CD-player Cayin CD-50T

The small but energetic Chinese hi-fi manufacturing industry has had a surprising degree of success here in the limited time it's been around, which is not very long at all. Being (almost) old enough to remember big Japanese brands attempting (and succeeding) to take over the UK audio market some forty years ago, I have to report that China has done things a little differently. Instead of doing it all themselves, Chinese mass market consumer electronics manufacturing is often conducted in cooperation with western multinationals such as Apple Computer for example, or small niche specialists such as the German company which is responsible for the design of this Cayin machine.

You've got to applaud the versatility of Chinese original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) then, as they will make anything it seems, from mega selling computer hardware products to specialist CD players which are hardly flavour of the month anymore...

Still, I am not complaining; I think it's good that now Compact Disc is being banished to the fringes of the mass market, people are still investing time and money in the technology, which by absolute standards is of course antique now. Lest we forget, we're approaching CD's thirtieth birthday! Do you know any other thirty year-old-computer-based consumer electronics products still on sale? But now, as a new generation of music buyers emerges who simply don't equate albums with anything physical you can hold in your hand or place on your table, the venerable format has finally got rather good. Lots of tricks have emerged to coax the goodness from it, such as high quality digital filters (and HDCD is usually synonymous with this), tube output stages, careful mechanical isolation and decent power supplies. And there you go, the Cayin has all this for under $1500.

The Cayin eschews the stock Japanese 430mm width, coming in a compact case measuring 350x325x95mm and weighing in at 7.8kg. The front panel is a thick, extravagant even, slab of brushed aluminium, and sports a nice variation on this tried and tested theme because it's sculpted in the lower centre. It's certainly a little less generic looking and shows someone has actually bothered to think about its appearance, instead of doing just another 'me too' machine. The case is your usual pressed steel, but again they've really tried hard with an excellent metallic graphite grey paint job and a serious bit of lacquering, plus satin finish screws.

The front transport controls are a bit fussy, with small fiddly buttons; the easiest to use one is the least used, namely the power switch. The display is standard issue Chinese blue fluorescent, dimmable, but has a tiny 'music calendar' reminiscent of late eighties Japanese machines, and - shock horror - some red detailing! It's quirky, and again they've made an effort, but it's not great. Round the back there are standard RCA outputs, an IEC mains in, and one optical TOSLINK and one coaxial digital out. Oh, and then there's a tiny 12AU7 tube poking its top out of a deep rear recess, just to remind you you're all valved up... The remote control is your usual Chinese fare; a metal faced job that's decent but nothing special; at least it's not nasty plastic.

Overall I was impressed with the Cayin's build at the price, it's certainly swish considering its lowly market position, and effort has clearly been made. That's not to say it doesn't face a hard fight with the likes of the Cyrus CD8 SE though, which is an even more lovely thing to behold in design, build and finish, and costs almost the same...

It's a fascinating conundrum, this CD player. Plugging it in, I could instantly hear a lot wrong with it, and yet there's also a lot right, and it's this good side of its character that dramatically outshines any downsides. The result is quite an interesting and quirky mix, and one that's a lot of fun, but it simply can't beat the cool neutrality of rival British designs. The question then becomes, do you buy this knowing it is flawed in some ways, or do you go for the likes of a Cyrus CD8 SE knowing it's a far more accomplished all rounder, but in some respects less satisfying to listen to? The answer, dear reader, rests with you; let me elucidate...

Having done all the running in and warming up, the first track I kicked off with was Simple Minds' 'Somebody Up There Likes You', the CD layer of the brilliant sounding SACD. At highish volume, at first listen I was bowled over. I had to remind myself that this is eight hundred and something pounds. It was wonderfully warm and sumptuous, with a delightfully solid weight to bass drums, and a lovely timbre to analogue synths, letting them wash all around. 'Wow', I thought to myself, this is giving a thoroughly satisfying rendition of the song with an epic sense of scale and power. If anything, it rather reminded me of the Astin Trew AT3500 in this respect; it was a big, bold bruiser that was nevertheless soft around the edges; nothing here hurt my ears.

I then switched to a Cyrus CD8 SE, and was struck by the difference. Where the Cayin gives a cascade of sound - swirling, haunting and ethereal when playing the Simple Minds track - moving to the Cyrus was like touching the shutter button on a good camera at first pressure, causing the autofocus to snap things into view. It gave a dramatically different window on the world, setting up a wider soundstage, making a slightly less strong centre image, giving a far better sense of front-to-back depth and tightening up everything in the mix, from the bass guitar to the hi-hat cymbals. Instead of being subsumed in a morass of sound, the song's guitar overdubs became more pronounced and explicit, whereas cymbals suddenly started timing better, sounding less sweet but ultimately more sonorous.

