April 2002Arcam DiVA CD72 CD Player
by Aaron Weiss
Non-audiophiles are often assumed to believe that CD players sound alike, while audiophiles occasionally insist that only deafness or some other deficiency could lead to this belief. As a class, audiophile components sound qualitatively different from mass-market merchandise -- a history of non-audiophile house guests has confirmed this to me. But "civilian" listeners remain skeptical about the differences between certain components -- especially CD players. A brief dinner lecture to curious friends about the differences among loudspeakers is easy and engaging. You speak of cones and drivers and cabinet construction and resonance -- it all sounds very plausible. Your friends go home thinking that youre smart and interesting. But try to explain about transports and jitter and clocks, and the same friends may start to feel youve been watching the X-Files too long and consequently make awkward attempts to back out of future dinner invitations.
But lets be honest about our beliefs. CD players probably do not all sound the same, yet the spread of differences between classes of components is surely a matter of scale. Keep this in mind as we reviewers wax on about "tight bass" and "forward vocals" -- for the most part, we're talking degrees of subtlety that have led lesser souls to long periods of rehabilitation in quiet, grassy places.
Enter the DiVA
Arcam, the UK-based audiophile mainstay, recently introduced its line of "digitally integrated video and audio" components, or DiVA. The DiVA siblings share inherited phenotypes -- case design and layout, choice of black or silver finishes -- and genotypes -- in their internal designs for power regulation and output-stage componentry -- aimed at a mid-budget buyer.
The $799 USD CD72 is the middle child between the leaner CD62 ($599) and the CD92 ($1700). Genetically, the CD72 shares more in common with its pricier sibling. Both have enhanced power supplies and chassis, and servo-assisted DC-coupled output stages. The CD72 features 24-bit Burr-Brown Delta-Sigma DACs, whereas the CD92 crunches numbers with a dCS Ring DAC, which also sports dual output stages and an "ultra low jitter" clock. Unlike with the wee CD62, Arcam offers an upgrade path from the CD72 to the CD92. The CD72's Burr-Brown DAC supports 16-bit, 44.1kHz recordings but does not decode HDCD -- for that, youd need to upgrade to the CD92. Both play CD-Rs without trouble.
The CD72s rear is equipped with one pair of RCA analog outputs plus one optical and one coaxial digital output, either of which you might use to connect the CD72 as a transport to an external DAC. The IEC power cord is removable and thus can be replaced with a sexier power cord if youre into that kind of thing.
The CD72's face is clean, if somewhat boxy. The row of typical control buttons underlines the display area, illuminated with very legible, though very green, LED characters. The unit includes the thoughtful touch of a Display button, located only on the remote control, which will dim or disable the display. Arcam claims that the disabled display may result in improved sonics. Although I found no audible change, the aesthetic improvement alone of no display is appreciated. Were these small touches adopted more often by manufacturers, our equipment stacks wouldnt be mistaken for the Las Vegas Strip.
The included remote control is designed to operate both the DiVA CD and DVD players, plus provide limited control over a DiVA amplifier. Remote ergonomics could be improved, as its large size and many small uniform buttons are a hindrance to those of us who prefer to navigate remotes by feel. The DiVA amplifier includes a very similar remote, but it shares only some of the CD functions that the CD/DVD remote has, meaning you may or may not be able to use just one of the remotes if you have both components. Because the remote is populated with many buttons for operating Arcams DVD player, only a subset of its buttons are applicable to CD operation. A couple of the DVD-specific buttons caused odd effects with the CD72, such as two DVD navigation buttons that caused the CD72 to mute its output without a reliable means to restore the sound. Using either the remote or the units face buttons you can program a sequence of tracks in step-by-step order.
Arcams philosophy of building solid products is evident here as soon as you eject the disc tray. The transport glides with a silky quality, one all too often missing from trays that seem to have a case of the jitters. In fact, the Sony-sourced transport is so smooth you may find yourself opening and closing the drawer repeatedly for the sheer gee-whiz factor. I call this "playing with my equipment," and I do not mention this to non-audiophile friends. While in action, the transport is utterly silent. Contrast this to, say, the Pioneer DV-525, which emits a metronomic, though subtle, high-pitched chirp as the disc rotates inside.
The Arcam CD72 mixed it up with several configurations for these evaluations. Three integrated amplifiers took turns -- a Primare A60, Creek 4330, and Arcams DiVA mate, the A65. As stated, a Pioneer DV-525 and Marantz CC65SE were used as comparative sources. At center stage were a pair of ProAc Response 2S speakers and, for a time, B&W DM303s. Components were lashed together with interconnects from DH Labs (BL-1) and BetterCables, and speaker runs from BetterCables and Canare (4S8).
Like its DiVA mate, the A65, the CD72 is a smooth operator. Take note of this influence on a disc such as Fiona Apple's When the Pawn [Epic 69195]. Ms. Apples vocals are confident and earthy, and often a touch hoarse in a way that belies her young larynx. On "Paper Bag," she declares, "And I went crazy again today " -- forceful, forward, and with a hint of sandpaper. Here the CD72 opts for low grit sandpaper, nudging a little edge off the lyric. Yet it remains authoritative and assertive. Ms. Apple sounds smoother but loses none of her insistent quality.
