HFA Review: CDT2-MK2 & DAC2-SE
Chinese-made products have not always enjoyed the same reputation as well-known western brands but, based on recent experiences, I am confident in stating that it is about time to change our collective minds about this. Initially often copying existing designs, these days, an ever-increasing number of reputable Chinese companies are making their own designs and produce high-quality audio equipment that challenges the performance of competing traditional brands at a lower cost.
Spearheaded by Jacky Ho, Jay’s Audio is one such brand. But not only does Jay’s Audio make high-quality equipment, but they also place special importance on the durability of the internal components. Of all the internal components, the transport mechanism itself is often the first part to wear out and in order to take away any concerns about this, the internal construction of the player has been conceived such that the owner can quickly and easily remove the transport mechanism and replace it him or herself, negating the need to ship the player back to the factory. Don’t worry – Jay’s Audio has made sure to stock more than enough mechanisms.
Of course, the quality of the mechanism will weigh in very heavily in this. Suppliers for CD transports are disappearing. Philips had already discontinued the production of the popular CD-Pro 2LF mechanism in 2013 and major supplier Enco has recently announced to now be “technically sold out of these drives”. With Sony already having left the scene a while ago the last surviving quality manufacturer was Sanyo but they, too, may now have left the party. Available still are pretty much only CD-ROM parts of questionable quality. So, what is a quality-conscious manufacturer to do?
Jay’s Audio has made what I think is a very wise decision by choosing to use NOS (New Old Stock) Philips CDM-4/19 transport mechanisms. Not only do these mechanisms have a uniquely liquid sound, but they are also indestructible and seem to last forever. I own several classic 30+ years old Philips CD players and have friends that own many more that all use this particular transport and not a single one has ever had any issues. So, while it is comforting that the CD mechanism can be swapped by the user if needed, it is highly unlikely that this will ever be required.
Above: the custom-made remote control on the right-hand side is for the CD transport. For the DAC, there is no custom unit. Instead, the supplied Apple remote is used.
Made from thick and well-fitting brushed aluminum panels and at 15 kg for the transport and 20 kg for the DAC, the Jay’s Audio components are built and finished so very precisely that they could pass for any number of high-priced high-end brands. In operation, everything feels solid and smooth and this is precisely what Jay’s Audio is aiming for. Of course, Jay’s Audio is not only concerned with the build quality, but the sound quality is also equally as important. All their components are tuned using selected components to sound precisely as intended. They use only the best internal components sourced from all over the world such as Noratel transformers, Holco resistors and Audio Note capacitors from the UK, Crystek Femto Clocks from the USA, Nichicon and Amtrans capacitors from Japan, and, of course, the famous Dutch Philips CDM-4/19 transport. Jay’s also used to have a CDT3-MK2 in their portfolio but this player used a CD Pro 2 mechanism which is no longer available and so, this product has been dropped.
While the CDP-2 integrated CD Player’s converter section employs the Soekris dam1021 R2R DAC, the DAC-2 Signature reviewed here is built around Dual AKM AK4497EQ DACs that can process all popular bitrates and sample rates, including DSD. I asked Jack Boelsz of Boelsz Audio about this and he confirmed that Jay’s Audio considers the AKM’s to be of higher quality, hence their inclusion in the top-tier converter.
After having focused on the design and manufacture of CD transports and CD Players using the Philips CDPRO2 LF and CDM-4 mechanisms for nearly two decades, today, Jacky Ho still feels that standalone digital CD transports are the best way to reproduce music.
The CD transport and DAC were first listened to as a combo using the Lejonklou Sagatun dual mono preamplifier, CH Precision A1.5 power amplifier, and Kroma Audio Carmen loudspeakers. The Jay’s units were connected with Belden power cables and Siltech Paris MXT interlinks and the supplied Sony HDMI cable and a Belden RG59 cable to assess the differences between coaxial and I2S. Connected simultaneously for comparison was the Antipodes CX+EX server combo via a Final Touch Audio Callisto USB cable. Listening started with the coaxial connection with the DAC-2’s filter set to the NOS mode. I played around with the other modes but find that these make for differences so subtle that I could not really decide on a favorite.
After only a couple of notes, the music already grabbed me. This was properly good! With a grin on my face I turned up the volume and got immersed in the music. Meanwhile, I noticed that this combo really has the rhythm part down, as evidenced by my tapping foot. I am used to listening to very high-end equipment and so I was not expecting this kind of performance from the Jay’s units. This is a very musical combo, so much is sure! In addition to being rhythmically infectious, the sound is fluid and spacious and articulate and lively at the same time. These aspects don’t often go together but here, they do. It’s a big and generous sound. The bass has an almost Wadia-like solidity and the tonality is very natural and convincing. There’s absolutely no artificiality here and every CD that I spin with the combo sounds pleasant and engaging as well as vibrant and propulsive and without ever being the least bit dry.
