers a very realistic sound, in terms of liveliness and timing. It's not the "amount" of dynamics that astounds. No, it is the pace and the timing this player is able to reproduce. It sounds like all the instruments are _really_ playing together and not each one on its own, as sometimes happens. If you think this is logical and that every HiFi component should do that well, think again. Pace and rythm isn't an easy task. Moreover, many HiFi designers trade it in favour of "bass" and "treble" as the majority of listeners/customers are able to tell one player from another just by judging the quantity of bass or highs they hear.
There are CD players, highly praised by Hifi reviewers and, mainly, by audiophiles, that simply fail to do that right. The first one that comes to my mind, having reviewed it not so long time ago, is the Cambridge D500 CD player, which was unable to follow a tune or play the right tempo.
Perhaps it is a matter of power supplies which can't do their job well, who knows? Perhaps an undersized (for the task) power supply can't provide the necessary current swing to the circuits at the right time, so the circuits seem to be grasping for breath :-)
Certainly, the massive power supply into the Cairn Fog must be partially responsible for the whole dynamic performance.
The Cairn Fog doesn't make you dance on the floor but for sure will make you stomp your feet like crazy.
In the microdynamics department, considering the precision this player has in large amounts, it can't be criticized. Attacks and decays are always sharp and well tempo'ed.
Amazed by the tonal balance and overall musicality of this player I was expecting a proportionally good performance with respect to 3D imaging. Well, I'm not sure whether I was expecting too much or not, the result somehow didn't convince me at all. The soundstage does have good proportions but isn't deep and wide as I'd have expected. Certainly I've heard better players with respect to this parameter.
The virtual scene extends well from behind the loudspeakers, but lacks that sense of "space" one may require from a nearly-2,000 $/euro digital machine. From time to time I detected a too "crowded" center of the image, as singers and players decided to move to the middle of the stage all together at the same time :-)
Perhaps it is mainly a matter of personal taste and certainly the fact I'm still a vinyl lover plays its role here. The width and depth of the soundstage with a good record player is always something hard to get with a CD player.
Anyway, though not being particularly wide nor deep, the scene created by the Fog is stable and extremely well focused. Perhaps one can get better results playing a little with different anti-vibration devices or mains cables, who knows. While I've certainly had the time :-) to try different "tweaks", my will was weak, as I've preferred to concentrate on the Music the Cairn Fog was playing.
Sit down and relax, as I have soooo many things to say :-)
Yes, using and testing the Cairn Fog was a real nightmare. First things first: the output RCA's. They do look good in their gold finish but one of them (the left channel one) was SMALLER than the stardard, so it offered a very poor grip to any RCA connector I tried. The contact was so loose that sometimes heavy cables got accidentally disconnected!
Perhaps I've been unlucky with the test sample but this thing simply drove me crazy. Even sub-100$ HiFi components have good fitting RCA's...I can't tolerate this on a 1750 $/Euro HiFi component. Of course, it is not Cairn that made those damn RCA's but I assume a Company should verify the quality of the items spec'd with its products. I call this... "quality control". Please, please, please.
What's next? Oh yes, those switches on the front panel! One of the three didn't work, no click at all. Perhaps another fault of my unlucky test sample ;-)
In order to understand the nature of the problem I took a look at the inside. And yes, the switch was broken and the whole "system" didn't deliver a "solid" feeling.
Finally, the human interface has been sacrified in order to give the machine a nicer look. It's impossible to understand what those switches are for, without reading the manual. The same applies to the jog-dial. Perhaps I'm completely dumb, but I've never had a so bad feeling with a component. Even after a couple of months it was impossible (for me) to remember the role of those switches. The jog dial worked erratically from time to time and this, matched to a slower than usual track access (> 1 sec), caused errors when choosing the tracks. Even worse, the jog-dial wasn't properly installed so the circular movement wasn't exactly smooth nor ....circular. A plain nightmare.
A couple of words about the silly remote, if I may. No, I'm not referring to the ROC remote that you may have seen on the test of the Cairn preamp and power amps combo. No, I'm referring to the standard remote control that comes with the Fog (the Roc is optional). Now, sirs, please take ANY remote you have at home (TV, CD player, anything) and look at the numeric keypad.
What's the first key from the left (on top)? Channel 1 or track 1, I'm 100% sure. Not so with the Fog remote....as there's track 7. Yes, seven!!!!. Track 1 is the first one from the left...in the third row!!!!
If you, like me, are used to choose tracks blindly, without even looking at the remote, you can imagine the mess this misplacement causes. Now, add the SLOOOOOW track access and you get the picture. Press 7 (and you tought it was 1), after 1 sec or so the player plays track 7. A quick look at the remote to search for the 1 key, press it and wait. The player stops, searchs for track 1 and plays it. Now repeat the whole procedure with all the tracks in the keypad (including those after 10) and at the end of the day I'll feel the need to bang your head to the wall :-D
That's all, folks.
From a purely sonic point of view there's nothing much to add to what I've written till now. The Fog is a bit lightweight in the bass and delivers a not so large 3D soundstage, but I'm sure you can live happily even with these (small) limitations.
Just the usual ones: use good quality interconnects and, if you believe in mains cables :-), try swapping the stock one with something better. Also, find the best sounding position of the mains plug into the mains socket. Perhaps this trick will do nothing in some Countries as it all depends on the kind of mains supply you have at home. With live + neutral, there's a position in which the Fog sounds sensibly better: you just have to find it.
Considering my complaints, before buying your Cairn Fog, check that everything works and have a careful look at the RCA's. As said, perhaps I've been unlucky...but one never knows. For sure, avoid buying the Fog still "packed". Buy the ex-demo sample instead.
When looking for good partners, I'd try to avoid excessively dry loudspeakers and amplifiers as the final result may become too lightweight in the bass.
I hated this player since it arrived at home, because of its "fancy" way to interact with me. Conversely, I've been loving it since the first minutes, because of its natural, effortless and engaging sound.
Clearly, it has been given a very unfortunate name: "Fog" reminds of foggy reproduction and, believe me, there's nothing foggy in the sound of this CD player. Conversely, its sounds reminds me the colour of the sky after a Summer storm....for this reason I dared to subtitle this article as "A day without rain", an amazing album by an amazing artist (Enja - 8573-85986-2 Wea).
© Copyright 2003 Lucio Cadeddu - www.tnt-audio.com