AVM Evolution C9 CD receiver
In a perfect world, all a serious record lover would need to enjoy music at home would be a single source component, one or two loudspeakers, and one good integrated amplifier. Speaker wire would be given by the dealer, free of charge, to any shopper who spent x number of dollars on new gear. Cable risers would come in cereal boxes.
That ideal has been thwarted by the concept that, in order to hear what needs hearing, people who really love music must buy separate line stages, phono preamps, transformers, transports, D/A converters, master clocks, power amps, booster amps, and power supplies. An opposing notion offers encouragement for the thrifty and the sane: All that and more can be had in a single component that is still designed and manufactured to perfectionist standards, and the AVM Evolution C9 ($5750) among them.
Audio Video Manufaktur, a German firm that has supplied electronics to Europe and Asia since 1986, entered the US market in 2008, apparently with an emphasis on the comparatively (footnote 1) affordable side of high-end audio. While attending the redundantly named New York Audio and AV Show of 2012, I was impressed by the two CD receivers in AVM's line, the Evolution C9 being the more expensive. (The AVM Inspiration C8, which offers 100Wpc into 8 ohms plus an array of functions nearly identical to those of the C9, sells for $4200, and is reviewed by John Marks in this issue's "The Fifth Element" column.)
In addition to its 180Wpc integrated amplifier, the Evolution C9 provides a selection of onboard source options, the most conspicuous of which is a CD player, whose transport is said to be mechanically isolated from the rest of the unit. According to AVM, the C9's D/A converter automatically upsamples "Red Book" CDs and CD-Rs to 24-bit/192kHz: a kindness that's done for all other digital signals as well. (AVM's converter chip of choice is the Wolfson WM 8741.) Alongside its CD player, the AVM C9 also incorporates an FM tuner, with a European RDS decoder for broadcast text data.
The aforementioned DAC can also be addressed with signals from external sources, including both S/PDIF digital (a choice of RCA and optical jacks) and computer-music files, by means of the C9's USB-B jack, the latter involving the use of a 16-bit Burr-Brown PCM 2704 chip as a receiver. Another input-source selection, labeled Player, is actually a line-level audio/video input, with a quartet of RCA jacks and a USB-A jack for supplying DC to a portable music player. Although the C9's manual is sketchy on the point, this function appears intended for use with an iPod equipped with Apple's Composite AV Cable ($39), a sample of which I did not have on hand for this review.
In addition to the above, the AVM C9 provides three other line-level inputs, a moving-magnet phono input, a fixed-level line output, and a processor loop. The sensitivities of all those analog inputsincluding the aforementioned Player inputcan be adjusted, by means of the C9's Menu function, to match the output voltage of each device in use.
In common with other all-in-one products of recent vintagethe Micromega AS-400 comes to mindthe amplifier section of the AVM C9 operates in class-D. AVM is also au courant in having adopted switch-mode power-supply technology for all of their electronics: a total of three power supplies in the case of the C9, two of them serving as dual-mono supplies for the amplifier section alone.
Because the C9 resisted my mild attempts to disassemble it, I'm unable to comment on the quality of its parts or construction, but I found the C9's brushed-aluminum casework agreeable overall, with impressively serene, unfussy styling and well-designed controls: a large source-selection knob, an equally large and nicely weighted volume control, an endearingly easy-to-read display screen, and a horizontal row of five soft-touch buttons, the precise functions of which vary with either the user's choice of menu screen or source. Insofar as I could tell, the build quality was fine.
Installation and setup
I used the AVM C9 in two different rooms, with three different speakers: a loaner pair of Wilson Audio Sophia Series 2s, and my own pairs of Quad ESLs and Audio Note AN-E SPe/HEssomething to please everybody, as Sally Henny Penny would say. The C9 has two complete sets of loudspeaker outputs, although I never used more than one set at a time.
During its time with the Audio Notes in my 12' by 19' listening room, the AVM C9 sat on the middle shelf of my borrowed Box Furniture rack, where its temperature ranged between cool and mildly warm to the touchthe latter only during prolonged listening sessions. I used only the stock AC cable, and resisted the temptation to use any manner of accessories to isolate the C9 from an acoustically hostile environment. Speaker connections were made with my stranded-copper Auditorium 23 cables, while interconnects were my usual mix of Shindo silver and Audio Note AN-Vx.
The C9's software controls, the conventions of which will be familiar to anyone who understands the distinction between merely pushing a Menu button and holding it in for three seconds, offered some welcome choices. In addition to the ability to tailor analog-input gain as described above, the C9 allowed me to cut and boost treble and bass; to apply a loudness curve for low-level listening; to enable or disable either pair of speakers; to choose between distant and local broadcast signals; to choose between stereo and mono broadcast playback (the latter, as always, to tidy up weak signals); and, best of all, to effect small balance adjustments between the left and right channels.
