What is the S800 CD?
The nature of the CD player market in 2019 is a slightly odd one. The size of the market is in decline as people migrate towards streaming and network audio products. As some companies vacate the category altogether, a few others are seeing the change to become a major player. Mitchell & Johnson has been around for a few years but has recently moved up a few price points with their S800 pre and power amps that are built in the UK. The S800 CD is, as the name suggests, intended to partner them.
I make no bones about the fact that I am all about streaming these days. It’s a process that I believe has truly come of age in the last few years as various details on the extremities of the process have been sorted out and tidied up. If you are looking at racks and racks of carefully looked after and (hopefully) alphabetised albums, I can understand why the idea of committing to hours of ripping might not appeal. Is the S800 the sort of thing that should ensure several more years of happy listening?
Specification and Design
The mechanism is purportedly a CD based device rather than the more commonly seen practice of using a DVD type unit. The advantages for doing so are small and reasonably subjective but while optical discs are the same size, they are not the same behaviourally. They rotate at different speeds and - once Blu-ray is involved in particular - are read by different lasers. Having one set for CD reduces the workload on the servo and, in theory at least, the number of errors that need to be corrected. This does mean that the S800 CD is not an SACD player. If you have a very large collection of those, you might want to look elsewhere. Given that SACD also has a higher rotational speed than CD, it does mean, theoretically, that the CD performance will benefit.
The chassis that the S800 uses is closely related to the preamp, down to the placement of the controls on the front panel. With considerable use of metal throughout, the aesthetic of the S800 might be best seen as no nonsense. It isn’t what I’d call pretty - the rotary controls can mean that the black review example looks a little like a VCR in low light conditions - and there are rivals that feel a little smarter in overall design terms.
It is well made though. The casework is very carefully assembled and the large blue on black display is very easy to read at a distance. The SPDT power switch is possibly a little on the gimmicky side and is a little too easy to snag but everything else works with a feeling of slick positivity. The drive doesn’t have the lovely feel of something like Yamaha’s silent loader mechanism but it reads discs quietly and it is very fast to load. There is a full system driving remote to partner the S800 series and there are 12v triggers to power everything on and off at the same time. There are still a fair few rivals around at the price for the Mitchell & Johnson but it feels more than up to the job of competing with them.
How was the S800 CD tested?
The S800 shows very quickly that it is well placed to get the best out of any moderately well mastered CD. Kicking off with Santigold’s Master of Make Believe, it demonstrates a lovely balance of punch and smoothness. Having listened to a great many products that make use of varying forms of ESS Sabre devices, this is one of the more distinctive implementations I’ve heard. The reason for this is that there is a richness and warmth to the presentation that I don’t generally associate with the ESS. Even Audiolab, one of the more skilled users of it, hasn’t generally wound up with something like this. It’s very, very hard to make the S800 come across as bright or aggressive. Even listening to the magnificent but decidedly edgy VAST- Visual Audio Sensory Theatre it maintains a civility and smoothness that is extremely useful with a disc of this nature.
What is most important is that it still delivers on the speed and energy of music when called upon to do so. Listening to Stanley Jordan’s Magic Touch, the S800 never has any issue capturing the intensity of his absolutely incredible guitar technique. It also shows that there is a lovely, natural bass response too. This album is - not unsurprisingly given it focuses on a guitar - not exactly bursting with low end but the S800 finds the weight and scale in all the instruments to make them sound believable.
The same can be said for the upper registers too. This is not the sweetest sounding player out there - the warmth mentioned earlier lacks that oddly sparkling quality that some of the Japanese house brands can manage but this does mean that it avoids the slightly odd ‘bloomy’ quality that can result from it with some recordings. Via the Spendor, which spends much of its time behaving like a well-dressed monitor, the S800 reveals many of the same qualities. It really wants to tell you as much as possible about the positive aspects of the recording while ensuring you are aware of the shortcomings without being completely distracted by them.
Perhaps the most surprising feature is the headphone amp. I’m not sure how many owners will use it (and that pool is likely to shrink further when you realise that there is no remote volume adjustment for it) but it does sound genuinely good via a pair of Audio Technica ATH-A2000Z headphones. If you’re an independent music shop looking for a CD listening station though, this might be the device you never knew you needed.
- Beautifully balanced and rewarding sound
- Well made
- Useful headphone amp
- No SACD
- No digital inputs
- Looks a bit odd
Mitchell & Johnson S800 Review
The trend for CD players over the next few years is fairly clear. They are going to reduce in number and unlike vinyl, where some relatively skilled engineers in a machine shop can keep production going on a small scale, the realities of a class one laser product are rather different without companies like Mitchell & Johnson making it worth the effort for transport manufacturers to keep going. The great news is that you don’t have to choose the S800 out of a sense of obligation. You can choose it because it is a great sounding CD player that handles a huge spread of music with a genuine sense of engagement. This is a perfect candidate for a player to ensure your collection is in safe hands for the future and it earns our enthusiastic recommendation.
Editor's Note: Sadly on the same day we published this review, we have been informed the company have ceased trading, the full details are here
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