Audio Research CD-1 CD player

Walking through the circus that was WCES '95 was like undergoing total neural-synaptic overload. I felt hard-pressed to just keep my head above water separating good sound from bad. Trying to piece together a coherent picture of the show, I jotted down the components in the best systems that I'd heard, and a few items popped up with astonishing regularity. One of these was Audio Research's single-chassis CD player, the CD-1.

Well, I thought, ARC probably sent a lot of them out to exhibitors—after all, it's cheaper than separates. But then I started getting feedback from totally disinterested audio insiders, folks like Casey MacKee and John Hunter, that indicated that Audio Research had a winner on its hands, and an unsung one at that. What journalist could ever resist a scoop?

The CD-1 has been in near-constant use in my system since the day I received it. I've been extremely fortunate in having had very high-quality digital gear to play around with, and I have written about it enthusiastically, but I must tell you that of all the pieces I've had in the house so far, this is the one I turn to when I listen for pleasure.

How come? First, as RH has pointed out (in his review of the Krell KPS-20i in Vol.18 No.4), a CD player has the potential of providing superior quality compared to similarly priced separates because putting the CD transport and digital processor in the same box substantially reduces clock jitter. Most clock jitter is introduced by the interface between the transport and the processor; both S/PDIF and AES/EBU interfaces are inherently flawed transmitters of digital data.

Flawed? Well, let's just say that I never achieved equivalent sound quality when using the CD-1 as a transport feeding separate DACs, even when cascading a Sonic Frontiers UltraJitterbug into an Audio Alchemy DTI•Pro 32 to clean up the signal! (Thanks to Bob Harley for pointing out the benefits of cascading. It really works.) Man, there's really something going on here.

Creating order out of chaos
The CD-1 is built like a tank: it weighs 17 lbs and feels as durable as an anvil. Audio Research's heavy faceplate and massive handles serve to reinforce that effect. Though built upon a Philips chassis, the CD-1's source is essentially unrecognizable, ARC having extensively redesigned it. Rear-panel accommodations include a removable AC cord (unusual for an ARC product, but improving the power cable offered audible benefits), balanced and unbalanced analog outputs via XLR and RCA jacks respectively, ST-Standard optical, TosLink optical, RCA S/PDIF, and AES/EBU digital outputs.

The front panel has two oblong cutouts; the one on the left houses the drawer mechanism, the one on the right the LED display. Under these cutouts, spanning 10", is a narrow slit with 13 soft-touch controls: Power, Scan, <<Search, Search>>, Shuffle, Repeat, Time, Stop, Pause, <Track, Track>, Play, and Open/Close. I hated this arrangement. I found the identification difficult to read—small print and no logic to the layout that felt natural—and rarely used any of the "Chiclet" buttons other than Play and Open/Close, which were simple to find, being all the way over to the right. To this day, six months later, I can't find Stop without searching. In fact, I refuse to; I just hit Open/Close twice. That I can find.

Or I use the remote, which features most of the commands—like all Philips remotes, it doesn't duplicate the <<Search>> features, which I would actually find useful when doing music reviews. Most folks probably won't miss those commands, though, and if you stick to the remote, the CD-1 is a pleasure to use. Unless, of course, you try to program the CD-1 with the remote—it don't play that.

As to the rest of the technical specs, I'll just point you to the box above or to Robert Harley's "Measurements" section at the tail end of the review. But I should note that ARC specifies an analog output—through the RCAs—of 2.1V, which is pretty standard. However, my subjective impression was that the CD-1's output was generally lower than other digital sources I have used. I found this convenient, since I got similar loudness levels from my analog and digital front-ends at the same settings. You should confirm for yourself whether this will be a problem in your system, though—I was using the sensitive WATT/Puppy Vs and an active preamp for most of my audition. Those using insensitive speakers and/or unity gain preamps may experience a problem.

Imposing unanimity upon the divergent
I auditioned the CD-1 over a long period of time—as I've said, I really like listening to music through this player—so I could rattle off a long list of associated equipment. However, I focused on a core group of components that included the ARC SP-9 Mk.III preamp, ARC D-200 and Pass Aleph 0 power amps,and the WATT/Puppy V loudspeaker system.

Cables of choice were Transparent Audio Music Wave Reference speaker cables and Music Wave Ultra interconnects, as well as MIT MV-770 CVTerminator Reference Speaker Cables and MIT 350 CVTerminator Reference Interconnects. I used the CD-1 as a transport utilizing the McCormack SST-1, Micromega DAC, and Theta Pro Basic III D/A converters. As I mentioned previously, I cascaded a Sonic Frontiers UltraJitterbug into an Audio Alchemy DTI•Pro 32 to experiment with jitter-reduction in this mode.

The performance of the components was enhanced through the use of the following accessories: Audio Power Industries Power Wedge 112, MIT Z series power cables, Highwire Audio Power Wrap (on components with non-replaceable power cables), Shakti Stones (but not on all components), Bedini Ultra Clarifier, The Shelf by Black Diamond Racing, and Golden Sound DH Cones.

Expressing the inexpressible
Despite my reasoned arguments concerning the superior reduced-jitter performance of single-box players, and even despite my own experiences at the WCES, I was startled by the wonderfully musical sound of the Audio Research unit—after all, as a card-carrying audioweenie, I had to believe that mo' boxes means mo' better sound. Wrong again! The CD-1 ain't nobody's ugly sister.

