Arcam FMJ CD33 CD player

"Commoditization leads to the death of a specialty industry!" Hearing this at what I'd anticipated would be a sleep-inducing seminar on marketing, I pricked up my ears. The speaker was management guru Tom Peters, author of the best-selling In Search of Excellence and The Pursuit of WOW!. "Once your product is commoditized, all that is left to compete on is price," Peters continued, as I frantically scrawled down his comments, "and a small company will always lose to the big guns on price!"

If you look at the Compact Disc medium in the 21st century, it is hard to resist the impression that it is well commoditized. Look around your local mass-market store. The standalone player is almost entirely represented by portables, and then at giveaway prices; more important, home CD playback is evident only as just another feature of almost-as-cheap DVD players. Putting to one side the technical reasons a DVD player makes a poor CD player, unless some cost-adding engineering savvy is applied, you'd have thought that a company not only continuing to manufacture CD players but continuing to develop better-performing circuits to extract better sound quality from the two-decades-old CD medium was going to lose market traction.

But, as Tom Peters went on to develop in his 1995 seminar, if you can't compete on price, you must compete on something else, such as quality. Which brings me to the FMJ CD33 CD player from quintessentially English manufacturer Arcam.

Full metal jacket
Arcam was founded as A(mplification and) R(ecording) Cam(bridge) in the mid-1970s, and grew to a healthy size on the back of a neatly packaged, good-sounding integrated amplifier, the A60, of which they sold 36,000. A decade later, Arcam was manufacturing a full line of audio components, and was particularly successful in Europe with its budget-priced Alpha-series CD players, designed and manufactured from the ground up in the UK. A groundbreaking product for Arcam was 1998's Alpha 9 CD player, which used a dedicated-chip version of the famed dCS 24-bit sigma-delta Ring DAC. The 9 mightily impressed Kal Rubinson in his January 1999 Stereophile review.

However, as good as the Alpha 9 sounded—and I agreed with Kal about its quality—I always felt it was let down by its rather frumpy appearance. The 9 cost $1600 in its day—a lot of money for a product with a plastic front panel. Which was why Arcam introduced its Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) line at the turn of the century. These models, with their CNC-machined, 8mm-thick aluminum front panels, had an appearance more in line with their sound quality. Lonnie Brownell reviewed the FMJ CD23 CD player ($2000) in July 2000. This used the Ring DAC chip set from the Alpha 9, but with a revised output stage, a more massive power supply, and a chassis bottom panel made from Acousteel, a sandwich of steel and rubber developed for the automobile industry.

The '33
The CD33 is an evolutionary development of the CD23, and looks very similar. The chassis still uses the Acousteel base and 8mm-thick aluminum front panel. However, the '23's PMD100 digital filter is gone, along with its HDCD decoding. Gone, too, is the Ring DAC. Arcam faced a difficult decision: whether to finance further development and production of the Ring DAC chip set, or to spend the money instead on one of the higher-performance D/A solutions now available from third-party suppliers.

They chose the latter. Two WM8740 stereo DACs from Scottish chip manufacturer Wolfson Microelectronics are used in differential-mono mode for each channel, with analog averaging of the four DAC outputs minimizing linearity error and distortion. These 24-bit sigma-delta DACs are fed data at a 192kHz rate, the CD data being upsampled with an Analog Devices AD1896 part. The higher sample rate doesn't create new audio data but permits the use of digital and analog reconstruction filters with a gentler, less sonically deleterious rolloff. (The CD33 appears to use the internal digital filter in the Wolfson DAC chips.)

The transport is a CD-Text-capable mechanism sourced from Sony. A high-speed, low-noise Analog Devices AD797 op-amp is used to sum the DACs' differential outputs, while the analog low-pass filter and the output stage are based on Burr-Brown's excellent-sounding SoundPlus OPA2134 dual op-amp. Passive parts quality is high, with Stargate and Oscon electrolytic capacitors used in the power supply and for voltage-rail decoupling, and WIMA polypropylene caps in the output filters. Unusually, small Sorbothane pads are used to damp mechanical vibrations in critical components—the master crystal, some of the caps, and the output relay—and the audio circuitry board is mounted upside-down beneath an aluminum plate that acts a heatsink. Two toroidal transformers are used to provide the juice.

While Arcam has four of its entry-level products made in China, the CD33 is manufactured in the UK. The four-layer printed circuit boards are stuffed and tested by a contractor in Wales, with final assembly, soak testing, and production-line quality control (using the computerized Miller Audio Research QC Suite) taking place in Cambridge, in the heart of the UK's "Silicon Fen."

The plastic remote is the same one supplied with all of Arcam's current products, and therefore offers a confusing array of buttons. Perhaps reviewers are not quite as perceptive as Arcam's target owners; despite my using it every day for two months, I still had to look at it to find the track forward and back buttons.

While Kal Rubinson had had some reservations about the Alpha 9's image depth, I had none about the FMJ CD33's presentation. Sound sources emerged from a dead-black background, with a wide, deep soundstage. Ida Levin's solo violin on the Schulhoff sonata (Duet, Stereophile STPH012-2) could be heard to light up the acoustic of Santa Fe's Loretto Chapel in a breathtaking way, yet without the instrument sounding etched or artificial. Similarly, when I put on the Tony Faulkner-engineered CD of Scottish-tinged works by Sir Granville Bantock (Hyperion CDA66450) that I rave about in my review of the Gershman Opera Sauvage speaker elsewhere in this issue, I was struck by the lushness of the orchestral sound and the smoothness of the high frequencies, coupled with the detailed view into the soundstage. The images of the solo strings and the harp in A Celtic Symphony were as small as they would have been in real life, yet perfectly stable and not overpowered by the instrumental choirs.

The Arcam's ability to keep separate discrete musical elements came into its own on Emmylou Harris' enchanting "Evangeline" (Stumble Into Grace, Nonesuch 79805). The mix is of the "muddier is more better" school pioneered by Daniel Lanois, and Emmylou's vocal on this track is doubled by some kind of bass synth, as well as by various unidentifiable melody instruments. Yet the FMJ CD33's clean but extended low frequencies allowed the subterranean grumblings to make musical sense without muddying up the soundstage.

US distributor: Audiophile Systems
8709 Castle Park Drive
Indianapolis, IN 46256
(888) 272-2658