AOM Logo August 1998

Enigmatic Variations
The Copland CDA 266 CD Player

Andrew Chasin

While the sun has surely begun to set on 16-bit/44.1kHz digital, it may be some time before night truly befalls the much maligned compact disc. As both high-end manufacturers and consumers impatiently await the outcome of what is sure to become a bloody battle between long word-length, high sample-rate digital formats, consumer digital audio will likely maintain the status quo for the foreseeable future.

So reasons companies like England's Naim Audio (whose most recent offering, the CD 3.5, will be the subject of an upcoming review) and Sweden's Copland, two leaders of the European conservative movement who have clearly (and, some would argue, quite wisely) taken a wait-and-see attitude to digital's next generation. No, Copland's latest digital entry, the CDA 266, is not super-CD-ready, nor can it be upgraded to such status. What it is, though, is a relatively affordable single-box CD player, whose sonic performance might just be sufficiently good to carry us into the second act of digital audio's critically unacclaimed debut.

Copland CDA 266 CD Player

With its austere, yet elegant, Swedish styling, the Copland CDA 266 is one of the most aesthetically pleasing CD players to pass through my listening room. While still of rather sizable dimension (its 16 ½" wide x 3 ¾" high x 15" deep enclosure dwarfing that of the low-profile Naim CD 3.5), the CDA 266 is considerably smaller than Copland's earlier single-box player, the CDA 288.

The center of the CDA 266's silver brushed aluminum faceplate is occupied by a friction-defying CD drawer and a green digital display, upon which the standard array of information (track number, track timing, etc.) is made available. To the left and right of center are one round machined aluminum knob each for powering the unit on and off and for accessing the player's operational functions (play, pause, track skip forward, and track skip backward) respectively. Located between the display and the right control knob is a diminutive silver button labeled 'open' which, when depressed once, causes the CD drawer to be opened and, when pressed twice in rapid succession, stops the player. Finally, to the left of the display (and to the right of the left control knob) exists a small green LED which illuminates to indicate activation of the onboard HDCD decoding circuitry. Supporting the CDA 266 are four fairly substantial isolation feet, each of whose perimeter is finished in faceplate-matching silver.

The rear of the CDA 266 is as unadorned as its front, offering nothing more than a detachable AC power cord, a pair of gold-plated RCA outputs, and a coaxial digital output for those few who choose to partner the player with an outboard digital processor. A toggle switch is provided to switch off the digital output when not in use.

Digital-to-analogue conversion is handled by dual Burr-Brown PCM 63P 20-bit 8X oversampling DACs, and digital filtering is performed by the now-ubiquitous PMD-100 HDCD decoder/filter from Pacific Microsonics. The transport is manufactured by Sony and features an integral sprung suspension (no, CD players are not impervious to the ills of structure and air-borne vibration). Both the analogue stage and power supply have been given special attention by Copland, the former featuring complementary class 'A' topology, the latter being shielded both statically and magnetically from the player's delicate electronics.

Accompanying the CDA 266 is a handsome full-function remote control (fashioned from plastic), providing myriad control and programming features unavailable from the front panel. The remote also provides the ability to dim the player's display to two different levels of brightness or to shut it off entirely, the latter setting having distinctly positive sonic implications described below.

While offering a somewhat unique ergonomic experience (the user is required to push, rather than turn, the right control knob to activate the player's 'play' mode, for example), the CDA 266 is a model of both form and function, combining elegant styling with flawless mechanical operation.

Associated Components

Digital: Theta Data Basic II transport and DS Pro Progeny DAC, Naim CD 3.5 CD Player.
Preamplifier: Audible Illusions Modulus 3A with John Curl designed gold MC phono board
Power Amplifier: Celeste Moon W-5
Loudspeakers: ProAc Studio 150, Anthony Gallo Acoustics Nucleus Solo
Cables: D Lin Audio Silver Bullets 4.0 interconnects, Transparent Audio MusicWave Plus loudspeaker cables.
Accessories: Echo Busters room treatment products, Target equipment stands, Black Diamond Racing Mk.III and Mk.IV Pyramid Cones, 15A dedicated AC outlets.

I must confess that I found the Copland CDA 266 CD player to be something of an enigma. There were some aspects of its performance which heralded it as a harbinger of digital's future, for if this is what could be done with an arguably inadequate digital specification, then what of 24-bits and 96kHz? Other aspects of its performance, however, transported me back to the digital days of yore. The 266's somewhat two steps forward, no steps back, perspective, coupled with an upper midrange and lower treble which could, at times, cross that fine line from detailed and up-front to slightly aggressive and fatiguing, left me pining on more than one occasion for the more refined presentation of my two-box reference. On less fortunate recordings, the upper registers of the female voice and high strings took on a touch of edge and glare, and vocal sssssibilance was slightly exaggerated.

