Cairn is a high-end French brand that isn't particularly well known in this country. Much of the problem has been sporadic distribution, rather than the quality of the kit. However, judging by this CD player, the company doesn't always makes things easy for itself.
If first impressions count, the Fog 3 is in deep trouble. Let's start with the name. Why would anyone call a CD player after a dangerous weather condition that obscures detail? Where's the sense in that?
Frustratingly bad interface
Then there's the crazy front-panel control layout. This has a skip forwards button, but forgets that people might want to listen to a previous track, too. Or indeed repeat the track you just enjoyed.
To go backwards, you have to use a remote handset that would embarrass most budget players with its cheapness, let alone a machine at this elevated price level. Add quirky operational software and imprecise control buttons into the equation, and the Fog 3 looks down and out before it's even got started.
And then you listen to it. Then, everything changes. Or, more accurately, these things cease to be important. This is a player you have to be willing to pander to. Accept the Cairn's weird ways, and you'll find a lot to admire in its sonic abilities.
The Fog 3 is one of the most natural-sounding CD players you'll ever hear. There's a fluidity to the presentation that has more than a hint of analogue about it. Don't get us wrong. This player doesn't ape the supposed warmth and richness of vinyl; instead, it avoids the mechanical and slightly sterile sound that many CD players still suffer from – even those at this exalted price level.
Top dogs already slugged it out
So, despite all that the Cairn's model name suggests, this is a very detailed machine. It uncovers subtleties as well as top-class machines such as Leema's Award-winning Antilla, even though the latter costs a cool £500 more.
So would it knock our Award-winner off its perch? Well, the answer is no – it did come very close beating it, but when taking overall performance and price into account, the Leema edged it.
Back to the positives, though. Listen to Arvo Part's Litany, and the Fog's expressive dynamics and fine stereo imaging come to the fore. While the leading edges of notes are clearly defined there isn't the slightest hint of unwarranted hardness, which means the Cairn is an easy CD player to listen to over extended periods. Other aspects such as timing and punch are bang on the money, too, making this disc-spinner as much of a joy on Kanye West's Graduation as it is on Pachelbel's gentle Canon.
Build quality outstrips usability
Usability gripes apart, this is a very well-built machine. It feels solid, and is finished to the kind of standard you'd expect at this price, though we'd like the large display to be easier to read from an angle. There are numerous adjustments you can make to the sound via filter settings and so on.
The differences are subtle enough to come down to personal preference and, no matter what settings you end up with, it doesn't change the fact that this is clearly a class-leading machine as far as sound quality is concerned.
The feature count is good, too, including both optical and electrical inputs and outputs, so you can use the extremely impressive on-board DAC for other digital products too.
Deserves its second chance
Overall, this is one player for which you shouldn't let first impressions cloud your judgement. Give the Fog 3 a chance, and we're sure you'll be impressed. It's certainly one of the best two-grand machines we've ever heard.