A surprising thing about Chinese-made products… few take advantage of their Chinese-ness, preferring instead to copy styles and designs from the Golden Age of UK and US hi-fi (the 1950s and 1960s). Of course, this is understandable because a) it was a Golden Age of hi-fi sales and b) the target audience is not strictly Chinese in many cases. But China’s rich heritage often seems missing from the many products built their.
Not so the latest range from Consonance. The Beijing-based company looked around its home town for inspiration and the result is the Forbidden City series of products. Comprising two CD players, two integrated amplifiers, plus an all-in-one system and a turntable, they all share the same look; an homage to the gates of the Forbidden City itself. The Orfeo and Tristan are the two £995 entry points to the Forbidden City range, and as a consequence have the choice of either an all-black or all silver finish, while the more up-scale Turandot player and Calaf amp have the right grade of red with black dots as a front panel. Cor!
The design is elegant and shows off just how well parent company Opera (not to be confused with the Italian speaker manufacturer of the same name) builds its Consonance products. Excepting the big, touch sensitive display, these products could pass for Classé, both in looks and build. And yet, they cost just £995 a piece. In fact, the only real downside to the Forbidden City duo here is they are a touch unfathomable at first jump. The products have a central red LED readout with a power on switch beneath on the Tristan and a thin transport door on the Orfeo. Beneath these are a series of buttons – six on the Orfeo and four on the Tristan - which are slightly larger, slightly less black and slightly less square than the Forbidden City door pattern.
They also have instructions, written in near-black, dark, dark grey. In other words, unless you know where they are, you can be forgiven for thinking these two products have no controls whatsoever on the front panel. Fortunately the remotes are somewhat clearer, whilst still reflecting the same rock-solid approach to product build.
Despite the very different finish, the solid black remote shows that the Orfeo is ‘simply’ a refinement of an old friend – the Consonance CD-120 Linear as tested in issue 44. Like the CD-120, the Orfeo has just the one set of singleended phono sockets and a digital coaxial output, as well as a broadly similar internal architecture, with a centre toroidal transformer feeding the relevant digital and analogue stages spread evenly across the box. Both have the same 2.35V output, too. This puts them a notch above the Red Book standard 2V output, but keeps the players in line with modern techniques (a slightly more powerful output will sound more exciting in demonstration… it’s a trick many CD manufacturers have been doing since the mid 1980s). More importantly, the Orfeo and CD-120 share the same basic digital architecture and the same venerable and venerated Philips TDA1543 dual 16-bit chip, although this time four chips to the CD-120’s two. This DAC dates back to 1991 (modern designers have to pay good money to get the TDA1543’s application notes translated from the original Latin), and is used here in non-oversampling form. In a time where every other CD player oversamples and up-samples its PCM data stream to seemingly insane levels, it’s perhaps refreshing to find a player that sticks resolutely to 16-bit processing and sampling at 44.1kHz, although you can push the sampling frequency to 88.2kHz from the remote.
Where things get really twisty is in the digital filtration stage. Or rather, where the digital filtration stage normally sits, because Opera has taken the bold step of doing without FIR (finite impulse response) filtration altogether. A FIR filter works by introducing a phase-linear delay to a signal to ‘decimate’ or ‘interpolate’ a datastream. If you think of this in purist audio terms, it means the filter essentially trades the time domain for the frequency domain… and that’s a trade-off too far. Opera is not the first to think this through – Audio Note has been doing the same for some years and Opera itself cites Ryohei Kusunoki’s article (published by Sakura Systems) as the catalyst for the lack of FIR filtration in the CD-120 and Orfeo. There’s a lot of 47 Laboratory style technology inside the Orfeo, even if the Sakura Systems team were not directly involved in the product development.
The analogue filtering (as distinct from the digital stage) and I/V stages use discrete components (the I/V stage is passive) and the whole signal path is kept mercifully short. All of which is essentially the same as the CD-120, but the differences are there, if you scratch the surface. Well, in fact, the surface – or rather the case – forms a large chunk of the differences, because the extra rigidity of the thick Forbidden City case helps. It’s this along with the dual-differential DAC layout, a beefier transformer, a slightly more discerning sift through the components that upgrades critical elements and replacing the LCD panel of the CD-120 with a less noisy LED read-out that delivers the performance improvements over the cheaper model. But given the architectural similarities, perhaps it’s better to think of the Orfeo as a CD-120 in evening dress rather than a wholly new CD design per se. No bad thing, given that the CD-120 was a Hi-Fi+ Product of the Year in 2006.