POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 17
DiVA CD192 CD player
as reviewed by Jeff Parks
Here we are at the close of 2004, in what is supposed to be the twilight of the Compact Disc Era. It has been more than twenty years since CDs were first marketed with the slogan "Perfect Sound Forever." While I can not recall who said that, most of us concluded that this statement was an outright lie when comparing the sound of long play (LP) records to the CD's of that era. I was an audio salesperson at that time, and performed many demos in which I compared the sound of CDs to LPs. The LPs won every time, but that was twenty years ago, and digital technology has come a long way.
Today, with SACD, DVD Audio, and Redbook CD upsampling, digital audio has never sounded better. While SACD and DVD-Audio have great promise, a lack of software appears to imperil their fringe existence. Nevertheless, with million and millions of CD titles out there, and many CDs presently being remastered using better digital technology, the future looks bright for Redbook CD. Maybe that is why, during what is supposed to be the twilight of Redbook, we are seeing a resurgence of standard CD players.
One of the newest entries to the fold is the Arcam DiVA CD192. The CD192 ($1699) is the top of the Arcam DiVA series, in which it replaces the discontinued CD93T. A key feature of the CD192 is its upsampling technology. It upsamples 16-bit/44.1k signals to 24-bit/192k rendering. Upsampling technology has been around for six years. At first, like many audiophiles, I was reluctant to believe the claims of more analog-like sound, better dynamics, larger soundstage, and better imaging. Who are we fooling? How can upsampling a 16-bit/44.1k signal to 24-bit/192k improve the sound, since the 24-bit/192k signal is a second-generation reconstruction of the original signal? Wouldn't there be signal degradation rather than improvement?
Nevertheless, in my experience, upsampled music almost always sounds more refined, with better bass and midrange, a larger soundstage, and upper end extension that is missing most if not all digital hash. In short, the presentation is much more musical. To put the process into simplistic terms (that is to say, ones that I understand), a 16-bit/44.1k signal is sampled 44,100 times per second. These individual samples are linked together—much like dots in a halftone picture—in order to create the audio signal. The term "16-bit" refers to how much information these samples use during this duration. With a 24/192k data stream, the signal has 192,000 dots per second instead of 44,100. This means that we have more than four times the number of dots creating our aural picture. The increased sampling rate results in a gentler up-and down-slope of the signal, which in theory results in more complete musical information. In short, the digital signal should sound more analog. The crazy thing is that this procedure—it works. Upsampling CD players and DACs beat my old reference 16/44.1k DAC/transport combination (a PS Audio Lambda II Special and PS Audio Ultralink II w/HDCD) every time, with a presentation that allows me to get deeper into the recorded performance.
In addition to upsampling, the Arcam CD192 has many other features compared to its predecessors. I'll begin with the heart of the CD192—its DACs. The Alpha 9 used a chip version of the famous Ring DAC designed by Data Conversions Systems (dCS), also located in Cambridge, UK. The CD192 is built around eight individual (four per channel) DACs designed by Wolfson Microelectronics. Wolfson is a leading integrated circuit manufacturer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Arcam first used the Wolfson DACs in the DV88DVD player, and has since used the flagship WM8750 DAC for the DV27 DVD player and the CD-82. The Wolfson WM 8740 was Arcam's first choice based upon several factors. One of the main reasons was the DAC is a multi-bit sigma/delta design which handles 24-bit word lengths at rates up to 192k/sec. Using this high-quality digital filter with a choice of rolloff rates, it is possible to run it in both differential and parallel modes to improve dynamic range.
Arcam runs the multiple DACs in differential mono mode, which results in residual noise down to around -120dB. This design also allows the left and right channels to be fully isolated, resulting in better soundstaging and imaging because there is less crosstalk between channels. Other features include a high stability third-overtone clock for low jitter, DC-coupled output with low CD offset servo to provide deep and controlled bass reproduction, a four-layer DAC PCB for improved low-level signal return paths and very low digital noise, high quality op-amps from Analogue Devices and Burr Brown (Ad979 and Op2134), audiophile-grade decoupling capacitors (Stargate and Oscon), and low-dissipation-factor polypropylene capacitors in the output filters.
Other features included a four-layer fiberglass DAC circuit board for best audio performance, a low-noise power supply with toroidal transformer, and a modular design for easy future upgrades. The chassis is available in black or silver. Warranty is two years, parts and labor. The CD192 is compatible with most CD-R and CD-RW discs. It displays CD text information. Remote control is achieved via the supplied infrared handset or industry standard 3.5mm jack. The unit has a standby control on the rear panel. The CD192 uses an IEC power connection—no captured cord here! All the usual inputs are there: one coaxial digital output, one optical output, twin RCA audio outputs (sorry, no XLR), and one 12V remote input.
