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Positive Feedback ISSUE42
the DU-80 Multi-Standard Music Player - a Religious Experience
as reviewed by 'Radio Free' Chip Stern
When it comes to that exercise in culinary taste testing we refer to as the review process, it's just as jaded and un-cool for critics to belly up to the aural buffet table armed with all manner of prejudices and pre-conceptions when sampling pricey, prime ribs of gear, as it is when munching on humble audio horse burgers. Inevitably there is a tendency to jump to conclusions, be one's emotions giddy and over the top or utterly lacking in passion. Best to just chill and let things play out...in the end, the thing inevitably speaks for itself.
I mention this at the outset, before I transmogrify into a gushing schoolgirl, because when I initially disconnected the $4000 McCormack UDP-1 Deluxe Universal Player I've been deploying as my reference digital front end, and inserted the $10,500 Luxman DU-80 Multi-Standard Music Player in its stead, my populist proclivities kicked in, and much to my chagrin, I was rather under whelmed.
"Damn, the McCormack sure sounds good," I shrugged, noting how much the less expensive unit's presentation paralleled that of the more pricey Luxman... expansive soundstaging, excellent dynamics, natural tonalities—in fact, right out of the starter's gate, I wondered if indeed I was more enamored of the UDP-1 Deluxe's transient impact and bass extension, which was a little more pointed and forward, though the DU-80's performance was really quite stellar.
My mind began to wander at that point, and the populist in me began to ruminate on high end audio's inevitable laws of diminishing returns, in which greater and greater expenditures of coin, produce inversely smaller and smaller increments of verisimilitude. To me, this suggested another tenuous analogy...how when listening to amplifiers, every doubling up of power does not in turn double volume, but rather increases gain by 3dB increments.
However, a few hours latter, as the DU-80 began to warm-up, and I realized how profoundly altered some of my key reference recordings now seemed to these ears—how much deeper my hearing extended into the presentation—I could be heard to exclaim "Oh, my God," as a prelude to more profane exultations. Much of the recorded music I thought I had a handle on now seemed altogether fresh and new. I experienced some of my most cherished music in a state of reverence where the skin tingles, a broad grin crosses one's face and a cold sweat breaks out with the creeping realization that an aural stimulus package has been enacted unanimously by both houses of your psychic legislature—the head and the heart—and with this seismic shift in musical expectations, everything in your immediate environment is now up for sale... someone please contact the Chinese Minister of Finance about a bridge loan, because Lord have mercy, I have got to have it.
Yes, indeed, your first bite of the Luxman DU-80 Multi-Standard Music Player will make your taste buds tingle, but sure as you take that second bite, you're hooked. Good food, good music, good loving... you've got to have it. The bard once suggested that it was better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all... but then Willie The Shake never listened to Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Tin Pan Alley" on a Luxman DU-80, and while, blue moon... I have not exactly been without a dream in my heart, I nevertheless want to say, that if there was a way, I should surely want my baby back with me, 'cause she's my true love, my only one don't you see. [Cough.]
My sincere apologies to the Cowboy Junkies (who, incidentally are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their audiophile milestone The Trinity Sessions by returning to that self same church to reinterpret their entire recital on a new double disc CD/DVD recording, Trinity Revisited), but we were feeling rather whimsical, and I suppose we went a tad over the top, or as Tony Curtis' Lieutenant Holden once told Cary Grant's Commander Sherman in Operation Petticoat, "We'd say you're making your point the hard way..."
Okay, Point #1: Life goes on, and the UDP-1 ain't exactly chopped liver, and besides, one of the most basic rules of the audiophile experience is that if you cannot be with the one you love, love the one you're with.
Point #2: Somewhere in the back of my mind, I can already anticipate that moment, when shortly after this review goes up on line, some reader will email me with an earnest entreaty: "What do you REALLY THINK, Chip?"
I mean, what the $%#&... am I using big words... hedging my bets—do audiophiles feel as though they need to read between the lines? Do I go on at such length that readers lose sight of the passion I am trying to covey in a tsunami of verbiage?
Let me state it more plainly.
The Luxman DU-80 Multi-Standard Music Player is a religious experience, one of the most deeply involving, spiritually compelling musical instruments I've ever auditioned, capable of delivering the depth of detail and frequency extension digital has always promised, yet with an analog-level of resolution, spatial realism, midrange liquidity, timbral accuracy and a wealth of low level detail that is utterly spellbinding in a curiously relaxed manner, which to suggest another analogy, reflects vacuum tube qualities. The DU-80 allows listeners to fully experience the music in the here and now, an utterly convincing depiction of the time domain that seemingly transcends the playback medium itself.
The Luxman DU-80 truly delivers on the promise of the high end audio experience, and even at a suggested retail ticket of $10,500, more than justifies its price point. The DU-80 is not just some flavor-of-the-month hype, but an aural and technical achievement on the cutting edge of music reproduction, which can more than hold its own against the most esteemed digital front products within its immediate price range, and indeed, even some over-heated products selling for considerably more money. What's more, it's not just that it's so bloody good, but that it offers listeners a sonically original perspective on the digital experience that is uniquely Luxman.
