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Equipment Review

August 1998

Arcam Alpha 9 CD Player

by James Causey

Full disclosure

If you’re going to come out of the closet, you might as well do it in a public forum.

I admit it! I’m an Anglophile! Since my childhood, I’ve been fascinated with the people, culture, and trappings of the United Kingdom. It’s a common affliction among Americans; every now and again, we all look up from our Brady Bunch and our hot dogs to think wistfully of The Old Country. The history, the legacy, the refinement, the Spice Girls, it’s all right there.

I’ll even admit to going a bit overboard at times, longing for everything from those classy BBC bodice-ripping movies to a rusty, plastic-bumpered MGB. One thing, however, that I never quite wrapped my mind around was the concept of British hi-fi. Wasn’t this the same country that created those horrid Lucas electrical systems on MGs? I’ll buy British tea, watch British football, and root for British drivers (go Damon Hill!), but listen to British audio gear?

Yes, British audio gear

Boy, was I missing out. It turns out that Britain is a horn-o-plenty of quality equipment. From classics like the Quad ESL to cutting-edge digital from Meridian, the UK’s no also-ran when it comes to excellent sound. Even the most cursory glance at trade mags from across the pond will show you that Britain’s audio industry cranks out a vast range of equipment at every price.

One of the biggest names in British audio is Arcam, headquartered in the hallowed city of Cambridge. Arcam has received praise for years for providing equipment suited to every budget. Having released their first domestic commercial product in 1976, the company prides itself on the variety of their product line and flexibility provided by their open architecture. True to their motto "Hi-Fi With A Future," a large number of their bargain models can be easily upgraded to more refined designs, a practice which warms the cockles of my frugal (read: cheap) heart. Thus, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take a look at Arcam’s latest foray into the digital front-end market: the $1600 Alpha 9 CD player.

One thing leads to another

The story of Arcam’s top-of-the-line integrated CD player begins at nearby Data Conversion Systems, Ltd. (dCS for short), also located in Cambridge. dCS specializes in exotic digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital converters for the music-recording industry, but has also been known to branch out into consumer high-end digital gear. Recently, dCS won significant acclaim for their cost-no-object Elgar DAC, which provides 24-bit/96kHz performance. However, the cost of admission for the dCS Elgar ($12,000) left its superb sound out of the reach of mere mortals.

Into the picture comes Arcam. In 1995, Arcam and dCS began working together to provide the sonic benefits of the Elgar in a more affordable package. The product of this formidable union was the dCS Ring DAC, the technology that lies at the heart of the Arcam Alpha 9.

Tech time

In order to understand the claims Arcam and dCS make for the Ring DAC, a brief review of digital music technology is required. Pay attention; you’ll be quizzed later. This material may be review for some of you. No warranty is expressed or implied.

Sound reaches our ears as a series of analog waves which pass through a medium (normally air, though I won’t speak for Steven Rochlin) and excite our eardrums, thus producing the pleasing sensation of Diana Krall crooning in the midst of our living room.

How, then, can a digital medium, which consists only of two states (on and off), possibly represent these analog waves? Via the wondrous technique known as sampling.

Digital recorders take snapshots of incoming analog waves at a set interval known as the sampling rate. For example, the sampling rate for CD Audio is 44.1kHz, meaning that the recording device takes 44,100 individual snapshots every second. Each snapshot is broken up into chunks which represent frequency ranges, and each chunk is represented by a digital bit, each of which can be either on or off. CD audio breaks each sample into 16 chunks; thus, it is said to have 16-bit resolution. These two numbers (16-bit resolution and 44.1kHz sampling rate) lead to the 16-bit/44.1kHz figure associated with current CD audio.

In order to reproduce the recording, then, the playback device needs to be able to reconstruct those samples into analog current which, once amplified, drives our loudspeakers, which in turn produce the analog waves that excite our eardrums -- you get the drift. This is the job of the digital-to-analog converter, or DAC.

One of these things is not like the other

There are two common technologies used to perform this reconstruction. The first, multi-bit conversion, samples the incoming datastream 16 bits at a time. Each bit controls a corresponding current source -- if that bit is on, its corresponding current source is flipped on, and vice-versa. These current sources combine to generate the analog waveform that represents the sound recorded during that particular sample.

Proponents of multi-bit conversion claim virtual immunity to jitter (errors in sample clock timing), and a superior signal-to-noise ratio. However, its detractors point out that since it’s virtually impossible to guarantee that each current source will provide precisely both the amount and duration of current needed to accurately describe the signal, the "shape" of the resulting waveform will not be entirely correct, leading to distortion.

