In the early 1990s, the Compact Disc was all the rage, and vinyl records were being executed en masse. Thirty years later, and oh, how our tables have turned. Mint first pressings of tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley’s 1957 album Hank Mobley (Blue Note BLP 1568), which once could be had for $40, now bring upward of $8000. Each. Vinyl continues to enjoy a global resurgence of popularity, while CD sales have plummeted to all-time lows.
What happened? Apparently, yesterday’s pops and ticks are today’s “warmth,” Record Store Day exclusives, and skyrocketing vinyl values. All things old . . .
If, in audio as in life, history repeats itself, will we one day miss the “clarity, convenience, and low-end extension” of the “Red Book” CD? Is the story of the impending “CD revival” about to go global?
In the US, Tidal offers admirable streaming quality, and Qobuz promises to follow suit. Spotify, not so much. But if I’m going to play a digital medium, I’d rather spin the fully lossless CD, and on a well-equipped, solidly built CD player. Perhaps this is part of the thinking behind the latest iteration of ATC’s flagship CD player-preamplifier, the CDA2 Mk2 ($4249).
Beginning in 1974, the Acoustic Transducer Company supplied drivers and loudspeakers to the British professional audio market, and pioneered the soft-dome midrange driver and active speakers. In 1996 they launched their first audiophile amplification products, the SCA2 preamplifier and SPA2-150 power amplifier. Today, ATC’s passive and active loudspeakers are popular throughout the UK and the US.
The CDA2’s “Mk2” designation refers to multiple upgrades to the original player, introduced in 2010. The beating heart of the revised CDA2 is twofold: a Chinese-made, Teac 5020A-AT CD transport claimed to deliver faster play and seek times and lower noise than the previous, Philips transport, and Asahi Kasei Microdevices’ 32-bit AK4490EQ DAC chip. Also new: a USB input that can natively play high-resolution PCM files; a dedicated headphone amplifier; a 3.5mm analog input for connecting a smartphone, media player, or tablet (no streaming here); and a stronger power supply. The CDA2’s fully balanced preamplifier and class-A output stages also received upgrades.
“The input and output gain stages in the CDA2-2 are operational amplifiers built around discrete components,” according to ATC’s Richard Newman, Transducer and R&D Engineer. “There are six common gain blocks, two for left and right input buffering, and four to provide a ‘true’ differential output for the left and right channels. The output stages are configured as unity-gain complementary compound (Sziklai) pairs, biased in class-A. Optimizations were made to the above gain stages to further reduce distortion and noise. Also, the maximum output of the CDA2-2 is now 9V RMS, with a capability of driving high capacitive loads.”
The original CDA2 had only optical and digital inputs; the Mk2 adds an Amanero Combo 384 USB receiver module that provides an array of digital functionality. The Amanero can handle “sample rates from 44.1kHz to 384kHz, with word lengths to 32 bits,” Newman wrote. “The Amanero module will also decode DSD sources at 2.822 MHz (single rate, DSD64), 5.644 MHz (double rate, DSD128), and 11.288 MHz (quad rate, DSD256).”
The CDA2 Mk2’s first-rate constructioneach CDA2 Mk2 is wholly assembled by a single ATC employeeincludes the hand-soldering of “surface mount components on the legs of specific chips.” This care is reflected in the player’s bomb-proof appearance.
Early thinking regarding stored digital files vs real-time disc playback gave the former format the edgesupposedly, it eliminated jitter. “The AKM DAC has a high inherent tolerance to jitter,” Newman wrote. “To aid its performance, we have added many regulators around the DAC, paying particular attention to the ‘All-important reference line,’ which sets a reference level (voltage). Over and above that, we have tried to ensure that through signal delays, ground problems, interference, and noise are kept to a minimum.”
Why did ATC forgo both streaming capability and a phono stage in the CDA2 Mk2?
“To incorporate a streaming feature on the CDA2 Mk2 would have involved major software development,” Newman replied. “ATC’s strengths are not currently in software design but instead in high-quality audio electronic circuitry and loudspeaker transducer and system design. Clearly, with the increased popularity of vinyl, we can now look back at when we started development on the CDA2 Mk2, a phono stage would have been a welcome addition.”
Under British Steel
The CDA2 Mk2 measures 17.5″ wide by 3.5″ high by 13″ deep, and its wraparound case, rear panel, and chassis are made of steel; its brushed-silver front panel is a 13mm-thick aluminum extrusion. Constrained-layer damping was used to control resonances. The ATC’s front plate, with its raised and rounded double stripes at each end, looks like a large military epaulet stood on edge. When the review sample arrived, the heft of the two-layer box presented by my understanding UPS delivery person surprised me; nonetheless, an unpacked Mk2 looks heavier than its 15.4 lb.
The CDA2 Mk2’s front panel is laid out simply and logically. From left to right: the CD tray, below which are five metal buttons for Play, Stop, Previous, Next, and Open/Close. To the right of the tray is a column of five tiny indicator LEDs; from the top down, CD, Aux 1, Aux 2, S/PDIF, and USB. To the right of this column is a small digital display, and below that are two buttons, for Mute/Function and Standby. At far right is a motorized Alps Blue volume control. By the way, the bolts securing the CDA2 Mk2’s front panel look so like the pushbuttons that I often pressed a bolt, then stood there waiting for something to happen. It never did.
Most of the front panel’s controls are duplicated on ATC’s small SCA R2 remote-control handset, which also lets you fast-forward or -reverse through tracks, dim the display, repeat one track or the entire disc, and put the CDA2 Mk2 in standby mode. Unlike Art Dudley, I greatly enjoy having a remote, and the ATC R2, while made of plastic and of relatively low build quality, performed perfectly. However, the remote has no Function or Open/Close button of its own; to close the disc tray, you must reach under the extended tray to press the Open/Close button. Awkward (footnote 1).
The CDA2 Mk2’s rear panel is similarly minimalist. From left to right are: a small Power button; a fuse bay; an IEC power inlet (power cord included); a ¼” headphone jack powered by a discrete headphone amplifier capable of driving input impedances from 600 to 30 ohms; one pair each of balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) outputs; three analog inputs (one 3.5mm mini jack, two pairs RCA jacks); and coaxial, optical, and USB inputs. Above the headphone jack, and below the label “Stereo CD Preamplifier,” is ATC’s 1970s-styled logo.
I’d say 15 lb is more or less the perfect weight for a CD preamplifier: not so light as to make you distrust its build quality, not so heavy as to split your ribs when you move the thing around. The CDA2 Mk2 slid easily into each of my hi-fi racks. In both rigs, I placed it on an IKEA Aptitlig bamboo board, atop four rubber-and-cork pucks sitting on an MDF shelf.
Footnote 1: Following publication of this review, ATC clarified that the CD drawer can be opened and closed with a long press-and-hold of the remote’s “Stop” button. However, this was not mentioned in the manual.Ed.