Arcam Alpha 8 CD Player
by Greg Smith
Lately I've been advocating that people get a relatively inexpensive (read "disposable") CD player and marry it with a high-quality external DAC. The benefits of this approach include having a good converter available for other digital sources, being able to replace the relatively fragile mechanical parts of the transport cheaply, and allowing less expensive individual upgrades.
But recently I've had this thinking challenged by spending some time with the Arcam Alpha 8 CD player. While competitive now with current available digital sources, the Arcam Alpha 8 as well as other Arcam players also have an excellent upgrade strategy that makes them very worthy of consideration as a long-term purchase.
The Alpha 8 ($999) sits in the middle of Arcams CD-player lineup. Below it in price is the Alpha 7 ($649), while above it is the Alpha 8SE ($1249) and Alpha 9 ($1599) with dCS Ring DAC technology. Arcam also offers a multidisc CD player, the Alpha MCD ($999). All of the Arcam single-disc units look identical and have the same compliment of function buttons on their fronts. Undoubtedly this is part of Arcams simple upgrade strategy: Buy an Arcam player and you can upgrade it to higher models at a slight increase in cost over just buying the better model to begin with. On average, the cost for upgrading instead of buying the higher-priced model in the first place runs a reasonable 10%. For example, it costs $699 to turn an Alpha 7 into an 8SE, $760 to upgrade an Alpha 8 to an Alpha 9.
The Alpha 8 uses a 20-bit NPC digital filter, 20-bit PWM DAC, and Sony transport mechanism. Its separate analog circuit board is mounted on a rigid aluminum platform to reduce the effects of vibration. There's a substantial IEC power cord included with the player. One bonus some people may find very useful is the inclusion of two sets of RCA outputs. In terms of styling, the Alpha 8, like the other Arcam CD players, is sleek and understated, but not simply a square black box with a few buttons on the front. The overall build quality of the Alpha 8 is excellent, with a sturdy case and solid drawer.
The remote that comes with the Alpha 8 is easy to use and can control any of Arcams remote-controlled integrated amps. One unique feature of the infrared chipset in the player is that it supports receiving either Sony or Phillips codes. Cycling the power resets this feature and allows the other code set to work. A useful remote-controlled feature is the ability to toggle between two levels of brightness on the front-panel display, or turn it off altogether. A less helpful feature is the ability to open or close the tray from the remote. The only thing I have ever seen this capability used for is to tease someone who is trying to put a new CD in.
Error correction on the transport section of the Alpha 8 was average. The 1mm track from the Pierre Varany test set was perfect, but the 1.25mm one had an occasional stutter. By 1.5mm, the player had given up. The level 3 check on Digital Recordings' CD Check went fine, but there were clicks and pops on level 4.
I started out connecting the analog output of the Alpha 8 player to my usual DAC/preamp of choice, the Lexicon DC-1. The preamp section in the DC-1 requires that any analog signals go through an A/D-and-D/A shuffle, which keeps it from the ultimate in transparency. Nonetheless, the DC-1 usually works quite well as a regular preamp. With the Alpha 8, the overall tone of my system was very laid-back and relaxed. Compared with similarly priced players I'd used with the DC-1 in this fashion, the Arcam seemed a bit less abrasive and "digital" with overbearing cuts like "Just One Victory" on Todd Rundgren's A Wizard, A True Star [Bearsville R2-70864].
Shortly after forming my initial opinion, I spoke with fellow SoundStage! reviewer Frank Alles. He'd also spent some time with the Alpha 8 before, but with rather different results. Frank says it was slightly forward in the upper midrange and a bit on the sterile side during his auditioning. The soundstage depth also seemed a bit on the shallow side, and he cited less expensive CD players that he felt performed better overall. While I don't doubt what Frank heard, all such comments (including my own) should be evaluated while considering the ever-present review disclaimer -- "in my system."
