Arcam FMJ CD33 CD player Art Dudley, November 2004
Before my time with the Naim CD5x was through, and in an effort to learn how it might stack up against the competition in its own price range, I called John Atkinson to see whether the Arcam FMJ CD33 ($2499) he'd reviewed for Stereophile's July issue was still out there. Luckily for me, it was; I snagged the Arcam sample on its way back to the distributor.
It's interesting that, in developing these two similarly priced products, Naim and Arcam have taken somewhat different paths: While Naim has gone from a standard digital filter to the HDCD-enabled PMD200 chip, Arcam has abandoned the Pacific Microsonics filter for the CD33. (On the other hand, the CD33 shows Arcam stepping back toward "standard" 24-bit performance and away from the dCS-developed, single-bit Ring DAC—and Naim, of course, remains steadfastly multibit.)
In my system, the Arcam did have somewhat more air than the Naim, which sounded a bit chunkier by comparison. Listening to flatpickers Steve Pottier and Sandy Rothman pick the tune "Little Annie" (from Bluegrass Guitar Duets, Sierra SXCD 6013), Pottier's vintage Martin had a slightly thicker and woodier tone through the Naim, while through the Arcam it sounded like the same instrument but with a newer set of strings. Which was right? My own D-18 is only one year older than Pottier's, and I can confidently say that both presentations were realistic as far as that goes, although I preferred the sound of the Naim. I also thought that, through the CD5x, Pottier's overdubbed upright bass line had more momentum—although the Arcam was acceptably good in that regard.
On well-recorded classical fare, such as Mark Minkowski's exceptional 1998 production of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (EMI 56725 20)—which features the unbelievably sexy-sounding Dessay Nauori—the Naim's greater clarity of line allowed the brief overture to hold my interest better than did the Arcam. But with the Arcam, a little more room sound was audible—pleasantly so—at the endings of some lines, and the clarinets and other reed instruments in particular had more color and bounce. Again, you pays your money and you makes your choice.
But when I played Neil Young's live album Weld (Reprise 26746-2), especially one of the more relentless numbers—like "Rockin' in the Free World," a favorite around here—the Naim just walked away with it: The beat muscled its way into the room in a manner that escaped the Arcam: Bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-BRANNNNG, BRANNNNG!
By the way, my comparison was aided by the fact that the Naim's remote handset worked fine with the Arcam player—although I admit a preference for the Arcam's control logic, whereby pressing the Prev button brings you back to the beginning of whatever track is playing at a given moment. With the CD5x, that same button takes you to the beginning of the track prior to the one you're listening to—and if that happens to be the first track, the CD5x just gives you the digital equivalent of a blank, Pet Goat-like stare.—Art Dudley