Arcam Alpha MCD 6-disc CD changer Page 2
The Arcam excelled in background music mode, risking failure only in that its sound flirted with being too engaging to remain in the background. Several times during the review period I found myself home alone in the afternoon, waiting for Nick, our airconditioning repairman. I would load six new CDs into the MCD, hit Play, and work, catch up on reading or correspondence, pay bills, whatever. Time would pass, Nick would find the latest set of not-quite-terminal problems, and I'd do my work amid the music.
Even with the music turned way down to avoid distraction, the Arcam's performance was unfailingly enjoyable. I was always struck by how good the system sounded when the Arcam was playing: smooth, and musical. No grunge, no glare, no screechy, hashy highs, no whumpy, one-note bass...just an engaging, natural sound. The tonal balance was even: good weight on the bottom, an articulate, detailed midrange, and smooth, extended highs. Ditto for the MCD's handling of macrodynamic transients. There was a good sense of punch and speed throughout, and no particular part of the musical spectrum jumped out unnaturally. The soundstage was wide and reasonably deep, and the images were large and solidly positioned, with a good sense of dimensionality and body.
As a tribute to the MCD's performance, essentially all of the new CDs I listened to struck me as good enough, in both sound and content, to merit additional, more serious, listening. On a few occasions the sound became so distracting—in a good sense—that I had to stop whatever I was doing and just listen. On the Sonny Rollins Quintet's Rollins Plays for Bird (JVC JVCXR-0055-2), I gave in halfway through the "I Remember You" segment in the opening medley. I just kept forgetting the technical paper I was reading, the better to follow Rollins' tenor lines.
Another disc that pulled me into the listening chair was the Mobile Fidelity reissue of Stevie Ray Vaughan's The Sky is Crying (UDCD 723). I've heard this music umpteen times—I'm a big SRV fan, and I've used the LP and commercial CD in reviews for years. It seemed like safe background music.
Nope. Thirty seconds into the opening track, "Boot Hill," I was in the listening chair; whatever I'd been reading wasn't even a distant memory. In that case, I was struck by how ballsy the system sounded—the solidity of the images, the density of the tonal colors—and the sense of coherence and balance between guitar, bass, and vocals. I'm sure that the MoFi gold treatment was part of the magic, but the Arcam certainly did it justice.
Like any multidisc unit, the MCD is programmable every which way, giving you the capability of programming up to 16 tracks on any combination of discs. To test the MCD's programming functions, I carefully scored and programmed a soundtrack for one of my afternoon workouts. First, I started with situps and crunches to Steely Dan's "Do It Again" and the Charlie Sexton Sextet's cover of "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress," both from the Air America soundtrack (MCA MCAD-6467). Next it was legs—squats, extensions, curls—done to three consecutive versions of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida off the sensational MoFi re-release of the Iron Butterfly classic (UDCD 675). (I do lots of legs, but not 40 minutes' worth. I got a Coke during the drum solo.)
Then it was on to dumbbell presses, bench presses, and flys, backed by the Cocktail soundtrack (Elektra 60806-2): the Georgia Satellites doing "Hippy Hippy Shake," "Kokomo" by the Beach Boys, and John Mellencamp's version of "Rave On." Sister Hazel's Somewhere More Familiar (Universal UD-53030) was the soundtrack for seated rows and lat pull-downs, in particular "Just Remember" and "All for You." Billy Idol's "White Wedding, Parts I & II" and "Mony, Mony," both from Vital Idol (Chrysalis VK 41620), went with biceps curls and triceps pull-downs. Last but not least, I cooled down and finished my soda to a John Fogerty mini-concert: "Rockin' All Over the World," "Almost Saturday Night," "Who'll Stop the Rain," and "Travelin' Band," all from his killer live disc, Premonition (Reprise 46908-2). Cool, way cool.
Phase Two: Listening for real
The Arcam having emerged from the first phase of testing with top marks, I switched to serious listening, using the MCD in single-disc mode and comparing it to some of the best players I've heard near its price. All of the strengths noted above—the smooth, natural sound, the wide soundstage, the good overall balance and detail—came through here as well. A good example, typical of my listening sessions, was "Blue Friday" from Kenny Dorham's Quiet Kenny (JVC JVCXR-0049-2). This is a sensational XRCD reissue of a 1959 Rudy Van Gelder recording, and the Arcam did a great job of reproducing the trumpet tone and intricacies and the surrounding cushion of air that are captured so beautifully in RVG recordings. There was excellent bass weight and pitch, a detailed midrange, and smooth, even highs. Similarly, the overall soundstage was reproduced well and populated with solid, firmly fixed images. Overall, my impression was "good sound, great recording."
The Arcam is in an extremely competitive market segment, however, with great-sounding players like the Ultech and Rega Planet at or below its $999 price. If the budget is stretched a bit, the competition gets tougher still, with the CAL CL-10 and CL-15, and Arcam's own Alpha 8 and 9, to be considered. Although it's a solid performer, the MCD can't quite match up to the competition in a couple of areas that I find critical to high-end performance. The most obvious difference between the MCD and some of the other players was that the others were slightly but noticeably more vivid and involving. The Ultech and CAL CL-15, for example, were clearer and more precise, sounded more dynamic, and uncovered more low-level and inner detail.