Can you feel me?
Some Pigs Are Created More Equal Than Others
I am keenly aware of how my last few reviews for Positive Feedback trumpeted the musical attributes of high-performance/high value power amps such as the Rogue M-150 and Bel Canto REF1000, while at only $1199, for this scribe the Music Hall Trio CD Receiver remains a stellar example of audiophile values targeted and executed in such a way as to entice and enrapture those Pilgrims looking to make a meaningful entrée into the realms of high resolution music reproduction, though lacking the requisite funds to go truly postal.
And while I have rarely risen up on my hind legs to bellow at full froth on behalf of the higher priced spread, it's not because I disdain cutting edge gear at lofty price points. I mean, like duh...
No, what has always fried my onions is the notion that said entrée into the realms of high resolution audio is somehow the exclusive purview of the well-heeled, and that if you can't plunk down telephone numbers for a system you needn't even bother to get involved. It is that sense of snobbery and entitlement that has marginalized the two-channel experience; worse yet, it has led to an ever-shrinking market in what should be a growth industry, but then, I am probably a hopeless romantic when it comes to the good old proscenium arch, attached as I am to the enduring attributes of a high-resolution two-channel stereo rig.
Having said all that, while I disdain the discredited viewpoint which holds that if something costs more, it therefore follows that it must be better, let me make this quite clear: don't hate the playa, hate the game.
That is to say, musicality is sacrosanct to me, and I always respond to authentic quality and genuine musical distinction. Still, handsome is as handsome does, or as George Orwell suggested in Animal Farm, "All pigs are created equal, but some pigs are more equal than others."
Are we on the same page now?
Good, because while the Luxman DU-80 Multi-Standard Music Player ain't exactly your average pig in the poke, it is seemingly more equal than other digital front end contenders on the outer reaches of high end audio gear. Let us detail, if we may, just how we arrived at such a keen state of enthusiasm for all things Luxman, and specifically, the Luxman DU-80 Multi-Standard Music Player.
The McIntosh of Japan
Isn't it ironic how many people, who pride themselves on their audiophile pedigree, nevertheless lack any degree of consciousness concerning the venerable Luxman Corporation of Japan, one of the truly progressive, cutting edge names in high end audio.
I mean, I grew up on Luxman, cut my teeth on Luxman, worked in a retail environment where Luxman gear was proudly marketed as that establishment's premium brand—right alongside of McIntosh.
Back in the day, I often heard Luxman referred to as the McIntosh of Japan... when in truth, a strong case could be made to reverse that billing, seeing as how Luxman's pedigree of achievement dates back to 1925, and includes such technical achievements as a magnetic pickup in 1931, OY-Type high-regulation power supply transformers in 1952, and their influential Crossover Negative Feedback technology in 1955 (later the subject of a world-wide patent). Likewise, in the 1960s they introduced several influential vacuum tube integrated amps, culminating in 1964s SQ-38D, followed in 1966 by an OTL (Output Transformer-Less) vacuum tube power amp, the MQ-36.
The '70s brought further technological refinements and even more sophisticated gear, including future E.A.R. honcho/designer Tim de Paravincini's much esteemed M-6000 power amp (a 300-watt per side muscle amp that still commands serious gelt on Audiogon) and 1977s Laboratory Reference Series, featuring both a DC-configured amp and synthesized tuner, while the 1980s saw the introduction of the PD-300 Vacuum Suction Turntable (employing a vacuum suction system to counteract record warpage), Computer Analyzed Tuning (CAT) and Duo-Beta Circuitry, which Luxman characterized thusly (with a metaphysical aura and devotional tone worthy of early 20th century copy emanating from the Gibson Guitar Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan.)
Reading such evangelical language certainly got a young audio enthusiast's blood boiling, even if he didn't fully grasp all the particulars, but in the end, talk is cheap—while hearing is believing. My blissful initial encounter with the Luxman sound (specifically the tuner section of their much admired R-1050 Receiver) occurred in the Upper East Side crib of jazz trumpeter and audio retailer Jim Coleman, a unique character if ever there was one in the audio biz, whose Audio/Video Salon has been a staple of Manhattan's Upper East Side for 40 years. I once witnessed Jim—in the course of jousting with a rather penurious, low-output voltage female he was determined to close (who turned out to be Sydney Biddle Barrows, of Mayflower Madam notoriety), "Remember what your mother taught you—don't trust." Well, I guess you had to be there. (And when I installed the relatively simple system she'd purchased for her West Side digs—which more closely resembled a laundry basket than the apartment one would associate with a society blue blood—she floated the notion of paying me for said installation in coin of the realm, an offer I politely referred back to Jim.)
Anyway, Jim's apartment was situated on such a high floor that he enjoyed exceptionally clear, multipath-free FM reception—I was captivated by the warm, tube-like quality of the sound; the roundness, the depth of field, the focused resolution and ease of presentation. And again, this was FM radio, not a reel-to-reel tape recorder or a fine turntable and cartridge.
