April Music’s Stello CDT-200 CD Transport and DP-200 DAC/ Preamplifier
The Digital Revolution Will Not be Televised
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” was all I kept saying over and over as I examined April Music’s very affordable line of Stello electronics hailing from Korea. The spanking new Stello CDT-200 transport and matching DP-200 DAC/preamplier are built as superbly as they appear. Moreover, one good look—particularly to the rear of each—tells you these products were very well thought-out.
The CDT-200 transport retails for $1195 and has a look that belies its asking price. It has four digital outputs: AES/EBU, BNC, RCA, and Toslink. Depressing Open/Close button reveals how well made and operationally smooth the CD drive mechanism is. This specially mounted Philips VAM-1210 transport had no problems reading CD-R samplers (if you’re like me and have many home made CDs). The CDT-200’s Track/Time display is luminous but not as large and easy to read at a distance as its sibling DP-200 DAC/preamplifier.
What came to mind looking at the impressive front panel of DP-200 was Mark Levinson. Back in its day, you could argue whether Levinson produced the best sounding electronics in the world, but there was no argument over their displays: in my opinion they were the best, particularly at a distance. The $1995 DP-200 is reminiscent of this: a smartly dressed 120-step, dot-matrix digital display showing Input, Volume and Sampling Rate that can be easily read from 12 feet. The DP-200 front panel has a very clean appearance, but contains many features. There’s a Standby button located on the left corner directly below its Stello insignia (the actual power-off button is located on the back panel above the IEC connector). Directly under the display window are six more buttons: Input, Bypass, Upsample, Record, and Volume
The DP-200’s flexibility and connectivity is one of its strong points.There are four Digital Inputs: AES/EBU, Coax-1, Coax-2 and Toslink; and three Digital Outputs: AES/EBU (XLR), Coax and Toslink (with Fixed or Variable Upsampling capabilities). But its designers didn’t stop there. Sampling rates are user-selectable: bypass, 24/48 kHz, 24/96 kHz and 24/192 kHz. The DP-200’s Analogue Input and Output offer both AES/EBU and RCA (2) connections. For those of you with vinyl collections, he DP-200 has an easy-to-install optional Phono Input module that supports both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges, making it a rarity among modern preamplifiers. The phono module features variable input impedance and gain settings. The DP-200 also allows installation of Sello’s ADC1 module, a 24Bit/96 kHz ADC (analogue-to-digital converter), a most unusual option for an audio preamplifier. At last, taking all of your rare vinyl recordings and transferring them to CD has now become an affordable reality. The analogue section is a true balanced, Class-A circuit.
The DP-200’s front-panel includes a headphone output jack. That’s right, you can listen late at night without disturbing your spouse. And April Music claim that the headphone section of the DP-200 is comparable to expensive stand-alone units. The DP-200 is user-friendly from across the room thanks to a fully-functional remote control (that, I might add, is far from the cheesy plastic types I’ve sometimes seen accompanying much more expensive gear).
Visually, April Music hit the proverbial home run with these impressively built machines. I can’t recall any product that boasts this level of flexibility at this asking price, and that is aimed directly at the high-end audiophile who cherishes good sound on a budget.
Interestingly, in Europe there exist plenty of high-end manufacturers who produce affordable gear for those on a budget. Arcam, Audiolab, Creek, NAD, and Roksan have all developed a great reputation over the years for affordable high-end wares. Ditto Naim’s lower-priced high-end separates. Here in the States, you won’t often find “affordable” and “high-end” on the same page, much less in the same sentence!
When I think affordable—with mid-high-end appeal—Japanese products like Sony, Pioneer and Denon spring to mind; they’ve dominated this niche in the audio market for decades. With the advent of April Music’s Stello line, it’s now South Korea’s turn to change the tide of what we snobby Americans think of as fancy―and affordable―all rolled into one.
You’ve Got to Have Seoul
The competition I used against the Stello DP-200/CDT-200 was quite steep and revealed immediately how good, especially for the price, these two products are, both individually and when paired. Before I begin to describe the “Stello Sound,” let me first mention the multitude of digital front-ends I have been enjoying lately in both my upstairs reference digital system as well as in my analogue rig. The newest addition is the Audiomeca Mephisto IIX ($7,500) whose sonic wonders actually caught me off guard. My one-box Alex Paychev modified Phillips SACD 1000 ($2400) is back in rotation since returning from a long term loan. Classés SACD2 ($8000) also set the stage for some serious musical appreciation via its ultra-smooth transport mechanism and very musical character. Lastly, the First Overture vacuum tube preamplifier/DAC from George Mark Audio Designs ($6,995) stands as my reference analogue preamp. It lacks the full-tilt functionality of the DP-200, but don’t let the absence of bells and whistles fool you: this double-chassis, revamped Melos 333 remains the reference upon which all analogue preamps and DACs have been judged—and to date none has surpassed.
The most interesting aspect of listening to the Stello units was how impervious they were to the assaults of all this high-rent gear. They never once gave the impression, sonically speaking, of being more affordable; they merely sounded different.
The Stello DP-200 sounded its best when paired with the Stello CDT-200 transport. Such synergy is not surprising. Listening to the DP-200 without its soul-mate transport was rather like chocolate-chip cookies without a glass of milk. But when the two are paired, there’s an unmistakable snap and focus that is undeniably refreshing. An uncanny sense of openness envelopes the music. If I had to summarize this synergy in a single word, it would be honest. To my way of thinking honesty is not the same thing as accuracy. Accuracy by itself may lack warmth, the human touch. Honesty in audio equipment is that special quality of leaving nothing behind, of presenting all the music, the major as well as the minor components constituting the texture of the sound.
