Product name: Human Audio Libretto CD player.
Manufacturer: Human Audio - Hungary
Cost: 6.990 euros + VAT. (YMMV)
Reviewer: Nick Whetstone - TNT UK
Reviewed: January, 2011
I see all sorts in this game! After the fabulously individual design of the Virtue Sensation and Piano, came the much more conventional styling of the ONIX A55 amplifier, and CD10 CD player. I had hardly finished writing my reviews of the latter when another parcel arrived hinting of something a bit special.
The hint was the carton itself. Most cartons are plain boxes, some have slots cut out so that the parcel can be more easily carried. This one had wood-grained inset handles of the sort that you see on some kitchen cupboards. These made for an easy way to carry the carton, without the large holes that allowed the contents to be seen, or that allowed moisture into the box. If you read my reviews on a regular basis, you may be forgiven for thinking that I have some kind of fetish with packaging. But there are a few reasons that I often begin a review by mentioning it. First off, I think that the standard of packaging is a good indication of how much care the supplier has taken in producing that product. Secondly, the standard of packaging is an important factor if you are purchasing hi-fi through the post (as many of us do these days). And lastly, I was once a packaging buyer, and in that role came to appreciate what an art good packaging is.
Well, in this case, things got even better, so if you aren't interested in packaging, you may as well skip this paragraph. The carton was sealed by the usual brown tape, but once that was carefully slit open, I found that a large front flap of cardboard was held in place by Velcro such that it can be easily re-closed and held securely. Lifting the flap revealed some egg-box foam that was fixed to it so there was no chance of losing it, or of not placing it back in the correct position when repacking. Underneath was a stout cardboard tray containing the accessories: battery charger, puck, bearings, CDP cover, and remote control. This lifted out to reveal another compartment with the actual CD player, its glass cradle, and the battery power supply/control unit, securely nested in foam inserts. It's about as perfect packaging as you will find!
Out of the carton, the contents are even more impressive! The CDP, the battery housing, and the remote control unit are all made from bamboo, and to my eyes at least, are quite beautiful to look at and to hold. There are a few good reasons for using bamboo. I have expressed my belief before that metal enclosures somehow change the sound of hi-fi equipment for the worse. Bamboo is of course non-metallic. It is also light but very strong and hard-wearing. It grows very quickly and is easily replaced, so it is sustainable, and therefore environmentally friendly. It is also non-resonant so particularly suitable for housing hi-fi. Add to all that its good looks (OK that's a matter of taste), and you have an ideal material to replace metal for hi-fi enclosures, subject to ensuring shielding is also taken care of.
The simple rectangular shapes of the CDP, battery housing, and remote control compliment each other, and augment the over-all simplicity of the whole package in terms of appearance. It's got an organic look to it and is surely going to be more welcome in a domestic environment than a black metal box. That's clearly the aim that Human Audio have set out to achieve, and I feel that they have produced a hi-fi product of rare beauty.
I have referred to the battery housing but it is much more than just a box for the batteries. It also contains the control gear for the actual CD transport mechanism that is housed in the other box. The power is turned on and off from the battery housing, and there are controls for playing the CD too. A short umbilical cable connects the two units together, and that uses locking multi-pole plugs and sockets. The other socket on the battery housing allows the external battery charger to be plugged in. On the rear of the CD transport housing are RCA sockets for audio output, XLR sockets for balanced audio output, and an RCA socket for SPDIF out. Regular readers of my reviews will already know that I prefer to see a BNC socket in preference to RCA, and would expect one on an item with the price tag that the Libretto comes with.