"Your audio system can never be better than its weakest link, and nothing is more critical than your source component." So sayeth the Lord. This was my first encounter with the burning bush, a revelation as to how righteous audio could sound when somebody cared enough to sweat the small details and engineer in as much quality as humanly possible.
And so, in my impressionable mind, Luxman came to represent the zenith of no-compromise audio reproduction.
This was admittedly based on what at that time was a fairly limited range of experience. However, growing up in Plainview (of Hicksville), Long Island, my father, a natural engineer-artist-craftsman type, had invested in a pretty good audio rig first chance he got back in the late '50s-early '60s, and had converted our living room into a miraculously good acoustic setting, adorning the walls with one half-inch thick, solid hardwood planks. The system consisted of a Dual turntable, a GE integrated amp and FM tuner, a Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder and a pair of AR3a loudspeakers; in addition, my parents had assembled a really good selection of '50s Broadway shows and classical music (lots of RCA Red Seals and Mercury Living Presence recordings), so I was not completely lacking in viable reference points, and had in truth attained some modest basis for comparison.
The other thing that immediately impressed me about the Luxman R-1050 was how it conveyed a musical experience (in this case, with LPs); everything just seemed warm, unforced and natural—midrange to die for. I latter went on to purchase a Luxman L-11 integrated amp and a Luxman T-12 FM [only] tuner (from 1979s Laboratory Standard Series), which for many a moon constituted the liquid cherry center of my pre-Stereophile reference systems (eventually I disabled the L-11's preamp and deployed it as a stand alone power amp, when I upgraded to a classic tube preamp, the Conrad Johnson PV-5).
Perhaps the clouds of obscurity veiling a wider popular perception of Luxman's iconic high end heritage derive from a very spotted and limited history of distribution and corporate meddling dating from the mid-1980s on—after all, out of sight out of mind.
Because for too many years, in the wake of take-overs by commercial mama-daddies the likes of the Alps Corporation (purveyors of the popular Alpine line of car audio components) and Samsung (an industry leader in the production of flat-screen plasma TVs), none of the higher ups seemed committed to Luxman's elite, uncompromising, upper echelon pedigree.
Marketing the brand to Alpine dealers, there was a decidedly down-market turn to the quality of products the Alps Corporation commissioned, which by down market standards were still pretty bloody righteous, but by Luxman standards, were equal parts high end audio and wedding cake frosting—such as their RX-103 Servo-Face Receiver, with its mechanically receding faceplate and acrylic fittings on a black chassis. Sexy stuff, and pretty good electronics by any community standards, but those it was aimed at didn't get it, and those who cherished Luxman engineering saw it as an unfortunate tangent. Things only got worse, though all along the principals at Luxman remained devoutly tuned in to their own legacy—even as their North American dealer base evaporated and popular awareness faded to black.
Still, a brief perusal of the used market finds Luxman with a devoted following of users, who nurse along their beloved pieces for five, ten, twenty, even thirty years at a stretch, after which time they are able to cash in and go the upgrade route, as old Luxman gear was built to last, and still commands fetching re-sale prices, retaining its classic aura, while producing a modern, engaging sound well into those sag-prone autumnal years.
Fluency, Thy Name is Luxman
Yet even as we speak, Luxman is enjoying a splendid revival, keyed in part by the release of some critically praised, state-of-the-art components which commemorate their 80th Anniversary, such as the B-1000f monoblocks amplifier and the C-1000f Control Amplifier. In addition, there are a host of superb products emanating from slightly less lofty heights, including solid-state integrated amps (the L-550A II Pure A), and tube gear in both a post-modern and neo-vintage mode (the MQ-88 Stereo Amplifier and the SQ-38u Classic Integrated Amp)...
as well as such progressive ancillary gear as the Luxman E-1 Phono Amplifier, which not only offers users adjustable input impedance, a liner phase sensor, and the option of deploying two independent tone-arm/cartridge inputs from the front panel, but additionally features an Articulator setting, which allows users to routinely demagnetize their moving coil cartridges (said build-up of magnetic energy resulting in—according to Luxman—a "...veiling of detail, even a loss of dynamics and upper–octave resolution...demagnetizing the cartridge remove[s] the excess, often bring[ing] back a cartridge's sense of 'presence' and 'life'...") Pretty neat, huh?
More significantly—from the point of view of American consumers, too long exiled in the audiophile wilderness—here comes Philip O'Hanlon, gracious and charming son of Erin, audiophile's audiophile, and an old hand at audio industry marketing (he put Halcro on the map).
