Review sample supplied by Hexagon Audio
Retail price in the NL (incl. 21% VAT): 8.700 euro
After my review of the La Diva M2, Marco of Hexagon Audio was so kind to leave both La Diva models with me for some time. This has allowed me to carry out some more comparisons.
One of my favorite classic CD players was the Mark Levinson No.390S. I’ve owned two of them, as well as the No.37 transport-only version, all of which I sold because servers were all the rage, and I had stopped playing CDs. It’s funny how times continue to change!
In any event, the last 390S that I had was recapped and fitted with a new CD Pro2 mechanism (the same as in the original La Diva) before I sold it to audio buddy MP who still has it. He was more than happy to bring it along for a nice comparison. The Levinson CD player has a relaxed, warm, and smooth sound, not at all the clinical delivery that the brand has, in some cases, been rightfully accused of. It’s interesting to note that the player’s ultra-smooth character is much the same when used as transport (along with an external DAC) or as an integrated CD player.
For many years, this player was my reference, but as we heard it now, the La Diva M2 is considerably more transparent and also more articulate and lively than the 390S. On the other hand, the Levinson sounds fuller, bigger, and smoother, a little richer, and tonally more deeply saturated. However, it’s also slower and more rounded on the transients which makes it less expressive. The M2 may not be quite as voluptuous and saturated as the 390S, but it is still quite smooth in an absolute sense, definitely not cool, and certainly very far from clinical.
Compared to the Levinson, the original La Diva does sound comparably lean, cool, and dry. But it is also more articulate and more precise in every regard. The M2 also does not have the fullest bass, but it offers many of the Levinson’s other traits, and in a more balanced manner. The M2 is smooth, natural, and relaxed but also well-detailed, and quite neutral.
Incidentally, I recall that the Levinson No.37 pure transport sounded tighter and more precise than both 390S players when used as a transport, but also significantly drier, and with the 390S as my then-reference, kind of business-like. In retrospect, it was perhaps relatively closer in sound to the original La Diva but I’d have to do a direct comparison to be able to say more about this. But given that the 37 was regarded as one of the best transports at that time, even bettering the brand’s former reference 31 model and believed by many to be very close to the brand’s No.31.5 masterpiece, this does say something about the quality of these Aqua products.
Another old favorite is the Ayon CD-T which also employs a CD-Pro2 mechanism. I first heard it when audio buddy Jan Cramer brought it along in 2017. For the purpose of this comparison, Jan brought it along once more.
Like all Ayon products, the CD-T has a tonally full and very robust sound and it does indeed sound more full-bodied overall, and more potent in the bass, as well as creamier and tonally more saturated than the La Diva M2. In terms of smoothness and tonal fullness, the Ayon drive is similar to the 390S. However, the Ayon has more of a “planted” sound, more earthy and solid, as compared to the more free-flowy 390S. The Ayon is noticeably darker on top compared to the Levinson, as well as the La Diva M2. This latter aspect had not occurred to me when I heard the Ayon the first time around, but of course, that was with a very different setup and very different speakers.
Given that the very same CD-Pro2 mechanism is employed, one would assume similarities between these three players. However, given the original Aqua La Diva’s very different sonic perspective from the Ayon’s and the Levinson’s, clearly, there’s more to a CD transport’s sound than merely the optical mechanism. I guess this is where the brand-specific sound-smithery comes in.
Like the Levinson, the Ayon CD-T is a little slow in its pacing (others might consider it relaxed or unforced), especially compared to the original La Diva, but also compared to the La Diva M2. In any event, neither the Ayon nor the Levinson offers the transparency and refinement, or the level of detail of which the M2 is capable.
I should note that the CD-T is an older Ayon player. I had planned on also including the current CD-T II that I liked a lot when I reviewed it in 2018, but alas, I couldn’t make that happen. With a retail price of 6.000 euros at that time, the CD-T II offered truly great value for money. Alas, due to recent component cost increases across the board, its current price point will be close to 8.000 euros.
Above is how the La Diva M2 sounds best to me: hard-coupled to the Artesania rack via the Carbon Fiber arms and their Beechwood discs.
Alternatively, I found that La Diva M2 also sounds great when used with other hard-coupling feet, such as Artesania’s standalone Isolation Bases, and I imagine that it would also work very well using Finite Elemente Ceraballs, Stillpoints, or other similar hard-coupling footers.
I wish I could have compared the La Diva M2 to one or two currently available players, but fair is fair, at some point, the two Divas had to move on to their next review destinations. And in the time that I had them, no other current CD transports were available for review. That said, there are not many competitors left in the first place. The ones that spring to mind are either budget- or cost-no-object models.
Nevertheless, my comparisons so far enable me to say that the M2 is a fabulous player. Yes, its character deviates from the other Aqua products that I heard before, and it is indeed more laidback and less articulate and incisive than the original Diva, but it is also less cool and dry and considerably more refined while being just as lively as, or livelier than, other transports that I have compared it with so far.
Ongoing changes on the streaming front have led to a reassessment of the CD medium. On top of this, I have made a very interesting discovery that led to a newfound admiration for the Aqua M2 drive. In short, with one provision, I now think it is the best CD transport that I have heard.
Read all about it here: Aqua La Diva M2 – Part 3