Can a mere digital transport such as the Audio Note UK CDT One/II make a huge difference in the sound quality of a hi-fi system? Isn’t that the purview of the digital-to-analog converter that is paired with the transport?
I think we audiophiles can agree that a transport can impact the sound. A digital transport, in this day and age, is similar to a turntable in an analog system. It provides the foundation for the sound of the playback chain. If you can’t spin a disc properly, and if you can’t control the vibration from all the moving parts and the motors, the sound will be muddy and blurred and distorted and noisy. The DAC is probably analogous to a phono cartridge–that’s where the flavor comes in. But the transport? That’s the engine, where it all begins. That’s why it’s been tough to sort out the excellence of the Audio Note UK CDT One/II in a reasonable and meaningful way.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
There’s something downright old-fashioned about the Audio Note UK CDT One/II digital transport. It’s a big yet relatively light five-kilo box, which suggests the build of early CD players. (That’s one of the things I’ve discovered about Audio Note UK, that everything is lighter than I expect.) The tray is clunky and makes considerable noise as it slides in and out, which again reminds me of my first few CD players back in the ’80s from brands such as Sony, Mitsubishi and Magnavox. That made me a bit nervous at first, especially in an age where high-end audio products embrace the idea that everything must be solid and heavy and thick and quiet in order to reduce noise and vibration.
But the Audio Note UK CDT One/II digital transport doesn’t play by the rules, which seems to be a common theme among all these Peter Qvortrup designs I’ve been testing over the last few months. This is one of those reviews where all of my prejudices were bluntly addressed once I pressed the PLAY button for the first time. I know that sounds like my very first experience with a CD player back around 1982, where I was shocked at how music rose from the silence, and it colored my opinions on the compact disc until I came to my senses a few months later and realized I wanted to go back to my AR ES-1 with the Premier MMT arm and the Ortofon MC-X5.
That’s not what happened with the Audio Note UK CDT One/II. My first impression was closer to my experience with the Falcon Acoustics LS5/3a MoFi Edition, where I threw my hands up and wondered aloud, “Why does this sound so good? It doesn’t make sense!” In a high-end audio world full of claims that this digital source or that digital source provides the most analog-like sound ever, the Audio Note UK CDT One/II made me sit up straight in my listening chair and proclaim that THIS is the most analog-like sound I’ve ever heard from a CD transport. We’re not even talking about the DAC, which usually contributes most of the sonic signature. It’s just a transport, but one that wound up teaching me a few things.
Inside the Audio Note UK CDT One/II
When I was first informed about the Audio Note UK system I’d be reviewing, I saw the Audio Note UK CDT One/II transport listed and I wondered which one of Audio Note’s very musical DACs would be included as well. I searched up and down the list a couple of times before I noticed that the new Audio Note UK Cobra integrated has a built-in DAC. That means I started out with a fairly simple Audio Note system: the Cobra, the CDT and the AN-J/D Hemp speakers with their dedicated stands, with a small loom of Audio Note UK cables. As I mentioned in the review of the AN-J/Ds, this turned out to be a killer system for well under $20K total.
Now, you can eliminate the Audio Note CDT One/II transport from the mix and still stream away–just subtract the CDT’s $4,958 price. But out of the three Audio Note components, I was most surprised by the CDT. I dig both the Cobra and the AN-J/D Hemp loudspeakers, but the CDT might have been the selling point for this trio. I had no idea I could be this enchanted with a CD transport.
Audio Note UK says this about the CDT One/II:
“The in-house custom modified Philips front loading CD mechanism is designed purely to read true Red Book CD, which in our opinion is still the best possible Digital music format currently available.”
That’s interesting, at least to me, because it shows loyalty to a physical format that many have given up for dead. I still get a lot of joy from my huge CD collection, and there are many red book CDs that I still use as demo discs and so-called sonic references. In fact, that’s the reason why I still haven’t burned my entire CD collection to a server yet–I’m not quite ready to move on. That’s why I’m still reviewing products that can extend my appreciation for little silver discs, even when I’m so clearly pleased with the sound quality I’m getting through streaming Qobuz.
“The CDT-One/II is equipped with both single ended/RCA 75 Ohm SPDif and balanced/XLR 110 Ohm AES/EBU, transformer coupled, digital outputs,” Audio Note UK states.” I used the coax output from both Audio Note UK and AudioQuest (Carbon) for comparison. You’ll notice that the back panel of the Audio Note UK CDT One/II is gloriously simple and uncluttered–there should be no difficulty in getting this transport up and running.