As major domo of his own On A Higher Note distributorship, O'Hanlon has dedicated himself to re-establishing both the Luxman name and its popular presence in the US market (as well as Vivid Audio's radically post-modern loudspeaker designs) through a select dealer network—making a big splash with a growing line of products that take a back seat to no one as far as engineering innovations, state of the art build quality, sonic refinements, performance parameters or aural satisfaction are concerned. And make no mistake about it, these Luxman components are priced accordingly, but in an industry which often prides itself on sizzle at the expense of steak, Luxman delivers an unmistakable level of quality you can really sink your teeth into.
And for me, a music lover who grew that much closer to the essence of musical performances through my initial baptism in Luxman gear, the experience of finding an enormous, triple boxed shipment sitting by my front door was fairly emotional, even for so jaded a fellow as myself.
Well, truth be told, I ain't exactly jaded, but after a while, gear is gear, and while each component we enjoy a conjugal visit with has its own magic, after a while, things tend to kind to blur together.
However I think it is safe to say that no one reviewing a Luxman component or contemplating such a serious purchase need worry about any Luxman piece receding sheepishly into the mists amidst the background noise of the universe, the residue of the big bang, singing in dull harmony... O-R-D-I-N-A-R-Y.
Removing the DU-80 from its carefully packed sarcophagus—factoring in 30-plus years of Luxman-related experiences—was nevertheless a startling experience. The sheer mass and solidity of this component and its associated packaging telegraphed the extraordinary originality and musical perfection of the experience to come.
Alright, enough already with the tire kicking shtick... but let me tell you, straightaway I knew with Biblical certitude that I was in the presence of some SERIOUS GEAR, as further auditions confirmed. And so, in contemplating the imposing physical presence of the DU-80 with its massive 46 pound, 18" W x 16" D x 6" H chassis, it was the better part of the afternoon before I ceased my mediations, manned up and actually lugged the thing into the next room to afford it a place of honor in my rack of champions.
Now it often a given in high end audio that you get what you pay for, but just as often, you are paying for status and hype, smoke and mirrors. But the Luxman DU-80 isn't merely a statement player—in a crowded landscape of me-too digital source components, this multi-format music player manages to carve out an atypical niche for itself, proceeding willfully along the road less traveled.
Now we can go on and on about the meticulous attention to details which augment the performance parameters of the DU-80, such as the tank-like build quality of the chassis, stiffened by epoxy and augmented by a centrally located copper plate to absorb stray RF and EMI; the exceptional stability achieved in isolating the transport from vibrations (by lodging the transport drive mechanism in a massive eight pound mechanically grounded housing; the sonic qualities of a special dampening material used to paint the loading tray; the use of custom parts manufactured specifically for Luxman, and carefully matched to optimize sonic purity.
Those parts not made by Luxman are manufactured to their exacting specifications, while components which are out-sourced (such as the DU-80's transport mechanism), are tweaked to within and inch of your life, going a long way towards realizing those enduring musical qualities—the idiomatic warmth and non-fatiguing presentation, enormous soundstage, image specificity and illumination, natural tonality, timbral purity, realistic dynamic range, spacious room acoustics and richly textured reverberation—that define the Luxman sound, as or Brother O'Hanlon is wont to point out...
"Luxman have many custom specified parts built for them; most of their resistors, for example, use a particular paint for color coding that Luxman engineers prefer for its tonal qualities. Because of their large sales volume, Luxman can have resistors made for them that would be uneconomical for a smaller manufacturer.
"Likewise, Luxman take the whole issue of mechanical isolation very seriously, which is why the base plate of the player is a composite material and why even the fasteners in the chassis assembly are not over-tightened—as they feel it will harden the sound. And while Luxman have employed a Pioneer mechanism in the DU-80 to provide consumers with a universal player solution, they have wrapped it in a custom-machined eight pound housing to isolate the mechanism further from external mechanical vibration. This provides a more accurate signal, one not colored by extraneous interference."
[Reader Alert: You Have Arrived at a Really Important Juncture in the Technical Exegesis]
But it is Luxman's belief in the musical qualities of a non-oversampling style of DAC that makes the DU-80's naturally ingratiating sonic signature so unique, and which well-traveled listeners often reference to analog source components in seeking to explicate their emotional reactions to a front end component which humanizes the digital experience by making it sound less like bits of data and more like... MUSIC.
Now earlier in this piece, we detailed some of Luxman's most visionary technological breakthroughs, going all the way back to 1925, the same year in which Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryant crossed swords over Evolution at the Scopes Trial; Lou Gehrig played the first of 2,128 consecutive baseball games for the New York Yankees; the Grand Ole Opry made its first radio broadcast on WSM; George Gershwin premiered his Concerto In F at Carnegie Hall; Charlie Chaplin introduced The Gold Rush... and my mother, Shirley Lavey, was born).
Still, we overlooked a very significant Luxman innovation, first introduced back in 1987 with the DP-07/DA-07 DAC/CD combo, and which goes a long way towards explaining what makes the Luxman DU-80's take on compact discs so musically compelling...the Fluency DAC.
