It’s getting increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that CD technology has been undergoing a bit of a bashing from various quarters recently. With the increasing popularity of downloaded music affecting sales, digital storage getting cheaper by the minute and an increasing number of manufacturers claiming superior results with harddisk drives, there are those that predict that the days of the silver disc are numbered. Déjà vu, anyone? Or possibly poetic justice – its really not that long ago that compact disc was the perpetrator and LP the victim. Only time has shown that the prophets of doom were wrong; as a quick glance at any issue of Hi-Fi+ will testify. But lets look at the facts. Technology does indeed move at a rapid pace, but at the present time downloading is about convenience rather than quality, and moving even CD resolution type files is problematic for most of us, not so much because of the hardware but the limitations of an ancient and overstressed network. As a result (with one or two possible exceptions) most music is offered at best as a FLAC or lossless file. So while the marvels of being able to store a dozen albums on a piece of plastic the size of you fingernail is very much with us, getting them there is more of a problem, and while they are being held on a flash memory, do we yet know how stable that situation is? Then there is the fact that for a lot of us, owning the hardware complete with all the details and artwork is still an important part of the process of listening to and enjoying music. But the real irony is that the major record companies who were so scared of losing revenue through downloading are now so enthusiastic, having eventually realised that they will no longer have to fork out forpressing costs, printing, casework, distribution and retailer mark up.
So yes, I guess that I am sticking up for the compact disc, a situation that surprises me as I have never really warmed to the format, but it scares the hell out of me to think that the quality of mainstream music could drop any lower. That and the fact that for the last few months I have been living with the Audio Research Reference 7 CD player, a machine that has very gently and seductively worked its way under my skin. No startling revelations, just a player that has considerably widened the channels between my CD collection and the desire to listen to the music within it.
The CD7 needs little or no introduction. Despite never receiving a formal review it has become something of a benchmark product, the recipient of an Product Of The Year award last year and part of a system review in issue number 54. RG is a keen advocate and seems reluctant to let it stray too far from his listening room. It looks much like any other Audio research product, brushed aluminium front panel (double thickness as it is part of the reference range) with large handles, black casework and an air of functionality rather than designed aesthetics, an identity that has served the company well for over thirty years. The CD transport is accessed via a sliding panel on the top and utilises a magnetic puck to secure the disc in place. The old-fashioned looking display and basic functions occupy two recesses in the front panel. Like the current pre-amps, I find the plastic switch panel a bit cheap and unrefined by comparison to the rest of the machine; it would be nice to have something a bit more tactile and elegant, but I guess I am being picky as nobody else seems to agree with me.
With an existing CD player in the shape of the CD3 Mk. ll, it was the development of the Ref 3 preamplifier that was to be the major influence in the conception of the CD7, in particular the output stage and associated power supply. By incorporating much of the improved circuitry developed for the flagship line-stage into their existing player, ARC felt that not only was the performance elevated to such an extent that the improvement warranted a new model, but that it was worthy of joining the ranks of their reference range, a privilege indeed. So the ‘7 retains the Philips Pro 2 disc transport, a heavy unit built on a cast chassis that goes against the current trend for lightweight, plastic CD-ROM mechanisms that rattle around at high speed. A lot of care has gone into controlling and dissipating the unwanted vibration from the mechanism and this accounts in no small part for the sheer mass of the machine; it feels more like a power amp than a CD player when you pick it up. Conversion is carried out by a Crystal 24 bit DAC which feeds the gain stage lifted from the Ref 3. Designed around the now familiar Russian 6H30 double triode, the discovery of this valve has had a major influence on the circuit topology of many recent Audio Research products and no less than seven are incorporated into the Ref 7, two per channel form the active electronics while the remaining three go to make up the tightly regulated HT supply. ARC are also making a big deal about the capacitors used in this stage. A swift glance inside the machine reveals the presence of a lot of high grade components and, as you would expect, build quality is to a suitably high standard. Both analogue and digital outputs are provided, and you have the option of balanced and single ended via RCA’s, XLR’s and a 75Ohm BNC.