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Harman/Kardon CDR 2 Home CD Recorder

Michelle Manafy

Harman/Kardon CDR 2 Home CD Recorder
synopsis: The CDR 2 makes a great fit in a punch-packing home theater setup, which appeals to a slightly different demographic than you'll find ingesting MP3s, but still constitutes a broad, if high-end, consumer space. And though the CDR 2's price point can't compete with $200 computer CD-R drives, it is a stunning addition to a home stereo system. The CDR 2 really scores points in its precision and facility, which is appealing even to those of us who are perhaps overly fond of our computers but appreciate quality audio, whatever the source. But the pièce de resistance of the CDR 2 is the 4X disc-dubbing feature. It was simply amazing to make a quality digital copy at this speed with such ease.

price: $799

Harman/Kardon 250 Crossways Park Drive
Woodbury, NY 11797
800/422-8027; Fax 516/682-3523

August 2000 | For most people, technology convergence--business with consumer, functional with fun--makes about as much sense as taking a laptop to the beach. Computers equal work and stereos are synonymous with entertainment. Strange as it may seem in the EMedia world, some folks are just more comfortable (or at least happier) with their stereos than their computers. And if that isn't the case, there are plenty of audiophiles who steadfastly believe that good sound must be produced through dedicated audio equipment. Thus, the spate of Mac and PC audio CD recording just hasn't connected with a segment of the audio community that has ample use for the technology.

Enter home component-quality CD recorders, which connect directly to an amp in the same familiar way as the tape-to-tape dubbing decks of yore. Sounds like a natural for this segment--familiarity and simplicity guaranteed. But it's never been quite that simple. For one thing, home recorders comply with the copyright-protecting guidelines that govern DAT recorders, which means they accept only audio-specific CD-R media, which can record copyrighted audio data but cannot be used as sources for further copying. What's more, these discs cost a dollar or two more than standard audio CDs, the tariff added to appease the royalty gods. More vexing than extra cost, of course, is the ever-present prospect of buying the "wrong" media.

What's more, many of these "home" or "audio" CD recorders only provide a single deck, leaving the user to play from an outside source and record to at real-time 1X because CD players--not to mention record players and most tape decks--have no reason to play at any other speed. On the computer side, we left 1X behind years ago, as 8X recorders have become the industry standard and 12X models are currently enjoying a smooth entry into the market. But even the first generation of dual-deck home recorders didn't exceed 1X. Harman/Kardon, a longtime player in the audio market, is one of several home recorder makers to follow Philips' dual-deck design, and provides a convenient two-tray configuration in its CDR 2. And, to capitalize on the feature, Harman/Kardon has taken the lead in upping recording speeds as the first to offer 4X in a home recorder.

Though there continues to be debate--largely in pro and consumer audio circles--about the viability of speeds greater than 1X for audio CD recording, with the worry being that faster speeds will introduce artifacts or high error rates that will spoil the disc--testing doesn't bear this out. [See Bob Starrett, "The Speed of Sound: How Safe is High-Speed Audio Recording?", EMedia Magazine, May 2000, pp. 28-39--Ed.] Differences are infinitesimal at best, and favor higher-speed recordings as often as not. Since there's little or no controversy in CD-R circles about safe data transfer at high recording speeds--after all, we're not talking about capturing sound here, it's all ones and zeros at this level--it's interesting to speculate where such myths originate. The dual-deck tape/disc business suggests one visual clue. However much digital decks may resemble their cassette deck predecessors architecturally, they have one clear advantage in high-speed dubbing: discs, unlike tapes, don't stretch as a result of increased dub speeds. Thus, lest anyone who just graduated from tapes to CDs harbor any fears to the contrary, you can copy discs at 2X or 4X without those annoying lag sounds and blank spots that resulted from some tape-based, high-speed dubbing decks. And anyone else convinced that PC-free CD recording is twice the fun will be happy to discover that thanks to the CDR 2, it now takes only twice the time.

hooking up

Setting up the CDR 2 is as simple as connecting any stereo component, admittedly easier for most than installing a SCSI card to get optimal CD-R speed and reliability on a computer. The Harman/Kardon manual is highly detailed and provides a number of helpful diagrams with one notable exception--diagrams for cabling. The CDR 2's back panel offers an array of gold-plated analog and digital input and output jacks, and H/K also threw in a coaxial digital input on the front panel that duplicates the rear connection. If you happen to own a portable digital player with a coaxial output (most have only optical outputs), this connection could come in handy. A couple of diagrams of cabling options would also come in handy, though anyone familiar with dubbing to tape shouldn't find the connections too difficult to make. The CDR 2 includes a headphone jack with volume control--quite handy for using headphones to monitor recording progress.

playing the part

In the playback department, the CDR 2 operates pretty much like a standard CD player except that it takes about 10 seconds to read a CD's TOC (table of contents) before it can play a disc. The CDR 2 looks for a disc's TOC to tell it how many tracks are on the disc, the total time of the disc, and the disc's total running time. This TOC feature also prevents starting to play a song on a CD from any point other than the beginning, which eliminates the ability to omit lengthy intros or applause when compiling a recorded disc.

