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Positive Feedback ISSUE
FMJ CD33 CD player
as reviewed by Lester J. Mertz
If you want to bake a cake, you've got to break some eggs. As a former baker, I understand all that this saying implies. I wasn't a great baker when I began, but with time and practice—and lots of broken eggs—my cakes got better. The same principle applies to perfecting a sound system. The elusive quest for a great sounding system takes time, practice, and equipment changes.
I lived with my Arcam Alpha 9 CD player for almost five years, and during that time I spent lots of money and time working to get my system sounding as good as I could I could on my budget. After all that time and money, it sounded pretty damn good! I spent many hours each weekend listening. Sometimes the system would be on from 5 AM to 10 PM, with music constantly calling me back to my chair.
My audiophile friends would ask, "How do you get that deep soundstage?" and boy, was it ever. It extended beyond my house walls! What my friends didn't say was that my equipment performed better than their much more expensive gear. You could hear the disappointment in their voices. How did I do it? I broke some eggs. I tried everything I could get my hands on to improve the sound from that much-maligned Alpha 9. Yes, it was lightweight and it had a plastic front (with a beautiful curve that has disappeared from Arcam's products), and there were criticisms about its transformers and so on, but with the right recordings, it was truly magical. It excelled with audiophile CDs from Reference Recordings, JVC, and Harmonia Mundi's classical stuff.
Nevertheless, I wondered how one of the newer upsampling players would sound in my system. Now that I had a new line stage and had installed all of those great tweaks—vibration control devices and fancy cords were everywhere—would listening to music be an even greater experience? I borrowed several one-box players from audiophile friends, and was let down in every case. Some had more bass, some had much more treble (way too much, in fact, at least for me), and some just didn't suit me. Does a one-box CD player really need to be bigger and heavier than my 55-pound tube amp?
I continued to experiment, but stayed with the Alpha 9 until several months ago, when my friend Fred Kat, of Katli Audio in Chino Hills, California, mentioned that he would be getting one of the new Arcam CD33 players. Would I be interested in hearing it? You bet! I got his email the day before Thanksgiving, and picked it up on Friday.
The 33's thick, brushed silver front panel is beautiful, if understated, with a rather sober British look that doesn't jump out at you. It is much heavier than the Alpha 9, and has a more substantial feel, although the size and layout are very similar.
The features on the back of the 33 and the 9 are virtually the same, with the addition of the optical digital output on the 33. The double RCA outputs on both players allow quick interconnect comparisons, and are a nice touch that I use regularly. I use one cable for my audiophile buds and another, softer-sounding one for non-fatiguing classical listening.
The heavier 33 is less susceptible to vibration. The 9 was noticeably influenced by its position and method of support. The Mana Sound Frame worked well with the 9, but I don't hear the same degree of improvement with the 33. Both players use the Sony drawer, but the displays are different. The 33 has the typical Sony numbered grid that thankfully can be switched off via the remote, while the Alpha 9 has a softer looking display. It also has a "display off" switch on the front panel.
The 33 is disarmingly quiet compared to the 9, and to any of the loaners I tried. After pushing Play, there is no indication that music will be pouring out of your system without warning—no spooling up of the disc drive, no clunky noises, and no bathroom break while it reads the disk, then debates with itself about whether it will play the disc or not.
AS soon as I got the 33 home, I popped it into my system, in the same position and with the same interconnects, same power cord, same everything, as the Alpha 9. It had the unrelenting, horribly bright sound of a discount store CD player. It needed to break in. I played it in my system non-stop for almost three days, and by Sunday evening, the sound was better, though still not as good as the Alpha 9. Then I had a brainstorm: What about some different interconnects? I inserted a pair of DH Labs Air Matrix cables, and the sound became decidedly more warm and listenable. I put on a nice piano recording—Mia Jang's Sweet Dreams (NARADA ND 46452)—and for the first time, I enjoyed the CD33.
Over the next two weeks, I kept breaking those eggs—i.e., moving things into and out of the system. I was trying to get the magic back. Sometimes we think that because something—a cable, perhaps—was great compared to what we had before, it will be a permanent solution for our system. We insert a piece of gear and expect that it is "the answer." I have felt that way, but I have found that you sometimes have to backtrack and reinstall gear that you've since bypassed. Get out those old interconnects, power cords, cones, wood blocks, squiggly rubber thingies, and try them all over again. You may be surprised that one of your languishing goodies is the hot thing in your new setup.
Speaking of interconnects, the 33 is more forgiving of cables, and many of my older ones sounded especially good after the player broke in. After a couple of weeks, it was making a sweeter and more relaxing sound, and it continued to improve, yet I was still changing things around and listening for that magic. I like to get up early and listen to music while the house and neighborhood are quiet. One morning, I played Chanticleer's Palestrina (Teldec D-106302), a recording that I've probably listened to 100 times, and I was taken away by the beauty of it. The magic was back!
The 33 sounds round and warm, and many CDs are more listenable than heretofore (as the British might say). CDs sound more inviting, in the most analog, delicious and sensuous ways. I found myself digging out old favorites and staying up well past my bedtime. Everything was both more beautiful and more intelligible. Song lyrics that previously sounded slurred could now be deciphered. Instruments were separated from each other, and voices distinct. The CD33 is a revelation! Is it due to 192KHz sampling? Or to its Wolfson Microelectronics WM 8740 DAC chips? Whatever, it sounds just lovely.
The soundstage is broad and a little more forward, as if you had gotten seats closer to the orchestra. Image depth is good, though not quite as deep as with the Alpha 9, though the older player needed pricey audiophile CDs to achieve that feat. Perhaps with more time and further tweaking, the soundstage will deepen?
With Reference Recordings, some of which are in HDCD (a format the 33 does not support), the sound is breathtaking, with every bit of that "you are there" sound. I really love the opening number on Copland 100, with Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra (RR-93CD). The 33's dynamics catch me off guard, and its resolution lets me hear the tympani working to make that explosive cannon sound. Another wonderful test recording is Nojima Plays Liszt (RR-25CD), a must-have for piano aficionados. If I put it on, I simply must hear it all! The Arcam CD33 pulls you in to the music, and won't let you go. Lester J. Mertz