Oh, but excuse me: make that TWO NON-OVERSAMLPING STYLES OF DAC, because the DU-80 not only allows end-users to deploy Luxman's proprietary Fluency DAC, but a Shannon DAC as well, which handles all of the DU-80's uber-resolution PCM, DSD and multi-channel functions (when deploying the Shannon DAC the leading edge of transients SEEM a little more pointed and forward, while the sound signature of the Fluency DAC is appreciably more laid-back, textured, and expansive).
Now at this point in the piece, I am on slightly shakier ground as far as being able to offer a really authoritative technical break down of what the hell this all means. So indulge me if you will as I cull together a mishmash of tidbits I gleaned from various internet sources, including O'Hanlon's own web site, and Phillip himself (which I will eventually attempt to interpret from a musical listener's perspective).
Let's pause here a second so I can ruminate on Luxman's assertion that their Fluency DAC permits recreation of the frequency range not recorded on a CD—above the 22kHz brick-wall filter? And while what I am relating does not specifically reference the Luxman's sound signature or musical integrity, it is germane in that it offers a window into what I found so involving and convincing about the Luxman DU-80 listening experience.
When I produced Ginger Baker's first jazz recording at Ocean Way Studios back in 1994 (Going Back Home on Atlantic), I got a crash course in the relative sonic merits and shortcomings of both digital and analog formats. And while the three 8-track ADAT decks we deployed for safety back-ups, punch-ins, edits and overdubs might have more accurately reflected the sound coming through the enormous UREI studio monitors (you can hear the ADAT-processed tracks on "Straight No Chaser," "In The Moment" and "East Timor"), the sound of a Studer A80 ½" 2-track analog tape recorder running at 15ips (with no Dolby) was to my ears light years more musical.
Accuracy versus musicality? In the process of saturating ½" tape with high levels of gain from electric guitar, acoustic bass and acoustic drums, one could upon playback could apprehend an audible degree of tape compression and other "analog artifacts" which most certainly altered the final sound, but to my ears in a good way, a human way, a musical way... I was particularly impressed by the low frequency extension, midrange richness, and high frequency detail—the Studer's top end while neither bright nor edgy, was much sweeter, more open, transparent and natural than that of the ADAT
That is to say, there was NO CEILING TO THE SOUND...even though at supersonic levels, the high frequencies it was reproducing were not truly audible, the degree to which those upper harmonics and overtones conveyed a sense of venue was overwhelming: ambience, low level room cues, soundstaging details and a holographic depiction of dimensionality combined to give these recordings a musical immediacy and human quality that made for an extraordinary emotional connection (not to mention the cumulative impact of all those vintage tube microphones and microphone pre-amps we deployed through a superb Focusrite console).
There was just so much more there there with the analog Studer, and one's sense of sound in the time-space domain—both front to back and laterally—was exceptionally vivid, whereas the ADAT's soundstage was relatively flat, with a harder sounding, more truncated top end, perhaps because above a certain frequency—say that aforementioned 22kHz firewall—there was literally no information.
[End of parenthetical tangent]
Again, as I have repeatedly suggested, I would reference parallels to the qualities I've experienced in triode tube circuits, but perhaps we gild the lily too generously. Might Brother O'Hanlon have something constructive to add?
"The Fluency DAC is time coherent, but at the expense of generating more noise at higher frequencies than the typical Shannon DAC, so while its timing is superb and produces a relaxed, more analog-like presentation, its high frequency output needs to be severely filtered. Given that the typical SACD has very noisy high frequency response that needs to be severely filtered, Luxman opted to offer a different DAC for the stereo & multi-channel SACD output. The Fluency DAC is best applied to a redbook, stereo PCM signal, namely CD or equivalent DataStream, such as digital radio. Care should be taken not to engage the Fluency DAC with multi-channel DVD-Audio as the two different DACs will be deployed and timing errors will occur."
Before I dig myself an even deeper hole trying to break down the ins and outs of Luxman's technical approach to digital sound (and while still not entirely clear as to why they feel their Fluency DAC offers a more musical approach to digital reproduction than an upsampling approach), let us move on to my conclusive musical impressions, wherein I may alight upon more solid ground.
A More Profound Perception of Space and Time
If you've made it this far into my ever-expanding aural exegesis, then in all likelihood you've picked up on my unbridled enthusiasm for all things Luxman, and my sense of awe and wonder in the presence of the DU-80.
Despite possessing well-documented reserves of verbal ordinance, terms such as awe and wonder are generally reserved for encounters with gear that attempts to define an uncompromising sonic paradigm, an absolute level of aural reproduction...bordering on perfection—perfection in the audiophile realm being well nigh impossible to achieve, yet the best and boldest always reach for it. Thus I responded to that no-compromise, state-of-art mini monitor, the Dynaudio Confidence C1, with a sense of awe and wonder...nor has that state of reverence in the presence of pure music ever left me, even after hundred upon hundreds of hours of critical listening.
Such is my experience of the Luxman DU-80, and as I approach the final furlongs of this review, despite manly attempts to maintain some semblance of cool and aesthetic distance, I find that my emotional responses to the DU-80 border dangerously close to the mystic. So often did I enjoy fresh new rapture experiences with old recorded friends, that in the end I threw up my hands and sang "I surrender dear." The Luxman DU-80 is just so damn good.
