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Super Audio CD Player

S-3 v2

Manufacturer: CSR INTERNATIONAL Ltd.
Price (in Poland): 70 000 PLN

Contact: 33-4, Sagamiono 5 chome
Sagamihara-shi Minami-ku
Kanagawa-Pref. 252-0303 | JAPAN |


Provided for test by: AUDIOPUNKT


Zdjęcia: SoulNote | Wojciech Pacuła

No 201

February 1, 2021

SoulNote is a Japanese company that was founded in 2004. Its founder is a former engineer, one of the directors of Marantz Japan, Mr. NORINAGA NAKAZAWA. The company specializes in the construction of solid-state amplifiers, phono preamplifiers and digital sources from the middle and higher price range. We test its top SACD player, the S-3 ver. 2.

T SEEMS THAT THERE IS SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT THE SUPER AUDIO CD STANDARD that fascinates Japanese manufacturers. It is one of the few countries where SACD albums are still released, both re-editions of older titles and completely new ones. What's more, it is where the most new SACD players are developed by such brands as: Accuphase, Luxman, Marantz and Denon, to name a few. And, since last year, SoulNote as well.

YESTERDAY I wrote about the history of the company, and above all about the roots of its founder, Mr. NRINAG NAKAZAWA-san, while reviewing the A-2 SE integrated amplifier (more HERE, HF № 189 | January 2020). Let me just remind you that this is an engineer who started his professional career in the Japanese company Standard Radio Corporation, back then the owner of Marantz - he worked there in the research and development (R&D) department.

In addition to many interesting projects, such as the use of non-feedback amplifiers, in which he was a pioneer in Japan, his portfolio also includes the design of the iconic CD63 model, one of the most important Compact Disc players for this Japanese company. In 2004, D&M Holding was formed, which included the Denon and Marantz brands. Mr. Nakazawa and 50 other engineers bought their shares in the company along with patent rights (management buyout) and on June 30, 2004 they jointly founded CSR, Inc., which owns the SoulNote brand.

TODAY The first device that they presented was the Compact Disc da1.0 player, with an output stage and a power supply without feedback. The S-3 v2 model we are testing is therefore a direct "descendant" of a long line of digital players, first with the Marantz logo and then with the SoulNote. In contrast, it is a Super Audio CD player. And it belongs to the top high-end class.

| S-3 v2

S-3 ver. 2 BELONGS TO THE TOP SERIES of this manufacturer ('1', '2' and '3') and is its second, improved version. It is a powerful, perfectly made device, with precision resembling players from Accuphase and dCS. It is 180 mm high, 460 mm wide, 400 mm deep and weighs almost 30 kg. The front, aluminum panel looks different than we are used to, because the thin transport drawer and the display are placed close to the top edge, and in the middle there are only buttons and a large logo. But, I must say, I like it very much - you can feel the "power" in it.

The user can choose the way the digital signal is processed before conversion - it can be classic 128 fs oversampling, or it can be turned off at all (CD only). The latter mode is NOS (non-oversampling). The manufacturer points out that although it does not allow for such a precise cutting off of the band beyond the Nyquist frequency, it gives a perfect impulse response, without oscillations before and after the pulse (exactly the same behavior of the digital DSD signal and the analog signal).

INPUTS AND OUTPUTS The tested player can read SACD (stereo), CD and CD-R / RW discs, unfortunately it does not show CD-Tex, neither for CDs nor SACDs. It is equipped with five digital inputs: AES / EBU (XLR), S / PDIF (RCA), two USBs, and a non-standard Zero Link connection on the DVI socket, most often used for digital image transmission. Zero Link is an open standard link, also used by, for example, Sforzato, via which PCM signal can be sent in the form of IIS as well as DSD signal.

The "most capable" input in the S-3 v2 is the USB (there are two to connect a file player and a computer at the same time), it will accept PCM digital signal up to 768 kHz and DSD up to 22.6 MHz (DSD512), that is all file types that are currently available. The AES/EBU and S/PDIF inputs support PCM signal up to 192 kHz, but also DSD64, via DoP protocol. And there is one more digital socket that will please perfectionists - this is the BNC input through which we can connect an external clock to the S-3 ver. 2.

