A three-in-one solution capable of sonic glory, but with one glaring caveat.
I’VE ALWAYS BEEN torn between two extremes – on the one hand, I love the audio-nerd tweakery of having as many hi-fi components as possible to fiddle with. A three-box power amplifier? Brilliant! In fact, why can’t we have four boxes? Bring on the two-box preamps, roll out phono stages with external power supplies and by all means, let’s hear a six-box speaker system.
On the other hand, all those cables and boxes and associated rack space and expense sometimes get really old, and I find myself longing for the pleasures of a simple or even a single box solution. This is all the more so if the simpler option sounds fabulous. Case in point: ATC’s rather excellent SIA2-150 integrated amp (reviewed here), which could replace my current four chassis amplification implementation and take care of headphone amp duties at the same time (silly headphone jack placement notwithstanding).
And so to ATC’s multitalented CDA2 player/preamplifier/DAC. Designed (if you hadn’t already guessed) to replace a CD player, an analogue preamplifier and a DAC, it’s also got a proper headphone stage. Once you factor in ATC’s predilection for active loudspeakers, you start to see how the CDA2 could well be the only hi-fi component on a rack. Talk about simple!
Features & Construction
Like the other ATC gear that’s been through my doors, the CDA2 is hand built in the UK and much like the CA2, it’s based on a fairly simple chassis design, with sheets of metal and a chunky faceplate. It’s a well-put together unit, albeit with the ringing top panel that’s standard with this type of construction. It’s also quite the looker in its restrained brushed silver and black livery, with ATC somehow managing to stay in minimalist design territory despite all the internal functionality. There’s obviously a lot to squeeze in on both the front and back panels, but ATC has ended up with an easy to use and good-looking product. The only jarring aspect of the CDA2’s appearance is the colour of the disc drawer, which is different to the faceplate – a thin piece of matching metal could have been used on the front of the drawer to make for a more uniform look.
The CD drawer and transport controls are placed on the left, with the big volume control knob on the far right. In between is the small display with standby and source selection buttons below it. Throw in a few LED indicator lights and that’s the lot – there’s not a great deal of control available to the user. Much of the descriptions of the CA2’s usability and aesthetics, right down to its remote control can be applied to the CDA2, so a look at that review might be in order.
Round back, ATC has also kept the layout clean. There’s the aforementioned, badly located 6.35mm headphone jack, balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs, two RCA inputs and a 3.5mm input (also badly placed – it should be on the front panel), along with two digital inputs (coaxial and toslink in each case).
The balanced outputs are designed to drive long cables, with 50-meter runs being no trouble at all. I have no idea how relevant that is in a domestic setting though. Missing in action is a USB input, and given that computer audio is so hot right now, this omission seems bizarre in the extreme. My understanding is that ATC doesn’t have a massive depth of experience in this area, so rather than just implementing a solution that might do the job, the company has chosen to stick with what it does well. That’s commendable at one level but that missing USB jack is going to irk some potential punters, and while you could run a USB to SPDIF converter between a computer and the CDA2, that would seem to defeat the point of this one-box solution. The DAC is 24/192 capable, so at least that’s not an issue.
Operationally, there’s nothing to complain about bar the silly placement of the headphone jack and the 3.5mm auxiliary input. The CDA2’s transport, while not racecar quick, is no slug, and the controls all make logical sense and are nicely placed. Like the CA2, the CDA2 gets up to speed quickly, so long warm ups aren’t required – a couple of tracks and you’re good to go.
The CDA2 was connected to ATC’s SCM20SL AT active speakers, and to a set of Viganoni and Viganoni Sachem power amps and Theophany M5 Series 2 floorstanders. As a preamp, it was repeatedly compared to its CA2 sibling and to a StereoKnight Silverstone Balance transformer-based passive preamp. Its DAC and CD player sections were compared to my Marantz SA8260 SACD player (in CD and transport modes) and Micromega’s MyDAC (reviewed here).
As a preamp, the CDA2 did everything the CA2 did. So in other words, it more or less blew my socks off. Some copy pilfered from the CA2 review covers it nicely:
“The sound was smooth, yet exquisitely detailed, with delicious tonal colour and accurate rendition of timbre. The low end was tight and deep, the midrange as liquid as I could hope for without valves in the signal chain. The all-important dynamics were impeccable at all levels, and the sound was also very much grain free at the top – clear and open with no solid-state harshness. In this case, every box was ticked.”
That’s exactly what I heard here, which is no surprise given that the CDA2’s preamp section is based on the CA2’s. Sonically, there’s not a great deal between the two when feeding either speaker/amp combination. If anything, the purist CA2 has an advantage because it offers some additional transparency, but the differences aren’t worth worrying about. So as a preamp the CDA2 would slot in with virtually any sympathetically matched amp/speaker combination. It’s certainly got the transparency, neutrality and dynamics needed to match up with high-quality gear in the signal chain. It’s a dab hand with imaging and soundstaging too, presenting the music on a wide and deep canvas.
As a CD player, the CDA2 is impressive enough, although overall, its disc spinning abilities aren’t quite as stellar as its preamp performance. There’s no way to pick any real faults with CD playback – it’s just that the preamp is so darn good. The CDA2 was in many ways a match for the Marantz SA8260, with the ATC unit sounding smoother and more refined while carrying a touch more weight through to the bottom of the bass octave. The Marantz on the other hand, was more dynamic and shone more light into the top-end from the upper mids and higher. It would be no hassle to live with either one, and in most respects, the CDA2 is likely to match but not beat most standalone upsampling CD players up to $3000 or so. So that’s quite a showing from an all-in-one component.
Thanks to the addressable DAC, the CDA2 has more tricks up its sleeve than the average CD player, although that’s changing as more players are built with digital inputs. The sound of the CDA2 when fed from the coaxial and optical outputs of the Marantz revealed a slightly more open and detailed sound than direct from the ATC’s CD section, indicating that the transport mechanism in the CDA2 might well be holding the overall sound quality back by a fraction. Again, the differences weren’t worth getting hung up on. Without a USB to SPDIF converter on hand, I wasn’t able to test the high-resolution playback.
The headphone stage is a stand out as per all the other ATC gear I’ve tried. Like the others, this implementation uses an opamp to drive a discrete transistor output, but here the circuit has been further developed and has an additional pair of transistors resulting in slightly improved performance into difficult loads.
It’s capable of driving a set of Sennheiser HD650s with no trouble at all and delivers much of the goodness of a standalone headphone amplifier in the process.
ATC’s CDA2 is an interesting stereo component – it’s more than able to replace a rack full of hi-fi gear, offering a straightforward and elegant solution, especially with a set of active speakers. It’ll also easily match up with a more conventional power amp and speaker system. It’s user friendly and it sounds pretty damn fine, especially in its preamp and DAC capacities. Theoretically by mixing and matching components, you could improve on the feature set, get a better CD sound and bring USB audio into the equation, but good luck doing that for the CDA2’s asking price – and in any event, the target market just won’t be bothered with multiple boxes.
It’s worth restating that the lack of a USB input for native computer audio support has to count against the CDA2 in this day and age, available workarounds notwithstanding. Audio companies with a long history in conventional audio will have to get with the programme and embrace computer audio if they’re not to haemorrhage customers down the track, and this is a great example of that. How many punters will reject the CDA2 simply because they can’t plug in a PC or Mac to access a world of high-resolution audio?
Like the rest of the ATC gear I’ve reviewed, the CDA2 is an easy enough recommendation but in this case, it does come with some caveats. ASHLEY KRAMER