So many things about the DU-80 kept me spellbound during extended listening safaris that I hardly know where to begin. So let's just jump into the deep end of the pool by saying that time and time again this universal player's depiction of acoustic venues was utterly convincing... less a case of my audio rig disappearing, then of my listening room itself melting away—to be replaced by a convincing depiction of the room in which the musical event originally took place, so that every CD seemed to be taking place without exception in the here and now... hear and bow... clear and how—in the time domain.
That is to say, the Luxman DU-80 offers listeners a more profound perception of space and time that is so in scale, in tune and in tempo that the listener is inevitably lost in the moment. Least ways this one was.
As was Phillip O'Hanlon, hardly a disinterested observer, but an audiophile's audiophile, and like so many of my favorite lifers in this industry, a seeker after aesthetic truth in terms of gear and the immersion experience, but only in so far as all these chachkas coalesce to form a musical umbilical cord. And for a company like Luxman—having emerged once from down market purgatory, and harboring no inclination to go down with the ship at Circuit City—you need a distributor like Phillip to seed the clouds for such uncompromising, high ticket/high performance gear. And so in the process of trying to bluff a technical response out of Brother O'Hanlon concerning accuracy in the time domain and accuracy in the frequency domain, he eyeballed my mystical show card, and raised me an epiphany, to wit:
"My mother gave me my first watch when I was 10 years old; I promptly turned around and lost it. Since then I have learnt to keep track of time. I am only disoriented when I travel across time zones, otherwise I am reasonably punctual.
"When the Luxman DU-80 arrived in Capistrano in April 2007, we had been using a wonderful Weiss Jason/Medea combo as well as EMM Labs separates. At first I only noticed that the DU-80 was a lot mellower sounding than either of the combos though not as resolute.
"One morning playing a CD in the office on the Quad ESL57, I noticed how liquid the music appeared on the DU-80. I also had this sneaking suspicion that something was happening in the time domain. So I hauled the player out to the living room, where we were listening on a pair of Wilson Audio MAXX-2 at the time, and listened to the same piece of music—first with the Fluency DAC and later with the Shannon DAC.
"The Fluency DAC has a curious effect on time; it seems to slow music down—thus experiencing a track running for 2:43 ("That Old Feeling" from Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson), as if it had played for 4 minutes. I was so mesmerized by the music, so engulfed in space that I truly lost track of time—not a case of looking out for the three-dimensional soundstage; rather listening to the music and listening to all the intricacies and following whatever instrument takes your fancy.
"Can I explain the phenomenon? No, but it also happens to me listening to vinyl or two-track master tapes."
Swell, now we have two motherfuckers going all mystical on your ass. Reboot, Chip, reboot.
Look, universal players I've experienced as glorious as top of the line offerings from Linn and Esoteric are exceptionally satisfying, musical performers, offering listeners a distinctive sound signature all their own, and any sane man would find ample spiritual succor in either—myself included. But for this listener, in terms of sheer resolution and musicality, the Luxman DU-80 seems to sum up those qualities of the Linn and Esoteric which I most esteem, all the while defining a sound signature uniquely its own.
These days I inevitably find myself returning to Stevie Ray Vaughan's reference system masterpiece "Tin Pan Alley," with its otherworldly ambience and enormous low end, while the instrumental details and uncommon dynamic range of my man Bill Frisell's eponymous summit session with Ron Carter and Paul Motian on Nonesuch is a dynamically supercharged modern recording of the highest order. And needless to say I take great pride in the aforementioned Going Back Home by Ginger Baker, with Charlie Haden and Frisell (representing one of a handful of CDs I have listened to on both the DU-80 and high end Linn and Esoteric universal players), and while we won't go too deeply into comparisons (we are resorting to cached impressions and memory, not to the empirical evidence of an in-room shoot out), my experiences are germane to this discussion. I mean, give me drums, electric guitar and bass and I am one happy camper. And each of these recordings represents a truly engaging recorded experience...on par with the level of musical inspiration—in fact, as with the best records, THEY GO HAND IN HAND.
Now "Tin Pan Alley" has an exceptionally big soundstage, and Vaughan's Stratocaster is depicted with enormous presence. Some listeners have characterized the Linn 1.1's sound as overly cold and analytical, which I think is a little hypercritical; still my recollection of the Linn is that its depiction of this music was exceptionally detailed—one could practically hear the pick on the strings—and my perception of the individual images was that they were clearly, effortlessly anchored in space; transients had a light, quick feel, and overtones had a complex, crystalline presence. Analytical... not really, but metaphorically it's as though one were observing this performance through an electron microscope. The Esoteric (in my experience, a UX-3SE) had a more fulsome presentation, a more robust, dynamic impact than the Linn, yet sumptuously layered and detailed... if I would characterize the Linn's overtones as having a crystalline presence, than the Esoteric's were... oh, a little richer and more fleshed out, with a touch more aesthetic distance (the snare drum had a little less sizzle than the Linn, but a bit more crack). High resolution, high pleasure... hi-de, hi-de-ho...