Regular readers will also be aware of my crusade to make everybody aware of just how critical it is to set up hi-fi equipment optimally (particularly source items) to minimize the harmful effects of vibration. This is an area where the Libretto designers have obviously spent as much time in the detail, as they have with the rest of the concept. And the result is quite unusual, at least in my experience. (While writing this review, TNT published David Holgate's review of the conceptually similar Solidcoreaudio isolation stands) A glass cradle sits on four small flexible feet. On the top side of the cradle are three shallow glass dishes. In each dish is placed a small ball-bearing. On the underside of the CD transport are three glass discs corresponding to the position of the three glass dishes on the cradle. When in position on the cradle, the three ball-bearings are held between the centre of each dish, and the centre of each glass disc on the CD transport. The first time that I set this up, it was quite a novelty to watch the CD transport literally floating around, as though I had put it on top of a jelly (jello). In fact I thought that once I started spinning a CD, the whole thing would be in a state of constant motion (or even slide its way off the cradle altogether). But of course it wasn't (and it didn't), and after that initial floating motion has ceased, there is no visible movement of the CD transport when in use. Neither did I notice any problem with the connected cables, although the ones used were fairly flexible, and I would guess that heavy/rigid cables are not recommended.
The Libretto uses the well-respected transport, the CD-PRO2, a high precision clock, a 24-bit resolution DAC, a high quality output stage using matched Jfets, and finally, some high-quality output transformers. There are both balanced, and unbalanced outputs via XLR and RCA (phono) sockets respectively (but you must not use both types of output at the same time).
The CDP and charger can be set up and connected to the mains supply permanently. This is because charging will be automatically isolated from the batteries when the unit is turned on to play CD's. So once set up, there is virtually nothing to worry about, you simply turn the Libretto on and off as you require it. When you turn it off, it starts charging. It can be used for up to 36 hours between charges, so unless you are a serial insomniac, you are unlikely to ever run down the batteries completely.
All in all, the Libretto is quite a revolutionary piece of gear, and you will guess that I couldn't wait to hear how it performed. To start off I connected it directly to the ONIX A55 amplifier, certainly a mis-match in terms of pricing, but the A55 had impressed me with a range of other higher-priced equipment ,and I decided to begin the review using it again. Speakers were my modified Mordaunt Short Pageant's.
The Libretto is controlled from the front panel of the battery housing by a series of toggle-switches, just beneath the display. One switch turns it on or off, and the other three switches control the playing of the CD. Of course, the playing is also controlled from the rather lovely remote control handset too. One criticism I did have of the Libretto is that it doesn't appear possible to go straight to a particular track. For instance, if you want to play track 3, you must press the 'next track' button three times instead of a button marked '3'. The remote control can also be factory-programmed to control the volume of the Human Audio Fortepiano amplifier if required.
Playing a CD requires that it is placed on the transport, and the puck then placed in the centre of the disc (it's magnetic and will centre itself). I found this quite a familiar procedure having converted my own CDP to top-loading some years ago, but if you are used to placing a CD in a drawer, I don't think that it would be long before you find this method easy to use also. You then need to press a button next to the CD to trigger the reading of the TOC (Table Of Contents) that will then appear in the display on the battery housing. The CD is then ready to be played. Because it is top-loading, the Libretto will need to be placed on a top shelf, or on a shelf that has enough clearance for you to change CD's easily. Given its looks, you will probably want to put it on a top shelf anyway!
I'm not sure if the review sample of the Libretto was burned in but I decided to dive straight in and audition it. The first CD on was 'Gracelands' by Paul Simon, and I played the title track. This had been a pure joy to listen to on the ONIX CDP/amplifier but there wasn't that WOW factor with the Libretto! What was missing was the magic of the bass-line, ie the speed and definition. On the Libretto, it was less prominent, less defined, ie softer, and the pace wasn't there. I tried another CD, 'Amused to Death' by Roger Waters, and again, the bass was slightly soft. Now, I know from my own experience with battery supplies that the one down-side is softer bass (although more-so with amplifiers than sources), but I didn't remember things being quite as bad. It was time to try and find out what was going on.
There wasn't anything that I could do about the power supply - it's battery or nothing with the Libretto (and the battery was fully charged). So the first thing that I tried was to take the Libretto transport off its cradle and use my tripod system under it. This firmed up the bass quite a bit but I lost some of the nuances, and there was a narrower range of tone too. I then tried the Libretto on its cradle, but with a large slab of granite between it and the shelf. That was slightly better as regards firming up the bass, and the nuances and tone were back as well. I was beginning to think that here was another of those dreaded hi-fi compromises, when I got the idea to try the Libretto on its cradle, but with that supported by the tripod system (on the granite slab). This proved the best combination by some way, firmer base with virtually no loss of the Libretto's better qualities, so that is what I settled on for the rest of the review.
