Copland CDA 266 CD Player

Had I paid attention in Psychology 101, this review could have featured a mini dissertation on the single-chassis vs two-box debate. To separate or not to separate – that is the question. It’s just that any single-box CD player over £1000 has to compete not just with other single-piece designs, but with entry-level transport/DAC combinations as well. And the Copland CDA 266 is imported into the UK by the same source which handles the awesome Theta Chroma converter…

Not to worry: I’m convinced that there are numerous consumers who don’t want to accommodate an extra box, sacrifice an extra mains outlet, invest in a digital cable or whatever else it takes to go two-way. The reasons to prefer a single-box design over separates are just as compelling as those in favour of splitting a player into two, so let’s just agree, for the sake of argument, to regard the Copland on its own terms. If you’re pre-disposed toward separates, you probably wouldn’t have read this far anyway. But if you’re looking for one honey of a single box player, read on.

The CDA 266 is Copland’s the third and final CD player in a trilogy which also includes the CDA 277 (£1,799) and CDA 288 (£2,199). This one’s the entry-level model at £1,199 and it’s ideally suited to match one of Copland’s integrated amplifiers in both price and aesthetics. Though the CDA 266 shares certain family traits with the CDA 288 and CDA 277, a number of dissimilarities mean that various prejudices against the dearer models – especially the controversial ‘288 – should be ignored. This is an altogether different beastie, which shouldn’t suffer because its siblings were, uh, delinquents.

High value for money rears its blessed head in that the Copland has the look, feel and calibre of internal ingredients of players selling for a far higher four figures, like those with a ‘3’ at the front. Whatever one thinks of HDCD, plenty of people regard the Pacific Microsonics PMD100 x8 oversampling digital filter as one of the best sounding on the market; even if you never purchase a single HDCD disc, you should benefit from filter’s presence in the ‘266. To complete the processing combination are a pair of the equally revered Burr-Brown PCM 63P 20-Bit Colinear Converters and a custom-designed crystal clock oscillator ‘for a more natural musical performance’, i.e. lower jitter.

The analogue section features complementary Class ‘A’ topology using discrete components, while the power supply transformer is screened for both static and magnetism. A filter conditions the mains supply, and the power supply feeds seven separate secondaries for the various analogue and digital stages and the drive mechanism. Build quality inside mirrors the exterior – it’s superb. The circuitry is divided over three main boards with a smaller PCB for the readout display, all the boards using 70mm copper tracks. The first PCB incorporates the power supplies for the digital and analogue circuits, the second contains the control system and the third deals with the signal processing. 1% metal film resistors are used throughout.

Unlike so many players suffering with Philips mechanisms, the Copland represents the new wave which looks further afield. This baby sports a smooth-acting Sony mechanism with integral four-point sprung isolation system mounted on silicon rubber bushes, and it oozes luxury – just like the player itself. Despite compact dimensions of only 430x125x375mm (WxHxD), the Copland suggests ‘high end’. OK, so it bears an eerie resemblance to an exclusive, elitist American brand named after a stringed instrument, but that’s only part of the reason the ‘266 suggests extravagance. The unit exudes solidity, thanks to a weight of 9kg, a heavy gauge, interlocking ‘U’-shaped steel chassis, which also provides screening, and the presence of an alloy front panel which is a substantial 5mm thick. The latter also damps vibrations, as do the large isolation feet. And those beautiful knobs…

Ahem – this isn’t Loaded, thank Christ, so lets make this clear: the use of the word has nothing to do with the mammarial vernacular. The CDA 266’s knobs – hooray! A break from buttons!!! – allow for the operation of play/pause with a simple press on the right-hand rotary, while the left-hand control provides power on/off. A combination of rotating and pushing (however salacious that sounds) accesses tracks one at a time or in rapid succession. A separate button operates open/close, and a green LED tell-tale indicates the presence of an HDCD disc. Copland’s RC 288 Remote Control is a 20-function, 99-track direct-access hand-held commander in charge of a 20 track memory and all of the minor operations not handled by the front-panel rotaries. In addition to all of the expected transport and programming functions, it also provides on/off switching of the display, with two levels of illumination.

Around the back, the CDA 266 wears only an IEC mains input, a pair of substantial gold-plated phono sockets for analogue output, and a single coaxial digital output with an on/off toggle switch right next to it. Despite my bleating about single- vs two-box players, I’d love to see this offered as a stand-alone transport, just because it’s such a joy to use and there’s a need for a classy sub-£1000 spinner-sans-DAC. If Copland could sell it less the converter section for, say, £699, there’s be queues at every dealership.

