Accuphase DP-80L CD player & DC-81L digital processor Page 2

But looking at the more fundamental aspects of reproduction, there are three main areas where, historically, CD sound has fallen down. First, and foremost, is the ability routinely offered by even modest LP players to communicate the musical values of a recording. CD playback too often leaves the listener sitting isolated from any feeling of "event" or performance. The music may be there but it is rendered, to an extent that differs widely from individual to individual, inaccessible. The sound is cold, the presentation soulless. The second aspect concerns the inability of many players to present a full-bodied soundstage with appropriately miked recordings, one possessing both depth and a solid feeling to individual instrumental images. The usual presentation ranges from a flat, one-dimensional stage to one that does possess a degree of depth but with instrumental and vocal images resembling paper cutouts within that stage. Third is the absolute retrieval of detail. Though important, this is actually the least essential of the three to my way of thinking. I can put up with a sound that is slightly fuzzy around the edges if the soundstage envelops the listener and the music is present and accounted for. Other listeners, of course, will rate this aspect higher, or even highest.

As with its predecessor, this Accuphase renders CD sound with an open quality that allows the music to communicate. "Easy on the ear" sounds too dismissive, too passive a phrase, but it correctly describes the player's ability to avoid any trace of listening fatigue. As is often the case with LP, CD effortlessly follows CD. There is an "analoguey" bloom that draws you into the sound. In this respect, it is rivaled only by the Sony and CAL machines, the sample of the Theta sounding rather cold by comparison. With pedigree discs, like the Cheskys (CD19, the new 64x-oversampled Brahms 1 from Horenstein, in particular) and Harmonia Mundis, the sound—and I hope you realize the pain it causes to say this—was better than that produced by my Linn Troika/Ekos/Sondek player, in that it was equally musical while allowing the virtues of CD—silent backgrounds and stable imaging—to shine forth. From my experience in JGH's listening room, I suspect that it even begins to approach LP played on the Versa Dynamics player.

Imaging? Here, the Tempest II remained the champion: its soundstage was deeper than that of the other three machines, allowing you to "hear the walls" to the best extent, and individual images had the most "rounded" nature. (Its midrange balance, however, does push some instruments toward the listener.) Of the three solid-state players, the Accuphase most nearly approached the absolute spatial presentation of the CAL, while having less of a forward midband. On my piano recording on the HFN/RR Test CD, the Accuphase set back the Steinway more within the acoustic of the hall than did the Sony and CAL machines, approaching the analog tape in this respect, and also had more detail concerning the piano sound apparent. (As this disc is pre-emphasized, I couldn't compare the sound of the Theta.) There was slightly more action noise apparent with the '80L/'81L, and you could also hear to a greater degree than with the other players that the piano was not quite in tune. (Above the low bass, a piano has more than one string for each note, and when played hard, these tend over time to drift away from each other.)

Listening to the original-instruments Leonhardt Brandenburg set on Seon (RSCD-1005 06)—my favorite, with a cast of soloists that includes Anner Bylsma on cello, Frans Brüggen on recorder, and Sigiswald Kuijken on violin—the Accuphase and the CAL players were the closest to the LP when it came to the presentation of a real acoustic space between and behind the speakers. The tube player, however, was less good at rendering the individual images of musicians within that space, while the Sony and Theta presented shallower images overall.

When it came to the resolution of fine detail, the Accuphase, Theta, and Sony pulled away from the Tempest to quite a large extent. To use a photographic analogy, you are often better off using a coarse-grained film, such as Tri-X, when you use a lens with inherently low resolution. Being made more aware of the film's grain structure actually lends an illusion of sharpness, while a fine-grain emulsion throws up the shortcomings of the lens in sharp contrast. (Ha!) The CAL is similar in that it disguises a relatively low resolution (within the context of this group) by the high contrast and relative granularity of its presentation. The sound may appear to be detailed, but, on close examination, the detail is, to some extent at least, illusory. The other three players, however, have intrinsically higher resolution, and their presentation is both finer-grained and detailed. The Sony in its optically coupled mode most nearly approaches the vivid resolution of, say, Kodachrome 25, the Accuphase rendering recorded tape hiss with fractionally more grain.

The optically coupled Accuphase, however, is slightly better than the coaxially coupled Sony and has the best ability of the four to resolve the sounds of instruments with almost identical sounds. Take the 1980 EMI Planets from the LPO under Boult (CDM 7690452, from an analog original, and in my opinion the most natural-sounding recording of this work). In the "Saturn" movement, Holst has arranged for the music to "tick" between two contrasting pitch centers to indicate the remorseless passing of time. Two flutes and a bass flute, doubled by harps, start the movement by rocking between chords containing tritones and major ninths, A/F-natural/B-natural and G/E-flat/A-natural—could you even begin to guess that the first two iterations of the tune are accompanied by E-major and A-flat scales in the bass and that the piece will eventually end in a declaration of C-major? (Though a hint of ambiguity remains, the harps insisting on reminding the listener of the existence of B-natural, which of course is still a "white" note.)