The converted analog signal can be sent to the outside in an analog form with balanced XLR or unbalanced RCA outputs. The voltage on them is slightly higher than the nominal, because the RCA sockets are rated 2.8 V (nominal for the CD format is 2 V), so when making comparisons it is worth pre-adjusting the volume so that it is identical for both devices; more about subjective differences in voice power in the article entitled HOW LOUD? IE: WHY THE RECORDINGS DO NOT ALWAYS SOUND THE SAME.

TECHNOLOGY The technical background of CSR International Ltd., the company to which the SoulNote brand belongs, is impressive. The experience of its engineers, gathered at Marantz (and not only there), gave the basis on which something unique was built. In addition to expected engineering solutions, the tested player features many solutions known from the top perfectionist products of smaller companies, which we, audiophiles, have found through a tedious way of listening and comparing, often being targeted by those for whom accepted knowledge, it is the one they know well and nothing else interests them.

MECHANICS | Let's start with the mechanical construction. Already during the test of the A-2 SE AMPLIFIER of this company, I spoke about the extraordinary importance that the company attaches to the mechanical integrity of its products and to solutions to get rid of vibrations. In the case of an optical disc player, this is even more important. Therefore, the S-3 ver. 2 model is built in such a way that the drive mechanism rests on a support made of thick aluminum elements, which is supported at the front by a spike - this spike is located directly below the drive's center of gravity. The company calls it "direct grounding".

⸤ „Direct grounding” system

Transport (mechanics with software) with the symbol TD-7000, used in S-3 ver. 2, was produced by TOHEI . It features a stiff, cast aluminum tray and reads in discs not so quickly, also the jump between tracks is not immediate. This suggests that it is a DVD-ROM transport. The manufacturer says that it uses a brushless motor and two sets of optical systems - PANASONIC (SANYO) DA-11 for CDs and own development, TDT-2000T for SACD (DVD). The drive is quite loud, because the upper part of the casing is openwork and not solid. As always, they probably had to choose between sound quality ("tuned" mass) and comfort (noise made by transport).

The back of the support rests on the chassis of the device, and it is supported from the bottom with two more spikes. The manufacturer gave us an option to change the place where we screw these two back spikes in - closer or further to the back panel. It is worth trying both variants. The chassis is made of thick aluminum plates with additional plates on the side. The top cover is not screwed to the device. I wrote about it while reviewing the A-2 SE amplifier, but last month we saw it also in the ESOTERIC K-01XD player. In the S-3 v2, the manufacturer went even further, because the top cover rests on three spikes that mechanically decouple it from the chassis.

And finally, there is the platform that we get in version 2 of this device. It was made of stained, glued maple wood. It is not a solid board, because its center has been cut out in the same way as in the racks of the Japanese company Andante Largo, intended for the Sondek LP12 turntable; I assume that's where the inspiration came from. This is part of the mechanical "tuning" - the manufacturer says that the vibrating mass of the decoupled top panel was calculated in the same way. We stick the spikes into the shelf, which "hurts" a bit. The Polish distributor added wooden spacers to the tested unit.

ELECTRONICS | The electronic circuit is a proprietary development of the SoulNote - it was about maximum simplicity. So in the signal path we only find four bipolar transistors and eight resistors; analog filters are of the 1st order. The system is called the Type-R Circuit and works without feedback.

In the materials posted on the manufacturer's website, it reads:

The first stage is a differential synthesis without gain, and the second stage that generates the only gain is a single end for amplification to ground. Furthermore, by changing the output stage bias from LED to transistor thermal coupling, we succeeded in reducing the emitter resistance, which was 22Ω in the past, to 1Ω.

The degree of current-to-voltage conversion between the D/A circuit and the output circuits is also unusual. It is almost always performed using integrated circuits, less often with transistors. In the S-3 ver. 2, the active elements were completely omitted and the conversion was done in a single transistor (per run).

The digital section is based on four, eight-channel ESS Technology ES9038Pro DACs, two per channel - so we have 16 independent DACs connected in parallel. This is a well-known method, and the Accuphase company does the same. However, each manufacturer has a slightly different way of summing the outputs. The transport and converter synchronization is ensured by one of the best clocks on the market, the DDS LMX2594, thanks to which the jitter of 45fs is negligibly low.

The manufacturer also points out that in version 2 of the player, instead of classic relays, hermetic, shielded reed switches with a glass tube and gold-plated feet were used. These are elements used in the telecommunications industry for the transmission of high-frequency signals, and therefore particularly sensitive to the quality of contacts. SoulNote used them for the first time in the P-3 preamplifier. All internal connections are made of high quality copper in foamed Teflon; cables are soldered, not clipped on.