The transient behavior is fast but not too fast. Some ultra-fast components can sound so incisive and narrow-banded as to leave out textural richness and tonal density but this is not the case here. Rather, the attack is just right and the notes are nicely filled out with perfectly natural sustain. Decay, too, is spot-on, neither cut short nor lingering on too long at the expense of incisiveness. It does not happen very often but there’s absolutely nothing that I could say that is detractive to this combo’s performance. Well, ok, if I set the nitpicking knob to eleven then maybe there’s one thing I could say. There are DACs that sound even more crystalline. It’s not that the resolution is lacking at all but you can find DACs that are even more highly resolving. Naturally, no audio component offers everything in equal measure and more analytical DACs at this price level inevitably make sacrifices in other territories but if you are looking for the utmost in microscopic detail-retrieval, then maybe the Jay’s Audio components are not for you. But everyone else should definitely read on. What we have here is the kind of performance that competing European or American products would charge double to triple for.
In theory, I2S connections should sound better than any other connection method where the clock is muxed with the signal as it is with SP/DIF, and my personal experience confirms this. Different connection methods shouldn’t really alter a component’s character and here this is indeed not the case. Using the supplied Sony HDMI cable, the transport has all the same sonic attributes as via coax but it provides it all with more conviction. Mostly, the difference is in the bass, which is tighter and more articulate and easier to follow. There’s tighter pacing and less rounding off, less clutter and a more clear-cut sound with an overall more upbeat and propulsive delivery. Going back to coax, the delivery certainly does not collapse or anything, rather, it’s still great, only slightly less so. But it’s enough to make me prefer the I2S connection.
Music Server input
Switching from the CD transport via I2S on HDMI to the Antipodes CX+EX combo via USB, the sound becomes even tauter and more impactful with undiminished PRaT and remaining full-bodied and sonorous. This strong rhythmic aspect is present with the DAC-2 Signature no matter which input is used. In a direct comparison with the CD transport, the latter consistently sounds sweeter and more relaxed and considerably more fluid than the server. The sound via USB is little drier and less free-flowing and, perhaps less immediately pleasing than the CD transport’s presentation. Of course, a digital format does not differentiate between frequencies. So, the free-flowing fluidity that is so very pleasant in the treble and midrange is also present in the bass and there, it is arguably less welcome. Indeed, the transport’s bass is slightly rounded compared to the USB input. It seems fair to say that the server’s delivery is probably more accurate. This is particularly evident in the bass, which with the DAC-2 and modern R&B is as tight and explosive as I’ve ever heard it. The CX+EX combo has been my favorite server for a long time, precisely for its full-bodied and solid delivery and the Jay’s DAC certainly plays to this server’s strengths. When playing CDs, however, the sound washes over you more easily and you tend to forget about the technical aspects more quickly. Somehow, it remains easier to become emotionally involved with CD than with ripped music played from a server.
I used the Final Touch Audio Callisto USB cable for the most fluid and free-flowing sound with the Antipodes server and the I2S HDMI cable between CD transport and DAC meaning that the CD transport should hold the best cards for sounding the tightest. That it still sounds more fluid, I think has everything to do with the CDM-4 mechanism. All the other players with this mechanism that I used in the past had a similarly fluid presentation. However, the Jay’s Audio transport clearly deviates from all those classic spinners by retaining the fluidity but also sounding consistently more upbeat and direct to make for a very well-balanced delivery. It seems very likely that this has everything to do with the CDT2-Mk2’s elaborate power supply and its very accurate clock.
I should mention that I have also heard CD transports that are just as tight as the Antipodes or even tighter but without exception, these transports are much more expensive than the Jay’s. Invariably, these use linear mechanisms and in these cases, the overall feeling is also of a drier and more technical sound, much closer to the typical Music Server Sound. Are these mechanisms more accurate or do they lose some “musicality” in the process? I have my suspicions but, regardless, I think that the CDT2-Mk2’s allure is precisely that it sounds so fluid. Ultimately, this very much remains a personal matter – it all depends on the user’s aim.
Whether fed from a CD transport or a music server, the DAC-2 Signature provides the kind of super-enjoyable sound that I have not heard before in this price class. Of course, there will always be differences between CD transports and Music Servers but I find that’s part of the charm. Personally, I never feel like I must choose. I enjoy all formats for different reasons and simply use any format that I fancy at any given time, be it LP, CD, or a file on the Music Server.
CDM4 = CDM4?
In a direct comparison using a Belden RG59 coax cable with two classic Philips players that use the same CDM-4 mechanism, the Jay’s Audio player’s superiority was evident. The CD473 sounded plasticky, washed-out and even a little edgy and the CD614, always one of my favorite low-cost players, was indeed better than the 473 but still comparatively synthetic in timbre and, just like the other player, lacking focus and incisiveness. In order to make sure the players were judged on equal grounds I placed the CD614 on the same type Artesania Modular rack as the Jay’s Audio CDT2-MK2 was on and, believe it or not, this did help it develop a tonally fuller sound. But the player still sounded comparatively washed-out and rough yet not as propulsive and incisive. Alas, all the attention in the world cannot make a CD614 the equal of the Jay’s Audio transport. Not by a long shot.
