Aug 192010
 

Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, just as much as sound quality preferences are in the ear/mind of the listener and the Opera/Consonance Mini Droplet 3.1 CD player has a fairly unique approach to both, as we shall see.

Opera Audio was founded in 1994 in Beijing China by Mr Liu an optical-mechanical engineer, who started designing and making audio products on his kitchen table. Having progressed to a 100 plus employ business now days he still designs all Opera’ products himself and the Mini Droplet 3.1 Linear is one of their newer CD players or at least this version of the player is, which originally started life as a 24/192 solid state player but is now a valve output equipped linear CD player.

Looks….

Visually there is no other CD player on the market that looks quite like this one, it is quite simply a work of art and very striking. The body is shaped like a droplet of water when viewed from above, with the start of the water droplet at the control end of the player. A raised chrome rib sits above the satin finish brushed aluminium case and has five controls set within recesses. These push buttons control play, stop, track back, track forward and power off. The buttons sit loosely within the recesses and click when pushed.

The Mini Droplet is a top loading player with a beautifully made lid to cover the deep well in which sits the CD mechanism and CDs are held in place by a small plain but nicely made puck.

The bottom of the CD player is piano black and the top and bottom are held together via three towers, with the screw wells only accessible from below, this leaves the beautifully finished top plate clear from screws.

A large curved wall of brushed aluminium houses the large, clear, soft blue display which can be read over a fair distance. The display workings sitting behind a window in the curved wall.

Unusually this CD player sits quite high, in part due to its body construction but also as a result of the three tall tubes that act as feet (or should that be legs). Each tube has a sorbothane type material in it, which form an inverted dome at the bottom. This material allows some movement and acts as an isolation system.

Technology and functionality….

Internally the Mini Droplet has one ECC 88/6922 valve output stage and the digital engine at the heart of this player is a Philips TDA 1543 DAC. The remote allows you to select standard non- oversampling 44.1 or upsampling (1) at 88.2 khz or 176.4 khz but you must stop playback to do this. The remote also allows you to switch the digital input on and off.

Increasingly it is important for CD player manufacturers to include digital inputs to “future proof” their products and give them longevity. While I feel the reports of the “death of CD” are somewhat premature it is increasingly becoming a fact that many audio enthusiasts are using external digital sources such as  computers and DAB radios and a CD player which can be used as both CD player and a digital to analogue converter (DAC), will have a longer appeal than one that does not have this feature. The Mini Droplet can be used as an external DAC for any digital source that has a digital out in the form of a Coax RCA output.

The Mini Droplet’s remote is made from metal and has most of the features one would expect, FF, RW, stop, play, track or whole CD repeat and buttons for the aforementioned digital input and upsampling selector. One omission that I personally miss is the inclusion of direct track access numbers. The operational angle for the remote was quite wide too, so having to point directly at the player was not necessary.

Operationally this player was silent during playback but some CDs for what ever reason induced a clicking from the transport, when the laser mechanism was  scanning the discs TOC ; these CDs would however play silently.

As I have said before I find products that buzz or hum quite annoying and I am pleased to report that at no time did the Mini Droplet hum or buzz, its PSU was silent in use.

After being on for a few hours or more the player did became slightly warm to the touch but never hot.

Review System…..

I used my regular system for this review which includes a Meridian G02 pre-amplifier, Meridian G56 power-amplifier and Anthony Gallo Ref 3.1 speakers. Cabling between pre and power was Atlas Mavros as was the speaker cable. No mains filtering or regenerators were used though Audience AU 24 and Analysis Plus Power Oval 2 mains cables were used. Telos RFI/EMI Platinum Caps were used to cover unused RCA inputs and outputs.

The system was used on a Clearlight Audio RDC Aspect rack and the Meridian pre-power were supported on SSC Isolation platforms.

Interconnects…..

During initial listening I tried a number of interconnects and I was unhappy with most of them. I found that certain elements of the sound would benefit from using some cables and some other elements would not, such as bass and treble. The most coherent overall cable match was Mark Grant G1000HD which gave the best overall sound and thus was used through out the review period. I also covered the digital in and out with Telos RFI/EMI Caps.

Even at this early stage it was becoming clear that the Mini Droplet was not going to be just a simple plop it on the table, hook it up and away you go type of CD player; it would require just a little pampering to give of its best….

Music Used….


Nitin Sawhney-Beyond Skin

Goldfrapp-Black Cherry

Nightmares on Wax-Carboot Soul

Roisin Murphy-Overpowered

Thomas Dolby-Aliens ate my Buick

The Dali CD

Jennifer Warnes-Famous Blue Raincoat

Jennifer Warnes-The Hunter

Various artists-The Female Perspective

The Mission Demo CD 1

Sound Quality…..

Much like the AMR CD-777 and CD-77 the Mini Droplet allows the user to select how the DAC section functions and this directly affects how the player sounds, as do a few other factors which I will discuss a bit later on.  The Mini droplet is a no filter, non oversampling player but if the user wishes upsampling (1) can be applied by switching from 44.1 operation to 88.2 khz and 176.4 khz using the FB button on the remote.

