An Audiophilia Exclusive: The First review of the Audia Flight CD Three
by Andy Fawcett
I don’t recall exactly when I first stumbled across Audia Flight, but do remember being mighty impressed by a Stereophile review of their Phonostage, suggesting it gave the revered $30K Boulder 2008 some stiff competition at one-fifth the price. I mentally filed the company away in my “These guys are serious!” category, and thought no more about it. After all, their impressively constructed, aluminium-clad range occupied a price band where I didn’t expect to be doing much digging.
Things changed when, while discussing an unrelated issue with the ever-helpful Boris at Absolute Hi End, one of Australia’s main distributors of the sort of gear that makes your palms sweat, I casually mentioned a desire to upgrade my digital source. I had no issue with the Meridian’s sound but, with an increasing number of SACDs appearing and all the buzz around computer audio, an integrated Red Book CD player just seemed a little bit like yesterday’s news. So, when Boris told me that Audia Flight had released a new entry-level player at a more attainable price point, I was curious but hardly saw it as anything other than a sideways move; yet, such was his enthusiasm for the device that there didn’t seem to be any harm in having a listen. Resorting to a quick Google search revealed that, though the model had been released back in April 2010, not a scrap of information – no reviews, no forum posts, no show reports, no retailer listings, nothing bar a brief description on the company’s website – could be found for it … which, I guess, makes this an Exclusive!
Audia Flight were founded in 1996 by industry veterans Massimiliano Marzi and Andrea Nardini. Based in Civitavecchia, north of Rome on the Adriatic coast, all of their products are handcrafted in Italy and exemplify that nation’s obsession with style and sophistication. Encompassing amplifiers (integrated and separates) and CD players, the range is distinguished by long product lifecycles – reassuring for the purchaser – and a preponderance of beautifully-machined aluminium in understated, classically elegant designs. While they have extensive worldwide distribution, Europe and the Far East have been their main markets, with a presence in the States only since 2006.
The company’s principals had originally been united by the conviction that conventional differential amplification using voltage feedback could not be fast nor stable enough to provide their desired outcomes of high slew rate, extended frequency response and low colouration. Over two years, they developed a circuit that instead used only localised current feedback, resulting in extreme linearity of response and the ability to easily control even difficult, reactive loads. One thing I will say; they certainly know how to lay out a circuit board, as the following internal shot of their FL Preamp confirms. I wouldn’t be challenging whoever is responsible for that to a game of chess!
The CD Three is the junior member of Audia Flight’s small range of integrated CD players. Taking their CD Two machine as the starting point, its basic circuitry was retained while a number of cost-cutting measures – abandoning the fully internally-balanced topology, using surface-mounted instead of discrete components, losing one of the two transformers and, most obviously, a more economical case – have hopefully brought much of its performance to a lower price point. All things are relative, though; at a RRP of US$3900, this is no budget component and faces stiff competition. The CD Two is currently undergoing mild revision, to accommodate a new drive mechanism, but remains in the range, while the venerable CD One player will henceforth be offered as the CD One-M (Media), its new digital inputs (including USB with full 24/192 capability) allowing it to integrate with computer sources. We’re getting off-topic, though; back to the CD Three. Offering both balanced and single-ended outputs, plus SPDIF digital output, its Philips disc drive feeds the datastream via an Analog Devices AD1895 upsampling chip to a Cirrus Logic CS4398 24/192 DAC. Upsampling (to 192 KHz) is permanently applied, with no ability on the user’s part to modify or disable it. CD, CD-R, CD-RW and MP3 formats are all supported and, though unadvertised and probably considered irrelevant, the player also offers HDCD decoding. Boasting of “rock solid construction” (not entirely borne out by its 8kg mass, and what appears to be a thoroughly conventional pressed steel enclosure), highest quality parts and an “ultra precision reference clock”, it also implements the company’s proprietary Class A output circuitry. Just beware of the 2.5V output, which may be a little higher than other players you’re comparing it with.