However, the power supply section occupies the most space, as in any good device. The S-3 v2 uses two very large toroidal transformers, as well as power supplies without feedback, separate for the left and right channels and for the digital section; A large bank of small, and therefore fast, capacitors for the latter was placed under the transport. One of the transformers supplies the analog section and the other - the digital section. There are completely separate mass systems for both of them, which is a very difficult operation. The mechanical construction was also important:

The power transformer separates the digital system and analog system, and is mounted on independent side aluminum bases, and the vibration of the transformer is discharged from each base by one-point spike grounding. While avoiding cross-modulation by the two vibration sources, which is the weak point of two transformers, the interference of motors and digital noise into the analog power supply has been eliminated. The transformer base, which is very important for sound quality, has a sandwich structure with an aluminum side that is floated at three points by a titanium spacer, and adopts the optimum material, structure, and shape that eliminates resonance while avoiding dumping.

It is one of the best-made digital players I know, proudly standing next to such products as the Esoteric K-01XD, dCS Vivaldi One and Accuphase DP-950 / DC-950.


HOW WE LISTENED The S-3 ver. 2 player was placed on spikes, those on wooden pads, and then on the wooden stand the player comes with. I placed the whole system on the top shelf of the Finite Elemente Master Reference Pagode Edition rack. The spikes in question can be replaced with small stands - the set includes a key to screw them on. By doing this, we will see that every detail matters here, because we put small carbon fiber discs on the axis of the feet and squeeze them between the spike and the bottom of the housing.

I am a fan of physical media, that's why I listened to SoulNote as a disc player - for SACD and CD. I compared it to the HIGH FIDELITY reference player, the Ayon Audio CD-35 HF Edition.

Recordings used for the test | a selection

⸜ DEAD CAN DANCE, Spiritchaser, 4AD/Beggars Japan WPCB-10078, „Audiophile Edition”, SACD/CD (1994/2008)
⸜ SANTANA, Abraxas, Columbia/Sony Records Int'l ‎SICP-10135, SACD/CD (1970/2020)
⸜ TAKESHI INOMATA, The Dialogue, Audio Lab. Record/Octavia Records OVXA-00008, SACD/CD (1977/2001)

⸜ JOACHIM MENCEL, Brooklyn Eye, Origin Records 82806, Master CD-R (2020);
⸜ MAYO NAKANO PIANO TRIO, MIWAKU, Briphonic BRPN-7007GL, Extreme Hard Glass CD-R (2017);
⸜ NAT ‘KING’ COLE, The Nat King Cole Love Songs, Master Tape Audio Lab AAD-245A, „Almost Analogue Digital”, Master CD-R (2015);

AUDIOPHILE ANALOG COLLECTION Vol. 1 + Vol. 2, 2xHD Fusion 2HDFT-C1143/1167 | 2 x CD (2020);
⸜ FRANK SINATRA, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers!, Capitol/Mobile Fidelity UDCD 538, gold-CD (1956/1990)
⸜ JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET, Ballads, Impulse!/Universal Music LLC (Japan) UCCU-40001, Platinum SHM-CD (1962/2013)


THE WORLD OF AUDIO IS A WORLD OF GREAT EGOs. The more someone is involved in it, whether on the side of producers or audiophiles, or finally being a part of the press, the more it is visible and the more it is felt. It is "obvious", each of us has experienced it - if not on our own, then on someone else. I do not know if it will be any consolation when I say that we are not alone in this, I would even say that in the artistic world - and audio is both a technical and artistic discipline - we sit somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of grandeur.

How is this sense of "absolute knowledge" manifested? For example, that every technical detail, even the smallest one, has its passionate supporters and equally motivated opponents. One of such "hot topics" are digital-to-analog converters, specifically D/A chips (in Polish we have the same term for a device and the circuit itself). So we will meet apologists for the old Philips DACs, ie non-oversampling circuits, people using only Burr-Brown multi-bit converters, AKM converters, and also those for whom the ESS Technology's Sabre32 series products were a real breakthrough. Finally, there are those for whom all integrated circuits are an absolute evil.

