HI-FI Choice
http://www.hifichoice.co.uk
Superbly natural, musical-sounding player. Poor aesthetic design, silly control logic.
Manufacturer: Cambridge Audio
Telephone: 0171 940 2240
Price: £200
Reviewed in issue: 163

When is a Special Edition not a Special Edition? When it's a completely different machine. Enter Cambridge's CD4 SE which, despite appearances, bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to the original CD4 reviewed so favourably in issue 147. I'm obliged to say, however, that by the time you read this missive, Cambridge is likely to have 'tarted-up' its standard and rather dour front panel with a few extra grooves, curves and blue paint. So at least the CD4 SE will look a little different from the matt-black CD4. We live in hope.

Widgets like direct track access, intro search, repeat, random and program play are all retained. But why is the CD4 SE one of the few players not to accept direct track selection with the drawer still open? A silly oversight in my view.

Inside, of course, it's all change. Gone is the Sanyo-based mechanism with its sluggish track access, replaced by the altogether crisper CDM12 transport from Philips. Cambridge has even re-laid all the supplied servo-electronics on a new board, for ease of manufacture, while improving the supply regulation to boost performance. Gone too is Philips' TDA1305 DAC to be replaced by the very different and very new CS4327 from Crystal. This is a high oversampling/

Bitstream-style converter claimed to offer something close to 20-bit performance.

Not only is Cambridge the first manufacturer to use this chip but it's actually employed two in a differential arrangement, hoping to lift the player's dynamic range while simultaneously reducing odd-order distortions. The final analogue stage is similar, in fact, to the CD4, though - in characteristically extravagant fashion - the final wiring is accomplished using lengths of Cambridge's banana-yellow Pacific audio interconnect!

Sound quality

"There's more than a hint of valve amp in this player" remarked one imaginative listener in response to the warm, rich and colourful sound of the CD4 SE. The player certainly places some emphasis on midrange detail and 'lushness' ahead of extreme treble 'airiness' and yet, despite this merest hint of darkness, Cannonball Adderley's mute trumpet and sax still possessed a realistic sense of attack and bite.

Importantly, the emotive strength of Rachmaninov's 3rd Symphony also remained quite undiluted. This piece proved a real challenge for the majority of players in our 20-way test where only a very few - the CD4 SE included - succeeded in flowing from theme to theme in a seamless and genuinely captivating fashion. There is absolutely no sense of 'going through the motions' with this player, just good, honest vibrant-sounding music.

There's always plenty of body and richness to its performance, but the likes of Rebecca Pidgeon did expose what was described as the player's "shaved treble", its one, albeit minor, Achilles' heel. But this could never undermine the performance of the player as a whole which sounds remarkably natural, and very close in temperament to the gloriously expensive CD1 from Audio Research.

Conclusion

Aesthetic and ergonomic quibbles aside, this latest offering from Cambridge ranks among the very best players we have ever encountered, and is certainly as good as you are ever likely to trip over at this price. Gone is the exuberant 'rough diamond' that was the original CD4 to be replaced by a doppelganger that's altogether more refined, mature and musically convincing. Possibly the greatest surprise of this test earns itself the heartiest of Best Buys.

PMi