What then of the DU-80's presentation? While I could cite parallels with the Linn's immense detail, and the Esoteric's fulsome presence—while it's overall resolution is every bit their equal and then some, there's an opulent, tube-like warmth to the DU-80 that is never opaque nor muddled; an analog-like sense of ease to the Luxman's presentation, a more relaxed depiction of the music that doesn't come down off of the stage to give you a musical lap dance but rather invites listeners to lean into the music. The Luxman somehow sounds a little less processed, not so much like the music has been digitally re-assembled, rather more seductively... natural. I don't think I have ever heard a compact disc player sound less fatiguing, and while even on the flimsiest digital playback system, "Tin Pan Alley" is awash in big room reverberation, the manner in which the decay trails for each individual instrument maintain their own integrity and specificity, while somehow constituting an organic whole, is mesmerizing.
This is something I was later to experience with enormous emotional intensity on the Hybrid SACD reissue of Fritz Reiner's groundbreaking 2-channel RCA Red Seal analog recording of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra with the Chicago Symphony, and on Riccardo Chailly's epic 2-CD compendium of eternally modern music, Varése: The Complete Works (London). The Luxman brought the complex acoustics of Symphony Hall in Chicago vividly alive on the Bartok, with such expansive soundstaging and dimensionality—such a detailed depiction of the hall itself—that it made the silences, the space between instruments, profoundly vibrant.
And on the Varése recording, I mean, hot damn! Chailly goes back to Varése's original version of "Amériques" (as prepared from the original manuscript by Varése acolyte and composer Chou Wen-chung), which features Mahler-scaled orchestral sections, let alone an enormous array of percussion instruments—equal partners in the dialog. Varése subsequently scaled back his instrumentation to facilitate more practical performance opportunities, but on this recording, we hear his conception of the orchestra as an urban-industrial juggernaut (like some enormous synthesizer, as if Edgar was impatient to hear electronic instruments, and imagined an entire orchestra's worth before there actually were electronic instruments... save for the Theremin). What is most striking about hearing this performance on the Luxman is how the DU-80 manages to make sense of this tsunami of voices: how quick and nimbly it simultaneously translates wailing orchestral swells and complex layers of overtones, while maintaining both the sectional impact and individual details, as machine-gun like transient hits from dozens of pitched and non-pitched percussion instruments—each with it's own radically different attack-decay characteristics—decompose and re-assemble, ashes to mashes, dust to bust, all right on the brink of chaos, as seemingly disparate tempos and textures collide at hyper-speed.
And yet—AND YET—the Luxman's depiction of individual voices within this mass of sound often had me leaping out of my shorts. Image specificity was just remarkable, even given the mass of sound and complex dynamic contrasts—you could seemingly see and feel all of the individual instruments, without taking anything away from the collective power of the whole. And again, that quality of relaxation I spoke of before? Without in any way mitigating the power or complexity of the performance, while the Linn might (might) flesh out greater instrumental detail... and while the Esoteric might (might) covey a more visceral impact, the Luxman manages to articulate a lovely balance of the music's complexity and primal power, without surgically removing your scalp. Can I hear an amen?
Speaking of image specificity, in listening to different tracks from the Ginger Baker recital, one of the Luxman's most endearing attributes shines through. While all three disc players do a splendid job of depicting what I would characterize as the three-dimensional shape of Baker's drum set, making it vividly palpable both to my ears and my eyes as I sat in my sweet spot, what made the Luxman stand out for this listener, was the manner in which it conveyed the smaller details that put you right inside the musical experience—such as the distinctions between the varied stick inflections Ginger elicited from his big 22" A. Zildjian Sizzle cymbal, and the layers of texture resulting from the interplay of rivets and overtones. I mean, I've played that cymbal in the studio at Ocean Way in Hollywood and onstage in Verona, Italy when Ginger collaborated on a Percussion Summit with Max Roach and Tony Williams; I'm familiar with its fundamental pitch in G, and how as you ascend to the bell the pitch rises a half step to Ab; I can still recall the manner in which the rivets (and washers) gate the cymbal and preclude it from ringing—and how Ginger can modulate his attack with the stick's bead and side-stick shanks to elicit precisely the duration of sustain he wants, from eighth and quarter notes, to half and whole notes. And so, out of all these universal players (well, not so universal that they play Blu-Ray discs, as if you gave a fuck), when I listen for Ginger's ride cymbal, it is most convincing on the Luxman—not simply how it sounds, but how that sound interacts with the entire kit, the other instruments and an acoustic space.