I would love to belong to one of these "sects", even if only briefly - I really would! Belonging to it guarantees immediate and unconditional support of a large group convinced of them - and only them being right - often fanatical "followers", and thus high CLICKNESS. The more that for each "faithful" there are several "inquisitors" who will track these errors and will try to eliminate them. And this strongly emphasizes the presence of a given article (because I'm talking about it) in the Internet.

I want to but I can not. I can't get involved unconditionally in something like that, because my experience shows something completely different. I believe that there are - sorry for the truism - good and bad techniques. I don't deal with bad ones. In the case of the good ones, it is - I believe - so that we find much greater differences between applications of the same solutions than between the solutions themselves. Moreover, generalizing usually brings us to blind "followers", closing the door to creativity and our own discovery. It pushes us, in a word, to the corner of the followers.

If I wanted to give an example, the SoulNote player would be a good choice. It is sonically much closer to the Esoteric K-01XD SACD player, which uses discrete converters, than to the ACCUPHASE DP-750 SACD player |PL|, with ESS Saber chips, and even further from the dCS VIVALDI sound with a discrete circuit. It would sound closer to what I hear from my AYON AUDIO CD-35 HF EDITION with AKM 4497EQ chips than to the GRYPHON ETHOS CD player, where again we have the ESS Saber 32, exactly the same model as in the tested S-3 ver. 2 (ES9038Pro).

The sound of SoulNote S-3 v2 is absolutely smooth. I listened to various albums with it, some of which you will find in the list above, and I did not find one that would sound "uncomfortable", in the sense that I would not like to listen to it. Both, the quite dry album by AL JARREAU entitled All I Got, which I have in the form of a Test Press disc, as well as a beautifully smooth remaster of the Abraxas by Santana from a 7-inch mini LP version from Sony Japan, with the latest remaster, and any other recordings, all of them sounded vibrant, energetic and incredibly natural. The differences between them were not blurred in any clear way, but their advantages, not disadvantages, were in the foreground.

For a moment I wondered if this was a too smooth a sound, or rather if we were not losing micro-information in this way. And it is like this: compared to the almost twice as expensive player from the Esoteric, with the separate dCS Vivaldi system and with my reference player, you can actually feel a slight rounding, a slight "taming" of the sound. It's just that it's not that bad, it's not going against the music. During the test, there was no such moment when I lacked micro-information about tonality or dynamics in this presentation. The colors are beautifully saturated, and the dynamics is powerful.

It was working great with the Libertango track from the Audiophile Analog Collection Vol. 2 released by the 2xHD. It begins with a powerful gong (bell) followed by a guitar and a big bass. The whole thing was recorded with two microphones using the Nagra IV-S tape recorder and is an ultra-puristic, but also a very natural "window" to this event. The Japanese player showed the whole in a powerful way - it did not enlarge anything, but it did not extinguish anything either, it did not compress it.

It was similar with the discs where the vocal is the most important element, like on The Nat King Cole Love Songs, a Master CD-R recorded straight from the analog master tape. It was audible that the strings accompanying Cole sound, in most cases, like "added on" and that it, the VOICE, is the most important element. The S-3 ver. 2 showed its beautiful timbre, volume and body. Yes, it is one of the few digital players that not only show imaging in a vivid way, but also indicates the body of the instruments.

So we have fullness, volume and timbre, supported by dynamics. In fact, the sound of the device resembles the best turntables. The reference player plays in a more raw way, it does not saturate the sound so strongly, but rather shows minor shifts in the timbre and position of the instruments on the stage. On the other hand, the Ayon was not able to extract sounds from their acoustic environment in such a vivid way, it was more direct in that. The S-3 v2 is great at describing both the basic sound and the response of the room. Everything is fuller with it, a bit more clearer and tangible. It is a slight departure from what I know from "master" tapes, but it fits perfectly with what I know from LPs.

The device sounds like this with SACDs. The CDs do not sound much worse, but we will still want to hear the musical material from the former. The Compact Disc's sound is more rounded and has a less clear definition of the band’s extremes. Not because it lacks something, but because it emphasizes the beauty of the midrange. But - NOTE - this only applies to sound in NOS mode. With the classic FIR filter we get a better focused bass and clearer cymbals, but we will extinguish the midrange energy, which is overwhelming here.

| Summary

SoulNote S-3 v2 is a fantastic example of how "hard" engineering knowledge combined with experience in using it in the best audio products translate into real progress. This is not as "direct" sound as with the Gryphon Ethos, nor as raw as with the Ayon CD-35 HF Edition. It is closer to what the Esoteric shows. Only that the latter gives an even darker and even better focused sound. But even it doesn't convey the midrange as beautifully as the S-3 v2. Let me add that none of the above is as resolving and as precise as the dCS Vivaldi One.