Vocals particularly highlighted the difference in detail For example, Johnny Copeland's vocals on "Bring Your Fine Self Home" (Showdown, Mobile Fidelity UDCD 620) have a deep, wonderful rasp as he moves down in his range, and there's an impressive sense of body and power. Some phrases seem to explode sharply out, with a tangible rush of air. On others, his volume and pitch modulation are so subtle they're barely perceptible. With the Arcam, there wasn't as good a sense of a mouth, throat, and chest as there was with the other units. Copeland sounded slightly forced, thin, and washed-out in comparison. His all-out belts never seemed to reach below the top of his throat, and the microdynamic subtleties were lost altogether. At the opening of "Bring Your Fine Self Home" there's a vocal exchange between Copeland and Albert Collins. With the Arcam, the subtleties and characteristics of the two voices were blurred, coming perilously close to sounding like one person ping-ponging from one side of the stage to the other. With orchestral recordings there was a sense of individual instruments within a section, but they weren't as distinct as they can be with other players, or are live.
Part of the loss of detail was due to a slight softening of hard transients. On the Classic reissue of Shostakovich's Symphony 1 (RCA LSCCD-2322), the MCD was certainly enjoyable to listen to, with a relaxed, musical sound. Compared to units like the Ultech and CAL, however, its presentation was slightly softened and homogenized, with less of the spark and energy of a live performance. Plucked double basses and timpani had the proper weight and excellent pitch definition, but the initial strike was diminished. Cellos had a natural, woody tone, but their runs were slightly indistinct, as if slightly out of focus. The crescendos just didn't have the power they should, and sharp transients, like the trumpets bursting out from the rear of the stage, lacked impact. The Arcam's high-frequency shortcomings were particularly noticeable. On the Shostakovich, for example, the triangle "clinked" instead of rang, and just didn't cut through above the orchestra as it should. Another example was the Arcam's reproduction of cymbals—on Rollins Plays for Bird, for example, they sounded slightly coarse and flat. The initial attack wasn't sharply defined, and the shimmering decay was oddly abbreviated, instead of continuing to spread out and fill the surrounding space.
Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason" (from New Beginning, Elektra 61850-2) was another cut where the Arcam's performance was credible and involving, but lacked the power, detail, and sense of body that the Ultech UCD-100, for example, produced. With the MCD, Chapman's vocals lacked some of her characteristic, captivating low-level subtleties, and the wide, lightning-fast dynamic swings lacked their usual punch. The drums at the opening—which can be startling in their impact with some players—didn't explode with the MCD. Similarly, the guitar chops just didn't have the sharp rip that they do with other players, or that I hear in a jazz or blues club downtown.
Music is not all ripping guitars and exploding drums, true, but the Arcam also noticeably softened the dynamic transients at the other end of the musical spectrum. On the Panocha Quartet's reading of Dvor;aak's String Quartet 12 (Supraphon 11 0581-2), the MCD produced a wonderfully rich string tone and a lovely sense of interplay between the instruments. There was a great sense of individual instruments playing together while each retained its own character and space. There was also, however, a noticeable softening of dynamic transients. Bow strokes had a nice rosinous character, but not the bite—there was a distinct sense of the leading edge of the transients being softened. Even more gradual, large-scale dynamic swings got short shift. At one point near the finale, both the volume level and pace gradually increase with an almost gravitational pull. With the Arcam, the pace and level changes were there, but not the pull.
Finally, soundstage re-creation, and the size, specificity, and dimensionality of images, were additional areas where the MCD's performance was good, but not up to the standards set by the best of the competition. The Arcam did an undeniably nice job of re-creating the original acoustic environment on the Shostakovich Symphony 1. It reproduced the recorded ambience well, and laid out the orchestra on a wide if somewhat foreshortened soundstage. Images were reproduced with good balance of detail and coherence. Switching to another player did, however, add more depth and a better sense of front-to-back layering. The other players also produced images that were slightly more sharply focused and more reasonably sized. In some cases the Arcam's images could seem a bit too wide and tall, and just slightly out of focus.
You pays your money and you takes your choice
As a multidisc changer the Arcam Alpha MCD gets top marks. It's clever, a delight to use, and—in background music mode—is wonderful to listen to. The only complaint I had was that if I wasn't careful, the background music wouldn't stay in the background; I'd find myself plopped in the listening chair. No bones about it, I enjoyed the MCD immensely in this mode. Even as I write, I'm amid a six-disc Shuffle session, and Louis Armstrong is beckoning to me with "Let's Do It" from Ella and Louis Again (Mobile Fidelity UDCD 2-651). Regardless of what he's actually singing, the message is clear: "Forget the deadline, Brian, and listen to some music."
Pitted against the best $1000 single-disc players I've heard in a pure sound-for-dollar contest, the Arcam MCD is somewhere in the C+ to B– range. Overall, its sound is smooth, natural, and musical, and, taken on its own, quite enjoyable. Based on my experience with some of the better $500 players, I'd put the MCD's performance among or slightly above the best of these, a group that includes the Marantz CD67SE, the CAL DX-2, and the Parasound CDP-1000.
Compared to the best players that you can find surrounding its $999 price, however—including Arcam's own 8 and 9—the MCD falls short in detail, dynamics, and dimensionality. Listening preferences vary, but for me, these attributes distinguish a good component from a great one. These are the subtleties that move a listening session from "enjoyable" to "engaging and involving."
Whether or not the MCD will work for you will depend, of course, on your listening preferences and on how heavily you weight the two aspects of its performance. Though it's sensational as a changer and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it, in the end, it's not for me. I don't weight the changer function heavily enough to accept the performance/price compromise, and the specific sonic areas in which the MCD falls short figure prominently in my listening preferences. For my $1000, I'd opt for one of the super-sounding players that have recently hit the market.
On the other hand, if you're a listener who's set on a changer's versatility and convenience, the MCD should certainly be on your list of candidates—particularly if its particular sonic perspective is a match for your listening preferences.