The CDR 2 puts out quality sound, which comes as no surprise with Harman/Kardon's longstanding reputation in the audio market. Since the CDR 2 has two decks, it can be used as a two-disc changer. By pressing the dual button, the user can also direct the unit to play two different discs at the same time. The output of each deck is sent to the appropriate output jacks, and then you can select which deck you want to hear via your amp, A/V controller, or receiver. Thus, if you want different music in different rooms (say, for one of those multigenerational family gatherings), you can use one deck to feed the main room system, while using the second to feed a remote room. profit protection

Like all consumer digital recorders, the CDR 2 includes the Serial Copy Management System (SCMS)--an anti-piracy system thought up by the record industry. SCMS requires consumers to purchase more expensive discs (often twice the cost of computer-friendly CD-R discs) with proceeds being divided among record companies to offset profits that are theoretically lost due to home copying. This is a questionable model that seems to stifle the growth of a blossoming consumer electronics market by confusing the issues for consumers rather than preventing digital copying. With SCMS discs, you can still make multiple copies from the original CD or make analog copies of protected material or digital copies. If you try to make a copy to a standard CD-R disc, the CDR 2's display flashes No Audio to gently remind the consumer to purchase CD-R DA (digital audio) or CD-RW DA discs.

Once the mystery of purchasing the correct discs is solved, the recording process is straightforward. I transferred a few LPs to CD-R, and they sounded just great. These particular LPs were in pretty good shape; audio restoration for your average audio enthusiast is probably still best handled on the computer, as the CDR 2 produces copies only as good as the source. That said, a CD made from an ancient and much-played DJ mix did sound a whole lot better once dubbed to CD-R, even without benefit of computer-aided noise reduction.

mixing it up

Harman/Kardon advocates a more complicated method of compiling a mixed disc than was used in the start-and-stop tape deck days. H/K suggests programming a play list by inserting the disc and allowing the unit to read the TOC. After pressing the program button, you can use the remote to enter track numbers. At any time you can see how much time your playlist totals and once it reaches capacity, the unit display reads Full. Two more buttons pressed, and the process of recording the playlist to a CD-R DA disc has begun.

The CDR 2 consistently delivered on its as-advertised speed of 4X, and the resulting mixed disc sounded well balanced and quite good. The main problem with H/K's playlist method is that it limits the total number of tracks to 20 for no apparent reason. Any veteran audio CD enthusiast knows that disc compilations frequently exceed 20 tracks, so users of the CDR 2 can expect to find themselves often resorting to the old-fashioned pause/record method to squeeze every megabyte out of their CD-Rs. H/K does not recommend this approach, citing the possibility of "induced noise" or dropouts. I experienced no such problems.

The CDR 2 ships with a digital coaxial cable, which makes it easy to connect a DVD player to the unit. This way, a DVD changer can be used as a source for a mixed CD with a variety of discs at the ready. I just couldn't resist the temptation to try to make a digital copy of at least one song from the Metallica Cunning Stunts DVD--given the band's recent posturing on digital copying--but the best I could produce was a fine-sounding analog recording.

Another interesting feature in a home CD recorder (as opposed to the one I have connected to my PC) is the potential for recording from the radio. This actually might make sense of the unit's CD-RW support (though it still doesn't account for 2X CD-rewritability, for which I have no use in a stereo component). I can actually envision using the same CD-RW disc to record a particular radio show every week and then editing down the tracks I want sans commercials. But I'd still put the resulting set on CD-R. The CDR 2 manual is frank about CD-RW discs' lack of compatibility with most existing CD and DVD players.

But the pièce de resistance of the CDR 2 is the 4X disc-dubbing feature. It was simply amazing to make a quality digital copy at this speed with such ease. I used both the supplied Harman/Kardon-branded CD-R DA disc as well as some Imation audio CD-Rs and got 4X performance every time. To make a direct dub, you simply insert a CD-R DA disc into the record drawer so that the unit can examine the disc and optimize recording, then you can leave the unit on real-time or press the dub speed button to choose 2X or 4X dubbing. (Lower speeds allow the unit to be more tolerant of disc errors, but I didn't come across a CD that couldn't handle 4X in my tests.) Next, put the CD to be dubbed into the play drawer, wait for the TOC information to be displayed, and hit the dubbing button. The play deck will make sure there is enough space on the destination disc, and then you press the select button to start the dub. For a pristine dub of a 46-minute, 11-second CD, I had only to wait 10 minutes, 8 seconds--no mastering software, no buffer underruns, no fuss, no muss.

Certainly the CDR 2 will appeal to users looking for a giant-leap upgrade from their dual cassette decks, as well as any CD-R audio enthusiast dead set on staying in the good graces of the RIAA. When these recorders were first introduced a few years back, the RIAA targeted them for its copy-protection assignation for two reasons: one, because it had neither a leg to stand on nor a means of control with PC-attached, software-managed CD recorders primarily used for business purposes; and two, because the music industry never thought PC-attached audio recording would ever rack up substantial consumer appeal anyway. Philips has done a great deal to underscore this point by hyping its home recorders on highway and airport billboards and sticking to humble trade mags at best for advertising its computer recorders. But with the Web and MP3 really driving consumer interest in digital audio these days, where do these stereo-bound home recorders really fit?

They certainly make a great fit in a punch-packing home theater setup, which scores points with a slightly different demographic than you'll find ingesting MP3s, but still constitutes a broad, if high-end, consumer space. And though the CDR 2's price point can't compete with $200 computer CD-R drives, it is a stunning addition to a home stereo system. But where the CDR 2 really hits home is in its precision and facility, which is appealing even to those of us who are perhaps overly fond of our computers but appreciate quality audio, whatever the source.

Michelle Manafy is Associate Editor of EMedia Magazine.

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