Arcam Alpha 9 CD player Climbing the Arcam Upgrade Ladder?
Arcam is unusual among audio manufacturers in providing the user with the ability to upgrade his or her own component with the capabilities of newer models without having to trade in and buy anew. All current Arcam single-CD players share the same transport and control system; the owner of any Alpha CDP can upgrade to a more advanced model simply by exchanging the old DAC for a new one.
The line consists of four models: The Alpha 7 ($649) has a dual 16-bit, delta-sigma DAC; the Alpha 8 ($999) has a 20-bit digital filter, 1-bit PWM DACs, and balanced analog filters; the Alpha 8SE ($1249) adds the PMD-100 HDCD filter; and the king-of-the-hill Alpha 9 ($1599) has Arcam's breakthrough 24/96 Ring-DAC.
Upgrade costs are pretty reasonable, and simply reflect the cost of the DAC modules themselves with the Alpha 7 as the base. Consequently, an 8 upgrade is $350 and is equal to the difference in the prices of the Alpha 7 and 8. Similarly, the 8SE upgrade is $600, and the 9 upgrade is $950. A little arithmetic reveals that the cost of an 8SE upgrade from an Alpha 8 seems pretty stiff for merely adding HDCD, and that the 9 upgrade from the 8SE seems a pretty costly investment. Audiophile Systems' Gary Warzin assures me that dealers will offer trade-in allowances for the 8 and 8SE DAC boards, considerably easing the upgrade cost.
While all this seems almost a little too reasonable and considerate for an audio manufacturer, does it really represent something worthwhile for the owner of an Arcam player? Additionally, how does this policy affect one's choice of an Alpha model for initial purchase? Audiophile Systems was kind enough (my wife may not agree) to send along samples of the Alphas 7, 8, and 8SE while I had the 9 in for review. When I'd stacked them up, my listening room looked like a display at Circuit City!
For reference, the Alpha 9 was decidedly the best Alpha, and one of the best CD players I've ever used. If your budget can accommodate it, buy it and read no further. However, if you cannot now afford an Alpha 9, buying another Alpha still permits you to upgrade in the future. Let's examine your options.
Cosmetically and operationally, all Alphas are the same. In addition, all shared the 9's characteristics to varying degrees: a relatively forward soundstage with considerable breadth. None sounded grainy or unfocused.
The Alpha 7 (serial #AC7B01127) was, at first, a disappointment in sound compared to the 9—or, indeed, to any of the other players in the main system. But this is quite an unfair burden to place on a $649 player. The 7 had even less soundstage depth than the other Arcam players, and the dynamics seemed compressed. Compared, on the other hand, to my old Pioneer PD-7100 with or without the Audio Alchemy DAC-in-the-Box, it was much less harsh in the HF and gave the impression of greater resolution and detail. Thus, on its own, the Alpha 7 seems a very decent value, particularly in view of its upgrade options.
The Alpha 8 (serial #AC8B00590) was quite another story—I was greatly surprised by its liveliness and punch. It truly sounded like a sibling of the Alpha 9, lacking only a bit of its big brother's slam in the bass, and pristine detail in the midrange and treble. Spatial aspects were also similar, but the 9's soundstage benefited considerably from the increased resolution, so the 8 failed to be quite as electrifying as the 9 with live events and large ensembles. Still, I found the Alpha 8 quite satisfying, and, considering its under-$1000 price tag, an outstanding buy in a stand-alone player. Adding further to its value, of course, is the potential for upgrading to a 9.
I was puzzled by the performance of the Alpha 8SE (serial #AC8SB0094). It should have been just an 8 with the added feature of HDCD decoding, but it had a distinct personality. On standard CDs, the 8SE's bass seemed less defined than the 8's, though it was equally extended. There was also a small lack of presence/weight in the lower midrange, resulting in a slight tilt toward the treble. Unlike the Alpha 7, there was quite decent depth and no apparent dynamic compression, but the 8SE seemed less lively than either the 8 or the 9. Extended listening was eminently satisfactory, as the described foibles were small, and primarily notable in direct comparisons. On HDCD-encoded discs the 8SE's greater depth and resolution were advances over the decoderless Alpha 8. All in all, the 8SE is a very good CD player, but less of a value than the cheaper 8—unless HDCD is very important to you. Even so, I'd suggest you save your pennies and go for the 9.
While the upgrade possibilities within the Alpha family are significant, you shouldn't ignore the possibility of upgrading by adding an external DAC. Here, the cost of an upgrade to the Alpha 9 puts an absolute limit on what you should spend on a DAC, unless you're considering one with Dolby Digital or DTS facilities. For me, the obvious candidate is the MSB LinkDAC, whose characteristics I've described in the main review. Compared to all the Alphas, the Link is a bit mellower and throws a deeper but narrower soundstage. Adding the Link to the Alpha 8 or 8SE—or, indeed, the 9—seems unnecessary. Adding it to an Alpha 7, however, is a cost-equivalent alternative to an 8 upgrade.
If faced with this choice, I'd opt for the Link, primarily because its 24/96 capabilities can be used with future devices and not specifically for the sound; that's a tossup. As a new purchaser with $1000 to spend, I'd just go with the Alpha 8 and enjoy it. It's the value-for-money pick of the litter!—Kalman Rubinson