Kyocera DA-910 CD player

Those of our readers who are still anti-CD are going to be offended by what I am about to say. Partly because they do not want it to be true, but mainly because it is. I shall utter the heresy anyway: the Compact Disc is, right now, doing more for the cause of high-end audio than anything that has ever come along before!

There, I've said it. Now I shall explain it.

Prior to CD, the world's major audio equipment manufacturers—and face it, that means the big Japanese manufacturers—generally scorned high end audio as impractical, fanatical tweakery. They loaded their products with features of all kinds—flashing colored lights, sophisticated switching, and fancy signal processing circuitry—everything but high-calibre sound quality. If you wanted a "purist" design, you did not buy Japanese. (It must be said that Sony, Yamaha, and Kenwood did try to enter the high-end field with some superb, albeit overpriced, products, but were scuttled because of their mainstream image among consumers. Only one Japanese firm ever earned a positive image with perfectionists, but Nakamichi is hardly a major Japanese manufacturer.) The CD is changing all that.

A major contributing factor was the unrestrained ebullience of the hype which accompanied CD's release: "perfect sound forever." The mainstream audio press—Stereo Review, High Fidelity and Audio—even reported initially that the first players were perfect (footnote 1). But the so-called underground audio magazines, and a lot of perfectionist recording companies, soon made themselves heard as having strong misgivings about CD, and it is a tribute to our present influence in the field that the big magazines listened and, before too long, actually reported that maybe, just maybe, they too heard differences between CD players.

As soon as it was suggested that all CD players might not sound alike, the race was on to design a player that sounded "better" (footnote 2). Now these designers, mind you, were working pretty much in the dark, and in directions counter to much of the conventional wisdom in audio engineering, which declares that most of those measurable differences are not audible. Yet the design people soon found that when one of those measurements was improved, so was the sound of the player! Suddenly, conventional wisdom went by the board. Those major manufacturers started studying perfectionist audio practices and taking them seriously, for exactly the same reasons high-end manufacturers have been using them all these years: they improve the sound. Don't ask why; they just do. And so, we have the Kyocera DA-910.

The DA-910
The DA-910 is the first CD player we have tested whose designers evidently took the view "So what if we don't know why it works, if it works, do it!" Instead of two-times oversampling of the playback pulses, this one samples four times, at 176.4kHz (footnote 3). Instead of one, or even two, power supplies for circuit isolation, it has three. It has separate D/A converters, one for each channel. It (of course) uses digital output filtering with a gentle, final-stage analog filter (Look, Ma, no ringing!). It has a completely DC-coupled analog section, neatly sidestepping the issue of capacitor audibility (of course, no one can hear capacitors!) by getting rid of them entirely. And, perhaps most controversially of all, it uses extensive shock isolation for its disc drive and optical system, to minimize the "possibility" that structure-borne vibration of those elements increases the incidence of uncorrectable disc-read errors. In short, the DA-910 is designed in much the same fashion as a Mark Levinson, Nelson Pass, or Lew Johnson might design a product.

Included in the overkill-perhaps-but-maybe-not category is a heavy ceramic base (for added mass) and screw-adjustable leveling feet to allow "firm placement of the player onto fairly uneven surfaces, ensuring a stable, high- quality compact disc sound reproduction," to quote from the unusually well written and comprehensive instruction manual.

This isn't the way the major Japanese firms do things. It is the way minor American or British high-enders go about it, making everything as perfect as possible, whether or not they are convinced that every refinement is going to improve the sound. In this way, CD has been the best thing to come along. It has shown the major manufacturers, at last, that perfectionist attention to design detail really does pay off in terms of sound quality. Home audio will never be the same again!

The DA-910 offers the full complement of features available from CD: programmability (up to 24 selections), three fast-forward and reverse speeds with two offering audible, reduced-level cueing as you shuttle, wireless remote control, automatic seek by track or index number, and so on. The only thing I found lacking was a numeric keypad on the remote unit. You can't call anything out by number from the remote control; it has to be done at the player.

The loading drawer opens and closes "sluggishly" or "deliberately," depending on how you feel about it. In fact, the drawer takes so long to respond to an Open command that the onboard computer seems to deliberate for a moment before deciding to obey. That aside, the unit is no slouch when it comes to seek times. It took 6 seconds to advance from the beginning of track 1 to the start of track 99, on a disc with 60 minutes and 47 seconds of recorded time. But the fast shuttle modes take a bit of getting used to.

Pressing either Fast button causes the unit to skip ahead or back in one- second increments, with a speeded-up version of the sound audible at the correct pitch, but at increased tempo and reduced level. After one second, the scanning speed increases to approximate 20-second increments. After 5 seconds, the scan speed goes to one-minute intervals and the sound drops out. From then on, you just kinda guess where you are on the basis of the front-panel elapsed-time readout. You can stay indefinitely in the first or second-speed mode by simply holding in the fast button and releasing it momentarily every few seconds to keep it from advancing to the next scan speed.