The 266's forward presentation did not always prove off-putting, however, working to good effect on intimate lounge material such as Diana Krall's superb Love Scenes (Impulse! IMPSD 234), on which each of Ms. Krall's vocal inflections and breathy exhalations were portrayed vividly (as was the obtrusive sound of the session engineer fading Krall's microphone in and out throughout I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You). While placed in a rather more dominant position than usual by the CDA 266, Michael Laird's trumpet sounded simply splendid on The Trumpet Shall Sound from Handel's Messiah (Archiv 423 630-2), each detail of his superb performance being bathed in a most illuminating light. Curiously, the CDA 266's slight treble spit and splash could be partially, though not entirely, ameliorated by switching off its front-panel display, indicating that noise from the display's electronics was finding its way into the player's sensitive audio circuitry. I suggest that anyone wishing to hear the full measure of the CDA 266 audition it with its display switched off.

Enough criticism, what of the 266's plentiful positives? In stark contrast to the ghastly devices of digital's embryonic period, the CDA 266 presented a soundstage full of dimension at all gradations of volume. Even during the most intense orchestral eruptions, the CDA 266 refused to reduce the soundstage to two-dimensions. The depth and breadth of the hall captured on the glorious Harmonia Mundi recording of Brahms' Sacred Choral Works (HM 901591), was well communicated by the CDA 266, the image of the Rias-Kammerchor being presented well behind the plane of the loudspeakers. On well-engineered orchestral discs, soundstage transparency was exemplary, with the most distant reaches of the stage being well delineated.

The CDA 266's ability to present a precisely focused image of the soundstage, with instruments and performers occupying well-defined spatial positions, was good, if somewhat less developed than that of other, admittedly more expensive, players (a precisely defined spatial image is not, as some would argue, merely an artifact of the recording process, but is readily heard in the concert hall). Using an artistic metaphor, images rendered by the CDA 266 were more akin to those of the impressionistic than realist periods.

The 266's upper octaves were full of air, sparkle and life, bearing little likeness to the dry chalky picture painted by lesser digital devices. The percussive sounds of cymbals, tambourines, and triangles, as heard on a diversity of discs including Eric Clapton's Unplugged (Reprise 45024), Strunz and Farah's Americas (Mesa R2 79041), and Chabrier's España (Mercury Living Presence 434 303-2), were rendered with a considerable measure of the clarity and speed of their live counterparts. Counter-balancing the CDA 266's extended top-end was a full, taut bottom, with enough power and impact to bring life to the fff bass drum strokes of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances (Telarc CD-80331), and the requisite articulation to dissect the unison double bass lines of Splanky from Christian McBride's Gettin' To It (Verve 314 523 989-2). The CDA 266's low-octave performance did, in fact, prove the equal of the considerably more expensive Theta Data Basic II/DS Pro Progeny combination, and bettered that of the similarly priced (and superbly musical) Naim CD 3.5 - impressive indeed.

Aside from its slight grain and glare in the upper midrange, I found much to admire in the CDA 266's rendering of the human voice. En masse voices, in particular, fared especially well. The choral sections of Since by Man Came Death, from Handel's Messiah, and Brahms' Sacred Choral Music, were notable for their extraordinary combination of power, delicacy, and nuance - qualities rarely heard in unison from digital playback. Midrange articulation was another hallmark of the CDA 266's performance. Although singing as a group, the large choral forces on both the Handel and Brahms discs could be heard to consist of singular voices, each one readily discernible within the vocal mélange.

Perhaps owing to its transient speed and extended upper octaves, the CDA 266 was one of the more energetic and lively players to come my way. The hard-edged squawks of '60s Coltrane (Crescent, Impulse! IMPD-200) blared their way naturally into the listening room, without the softening or rounding reminiscent of more forgiving, but less transparent, devices. Hard bop, fast-moving modern jazz, up-tempo World Music, and driving rock all proved rhythmically involving and thoroughly electrifying, owing to the CDA 266's brisk transient response and faithful portrayal of pace and timing. The Naim CD 3.5, in comparison, sounded somewhat slow and subdued - rather surprising considering this British company's rhythm-centric design philosophy.

As audiophiles await the dawn of the next digital age, promising less pain and more Hertz, they must content themselves with today's rather flawed, albeit much improved, playback medium. Making the wait that much more palatable are players like the Copland CDA 266. Although the CDA 266 does exhibit vestiges of digital's dog days (namely, a somewhat forward presentation with a bit of grain and glare throughout portions of the upper midrange and lower treble), it is, on the whole, a very musically satisfying device. Of course, financial considerations aside, a more refined CD playback system could certainly be acquired. But while the standard-makers and risk-takers define the digital audio carriers of the future, the Copland CDA 266 may be just the thing to while away the time in peace and harmony.

CDA 266 CD Player
Manufactured by Copland
Idavägen 5, S-352 Växäjö Sweden
phone: +46 470 72 92 15, fax: +46 470 72 98 25
Price: CDN$2800
Source of review sample: Canadian Distributor Loan
Copyright © 1998 Audiophilia Online Magazine Home