Snobbery doesn’t show up occasionally in the audio world. It plagues it. A few weeks ago, I visited a local enthusiast who was demo’ing some extremely expensive new gear from abroad. No sooner was he preparing to drop a record clamp onto an LP than a guest rushed over in a state of high dudgeon, harrumphing that it was imperative to use a special Shun Mook clamp for this particular jazz recording. Wielding it like a lightsaber, he placed it on the record, while the other invitees nodded sagely. Soon enough, I was being grilled on what type of purified water I use for my record cleaning regime—all while the music was playing.
Now none of this will come as a surprise to some audiophiles, but maybe that’s the problem. I yield to no one in my enthusiasm for scrubbing LPs clean, but a little of this huffing and puffing over the equipment and so forth can quickly go a long way. Indeed, when music plays second fiddle, as it were, to the protocols for entering the highest regions of the audiophile world, something has gone slightly amiss, hasn’t it?
Confronted with this spectacle, the average person is either going to dismiss the high end as a bunch of hocus-pocus, which some of it is, or feel horribly intimidated, which he or she shouldn’t. If enjoying good sound was supposed Jacob Heilbrunn to be a secret safeguarded by a clerisy charged with creating initiation rituals to deter all but the most intrepid, then many high-end aficionados could hardly be doing a better job.
At a moment when electronics keep getting better and cheaper, however, such attitudes are more than a little nutty. The blunt fact is that, year after year, the barriers to obtaining highend sound get lowered. There’s no reason consumers shouldn’t be exposed to the amazing sound that can almost be had for—dare I say it?—a song.
The new British Arcam CD36 CD player and C31 preamplifier vividly brought this home to me. They bring top-notch technology to the table for sane prices ($2499 for the CD player, $1999 for the preamp). The CD player upsamples from 44.1kHz to 192kHz and deploys 8470 Wolfson DACs, which, Arcam’s literature says, are at the top of their class. It also has a specially damped tray, which is said to help reduce troublesome vibrations when the CD is being spun. The preamplifier can be outfitted with an optional phonostage module for moving-magnet and moving-coil cartridges—a fillip that is becoming an increasing rarity with preamps these days. But the technology comes in a modest package: These units don’t require isolation pucks or fancy power cords to perform well. Their build-quality is good, but not lavish. Arcam FMJ CD36 Player and FMJ C31 Preamplifier Need one spend a fortune for great sound? All they provide is superb sound.
Right out of the box, both the CD player and the preamplifier surprised me with their smooth and restrained sound. I didn’t hear much, if any, break-in take place, and if you were into ascribing national characteristics to audio equipment you would say that the Arcam units are both very stiff upper lip. They succeed, in other words, with quiet understatement. They’re as impressive for what they do not do as for what they do.
For instance, I was bracing myself for some grain in the treble, but it never showed up. Instead, there was a kind of continuity to the sound that could hardly have been more enticing. Some of this legato effect comes from the lack of grit, which helps create a black background from which the instruments emerge. On the CD Summit Brass [Summit Records], for example, the presentation was downright spooky. You hear each brass instrument come in, one after the other, in a powerful buildup to the climax of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Each note received its full value, rather than being chopped off or run into the next note, as some lesser CD players might do with such complex passages. The emotional intensity of this piece becomes overwhelming when it’s played back with such clarity. You could listen to it again and again on Arcam’s units, and I did.
Consistent with its cool character, the Arcam CD player and preamplifier were never ruffled by anything that I threw at them. No matter how tricky the passage of music, they unraveled it with ease. Just as the music emerged from an inky, jetblack background, so was the soundstage full and deep. Part of both units’ laidback character can be ascribed to a soundstage that was slightly recessed rather than forward. Neither ever struck me as being overly recessed, but some listeners will likely prefer a more in-your-face dynamic presentation. This would be particularly the case on large-scale orchestral music, where a little razzle-dazzle can be a guilty pleasure.