I encountered one pattern of mysterious behavior partway through my tests. One evening, every time I got up from the sofa to put a just-removed disc back on the shelf, the still-open loading drawer would close, all by itself. Ah, that's clever, I thought; there's a timer on it, even though the instructions made no mention of it. An oversight, no doubt. Nope. It seems the remote control was sitting on the couch next to me, with an analog record album covering most of it. Every time I sat down, I sat on one edge of the album, lifting it off the remote unit. When I stood up, the album stood down, depressing the remote's Play button. Oh well, a timed withdrawal might not have been such a good idea anyway...

Sound Quality
Okay, now to the nitty gritty. How good is this perfectionist-designed CD player? Well, there's bad news here, and then there's more bad news. The first is that the DA-910 costs so much you probably won't be able to afford it. That was not a misprint in this report's "Specifications" sidebar. The price is $1600, making the DA-910 the most expensive CD player money can buy at the time of this writing (footnote 4). The other bad news is that this is the best damned CD player I have ever heard. I hate to say it, but it's worth the outrageous price tag.

It does everything better than any player I have used until now. It images better, gives a deeper, broader soundstage, and has tighter, deeper low end (although only by a very small margin over that of the Sony CDP-520ES reviewed in Vol.8 No.2). It has a noticeably sweeter, easier, and more open high end than either the Sony or the other prior contender for best high end, the Nakamichi OMS-5. (By comparison, the Sony sounds a bit brittle, the Nakamichi a little dry.)

In short, the DA-910 is now the CD player to beat. It raises CD sound quality to the point where even CD's most resolute opponents are going to have to take a long, hard listen and reconsider their feelings about this fledgling medium. This is the first time I have heard any player whose high-end quality is comparable to the best I have ever heard from an analog disc. (My basis for comparison is analog reproduction whose spectral balance is as nearly as possibly identical to that of a disc's CD equivalent. I do not feel that any other comparison is valid.)

To Sum Up
This is an incredible player. I can't afford it either, but if Kyocera wants it back, they may have to sue me!



Footnote 1: There are undoubtedly those who will claim that yours truly said the same thing. A search of our back issues will refute this.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 2: Remember "planned obsolescence"? It doesn't take too much cynicism to conclude that the race was already on when the conglomerates marketed the first players, and that they already knew—while claiming "perfect sound forever"—that there would be major improvements. How better to fuel future sales?—Larry Archibald

Footnote 3: This is, of course, not new, as it was part of the first player manufactured by Philips. There's also a very logical reason: if you artificially create a 176.4kHz sampling rate through four-times oversampling, the analog filters at the output of the CD player can be much less steep than a player sampling at 44.1kHz. In this case, the difference is between 36dB/octave and about 60dB/octave. This results in less of the dramatic upper octave phase shift characteristic of all CD playback devices.—Larry Archibald

Footnote 4: Not a chance. The Cambridge CD player weighs in at $2300, and Meitner has a no-doubt-expensive player in the wings, with Spectral and Krell breathing hard on its heels.—Larry Archibald

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COMMENTS
junker's picture

On the dawn of high-res downloads from Apple and lossless streaming from Pandora, farewell sweet Prince. It was good while it lasted but you just keep spinning me around and around. I have needs that are more than physical.

 

Good-bye Compact Disc...

volvic's picture

I remember when they came out, they were expensive but oh so beautifully built.  Still fetch top $ on ebay these days.  Holt was right, CD did more for hi-fi than I believe high res downloads ever will, and I have moved into computer audio myself, but still lament the decline of the physical CD and the plug and play aspect of the CD.  

low2midhifi's picture

I owned the lower-grade Kyocera DA-410cx CD player.  Its sound was excellent for the era.  The unit lasted exactly a decade before it finally gave out.

Kyocera's famed skills in ceramics found their way into the internal components of their now defunct CD players.  I do own a Kyocera paring knife today, complete with a ceramic blade.

As for CDs, I still have and listen to many of the CDs that I played on the Kyocera CD player. I have a DAC, mainly used for internet streaming, given the still very limited selection of downloads in the classical repertoire.  I will continue to listen to these CDs for many years to come.  I suspect that CD players on which to play this music will also continue to be available for many years to come.

Download services, as I have written in previous posts in Stereophile, have many years, perhaps decades, to build a repertoire to match that of CD recordings.  Many of these same CDs are available used on amazon.com, often for prices in which the shipping price exceeds the price of the CD.

Meanwhile the catalog of classical CDs continues to grow on arkivmusic and on amazon.com.  When one considers the used CDs available on amazon.com, the catalog has never been larger than it is today.

Computer audio will complement, but will not replace anytime in the foreseeable future, the same CDs that I still own and played on my late Kyocera CD player back in the late 1980s. 

Perhaps this weekend I will return to my first CD played on my old Kyocera CD player:  Bruckner's 9th Symphony with Bruno Walter with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (LP fans will have this one too).  When I see this recording available for download in something other than mp3, then I'll reevaluate my point of view on the "demise of CDs."

tmsorosk's picture

Although I have many ways of listening to music I still prefer the CD format to all others . I still purchase a lot of disc's . 

attilahun's picture

I had the da-710cx and loved it. 

I still miss it. 

Amazing build quality, played scratched CDs with no problem and had good sound for the era. 

Always wondered what Kyocera would have made if they hung in the audio business. 

Great reprint. 

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