Mitchell & Johnson S800 Review

A ‘mature’ category gets a talented new arrival.

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Review

9

Recommended
Mitchell & Johnson S800 Review
SRP: £1,299.00

What is the S800 CD?

The Mitchell & Johnson is a standalone compact disc player. For those of you born around the turn of century, compact disc is an optically read audio format that will provide 74-80 minutes of 16/44.1kHz audio. It is in a status of gentle decline now but it is - by some margin - the most successful audio format that there has ever been. There was a period for over a decade of almost perfect dovetailing where not only was it the format capable of the highest performance, it was also the most convenient one available too - it didn’t have to be rewound, it didn’t appreciably wear out and it offered seamless skip and search facilities. It’s easy to be blasé about these things now but they were a big deal and you have to start somewhere.

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

Mitchell and Johnson S800
The Mitchell & Johnson is designed with two specific, and to an extent complementary, intentions. It is made in the UK from components that are well regarded for their reliability and performance and it is also made to be a CD player rather than a DAC with a drive attached to the front of it. This latter part might sound odd - after all bits are bits - but there are some details to the S800 that auger well for its ability to do justice to CD. It uses an ESS Sabre DAC - in keeping with vast swathes of equipment at price points from a few hundred pounds up - but here, the priority in terms of the clock and decoding is 16/44.1 rather than much higher sample rates, particularly ones in multiples of 48kHz that the mechanism will never see.

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.
Mitchell and Johnson S800
Elsewhere, the S800 CD has some other nice touches. The power supply is from Noratell - a company that was one of the original drivers behind the development of the toroidal PSU and with a well-deserved reputation for making very quiet and high performing designs. There is also a headphone socket and amp built into the chassis that is controlled via a volume control that is combined with the eject button (more of which in a bit). Around the back, there is a choice of RCA and XLR connections and optical and digital outputs. There are no digital inputs - to offer the higher sample rates that would go with this would affect the decisions made with the DAC and the matching preamp has no less than seven of them.

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.
Mitchell and Johnson S800
The Mitchell & Johnson is designed with two specific - and to an extent complementary - intentions

How was the S800 CD tested?

The Mitchell & Johnson was placed on a Quadraspire SoundBase and powered via an IsoTek Evo3 Aquarius mains conditioner. It was then connected to a Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp and Spendor A1 speakers. The test material has been CD.

Sound Quality

Mitchell and Johnson S800
Before we go any further, I have certainly expressed in the podcast, if not in writing, that I don’t like CDs. This is not a statement I wish to retract but it does warrant clarification. I am not a tidy human being (I’m not unhygienic mind, I just tend towards clutter) and CDs are forever clutter in potential. With the need to store records as well, they were always at risk of being stacked in cupboards or heading to my car to die in a footwell. I have never had a problem with the way that CD sounds though. A well mastered CD on a capable player is a thing of unbridled joy.

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.
Mitchell and Johnson S800
Give it something with actual bass in it like Underworld’s Second Toughest in the Infants and the S800 is genuinely impressive. Not only is there plenty of low end shove but the bass itself is deep, controlled and well integrated into the upper registers. The S800 isn’t the most ballistic player going but there is enough urgency to what it does that you never find it slow or languid. It’s a very well judged balance that works across a wide spread of music.

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.
Mitchell and Johnson S800
A well mastered CD on a capable player is a thing of unbridled joy

Verdict

8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

Pros

  • Beautifully balanced and rewarding sound
  • Well made
  • Useful headphone amp

Cons

  • No SACD
  • No digital inputs
  • Looks a bit odd

Mitchell & Johnson S800 Review

For many of us, the need for a new CD player is now somewhere between slim and non-existent. We’ve got streaming down pat and the idea of something that has the audacity not to respond to Roon seems faintly archaic. The thing is, I’m not so consumed by my own sense of being right that I feel this the state of play for everyone. Many people treasure the physicality of their formats and don’t fancy sitting down to rip a vast accumulation of albums when they can just go and get the disc off a shelf and pop it on.

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

Recommended

Scores

Sound Quality

.
9

Features

.
.
8

Ease of Use

.
.
8

Build Quality

.
.
8

Value For Money

.
.
8

Verdict

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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