Press releases which announce some new company that’s going to set new standards in CD reproduction/ amplification/speaker design are not exactly news. In a market where hyperbole is all too often a substitute for considered commentary, terms like “best,” “best in show,” “best on the planet,” even “best in the universe” cease to have much relevance, with everybody claiming to be “best” at something. The result is to discard such claims with perhaps a shade too much jaded cynicism and await events. Often, the product never emerges (at least not in any stable form) and the company simply disappears. There are however, always exceptions to every rule…
When Abbingdon Music Research announced a new range of “Reference Class” products we greeted the news with the usually mix of interest and scepticism, the establishment of a watching brief. And watch we did, as months passed and products appeared in dealers and at shows with remarkable consistency demonstrating if nothing else, that here at least was a going concern; and one whose products demanded to be taken just as seriously as AMR take themselves, at least if the universally accepted “vertical displacement assessment of audio quality” is to be believed. Just try picking up the AMR CD-77 and you’ll see what I mean. At 28kg this player weighs more than many serious power amps, despite being more compact than most of them. Not that you’d exactly describe the CD-77 as small. But once you start to examine this player in detail the one thing that becomes abundantly clear is just how assiduously the designers have ticked every single audiophile box. AMR’s CD player is presented in a substantial singlebox chassis that it shares with the company’s 180-Watt hybrid integrated amp. The foursquare dimensions and tall front-panel are softened by the gentle backward curve of the fascia with its massive display panel. Thankfully, the display itself is rather more modest in size, although large enough to read from a decent distance. Five beautifully executed touch-sensitive buttons cover the basic commands with everything else you could reasonably require included on the solidly executed touch screen remote (which illuminates in matching blue to allow operation in the dark).
But the real story becomes apparent once your gaze takes in the top-panel. In front of the enormous, machined logo, a sliding lid covers the top-loading transport. Open it and you see the curved walls of the transport well, compliantly mounted to the massive chassis. The transport itself is a carefully selected mix of Philips and Sony parts, driven by a specially selected motor and assembled by AMR into the underside of their own CNC machined housing, complete with its own integral spirit level. The disc is anchored in place using a large footprint magnetic clamp, and the entire transport section is flooded with blue light from a ring of LEDs set in the underside of the chassis top-plate, light that leaks eerily from the other significant visual feature, the two rows of three windows that flank the transport lid. Actually they’re not really windows, slots on either side providing ventilation for the valves employed in the dual-mono analogue output stages (I said they’d ticked all the boxes). The rear panel carries single-ended and (transformer coupled) impedance balanced analogue outputs, but no digital output. This might seem like an oversight at first, but actually is simply another manifestation of AMR’s confidence in the abilities of their product. The heart of the CD-77 is its sophisticated DAC implementation, so why would you want to bypass it? Instead, there’s a mini-USB digital input, allowing you to take advantage of the onboard DAC with external sources. Why all the fuss about the converter? Well, that’s where the AMR really does break new ground, not so much in terms of hardware, but in the way in which it has been implemented.
Converter is the established Philips TDA1541A, allowing the use of external digital and analogue filtering, in this case the latest complex programmable devices from TI. This digital combination allows the user to select from six different filter arrangements via a single button on the remote control. Crucially, these options include two that eliminate the digital filter altogether (one with analogue filtering, the other without) along with choices of two or four-times oversampling or up-sampling to 96 or 192kHz – which pretty much covers all the bases, digitally speaking. AMR take great care to optimise the operating parameters of both devices, as well as providing a single, temperature optimised master clock that is different, but crucially in the company’s opinion, all the other clocks throughout the entire system are synchronised to, in order to reduce jitter. Power supply is extensive as you might expect, and heavily regulated too, with a separate power line for each functional block within the circuit. However, what makes it special is that each feed is regulated according to purpose, delivering a supply optimised to the function of the devices in question (low-noise, low-impedance etc). The main supply is itself extremely an sophisticated linear design, providing both filtering of noise and waveform correction, as well as auto-adaptation to any voltage standard connected to it. Internally, component quality is excellent with each individual item carefully selected, heavily plated circuit boards and textbook implementations rather than cut corners. Each mono analogue output stage is a zero-feedback, pure tube design, built around a 6CA4 rectifier feeding an ECC81 gain stage and 5687 output buffer, delivering good linearity and low output impedance. All tubes are NOS. Built into the outer portions of the chassis, the internal sections are carefully divided by solid copper plates, while purposely mixed materials and dimensions are used to further minimize structural resonance. Aerospace isolators are incorporated into the feet to reduce the impact of external vibration and AMR supply single-ended interconnects, a superior mains lead, a USB lead and a burn-in disc, all to help ensure that you achieve optimum performance. They even go the extra mile to make sure it arrives in one piece, packing the whole kit and caboodle in a foam-lined flightcase. But the best news of all is that this single-handed assault on the high-end weighs in at what, given its constructional and component quality, fit, finish and presentation, seems like a bargain price. Line this up alongside the vast majority of £10K audiophile players and it makes them look cheap, in some cases downright shoddy. Yet the AMR costs “only” £4400. Not exactly pocket-money I grant you, but definitely material value in today’s market place. So, like I said, it’s ticked pretty much every audiophile box, it looks the part and the price is definitely right, but does the sonic whole add up to more than the sum of the parts? In a word – absolutely. This impressive players steps straight into the slot next to the Muse Erato II as the new benchmark for serious high-end performance. Of course, in doing so it also offers a stark contrast to that machine, its dedicated CD-only stance and heavyweight build as resolutely traditional as the American player’s modular, multi-format approach is current. That fact alone will tend to leave you gravitating in one direction or the other, but the sonic contrast is just as stark, the Muse’s unforced evenness and easy separation of instruments quite distinct from the fuller and more dynamically forceful style of the CD-77.