HHB's new CD-R appears to offer all the features we've always wanted in an affordable standalone CD recorder. Hugh Robjohns finds out if it delivers.
HHB were selling professional digital audio equipment back when DAT was a new-fangled technology and the pro-digital lobby used pseudo-video recorders such as the Sony PCM 1610 and PCM F1. The company has grown dramatically since then, with offices in London, Los Angeles and Toronto - a far cry from its distant origins as the 'Half Human Band', a group the company's founders used to provide PA for.
Whilst HHB may not be the cheapest 'box-shifter' in town, their professionalism, expertise, and experience of digital audio technology is second to none. And they are not just distributors, either - HHB began manufacturing and marketing a few of its own branded products several years ago with a 'professionalised' version of a Casio portable DAT machine, and a range of recording media. These were followed by the highly regarded HHB PortaDAT machines, a CD recorder and, more recently, a range of loudspeakers. To provide more technical support for its growing and loyal customer base, HHB also invested heavily in its own, extremely well-equipped, service department which commands an excellent reputation.
The subject of this review, the new CDR850, is the result of HHB's continuing partnership with Pioneer in Japan, who also built the CDR800 for them in 1997. Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that versions of this machine are also available under the Otari and Fostex badges and the same will be true for the CDR850, although the new machine has largely been designed to HHB's own requirements and specifications.
HHB CDR850 £899
Five flavours of input.
Auto-Track increment threshold adjustable.
Auto-Stop delay adjustable.
Some obscure labelling and displays.
A CD-R/CD-RW recorder with sensible features for the professional. Some obscure labelling lets it down slightly, but it is solid, reliable, predictable and dependable - everything a professional demands.
The earlier HHB CDR800 could only record on standard write-once CD-Rs, as the newer rewritable discs employ incompatible reading and writing processes. The CDR800 will continue to be available, as it is still a very good CD Recorder with some unique features (such as the 'stable platter' disc support mechanism), but the new CDR850 offers the capability of recording on both conventional CD-Rs and CD-RW discs. As a professional machine (it must be because it says so on the front panel!), the CDR850 can use the cheaper 'pro' CD-R and CD-RW blank discs instead of the more expensive 'consumer' versions. Although the machine is more expensive than typical consumer recorders from Philips or Marantz it has lower running costs because of the saving made on blank media, and so will work out cheaper in the long run. It also provides the kind of interfacing and operational facilities expected of a professional machine.
The CDR850 is a 2U rackmounting machine sporting a distinctive 'HHB Purple' paint job with clear white legends on the panel and buttons. Weighing 7kg and measuring 393mm front to back, the machine features a central CD drawer above a large fluorescent display panel, with controls arranged on either side. The first thing to strike me about the CDR850 was an impression that it had been designed by someone who uses CD recorders regularly. It is hard to think of a feature or facility which is not available on the machine, yet it remains reasonably simple to operate. Better still, there is no need to scrabble around the back for anything because all operational modes and conditions can be controlled directly from the front-panel buttons and switches, or via a simple menu system (see box).
The rear panel is awash with connectors - the upper of two rows consisting mainly of XLRs providing AES-EBU digital in, electronically balanced left and right analogue line in, and the balanced stereo analogue lines out (there is no AES-EBU digital output, sadly). There is also an 8-pin DIN socket facilitating a wired remote control option. The lower row of connectors provides both TOSlink optical and co-axial S/PDIF inputs and outputs, plus unbalanced domestic-level analogue in and out on phono sockets. The machine contains a switched-mode power supply accommodating mains voltages between 120 and 230V, 50 or 60Hz. Power is connected via the usual IEC socket and there are no external fuses.
The front panel is largely self-explanatory, although a few extra legends concerning the menu operations, and the odd feature here and there, wouldn't go amiss. Starting on the left, the large power switch is sufficiently far away from the other buttons to avoid expensive accidents! A group of eight black push buttons fills the remaining space towards the central display and CD drawer, whilst the transport buttons, input selector, and record level controls are over on the right-hand side.