Listening to Sarah Vaughan singing You’re Blaséfrom her CD "How Long Has This Been Going On"(featuring Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass, Louie Bellson and Ray Brown) convinced me that the Stello combination is the reference standard—at its price point. Here is a CD I’ve owned for at least ten years. It’s always sounded like a typical commercial recording, full of problems. Digital sound engineering back then was just that: full of problems. Today this disc sounds leagues better than I remember from even a few years ago when I was using the Perpetual Technologies P3A DAC and P1A Upsampler. At that time this combo set a new benchmark in quality and affordability. The retail price for the P3A/P1A combo was about the same as the DP-200, yet it didn’t offer nearly the features and connectivity, and lacked the preamplifier section, remote control and full-sized chassis. Most importantly, I don’t remember the P3A/P1A ever having the sense of control, particularly in the bass region, nor the transparency or the spatial cues the DP-200 possesses. My, how times have changed.
But having said that, the Stello combo wasn’t exactly kicking sand in the faces of the excellent digital products I’ve been getting acquainted with over the past few months. The Classé SACD2 possesses a silkier top end and as a result, its transients appear smoother and a tad more rich. In addition, the CDT-200 does not present the same solid vice-grip drawer as the SACD2 transport mechanism. At more than 2½ times the price, the Classé SACD2 is expensive but its build quality reflects that and, sonically speaking, it stands out as a stellar performer.
The First Overture displayed how vast a soundstage can be presented, by virtue of its tube input stage. Using the CDT-200 as a transport, the music sounded surprisingly better than the Jubilaeum transport I had modified by Zanden Audio. The CDT-200 made mincemeat out a modified Sony DVP7700 I had lying about. The only player it could not match for sheer sonic delight was the Classé SACD2.
What you get using the Classé as a transport with the First Overture DAC/preamp is a level of performance most of us could live happily ever after with. One might presume that this combination, at around $15,000 (more than 5 times the cost of the Stello CDT-200/DP-200), would be incomparably superior. It is not. Though the Classé/First Overture possess a more open, detailed and expansive soundstage, there isn’t a night and day difference. Depending on the amplifiers used, especially with the deHavilland 845G SE’s, there were days when I didn’t know which I preferred.
The Stello CDT-200 and DP-200 represent the first time in many years of auditioning audio equipment that, particularly at its asking price, I was forced use the big boys for comparison. This hasn’t happened since the original Meitner DAC back in 1998. The reasons are simple: there was really nothing that I had at its price point that could compete, either sonically or as a full-fledged control center.
The Stello CDT-200 and DP-200 were neither embarrassed nor completely outmatched by the more expensive digital front-ends I had in-house. There is no sizzle, artifact or hot top-end that tends to accompany “affordable” audio equipment. The sound is effortless as well as seamless throughout, while giving a very strong sense of dynamic control from top to bottom. The Stello combination really offers a clean and robust bass, but please keep in mind that the better the cabling the more synergistic the sound. I found the Shunyata Aries digital cable (AES/EBU), Gemini speaker cables and Hydra 4 AC conditioner clear winners in attaining the best sound possible.
Digital audio has come a long way. And April Music has made this painfully obvious to a lot of high-priced competitors out there. I can’t stress enough the ingenuity that went into the creation of this affordable line. And yes, the real importance lies in the Stello’s affordability. Anyone with the money can invest in very expensive gear and (probably) get good sound. Good sound is what those two words “high-end” is supposed to be about. Well, it looks to me like a couple of new words redefine affordability. And those two words are April Music. Easily my Publisher’s Choice for Most Wanted Component 2005!
Mechanism Philips VAM1210
Audio CD (CD-DA), CD-Recordable (CD-R),
Outputs 1 AES/EBU (XLR)
1 Coaxial (BNC)
1 Coaxial (RCA)
1 Toslink (optical)
AC mains 100, 120, 220, 230V Selectable
Dimension (WHD) 435 x 94.5 x 345 mm
Weight 7.5 Kg
Finish Options Silver or Olive Black Anodized Aluminum
DP-200 DAC Specifications:
D to A Converter section
Selectable Upsampling up to 24Bit / 192kHz (bypass, 48, 96, 192kHz)
4 Digital Inputs: AES/EBU, Coaxial 1, Coaxial 2, Toslink
3 Digital outputs: AES/EBU, Coaxial, Toslink
3 analogue inputs: 1 XLR balanced, 2 RCA unbalanced
2 analogue outputs: 1 XLR balanced, 1 RCA unbalanced
120-step digital volume control
Fully balanced, Class-A analogue audio circuits
Surround processor bypass loop.
Custom designed headphone interface circuitry
Fully functional including selection of:
Input, Volume, Mute, Upsampling rate, Bypass, ' RC5 coded' CD player control
P1 Phono Amplifier
User selectable gain: MM 40dB, 52dB and MC 70dB, 76dB
User selectable impedance: 10, 20, 50, 100, 200Ohm, 47kOhm
ADC1 Analogue to Digital converter
Studio grade components
Selectable bypass (no upsampling) or upsampled 24Bit/96kHz digital output
Price: $ 1,995.00
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