As reproduced by the Accuphase, the manner in which Holst has achieved this degree of bittersweet tonal ambiguity (footnote 2) is presented with such a degree of clarity that one has no need for the score. There it all is, laid out before the listener, every instrumental sound discrete yet without its relationship with the whole being destroyed. When the flutes are reinforced by clarinets, for example, the Accuphase enables you to hear the filling out of the sound without losing sight of the individual natures of flute and clarinet tonality. If the epitome of poor CD sound is the dilution of instrumental tone color, the result being to render an orchestra as a giant harmonica, the sound of this Accuphase is the farthest from that travesty that I have yet heard.

The DAC used by the Accuphase is undoubtedly a very high-class design. Listening to the fade to noise of a dithered 500Hz sinewave on the CBS test disc revealed a relatively pure-sounding tone, with the only discrete components audible being second or fourth harmonics one or two octaves higher. Unusually, when compared with the Theta or CAL, the Accuphase was similar to the Sony on this track in that the level of broad-band noise increased as the signal dropped below –90dB. The Theta's low-level noise remained constant in level, though the CAL's was more granular-sounding than any of the other three.

One test that I didn't have time to perform before the test sample had to be returned to Madrigal was to listen to the Accuphase's output with a significant amount of attenuation set with its digital level control. When level changes are performed in the digital domain, quantization noise can be injected due to the truncation of the digital words output by the multiplier chip. From my tests with only a few dB of attenuation, however, I would suggest that the Accuphase is well-engineered in this respect.

Finally, I assessed the Accuphase's error-correction capabilities using Stereophile's standard test, disc two of the Pierre Verany set (PV.788031/788032), which contains an exacting series of tracks cut so as to test a player's ability to track signals at the edge of the CD-standard envelope. The Accuphase coped with all the tracks perfectly up to 35, a 2.4mm dropout, when it clicked once per revolution. Track 36, a 2.5mm dropout, was handled identically, while tracks 37 and 38, 3mm and 4mm dropouts, resulted in occasional muting as well as clicks. This is excellent error-correction performance, nevertheless. Looking at the performance of the player with the disc's "torture tracks," track 43, which combines a 2.4mm dropout with the minimum track pitch allowed by the standard, featured one click per revolution; tracks 49 and 50, which feature two successive 2.4mm and 3mm gaps in the data respectively, both gave one louder click per revolution. Again, this is excellent performance.

Larry Archibald noted back in 1982, in the very first issue to appear under his publishership (Vol.5 No.1), that he felt that "consumers are fed up with the repeated cries of ecstasy over products which really have nothing to offer but newness and are usually very expensive." Well, my opinion of the Accuphase DP-80L/DC-81L combination could certainly be construed as a cry of ecstasy, and it is, without a doubt, very expensive. In fact, it is the most expensive CD player yet to reach the market. But as it does offer the best sound I have yet to hear from compact disc, the price does indeed correlate with performance.

Having experienced the manner in which it achieves the apparently impossible, in that it retrieves fine detail from CD without destroying the musical whole by floodlighting the soundstage, to go back to a humble Magnavox or even the excellent-sounding Yamaha '1110 becomes unthinkable. It is not just that the Accuphase is so many times better. The difference between the Accuphase and ordinary CD players is the difference between a painting and a print made of that painting.

For those of us whose boats have yet to come in, it would be best to ignore the existence of this Ferrari of a CD player, its price rendering it so inaccessible that we might as well not even think about it. But if your boat has come in, preferably with a well-stocked hold, the only players/decoders in the same sonic league as the Accuphase DP-80L/DC-81L, in my opinion (footnote 3), are the three with which I compared it: the Theta DS Pre ($4000 plus transport), Sony DAS-R1 ($8000), and CAL Tempest II ($3000). The latter, however, is distinctly untidy-sounding by comparison, though its soundstage presentation is the deepest and widest. Should you choose the Accuphase over one of the other three? The answer must be that it's eight of one and thirteen of the other. The answer has to be yes—if you can afford it. Me, I'd be happy to live with any one of the four. But as the number of CDs with true 16-bit information on them begin to proliferate in the next couple of years, the Accuphase DP-80L/DC-81L (and the Theta and the Sony) will be there to greet them.

Footnote 2: As is always the case, the CD liner notes are totally inadequate when compared with the original LP. I make no apology for quoting, therefore, from a splendid interview with Sir Adrian Boult that was reprinted from Boult's My Own Trumpet on the LP jacket. Boult, Holst, and others were having dinner before the first public performance of The Planets in 1919: "...Geoffrey Toye put his finger on the place in Neptune where the trombones are busy with a G sharp major chord and the trumpets are doing an E minor one. 'I'm sorry Gustav,' he said, 'but I think that is going to sound dreadful.' 'Yes, I know it is,' said Gustav, 'but what do you do when they come like that?'"

Footnote 3: I have yet to hear the Spectral or Wadia in familiar circumstances, although the latter did sound to be in the same class as the Theta at the Winter CES.

Accuphase Laboratory Inc.
Distributor: Axiss Audio, 17800 S. Main, Suite 109
Gardena, CA 90248
(310) 329-0187

volvic's picture

If someone has moved over to computer audio and has an Accuphase they want to offload I am willing to help out. Great gear! Love em! Always have, always will!