Jeff Buckleys voice was silkiness defined, especially when soaring. His only full-length studio recording before his shocking demise, Grace [Columbia 57528], is an epic of rhythm, detail, and satiny vocals. Its all good for the CD72, which revels in these traits, easily supporting the sweeping dynamics of "Mojo Pin" or "So Real". Aside from the spotlight on Buckleys ethereal delivery, Grace is riddled with low-level detail -- twitches and samples that might seem out of place in what otherwise seems like straightforward studio recordings. Closely miked strumming remains distinct despite rhythms that crash around as if at the shore.
To say that the CD72 is smooth might conjure up associated notions of laggard or slack. But the CD72 can punch it too. Spin up Our Lady Peace's Naveed [Sony 80191] and skip ahead to "Starseed." The acoustic intro sets the stage for a pounding transition that rocks about as hard as is possible given the laws of physics. The rhythm section on this disc is recorded unusually well for rock, with Jeremy Taggarts drumming full and deep and so very Bonham-like. The CD72 doesnt trip over the pace or depth of the "Starseed" rhythm, nor does it falter in fully realizing the peppery marching-drum fills during the bridge at 3:30 into "Naveed." Here, the skins are alternately brushed and pounded, and the difference in timbre is not merely one of volume. The CD72 gets that.
While were into Canadian alternative rock, lets move eastward to Sloan's landmark recording Twice Removed [DGC 24711]. Despite the absurdity of top-ten lists, that this recording was voted the number one Canadian album of all time by one industry survey, and barely made the radar in the United States, tells us what an undiscovered (by some) gem we have here. "Loosens" is rainy-day music, downtempo and immersive. On systems with less space, the track gels together more, which in fact benefits this particular piece. The CD72, as aspiring state-of-the-art components are keen to do, maintains space between the instruments, loosening this track slightly from its heavy moorings. Changing moods entirely, "Deeper than Beauty" sees the clouds part and pure jangle pop shine through. Shedding the somber for bouncing and jiggling, the CD72 perks up and stakes its claim on fun.
Fewer artists have obsessed more over recording detail than Steely Dan. Despite having been all too often pillaged for supermarket Muzak, the four discs in Citizen Steely Dan [MCA 10981] are high-class odes to embittered bourgeois life. At 1:02 into "Sign in Stranger," a piano trill is captured in such detail that you hear the wood of the key repeatedly slapping as it hits bottom. It likely takes the combined efforts of the audio system as a whole to reproduce this level of detail honestly, the loudspeakers especially, but the source is responsible for the earliest signal in the chain. The CD72 doesnt shirk its responsibility here.
On "The Royal Scam" we hear a sparse but wide soundstage. As the story of a corrupted government unfolds, brass fills blast from extremes on the soundstage, well beyond the left and right edges of the loudspeakers. Imaging and soundstaging are particularly sensitive phenomena, and it was clear through several configurations that funky room acoustics were nudging shifts in soundstage despite associated equipment, CD72 or otherwise.
The spectrum of relativity
Mark Levinson Live Recordings at Red Rose Music, Volume One [Red Rose Music RRM 01] serves as a good starting point in establishing the spectrum along which my three sources fit. At 5:20 to 5:25 of "In a Sentimental Mood," Chico Freemans tenor sax sustains a wavering low note. Listen here for the flutter of the bass throughout the sustain, flapping at the air like a hummingbirds wings. It was warm and a tad loose from the Marantz, dry and a bit shallow on the Pioneer. The Arcam leans more towards the Marantz interpretation, but a degree cooler and a touch tighter. "Recitativo in Scherzo" is a rough-hewn and choppy violin attack, in a good way. Owing to the single-performer austerity of the track, imaging is precisely center and slightly back. The Pioneer presents a slightly forward soundstage, punchy but thin and rough; both the Arcam and the Marantz find the right balance between sandpaper and silk, the violin a foot rear of the speaker plane, with the Arcam a toe or so faster in pace.
The plucky bass line behind "Little Dogs Day" is thick, fat, and reverberant -- deep from all three sources, tight but lean from the Pioneer and full and fat from the Marantz. The Arcam finds Mark Levinsons double bass a stone slimmer than the Marantz, but tighter and crisper at the very low end.
Strikingly, variations in equipment configuration did nothing to alter this spectrum. In all cases, characteristics of and differences between loudspeakers and amplifiers influenced the overall sonic signature of the system more than changes in source among these three. Furthermore, the differences among sources remained constant, even as the overall systems signature swayed with changes in components.
I got a little change in my pocket goin' jing-a-ling-a-ling
Arcams CD72 is nimble but not lightweight. I can describe this player as forward, which is to say that it isnt laid-back, but its not particularly harsh or bright, either. Its warmth is more Marantz than Pioneer, with more pace than the former and fullness than the latter. I never felt that details were being lost in the shuffle, and bass was both quick and meaty. Where the CD72 is smooth around the edges, its more Riesling and chocolate than it is black coffee and cigarettes.
At a retail price of $799, the CD72 is not quite what many would consider a budget component, but it is not an audiophile extravagance either. At retail prices, it could fit into a $2000-$2500 system budget, or perhaps sub-$2000 with a little industrious shopping. At this level, the CD72 is a strong candidate among single-disc, one-box sources. And if youre looking for a transport for an external DAC, note the high quality of the CD72s Sony mechanicals.
The Arcam A65, a DiVA integrated amplifier, is an obvious partner for the CD72. In their sense of smoothness and punchy detail, both possess similar sonic signatures. When working in tandem, they tend to reinforce each other, lending to the overall a character more strongly defined by these traits. But by all means, try them on their own too.
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