Arcam Alpha MCD 6-disc CD changer
There are lots of good reasons to consider a CD changer. One that occurred immediately to me was that I work at home a lot, often spending evenings catching up on reading and paperwork. I rarely work to music because deciding what to listen to and changing discs shifts my focus from what I'm doing to the music. A changer might be a perfect solution. Other reasons popped into my head as well: auditioning a stack of new CDs, for example, or music for workouts or parties. And what about audiophiles who share their space—and system—with family members who aren't into the mode of fully engaged, in-the-sweet-spot listening?
On the flip side, the high-end community seems to have a prejudice against changers—as if the whole concept of a high-end changer is oxymoronic. If a changer's role is to provide several hours of uninterrupted music to an inattentive audience, why pay for high-end performance? The High End is about totally engaged listening, after all, and getting the highest possible fidelity out of every dollar spent. A changer's mechanical complexity translates to higher build cost, so something—the sound—has got to give, right?
But what if you could have your cake and eat it too? What if you could break or even bend the rules, and get a multidisc changer that sounded as good as similarly priced single-disc players? Put another way, how close would a changer's performance have to be to a single-disc unit's to tip the scale in favor of the added versatility?
Enter the MCD
Arcam poses exactly these questions with their Alpha MCD. Priced at $999, the MCD combines much of the technology and build quality of Arcam's highly acclaimed Alpha 7, Alpha 8, and Alpha 9 single-disc units with "the convenience of a whole evening's listening pleasure without having to change discs yourself."
The Arcam's pedigree is excellent, its specs first-rate. The MCD starts with a Sony transport mechanism and a 20-bit digital filter and DAC from Crystal Semiconductor. There are "eight separately regulated power supplies, a low-jitter master clock situated close to the DAC, and high-performance analog output stages." All of the audio circuitry is built on a single fiberglas board; the control circuitry is mounted on a separate board right behind the front panel. A peek under the hood shows that everything is tidy and well laid-out. Unlike Arcam's single-disc players, the MCD cannot be upgraded with either the replacement or the addition of a higher-performance internal DAC—the only upgrade path is via the coaxial digital output.
The Arcam's cosmetics are straightforward and understated, and match the other models in the Alpha line. The front panel is dominated by the disc drawer on the left and the display on the right, both having an unusual curved bottom edge. This curve is echoed on the faceplate's bottom edge, and gives the MCD an interesting, slightly softer appearance than is usual. Front-panel controls include an array of buttons for the usual functions: Power, Load (open), Stop, Play/Pause, Track selection, Repeat, Program, and Shuffle. The only clues that the MCD is a changer are the two buttons to increment or decrement the disc number.
All functions are controllable from the remote. (Because the remote applies to other Arcam models as well, it has buttons to control volume, which don't apply to the MCD.) Overall, fit, finish, and build quality are very good, but not extravagant.
Systems & setup, tweaks & tricks
After a 200-hour burn-in period using the Sheffield/XLO Test & Burn-in CD (Sheffield Labs 10041-2-T), I put the MCD through its paces in a couple of systems and with a wide variety of music. Most of the time, however, I used a system consisting of a Sonic Frontiers Line 3 line stage, VTL Ichiban amplifiers, and Magnepan's new Magneplanar 1.6 Q/R speakers. The cables were Nirvana S-L from the line stage to amplifier, and MIT MITerminator 2 biwire between the VTLs and the Maggies.
The listening sessions also included the $895 Ultech UCD-100 player I reviewed in the July '98 issue, the $1595 California Audio Labs CL-15, and two old favorites: the $495 Parasound CDP-1000 and $595 CAL DX-2. The bulk of my listening was done using Kimber KCTG cables between the CD players and line stage, but the MCD/Sonic Frontiers combination also worked well with several less expensive cables. Two particularly good matches were Synergistic Research's $175/m Alpha Sterling and Belkin's new $40/3' Platinum Synapse.
Following Stereophile's "review as delivered" policy, I tested the Arcam sans tweaks, the only exceptions being Sorbothane feet underneath and a Bright Star Little Rock on top. The feet were specifically recommended in the MCD's manual, and the Little Rock helped stabilize the lightweight MCD with respect to stiff cables. The effect of the combination wasn't huge, but it did open up the space around images a bit, and improved clarity and image dimensionality. Prior to each play, CDs were treated with Nordost ECO3 antistatic fluid (label side) and Music Fidelity's DiscSolution (data side). Though I didn't use it for the bulk of my listening, I found that adding a Synergistic Research AC Master Coupler made a noticeable improvement: less grunge, better resolution of low-level detail, and cleaner overall sound.
Phase One: the MCD as CD changer
I love nifty mechanical widgets—I'm an engineer—and let me tell you, the Alpha MCD is one nifty widget. First of all, it looks and operates just like a standard single-disc front-loader. Instead of the typical carousel, the MCD uses a unique internal shuttle mechanism sourced from Sony. The shuttle has six positions: five storage slots and the active position, which is linked to the transport/drawer mechanism. The active position is selected using the Disc Number buttons on the front panel or remote.
As long as you don't change the disc number, you'd never know that the MCD is a changer. Push Load and the drawer slides out smoothly. Set a disc in the well, push Load again, and the disc slides in and is cued up.
On the other hand, if you select a disc number, the current disc is moved from the transport well into its assigned slot in the internal shuttle mechanism, and a new slot becomes active. If it already contains a disc, that disc is cued up. If it's empty, the display indicates the new position and reads No Disc. Similarly, when you push the Load button, the drawer will either come out empty, or bearing the disc previously loaded into that shuttle position.
Each time you select a different disc, the cycle repeats itself: The current disc is moved from the transport to its spot in the internal stack, and the new shuttle position becomes active. It may sound complicated, but it's actually simple, logical, and elegant. When I showed the MCD to several engineer friends, the cycle—load a disc, advance the disc number, push Load, watch the disc carrier come out empty—never failed to elicit admiration. One nifty widget!