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Reviewer: Srajan Ebaen
Source: Zanden Audio Model 2000P/5000S; Opera Audio Reference 2.2 Linear & Canary Audio CD-10 [on review]
Preamp/Integrated: ModWright SWL 9.0SE; Music First Audio Passive Magnetic; Hyperion Sound BEC-P25T
Amp: 2 x Audiosector Patek SE, Yamamoto A-08S; First Watt F3 Power JFET; SilverTone Model 3.2 [on review]
Speakers: Zu Cable Definition Mk 1.5 Pro with Rane PDQ-55 EQ below 40Hz
Cables: Zanden Audio proprietary I²S cable, Stealth Audio Indra (x2), Zu Cable Ibis, Zu Cable Birth on Definitions; Crystal Cable Reference power cords; ZCable Hurricane power cords on both conditioners
Stands: 1 x Grand Prix Audio Monaco four-tier
Powerline conditioning: 2 x Walker Audio Velocitor S
Sundry accessories: GPA Formula Carbon/Kevlar shelf for transport; GPA Apex footers underneath stand, DAC and amp; Walker Audio SST on all connections; Walker Audio Vivid CD cleaner; Furutech RD-2 CD demagnetizer; WorldPower cryo'd Hubbell wall sockets
Room size: 30' w x 18' d x 10' h [sloping ceiling] in long-wall setup in one half, with open adjoining living room for a total of ca.1000 squ.ft floor plan
Review Component Retail: $3,098 introductory offer for US market
Established in March 1999, Original Electronics "is dedicated to the development, design, production and distribution of high-class digital audio". Chief designer and president Du Yue and chairman Xiao Qingyong graduated from Tsing-Hua and Beyjing University respectively and were patterned by exposure to Western values in their working and living environments. Original introduced the very first 20-bit HDCD enabled and 24-bit CD players in China and currently offers numerous digital source components as well as the above fully differential, constant current source Class A EL-34 tube integrated and a headphone amp with outboard power supply. The styling cues range from Chord to Micromega and spell fully mature, extremely detailed execution.

Bostonian IT specialist Mr. Ping Gong has, in his own words, "watched the North American high-end market and Chinese high-end manufacturing for several years. We have been to China several times to visit the factories, talk with the management teams and evaluate their products. We have also visited many Chinese high-end dealers to gather customer feedback and repair data. After several years of careful selection, we are positive that we are now in a position to present the highest quality Chinese high-end audio/video products available to the North American audiophiles."

Mr. Gong's present lineup includes Dussun, a brand headed by the former chief designer for Korsun (made famous in the US for his OEM work for a high-profile American brand). XLH makes a horn speaker and an ambitious pre/power combo that Mr. Gong feels competes with "anything" built and designed in the US or Europe. oSound provides furniture and accessories for audio and video. Xindak has undergone a change in management to launch new products never previously available in the States under the old distribution scheme. And Original Audio is the subject of today's review, specifically their Leonardo CD-A9.3 CD player, presumably named not for DiCaprio but DaVinci.

The four electronics manufacturers under the new AAA-Audio umbrella, unlike so many others in mainland China or Taiwan, do not engage in any OEM or rebadging work for other brands (Xindak excepted which is sold as ODM in Europe). This insures that their products are and remain original and exclusive issue just as one expects from equivalent small US or European high-end brands. For Original, the A9.3 under evaluation represents their current top-line digital offering.

Just as King Kong had nothing on Denzel Washington's rogue cop in Training Day -- well, before Peter Jackson's latest spectacle -- Bow Technologies has nothing on Original in the cosmetics department. In fact, if looks could kill, the Leonardo should be on the FBI's Most Wanted list as an absolutely lethal fiend. I'm dead serious. Nothing in a long while has quite pushed the understated ultra-refined eye candy buttons as fiercely as the suavé Leonardo. The spoked sandblasted CD cover is faintly backlit from below which is visible only after sundown. During the day, the fetching restraint on the blue LEDs renders it optically mute. Make no mistake - fit'n'finish doesn't get better than this (nor does the packaging for that matter. It's about as FedUp/Oops proof as they come).

The innards of the Leonardo player read similarly top-notch: "Modified Philips VAM12 top-loading laser pick up and Philips CD7-II digital servo system. Discrete Burr-Brown PCM-1792 24bit/192KHz converters, filter and output circuits per channel for a fully differential design. Two remote-selectable digital filters. Two heavy-duty toroidal power transformers in sealed metal sub enclosure separate digital and analog circuits via six power supply and voltage regulator circuits, including a discrete clock supply. Proprietary GOS digital processing technology (rewritten Philips server software for better fault tolerance, more accurate track access and faster TOC reading). Blue LEDs on top and display panel. Heavy duty aluminum alloy top loading cover, chassis, adjustable feet and remote control. XLR and RCA analog and coaxial and optical digital outputs. Output level <1.93V on RCA, 6dB extra gain on XLR, THD 0.0012%, S/N ratio >110dB, dynamic range 110dB, dimensions 16.9" x 5.1" x 12.6" W x H x D, weight 29.8 lbs."

Mr. Gong's introductory price for this player is $3,098 while he's preparing to establish a small domestic dealer network. Purely on paper and photogenics, the Leonardo CD-A9.3 and its price spell major trouble for home-grown RedBook machines. Will sonics follow suit to validate the importer's conviction that his wares can compete fair and square against anything?

Eschewing direct track access functionality -- somewhat of a recent trend it seems, as though there's audio designers who listen to a CD beginning to end and expect the same from their clientele -- the front-panel controls are duplicated on the remote and all self-explanatory safe for one: the remote-only "mode" button smack in the middle of its pyramidal layout scheme. It toggles between "sharp [1] and "slow" [2] filter settings.
The four massive footers unscrew on a substantial threaded shaft to facilitate leveling. Four sidewards openings in the footer bases allow for insertion of a pin to make height adjustments easier. According to Mr. Ping, he had originally considered asking his engineers to use socketed op-amps so a user could roll these critical solid-state devices. Ultimately, the designer vetoed this request. He felt that his player had been voiced to perfection and saw no upside in allowing an end user to compromise it.

As a fully balanced machine, the added output voltage on the differential path is common and the review will evaluate whether going balanced bestows sonics benefits.

Common practice for top loaders is the need for a mechanical puck that secures the loaded CD atop the spindle. The moment the felt-backed lid is inserted into the tray above the puck, a tiny nub in the well's recess depresses. This commences the TOC protocol. It concludes by displaying total tracks on the perfectly dialed display. Like everything else about the Leonardo, this display completely avoids Las Vegas strip joint flash and glitz (unlike domestic competitor Shanling who seems to pursue the more garish these days.)

Confessions time. Besides being an auditory animal, I'm also a visual creature. I do care very much how my audio toys look and how well they are made. Yamada-San's statement-level digital Zanden separates are plain gorgeous in all aspects. As they should for the price they demand. The Leonardo is equally gorgeous - for 1/10th the Zanden's coin where other makers give you bent sheet metal instead. In fact, this player looks so good in the flesh -- I'm afraid the photos don't fully convey it -- that I barely care how it'll sound. Obviously, that attitude won't at all do for a review. Give me some time then. I need to recover from the present infatuation with the cosmetic wow factor before I get down to sonic brass tacks. Otherwise I'll be completely besotted and pre-biased by appearance alone. Hot damn.