The other common technology is bitstream conversion. Bitstream conversion attempts to address the distortion problem by sampling the incoming data in smaller chunks (such as 1 bit or 8 bits at a time). In order to preserve the entire waveform, multiple passes are required to completely reconstruct each 16-bit sample. This technique is referred to as oversampling. Most modern bitstream converters perform massive oversampling, ranging from 64 to 384 times the original sampling rate.

Since there are so many samples, and since fewer current sources are required for these smaller samples, each sample is touted to be more accurate. The high oversampling rates required by this technique also generate another type of distortion, but bitstream converters deal with this distortion via a technique known as noise shaping, which filters out the excess distortion into frequencies that are (supposedly) inaudible. These more accurate samples help to better preserve the waveform of each sample, but the oversampling techniques used are extremely vulnerable to jitter.

One ring to hold them all, one ring to find them

Arcam and dCS claim to have improved on these two techniques by combining the strengths and minimizing the weaknesses of each in their Ring DAC. According to Arcam, the Ring DAC samples 5 bits at a time, oversampling at 64 times the base frequency, and uses noise shaping, much as a traditional bitstream converter. However, rather than merely having five current sources, the Ring DAC uses those 5-bit samples to drive 24 separate current sources. Not all 24 sources operate at once, however. The Ring DAC uses a proprietary algorithm to vary which current sources participate in each sample, as though they were randomly picked from a circle of sources. This gives their design its snappy name. According to its designers, this combination of techniques provides for wide dynamic range, extremely low distortion, and low susceptibility to jitter.

Less tech, more action

I received one of the first Alpha 9 players to arrive in the United States from Arcam’s US distributor, Audiophile Systems, Ltd of Indianapolis. It arrived well packed, in a solidly constructed Arcam carton surrounded by another shipping box.

When I slipped the Alpha 9 out of its various protective cocoons, I was forced to coo appreciatively at the design. Its sweeping front panel combines elegantly with the organically shaped logos, convenient-yet-attractive buttons, and pebbly gray textured case. Any disappointment that this somewhat pricey (for me) player didn’t have the gaudy, metal-plated look so many expensive boxes share was offset by the Arcam player’s modern, understated grace. I was also impressed by the attractive, easy-to-use remote, and the unique green display.

The player itself isn’t terribly heavy, which led me to fret somewhat about the quality of the case’s construction, though it was appreciated as I quickly placed it atop my Michael Green Designs Justarack. The player provides two sets of RCA outputs, which Arcam provides for multi-room use. It also includes a coaxial digital out, which I did not use during this review, as I chose to focus on the Alpha 9’s performance as an integrated player.

For review purposes, I connected the Alpha 9 to my McCormack TLC-1 linestage’s passive inputs using Kimber HERO interconnects. Amplification was provided by a McCormack DNA-1 Standard Edition amplifier driving PSB 1000i floorstanding loudspeakers via Kimber 8TC speaker wire (equipped with optional WBT banana plugs). Cardas 300B MicroTwin interconnects and TwinLink-A speaker wires were also used for comparison. All components were placed on the above-mentioned Justarack, and run-of-the-mill surge protection was used for all components except the amplifier.

Darn it, how does it sound?

After ogling and fondling the Alpha 9, and wrestling and routing cables to hook it up, I was determined to reward myself with a brief listening session. I powered up the player, dropped in a disc, plopped myself into my favorite listening position, and pressed play.

As one should expect from a brand-new player, I wasn’t exactly floored by the sound. Detail was rather fuzzy, and dynamics came off rather restrained in comparison to my reference Parasound CD/P-1000 player. However, the Alpha 9 immediately showed strong, deep bass, which I considered to be a promising trait. And I was mesmerized by the gorgeous green display -- I must have spent over an hour using both front-panel controls and the remote to toggle between the display’s three settings: bright, dim, and off. I found this feature very appealing during late-night listening sessions for helping further extract me from the environment, though I heard absolutely no difference in sound quality from any of the settings.

The Alpha 9 also includes the Pacific Microsonics PCM-100 HDCD filter for use with DCD-encoded discs. A little red LED behind the Arcam logo lights up when HDCD-encoded CDs are played. The description in the manual led me to believe, mistakenly, that the whole logo would light up, so I nearly missed the HDCD light (though the sudden increase in volume alerted me to HDCD discs immediately). In fact, I discovered a number of discs that had HDCD encoding via the sudden increase in output volume, and only realized it was due to HDCD after later noticing the little light.