Going back to the 'Gracelands' track, it was much more enjoyable with the bass lines bouncing along with the rest of the music. I still didn't think that the bass sounded quite sound as 'good' as with the ONIX CD-10 and Virtue Audio Piano CDP's (with their mains power supplies), but in fairness, I must say straight away that everything else was clearly better on the Libretto. The tonal range in particular was exemplary, probably as wide as I have ever heard. Here are some of the notes that I made after this:
Roger Walters 'Amused to Death' - Q-sound effects best of any CDP that I have heard to date, and on a par with the best USB DACs. Very low noise floor makes even the faintest sounds crystal clear. Great purity of sound, strings very 'clean' with rich tone. Sound stage is holographic with piano seeming to float in the air (this is one of the sound effects, and not bad production).
Eva Cassidy 'Fields of Gold' - Again, low noise floor apparent and great purity both in Cassidy's voice, and musical background. No sibilance. Every nuance of Cassidy's voice displayed clearly portraying the emotion of the song very well. Very clean guitar strings. Excellent separation of all elements.
Van Morrison 'Into the Music' Percussion a tiny bit soft but vocals much clearer. Much easier to hear lyrics.
Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto - Wonderful tone, individual instruments in orchestra easily discernable. Good scale.
Joan Osborne - Relish - bass lines and percussion on this album do seem remarkably tight. Everything very well controlled. Easily the best rendition that I have heard on a CDP.
In short, it was hard to find a CD that I was very familiar with, that didn't sound clearly better over all on the Libretto. That said, I reckon that it slightly favours classical music, perhaps not surprising in that Human Audio use classical musicians to help them tune the sound of the Libretto.
At the time of this review, I also had a Wyred4Sound DAC-2 on hand, and as I could run them both at the same time, and switch between them using the remote control of the amplifier, I played a number of albums on both of them simultaneously. It actually wasn't hard to synchronize the tracks and then switch between the Libretto and the DAC-2. Piano had a slightly better tone through the Libretto on some tracks, bass was slightly tighter on the DAC-2. Other than that, the two were very close in performance but I would say after an hour or so of switching back and forward between them, I found my interest drifting toward the sound of the DAC-2. It was less 'polite' than the Libretto, more exciting when it was called for. That said, if I was playing a classical track I was more attracted to the sound of the Libretto. I see the Libretto being the source of choice for those who mainly listen to classical music, acoustic jazz etc, rather than other genres, and in particular rock music, although I wouldn't go so far as to say that those other genres don't sound good too.
It should go without saying that during the comparison with the DAC-2, it really brought it home to me how much easier PC-based audio is to use (once it is set up of course). It also highlighted perhaps the one flaw in the Libretto that I can really criticize, and that is to do with that gorgeous remote control. As far as I could make out, there is no provision to select a track by its number. Not so bad if you want to play track 2 or 3 on a CD but when I changed amplifiers or speakers and wanted to check the channel balance which I normally do using the stereo walk around test on the Hi-Fi News test CD, I had to press the 'next track' button 23 times! OK, it's not often that you will need to do that but given the price of the Libretto, it is something that would irritate me from time to time. And neither does the Libretto come with a facility to play randomly, or repeat tracks or the whole album.
Moving the Libretto in to my main system, it was hooked up to a Virtue Audio Sensation amplifier powered by a Paul Hynes regulated power supply. Bass duties were taken care of via an active filter, and another class-T amplifier. Speakers were my own open baffles, and it is interesting to note that Human Audio have also gone the open-baffle route with their own speakers.
Starting off again with Eva Cassidy, the 'Fields of Gold' track gave me the same sensation that I had when I first heard it. Cassidy seemed so real that I felt I could reach out and touch her - very spooky! The scale made her seem life-sized and the purity of her voice was mesmerising.
Paul Simon - 'Still Crazy After All These Years' - A great album for testing timing, and the Libretto passed with flying colours. Everything bounced along with a foot-tapping pace. Vocals/lyrics exceptionally clear.
