With such a wide range of media on the market, the appeal of a player able to handle everything from CD and SACD to DVD is obvious. But the question for Audiophiles is - can a ‘Jack of All Trades’ really be as good as a top-quality dedicated CD player for playing CDs? There’s no point compromising CD performance just to get versatility. This test considers three multi-format disc players exclusively from a purist two-channel stereo audio standpoint. We’re assuming that picture quality will be something of a secondary consideration and as such, will be to a sufficiently high standard in each case. But what about sound quality? Can any of these machines stand comparison with a good comparably-priced CD player? If I myself were looking to buy a multi-format player, I’d want something that sounded great on CD, as well as being able to do justice to SACD. I recently tried Pioneer’s PD-D6 CD/SACD player. While it sounded pretty good, I wasn’t blown away by the difference between CD and SACD. Maybe this time – who knows!
For the two-channel hi-fi purist, the question is whether or not it’s better to look at versatile players like the ones here, or sink your money into a top-class dedicated CD player. It’s not an easy one to answer. And matters are clouded by the uncertain future of SACD, and the question of how many record companies will continue to support it.
Suppose the release of new SACDs dries up; what’s the point of investing in a player if you can’t buy much software? However, after a slow start, there seemed to be a steady release of classical titles from the majors, including re-issues from the Mercury Living Presence and RCA Living Stereo back catalogues. Of course, SACD provides record companies with a perfect opportunity to sell us what we’ve already got! Hence the number of Audiophile orientated titles re-issued. But, new releases from Universal (who include key labels like Decca, Philips, and Deutsche Grammophon), seem to have slowed down. Meanwhile, smaller labels with a greater reliance on sound quality rather than artist profile seem to be issuing discs at an ever greater rate, with the likes of Pentatone, Harmonia Mundi and even Linn regularly releasing SACDs.
Back in June 2003, I went to an SACD launch hosted by Decca/Philips/DG, and all the technical and production staff in attendance that day were very excited by the possibilities of the new format. So, if there is a lack of enthusiasm for SACD, it’s from the bean counters rather than the engineers and producers. And although the smaller more specialised labels have a stronger commitment to SACD, for the medium to really succeed it needs commitment from everyone. CD succeeded because record buyers could see that the record companies were taking it seriously. Despite a slow and uncertain start, CD gradually established itself. It’s an urban myth that CD was a huge and immediate commercial success when launched. Actually, it was all a bit touch and go for the first couple of years. In the field of classical music, we reached a turning point when Polygram (Decca/Philips/DG – now owned by Universal) released the first wave of complete operas. Once that happened, collectors could see that the record companies were in it for the long haul and everything changed. It’s about confidence and having the belief that the product will establish itself given enough time and the right promotion. But first you have to believe… To evaluate these SACD players, I listened to CD and SACD material, taking ASTINtrew’s At3500 as my CD reference point. On a financial note, all three SACD players retail for under £1000, whereas the At-3500 costs around £1150. So in value terms these multi-format players offer a lot for the money.
The £900 DV135 is billed as Arcam’s entry-level machine. It’s based on their more expensive and elaborate, state-ofthe art DV137, but dispenses with some features, including analogue surround sound and second display. The DV135 is aimed at those wanting SACD, but not in surround. For movie fans the DV135 offers interpolation to 1080i to enhance DVD image quality, but also attempts to meet the needs of serious audiophiles wanting a good source component for CD and SACD playback. started by listened to it with CDs, making comparisons as noted to the more expensive ASTINtrew At3500 player. Tonally, the Arcam sounded slightly leaner and maybe just a shade more transparent than the ASTINtrew. Perhaps because of its tube output stage, the latter produces a warmer, slightly lusher presentation, with greater richness and depth. In some ways the ASTINtrew sounded nicer, but the Arcam had many good points too.
Playing Andras Schiff’s Decca CD of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21 via the DV135, I was impressed with the bright bell-like tone of the piano and the way the woodwind solos projected from the orchestral texture. The Arcam seemed to image more precisely, with the instruments very solidly located in space. It was a very clear-cut lucid sound. Dynamics were excellent, and so too was the separation between instruments. Small details in the playing seemed to register with pin-point clarity.