It’s a safe bet that the first reaction of most observers is the same – this thing is huge! Emphasised by an only average height of 90mm (3.5”), its footprint of 420mm x 410mm (roughly 16” square) consumes plenty of shelf space. Perhaps because of this ungainliness, its looks took a while to grow on me … but I have come to appreciate the elegant simplicity of its design, the flawless machining and finish of its 15mm brushed aluminium fascia, the illuminated company logo (whose avian motif I can only characterise as “a seagull on a stick”!), the classy blue screen and a high overall standard of fit and finish. Packaging is excellent and the user manual was also well-written, albeit with one or two inaccuracies – for example, it is actually possible to eject a disc using the remote control, by holding down the ‘Stop’ button for 2 seconds.
Speaking of the remote, it merits comment on a couple of different levels. It is superbly constructed from solid aluminium with ball-bearing buttons – in which respect it mimics the player’s own front panel – and one of the very few I’ve seen to use a disc-type lithium battery (which, contrary to my initial fears, has held up to six months of heavy use and counting). Yet, with all of those tiny buttons clustered into its upper half, and a far from intuitive layout, it is not the nicest to use. While 5 different intensities of display illumination (including ‘off’) can be selected from the remote – a nice touch – only the most basic track elapsed time readout is offered. A constant frustration for me is that the disc must first be loaded (by pressing the ‘Drawer Open’ or ‘Play’ buttons) before a specific track can be selected. Worse still, while the intention appears to be that the player remain in Standby mode when not in use, the company logo (permanently illuminated during normal operation) then flashes conspicuously every 5 seconds. Why any light should flash, other than to indicate a fault condition, is incomprehensible to me.
So, if the CD Three didn’t entirely endear itself from the off, worse was in store when I started spinning discs; it sounded horrible! The manual mentioned that the player had already been run for 50 hours at the factory, and would need another 100 hours of burn-in for full performance. Boris had warned me that the true figure would be much higher than that, probably 200-300 hours of play time. In retrospect, I should have just stuck it on ‘Repeat’ and walked away, but not being in any great hurry I listened to it instead. Within a couple of days, things were improving and by the 50 hour mark it had indeed found a good level of transparency and resolution. But the real shock came at around the 250 hour point; one Sunday morning I turned it on and, from the very first note, it was apparent that something big had changed. No kidding, its sound had suddenly improved out of all recognition – like the player had gone through puberty overnight, and emerged with a giant pair of hairy swingers! It appears that Boris had an identical experience with his own demo sample, so caveat emptor. What follows relates to the sound in its fully burned-in state.
As few readers will have heard an Audia Flight CD player before, let’s set the agenda straight away with some broad-brush word association: Big, confident, resolved, exciting, coherent, smooth, musical. After living with the CD Three for several months, those are the first words that came to mind in trying to describe its sound; now we just have to fill in the gaps. The bass performance is very fine, with greater extension and power than I’ve experienced in my system before, though even my most bass-heavy discs could not cause it to lose its control and poise. Likewise, what is unquestionably a full and extended top end provides vividness and transparency aplenty, yet could not be provoked into anything resembling unnatural brightness; a fine line that I find essential to long-term listening pleasure, and one that this player walked with conspicuous success. Tonal balance is, I guess, somewhere close to neutral … I was not intuitively aware of any significant departure from neutrality, while conscious analysis confirmed a roughly equal oversupply of everything! Seriously – wherever in the frequency range you listen there seems to be a lot going on, yet the net effect is beautifully balanced, resulting in a very vibrant, colourful, energetic character that works well with all types of music. Don’t assume from this, though, any lack of subtlety in the CD Three’s sound. Its rendering of instrumental tone could be startlingly realistic. It has an exceptional ability to resolve timbral and harmonic signatures and hall ambience, within a huge and wonderfully precise soundstage, while correctly contextualising all of this as inner detail; enhancing rather than obscuring the musical message.