There are in reality three CD players in one here with each setting offering a slightly different flavour of sound. These flavours will suit different systems and even possibly different kinds of music. However in saying that I found that overall it was the 44.1 setting that suited my listening preferences best but I only established this after a fair bit of comparing one to the other and at one point I was edging towards favouring 176.4 but ultimately I settled on 44.1.

Switching between the different settings, in the context of my own system, mainly effected the bass and treble and for the most part left the midrange unaltered, though a degree of coherence between the frequencies and how they gelled together was altered with the addition of upsampling. Please keep in mind that in your system the changes I describe may not be as obvious or indeed might be more easily discerned.

The 44.1 setting gave the best coherence between the frequencies but did have a slight negative in so much as the bass was slightly stodgy and heavy; not slow as such but just a little fuller. Switching to 88.2 put the bass on a slight diet and this setting gave bass lines a tad more speed and definition but at times I felt that the frequencies were slightly less blended. Potentially 176.4 gave the best sound overall except that quite often I felt that the treble lost air and seemed to my ears slightly truncated and with some music some bass weight was lost as well.

Having played around with these setting I made a discovery which allowed me to use the 44.1 setting again, which despite the bass issue I felt gave the best sound overall. This discovery had a direct effect on how the bass had been sounding.

What your Mini Droplet is sitting on……

Clearlight Audio Aspect racks contain RDC a compound which most of the time works well to keep vibrations at bay, but it can sometimes add extra warmth to the sound and this can result, with some products in adding extra warmth to the sound of products that sit on it. With the Mini Droplet’s soft squidgy sorbothane feet sitting directly on the top of the Clearlight Super-Position RDC shelf…. well frankly this was adding just too much warmth to the sound and mostly in the lower mid and bass; where the player is already a tad fat already.

Several reviews have described the bass as being a tad bloated and slow, which it can be and indeed I was hearing some of this in the sound myself but in part I feel now, that this may be due directly to what the player is resting on. By placing Ringmat isolation discs under the Mini Droplets feet the bass tightened up, became more articulate and a slight thickness in the lower midrange was also reduced. Now this change did not alter the fact that this player’s sound sits to the warmer side of things; or that it thrives on music that is not over modulated in the bass, such as a few of my reference CDs (one of the reasons I use them, is to identify issues in the lower frequencies). However after placing the Ringmat footers under the feet these electronic dance music albums became much more enjoyable to listen to.

Based on this I feel that the Mini Droplet will sound better on heavy glass, granite or slate shelves rather than some wood or indeed Clearlight Audio stands or shelves.

One other possibility that I discussed with Ian Large of Alium Audio (distributors of Opera Audio/Consonance in the UK) was how tube rolling might effect the sound of the player. In an Email he told me that the valves in the Mini Droplet (ECC88) are ” JJ Tesla” and how “we tried it with a NOS Mullard and it sounded more fluid but a little noisier” I feel it is possible that trying different makes and vintages of ECC88’s might be worthwhile but as I did not have time to do so myself I don’t know if any element of the bass issues are as a result of the valves used or some other element in the players design over and above the sorbothane used in the feet.

Back to the music……

Nitin Sawhney was up first and I listened to the track Tides off Beyond Skin, which has a beautiful, delicate and haunting sound with a wide deep soundstage. The Mini Droplet was able to convey this easily and after the addition of the Ringmat footers the sound of the piano opened up more and the harmonic structure of the instrument became much better defined. Percussion as I have said in the past is one of the important elements in this track and while there was very good detail on cymbals I ultimately felt that the Mini Droplet lacked the openness, air and decay that more expensive CD players bring to this track. However despite saying that the Mini Droplet was still very good and especially so, at its very modest price.

I listened to Goldfrapp’s album Black Cherry next, followed by Nightmares on Wax-Carboot Soul and Roisin Murphy’s album Overpowered and all of them sounded very good overall, with excellent imaging , soundstaging and detail; especially on Alison Goldfrapp and Roisin Murphy’s voices. The Mini Droplet 3.1 was able to  capture both these vocalists sensual vocal styles and to great effect. However some issues in the bass still persisted and it was not until I tried Thomas Dolby’s album Aliens ate my Buick that I felt I was hearing the Mini Droplet at its best.

Track seven of that album Budapest by Blimp was simply stunning. This has been a long time reference CD and track of mine and as the Mini Droplet began to play the disc I was taken aback by how tight and articulate the bass lines were. Gone was the stodgy element to the bass and it now had very good definition and detail. The soundstage was wide and deep and as the track progressed the ghost vocalist that haunts Thomas Dolby’s voice throughout much of the track was more clearly rendered than I had heard before. In fact the best way of describing this was that Lesley Fairbairn’s accompanying singing was like the image on an analogue TV when the aerial is just not quite right and the main images have a ghost. It is only usually with very much more expensive CD players that her voice is as clear as it was here.

Larry Treadwell’s guitar playing was beautifully reproduced from delicate playing to choppy and when his guitar solo fades to a sustain and is then blended into a howl at 6mins and 17 seconds the air and space as the bass comes back into play was simply breathtaking.