Nodding to myself, I proceeded to break in the player using varied material for over 250 continuous hours. Much of this time was preparing to move into a new apartment, so I had little opportunity to sit down and listen to the player during the break-in period.

Rule Britannia

After the break in (but before the move), I sat down again with my trusty notebook and began to perform some serious listening. As clichéd as it may sound, I found it somewhat difficult to review the sound of the Arcam Alpha 9 because I kept finding myself just relaxing and listening to the music. The Alpha 9 had a presentation that conduced itself well to losing oneself in favorite tunes, and finding some new favorites as well.

Fiona Apple’s Tidal [Work/Sony OK67439] arrived from my CD club the same day I hooked up the Alpha 9, and I spent a lot of time listening to it in the car and at work while the Arcam broke in. I started my review session by selecting track four, "Criminal," my current favorite. I was nearly blown out of my seat by the dynamic rush by the song’s opening cymbal, driving drum line, and rich instrumentation. Percussion instruments snapped and pounded beautifully, keyboards sent chills up my spine, and Fiona’s sultry, haunting lyrics thrilled me. I found myself listening to the disc all the way through, just reveling in the music.

"Drawn To The Rhythm," from Sarah McLachlan’s Solace [Nettwerk/Arista 18631-2] was next. The track is a simple piece carried primarily by acoustic instruments and Sarah’s voice. Again, I was mesmerized by the weight and body of instruments. Drums were deep and tuneful, conveying a sense of a percussion instrument rather than mere bass. Guitars contained distinct hints of body resonance rather than simply throwing off the noise of strummed strings, and Sarah’s voice hung distinctly in mid-air, alternately whispering, cooing, and chanting.

The more I listened, the better grasp I was able to get on the Alpha 9’s sound. It threw a pleasing soundstage, with instruments and voices appearing distinct and clear rather than blending muddily into the background. Instruments had weight, body, and resonance, revealing additional nuances that drew me into recordings. From my review notes: "Music sounds more like many individual instruments contributing to play songs, rather than a murky group of sounds." At no time, however, was this detail distracting or displeasing. Instead, it made things all the more involving.

I began to experiment with the sound of HDCD vs non-HDCD discs on the Arcam player, with mixed results. Most of the improvements in sound which were initially apparent seemed primarily related to the higher volume at which the Alpha 9 played HDCD-compatible discs. Earl Klugh’s The Journey [WEA/Warner 7599 46471 2] came off particularly clean, crisp, and clear via the Arcam’s HDCD decoding, but the Fleetwood Mac tribute album Legacy [WEA/Atlantic] came off as rather hashy and unpleasant despite its HDCD encoding.

Later on, in an effort to determine the sonic enhancement brought by the Ring DAC and other improvements, I ran a careful, level-matched comparison with my Parasound CD/P-1000 (which, at $495, retails at less than a third of the cost of the Alpha 9). At first, I was disappointed at how subtle the differences were; it was not at all like the massive difference I heard when upgrading from my old loss-leader CD changer to the Parasound player. However, the more I listened, the more I noticed. The Arcam player conveyed voices and instruments with more weight and realism, and its imaging was far more precise. Its presentation was, again, extremely involving. Although I couldn’t always put my finger on why, I always went back to the Arcam player to sink into the music.

My only real sonic disappointment with the Arcam player came with Depeche Mode’s Violator [Sire/Reprise 9 269081-2]. The Alpha 9 revealed the harshness of much of the electronic instrumentation used for the recording, detracting somewhat from my enjoyment of the disc. However, the player’s driving bass and crystal-clear representation still let me enjoy what was there -- perhaps too much of what was there.

In conclusion -- almost

Arcam’s claims for their new player, and the Ring DAC itself, are rather bold: "We believe the Alpha 9 to be one of the world’s best single-box CD players, regardless of price" (from a technical report provided with the player itself). This claim begs for further investigation and comparison, both with players that are price-competitive and those that are much more expensive. Expect a follow-up here on SoundStage! to explore both of these issues.

Personally, I found the Arcam Alpha 9 is an extremely involving CD player, combining appealing cosmetics with a smooth, rich, detailed sound that’s always just enough to please, though revealing enough to make some recordings a tad harsh. Arcam and dCS’ new Ring DAC technology seems to be a winner.

...James Causey

Arcam Alpha 9 CD Player
Price: $1,599 USD

US Distributor:
Audiophile Systems Ltd.
8709 Castle Park Dr.
Indianapolis, IN 46256
Phone: 888-272-2658
Fax: 317-841-4107

E-mail: aslinfo@aslgroup.com
Website: www.aslgroup.com

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