Now, you could take all that as emphasising the corporeal over the cerebral, or as promoting light over dark … however you paint it, it honours the aspects of music and of the listening experience that matter most to me. I used the CD Three with two different sets of amplifiers during the review period, and the differences were instructive. The first set particularly emphasised the feisty, energetic side of its character and, while I never tired of the visceral excitement of this presentation, it wouldn’t be what everyone would choose when sinking into the sofa at the end of a long day. With the second set of amps, a more harmonious balance was achieved; still exciting and involving, yet with a more refined demeanour that promoted the atmospheric and spacious aspects of its sound. System matching is, always and forever, the key.
Setting aside the expected veneer of objectivity, the bottom line for me was that everything that came out of the CD Three (good recordings, bad recordings, any genre of music you like) was just so damn musical, so damn enjoyable! I still don’t really have a handle on what it is, but there’s something fundamental in the ability to communicate the spirit of a piece of music that this player does extremely well. Certainly, it all but disabled my critical faculties, as the abnormal paucity of my listening notes attests. If the player has a fault, it may be in a slight lack of low-level texture to the sound; this is one area where vinyl still reigns supreme, and an aspect that seems to have fuelled the recent trend back to tube output stages and ‘antique’ converter technology in many high-end DACs and players. If the CD Three’s sound was not exactly analogue, then, it belongs to that category of digital reproduction for which absolutely no apology need be made. Utterly devoid of “digital hardness”, compellingly musical in every respect and with a confidence and rhythmic integrity that I associate with the better 24/192 implementations, I adored it unreservedly for what it was, rather than (as do many vinyl advocates, I suspect) fretting about what it wasn’t!
Reading through the few available English language reviews of Audia Flight kit, there is a reassuring consensus on what, we must deduce, is their “house sound”; big, dynamic, smooth and musical. I shan’t be adding much to that, because it neatly summarises my own experience with the CD Three. This is not a player for those who like their music mellow and inoffensive; its high octane, colourful, communicative and exciting character will inevitably require a little care in system matching. Get it right, and you’ll enjoy an exceptionally natural rendition of recorded detail, a sound blissfully free of electronic artefacts, and an intensely passionate presentation that is impossible to ignore.
Although marked by some operational annoyances, the player is not ‘quirky’ as such but thoroughly engineered and well built, with decent perceived value. Whether an integrated Red Book CD player is the best way to go with so much attention on DACs, downloading and hi-rez formats needs careful consideration; the CD Three’s price of $3900 certainly brings a lot of other options into the frame. For me, though, rationality went out of the window, as the prospect of having to send the CD Three back was too much to bear … yes, I bought it!
Based on the performance of this entry-level machine, there is clearly much to recommend the Audia Flight brand. Do try to seek it out for yourself; the stunning new Strumento amplifiers, particularly, look set to make an impact at their rarefied price level, while the CD One-M’s greater flexibility would likely have been a better fit to my needs (though sadly not to my wallet). Seems I was right all along – these guys are serious! And, let’s face it, anything with the initials “A.F.” has got to have something going for it!
Analogue: Linn LP12 / Lingo PS / Ittok LVII / Audio Technica OC30
Digital: Meridian 507
Amplification: Custom-built AC Magnum dual mono P200 pre and power / ModWright amps (under review)
Speakers: Acoustat Spectra 1100 hybrid electrostatics
Cables: Antipodes Audio Komako interconnects / MAC Shotgun speaker cable / MAC Burly, HC & Digital power cords
Accessories: Sound Mechanics Performance isolation platforms (on each source component) / Target & Sound Organisation stands / Herbie’s Audio Labs isolation products / Caig ProGold /Belkin PF40 power conditioner
The Audia Flight CD Three CD Player
Source: Distributor loan
Warranty: One year parts and labour