Since the CD192 is modular in design, all you need to do to get upgrades installed is drive to your their nearest Arcam dealer—no time-consuming shipping to and from the manufacturer. Here is the real kicker: Arcam offers upgrades for their other players as well. The DiVA CD192 upgrade is available for the DiVA CD72, 73, and 82 models, and upgrades to CD-82 status are available for the Alpha 7/8/7Se/8Se/9 series. This gives many audiophiles the option to purchase an Arcam CD player that is within their budget, and upgrade later. Now that is smart marketing!
Enough about the bells and whistles. What really matters is how the CD192 sounds. A few years ago I heard the Arcam Alpha 9, and loved its robust bass, excellent soundstaging, and balanced mid- to high-end presentation, so I could not wait to hear the CD192. I popped it in my system and proceeded to listen after a brief warm-up. I was very disappointed. The bass was overblown, the tonal balance disjointed, and the overall sound very aggressive.
Like first impressions of people, first impressions of audio gear are hard to overcome—especially if they are negative. Knowing that I was being unfair in my initial evaluation of the CD192, I decided to let it run for well over 100 hours before any serious listening. I popped in a CD with test tones, white noise, frequency sweeps, and a variety of music tracks, and let it run. After the break-in period, I was greeted by a completely different player. The difference was so significant, I was almost embarrassed that I listened to the CD192 before allowing it to break in—I really do know better. Now, however, I was rewarded with one of the best sounding CD players that has graced my system in a very long time. The thing that struck me was the CD192's ability to reproduce tight, deep, and very articulate bass. On Blue Man Group's The Complex (Lava 83631-2), the track "Persona" opens with a huge bass riff from double drum kits, along with a couple of bass guitars and a "Big Drum" (a Blue Man Group creation, I suspect) that is approximately 15 feet in diameter. Listening to this track through the CD192 was a captivating experience. The bass had such power and authority that it went through my entire body, not to mention it shook my room and a good part of my home! The bass was never boomy or bloated. Rather, it had the natural slam that I expect from a live performance.
Regarding Blue Man Group's live performance, I speak from experience. Every time I make it to Las Vegas, I visit the Luxor Hotel to see at least one of their shows. Blue Man Group has got to be one of the few LOUD rock concert performances that is not distorted or ruined by poor acoustics. What I heard through the CD192, at rock concert levels, was so close to the original that it was like I was there all over again.
The CD192 can rock, but how did it sound with less overdriven tracks? It did not disappoint. Ben Harper's blues/rock/Reggae-inspired tune "Jah Work," from his 1997 The Will to Live CD (Virgin 7243 8 48700 2 7) opens with a great bass guitar line that surrounds the listener, followed by Harper's excellent acoustic guitar work. The pace, attack, and rhythmic quality of the strings as they were struck by his pick were realistic and visceral. None of the emotional message was lost by the CD192. All of the instruments were properly placed, with the drums behind Harper, whose voice was slightly behind the speaker plane and whose guitar was slightly in front of them. Further into the track, there is a conga solo. The drums were reproduced with such clarity, snap, and focus that I could actually hear the notes resonate throughout their bodies. The presentation was so realistic that I started to "air drum" along with the performers. That was fun!
Never did the CD192 sound aggressive or edgy. On the Bruce Springsteen tune "Thunder Road," from Cowboy Junkies ‘Neath Your Covers promo CD (Zoe Records 6-01143-2005), most sub-$2000 CD players can sound a little hot, with congestion in the upper midrange. Not the CD192. Margo Thomas' voice was smooth, without any hint of edge or grain. The CD192 sounded sonically pleasing while providing enough detail and focus to satisfy the analytical side of the brain. This is not to say that the CD192 is perfect. Compared to my new reference digital setup (a Dodson 218 DAC and Richard Kern-modified PS Audio Lambda II Special transport), it had some shortcomings. The bass could be a little more extended, the soundstage a little deeper, instrumental images a touch more focused, and there could be bit more extension of notes with a slightly smoother top end. Nevertheless, let's keep things in perspective. I was comparing a sub-$2000 player toan $11,000 DAC/transport combination. There should be a difference in performance between the two! Nevertheless, I was so impressed with the CD192's soundstaging, visceral bass, and realistic aural presentation that I wondered whether the improvement was worth the price difference. $9000 buys a lot of gear or CDs. That is a question you will have to answer.
Could I live with the CD192 if didn't have my current setup? Maybe. The question is moot though bearing in mind I already own the Dodson/ PS Audio combination of which I am very satisified in owning. As stated above there is a performance difference between the Dodson/PS Audio DAC and transport--however slight. The CD192 is that good. In fact, so good that these differences could only be readily understood when I switched back and forth between my reference setup and the CD192. Too add to this point just prior to my finishing the review of the CD-192, I decided to listen to the CD192 exclusively for about a week, I was very pleased with its performance—so much so that I inquired about purchasing it. This speaks volumes for the CD192. Highly recommended. Jeff Parks