December 2002Arcam FMJ CD23T CD Player
by Doug Schneider
Back in the 80s when Arcam decided it would build a CD player, the company took a corporate stance that dictated not just modifying some other companys CD player by tweaking this and that. Instead, Arcam obtained all of the required licenses and did the necessary legal work to build a CD player from the ground up.
According to company founder John Dawson, building that first player was a long and arduous process, but eventually the Delta 70 debuted. The effort was worth it not just because Arcam now had a CD player to sell, but because the company figured out all the issues surrounding the manufacture of a CD player. Arcam had learned, and in no time it went from being just another CD-player maker to one of the most respected makers -- and often lauded for superior digital sound.
So today when a company with the know-how of Arcam embarks on a CD-player project meant to challenge the state of the art in digital playback, its something to notice. The $2499 USD FMJ CD23T is one of the most expensive products Arcam makes, but its that way for good reason.
The CD23T is part of Arcam's Full Metal Jacket lineup -- the companys top line -- and updated from the previous CD23. My understanding is that there was essentially a parts change and now the player can read text from discs and display it on the front panel -- hence the T added on to the model name. This is a small thing, but a feature nonetheless. The CD23T will play standard CDs and CD-Rs, and it will also handle HDCD-encoded CDs. It wont do DVD-A or SACD.
Although there are some exotic innards, the player is traditionally styled -- that is, the drawer is on the front left and the display is over to the right. It comes clad in an all-metal chassis with an attractive 8mm-thick faceplate that matches the other FMJ components. Simple but elegant.
Size-wise the CD23T is pretty much the same as any other CD player -- it measures 16 3/4"W x 3 3/8"H x 11 3/8"D and weighs 14 pounds -- but it has a sturdy feel to it that's commensurate with its price. Arcam uses an exotic material in the chassis of their FMJ line: Accusteel. This was originally developed for the automobile industry, and it gives the chassis a tight thuck-thuck sound when struck. The rationale for using Accusteel is to reduce vibrations, and based on my crude testing, it does just that.
The sturdy feel goes right through to the transport mechanism. Although the CD23T has a plastic drawer, its mechanism has smoothness to its operation that makes me think that Arcam put some serious effort into making sure this player feels right given that it sells for more than most of the company's products.
On the front panel are enough buttons to operate the player: open, close, track skip, and that sort of stuff. Around back are the outputs: a double-set of single-ended RCA outputs to send the analog signal to your preamplifier. There is one coaxial and one TosLink digital output should you wish to use the CD23T as a transport with a separate DAC. There is also an IEC receptacle should you wish to tweak with some after-market power cords. I used the stock cord for the most part, but I also slipped in a custom Blue Circle Audio power cord too.
To get the full-blown feature set for programming, you have to use the supplied remote control. The remote is attractive and lightweight, and it has most everything you could want in order to program it. However, thats not to say I used it all. Im may be a former high-tech worker, but Im definitely not a power user when it comes to remote controls. This makes me a good judge on whether the remote control is intuitive. It is.
Ive looked inside some CD players and have seen a whole lot of air -- the transport and a couple small circuit boards off to the side with lots of unused space. I was surprised to see that the CD23T uses nearly all inside room, with each section carefully laid out and separated from the others. The CD23T may look pedestrian on the outside, but its a substantial, well-built piece inside.
And then theres the "heart" of this player -- the digital-to-analog converter, which is quite special. Although Arcam prides itself on building things in-house, the company went outside and worked in collaboration with Data Conversion Systems (dCS) for the DAC. dCS is another British-based company and conveniently located in the same area near Cambridge, England as Arcam. One of dCSs many claims to fame is something it calls the Ring DAC. I was given a pretty thorough technical description of Ring DAC technology by its inventor, Mike Story, but suffice it to say that Story talks way over my head. The essence of his explanation, though, was that this innovative 24-bit DAC of his is intended to reduce non-linearity at low levels -- a problem that has plagued DAC builders for years. The Ring DAC is proprietary to dCS.
Arcam saw this technology and thought highly enough of it that to seek it for inclusion in the CD23T. A series of events ensued that saw Arcam and dCS working on a collaborative project that resulted in the Ring DAC technology being brought into a form suitable for the price point of the CD23T. Chalk all that up to trickle-down technology made possible by a firm the size of Arcam.
Although $2499 is not exactly a low price for a CD player, what Arcam hands you is a high-end player thats intended to take on the best. In that vein, for those who want something above and beyond the rest of the crowd, most will see it as reasonably priced.
The CD23T became the jack-of-all-trades CD player around my listening room over a number of months. If you read my past reviews of the Arcam FMJ A32 and Perreaux 200iP integrated amplifiers, as well as the Energy Connoisseur C-3, Axiom Audio M2i, and Ethera Vitae speakers, you will find the CD23T mentioned in them. It worked splendidly in whatever system I used it in. For cabling I used power cords from Blue Circle, as well as interconnects from Nirvana Audio and Blue Circle. Speaker cable was always Nirvana Audio S-L series. Products for comparison were the Audio Aero Capitole 24/192 CD player and a Zanden Model 5000 Mk II DAC / Theta Digital Data Basic transport / i2digial.com X-60 coaxial digital cable combination.
I found the CD23T to be an exceedingly precise and detailed player that decodes darn near everything in those CD pits. In fact, if theres anything more than what this player unveils, Id be surprised. And its not bright or tizzy, not warm or dark. It simply gives you the music without editorializing.
