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nOrh CD-1

A New CD-Player from nOrh Loudspeaker Company, Ltd.

[nOrh CD-1 CD-Player]

Front view of CD-1

[Italian version]

Product: nOrh CD-1 CD-player
Manufacturer: nOrh Loudspeaker Co., Ltd. - Thailand
Retail price: $799 USD
Reviewer: Richard George
Reviewed: January 2001

The CD-1 is a new product from nOrh Loudspeaker Co. Ltd., the innovative audio manufacturer from Thailand. nOrh has made a name for itself with fresh, unusual, and stunningly effective loudspeaker designs. Where others have tried to quell standing waves in speakers with added baffling, nOrh does it with designs inspired by traditional Thai drums or with other unique designs in which speaker cabinets have no parallel sides.
Other companies try to reduce cabinet vibration with internal bracing or different types of wood or composite; nOrh does it by carving their high end speakers out of blocks of marble. Along with innovation, nOrh also has built a reputation for top-notch quality, both aesthetically and acoustically.
Following critical and economic success of their loudspeaker lines, nOrh has been expanding their product line to include amplifiers, preamplifiers, and now, a CD-player, the subject of this review. The CD-1 holds the promise of extending the tradition of nOrh's innovation and high quality to the source side of audio equipment.

Many people who purchase CD-players for their home systems labor under the misconception that digital is digital, and there is no real difference in sound from one CD-player to the next. Companies such as Naim have proven that notion incorrect, but at a price that is generally out of reach for most people.
The nOrh CD-1 is substantially less expensive than the cheapest CD product from Naim or other manufacturers of high-end CD-players.

What Is the CD-1?

According to nOrh, the CD-1 was designed to provide the highest quality output possible from a CD-player. The CD-1 is an original design CD-player, not a retread of an existing unit. nOrh has designed the player around a 24 Bit/96 kHz, Burr Brown PCM 1728 digital to analog processor with a vacuum tube analog output.
It combines these components with a high quality, Matsushita transport, seven power supplies, and a Crystal CD8414 Low Jitter Receiver. In addition, the CD-1 uses two transformers, one of which is dedicated only to the analog circuit. The CD-1 utilizes 8x oversampling at a 96kHz sampling rate. The analog circuit uses a pair of 12AX7 twin-triode vacuum tubes. For complete specifications, please refer to the CD-1 webpage on the nOrh website.

[Inside view, nOrh CD-1]

Inside view of CD-1 showing simplicity of design and quality of construction

How Does it Sound?

Some audio components, notably mid-fi tube equipment, will smooth out the sound of a CD player, but seem to do so through loss of fine detail. Although the CD becomes less harsh and more pleasant under these conditions, it loses substantial musical detail. While this may be acceptable for background music, it is a less-than-satisfying solution for serious listening.
On the other hand, very detailed and revealing amplifiers and speakers will often make CDs sound more harsh and brittle, accentuating digital characteristics of the source through painfully accurate reproduction of the CD-player output. On such systems, the "digital sound" becomes even more apparent when comparing the output of most CD-players to the output of an LP from a turntable.

During evaulation of the nOrh CD-1, I had the good fortune to hear, in a close and intimate setting, a percussion and rhythm, "World Music" band called Hybrid Vigor, a band composed of three members: Norma Tanega, Mike Henderson, and Rebecca Hamm. Hybrid Vigor plays music written by band members that is sometimes brilliant, often unusual, and always fun.
They use many instruments, from traditional, such as tamborines, triangles, and 6- and 12-string guitars, to unique, such as ceramic drums, to downright bizarre, such as childrens toys, a washboard, and many items I simply did not recognize. I purchased two of their CDs and immediately made audio comparisons between my fresh memory of the live performance and the CD-1 reproduction. In addition, I compared the output of the CD-1 with another, similarly-priced CD-player I had on hand.

From the comparison CD-player, simple, high frequency sounds, such as notes from a triangle, take on a shimmer that does not sound at all like the pure, clean notes struck by a percussionist.
This distortion of music by most CD-players often renders an instrument such as a triangle unrecognizable, leaving only a rhythmic, high pitched noise where music should be. On the CD-1, a triangle sounds like a triangle. The CD-1 still has a subtle digital shimmer that differentiates it from the real sound, or from the sound of an LP, but the clarity and purity of the note is much closer to that expected from the instrument.
Other high frequency sounds are also rendered more smoothly and realistically than I have ever experienced with a CD-player. A violin, near the upper end of its scale, often seems harsh and gritty-sounding on many CD-players. On the nOrh, violins are smooth and almost liquid in character; the sound flows from the speakers as one would expect it to flow from the instrument. This is no ordinary CD-player.