Audio Note UK employs a three-beam laser as an optical pick-up. After that, the specs and features are few and far between. This is a simple device, at least for a box with a laser inside, but it works. When it comes to determining why this CD transport excels above others, however, it helps to look at the rest of the Audio Note UK transport line and the thought that goes into each model.
There are a total of seven Audio Note UK transports right now, from the no-frills CDT Zero/II all the way to the flagship two-chassis CDT-Six/Force. (Before you ask, the second box houses three power supplies.) Audio Note offers steady improvements as you go up the line–added connectivity options, tube output stages, heavy copper chasses, internal sprung suspensions to reduce noise and more. The prices get way up there, too, along with the matching Audio Note UK DACs, with one reviewer mentioning that his Level 6 transport/DAC combo cost as much as a house in his neighborhood. If that sounds foolish in 2023, you’re underestimating the love so many audiophiles still harbor for their precious CD collections.
The Audio Note UK CDT One/II, the second model from the bottom, still has everything I need in a transport–especially when it comes to sound quality. You should expect nothing less from a CD transport that retails for nearly $5K, but at the same time I was curious about how much better it could possibly get.
I used the Audio Note UK CDT One/II primarily in that all-Audio Note UK system which included the AN-J/D Hemp loudspeakers, the Cobra integrated amplifier and DAC, and all the associated Audio Note UK cabling. I did test the CDT with another DAC, in a system completely void of other Audio Note UK components, just to see if I could detect that AN flavor with just a transport. The DAC, of course, was the Lab12 DAC1, which possesses a sound that also strives to be “analog-like.”
Ergonomically, the Audio Note UK CDT One/II works just like most digital transports, with the basic functions like play, pause and loading achieved through buttons of the faceplate. If I had one reservation about the design, it would be the fact that those buttons are tough to push when the CD tray is out. You have to crouch down to ensure you’re pushing the right buttons. Over time, of course, I adapted.
Finally, I used a 1m AN-Lexus Digital IC with P plug between the CDT One/II and the Cobra, which costs just $293. The Audio Note UK cables can get quite expensive as well, especially when you consider all the silver being used, but for my review system I was both surprised at the relatively low prices of the cabling sent as well as the resulting performance.
The CDT One/II was easy to install, and it started playing music within a couple of minutes. Plug in the mains, the coax cable and install a couple of batteries in the remote control, and I never looked back.
Audio Note CDT One/II Sound
As I mentioned, I was thrilled when I first listened to the Audio Note UK CDT One/II with the Cobra integrated amp/DAC. The Audio Note UK sound is distinctive but, in my opinion, not truly deviant from the hi-fi “norm.” What I hear from these components is a liveliness, with plenty of energy, which can seem like a change of pace compared to some of my recent review components that focus on the lowering of the noise floor. In fact, one could make the argument that those quiet yet magnificent systems I’ve enjoyed over the last couple of years now sound like maybe they’re missing something.
The Audio Note UK sound, once again, seems to go a bit further when it comes to delivering more inner detail and more of the sonic cues that distinguish live music from reproduction. That does translate to a superb sense of decay, as well as an uncanny ability to define the boundaries of the original recording space. While listening to the CDT with the Cobra and the AN-Js, the walls of my listening room melted away and those somewhat plain-‘n’-simple AN-Js disappeared in the room.
That brings us back to the idea that a CD transport shouldn’t affect the overall tonality of the system. I’m not “hearing” the Audio Note UK CDT One/II sound, I’m hearing the DAC and the amp and the speakers, right?
That’s when I decided to enlist the Lab12 DAC1 for its final performance before shipping it back to Fidelis Distribution. The Lab12 also has a distinctive tonality, one that has a remarkably seductive sense of warmth. You don’t listen to the Lab12 DAC 1 as much as curl up with it. While the Audio Note UK sound is also warm, it’s a slightly different kind of warm, one that has a little extra energy in the mix.
When I used the Lab12 DAC1 during its review period, it constantly asserted itself with whatever components co-existed in the system. The Lab12 sounded like the Lab12, which is one of the reasons I liked it so much. The Audio Note UK CDT One/II, however, brought its secrets ingredient to the mix, which combined the strengths of the DAC1 and the DAC inside the Cobra. In a nutshell, I no longer thought of “warmth” as the first word that came to mind when I listened to the Lab12. It might have been the second or third word, but now I heard some of that Audio Note illumination when it came to that inner detail. The warmth of the Lab12 was not compromised in any way, but I still had the sense that I was responding more to the CDT’s natural tonality and additional attention to spatial cues.