Digital = Digital? Fuhgettaboutit! If there wasn’t a trace of family-resemblance, I would be tempted to pronounce the differences between these two CDM-4-equipped players night and day. But it really is no contest and I think anyone could hear it. No golden ears required. Yes, the difference is that large. Now, one could argue that my trusty CD614 surely must have worn-out capacitors but this unit was completely recapped only a couple of years back, making it very unlikely that it is in any way off-spec. Nope, I think this clearly shows that the Jay’s Audio transport is really excellent.
The sound of a D-A converter is a sum of its parts as well as the implementation. So, it could be a coincidence, but I have found that AKM-equipped DACs always sound impactful and upbeat, and indeed, the Jay’s Audio DAC is no exception. Visually, it bears some resemblance to the Esoteric D-07 DAC and from aural memory (which is hugely non-trustworthy, I know), I’d say that it bears some resemblance as well, particularly in terms of its bold and upbeat presentation. A more current DAC that has a similar presentation is the Bryston BDA-3 but I’d have to hear all these DACs side by side to know the precise differences. The biggest difference, of course, is in the price tag.
Using the Antipodes EX and compared directly with the Aqua Formula xHD (at this stage still with the v1 output board), the Aqua has a very different presentation than the Jay’s Audio DAC-2 Signature. Although the Jay’s Audio DAC was set to the NOS filter setting, the Aqua employs discrete R2R arrays and an actual NOS topology but I honestly can’t say that literally everything with the Aqua was better. I mentioned resolution of detail and indeed, the Jay’s Audio DAC does not paint quite as precisely or as subtly as the Aqua DAC. But instead, it has a significantly more energetic and more solid delivery which is absolutely entertaining, especially with the Kromas. Importantly, the Jay’s Audio DAC sounds every bit as natural as the Aqua and timbrally just as convincing. Putting it in as little words as I can, the Jay’s Audio DAC-2 Signature is best described as “full-bodied and taut”, whereas the Aqua Formula xHD’s key descriptors would be “transparent and refined”. Indeed, the Aqua has noticeably higher resolution and it digs deeper into the mix, similar to going from an elliptical stylus to a fine line stylus with a good record player. In audiophile terms, the Aqua is better. Of course, at almost 14K, it is also in a very different price category. And also, one could still argue over which one sounds better or better provokes emotion. What’s for sure is that I find the Jay’s to be hugely involving and an absolute joy to listen to.
At this point in the review, I moved from the Kroma Carmens to the Martin Logan ESL15A’s, and again with the complete Jay’s Audio CD + DAC combo, only to find that, once again, I am blown away by how great the Jay’s components sound! Audio buddy MP came by and he commented on the fact that he had not heard any Martin Logans sound this convincingly natural yet. He’s a Jadis/Sonus Faber guy and he places a particularly heavy emphasis on tonality. I should also mention that, so far, he had only heard smaller or older Logans with very different equipment at my place but still, it’s telling that he felt this way when the Jay’s Audio components were playing. The Logans have some character of their own but they are also very clean and transparent and any synthetical coloration in the source is immediately heard. Not so in this case, though. The Jay’s units really do sound as neutral and natural as I already thought they did with the Kromas.
At this time, I also had the Ayon S10-MkII DAC for review. Being a tube-design, one could easily assume that it would sound very different from the Jay’s Audio DAC-2 but imagine my surprise when they two DACs turned out to have more similarities than differences! In terms of bass drive, tonality, harmonic richness, and resolution, the two DACs are very close. Where they differ primarily is in terms of perceived soundstage depth and the feeling of being engulfed by the sound, which the Ayon does indeed do better. This is one of the aspects in which tube products often excel. I should mention that Ayon products, in general, are particularly fast and tight for tube products but you can also say that the Jay’s Audio DAC-2 Signature is remarkably sonorous and richly textured for a transistor design. The decision between the two was also related to what kind of music was played. With rhythm-driven music, I preferred the Jay’s Audio for its tighter and more articulate bass and with smoother music such as soul, I preferred the Ayon for its deeper sound and longer lingering decays. Which of the two should be regarded as being better? Honestly, I could not make that decision. First, we are talking about tube versus transistor and second, they are very similar and choosing between the remaining differences is very much a matter of personal preference. That’s something for every person to decide for himself or herself. All I can add at this point is that the Ayon costs three times as much.
Both the CD transport and the DAC have much impressed me. Although different presentations can make for certain preferences, meaningfully better transports or DACs can really only be had for amounts nearing the 10K. Both these components perform at a level that competing European or American products charge double to triple for. Even if certain aspects of their performance can be bettered if enough extra money is spent, the bottom line for me is that these components make music with such involvement and enthusiasm that they immediately instill the desire to play more music, not think about technical matters.
I like them so much that I added them to my system and made them my references in the affordable high-end class where they’ll provide stiff competition for any competitors to come.
Credit: HFA Author Christiaan Punter