Soundstage, April 2008

North Star Design Sapphire CD Player_Review followup - John Crossett



First off, the $2500 USD Sapphire is, to my eye, a fine-looking machine -- coming out of the "beauty is as beauty does" school of design. While there are only so many ways to distinguish a rectangular-front, sliding- drawer CD player, North Star added just enough visual elements to the Sapphire to make it stand out in an otherwise crowded field. But it was around back that the real beauty of the Sapphire came into view -- those XLR output jacks. With the first cut I played, I knew that the Sapphire was fully balanced. Why? Because the balanced output was significantly louder than the single-end. This is as it should be -- a fully balanced circuit will have 6dB greater output.

Single-ended, the Sapphire's sound was clean and clear, with bass that was deep, if ever so slightly ill defined. Via the single-ended outputs, the Sapphire rounded the music's rough edges, slightly blunting the leading edge of the initial transient, yet not robbing the music of its character. Classical music was a real joy, as the strings were presented in a silky-smooth manner, brass had the requisite blat and bite, and there was a good sense of space around the orchestra and the individual instruments. I found myself completely enjoying my time listening to the Sapphire via its single-ended outputs, and this was just what I had expected, given how the Sapphire was described in the initial review

After I switched over to the balanced outputs, things changed considerably. There was an added sense of clarity to the sound. Mary Gauthier’s voice took on a more realistic dimensionality, and I heard how her vocal cords and body helped to form her voice, as well as the subtle nuances that she uses to make her point in each song. Foley’s bass, on the Miles Davis CD, was deeper, tighter, and had more definition. There was a better sense of the purr, which is indicative of an electric guitar. Acoustic bass, whether used in a jazz band or in a classical orchestra, conveyed a better impression of a large, wooden, stringed box, with either the plucking or bowing taking on a more realistic sound through the balanced outputs.

The balanced outputs also offered a greater sense of the recording venue. Through them the strings were just as silky and sweet, but now I could pick out the different orchestral sections with greater ease. Also, the brass had more of blat and bite, more of that burnished brass sound that you hear in those instruments live. The dynamic swings were more, well, dynamic. The march from soft to loud intensified via the balanced outputs, and resolution and transparency showed marked improvement.

I also loved the way transients were handled with the balanced outputs. The snap of the drums, the pluck of the bass, the sound and power of the horns were all enhanced -- that is, made more realistic. Instrumental outlines were more sharply defined as well. Also, the sense of space, both in the hall itself along with that around the instruments, was increased, which added another pleasant surprise to the proceedings. Balanced use also seemed to cause the soloists to step a bit closer to the microphone than when heard through the single-ended outputs.

The North Star Sapphire CD player is quite a find. Yes, using it balanced will offer another level of sonic bliss to your listening sessions, but no matter how you choose to listen you’ll hear music that is engaging and enjoyable. However, I do think that system matching -- especially when using it balanced -- is going to be a key element in deciding whether or not you’ll find the Sapphire’s list of strengths and weaknesses to your liking. Plopping the Sapphire down balanced in a forward-sounding system may very well be a recipe for disaster. It will, though, make a laid-back system come alive and should keep its composure in an evenly balanced system as well.

Either way, the North Star Sapphire CD player has the goods to hold its head high among the competition -- especially when used balanced


Apr, 04, 2008