At the end of the track a choir starts singing in a fairly large auditorium. This part of the recording had more depth and acoustic space via the Mini Droplet than I have ever heard before from a mid priced CD player.  Indeed many dearer players fail as well to fully resolve this acoustic space. As the choir then break into a football style chant towards the very end of this track it was possible to clearly hear many distinct voices within the melee.

At this point I decided to change tack with the music I was using and I switched to female singer songwriters and I started of with Jennifer Warnes albums Famous Blue Raincoat and The Hunter, which both sounded excellent as did a compilation CD I had made over 17 years ago; which features the music of many excellent female singers.

This CD was recorded on a Marantz CDR1 CD recorder (one of the first commercially available ones at the time. It sold for £4500) back in April 1993 and the blank disc used was a gold TDK CD-W12, which was well over £20 at trade cost. I worked my way through the tracks from singer songwriters such as Tori Amos, Kimm Rogers, Robin Holcomb, Rosie Vella and many more and the Mini Droplet’s thrived on this type of music as it also did on Jazz and classical music.

Conclusions

The first thing to say is that the Mini Droplet is not going to be the first choice of the ultra-detailed, I want it spotlit, in my face, ultra tight bass enthusiast. However if you value musicality and a CD player that manages to communicate emotion, then the Mini Droplet is going to be right up your street as it is mine.

In terms of tonality the Mini Droplet sits to the warmer side of things, with a slightly fat bass and a sweet treble, so some care will be required in system matching; so if you are planning on using this CD player outside of an all Opera/Consonance system, you will need to take its warmth into consideration. I would suggest a system, that is neutral or one that sits just slightly to the leaner/cooler side of things as being a good place to start.

Oh yes and you must be considerate to what type of surface you place the CD player on, as one that adds extra warmth to the sound will work against the Mini Droplet’s music making abilities and this would be a real shame.

I think it also fair to say that if you are into Dance Music, Dub, Reggae and perhaps some types of Heavy Metal then perhaps the Mini Droplet is not going to be a first choice either but if you love female and male singer songwriters, Jazz, Classical and more evenly recorded music in the frequency extremes then the Opera Audio Mini Droplet 3.1 is a CD player you really must place on your short list to audition.

When it came time to pack it up and return it I must say I felt somewhat sad as this CD player is just a bit special and more so because of its price point. Sometimes when listening to more modestly priced gear in for review one is quite keenly aware of the short comings in sound over ones reference equipment. However in the case of the Mini Droplet CD3.1 while there are a few aforementioned sound issues mainly in the bass, overall I enjoyed my time with this beautiful looking CD player a lot.

Now I wonder what its bigger brother sounds like ?

Neil

Retail Price £ 2000

UK Distribution Alium Audio http://www.aliumaudio.com/

Opera Audio/Consonance http://www.opera-consonance.com/

(1) Rather confusingly Opera Audio call upsampling oversampling on their website as you can see below. In regard to my use of the term as lifted from Opera’s website Ian Large of Alium Audio had this to say via Email “One technical point is that quite rightly you mention that it is a non-oversampling player, the 88.2/176.4 are actually upsampling options, I do realise that many would argue that they are essentially the same, but its incongruous to call it non oversampling with oversampling options. I have changed my use of oversampling to upsampling in the text as I feel this is more accurate as well.

Technical Details…..

Droplet CDP 3.1 linear is an E88CC output tube, top loading CD-player.
Wood, aluminium and ceramic sandwich chassis construction.
Special made super-clock employed for further lower Jitter.
16 BIT, with your choice of over sampling at (FS 88.2KHz,FS 176.4KHz) or even no oversampling which can be selected at the push of a button on the remote.

The new Droplet CDP3.1 linear CD player will also allow the digital input from our Wireless Digital Transmitterl Box 1.0 and other cd transports, cable TV decoders and satellite receivers either through the CD players co-axial or optical inputs or with any other device with a digital PCM output.

The Droplet CDP 3.1’s tubed DAC will give a much improved higher fidelity sound over the basic DAC that is included in these previously mentioned devices.

The CD player also comes with special vibration absorbing feet for better stabilty and vibration protection.

Specification :

DAC resolution TDA1543
0dBFS signal output: 2.5V RMS
Output Terminals: Gold plated Tube RCA unbalanced
Frequency response: Less than +/- 0.5 dB deviation 20Hz-15kHz FS:44.1KHz
Less than +/- 0.5 dB deviation 20Hz-20kHz FS:88.2KHz
Less than +/- 0.5 dB deviation 20Hz-20kHz FS:176.4KHz
Signal-to-noise ratio More than 100dB
Distortion (RCA) Less than 0.21 % 1KHz FS:44.1KHz
Less than 0.14 % 1KHz FS:88.2KHz
Less than 0.14 % 1KHz FS:176.4KHz
Remote Control Philips RC-5 compatible IR system 36kHz modulation frequency
Vacuum tube E88CC/6922 x1

© Text and Photos Copyright 2010 Adventures in High Fidelity Audio all rights reserved…..except for Opera Audio/Consonance product photos and album cover artwork Copyright belongs with their original publishers.

NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission.

 Posted by at 9:34 pm

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