I have always loved British things. Most of the bands I listened to growing up were British. The Beatles, The Who, Yes and Genesis are part of the soundtrack of my life. British sports cars were the working-man's gateway to fun with the top down. My brother restored an MGB, which he was kind enough to let me drive. Man it was fun. My favorite show in my teen years was "Monty Python's Flying Circus". My wife and I still love to sit down to watch Masterpiece Theater. So it's no surprise that I've always been interested in audio equipment from the other side of the pond. Over the years I've had the chance to listen to products from Linn, Naim, Audio Note, Tannoy, Arcam, Quad, Creek and Meridian Audio to name a few. But I'd had only one chance encounter with an ATC product before now.
Back in the day, Tannoy released their Legendary series of speakers. After hearing several raves about them, I decided I'd like to listen to them myself. I discovered a dealer in San Antonio carried them and they had a pair of Canterburys in their showroom. About one week later, I made the trek down there to take a listen. Not that I had the cash to buy the things, but it's always fun to hear what is possible. When I arrived, I discovered that the Canterburys had been purchased and they didn't have any other big Tannoys in the store. In their place they had a pair of ATC self-powered bookshelf speakers (the SCM 20s possibly?) I could demo. Since I had already made the 90-mile trek, I said sure. As soon as they started playing I started looking around to see where else the sound was coming from. No, the salespeople assured me, it's just coming from those speakers. That demo blew me away and made me rethink self-powered speakers as true high-end transducers. So I jumped at the chance to review another ATC product.
Who Is ATC?
The CDA2 Mk II is an interesting product since it is a CD player, DAC, headphone amp, and preamplifier all in one box. I know a lot of pundits out there are declaring the death of the old Redbook CD, but I have an awful lot of them that I'm not getting rid of soon. In fact, I'm still buying them. I listen to quite a bit of classical music and there are certain performances that are only found on CD. So, despite some of its limitations, I will always have some sort of CD playback in my system.
ATC’s CDA2 Mk II CD Player / Preamplifier
The box itself is made of a combination of steel and aluminum using constrained layer dampening to control vibrations. The front panel is made of half-inch thick aluminum alloy with an anodized aluminum finish. On the front panel are buttons to operate the CD player, a button to select the input, a standby button, a blue input display, and a volume control. The CDA2 Mk II comes with a fully functional remote that operates the volume control using a servo. Inside the Mk II has more discrete power supplies to isolate the digital from the analog and fully discrete left and right channel amplification stages in the preamp section. There are more details about the quality of construction that I could share with you, but I leave those interested to go to ATC's web site. Needless to say, this is a quality piece of equipment built to professional standards.
Starting Off Point
Now I'm going to be totally honest here. After a couple of weeks, I wasn't overly impressed with the ATC2 Mk II. It was incredibly clean sounding, but it seemed analytical in its presentation and left me a bit cold. As I made notes over the next couple of weeks, that impression didn't go away. Then, at the four-week mark, something crazy happened. All of a sudden the CDA2 Mk II bloomed like a beautiful rose which had been a tightly-closed bud the day before. The dynamics expanded, the tonality improved, the soundscape expanded; there was just more magic happening. So I tore up my old notes and started afresh.
One of the difficulties with a multipurpose box like the CDA2 Mk II is that it has so many features. So instead of trying to slice and dice (not literally) it apart, I'm going to take a more holistic approach. Using the CD player I listened to Ravel's Piano Concerto [DG 423 665-2]. This is one of the masterpieces of the genre, and the team of Abbado and Arrgerisch give you its full measure. Every note sounded so right and I was repeatedly reminding myself to breathe during the heartbreaking second movement. Spellbinding is the word that came to mind. This impression extended to using the CDA2 Mk II as an analog preamp and listening to my LPs. The Cars "Heartbeat City" [Electra ST-E-60296] was an album I listened to a bunch back in my college days and it was fun to revisit it. Through the CDA2 Mk II my old pressing sounded like an audiophile re-issue, rich in detail and warmth that I had no idea was there. No, it wasn't coloring the music; it was uncovering what was previously hidden. Cool!
This beauty and warmth extended to listening to music through the CDA2 Mk II headphone amplifier. Gil Shaman's violin never sounded sweeter on his performance of Barber's Concerto [DG 439 866-2]. Vladimir Ashkenazy's Steinway was both more incisive and had more body on Prokofiev's Third Concerto [Decca 473 259-2].
As I previously stated, the CDA2 Mk II accepts external digital sources as well. My family and I watched several movies with the signal piped in using the TosLink. While watching "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" I was amazed at how well it decoded a complex blend of sound effects, dialog, and symphonic music without ever sounding harsh or strained. I also explored how the CDA2 MK II fared with higher-resolution audio files using the USB connection. I have not gone that road in my audiophile journey yet, but I do have a few sample files on my laptop I've downloaded just for kicks. ATC provided a long USB chord, which made the connection easy. I just went to their website, down loaded the proper drivers and was ready to go. I used Media Monkey to access the files. For an interesting comparison, I listened to the same music file in two different formats. From the idac2 music sampler, I tried "A 1000 Shades of Blue" by Carmen Gomes, which was recorded simultaneously in DSD and 96 kHz PCM. Both tracks sounded fantastic in this intimate performance. I've never been in a studio to listen to the playback, but sampling these two files gave me a good idea how it might sound. Could I tell the difference? I'm afraid not. One additional note about the USB. If you want to see to see a display of the file type through the USB, just hit the 'Display' button. Just hit the 'Display" button once more to give you the sample rate.
I even checked out how things sounded using the 3.5 mm jack input. Using the tuner on my wife's phone, I was able to listen to KMFA, our local classical station. To be honest, I expected it to sound a bit on the tinny side, but I was completely wrong. The music had more life and vibrancy than I could have hoped from an on-air broadcast through a phone. Maybe not Dynaudio tuner territory, but certainly worth a listen.
Final Thoughts On The ATC CDA2 MK II
Digital Inputs Optical and Coaxial:
Digital Inputs USB:
Dimensions: 3.5" x 17.5" x 13" (HxWxD)
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