What's more, on Ginger's ride cymbal—as on Stevie Ray's Stratocaster—I was conscious of this aura around each image, this realistic depiction of shadow and light...a quality of luminescence that made the performance glow from without, while an inner illumination seemed to blur distinctions between recorded sound and a live presentation. Call it presence, call it warmth... the silences seem more profound, they breathe, in fact, they almost sparkle... the three-dimensional ambience in which the music transpires sounds just right... as compelling as blackness of interstellar space....
And all with this mellow, engaging, damn near tube-like quality—textured and silky smooth, yet sweet and transparent. The Luxman's dramatic levels of resolution never sounded etched or surreally exaggerated, compared to a more "exciting" sounding CD player like that top of the line Remyo, which many an audiophile swears by, but which I swear at—hey, what do I know, but I find its larger than life presentation out of scale with reality and very off-putting. As my repeated immersion into the Frisell-Carter-Motian recordings confirmed again and again, the DU-80 was remarkably adept at reproducing the capacious lateral spread of Frisell's stereo guitar; the immense transients and woody amber of Carter's bass; the snap, crackle and pop of Motian's drums and cymbals; the wide dynamic range of the ensemble; the luxurious ambience of the room sound. I have never enjoyed a more intimate, all-encompassing depiction of this music, both for its hypnotic sonics and collective elegance.
And if I may be allowed one conclusive aside in passing, when playing CD-R discs on the Luxman of my band, Chip Stern's Tributaries (Ron Granger—Keyboards/Arranger, Perkin Barnes—Fender Bass/Pro Tools M-Box, Chip Stern—Tuned Percussion Kit, Theremin), recorded live to two-track with a single Audio-Technica AT822 Stereo Condenser Microphone (and an amazingly revealing JPS Labs Superconductor Q stereo microphone cable) in my adjacent studio, no digital playback medium has so paralleled our collective experience of how the music actually sounded at the point of creation, from the drum stool or the microphone stand. Ron and Perkin agree, and there have been playback sessions with the DU-80 where it was almost incomprehensible to us how live and revealing and capacious and organic and NOT DIGITAL the music sounded.
Having gone all gonzo on you, dear readers, unable to find a damn thing to carp about, and mesmerized by the magic and mystery of the Luxman DU-80, there's not much more to add, save to recall how she looked as I drove away. I just fell in love with the DU-80 and hated to see her in my rear view mirror—frankly Scarlett, I do give a damn—but in audio as in life, all good things must come to an end.
Did I delve deeper into its capacity to make DVD and SACD audio discs come alive? I most certainly did, nor was I really ever overly-conscious of the media. As I've explained in the past, I don't have the most sophisticated video rig, but the levels of resolution I routinely experienced in the audio realm seemed of a piece with the depth of field and smooth color distinction my odd forays into the DVD-V movie realm revealed. Nor did I have a whole shit-load of DVD-A discs to play around with, though Phillip burned me a DVD-A of Muddy Waters acoustic folk recordings, and I was struck by the extraordinary presence and intimacy of the sound. The SACD experience compared more than favorably with my McCormack and my recollections of Linn and Esoteric, again, a mellow, luxuriant sound, with an even bigger soundstage and enhanced dynamic from the CD layer.
I suppose what I am saying is that to these ears those qualities I find most pleasing in the Linn and Esoteric, are manifest in the Luxman. What tips me towards the Luxman is the unique, damn near tube-like manner in which it conveys the reality and the emotion of recorded music.
Dig... for all intents and purposes, the Luxman DU-80's versatility, the exemplary fidelity and audio/video resolution it offers for high octane PCM (DVD-V and DVD-A) and DSD formats (SACD)—both two-channel and multi-channel—is gravy.
What really rocked my world, and what makes the Luxman DU-80 such a singular musical instrument, is its utterly original portrayal of discs in the good if not so old Redbook CD format.
I remain at a loss to truly explicate how different one's sense of time is when listening to garden-variety CDs on the Luxman DU-80—this is truly where she stands out from the crowd and stakes her place in the upper echelons of the high end audio pantheon. It's less like you are listening to music playback; it is more like you are in the presence of music—I have never felt more IN THE MOMENT when listening to CDs...less pressurized when listening, as if you were observing an event that took place in another room, but it didn't necessarily take over your room...
The DU-80 is laid back and vivid, graceful and intimate, supremely involving and utterly non-fatiguing; the Luxman DU-80 lets me linger longer, and delve deeper into my compact discs than any digital media I have yet encountered. It is warmly ingratiating and inviting, and for someone like me who cherishes an expansive, dimensional, holographic presentation—that is both spacious and hypnotically ambient, with a realistic depiction of time and space—the Luxman DU-80 Multi-Standard Music Player is as close to perfection as my mind's ear can imagine.
Let us cut forthwith to the chase: the Luxman DU-80 brought my experience of compact discs closer to that of vinyl than any digital medium I've ever heard, and it handled all of the esoteric, super high resolution digital formats without breaking a sweat or making me feel as though I was listening to anything other than the music. Really, I don't know what else to say. Those of you who can fit the Luxman DU-80 into your budget should audition it before you plunk down money on any other CD player. Chip Stern
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