Product: Audiomeca Mephisto IIx
Producer: Audiomeca - France
Approx.cost: approx 7,000 €/$
Author: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed/built: February, 2004
A couple of months back I reported on the Audiomeca Enkianthus DAC. The result was a very positive review. But there was an unanswered question. The test had been done using the AudioNote Zero transport, an excellent choice in it's price bracket and beyond, but at about 1/4 the cost of the DAC there was always the fear that the Enkianthus was not able to show it's full ability. And of course the best transport ought to be the one produced by Audiomeca themselves, the Mephisto, now in MkII x guise. But there was another reason the Audiomeca transport was of particular interest, and that was that unlike just about every high-end transport on the market it didn't use a CDM (CD Mechanism) from one of the major electronics company, rather an in-house designed and built device.
Why? If you buy a high-end CD player or transport from almost any manufacturer you will get a superbly built machine, but it's heart, the CDM will be from one of the big manufacturers like Philips, Sony, Toshiba et al. The hi-end manufacturers may modify the design but essentially they are tied to the basic priorities dictated by the major firms.
And so here we hit a snag. Are the priorities of a major such as Philips the same as Naim (who used their CDM's)? An example - Naim want a CDM that has sound quality as no.1 priority, with jitter in particular that is as low as possible - providing the thing is reliable that is all they want. Philips have many other priorities. First, is it worth their while as a mass producer to built a CDM exclusively for use in high-end transports? For them far better to make a good transport that can be used by the mid to high-end market equally and thus be built in far greater numbers. So the transport used by Naim in their original CD player (and incidentally in my old Micromega Solo) was the CDM9. This mechanism had to be economical enough to sell at a mid market price, it was NOT pure high-end. That said the old CDM9 is regarded by some as the best CDM ever made, indeed Naim chose to stockpile a lot of them when they went out of production.
So what price progress? Surely replacements should have been better? Well it's debatable, and I'm not technically qualified to judge personally, but some would argue that the cost-cutting agenda, the designing for ease of production, and the need to sell volume has resulted in a fall of standards. The final straw may well be that the CD is now officially obsolete (so the majors would have us believe). What motivation is there for Philips (for example) to build a specialist high-end CDM for a format they want to kill off?
All this leads manufacturers to rely more on electronics to cover faults. Increasingly sophisticated DAC's with reclocking etc can help here, but if information is corrupted by the CDM those circuits will have to work harder and in the final analysis none will be able to reconstruct the original data. This is the theory at least, if it's wrong all transports should sound the same regardless of the CDM used - and we all know that to be untrue.
So if we accept that a better CDM will produce a cleaner, lower jitter data stream, which in turn will put less stress on the servo electronics the result should be better sound - it's a simple equation. If you don't accept that then you may as well go down to your local supermarket, buy a DVD player with a digital 'out' for 50e and use that to drive your high-end DAC.
So why doesn't every high-end manufacturer make their own CDM? Lots of reasons. Imagine the sort of investment and research needed. What if in the end the result was something that sounded no better, after all Philips, Sony etc have a lot of expertise and huge research budgets to make up for their other 'compromises'.
But Pierre Lurne at Audiomeca is a committed man and decided it was worth it. I shudder at the economics of it, and I've no idea whether he had to persuade shareholders in the face of such folly, but he 'went for it'.
For anyone in the turntable business Pierre Lurne needs no introduction, he's one of the worlds foremost turntable and arm designers, but he admits at the beginning he knew very little about CDM's. So he got a CDM designer in to work with him - Renee Boonen. Never heard of him? Me neither, he's the man who designed the CDM9...
So take a traditional turntable engineer, steeped in the language of vibration analysis, precision engineering, bearing quality etc and pair him with the designer of one of the best ever CDM's. Stir gently and say the magic words "a high-end CDM please" to them and you'd expect something special...
So what resulted from this marriage, given that the crippling compromises of cost and the need to design for mass production had been removed?
One way to look at a CDM is as a miniature turntable with the laser assembly being the arm and the laser itself the cartridge. The laser needs to be held over the pits of the CD just as a stylus is held in a record's grooves. At the same time in order to read those pits it must follow each line of grooves perfectly. Immediately we can see that the problems will be much as with a turntable. Any vibration in the system will effect how well the laser head achieves this object. When you consider that 50 'tracks' are contained in the thickness of a human hair you have some idea of the seriousness of the problem.