BUT. I’ll say it right now–I preferred the sound of the Audio Note CDT One/II digital transport with the Cobra’s DAC over the Lab12. I’m not saying that the Lab12 isn’t as good as the Cobra DAC, because it’s still my favorite converter for anywhere near the price. It’s just that the combination of the CDT One/II and the Cobra seemed to be a little more determined and singular and clear-minded about its mission.
That’s the concept I keep tripping on while reviewing the Audio Note UK gear. Each piece is fabulous on its own, but it seems more focused when it’s all working together toward a common goal.
So what was the magical CD I first played with the Audio Note UK CDT One/II, the one that made me say “Why does this transport sound so good?” 2023 has been a busy year for me–I’ve been covering all of the high-end audio shows while trying to move into my new house. That means I’ve been remiss on new music releases, and I haven’t posted a Vinyl Anachronist column for months. (Now that the 2023 high-end show season has pretty much concluded, that should change.) That doesn’t mean, of course, that a steady flow of new music hasn’t made it to my mailbox. One CD, Lorenzo De Finti’s Lullabies From an Unknown Time from Losen Records in Norway, has stood out from most of the others.
This is a fairly simple recording, just De Finti’s piano, with trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso appearing in about half of the tracks. What is astonishing is the sound quality, a purist rendering of two unamplified musical instruments in a relatively intimate space. I can’t think of a better inaugural run for the CDT One/II, the type of astonishingly good red book CD for which this digital transport has designed. I heard so many natural spatial cues and an incredible amount of decay from each and every note, all placed in an acoustical setting that encouraged the sound to expand in every direction without an overbearing sense of control.
After listening to the Norwegian Lullabies about a half-dozen times, I was prompted to raid my collection of 2L Recordings. Morten Lindberg of 2L must be hitting his busy season again, and this year’s new titles are starting to arrive at my new home. Trio Mediaeval’s An Old Hall Ladymass features three singers, Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Jorunn Lovise Husan, interpreting the Old Hall choir book from the 15th century. Accompanied on organetto by Catalina Vicens, Trio Mediaeval delivers a vocal performance that is eerie in a sacred way, and the Audio Note UK system captured that spartan feel unique to early music, that feeling of discovery that borders on caution. In other words, I felt transported to a church many centuries ago, surrounded by those with a very different view of the world around them.
That’s what the Audio Note UK CDT One/II and the rest of this system delivered consistently, that feeling like I was getting just a little more information out of the music, information that provided a new context for understanding the meaning behind the notes.
Audio Note CDT One/II Conclusions
The last time I reviewed a CD transport, the CEC TL-1, it opened my mind to several new options when it came to the fate of my rather large CD collection. Just get a simple transport, and there’ll always be some DAC somewhere else in the system. (The TL-1, by virtue of its unique belt-drive mechanism, also influenced the overall sound quality.) That seems to be the direction the converter market is headed–stick a DAC in the integrated amp or the preamplifier and keep your system smaller and easier to place within your home. The Audio Note UK Cobra certainly assumed that role.
At the same time, the Audio Note UK CDT One/II tempts me to consider one of those Audio Note DACs I mentioned at the beginning, digital-to-analog converters that I’ve heard and enjoyed numerous times. That combination, I think, would be the ultimate solution for playing compact discs. Or, I could mention that Audio Note UK also offers a complete line of one-box CD players.
This circles back to my conclusions found at the end of the reviews for the Audio Note UK AN-J/D Hemp loudspeakers and the Cobra integrated amp/DAC. This seemingly modest Audio Note UK system, at $15,000, was incredibly satisfying. I’ve also suggested that you can eliminate the Audio Note UK CDT One/II transport, stick to streaming off the Cobra’s DAC, and knock the price of eternal happiness down to $10K. But I don’t want to do that.
Why? Because I still have a huge CD collection, and also because there were times when I felt more at ease with the sound of the Audio Note UK CDT One/II than I did streaming through the Cobra. Not only did the CDT preserve that overall Audio Note UK sound, that natural and realistic and airy presentation, but it added a sense of solidity and reliability to digital playback that I don’t always get from streaming. Plus, I still have plenty of CDs that sound extraordinary, from labels such as FIM, MoFi, 2L Recordings and yes, completely random “red book” discs that sound way better than they should–like the De Finti CD.
What I’ve discovered about the importance of an all-Audio Note UK system, apart from the natural synergy and the fact that these ingredients have been carefully voices to excel with each other, is that each piece sticks faithfully to the AN recipe, one that is definitely suited to my tastes.