I admit, I became so attached to the Cairn Fog3 CD player, that when it came time to hand it back, Cairn’s distributors had to distract me with a shiny new toy, giving them enough time to grab the Fog3 and scurry away while my attention was diverted. That was a dirty trick, guys.
The new toy was the £850 Tornado, smaller sibling to the Fog3. It uses a similar transport and (single) DAC, but without the 192kHz sampling rate of the larger player. It also lacks the adjustable filters, digital input, variable output and balanced options that make the Fog3 a versatile DAC and digital pre-amp into the bargain (although there is an upgrade option to a new 192kHz board with adjustable filtering à la Fog3 which I haven’t tried). This review concerns the standard 96kHz version. I also borrowed another Fog3, the better to make detailed comparisons; they’re going to want it back but this time, I’ll be ready…
Physically, the Tornado is smaller than the Fog3, with a less substantial front plate. The chassis is shallower and somewhat lighter, although still satisfyingly weighty. The styling is similar to the other Cairn products, with a central circular display, in this case cropped top and bottom. It is perfectly clear and legible, but evidently of lower quality than the bigger player. It retains the eccentric controls of the Fog3, but the standard remote supplied by Cairn, and shared across the range, has improved.
First the bad news, the Tornado is no Fog3. Mind you, if you’ve recently been persuaded to spend £2K on the Fog, that’s probably good news. Reassuringly for Tornado customers though, this is still an extremely accomplished unit which has much in common with the senior player. Compared to the more expensive model it sounds a little tubby, a little rounder in the bass, a shade less insightful in the midrange and treble, but bearing in mind the likelihood that the Tornado will be partnered by similarly inexpensive amplification and, quite possibly, smallish, standmounted loudspeakers, this voicing makes sense. One thing Cairn haven’t compromised on is the extremely keen sense of pitch. Tunefulness and tonal evenness are among the best I’ve heard, including players at many times the price. This implies very good handling of high frequencies, particularly harmonics, and indeed, the treble is sweet and clean and makes similarly priced, and otherwise worthy, competitors sound grainy and grey in comparison. I’ve been partnering the Tornado with an Accuphase 213 integrated amp and the excellent ELAC FS210 Anniversary loudspeakers, which have a quite phenomenal ribbon tweeter, and the Cairn player has never betrayed its relatively modest status with any roughness or lack of finesse. Quite the contrary, this turning out to be an extremely musical and engaging combination.
Sticking with the treble for a moment longer, I made some comparisons with my usual (and more expensive) Rega Saturn. The Rega is not as quick, or finely etched in the treble, and lacks the ultimate pitch accuracy of the Cairn, making the latter the more dramatic of the two. Indeed the Cairn sound majors on dynamics and liveliness. What the Rega has, however, is a more fully rounded sense of tonal colour, the Cairn’s treble sheen can sometimes sound a little papery in comparison. None of this is intrusive, mind you, and I refer you to my earlier comment: I haven’t heard another player at this price which comes even close to the Cairn’s treble quality. But the Tornado’s defining characteristic, is the player’s ability to control and depict the different threads in a musical performance. Some players present the music en bloc, there is a sense of wholeness about their sound. The Cairn offers us music as a weave of interconnected threads, the instrumental discrimination taken to a more individual level. This is wonderful for jazz but also, significantly, for largescale stuff. In the second movement of the Shostakovich Symphony No.5, the bassoon is not only prominent in its solo passages, but can be easily followed through some of the heavier tuttis which, for such a self-effacing instrument, is quite remarkable. This has the effect of making the music seem more alive; coupled with a welldefined soundstage and accurate, and unwavering, instrumental placement the performance gains a strong sense of the intimacy and directness one associates with live performance. Compared to the Fog3, or the Rega for that matter, it lacks some of the body and shape of instruments, and the soundstage is not so deep, but the music has a linearity, a feeling of interwoven-ness and flow, a sense of interplay and communication which is quite rare, and almost unheard of at the sub-£1000 point.
Again, the Fog3 takes this to another level, Weather Report’s Birdland is better resolved where the Tornado softens and rounds-off the innermost detail, but for this sort of complex, layered music, the Tornado bests the more expensive Rega, just as it sees off anything else I’ve heard at its price.