August 2, 2009

Ear Tonic - the E.A.R. Yoshino Acute CD Player

This is an old post of ours in the blog we previously contributed to.

Two day after I had the E.A.R. Yoshino Acute CD player in my system, Panzer called me and asked, a little anxiously,"so how is it?"

"It is the most detailed and yet the most musical cd player I have listened to in my system!" I told him, and that was the truth.

Ok, now that the cat is out of the bag, you can skip the rest and go straight to the end to find out where you can get this E.A.R.. :-)

I have Panzer to thank for digging up such a gem and letting me listen to it first, while he was being distracted by Bryston's gears.

Yep, the Acute cd player was excellently musical, which was quite something. During its more than 2 weeks tenure in my system, it never failed to play music to my ears. Every genre I threw at it, vocals, jazz, classical, pop, it spewed them out as recognizable and enjoyable music. Could it be the pair of tubes in the Acute's innards that were doing this? Well, the E.A.R. Yoshino Acute did imbue music with a thin, but pervasive, layer of warmth and a slight golden glow, characteristics regularly cited as the attractiveness of tubed electronics. It just made music sound more, er...., like music.

The Acute was musical all right, but not sugary sweet, which could be attractive in the short term, but boring in the long. Its presentation was done not by grabbing the listener's attention or by dazzling you with certain aspects of its performance. Instead, the Acute just let the musical event unfold in front of you. It may not be love a first sight, but give it a few more hours or a few days, it would just lure you in with its spell.

The Acute let the music do the talking, and not the cd player itself doing the talking, if you know what I mean. Listening with the Acute was enjoyable and musically satisfying.

So did the E.A.R. Yoshino Acute do all this by covering up flaws in the recordings, smoothing out all the nitty gritties on the CDs? No. It was transparent and detailed. The sonic canvas has excellent density, and there was none of that thin, analytical tendency that pass for some of today's high fidelity. Its colour palette was rather rich and vivid too. Again, I could use a visual analogy - what the Acute brought to table was not unlike the difference between Blu-ray and standard DVD. I saw once a demo of a panoramic medieval battle scene contrasted between Blu-ray and DVD, the DVD version was able to give a sense of grandeur from the clip, but when it was put to the Blu-ray version side-by-side, it was awful. On the Blu-ray disc, you could see the individual soldiers that made up the army, you could see the myriad colours and designs of their flags and their uniforms. The DVD could convey the 'forest', but the Blu-ray gave you the 'forest' and the 'trees' too. The Acute was like Blu-ray.

To hear the EAR Yoshino Acute's first rate detail retrieval capability, one does not have to go far from the 2v1g disc (my references are track 4 "tempting hearts" and track 8 "don't want to be alone"). The soundstage that the Acute threw up was positively dripping with air, ambiance and even noise from the recording venue and possibly from the recording equipment. All this information was coupled with the main performance of the vocals and the guitar into a musical whole. The soundstage it painted was detached from the speakers, the ambiance was so thick (in a good sense) that I'd swear it almost enveloped the entire room and not confined just to the stage in front. The Acute presented each track as a total musical event, an excellent achievement that cannot be said of every piece of high-end frontend, in my opinion.

A day after I told Panzer about my first impression of the Acute, I thought I caught a weakness of the player, I told Panzer that I wished it had a little more slam, more attack and dynamics to convey the excitement I was looking for in some music. Wrong! It was just a matter of me learning about Acute's presentation. After living with the Acute for a while, I realized that it just presented the recording as it was. If the music was soft, slow, atmospheric then it was presented as soft, slow, atmospheric; If the music called for excitement and dynamics, the Acute would just explode at the appropriate moments (the sound that is, not the machine itself :-) ).

I recently acquired a Chinese classical music cd, "The Dreams of Chinese Butterfly" (Rock/Marco Polo GDI8206) (the title is a literal translation from 中國蝴蝶夢, but a real awkward one - do butterflies have dreams and do western ones have different kind? :-) It actually refers to a fable where a pair of young lovers, torn apart by circumstances, died and turned into a pair of butterfiles, a chinese parallel to Romeo and Juliet). The recording quality was acceptably good, but there was a track that was excellently played and recorded, it was called "Poem of Chinese Drum". The Acute tracked the flow, swell and ebb of the drums excellently, it had speed and carried a tune. The drum beats had nuances and really had slam at the required moments - they were tight, fast and could hit you in your chest. At the same time, the Acute retained its strength in portraying excellent harmonics, ambiance and decay.

Big, bad-ass dynamics and subtle nuances were not mutually exclusive for the E.A.R. Yoshino Acute, really.

See, I have nothing negative to talk about the Acute's performance. However, I did not mean to say that it is the best in every aspect of cd music reproduction, simply because I have not heard every possible cd player in my system. But in the face of such musically whole performance, it is just not right, and really moot, I believe, to de-construct its sound and nit-pick in each area. But if you have to know, I found its highs crystal clear and extended, the mids true and natural, the bass well controlled and tight.

However, nit-pick on the player itself I would. The version of the Acute cd player listened to here has a shiny chrome fascia and gold buttons, I believe many would consider the look luxurious or jewel like and fall in love with it. For me, it was just a little too 'bling-bling' for my taste (though E.A.R. has a more subdued silver fascia version). The other was the remote control, it was a black plastic type. I have no problem with that, but strangely it did not provide direct track access for tracks numbered 10 or above. It did not have a button that switch the input into 2-digit mode, and pressing 2 numbers in quick succession (ala Marantz) resulted only in the second number being read.

I am not done talking about the Acute yet. Did I tell you that it has a analogue volume control? I tested the player at various volume settings while hooked up to my preamp. At full setting, the gain was a little too high for my pre-amp, such that at my normal volume setting was too loud, but too soft one notch down. I found the best range in between 3 and 4 o'clock on the Acute, at this setting I have a more usable volume range with my pre-amp and the sound also acquired a slight gentleness which I found more attractive. At the 12 o'clock setting on the Acute, even turning the volume up on my pre-amp to compensate, the sound was compressed and bass lost definition though.

At the tail end of the listening period, I hooked the player up directly to my monoblocks, eschewing the pre-amp in between. If you have a one-source set up, this is a plausible configuration. However, it was inconvenient, because the Acute's volume could not be controlled via its remote. For me, setting Acute's volume pot at 11 o'clock was loud enough, attesting to the amount of gain you could have from the cd player - E.A.R. quoted 5v.

How about the sound quality? The sound gained greater nuances and subtlety. Additionally, timbre accuracy improved - listen to good vocal recordings, I found that voices sounded surprisingly more live and real. The entire presentation took on a certain cultured quality (not softness though) to it too (the British sound quality?). However, I thought I needed to trade off a little bit of speed, attack and incisiveness for these gains, there was also slightly less control at crescendos (the American quality?).

If I were the Acute's owner, I probably would have my Pass Labs X2.5 pre-amp in the chain, not least for the convenience of remote control and multiple sources, but once in a while I'd hook the cd player directly to the monoblocks just to enjoy the purer sound.

Well, if I have not already spent my money on a new cd player, the E.A.R. Yoshino Acute would be one mighty serious contender.

On second thought, probably not. Instead I suspect it would be the ultimate winner.

List price for the E.A.R. Yoshino Acute CD Player's is RM16,800.
E.A.R. Yoshino is carried by R.A.V.E Systems - 03-2163 2818; 012-324 1745; 012-324 2434

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