I would treat the SoulNote player as an analog turntable. It doesn't pretend to read exactly all the information that is only available on the analog master tape, but rather creates his own world. It shows the beauty of recordings, their smoothness, internal differentiation, great bass sounds. It is more about naturalness than neutrality. Once heard, it will leave a mark in our minds that will be a bump for other digital sources, which will shake their perception more than once or twice. Therefore, let me award it with our RED Fingerprint.

Technical specifications (according to the manufacturer)

Playable discs: Super Audio CD, CD, CD-R, CD-RW
Supported digital signal:
USB – PCM 768 kHz & DSD 22.6 MHz
XLR & RCA – PCM 192 kHz & DSD 2.8 MHz (DSD64 DoP v1.1)
Output signal:
XLR 5.6 Vrms | RCA 2.8 Vrms
Analogue frequency characteristics: 2 Hz-150 kHz (+ 0/-1 dB)
S/N: 110 dB
THD: 0.008%
External clock input: 10 MHz (BNC 50 Ω)
Power consumption: 50 W
Dimensions (W x H x D): 454 x 170 x 393 mm
Weight: 27 kg


Reference system 2020

1) Loudspeakers: HARBETH M40.1 |REVIEW|
2) Line preamplifier: AYON AUDIO Spheris III Linestage |REVIEW|
3) Super Audio CD Player: AYON AUDIO CD-35 HF Edition No. 01/50 |REVIEW|
4) Stands (loudspeakers): ACOUSTIC REVIVE (custom) |ABOUT|
5) Power amplifier: SOULUTION 710
6) Loudspeaker filter: SPEC REAL-SOUND PROCESSOR RSP-AZ9EX (prototype) |REVIEW|
7) Hi-Fi rack: FINITE ELEMENTE Pagode Edition |ABOUT|


Analog interconnect SACD Player - Line preamplifier: SILTECH Triple Crown (1 m) |ABOUT|
Analog interconnect Line preamplifier - Power amplifier: ACOUSTIC REVIVE RCA-1.0 Absolute-FM (1 m) |REVIEW|
Speaker cable: SILTECH Triple Crown (2.5 m) |ABOUT|

AC Power

Power cable | Mains Power Distribution Block - SACD Player: SILTECH Triple Crown
Power (2 m) |ARTICLE|
Power cable | Mains Power Distribution Block - Line preamplifier - ACOUSTIC REVIVE
Power Reference Triple-C (2 m) |REVIEW|
Power cable | Mains Power Distribution Block - Power amplifier - ACROLINK Mexcel 7N-PC9500 |ARTICLE|
Power cable | Power Receptacle - Mains Power Distribution Block: ACROLINK Mexcel 7N-PC9500 (2 m) |ARTICLE|
Power Receptacle: Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu ULTIMATE |REVIEW|
Anti-vibration platform under Acoustic Revive RTP-4eu ULTIMATE: Asura QUALITY RECOVERY SYSTEM Level 1 |REVIEW|
Power Supply Conditioner: Acoustic Revive RPC-1 |REVIEW|
Power Supply Conditioner: Acoustic Revive RAS-14 Triple-C |REVIEW|
Passive filter EMI/RFI: VERICTUM Block |REVIEW|


Speaker stands: ACOUSTIC REVIVE (custom)
Hi-Fi rack: FINITE ELEMENTE Pagode Edition |ABOUT|
Anti-vibration platforms: ACOUSTIC REVIVE RAF-48H |ARTICLE|

  • HARMONIX TU-666M "BeauTone" MILLION MAESTRO 20th Anniversary Edition |REVIEW|


Phono preamplifier: Phono cartridges: Tonearm (12"): Reed 3P |REVIEW|

Clamp: PATHE WINGS Titanium PW-Ti 770 | Limited Edition

Record mats:


Headphone amplifier: AYON AUDIO HA-3 |REVIEW|

Headphones: Headphone Cables: Forza AudioWorks NOIR HYBRID HPC