Female vocals are generally a great indicater of mid-range reproduction quality. The female vocalist from Hybrid Vigor, Rebecca Hamm, has a strong, clean vocal style; her singing is neither breathy nor gravelly. On the comparison CD-player, I had to keep the volume down because a harsh and unpleasant undertone became intolerable at higher volumes.
The contrast between this CD-player and the live vocalization was enlightening; however, the lack of fidelity on the comparison player was distressing. On the nOrh CD-1, Rebecca Hamm's voice was smooth and clean; the recording was pleasant and easy to listen to, even when played at elevated volume.
While I cannot say the CD-1 sounded quite as good as the real thing, neither does any other form of recorded music. That is not the point; the recording was very pleasant to hear, unlike many other CD-players. The curses of digital grit and overly bright presentations seem to have been tamed by nOrh.

Unlike some CD-players, in which bass response seems to have been boosted above normal levels, the CD-1 bass response is neutral and natural; bass is strong and clean without being bloated. Since Hybrid Vigor uses many types of instruments for percussion parts, the sound and tone of those instruments could be compared on the CD-1.
All percussion instruments on the nOrh sounded clean, sharp, and well-defined. Other CD recordings used during this evaluation underlined the natural bass sound of the CD-1.

[View from below, nOrh CD-1]

View below the CD-1 showing the large, vibration isolation pads

As earlier mentioned, the CD-1 smooths out the harsh quality of CDs and makes them more pleasant. However, it does not do so at the expense of musical detail.
In fact, the nOrh allows greater detail to be audible, perhaps partly because it removes the harsh and distracting sound that is so prevalent in most CD-players. I have heard very expensive CD-players that were similarly detailed, but none as pleasant.

Perhaps partly because of improved detail and clarity of sound, the soundstage and instrument separation was noticeably better than on the other CD-player available during this evaluation. The soundstage was not noticably broader, but it was found to be substantially deeper and more three-dimensional than most CD-players to which I have listened.
The amount of "air" between instruments was also better than most CD-players and reasonably comparable to more expensive, high-end units. Of particular note, poorly recorded CDs were easier to listen to on the CD-1 than on lesser players. The nOrh seems to smooth out the harshest of the bad CDs enough to make them more pleasant, although, of course, it cannot make up for mistakes and problems in the recording.
The sound of the CD-1 is so easy to listen to that aural fatigue is never an issue.

In the end, the most important aspect of the CD-1 is that its output sounds very musical, a characteristic that is not often attributed to CD-players that cost under $1,000 USD. Most CD-players in the price range of the nOrh reproduce sound fairly well.
However, due to audible distortion of tones and sounds imparted by cheap components in the digital-to-analog converter (DAC) section, many lack the emotional impact intended by musicians. The nOrh CD-1 sounds less digital than any CD-player I have yet auditioned, regardless of price.
Compared to other CD-players in its price range, the new nOrh has no competition. Some very expensive CD-players can match or exceed the detail and soundstage of the nOrh, but cannot exceed its musicality. The CD-1 goes beyond mere reproduction of sound and makes serious inroads into true music reproduction from a digital source.

Positive Impressions

The CD-1 is is an attractive design that is very well finished. It has a black case, a shiny, black plastic, front panel with green, lighted, digital readouts for track, time, and other functions.
The CD tray is located on the left side of the front panel. As with other nOrh electronic equipment, the CD-1 has a plate surrounding the front panel made from a thick piece of satin-finished aluminum. The entire design is elegantly simple and aesthetically pleasing.
If the nOrh lacks the high-tech appearance of many CD-players, it also lacks the pretentious aspirations and unnecessary gimmicks that are often incorporated in place of quality components.

The nOrh CD-1 is very well made, particularly when compared to other, similarly-priced products. All parts fit as they should. The buttons operate smoothly and positively. The transport mechanism is solid, quiet, smooth, and gives the impression that it will be reliable and durable. During extensive testing, including frequent CD swaps and one CD that was played continuously on "repeat" for uncounted hours, at no time did any part of the CD-1 malfunction.
While the nOrh CD-player lacks the "bank vault" solidity of some, very expensive players, it also lacks their exorbitant prices. nOrh has wisely chosen to place the focus of its engineering expertise on designing and producing a product that has as its primary goal quality sound reproduction.