One helpful question to ask yourself when you're trying to match up equipment is, "How did the designer intend for the components to be used?" In the case of the Arcam CD players, you'd suspect they were tested extensively with a full spectrum of popular British gear of similar quality. I sincerely doubt the output stages of the Alpha 8 were optimized for use with an unorthodox digital preamp like the DC-1. So to evaluate the Alpha 8 properly, I needed the right context. Luckily, I have a British preamp hanging around, the Rotel RSP-960AX. I rerouted all my components through it and tried again. Ah, that was better. The Alpha 8 sounded perfectly balanced now. Playing "Red Rain" from Peter Gabriel's popular So [Geffen 2-24088], I noticed detail and resolution without harshness, and the bass was powerful but not overbearing when I listened to my reviewing favorite, Toy Matinee [Reprise 2-26235].
Usually the next step when I'm trying out a new player is to compare it against the DAC stage in the Lexicon DC-1 when both are connected to the Rotel preamp and the Lexicon is in bypass mode for stereo listening. I grabbed my volt meter and adjusted the DC-1s output level. I had to crank the volume up to +4dB, achieving a match close enough that level differences wouldn't be too much of a factor in the comparison. That's a bit louder than I normally need, and sure enough the Arcam's output voltage is closer to 2.3V than the industry "standard" 2V. Comparing the two DAC stages, the DC-1 had a bit more control on the really deep bass, but other than that, it was very difficult to distinguish between the two. Normally the DC-1 creams players under $1000, so I was impressed that the Alpha 8 held its own.
I also tried comparing the Alpha 8 against the DAC stage in the Parasound C/DC-1500 that I normally use as a transport with the same set of recordings. The Arcam had far deeper bass and no hint of the occasional harshness the Parasound sometimes exhibits. The C/DC-1500 sounds very closed in and dull by comparison, and without a really clear soundstage. Given the price difference between the two players, I'd expect the Arcam to be considerably better.
While I don't have the full array of units I've used in the last year available for a direct comparison, the DC-1 has been a constant reference for me the whole time. Since the Alpha 8 has nearly identical output qualities to the Lexicon used as a DAC when the Rotel RSP-960AX is the preamp (another constant for my recent evaluations), I can extrapolate some other comparisons. I'd expect the Alpha 8 to sound considerably better than the Acurus ACD-11 I reviewed a while ago, while it wouldn't quite match the Camelot Arthur V3.0. The latter isn't really a surprise for two reasons. First, the Arthur DAC costs about as much as the whole Arcam player, Second, Arcam offers the Alpha 8SE that includes the Pacific Microsonics HDCD chipset, which makes it closer to the Arthur as far as the quality of DAC parts goes. I'd expect the 8SE to sound more competitive with Camelot DAC than the less expensive Alpha 8 does.
After finishing the DAC workout, I spent some time trying the Alpha 8 as a transport with the Lexicon DC-1. The Alpha 8s disc-loading mechanism performed flawlessly while I had the unit. As for sound-quality issues, the coaxial digital output from Arcam player was difficult to distinguish from the Parasound C/DC-1500. The Arcam had just a touch more control of deep bass material, but even that was hard to put a finger on. Note that if transport duty is your sole concern, the less expensive Arcam 7 is probably a better choice because the transport parts are identical across the whole Arcam line. According to a deep reading of the specifications for each player, the digital output on the Alpha 8 is a bit more precise, but the reason for this isn't clear.
Because the Arcam Alpha CD players are designed for easy upgrading, you can keep up with digital advances at very reasonable upgrade costs. Right now, this goes all the way up to the 24-bit Alpha 9. The Alpha 8 is tough to beat in terms of sound quality per dollar whether you compare it to CD playback with two digital boxes or one. Just be careful to use it in a system in which it will work well before you make an irreversible purchasing decision. Like any other piece of audio gear, the Alpha 8 is not going to be compatible with everything on the market, but it sure made some fine music here.
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