Some specifics: The RadioShack FM antenna I installed years ago in my atticwhere it has stood, half forgotten, since the last time I reviewed such a productgave grist to the tuner's mill, while the programs Decibel and iTunes drove the AVM's USB D/A converter by means of an Apple iMac running Apple's OS X 10.7.4. (In the Sound submenu of my iMac's System Preferences menu, the AVM showed up as "USB Audio DAC.") Lack of a standalone CD transport argued against my trying the AVM's S/PDIF inputs. And although its phono-stage specifications suggest that the C9 can be directly driven by higher-output moving-coil cartridges, I nonetheless chose to use a step-up transformer between that stage and every cartridge I triedmy preferred approach in any case, owing to the superior sense of musical touch and impact it imparts to phono playback.
I began by using my Apple iMac to drive the Evolution C9's USB input (which is also the easiest way I know to break in a brand-new amplifier). During the first day of listening I was impressed by how obvious the C9 made the distinctions between iTunes and Decibel, the latter's treble openness and clarity being preferable to the former's dust and haze. Yet during that first day of listening it was also apparent that that clarity owed its existence to a somewhat bright timbral balance, and a treble range in which note attacks and textural distinctions were allowed greater-than-usual emphasis.
My idea of natural sound calls for a more reticent top end than that. Consequently I expectedand hopedthat the C9's high-frequency performance would become a little less eager, as often happens as new playback gear settles in. That happened here, but only to a very slight extent.
If that's the worst news about the C9and it pretty much isthe best news would surely be its facility with the difficult-to-drive Quad ESL, the impedance of which drops a whopping 31 ohms between 80Hz and 18kHz. Yet when driven by the AVM amplifier, my Quads sounded as nicely balanced as they ever have. With the right gear, ESLs can also sound surprisingly and pleasantly tight, with excellent musical timing and freedom from timing distortionsand so it was here, with plucked cellos and electric bass guitars alike sounding tuneful and snappy. When listened to from an off-axis and reasonably farfield (ie, more than 10' away) seat, the C9 also afforded the Quads a more natural-sounding treble range than I heard through the Wilsons or Audio Notesalthough, in the nearfield setting that many Quad owners prefer, the AVM's overly strong top end endured.
The C9's ability to express the timbral colors and natural sonic textures of recorded music, while not as good as that of my Shindo and Fi electronics (unsurprisingly, given the AVM's comparatively low cost, footnote 2), was acceptably good, especially through the Quad and Audio Note speakers. A few years ago, a friend gave me a CD copy of a digital recording made in India, of an improvisation performed on sarod, harmonium, and tabla: a timbrally rich recording, as you can imagine. Rather than sounding tonally thin or bleached outas I might have feared, given the amp's brightnessthe recording was pleasantly colorful through the C9, if not quite as fleshy and bloody as I like.
A few source-specific observations: The AVM's phono section performed admirably, without adding hum or obvious noise to the signal. (There's a phono-ground lug on the C9's rear panel, but I never had cause to use it; grounding the tonearm in use to the step-up transformer in use was sufficient in every instance.) Without an antenna, its FM tuner couldn't pick up any stationsnot even the local religious station broke throughbut with the antenna in place, the AVM received three stations clearly when set to Local, with the addition of a few iffy signals when set to Distant, the latter being cleaned up nicely by the switch from stereo to mono. (Remember, I live in a rural area in central New York State.) And the C9's CD player performed reliably, even with two physically worn discs that another player of mine now rejects out of hand.
The AVM's onboard CD player was, as the days played out, the source on which I most often reliedat its best it sounded pleasantly forward, with very strong center-image presence. Still, the observation that dominated my notes was the C9's overabundance of high-frequency detail. In "Ellis County," from Buddy and Julie Miller's fine Written in Chalk (CD, New West NW6158), the usually well-textured fiddle had too much texture, and drawn-out vowel sounds in Buddy's lead vocals had a little too much wheeze around the edges. In "The Last Living Rose," from PJ Harvey's Let England Shake (CD, Vagrant VR651), the tambourine sounded harsh and brightditto Lee Feldman's tambourine in "Halo," from his great new Album No.4 (CD, Bonafide UM-130-2). Those aspects of its sonic performance prevented me from ever really warming to the AVM in my system.
With a total of 10 source selectionstwo of which are self-containedthe AVM Evolution C9 lacks neither flexibility nor ostensible value. But while the C9 performed well enough with my Quad ESLs, and while I can think of at least four or five classic Brit-fi loudspeakers that might also suit it, owners of speakers with tipped-up or very well-extended treble ranges would probably do well to consider something else. I remain enthused about this product categoryin which solid-state amplification prevails, understandably enoughbut the bargain hunter who shares my taste in sound should approach the Evolution C9 with greater-than-usual care.
Footnote 1: Another trend: Judging by the level of chatter on audio gabsites, reading comprehension among middle-aged men in North America has hit a new low, especially when it comes to statements made regarding value.
Footnote 2: Ibid.!