The Tristan also shares its genome with other products in the Consonance line-up… but this time it’s more distant relative than bigger brother. The Tristan is a scaled down, solid-state only, half the power version of the 200 watt Calaf, but still with relay switched sources. It’s also about half the size, half the weight, with no ugly hand-lacerating heatsinks down the sides and no balanced input. What the 100 Watt Tristan does have is just three line and one phono input, this last switchable from MM to MC at the touch of a toggle on the rear panel. Opera can get a bit blurry about technology in this range, specifically whether a product is completely solidstate or not. More than one reviewer has completely failed to notice a pair of input triodes buried inside the Calaf. Here though, both Orfeo and Tristan are distinctly solid-state in construction. The other blurry bit is the concept of Cool Class A, which is said to be derived from the Calaf. As best we can ascertain, this simply means the amp runs in Class A for the first few watts, before dropping into Class AB thereafter. Like the Orfeo, it is impeccably well built, not just for the money… just well built full stop. Things have a habit of twisting and turning in hi-fi. One moment, the market is flooded with good new CD players at a price point and then it’s the turn of amplifiers. Therein lies a problem for the Tristan; it’s a very good amplifier in a sea of very good amplifiers. It’s no simple placeholder, but one can’t help feeling that on its own it lacks that special sparkle that will make it stand out from the crowd. Which is a shame because this is that rarest of things, a great allrounder, an amp where absence of character is a virtue rather than a vice. It is extremely musical in a dry, tight and controlled way, with a very good level of detail and lots of focused, deep between-the-speakers imaging. It also has extremely good bass, an open midrange and a gently extended treble. It is not the most rhythmically obvious amplifier around, but neither does it lack for rhythmic drive when required. So, why does this seem so negative? That’s largely down to the CD player, which is truly excellent – in its own way. In the light of the Orfeo, the Tristan seems merely good and that sets it up for damning with faint praise. But, that’s not the whole story; the Orfeo is a love it or hate it product, where the Tristan is a far more balanced performer. As a result the buying decision for both is likely to rest upon the individual’s like or dislike of the CD player.
So, what’s to like or dislike? The sound of the Orfeo is one of the most singularly alive and dynamic you’ll hear from CD. Virtually any CD. Ever. Other CD players that come close to being this dynamic and involving all take pretty much the same filterless approach (such as the 47 Labs, Audio Note, Zanden and other Opera/Consonance models). It’s a topology that makes the CD player sound more unforced and musical than almost all the other players on the market today – especially at this price. The Orfeo adds detail, dynamic authority and transparency to the CD-120 mix, qualities that make it more revealing but also reveal its character more clearly. You trade finesse – especially in terms of air and detail at the top end – for that easy musical flow and directness of communication. The question is whether you see thattrade as a no-brainer or a dangerous hint of anarchy… There will always be those who question the sonic costs of this approach. Those who want their CD sound clean and analytical, with carved from solid bass and vice-like control will find the Orfeo wanting. Similarly those who think the key to CD greatness is a bright, zesty presentation won’t even consider the Orfeo, simply because it integrates its musical information rather than volley firing it at you. It’s also possible to catch this player out. With the wrong recording the Orfeo can sound (bizarrely) both stark and listless at the same time. In extending the envelope the Orfeo also shows its edges, meaning that just occasionally a disc will lift the player’s skirt, revealing its underwear. In this respect the smoother sound of the CD-120 is better able to cover its tracks (and its dignity). But such recordings are rare and for the rest you are handed a sound that reminds you just why you got into hi-fi in the first place.
There’s some small sense of what it can do from the very outset, in that it makes music very open and enticing. It just doesn’t do it in the most forthright manner. But as you listen more and more, you find yourself drawn into the music’s warp and woof, instead of just its surface nature. Even those who hate the sound of the Orfeo will admire its musicality – in rather the same way that those who cannot stomach the Rega CD players generally at least respect what they do. They just know they do it for other people.