Arcam Delta Black Box D/A processor Page 2

Arcam recommends a two-hour warm-up time before the unit is capable of sounding at its best. I actually left it plugged in and switched on for about 24 hours before I did any serious listening. The following CDs were used for the formal listening tests: Beethoven piano sonatas, John O'Conor, Telarc CD-80118; the HFN/RR Test CD; Mahler Symphony 5, Bernstein, DG 423 608-2; I Was Glad: Cathedral Music by Parry, Hyperion CDA66273; Back in the High Life, Steve Winwood, Island; West of Oz, Amanda McBroom, Sheffield Lab CD-15; and Aerial Boundaries, Michael Hedges, Windham Hill WD-1032.

Compared with the Marantz CD-94, the sound of the Black Box was less mellow but also with less of a sense of "leading edges" to the sound of piano. There was a lower-midrange/upper-bass softness to the British sound which occasionally obscured detail in fast left-hand passagework on the piano. However, the way in which instruments were placed within the soundstage was almost as delicately defined as with the Marantz. The opening of the Mahler symphony was a little more brash in the upper midrange than with the Marantz, pushing the image forward toward the listener a little, but the stereo stage was nevertheless presented by the Box in a convincing manner. The Michael Hedges album, for example, was reproduced with a quite tangible solidity to the multifarious guitar images.

The Precision Audio DVIC-471 CD player impressed me last November with its ability to retrieve and present fine detail without acquiring too forward a treble balance, in this respect being reminiscent of the excellent Mod Squad Prism player. In comparisons with the Arcam Black Box, the Precision Audio consistently gave a weightier left hand to the piano, which was also better defined, even when compared with the Marantz. The Precision Audio's low frequencies had less body than the CD-94, however. The American Magnavox mod seemed to have a tad more HF energy but was less brash in the midband than the British machine. The Arcam still excelled, however, when it came to soundstaging, the sense of space on the Parry recording being unequalled by the other two Philips-system machines.

The comparison with the eight-times-the-price Sony DAS-R1, a true Class A piece of electronics in my opinion, revealed the Black Box for what it was: excellent, without being outstanding. The Sony revealed just that little bit more of the acoustic on the dry DG Mahler recording, placing instruments more securely in what there was of a recorded soundstage, while details of instrumental tone color were, again, just that bit better revealed, particularly in the upper bass.

Listening to Amanda McBroom's "Dorothy" track revealed major differences between the four decoder sections. The Precision Audio was the lightest in tonal balance, with a clean, clear sound, its retrieval of detail only being rivaled by the big Sony, which overall scored highest in all four areas: tonal accuracy, clarity, soundstage dimensionality, and musicality. The Marantz was noticeably more mellow, with a fatter bass guitar. Despite its more laidback nature than either the Sony or the Precision, its presentation of detail was thorough, even if you had to listen harder. The drums, however, were more three-dimensionally presented by the CD-94.

The Arcam fell halfway between the Marantz and the Precision Audio in tonal balance, its bass being not as full as the Japanese player and its treble being less wispy than the American. Its soundstage presentation was also more shallow than either the Marantz or the Sony, but none of the four was any slouch in this area. It was in the upper midrange where the Arcam was noticeably less good than its (higher-priced) competition, the impression of a slightly brash nature gained in the earlier auditioning being confirmed.

The Black Box impressed me, nevertheless. Comparable in overall quality with the Precision Audio, it didn't fall too far short of the high Class B sound offered by the expensive Marantz CD-94. It offers high-end sound for the audiophile on a budget stuck with an obsolete CD player possessing a digital output.

My only gripe was minor: The absolute phase switch is very welcome, but I do find it most useful to be able to switch at the listening position. The usefulness of this facility was therefore much reduced for me, though I assume that adding IR remote control for just this one function would add a disproportionate amount to the price.

According to the 1988 Audio Equipment Directory, 84 current CD players have coaxial digital data outputs while 34 have fiber-optic outputs. The majority of these are, of course, their manufacturers' premium models which many will feel do not require the services of Arcam's Black Box. A large population of older models with digital outputs also exists, however, and the Black Box will represent a worthwhile upgrading in sound quality for these. The 14-bit Magnavoxes, for example, would benefit sonically from being used with a thoroughly modern decoder. I am also informed that the 1989 crop of Japanese portable players will have a digital output, Kenwood being the first to introduce such a model. The portable can therefore be used at home with the Black Box to provide high-end but budget-priced sound quality, and used as a stand-alone machine on the road.

To sum up, Arcam's Delta Black Box is constructed to a high standard and offers excellent sound quality at what is actually a relatively affordable price. Perhaps a little too forward in tonal quality for some tastes, with a slightly brash upper midrange and a soft upper-bass register, these aspects are outweighed in my opinion by its excellent presentation of recorded soundstages, which have, as the Audio Cheapskate's immortal cliche would have it, a "palpable presence." Recommended in the lower half of the Class B category of Stereophile's "Recommended Components."—John Atkinson