I’ve lived (occasionally reluctantly!) with quite a few CD players over the last 20 years, of which a surprising number have featured valves in part or all of their analogue stages. Often they’ve been accompanied by a suggestion that, by sounding soft and rounded their incorporation helps to balance out or ameliorate some of the sins committed by digital processing. It’s not a view to which I subscribe; instead they seem to mask or undermine the one or two things that CD does well. Good audio circuitry should be just that, regardless of the devices used, and while ARC have always been a champion of thermionic technology, they are not afraid to use FET’s or transistors where appropriate to achieve a better result. So the inclusion of valves in the Ref 7 is not just an after thought or gimmick, and a quick listen to the CD3 that is essentially the same machine but without the analogue refinement serves to highlight the difference. The Issue 54 system in which I first reviewed the CD7 was designed to balance the performance of CD and vinyl, and included the impressive Kuzma Stabi Reference with a Triplanar Vll and Lyra Skala cartridge. One of my comments at the time was that the difference between analogue and digital replay was not as great as I’d expected it to be, which considering the capabilities of the LP front-end says a lot about what the Audio Research does well. Several months and a lot of discs down the line I am still of the same opinion, and it’s as good a place as any to start when describing the sound of the CD7. This player manages to reproduce more of the air and space in a good recording than the majority of players that I have heard, with the result that music sounds less processed and thus more accessible. But it is not about laying an analogue sheen over the music, rounding off corners or taking the edge away - far from it. The ARC seems to offer 69 unprecedented resolution of the colour and texture of instruments. But it is the sound (or more properly, the lack of it) in between the playing, the structural aspects to music, that suggests a more complete and coherent picture of what is going on, one that’s more akin to the way good vinyl replay does things.
I have had the pleasure of using the CD7 with a considerable range of gear, but probably the longest standing set up involved the Revel Salon ll’s driven by the Goldmund Telos 200 power amps and the Ayre K1Xe pre. After some deliberation, I ended up (unusually) using the balanced outputs from the ARC, which in this particular combination sounded just a little more focused, at the risk of trading a touch of flow and expressiveness.
In terms of character, the CD7 is essentially neutral, but its range of tonal colour and harmonic development mean that it tends toward the rich and full bodied rather than lean and emaciated, while the top end is beautifully sweet and capable of real articulation where required. While it is easy to be beguiled by delicate sounds being reproduced with great clarity and expressiveness, dynamically the ARC is capable of moving pretty fast when the material demands it, from the subtle picking of acoustic instruments through to the raw energy of say The Who – live at Leeds. My only caveat is that with recordings such as this I occasionally felt that the extreme bottom end lacked a bit of impact compared to the rest of the spectrum, robbing the performance of some of the excitement I know to be there from the days of playing it on vinyl.
Having never been a great one for playing round with tweaks and ancillaries, I was a little dubious when RG suggested that I try the platform specifically designed for the CD7 by SRA. Maybe it’s the combination of valves (which are inherently susceptible to vibration) and the mechanics of the transport in the same box, but the support produced a considerable benefit, more than I had anticipated. It sounded, as if the microphone in the bass drum had suddenly been (re-)positioned correctly, as opposed to half way down the hall, and the timing at the bottom end clicked into focus with everything else. The big surprise however, was the vast improvement in imaging and the way in which the music projected away from the loudspeakers; something that I’d thought CD players didn’t do particularly well. So, one more assumption banished.
Another vital area in which the Audio Research excels is its even-handedness when it comes to recording quality.
It always seems to unearth the musical strengths of any disc – even truly crap sounding commercial releases, including a lot of so-called re-masters which actually challenge the use of the “M”-word and make me question my chosen career path.