Although all these mix-and-match elements may seem confusing, they work with a level of harmony untouchable by separates—even those from the same manufacturer. For example, pop in a CD and press “Play.” No matter what source was previously selected, the system instantly switches to CD. If the tuner is not actually in use, Opus shuts it down to reduce noise. The S30 mutes itself when headphones are plugged into the XS. And although there are as many as three volume controls in a stack, the Borg-like conglomerate knows exactly what every element is doing and never subjects an audio signal to duplicate circuitry. One simple remote controls everything. Such operational niceties, once experienced, seem so obvious that they become awfully hard to forego.
Happily, you won’t need to sacrifice the Opus 21’s practical advantages to achieve superior sonic performance. All the hallmarks we audiophiles cherish are right here: clarity of detail and of musical expression; proficiency in unraveling complex lines and instrumentation; that nearly spooky “you are there” quality; the chameleon-like ability to change sound according to the recording’s dictates; and that sense of wonder and surprise at just how good home audio can sound with the right system.
The Opus 21 attains its captivating sonics through a rare combination of richness and resolution. All too often, these attributes are at odds; tonal lushness is usually overwrought and comes at the expense of timbral complexity and inner detail. The Opus 21, however, suffers from none of these ills. It exhibits only a gentle swell in the lower-midrange, and its highs are nicely extended, allowing it to deliver the full spectrum of timbral overtones. Consequently, both instruments and vocals sound completely natural. Nor is inner detail slighted in the least. Apparently, the manufacturer doesn’t call itself Resolution Audio for nothing.
By way of illustration, consider two very different works by budding rock auteur Sufjan Stevens. On the plaintive, unadorned “The Dress Looks Nice on You” from Seven Swans [Sounds Familyre], the Opus stack conveys not only the acoustic guitar’s burnished warmth, but also Stevens’ fingers as they caress and stroke its strings. The effect is uncannily realistic. This track also demonstrates that the Opus requires neither a flailing drum kit nor looped electronica to get across a beat. Here, the simple guitar figure’s subtle dynamic accents are sufficient to create forward motion.
“The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders” from Illinois [Asthmatic Kitty]—Stevens’ ambitious opus—could not be more different. In terms of compositional technique, structure, and instrumentation, this piece owes as much to classical music as to rock. Its sonic scale is vast, and there is a lot going on. Other systems become hard-pressed to sort it all out, but the Opus 21’s resolution and low noise floor let each instrument and musical line step out, allowing the listener to follow and wallow in the song’s sublimely intertwined intricacies. As for scale, the Opus 21 is that rare component that can swell to symphonic proportions when the music calls for it. Indeed, everyone exposed to this unassuming stack was stunned that it could generate such a big sound.
Naturally, there are areas in which the Opus 21 doesn’t measure up to reference-caliber standards. As I’ve mentioned, imaging is quite natural; yet reference equipment can delineate images more sharply and place them more precisely. Similarly, the Opus delves deeply to the most subterranean depths, and the bass is good and tight, but it could stand to be more fleshed out. Finally, and most importantly, for all its excellence in dynamics, resolution, and openness, the Opus is still outperformed in all three areas by my reference system (though not by a whole lot). While such differences are not insignificant, they are clearly swamped by the Opus’ overwhelming strengths and attractive price.
Before concluding, I would be remiss if I failed to note that the Opus 21’s CD player, at $3500 as a stand-alone unit, constitutes its own bargain. All of the qualities I’ve ascribed to the overall stack apply in full to the solo player, which is saying a lot. Even more, this player actually exceeds my reference unit in two areas: timbral realism—trumpets, for instance, sound more like real trumpets—and rhythmic accuracy. By the latter I do not mean that the Opus CD enforces a stricter meter. Rather, this player more faithfully conveys every tiny lag or anticipation of the beat—every device musicians use to impart rhythmic swing, fluidity, or drama—than any other CD player I’ve heard. Needless to say, the Opus 21 CD player is highly recommended in its price range.