Authorized Acurus Dealer
When looking at any potential audio purchase, one thing not nearly enough audiophiles do is consider what it is they are getting for their money. While it's fashionable to talk about how a component sounds or about its features, the actual construction details are often lost. Many high-end components have a build quality that would justify their cost even without considering the improvements in the sonic experience. To the general public, CD players are a commodity item that are virtually indistinguishable from each other. While there are audiophile grade units at any price point, I know I personally find it impossible to justify spending an extreme amount on that part of the signal chain, especially considering I've already committed to an outboard DAC I don't plan on bypassing. At $895, the Acurus ACD-11 is not all that expensive in the grand scheme of what high-end players often cost. To me, though, that's a price that could only be merited by a player that was obviously superior in every respect to the more affordable units out there. The Acurus division of Mondial has delivered a player that is well built enough to justify its cost, and even the most meager of audio buyers should be able to appreciate the results.
At 17x5x11", the ACD-11 is a fairly compact unit. Despite its size, it still weighs in at 20 pounds, which means there's something hefty inside. From the steel chassis to the aluminum feet, this player is obviously meant to stay put. Vibration is always a potential problem with any audio equipment, and CD players are no exception. The venerable Rotel RCD-955AX player I frequently use is similarly sized and weights about the same amount, but that alone doesn't save it. If I walk across the floor too heavily near it, or touch the rack or player with too much force, it skips badly. It's obviously not just a weight issue involved. The sales literature for the ACD-11, available on Mondial's home page, goes into detail about how seriously their engineers took isolating the transport mechanism from rattling sources, whether that's music or errant footsteps. The sturdy chassis, with especially thick steel, provides a firm base. Added to this are resonance damping panels tuned to damp the steel's natural resonant frequency. A combination like that is often all you'll see on an inexpensive player, but that's just the beginning here. The ACD-11 borrows heavily from automotive technology, enough so that by the time I finished reading the technical details on the player I expected to find a steering wheel on it. The transport relies on a microcellular elastomer that works like a spring to damp vibration and prevent resonance. In addition, the Air Constrained Dampening system suspends the reading mechanism on a cushion of air, so that there's no actual contact between it and the chassis.
It all reads nicely, but what does that mean to you? The ACD-11 is virtually immune to the rumbles of the outside world. With the player going at full tilt, I jumped around, shook the rack, turned the music up really loud, you name it. Not a blip of mistracking. Yet undaunted, I started tapping the outside of the box, trying to find a spot that would knock it off kilter. Still nothing. While I was eventually able to get it to skip for a second, I will tell you that it was approaching the point where I started to worry for the safety of the player before I got there. You'll have to be rather cruel indeed to the poor box before it finally cracks. Unless you're abusive to your CD transports on a regular basis, it's likely you'll never do anything that causes an audible break in this Acurus player's reproduction of music. In my experience, there's no other sub-$1000 player that comes to this level of isolation from its environment.
Of course, none of this matters if you don't like how it sounds. I first connected the ACD-11 to the Lexicon DC-1 I use as a DAC and preamp nowadays to see how it worked just as a transport. The other players compared it to were the previously mentioned Rotel RCD-955AX and a RCC-940AX changer. The changer uses Toslink, the other Rotel player and the Acurus both sport RCA jack coaxial S/PDIF interfaces. The DC-1 is not a digital unit that is particularly sensitive to the transport used with it, but my previous testing indicated there was definitely a difference in sonics between my two Rotel units. The Acurus ACD-11 was useful as a reference for comparing them because it was obviously better than either. When compared with the Toslink connected changer, it was no contest at all. The bottom frequency notes hit harder, and there were subtleties to the music that were torn out of obscurity and laid bare. The most remarkable part were all the edges of the notes. The sections that were supposed to be sharp were sharpened, while those that were supposed to be smooth were smoothed. The comparison with the coaxial output Rotel player weren't quite as one sided. There was slightly better top-end resolution with the Acurus player, and in the long term it sounded less fatiguing, but these were not exactly obvious distinctions. The ACD-11 never failed to be the best transport, although the differences were sometimes subtle.
I'm sure many people aren't interested in adding an external DAC to a CD player they buy, and the ACD-11 does provide a good internal converter. The one-bit DAC is mounted as closely as possible to the transport itself because shortening that signal path servers to minimize clock jitter as a sonic factor. As you'd like to see at this price point, the analog portion is implemented with a glass epoxy circuit board and tightly spec'd components. While fairly well done, none of this makes it a match for the Lexicon DC-1. The Acurus analog outputs sounded hollow on drum beats, and the bass just wasn't as tight or deep as it should be. The really fine details to the music didn't come through, which kept it from being quite as alive as a really good source can be. To keep things in perspective, the ACD-11 used by itself was obviously better than my inexpensive Rotel players even when they were using a CAL Gamma as DAC. The Acurus certainly can't compete with the kind of sound quality you get from a DAC in the $1000 range, but it seems very competitive with those that normally run under $500.
The appearance of the ACD-11 is certainly different from the usual square button fare you find on audio equipment. The semicircle of buttons on the front panel looks attractive. It's a shame that they're not very easy to use. Putting the most frequently used buttons on any player, the open/close and play ones, in the middle makes it more difficult to pick them out. Perhaps your ability to navigate such things exceeds my own and you won't mind, but I found the layout annoying. The remote control isn't exactly wonderful either, with the stop and play buttons at the top where you have to stretch your thumb to reach them. My most frequently used remote button, pause, is in the center of a homogenous set that makes it difficult to pick out. None of the controls on this player feel particularly ergonomic or natural to me, but I'm sure you could get used to them.
Much more important in the long run is how well the player tracks damaged discs. I know I have my share of scratched, dirty, or otherwise mangled CDs that I'm constantly maintaining. A player tolerant of such things is a necessity for me. By my standards, any player than can't navigate errors of at least 1mm isn't even worth using. Between 1 and 2mm is good, over 2mm is great, while getting up to 3mm is practically impossible. The ACD-11 put in an excellent showing in this area. Using the Pierre Varany dropout tests, it played perfectly up to 2mm. At 2.4mm, there were occasional ticks. By 2.5mm the skipping rendered things unlistenable. The performance was similar with the more difficult double dropouts as well. This is terrific performance, and soundly wallops many high-end players that sound great when they play, but are finicky on what they choose to read. I do not want my CD player to be a critic.
The Acurus ACD-11 offers a lot to like in a reasonably sized and priced package. While it's not the cheapest player around, the care given to details like the suspension don't come without a price. Considering that it serves as a good single box player and an excellent transport mechanism, there's little to fault. The solid engineering here gives you a player that should last you a long time without becoming obsolete. In our current age of disposable CD units, it's nice to come across one that is worth keeping around a while.
Price as configured: $895 USD
Review Source: Avalon Audio Video
Mondial Designs Limited
There appears to be some question having to do with the ergonomics of the front panel button layout. The logic we used is as follows: