By the way, the Belafonte came via Classic Records’ vinyl reissue, straight into the Luxman’s built-in phonostage from a Sota Cosmos/ Graham Phantom/Ortofon Rohman combination. Clean, quiet, dynamic, and rather eye‑poppingly detailed (that Carnegie Hall crowd a collection of individuals, not an undifferentiated wodge). Make no mistake: This is no tossed‑in, okay‑for‑the‑money phonostage; it’s genuinely excellent. (The mm circuit has the standard 47k load, the mc 100 ohms—an excellent compromise value in the absence of options.)
Two old-fashioned features I both applaud and appreciate in the L‑550A are the tone control and loudness‑compensation circuits pregnant pause here…that vortex‑like sucking sound you just heard is, I’d guess, the last of what little credibility I have left with the purist crowd going right down the tubes. Sure, a badly designed loudness circuit—there were plenty of them in the old days—is useless. But a well‑designed one, such as Luxman’s, does an excellent job restoring a pleasing and—yes, why be afraid to say it?— realistic sense of bottom‑end warmth and weight for very quiet listening. As for tone controls, many of my favorite recordings from the early days of stereo with their peaked microphones—whatever the admitted virtues of classic Mercury recordings, surely nobody actually likes that 11kHz peak?—and their souped‑up upper‑midrange and lower‑highs really do sound more natural with some treble pull‑down. (So, for that matter, do any number of modern recordings with their ultra‑close miking.)
Let me provide two specific examples of what I am talking about. Leonard Bernstein’s 1962 Mahler Second Symphony with the New York Philharmonic, a desert island performance if ever there was one, has reproduction that is actually quite superb in many ways: great clarity and transparency, extraordinary inner detail, real atmosphere, even impressive dynamic range (tremendous weight and power in the climaxes). But like so many Columbias from this period, it’s rather fierce in the upper-midrange and lower highs, which the Luxman treble control tames very nicely. A before‑and‑after demonstration forced a purist‑audiophile friend to admit the correction significantly reduced glare to more musically pleasing and natural effect.
One quiet night, listening at an equally quiet level, my wife and I were comparing recordings of Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet. Now Danielle’s favorite instrument is the cello, which she likes reproduced with its full richness, nearly impossible at very low volumes. Pulling up the bottom end with the bass control brought a nod of approval. Then, almost as a lark, I added loudness compensation to the bass boost. The smile on her face told me all I needed to know. Suddenly the entire performance took on a richness, weight, and depth not just of sonics but of deepened emotional meaning, of extended musical expression.
DU‑50 Universal Disc Player
The importer prefers to market the DU‑50 as a universal music player because it lacks an HDMI output. But inasmuch as it will accept any five‑inch disc on the planet except HD and Blu‑ray, it is by any reckoning a universal player de facto. And HDMI or no, it superbly reproduced (via component outputs) several movies I’ve edited, over which I also supervised dubbing and observed timing.
The DU‑50 has one feature unique in my experience: a pair of onboard DACs, front-panel switchable. The first is a standard, albeit very-high‑quality Red Book DAC that also serves dual use for DVD‑A. The second, called the Fluency (FE) DAC, is claimed to “recreate” some of the ultra‑high frequency extension lost by the brick‑wall filters mandated by the 44kHz sampling rate. That’s about as much as my competence in function‑interpolation and other digital theory allows me to explain. Sonically, the FE DAC is a little warmer and more relaxed beside the slightly cooler standard DAC, though I still find my outboard Benchmark DAC‑1 slightly more accurate than either.
But as Tom Martin observed recently in these pages, good CD players tend to sound remarkably similar to one another, all else equal. When Red Book gets it basically right, there’s not a lot of difference from one player or DAC to the next (virtually none in tonal balance), and what differences there are tend to cost a great deal of money. But there are differences. Tom in his report concentrated on high frequencies, but there is another area that separates the routine from the truly extraordinary, a characteristic I’ve mentioned with respect to the integrated amplifier: body. The Oppo DV‑981HD, highly praised in this magazine and elsewhere, sounds very nice and takes your breath away when you recall its $229 price, which includes stellar video‑performance. Yet I hardly ever use it to play music because by comparison with what else I have in house, it simply lacks body. (It also has the most unreliable ergonomics I’ve encountered in any digital player.) I’ve been listening to a lot of piano music lately, especially the sonatas of Beethoven in performances of various magnificence by Serkin père, Goode, Rosen, Richter, Uchida, and Lewis. Put on the last movement of the “Waldstein”—Beethoven at his most heaven‑stormingly virtuosic— and the Oppo does nothing wrong… except when you listen to it beside a really serious player, such as this Luxman. Suddenly you hear weight, power, and drive to rivet the attention and tickle the hairs on the back of your neck. With the Oppo and others of its ilk, there is by comparison a thinness—I am not referring to a tonal issue here—that lends the presentation a vague but unmistakable feel of insubstantiality, almost a “papery” character.