But that’s wishful thinking and it has nothing to do with the ‘266 as a single-box player. I hooked it up to systems including the Roksan Caspian amp driving Quad 77-10L speakers, the GRAAF WFB Two and 50/50 amplification feeding Quad ESL63s and the NVA Personal amp with Tandy LX5 Pro speakers. Interconnects included Shinpy Black Hole, Nirvana and Discovery, the latter being used the most. No other goofy tweaks were employed, other than the use of XLO AC cable.

Copland’s smallest CD caused something of a double-take, given its origins with a company best known for valve and valve-hybrid amplifiers. I expected a unit tailored and tuned to sound like a tube-carrying device, yet the ‘266 betrayed little or no obvious legerdemain in the ‘voicing’ department. Instead, it was polite and refined without being so lean and hygienic as to set one’s teeth on edge. It’s that walk along a tightrope which all concerned CD player manufacturers face, the act of addressing both subjective concerns which favour pure analogue, and the exploiting of CD’s intrinsic qualities, such as scary background silences. So far, the best balancing act I’ve heard in a single-chassis player is Krell’s new KAV-300cd; the Copland – while not a substitute nor rival for that £3499 machine – emulates it with a skill equally devoid of cynicism.

As various players have shown, it’s easy enough for a canny designer to feed in the requisite distortions or colorations which pander to the tastes of analogue die-hards. And, hey, I keep nursing an elderly CAL Tempest II just because I love the almost squidgy, cuddly, mushy softness it applies to the generally brittle sound of CD. But far more challenging is the discipline which tries to make the most out of CD, treating it not as a substitute for the LP but as the first domestically viable, currently dominant digital medium. A decade-and-a-half after its launch and we’re still learning how to make it work. We’ve come a long way from the time when a famed turntable manufacturer could say in print that helping to make digital better would be to ‘…help spread a nasty disease’. What Copland must have decided, after releasing the blatantly ‘analogue-ish’ CDA 288, is that too much pandering to the retro set is to do a disservice.

It was imperative, then, that the CDs I auditioned ran the gamut from archive material which has been through the latest ‘re-conditioning’ (the Jimi Hendrix re-masters, the Sony-fied version of the Stooges’ Raw Power and the best of the JVC XRCD jazz reissues) and clean, intelligently produced, truly modern, post-CD era recordings (James Taylor’s Hourglass, Marshall Crenshaw’s Miracle Of Science, a couple of Sheryl Crows and various ‘unplugged’ titles). The Copland promises nor delivers miracles, and those expecting the Western Electric 300B version of the truth had better look elsewhere.

What emerged from system to system, consistently and dependably, was – like Baby Bear’s porridge – ‘just right’. The soundstage was blissfully three-dimensional without causing frissons of agoraphobia. The image height was perceptible without making the listener feel either a giant or a dwarf. Bass? Extended, controlled and rich, but never overwhelming, tubby nor aggressive. The midband was clear, uncoloured and deliciously precise and controlled, as if the LS3/5A had suddenly turned into a CD player. Amusingly, the Copland also exhibited that speaker’s famous penchant for projecting sounds slightly in front of the speaker ‘line’, without exactly dumping them in the listener’s lap.

But it was the treble which sold me on the small Copland. Sweet, fast and extended, crisp enough to complement a rapid transient, detailed enough to ensure that every ambient clue ensured that no listener would feel for even a moment that there was any loss of information. But, again, it was so polite and well-behaved that it could lead to a different kind of malaise.

Instead of the artifice – however appealing and ‘more-ish’ – of a tube-based CD player, the Copland errs on the side of decency. Even when asked to expose the base behaviour of Iggy and Co, it never lost its grip, never sounded too raucous, never acted as if it was about to implode. And for an Iggy fan or a Crue member or some sad, pathetic decibel junkie, this may be asking too much. Like wearing a jacket and tie at a rave.

But this is one of the oddest times ever in hi-fi’s history. We have the digitoids at one extreme, the SET worshippers at the other, a gap which couldn’t be spanned by the Golden Gate Bridge. So I, for one, am glad to welcome the Copland as the voice of reason. Maybe it’s old age telling me this, but the appeal of a centrist policy is so-o-o inviting. Must be a Scandinavian thing, but the Copland CDA 266 is the most diplomatic CD player I can imagine using.

(Hi-Fi News& Record Review, 1997)