Arcam FMJ CD33 CD player Page 2

The CD33 doesn't offer HDCD decoding, so a current favorite CD of mine, John Tavener's Ikon of Eros (Reference Recordings RR-107CD), played back with unnaturally long reverberation tails. Even so, the presentation sounded smooth, natural, and grain-free.

I finished up my auditioning with the production CD pressing of K622, Antony Michaelson's performance of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, which I had produced last November with Tony Faulkner engineering (Musical Fidelity MF017). Tony had used a pair of Neumann M50s for his primary pickup; reproduced via the Arcam, the orchestral arc captured by these spaced omnis was unambiguously presented between and behind the loudspeakers, within the distinctive acoustic of London's Henry Wood Hall. The violins had just the right amount of bow attack to their notes without the treble becoming grainy, while at the other end of the spectrum, the two double basses could be heard to dig deep into their lower registers, but without sounding plummy or ill-defined. And the midrange, where the solo clarinet resides? Pure, clean, solid. I hadn't yet at the time of writing heard the SACD that was made from the same DSD master, but if it can sound better than the CD played back on the CD33, it will certainly be something.

First up was the Benchmark DAC 1 ($975), which John Marks raved about in his July 2003 column and which I had enthused over in May 2004. For the comparisons, I fed the Benchmark from the Arcam's S/PDIF output, using DH Labs' excellent Silver Sonic cable fitted with an RCA plug on the source end and a BNC jack on the other. Levels were matched to within 0.1dB at 1kHz using the Mark Levinson preamp's input level-offset capability. I used the Benchmark's balanced outputs, which I think offer a better-focused presentation than from its unbalanced jacks.

Both Arcam and Benchmark sounded similar when it came to tonal balance and soundstaging precision. However, the standalone processor's presentation was slightly more robust. The flute in my Mozart Quartet recording on the Editor's Choice CD (Stereophile STPH016-2) stood a little closer to the front of the stage of Santa Fe's St. Francis Auditorium. Which is correct? Even though I made the recording, both were believable presentations. I preferred whichever one I was listening to at the moment.

The situation was the same on the Mozart Clarinet Quintet movement that follows: the clarinet sounded fuller via the Benchmark, more set back but better defined in space via the Arcam. Over a long series of comparisons, I think I ended up preferring the Benchmark, but I can imagine this preference being reversed if I experimented with cables. (Replacing the AudioQuest Cheetahs I was using for the Benchmark with plain-Jane balanced mike cables dramatically reduced the differences between the two presentations.)

Next up was the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 3D player ($5000 when last available), which I had bought following Michael Fremer's rave review back in October 2001, and which has been my reference for single-box CD playback ever since. Again, levels were matched to within 0.1dB at 1kHz.

Playing the Beethoven piano sonata tracks from Editor's Choice, the tubed Musical Fidelity made the hall sound larger than it did via the Arcam, with greater image depth apparent. But even though I had always thought the Nu-Vista's powerful bass was one of its strong points, the CD33 actually sounded as if it went deeper, with better low-frequency definition. The Musical Fidelity sounded a little less "clattery" on this recording, which, as you can read in my recording notes, was made in a hall a little too small for the powerful Bösendorfer instrument. Both CD players had highs that were impressively smooth-sounding; I wouldn't want to have to choose between them on this basis.

On the Musical Fidelity Mozart CD, an obvious choice for comparison, I heard much the same differences. The solo clarinet was a little better defined in space on the Arcam, set a little farther back from the microphone on the Nu-Vista. Overall, the tubed player did have a very slightly warmer lower midrange, which I preferred, but it was a close-run thing. If I left the room while one was playing and got my son to switch at random between the players, it was next to impossible to identify which was playing when I returned to the listening chair.

I would have liked to compare the Arcam with the three CD players I recently reviewed: the Ayre CX-7 ($2995, May 2003); the Classé CDP-10 (September 2003), which cost $1995 before it was discontinued; and the Mark Levinson No.390S ($6700, January 2004). Unfortunately, all three had long since been returned to their manufacturers by the time the Arcam arrived. However, referring to my auditioning notes, I figure the British player is pretty close to the Classé in overall attainment, with equally smooth highs but more extended, weightier low frequencies. It definitely has a less robust, less upfront balance than the Ayre, but perhaps a more refined presentation overall.

Both the Classé and Levinson offer HDCD decoding, which will be a benefit for some audiophiles, and the No.390S also has a transparent-sounding volume control, allowing its owner to dispense with the preamplifier and cabling. Perhaps the Ayre CX-7 would come out ahead on points, but it would be a close thing, and I couldn't be sure without having the Coloradoan player back in-house for a direct comparison with the Cantabrigian Arcam.

Summing Up
With SACD and DVD-Audio currently stalled in the marketplace and commoditized DVD players proving inadequate for two-channel music reproduction, audiophiles still need a high-quality means of playing back their CD collections. Arcam's top-of-the-line CD player has crept up in price over the years, but its performance has increased commensurately. In addition, given the currently parlous state of the dollar against European currencies, it's good to report that, because Arcam pays for a large proportion of the CD33's parts bill in dollars, the US distributor has been able to hold fast on the player's price in this country.

With a measured performance that is beyond reproach and sound quality that lacks for little—and what it does lack can be obtained only by spending a lot more money—I heartily recommend Arcam's FMJ CD33.

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