Of those eight buttons on the left, the four lower ones are slightly larger than those above. They provide facilities to select automatic or manual mode for writing track numbers, the track number Write button itself (with a small LED above to indicate when it is available), Finalise (ie. writing the final table of contents to make a Red Book-compatible disk, in the case of CD-Rs), and Erase (only for CD-RW discs of course). The upper row of buttons caters for setting and clearing Skip IDs (also used for confirming menu selections and resetting the peak level margin indicator, respectively), accessing the machine's menu functions, and the rather confusingly labelled 'Skip Play' button. Normally, if the machine detects a disc programmed with Skip IDs, a legend in the display illuminates and tracks marked with Skip IDs are automatically bypassed during playback. Pressing 'Skip Play' turns the legend off, allowing all tracks to be played in their original sequence. Skip Play sounds more like an auditioning mode to confirm that the correct tracks have been identified for skipping to me, and perhaps 'Skip Off' might have been a more intuitive legend for this key. An equally bizarre piece of non-labelling is the inclusion of an unmarked LED above the Menu button. One might assume this has something to do with the menu facilities, but no, reading the manual eventually revealed (in a paragraph on page 70) why it illuminates and flashes. The LED indicates the SCMS status of the disk, remaining dark for 'copy once' discs, illuminated for 'copy permit' and flashing when 'copy prohibit' is indicated.
The automatic fade up/down setting contained in the next menu can be set to 6, 9, 12, or 18-second durations, and the threshold for the automatic track increment facility in the next menu can be set anywhere between -36 and -66dBfs, in 6dB increments - if the signal falls below the set level for more than two seconds, the track is incremented. An unusual feature for a CD Recorder is an Auto Pause mode on playback which can be activated in another menu. Common enough on professional players, this facility automatically pauses playback when the next track ID is detected, preventing the machine from starting the following track, but cueing it up ready for the next press of the Play button. The reference-level output from the balanced analogue XLR connectors can be set to either +4dBu or -10dBV (-8dBu), although the factory setting is for -10dBV - which is not what you might expect from XLR outputs when there are also domestic phono sockets present! Thinking of applications in duplication rooms, the infra-red remote sensor can be deactivated via another menu as, although it may be useful to control several CDR850s from a single IR remote, it could also be rather embarrassing, and a wired remote control system may be the preferred option in such cases. The digital outputs can also be disabled from a menu, ostensibly to prevent the possibility of digital howlrounds. Being able to perform this from a simple menu instead of unplugging leads from the back will be appreciated by many users. Finally, saving the best until last, the CDR850 incorporates a sample-rate converter to automatically correct the incoming sampling rate to a precise 44.1kHz. It accepts any input between 32 and 48kHz, including varispeed replay from CDs or workstations - a handy feature for mastering engineers or DJs compiling their own mix selections. For the purist, the SRC can also be disabled via a menu when stable 44.1kHz sources are connected.
Most of the specialised facilities of the CDR850 are accessed through its menu system, although many of the menu status messages are rather cryptic thanks to the restricted size of the display. The first menu sets the SCMS status of the disc between 'permit', 'one copy', or 'prohibited' although, as a professional machine, it ignores the SCMS data on an incoming digital source! Once a selection has been made, pressing the Skip ID Set button stores the new setting. The second menu determines the auto-stop delay time which has troubled Paul White on some CD recorders reviewed in recent months. Most automatically stopped after a few seconds of silence, which he found frustrating when trying to create discs with artistically lengthy silences between tracks! The CDR850 offers three choices: zero seconds (ie. pauses immediately when silence is detected), 10 seconds, or never, which will please Paul. I would have also preferred a fourth option of, say, three or four seconds which would be more appropriate when compiling original material a track at a time.
The automatic fade up/down setting contained in the next menu can be set to 6, 9, 12, or 18-second durations, and the threshold for the automatic track increment facility in the next menu can be set anywhere between -36 and -66dBfs, in 6dB increments - if the signal falls below the set level for more than two seconds, the track is incremented. An unusual feature for a CD Recorder is an Auto Pause mode on playback which can be activated in another menu. Common enough on professional players, this facility automatically pauses playback when the next track ID is detected, preventing the machine from starting the following track, but cueing it up ready for the next press of the Play button.
The reference-level output from the balanced analogue XLR connectors can be set to either +4dBu or -10dBV (-8dBu), although the factory setting is for -10dBV - which is not what you might expect from XLR outputs when there are also domestic phono sockets present! Thinking of applications in duplication rooms, the infra-red remote sensor can be deactivated via another menu as, although it may be useful to control several CDR850s from a single IR remote, it could also be rather embarrassing, and a wired remote control system may be the preferred option in such cases.
The digital outputs can also be disabled from a menu, ostensibly to prevent the possibility of digital howlrounds. Being able to perform this from a simple menu instead of unplugging leads from the back will be appreciated by many users. Finally, saving the best until last, the CDR850 incorporates a sample-rate converter to automatically correct the incoming sampling rate to a precise 44.1kHz. It accepts any input between 32 and 48kHz, including varispeed replay from CDs or workstations - a handy feature for mastering engineers or DJs compiling their own mix selections. For the purist, the SRC can also be disabled via a menu when stable 44.1kHz sources are connected.