Switching back to the Cayin, I was struck by the fuller, bigger, fatter sound, and intrigued to hear an obviously looser (albeit fuller) bass line, with the player sitting on dynamic accents from both the bass drum and snares. It failed to eke out the counterplay between bass drum, bass guitar, snare and hi hat (which is what the track is all about), whereas the Cyrus completely nailed it. Bass was now sounding ever so slightly overblown; it was as if the bass guitarist was fractionally overdriving his amp, giving a bigger sound but with a slight compression effect. A fascinating comparison then; the Cayin was doing a lot wrong, with the Cyrus proving a model of clarity and grip, yet I still rather liked the fuller more visceral sound of the CD-50T, for all its failings.

Moving to Steely Dan's 'Babylon Sisters' and the Cayin supplied a beautifully sumptuous signal to my amplifier and loudspeakers. It gave the sense of everything being turned up to eleven, the soundstage bristling with detail, sparkling with hi hats and punching with a big fat Fender Rhodes electric piano sound. The brass stabs were clean and rich, Fagen's vocals crisp and clear. Moving to the Cyrus, I noticed a tighter framework to the music, with more rigid front to back imaging, a less fulsome centre image and wider left/right detailing from trumpet and hi hat. There was also more of a sense of being immersed in the organ playing, and greater definition and dynamics to the percussion work. The CD8 SE sounded great, but came a little closer to the rendition of this track I'm used to, via my high end direct drive turntable, which shows this recording to be just a little too bright and dry. The CD-50T however, was able to round off the recording's faults and give a more euphonic rendition, which actually sounded better.

I found the same phenomenon with Microdisney's 'Town to Town', namely a wide, powerful soundstage, strong bass and a very appealing overall balance. Here though the player couldn't conceal one of the less appetising aspects of CD, a slight grain on strings. Even via the original vinyl pressing, the backing strings are a bit lively, and they don't transfer to CD terribly well; the CD-50T grated a little here, with that tube buffer doing nothing to aid proceedings. Still, vocals proved full and commanding, underlining this player's strong central image placement; it rather reminds me of vinyl in this respect. Whilst it's not especially wide left-to-right, it sets up a very big sound in the middle, if you'll pardon my rather simplistic turn of phrase! Instruments in the mix inside this aren't that well defined but the whole recorded acoustic comes over as solid and imposing, making it ideal for stadium rock, I suspect! Happily I have no U2 recordings to prove this theory, but I'll bet my Microdisney retrospective that I'm right!

Once again, shifting to the Cyrus saw instruments coming over with superior definition, plus tighter image location, a silkier and more atmospheric hi hat sound, more explicitly timed rhythm guitar work. I heard snare drums tighter, and with a touch more bounce. Depth perspective was better too. Interestingly, whilst it would appear a 'points win' to the Cyrus, I still came out rather liking the Cayin's own particular rendition of this track; it may have been less accomplished in absolute hi-fi terms but it certainly made up for it in the way it played music.

The situation reversed slightly with Fragile State's 'Every Day a Story (4hero remix)'. I heard a deliciously sumptuous acoustic bassline, with lean but clean sequenced analogue synth pads, and sweet but slightly generic sounding hi hats. Again the Cayin pushed out its big wall of sound, with upfront imaging forward of loudspeakers. It loped along merrily, showing a pleasant rhythmic gait, rather in the manner of a unipivot tonearm. Bass drums came over a little soft and overblown sounding, without an explicit attackdelay- sustain envelope. The CD-50T has a slightly generic tonality; this player seems to sprinkle its valve magic dust on everything, leaving everything sounding as if it's had magic dust sprinkled on it; so there's no dramatic difference between the sonic fingerprint of, say a Stax recording studio from the early seventies and REM in the mideighties.

Whereas the CD-50T produced a Phil Spector-like wall of sound, again the Cyrus was more open, ordered and accurate. Here, bass guitar sounded a tad lighter but far tighter, bass drums were beautifully taut, keyboard pads shimmered through the mix and treble was brighter and sharper, yet not painfully so. The sound didn't quite have the louche, clubbable feel of the Cayin, though; it was a touch more like hi-fi (albeit very good hi-fi); the CD-50T just played music instead.

This isn't the world's best CD player, or even the best under $1600 in absolute terms, but still there's an awful lot to like. It's obviously well made and intelligently designed, and the sonic results are always fun. It's an ideal match for lean and slightly mean sounding budget or midprice systems, and would really flatter the clinical sound of many modern loudspeakers. Put it in a super revealing system however, and you're into choppier waters; you can hear it 'editorialising' a little to much, presenting its larger than life character up ahead of the music, whereas some rivals simply fade into the distance and let the music flood out. As such, in the right system, with the right music, the Cayin CD-50T could be the answer to all your troubles, but in the wrong one it certainly won't be. So I'd suggest try before you buy; you may well be beguiled.

Cayin CD-50T CD-player photo