After a look at the CDA500 we were surprised: its looks, build and feature count had led us to expect something closer to the four-grand mark, but at just over half that, the Stello starts looking like great value.
Build quality is spot-on. The sliding top-loader lid moves with just the right amount of resistance and the casework feels suitably substantial, while the thoughtfully laid-out rear panel sockets are of good quality. A nicely shaped and weighted remote completes the deal.
Stello hammers the establishment when it comes to specs, too: the big news here is digital inputs and a choice of upsampling frequencies.
Input options consist of coaxial, optical and USB, and they're worth using because the internal 24bit/192kHz digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) is a good one.
Listening to a range of compressed and uncompressed files from an Apple MacBook is a treat. The DAC section's insight and refinement are impressive.
It works well across music as varied as The Magnetic Fields' I Don't Know What to Say and John Williams's majestic score from Munich.
Improving the sense of refinement
The player can upsample the input signal all the way to 24bit/192kHz, and choosing the highest setting definitely improves the sense of refinement, but at the cost of a little bite.
With the laptop as source, the gains outweigh the negatives with most music, but the story changes with the Stello's own drive.
Here, we prefer the standard 16bit/44.1kHz setting: the higher sampling rate's smoother approach robs too much life from the music.
With CD, the Stello delivers a fine performance. It digs up tons of detail, managing to reveal subtleties in Mahler's First Symphony without ignoring the larger message.
Doesn't shout for attention
Things are tonally balanced, too. It's not the kind of sound that shouts for attention: Stello's approach results in a clean, agile sound that avoids sounding clinical despite a high level of insight – a tough balance to strike. These qualities are underpinned by a rock-like stability.
Are we talking perfection? Not really. For all the CDA500's strengths, it isn't quite as involving as we'd like. Blame a slight lack of rhythmic precision and a shortfall of dynamic punch for that.
That said, the CDA500 is a fine effort. It might lack the cutting edge needed to beat the leaders at this price level, but it does an awful lot really well.