The right-hand section of the display contains illuminated legends identifying the disc type (CD, CD-R, or CD-RW), 'Finalise' process, the sample rate (32, 44.1 and 48kHz), and the 'Skip On' mode. To the left of the alpha-numeric section are icons for play, pause, record and fader (the last blinks when the auto fade-up/down mode is active). There are also further illuminated legends when playing a programmed selection, track repeat, sync recording (when copying from suitable digital sources), and Auto Track numbering modes.
The controls to the right of the drawer consist of eight transport keys: play, pause and stop in a row along the bottom with search forward and back immediately above. Record, record mute (four seconds) and open/close drawer employ circular buttons and are alongside the drawer itself. One of the two remaining buttons (above the pause and stop keys) cycles the display around the various timer modes - elapsed, remaining (track and total), and total disk duration - and the level margin figure. This indicator displays the highest signal level for each channel, in decibels below 0dBfs, and is reset with the Skip ID clear button. The last button, labelled 'Digital Synchro', activates the digital synchronisation feature whereby the recorder copies either a single track, or all tracks, from a domestic digital source, automatically inserting the track increments to match the original. This facility only works when receiving digital inputs via the TOSlink or S/PDIF inputs (not AES-EBU), and only when the data originates from another CD, Minidisc, DAT or DCC machine. If the source IDs are late with respect to the audio (eg. were made with a level-dependent auto ID mode), they will be copied in the same way.
To the right of the transport controls are a headphone socket and volume control, whilst above is a dual-concentric record level knob and a rotary input selector switch. The selector offers AES, optical and co-axial digital inputs, and balanced XLR analogue inputs at either +4 or -8dBu (-10dBV), plus the unbalanced line inputs (also at -10dBV).
A small infra-red remote control is supplied with the CDR850, providing the usual transport and direct track access facilities. It also provides access to functions that cannot be controlled from the front panel at all. These include the fader up/down operation, track or disc repeat mode, and programming, clearing or checking a track playback list. The wired remote control (via the 8-pin DIN connector on the rear panel) takes priority over infra-red commands.
The CDR850 is, in the main, a joy to use - my only hesitations being the lack of intuitiveness over some functions, poor labelling in places and some cryptic menus. However, once familiar with the machine it is easy to use, reliable, and predictable. As with all CD recorders, the quality of the end product is very dependent on the source material, with badly produced masters inevitably causing problems. For example, copying single tracks from a DAT where the Start IDs were generated automatically caused the expected clipped starts and snatches of the following track at the end. However, on material which was created more carefully, and when copying from commercially released material, the machine performed flawlessly and accurately.
Most of the menus were treated as a 'set and forget' function, although I found myself adjusting the auto fade up/down feature on occasions. At six seconds, this sometimes proved to be far too slow, particularly on the fade-up cycle, but the longer times worked well for fade-outs on suitable material. The other two menus I changed frequently were the auto-stop delay setting - usually between 'never' and 'immediate' - and the threshold setting for the auto track increment. I found it very useful to check this by adjusting the threshold and watching to see if the Track Number legend illuminate and at the relevant points.
I checked the performance of the built-in sample-rate converter with a varispeeded CD source and found it tracked extremely well, as it also did with both 32 and 48kHz stable signals. I also made several test recordings of familiar material copied from commercial CDs, both with and without the SRC in circuit (on adjacent tracks in some cases), but could not hear any significant difference. To my ears, and those of my friends and colleagues, all of the copies made on the CDR850 were indistinguishable from the source material when played back on the source machine (material was copied mainly from a Meridian 508 CD player using the optical or co-ax connections, co-ax giving the best results).
The playback side of the HHB recorder was not quite as detailed and revealing as the Meridian, but it was to a generally very high standard and, more to the point, the information was all recorded to the disc! Analogue source recordings were also handled quite well (the delta-sigma A-D converters have a claimed 92dB signal/noise ratio). Better performance can be obtained with external A-D converters: for the digital input, HHB claim a signal/noise ratio of 108dB, matching the playback figures.
All in all, this machine is a strong performer with a good range of professional features and facilities. Aside from a few gripes about some of the obscure or absent labelling and intuitiveness, I liked the CDR850 a lot - it is certainly the best CD-R/CD-RW recorder I have used to date. Not as quick and easy as a SCSI drive integrated with the workstation, but quite possibly the best standalone professional unit to have reached the market.