Which brings us to the nub of the question; which CD-77? For in truth this is six players in one. However, I can make things somewhat simpler than that. AMR are firm advocates of their digital filterless outputs, dubbed Digital Master I and II, and I concur. In comparison I find the over and up-sampled outputs (especially the 192kHz filter) more detailed, more focussed and transparent – but also thinner and lacking in the sense of surefooted tempo and coherent musical sweep that comes from the un-filtered outputs. There’s a presence, body and engaging momentum to the latter that won me over immediately. Of the two settings, DM I sounds sweet but slightly heavy and shut-in. The analogue filtering employed on DM II adds air, light and energy to the top-end, balancing the weight and substance at low-frequencies making the most of the player’s expressive coherence and sense of musical involvement.
But there’s a coda here. Experience shows me that I value a well-executed filterless DAC just as surely as I tend to shy away from up-sampling, but not everybody agrees. I spent considerable time listening with both the 192kHz and the 4x over-sampling filters, because I really wanted to be sure that my preference for the DM II output was a stable, long-term judgement. Along the way I learnt that despite the subtle synthetic sheen that I detect with up-sampling, along with the temporal disturbance and lack of natural flow in the music I also expect, these artefacts were significantly reduced with the AMR and certainly far less intrusive than I’ve ever experienced before. The bottom line? Don’t assume that just because you are a listener who values the transparency and focus that comes with digital interpolation that the CD-77 isn’t for you. Unlike many machines the different yet exactingly engineered choices on offer here are both genuine and legitimate. I prefer DM II: those troubled by brighter systems might find DM I the perfect panacea while the listener looking for the sort of precision that delivers detail without dismantling the music might well reach straight for the 192kHz output. Each choice is individual and equally valid. The important thing is that the AMR allows you to make that choice rather than simply living with the designer’s preference.
Having said that, let’s get back to my preference and the considerable enjoyment I’ve extracted from the CD- 77 in its filterless mode. Comparing the ultra-purist, zero-filtering option of Digital Master I to the analogue only filtered Digital Master II is interesting indeed. Both settings (switchable, along with the other filter options via a single button on the remote) deliver substance, weight and a sense of natural flow to the music. The first thing that strikes you is the extra air and space, the lighter balance of DM II, but the more you listen the more musically fundamental the contrast becomes, the analogue filter offering a lighter, quicker and more agile reproduction, with a natural sense of position and separation between instruments, a greater sense of pace and momentum in the music. In comparison DM I sounds dull and actually rhythmically restrained, slowing the tempo in the music. Julia Fischer’s recent Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (on Pentagram, and just as good as RSF claims) is the perfect example. Switching from DM I to DM II infuses the music with a lightness of touch and energy that underlines Kreizberg’s control of tempo, the restraint he’s imposing and the tension he creates before the first solo entry, a palpable anticipation that’s carried forward on a burgeoning orchestral swell that totally escapes DM I. Fischer’s opening phrases are equally telling: slow and measured on DM I, switch settings and they gain a sense of fluidity and grace, a slowly increasing tempo emerges that adds drama to their obvious lyrical qualities. It’s about letting the music speak and DM II simply allows the musicians a greater vocabulary, a greater range of expression and as a result, far more dramatic performances.
Overall, the sound of this player is engagingly lively, pacey and substantial. I suppose comparisons with Audio Research’s top-loading, valve output CD7 are inevitable, especially given its “ever-present” status around here. Indeed, in many respects the players are more alike than different – no bad thing for the AMR. Used directly on a finite elemente rack the CD-77 sounds at once solid but somewhat homogenous, images and instruments bleeding into each other to create a single, compact block of sound. There’s also a subtle but persistent glossy hollowness to its midband tonality. Compared to the ARC, the British built machine lacks the expansive soundstage and sheer range of texture and colour conjured by its American counterpart, but offers better bass definition and transparency whilst sharing the sense of easy, unimpeded musical momentum.