Negative Impressions

The CD-1 has some minor ergonomic flaws. The first becomes evident when switching on the power. The power switch is located on the back panel, as are many computer and printer switches. In its present location, the power switch may be difficult to reach when the unit is placed in some racks or cabinets.
As a piece of equipment that would be expected to be switched on and off frequently, the power switch should be more easily accessible. nOrh has explained that the unit may be left on, as it consumes little energy while idling and, because of the tube analog stage, it takes a relatively long time to warm up.

The remote control is simple and functions flawlessly, but lacks certain ergonomic qualities that would make it easier to use: the control buttons are all similarly sized, nearly indistinguishable to the touch, evenly spaced, and too close together. These design elements conspire to prevent the remote control from being intuitive to operate; sufficient lighting must be available to read labels on the buttons.
Some differentiation in size and/or spacing of more commonly used buttons, such as play, reverse, stop, skip, and pause, would help alleviate this difficulty.

The CD-1 makes an audible "click" each time a track ends, and again when the next track begins. Clicks of this type are common with high end CD-players and DACs. While the click is not very loud (it is much softer than a similar click made by my personal DAC), it is quite audible.
This is a minor annoyance that easily can be overlooked. Anyone purchasing a unit such as this needs to be aware that this is normal.

[Front view, nOrh CD-1]

nOrh CD-1 with tray extended


As expected of a product from nOrh Loudspeaker Co. Ltd., the CD-1 is a very well made, beautifully finished piece of equipment. While lacking the sometimes startling innovation of some other nOrh products, the CD-1 does not disappoint.
With top quality sound and elegant visual aesthetics, the CD-1 is a worthy addition to nOrh's expanding line of audio products and would be a very welcome component in most home audio systems.

One complaint was noted with the unit controls: the power switch is located on the back panel.
This is an inconvenient location that may be difficult to use. However, if power is left on most of the time, this becomes a moot point. The remote control works flawlessly, but could use an ergonomic upgrade; all buttons are difficult to distinguish one from another in poor light.
These complaints may give the impression that this CD-player has significant problems; it doesn't. These are minor inconveniences expounded upon here in the hope that nOrh will be able to address them at some future time.

This is easily the best sounding CD-player I have yet auditioned. The nOrh CD-1 seems to be trying to fulfill the promise made twenty years ago: that compact discs would provide high quality sound, convenience, and ease of use far beyond vinyl records.
While the convenience and easy operation of CDs and players has never been questioned, CDs have always had an overly bright, harsh, and distinctly "digital" sound.
With the CD-1, nOrh has given notice that CDs don't have to sound digital. In addition, the price of the CD-1 is a fraction of what other high-end CD-players cost. While not cheap, nOrh's new CD-1 is proof that wonderful sound can be built into a CD-player at a price well below the "obscene" level of some other high-end units.

There is still the promise of DVD audio (DVDA) and other higher resolution formats designed to improve on the 16-bit CD standard; most presently are rare and expensive, although prices on the DVDA now are dropping steadily.
While these new formats promise greatly improved sound with the new format while being backward compatible with existing 16-bit CDs, initial reports indicate that they generally do little to improve the sound of standard CDs.
Many people have large libraries of CDs that they probably would be unwilling to throw away for a new format. As such, the CD-1 becomes even more important in that it allows the best possible sound from the most common music format, a music format that is likely to remain dominant for many years to come.

Photographs used in this review are courtesy of nOrh Loudspeaker Co., Ltd. Many thanks to Michael Barnes, president of nOrh, and everyone else involved for providing the unit used in this review.

Manufacturer's Comments

Thank you very much for your very positive review of the CD-1. It is important that we point out that the CD-1 is made by another Thai company. We worked with them to create the CD-1 for the international market. One of the things that we have learned creating audio products is that quality is often about choices.

When we looked into branding the CD-1, we were offered several levels of product. The lowest level was a 1 bit decoder with a less expensive transport. The next level was a 20 bit system with a solid state output. The best that we could choose was the 24 bit/96 Khz version.

I hope that the CD-1 helps to show that Thailand offers a unique opportunity to build world-class components at unexpected prices. I started nOrh not knowing what direction it would take. The Thais themselves have defined the level of quality and craftsmanship that is becoming part of nOrh's reputation.

As for the remote control, I must agree it is somewhat an afterthough. This is nOrh's first product with a remote control.

© Copyright 2001 Richard George - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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