Arcam Alpha 9 CD player
Other elegant and expensive DACs with overachieving specs are being offered by the elite of the audio world. Like the dCS Elgar, they sport the fancy pricetags that permit no-holds-barred engineering. Can their blandishments be realized without mortgaging your home? To consider this prospect, I auditioned three interesting new products that will fit into many more budgets: the Arcam Alpha 9 CD player, the California Audio Labs CL-20 DVD player, and the MSB LinkDAC D/A processor.
Arcam Alpha 9 CD player: $1599
The Arcam Alpha 9 CD player is a mid-priced player at the top of the Arcam line. It incorporates an IC adaptation of dCS's formidable Ring-DAC, and traces its lineage to the admired dCS Elgar. The Alpha 9 should be familiar to anyone with any experience of Arcam's previous players: they all have in common a Sony CDM14 mechanism, chassis, interface, and remote control. Indeed, the same user manual is packed with each. It may seem strange that only a distinguishing number on the front panel (and, for the 8SE and 9, the HDCD indicator) identifies the more sophisticated models, but this allows relatively simple and inexpensive upgrades from one model to another, and enables economies of scale to be passed on to the consumer. In other words, if you have an Alpha 7, 8, or 8SE (see Sidebar, "Climbing the Arcam Upgrade Ladder?"), your player can be upgraded to an Arcam Alpha 9 by the replacement of the DAC module.
The distinguishing feature of the Alpha 9 is the new DAC module, which has a PMD-100 HDCD digital filter (also in the 8SE), and Arcam's two-IC realization of the dCS Ring-DAC with full 24/96 capability. While the expensive dCS Elgar uses a fair number of discrete components and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), Arcam, dCS, and Lucent Technologies have teamed up to create a mixed-signal IC and a 12,000-gate FPGA that are the functional equivalents at a much lower cost. Since, like the Elgar, the chipset is programmed by an external EPROM, future performance enhancements can be implemented.
The use of this DAC also means that the PMD-100 filter is set for 24-bit word output at all times. The transport is slaved to the master clock located at the DAC, and the data are re-clocked before the digital filter. HDCD gain change is accomplished in the analog domain, and all the expected features of careful digital/analog design are incorporated: potted, shielded transformer; multiple low-noise regulators; multilayer printed circuit board. In fact, examination of the internal componentry and layout reveals a meticulous attention to component selection, placement, and routing. The only niggling little complaint possible about Arcam's execution is the relatively flimsy top panel, which buzzed freely when tapped. I had no brick handy, and so placed a Shakti stone on it, to suitable effect. Four Vibrapods supported it nicely.
The Alpha 9 is a CD player. There are as yet no 24/96 CDs, and it's unlikely that there ever will be. Note, also, that it is unlikely that the Alpha 9 analog output has the S/N or linearity needed to pass all the information that a 24/96 bitstream can contain. Given these conditions (and the lack of a digital data input jack on the Alpha 9), what can justify the inclusion of a 24/96 DAC in a CD player? For the manufacturer, it is an opportunity to develop expertise in state-of-the-art technology and get a head start on the coming generation of digital converters. For the listener, the only justification should be the musical performance of the player on standard CDs.
The Alpha 9 is an absolutely superb CD player. All of my familiar CDs sounded wonderful on it, and none caught it out. I set it up first at my weekend house, where it helped raise that relatively modest system to a level of performance not previously achieved. On George Faber's "Count the Tears" (It Beats Workin', PopeMusic PMG 2023-2), the sheer slam and extension of the bass and the extremely wide soundstage were impressive. Soundstage depth was less than optimum, but then again, I've never gotten much depth in this system with its nearfield setup. The Alpha 9, however, was viscerally exciting in the best listening spot, and drew listeners from the other rooms to hear something significantly better than I'd gotten from my usual combination of a sturdy Pioneer PD-7100 driving a tweaked Audio Alchemy DAC-in-the-Box.
Bringing the Alpha 9 back to New York City (it fits nicely under one arm, thank you), I expected the big system to reveal its limitations mercilessly. But the impressions remained the same: excellent midrange/HF balance; powerful, Stygian bass; and a soundstage extending laterally well beyond the speakers! Depth was a bit better here, but still less than I had hoped for. However, from the Willow soundtrack to Eric Clapton's Unplugged, the Alpha 9 was quite thrilling with large ensembles and live audiences.
Aside from the limited image depth, the 9's other presentation idiosyncrasy was its tendency to place the forward voices/instruments at the speaker plane rather than behind it. Thus, the chorus near the end of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" (from The Wall, Columbia C2K 36183), and the antiphonal brass in Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band's recording of Schumann's Symphony 1 (part of the symphony cycle available on RCA Red Seal 61931-2) were excitingly closer but not overbearing. Because of the 9's outstanding bass, I could sense the pulse of blues and jazz performances more easily with it than with any other players.
While it could be argued that the low-frequency power of the Alpha 9 was excessive, there could be no criticism of its definition or extension. Mae West aptly described the Alpha 9's reproduction of low strings and organ pedals: "Too much of a good thing is wonderful!" Try Gary Karr's warm, impassioned performance of the Albinoni Adagio with organ accompaniment (Cisco GCD 8003) and you'll know what she meant.
I was also more than happy with the Alpha 9's detail and resolution—until I teamed it with its senior relation, the dCS Elgar. This, of course, is an academic comparison in view of the Alpha 9's genealogy and the substantial difference in price. One major difference when listening to the Alpha 9 as a transport through the Elgar DAC was the reduced prominence of the bass; it was all there, but it didn't call attention to itself. More significant was the greater sense of depth and the improved delicacy of the treble voices. Moreover, these voices and the spaces around them were less forward when heard via the Elgar. As I reveled in Esa-Pekka Salonen's recording of Mahler's Symphony 4 (Sony Classical SK 48380), the Elgar was more successful in distinguishing the placements of orchestral voices, but the Alpha 9 was slightly more palpable and immediate.
Compared with the Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1, the Alpha 9 held its own. The SF offered a more relaxed and deep soundstage, while the Alpha bested it in bass definition and image width. Overall, I preferred the SFCD-1 to the Alpha 9; the SF had a smoother HF, and extended the stage beyond the back wall. However, had the SFCD-1 not been available to me, I could avidly accept and live with the Alpha's alternative presentation. When you consider the approximately 3:1 price ratio in the Alpha's favor, this is very high praise.
I found it fascinating that the Alpha 9 (a 24/96-capable player restricted to using 16/44.1 source material) and the CAL CL-20 (a 20/96 player capable of playing CDs and 24/96 DVD audio discs) were each capable of near-state-of-the-art performance. The Alpha 9 made the most of the 24-bit word output of the PMD-100 digital filter.
The Alpha 9...is a breakthrough in sub-$2000 CD players. The performance of this 24/96 player with 16/44.1 discs withstood direct comparisons to players/DACs costing several times as much, and made small potatoes of the differences. I was particularly impressed with the bass extension, detail, and power, which will be quite welcome in almost all systems. Beyond that, its broad soundstage was truly thrilling with large and small ensembles, with superb resolution of the music's inner voices. I would be hard-pressed to justify buying a more expensive CD (-only) player.