Arcam FMJ CD23 CD player Page 3

When the CD23 was compared with the Audio Alchemy setup, the differences in terms of perspective and tonality were less immediately obvious. Both offered front-of-the-hall perspectives with considerable "sparkle"; however, the Audio Alchemy gear was at times overly sparkly (that false detail again), as sibilants were a little harsh and a subtle haze of glare rode atop female vocals and cymbals, none of which happened with the CD23.

The CD23's ability to sort out complex passages was simply much better than that of the Audio Alchemy equipment, which tended to flatten the sonic picture. A case in point was the stereo mix of "Wouldn't It Be Nice," from the Beach Boys' The Pet Sounds Sessions (Capitol C2 8 37662 2). Brian Wilson wove a lot of little sonic tidbits into this landmark recording, and the stereo remix from this comprehensive boxed set (the first such mix supervised by Brian himself—the original, as I'm sure you all know, was in mono) allows greater visibility into that sonic thicket than ever before. The CD23 (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the EAD) gave me a 3-D Vu-Master peek, while playback via the Audio Alchemy combo was akin to looking at a postcard.

The one area in which the Arcam gave up a little ground—and I do mean a little—was in the midbass, where the Audio Alchemy gang seemed to have a slight edge: a little more weight and warmth. Listening to "Mellow Saxophone," from A La Carte Brass & Percussion's Bogeying'! (Wildchild/Mapleshade CD 02452), this slight edge made itself known...barely. Similar results were found on Ali Farka Toure's "Instrumental" (so-called; Toure chants through it) from Niafunké (Hannibal HNCD 1443), in which the percussion seemed to sound a little fuller with the Alchemy gear. However, on other tracks that I thought would show a similar difference, I could detect none. Such a slight difference is mostly a matter of taste; I preferred the Audio Alchemy setup in this regard, but wouldn't have missed it if I hadn't heard it.

Glare Happens
So what happens when Arcam's FMJ CD23 meets a recording that's not a sonic masterpiece? Take Red Simpson's "The Highway Patrol" from The Best of Red Simpson: Country Western Truck Drivin' Singer (Razor & Tie 82208-2). Actually, this recording isn't all that bad. It's a Ken Nelson production, and it's a little "hot"—that was the style then, in order to make a car (or truck) song radio-friendly, and the CD23 didn't hide the fact. Even so, Red's voice was a commanding presence, alone in the center of the soundstage (guitar and bass left, drums right), studio reverb adding a reasonably convincing sense of ambience.

A better, or at least cleaner (and more modern), pop recording is Richard Thompson's "Cooksferry Queen," from his latest, Mock Tudor (Capitol CDP 4 98860 35). It starts with just Thompson's voice, then adds guitar (of course), and then, one by one, hi-hats, drums, bass, accordion, and harmonica, building to a fevered pitch. As each instrument was added, the CD23 kept those already present firmly anchored and unobscured, especially the voice—a tribute to good engineering and exemplary playback.

The Arcam Alpha 9 CD player, on which the FMJ CD23 is based, earned a Class B rating in Stereophile's "Recommended Components." Arcam's attempt at morphing it into a snazzier-looking unit seems to have done no harm—the FMJ CD23 offers outstanding performance. I didn't get to spend any time with an Alpha 9, but it would seem that the more-than-cosmetic changes made could give the CD23 an edge.

Is it worth the $400 price hike above its progenitor, the Alpha 9? Probably. It does look quite elegant, and the changes are substantive—the front panel itself adds structural integrity, and the doubled power supply and damped chassis add considerable value. Either player would be an excellent choice as your last CD player.

Your last CD player? You betcha. Some day, the new high-resolution formats (DVD-Audio, SACD) will reach such a state of maturity that you'll be able to buy a single player that plays them all, along with your library of CDs, with stunning sonic clarity (or should I say, "perfect sound forever"?). And someday after that, there'll be enough compelling software in these new formats—and at popular prices—to make owning such a player a reasonable investment. But until that day, you're still going to be playing your old CDs and buying new ones.

Me too—which is why I'm buying the review sample. I need a killer CD player now.

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