Jeff Wayne - 'War Of The Worlds' - Richard Burton's voice is so well known to me now that the introduction spoken by him is a good test of the accuracy of any system. Once again, the Libretto passed the test easily. This album showed what a large sound stage the Libretto produces, deep as well as wide, and with everything well separated within the sound stage. I also found that it didn't sound quite as 'soft' as say the Pink Floyd that I listened too where the 'darker' passages didn't quite have the menace that I hear with other systems. Again, the vocals and lyrics were particularly clear and prominent.
Van Morrison - 'No Guru, No Method, No Teacher - once again, the clarity of the lyrics on this album demonstrated how accurate the Libretto is converting the digital into analogue. Not just voices, but instruments too were very easily identified for what they were.
Tchaikovsky - 'The Pathetique' - Again, great scale, and the best rendition of this album that I have heard to date. Fantastic tonal range, individual parts of the orchestra easily identifiable.
Pink Floyd - 'Wish You Were Here' - Large scale presentation, all sound effects particularly clear. Great tone on guitar strings. But slightly 'polite' presentation rather than exciting or dramatic.
Stacey Kent - 'The Boy Next Door' - again, another voice that I now know so well and the Libretto made Ms Kent sound even more like - well Ms. Kent. Great clarity of her voice, along with the instruments. Great timing, pace etc, very enjoyable to listen to again.
Joan Osborn - 'Relish' - Another rock album that worked particularly well through the Libretto. Great clarity, large sound stage, and very dynamic. Probably the best that I have heard this album.
Supertamp - 'Brother Where You Bound' - Fantastic pace and timing and altogether enjoyable although the bass lines were once again a tad softish.
Roger Waters - 'Amused To Death' - Again, the amount of detail pulled off the CD by the Libretto made every little detail stand out clearly. Q-sounds were very clear, and spread out right around the room.
Nick Drake -'Made To Love Magic' - The best that I have ever heard the acoustic guitar on this album. In fact, the best rendition of some the older songs since listening to them on vinyl many years ago.
In conclusion, the Libretto is clearly the best CD player that I have ever heard, and of course it should be given its price. Whether it will appeal to a potential buyer will certainly depend on how they like their hi-fi served up. By that I mean, do they prefer to play music from CD's, or would they be prepared to consider a move to PC-based audio. There are many audiophiles who still use a turntable as their prime source, having ignored the CD format since its introduction nearly 30 years ago. There are bound to be those who will stick with the CDP rather than move to PC audio, and that market is clearly the one that the Libretto will be aimed at. Now I can hear some of you saying already that while you can understand those who use a good turntable doing so because of the quality of the music, can the same be said about clinging on to using a CD player? Having heard the Libretto, I would say that it's brought CD to a level where it would keep a potential owner happy for years to come, and not feeling like a Luddite, for eschewing more modern music sources such as USB DAC's. That type of customer would be looking at the Libretto as a long-term investment, and therefore not put off by the asking price.
Music preference is also going to play a big part in any decision to purchase the Libretto. It's brilliant with classical stuff, jazz, vocals, acoustic, etc but doesn't quite give me the thrill that goes with some other genres of music. That said, on some of the rock orientated music that I played through the Libretto, the overall presentation was extremely good. Perhaps it depends on the production to some degree. But generally speaking, I felt that the Libretto is aimed more at those who like to sit down to listen to Beethoven with a glass of fine brandy, rather than somebody who wants to party to Hendrix with a crate of lager!
Given the sheer quality of the Libretto, its design, its quality of parts and construction, and the impression of class that it exudes from its bamboo housings, it will certainly fit in nicely with the sort of other equipment that it is likely to get used with. For those of us on smaller budgets, USB DACs and other PC-based sources are likely to provide us with a very similar sound quality for considerably less outlay, providing that we don't mind much more work in setting them up correctly. The Libretto of course is very much plug-and-play, and will appeal to certain (dare I say perhaps more senior?) audiophiles because it is. I doubt that it will ever sell in great numbers but the Libretto should go down in hi-fi history as one of the great CD players of all time, certainly one of the more iconic!
© Copyright 2011 Nick Whetstone - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com