From the first disc I listened to, to the one I intend to reward myself with when I finish writing this, experiencing music though the CD-1 is special. Maybe it is the intrinsically low clock jitter; maybe it's the uncanny stability of the modified drive mechanism—I don't really think that way. All I know is that, through this player, I relax into the music like settling back into my favorite chair: I just let myself go and sink in.

Lest you get the idea that this isn't exactly manual labor, I'll leave that relaxing metaphor and speak of throwing an incredibly arduous test at the player: Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, as incorporated into Rhino's essential Beauty Is A Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Rhino/Atlantic Jazz Gallery R2 71410, 6-CD set, footnote 1). What can I say about this piece that even begins to describe its melodic and rhythmic complexity? That 35 years later it still sounds menacingly avant-garde? That it consists of two jazz quartets, each playing in its own stereo channel, which improvise continuously for 37 minutes? No, none of that prepares you for the power of the piece—or its strange beauty. Coming out of the left channel are Ornette, Scot LaFaro, Don Cherry, and Billy Higgins blowing their guts out, while through the right, Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell wail to the heavens.

Coleman's music doesn't depend on development of theme and variation, as most jazz does, but rather upon spontaneous collective interplay very loosely based on simple melodic fragments worked out in advance. The key word here is collective: you never hear Coleman as the lead instrument, with the rhythm section laying out the changes. No, the entire band—or in this case both bands—take the bit into their mouths and charge full-on, forging music totally of the moment: wild, it is true, but composed en ensemble. Free Jazz is an exhilarating record; it opens my mind to harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic possibilities that border on religious ecstasy—not unlike some third-world musics, such as that of the Master Musicians of Joujouka, or of Qawaali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. You might hear it as a lot of screaming and honking, but hey—you need to bring open ears to this party.

Even if you don't, the CD-1 may open them for you. There's a ton of stuff going on, but not only does the ARC manage to sort through the tonal and rhythmic complexities of the hard-playing double quartet, it presents them without adding an electronic edge, as so many other digital sources do when confronted with processing this much data. Nor does it do this by blanding-out the quirky little flourishes that distinguish this disc. LaFaro and Haden are two separate players, working on different patterns, playing distinctively different instruments. Ditto for Hubbard and Cherry on trumpets. Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, either one, would overstress most front-ends—after all, they're two of the most intelligent and subtle drummers in jazz—but together? Fahgeddaboudit! Yet the CD-1 easily sorts out one from the other and displays them, playing apart yet strangely together. Not to mention the intensity that Coleman on alto and Dolphy on bass-clarinet bring to the equation. Defining the earth and the sky on their instruments, they boldly play a new world into being. Or at least, that's how I heard it on the Audio Research.

Okay, so it can sort out complex information. What about subtle stuff like acoustic decay in an ambient environment? Well, wow—in a word. Palestrina's Missa Viri Galilaei, by La Chapelle Royal and the Ensemble Organum (CD, Harmonia Mundi HMC 901388), is graced with an unusually natural acoustic. As members of Ensemble Organum chant the psalmodic recitations between La Chapelle Royal's polyphonic verses of the liturgy, one hears, in alternation, a solo voice in a vast, reverberant room, then paired voices, and, finally, the complex polyphony of the larger choir. Each of these interacts differently with the acoustic, whether echoing in its reaches or filling the space with warmth and presence. It's subtle stuff, and it adds immeasurably to one's relationship to the music to have it portrayed realistically. In fact, it would be far better simply not to hear these details than to hear them as artificial—I've never been more totally there than when listening through ARC's remarkable player.

The downsides? I've heard deeper, more powerful bass. What I hear from the CD-1 seems well-integrated and moves well—as does everything through this player. But I've heard players, such as the Krell KRS-20i, whose bass seemed somehow more elemental. Ditto the Theta Basic III/Data III combination. And, of course, JA's Levinson rig always leaves me gasping with the articulation and detail of the rump-thumping region (he's a bassist—what do you expect?). Yet I cannot call the bass of the ARC weak—it seems in proportion while I'm hearing it.

As to the rest, it strikes me as a question of balance. Articulation, rhythm, and intonation are the holy trinity for me, and the CD-1 possesses them in spades. Audio Research ain't gettin' this baby back. It's my reference.

Intensifying mystery & eloquence & beauty
When it comes to digital, there are a lot of choices out there these days. Superb single-box CD players from Krell, Accuphase, and now Audio Research have shown the level of sound quality possible when S/PDIF– and AES/EBU–based distortions are eliminated and the digital domain is successfully manipulated. While I haven't heard everything available, I've heard enough to realize how special the Audio Research CD-1 is—it's good enough that I forget about hi-fi and retreat into the realm of music.

What more can I say?—Wes Phillips

Footnote 1: Ignore the Atlantic CD (1364-2); the Rhino is the superior mastering. Analog hounds should search for the original pressing of the LP (Atlantic 1364), which had a die-cut jacket that displayed a detail of Jackson Pollock's White Light, which was revealed in full upon opening the gatefold. Later pressings did not exhibit the clarity of this one. The CD version eliminates one of the most annoying side-breaks in all of jazz—Free Jazz was a single extended 37:03 jam, and the interruption nearly 20 minutes into it is on the level of coitus interruptus.
Audio Research
3900 Annapolis Lane North
Plymouth, MN 55447-5447
(763) 577-9700