by Ken Micallef
Reviewing audio gear is not always the fun and games that it would appear to be. Sure, you get to hook up expensive toys and put them to work, and you do receive a smarmy feeling of self-satisfaction when browsing your local high-end dealers wares. "Hmmm," you ponder, "Ive heard that and that and that..." But what can rock your world is when, after youve spent years to perfect your rig, some hotshot new product comes along that challenges your existing gear and blows your audio mind. That is my experience with the Arcam Alpha 9 CD player. It upset me, riled me, but finally made me realize that audio technology is constantly advancing in terms of lower prices and higher quality, and if you are to keep your wits you must choose wisely, not wildly, to insure happiness and a decent credit rating.
Now before we get to the follow-up, to understand what the Arcam Alpha 9 and its innovative dCS technology is all about, you may want to reread James Causeys excellent explanation of the world of oversampling and all them 1s and 0s in his original review. I will tell you this: old Jim was so flummoxed by the Alpha 9 that he forgot to remove his Eliza Carthy CD before he shipped the player off to me!
As an avid follower of the British audio press, I have considered Arcam products in the past. One of their handsome integrated amps barely lost out to my then amp of choice, the British Rotel RB970, followed by a British Audiolab 8000S. But over the years, I have found myself leaning stateside when it comes to audio components, speakers not included. When I opened the Arcam box, I recognized that traditional British touch, borne of a decades-long love affair with hi-fi. In terms of styling, user-friendliness, and flexibility, the Arcam Alpha 9 represents the best of current British hi-fi aesthetics. But this is no real surprise.
Unlike in the US, where high-end audio seems to be losing out to home theater, a walk though any medium-sized English city will reveal excellent chain stores like Sevenoaks, Electra Etc, Radfords, Audio T and the budget-minded Richer Sounds. While you wont find massive power amps in their smallish listening rooms, you will find a wealth of wonderful gear by names like Epos, Myryad, B&W, Meridian, Micromega, Mission and the recently revived Tannoy line. The British see hi-fi as part of life, like good food, good drink and good sex (ever had bad sex?). OK, I digress. But from a marketing standpoint, we can learn something from our old masters.
Gettin to it
In the far corner is the Arcam Alpha 9, with its beauteous green readout lights all aglow. In the near corner, my rig, consisting of a Theta Universal Transport Series II, Genesis Digital Lens, Muse Model 2 DAC, all wired with JPS Labs Superconductor interconnects and digital cable. Down below we have the Audio Note Line 2 preamp, Cary SLA-70 Signature power amp, and JMLab Daline 6.0 speakers (with JPS Labs speaker cable). Doo-dads, voodoo, and supports include several Townshend Seismic sinks; Golden Sounds DH cones, Black Diamond Racing cones, and sorbothane feet; with Cardas, Synergistic Research and JPS power cords. And some of those RPG foam wall treatments from Audio Advisor (killer!). Oh, I forgot the eye of newt, toe of dog, and a lock of my ex-girlfriends hair on the back wall for resonance control.
Because James had already broken in the Arcam Alpha 9, I was ready to boogie. Dropping in jazz tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzers latest, Quality Time [TVT-3230], I was instantly taken with the Alpha 9s lush pedigree, an opinion that remained through several discs. Other discs for comparison included Seals Human Being [Warner Bros. 46828], trumpeter Lee Morgans newly reissued Infinity [Blue Note 97504], Bjorks Post [Elektra 61740] (which offers astounding, floor-rumbling synth bass tones), and PJ Harveys most rockin Rid Of Me [Island 314-514-696], which is a perfect example of a really live-sounding recording.
My first impressions of the Mintzer disc played through the Alpha 9: Peter Erskines drums were very natural across a good soundstage, bass somewhat light, sax dead center and nicely robust, an overall presentation a little tilted toward the lower midrange. The same CD in my trusty Theta? Automatically the bass was weightier, piano more crisp, and the sax delineated with razor-sharp clarity. I also suddenly realized that there was a tambourine in the right channel that I didnt hear through the Alpha 9. All in all, the Arcam Alpha 9 was pleasantly warm, fuzzy, and forgiving.
The Seal disc is a lush, semi-symphonic affair with drums oddly mixed low in the soundstage, as guitar and keyboard surround his huge voice, which dominates the production (thats pop for you). Seemingly mixed for car radio, this is a no-detail but epic-intended extravaganza, living up to Seals grandly humanistic themes. Again, the Alpha 9 played it smooth, with warm bass and a comfort zone of strings and percussion. In the Theta, the drums became much clearer and the bass more liquid and natural. Though I now noticed that there were several guitars, including an acoustic that I hadnt heard through the Alpha 9, the Thetas presentation also seemed slightly colder and more aloof than the Alpha 9s. But overall, the Thetas soundstage was dramatically larger, with more air and more of a live sound.
Well, you cant be too surprised. We are talking well under two grand for the Arcam Alpha 9 versus approximately six grand for the Theta/Genesis/Muse collection. Both have entirely different sonic signatures, but I could easily live with either of them. The Arcam Alpha 9 repeatedly added finesse, like a marriage counselor (or some Johnnie Walker Black) smoothing over troubles. Then the Theta walked in and laid down the law, telling Mr. and Mrs. Doe the facts of life. The Genesis Lens portion of my system is in itself a brilliant focusing machine, expanding the soundstage, adding greater relief, and revealing every merciless detail. But sometimes you dont want all the truth, all the time. Sometimes its nice to hear someone whisper sweet nothings in your ear, even if you know that it wont work come morning.
With Bjorks "Hyper Ballad," the Alpha 9 couldnt quite plumb the depths of its ocean-trawling low end, and the drummers delicate brush shadings were all crammed together, but it did present Bjorks voice with correct sweetness. On the Lee Morgan disc (recorded in 1965), drummer Billy Higgins ride cymbal sounded pingy but rather tinny, but then even more so through the Theta. That old truth serum again.
With the Arcam Alpha 9s fast-acting transport (the Theta is painfully slow), cute remote, HDCD capability and attractive display, its the hands-down winner for value-added functionality. While the Arcam Alpha 9 is not really playing the same game as the aforementioned outfit, that it is even in the running is a shock to this audio anal-retentives head. The Arcam is quite a musical achievement. And that bodes well for all of us rhinestone-budget audiophiles with 20-carat ears.
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