This player arrived at about the same time as Norah Jones Come Away with Me [Blue Note 32088]. The recording is not perfect, but the sound is still splendid, and the CD23T shows everything thats there. Nasty little recording bugs are not covered up -- the resolution of this player is exceedingly high -- but that doesnt detract from the performance. And the gorgeous bell-like sound Jones' piano has on "Shoot the Moon," for example, shows how clearly and cleanly the CD23T plays. High-frequency hash and nasties are non-existent, and thats part of what you pay for in a player of this caliber. Many people associate bright, edgy sound with digital, and this doesnt have to be. The CD23T is as extended and smooth as any CD player Ive heard.
After the newer music, I went for something old. As Ive done for almost 15 years now, I tested the CD23T with my The Mission soundtrack [Virgin 90567-2] -- the exact same disc Ive used with all digital sources that have come my way. Certainly, there are discs that have more "information" on them, but since Ive heard these same cuts repeatedly over countless different digital sources, it has become a gauge of sorts -- a benchmark of resolution for me -- and Ive been amazed at just how much more I can hear in it as CD players, as well as the rest of my system, have gotten better.
Last year when Audio Aeros Capitole 24/192 with S.T.A.R.S. upsampling entered my room, a CD player that retailed for just over $6000, I heard an incremental improvement that quite impressed me. I not only heard more detail -- all the little things in the music -- but I heard and sensed more space too. The choral and orchestral tracks created a vast soundstage with amazing width and depth. The CD23T equals what the Capitole 24/192 can do -- quite an achievement! And when youve heard a player that can get at all that information, its hard to go back.
Using this disc as a reference, the mark of a great player for me is also how distinct each voice sounds in the chorus. Does the chorus sound like a wall of sound, or can I pick out each voice in that wall? With the CD23T, the stage is vivid and musicians are easy to pick out -- just as with the Capitole 24/192. Soundstaging is top-notch, with strong image placement, spaciousness and depth. As I said, if theres anything more in the pits, Id be surprised to hear it.
The airiness necessary on some tracks is perfectly preserved, and the authoritative bass that swells on others provides a rock-solid foundation. The CD23T simply doesnt miss a beat, and its virtues can be difficult to explain. This is the same as with the Arcam FMJ A32 integrated amplifier. That, too, shows no real weaknesses that draw attention to themselves. In fact, its easier to explain what these electronics dont do.
And what CD23T doesnt do is color the sound. I have heard some players that have obviously recessed top ends, and this can make edgy discs more palatable. Or sometimes they have a "bloomy" bottom ends that makes your system sound like the speakers arent damped properly. To me, though, neither is right. The CD23T doesnt hide anything. When I put in well-recorded music like Ani DiFrancos Up Up Up Up Up Up [Righteous Babe Records RBR013], I can hear everything thats supposed to be in the top end -- good and bad. If something is hard and nasty, it shows up as hard and nasty; if its clean and precise, you get these too.
This midrange of the CD23T is exceedingly clear, but again, what it is not is overly warm or caramelized. As with subdued or restricted top ends, Ive heard midrange anomalies that can bump up a recording to sound more present and more there -- but not more accurate.
Lately Ive been playing the highly textured The Great Divide from Willie Nelson [Universal 586231]. This recording has splendid detail, and Nelsons voice is captured beautifully on a number of the tracks. What I like so much about the CD23T and why I can flip it from system to system so easily is that it simply plays the music and does nothing to it. Willies voice has first-rate precision and detail without a hint of editorializing.
Ive long praised the Audio Aero Capitole 24/192 CD player for state-of-the-art sound, and most recently Ive heaped praise on Zanden Audios $9800 Model 5000 Mk II DAC used in tandem with my Theta Data Basic transport. I could not do an in-depth head-to-head comparison with the Audio Aero player -- I didnt have it here at the time -- but I could with the Zanden DAC and Theta transport.
In my review of the 5000 Mk II, I said, "Some people are happy with something that gets them almost there at a fraction of the cost. Others want it all no matter the cost. This is who the 5000 Mk II is for." And that right there sums up the CD23T and the 5000 Mk II DAC. The 5000 Mk II DAC is the best my ears have heard. I absolutely love it and praise everything about it -- except the price. If you have the cash, I encourage you to at least go an audition it. But its simply not affordable for the common man.
But there is a rainbow. The performance of the CD23T is exceedingly close to that of the 5000 Mk II. When I reviewed the 5000 Mk II, I talked about those differences: "The Zanden unit has a little more you-are-there presence, a little more of that immediacy I described, and just a smidgen more ease in its delivery." The differences are small -- mainly in the midrange and the highest frequencies. Both are exceedingly neutral, but there is a beguiling purity and a crystalline presentation that inches the Zanden/Theta combo forward. But as I said, its very small. And frankly, if your system is not of high-enough resolution the differences would more than likely go unnoticed.
All of this makes assessing the overall value of the CD23T difficult. Its price is not exactly pocket change, and it plays only CDs in a time of higher-resolution digital. However, the CD23T's performance is just about the equal of the best CD-only components you can buy, but its price is far lower. I'm torn, but I'll keep listening to it just the same.
The CD23T achieves two things. First, its sound is clean, clear, precise, and incredibly resolving. The fact that I can put it up against the amazing Zanden 5000 Mk II DAC and Theta transport speaks plenty, and Im sure that I could put it up against a number of more costly integrated CD players and it would come out the winner.
And that points to its second accomplishment: The CD23T achieves a stunning level of performance at a less-than-state-of-the-art price. Its cutting-edge digital for the common audiophile.
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