Just as with a turntable there are a list of things that can cause vibrations. The drive motor is one, in the Audiomeca CDM a belt drive system improves isolation. Poor tolerances and imbalances in moving parts inevitably contribute, something a custom built, precision CDM can be optimised for. Unlike a vinyl turntable the drive also has a problem in that it spins at up to 500 rpm, most CDM's have stiffening ribs (especially if they are plastic) on the spindle and/or clamp and these generate considerable wind noise and thus more vibration. The Audiomeca avoids this pitfall being 'aerodynamic'.
But inevitably anything motor powered, and spinning fast will generate vibration, the next stage is to control those vibrations so that they do as little damage as possible. And here we are into the science of vibration analysis and tuning various components so that they resonate at frequencies that the transport is designed to control. It's all down to mass and inertia and damping etc etc. The point is that now you see why all this is bread-and-butter for a turntable designer.
But amongst all this is one nasty little trick that CDM's have to deal with, and one for which we can lay the blame firmly at the feet of the original authors of the 'Red Book' standard for CD. Unlike a vinyl turntable, a CD is designed so that the row of pits passes the laser head at the same speed regardless of the position on the disc. A bit of simple maths will show that this means that the CD must spin slower and slower as the laser tracks towards the edge. In fact when reading the centre of the disc (the start) the CD spins at 500 rpm and at the edge 200 rpm. You can see the logic to the design, but the result is that resonances produced by the motor, spindle, CD itself and all other spinning parts will sweep through a whole range of frequencies making controlling them very, very difficult. There are no magic answers to this, but the fact that Lurne is acutely aware of the problem shows that he at least attempts to minimise the effect.
Moving on the Audiomeca CDM has other tricks up it's sleeve. The platter on most CDM's is about 30mm, the Audiomeca's is the maximum that can be squeezed in before the TOC (Table Of Contents) is obscured, 44mm. To mate with this a large magnetic clamp holds the CD as steady as possible.
As here we're looking at a CDM made as a precision instrument rather than 'banged out like washers' the accuracy of balance and tolerances can be improved, each component specifically tuned to certain controllable frequencies. Many of those machined components are made up of metacrylic, which is non-ringing, and the total mass of 600 grms is very high for a CDM.
To this Audiomeca add a Sanyo laser head which they say is the best available.
Having dealt with the CDM itself we move on the construction of the player. No point in doing all that vibration control if the player doesn't isolate the CDM for outside vibrations. Again the CDM is the heart of the beast and is three-point suspended. Then the sub-chassis of the player is supported at four sprung points, which are adjustable and allow for levelling the chassis using the built-in spirit level. No doubt there's all sorts of clever mass matching and vibration control here too, but time marches on:-)
You'll note I said "player" rather than transport. The reason is that I was supplied with the Mephisto IIx integrated player, not with the transport alone. Pierre said the transport section would work as the dedicated "transport", but that the DAC and other internals were the same as the Enkianthus I had here. He was interested to see what differences I though there were between the integrated player and the transport/DAC in combination. The player has an offboard power supply housed in it's own stainless steel box and sporting separate connections for the analogue and digital halves of the player. But the transport/DAC combo has the advantage of independent dedicated supplies and better isolation of the two halves from vibration and electronic interference, so there ought to be an increase in quality when used in this way - we'll see.
As mentioned above the DAC section is the same Anagram Technologies based system as the Enkianthus, so to save space I'll send interested parties for the technical stuff there. What it doesn't have are the huge range of in/outputs of the DAC and the flexibility that goes with it. True there's balanced and unbalanced outputs, both digital and analogue, but that's it. If you run a multi-digital source system then that gives the DAC a big advantage.
Before we move on to how the thing sounds there's the question of build and appearance. Build was as near faultless as makes no difference. I'm afraid that after looking at various exotic turntables over the past few months I'm running short of hyperbole, but just look at the pictures. If you like piano-black acrylic and stainless steel then you'll be happy, it also matched the Enkianthus perfectly... As a turntable-nut I loved the ritual of sliding back the transport cover and slotting a disc on the spindle before putting the clamp on and finally sliding the cover back. You may hate it.
Well enough of the preamble, what's it like with music?
Confession time... My experience with high-end CD players is as limited as my knowledge of LP spinners is extensive. My project for the next 12 months is to change all that by covering a series of top players. As with anything on TNT that means that this will inevitably be a "work in progress", as over time I will refer back to previous tests as I built up a CD player database - this is a website after all and so the review will stay on-line. But for the moment my main references are turntables. But before we go there I can answer a few questions unequivocally.
I said at the beginning that I was intrigued to find out the difference between the Enkianthus driven by the "budget" AudioNote CD transport and it's own dedicated drive - the Mephisto.
I'd love to be able to report that the cheaper transport did the job, but the difference was evident 'blind'. This was CD taken to another level. The biggest difference was the expansive quality of the Mephisto, it just made everything sound bigger and more open with more space around voices and instruments, bigger halls, more wide open spaces. Of course this all comes from the resolution of acoustic clues, low level information and control of the bottom octave. Interestingly here the switching in and out of the REL Strata sub made more difference to the Mephisto than the AudioNote transport, a sure sign of the control the Mephisto gave to recordings with sub 30Hz information.
It was so smooth and clean as well, the AudioNote sounding ever so slightly uncouth in comparison, but the Mephisto NEVER rounded off edges or sounded slugged.
Now looking back at my review of the original Enkianthus this is high praise, the increase in fidelity was as unexpected as it was welcome.
Now to the comparison of the Mephisto as a stand-alone player and as a transport combined with the Enkianthus.
Hmmm. The DAC/transport had the edge. Somehow it was even more open, with even more space. Could I spot it blind? Nope. Could I spot it in a switched A/B? Yup, but I'd not bet my house on it. It's a tough call all round, the player on it's own is so good that adding a smidgen more is never going to be make or break. Yes the DAC gives far more flexibility, and yes if bought as a transport/DAC the result will be even better, but as an economic upgrade of an existing player adding a DAC is going to be 'guilding the lily'. If your system is of a higher resolution than mine, if you have 'golden ears', if you are the sort of person that is driven mad by the though that there's more to come then go ahead, I know I'd be happy with just the player.
And now the crunch. Is this paragon finally a match for a top turntable? I know Pierre hates me doing this, and it could be argued that it's all irrelevant anyway, but for me it's a very important question. I've never listened to CD's because frankly after hearing one I generally want to get up and put a record on. What often sounds great initially, gets me yawning after a couple of tracks. Great for background music, or something when you can't be bothered to get out of your chair every 20 minutes, but they don't 'speak' to me I'm afraid. With the Mephisto that all changed. I found myself playing it an awful lot, I even started trotting off to the local library and borrowing CD's, something I've never been inclined to do before.
I relished its consistency, the lack of surface noise and other glitches, but those aspects have never tempted me before. No it was the sheer quality of the musical reproduction that got to me in the end. In comparison against my Orbe it was swings and roundabouts - very much dependent on the quality of the recording I was listening to. The Orbe trounced the Mephisto with Chris Rea's 'On the Beach', bigger, warmer and more organic - the Mephisto made the BBC Led Zep sessions wonderful, they were barely listenable on the Orbe. At it's very best, with the best possible softwear, the Orbe still managed to sound bigger, more meaty and with more 'boogie' factor, but it never bested the openness of the Mephisto, nor it's insights into low level information. If someone were to ask me today which format produced the best sound I'd find it hard to make a convincingly rational argument for one over the other.
So here we have it. A CD player that makes me want to play CD's - scary... I searched desperately through my notes to find things to criticise, without which none of my reviews is complete. To my great relief I found two - the remote is a cruddy plastic parts-bin affair (but I never used it), and the acrylic needs care if it's to stay looking as good as new, er... that's all folks!
Beyond that I'm in love. If I could raise the cash, I'd buy it tomorrow. Over the next 12 months I'd love to have had it to be the standard reference for the series of CD player tests in the mould of the turntable tests and the Orbe, but there has to be limit to my spending on hi-fi (Kate says). But for those that can afford it - have fun.
N.B. For those who insist that buying a high-end CD player is madness because of the raft of new "wonder" formats, SACD, DVD-A et al. You're wrong. Personally I believe that the main, in fact only, carrier for high quality stereo will be the CD. There is no viable replacement in the form of software you can touch. We are at the beginning-of-the-end of 100 years of buying a recording on a physical disc or tape, it's CD or something on a hard-disc from now on.
© Copyright 2004 Geoff Husband - www.tnt-audio.com