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Positive Feedback ISSUE 54
Acute III CD Player
as reviewed by Robert H. Levi
Stop the presses!
Just arrived to Levi Central from England: the newest E.A.R. CD Player, the III, now with upsampling tube DAC to 24/192 and digital inputs, too. I have been eager to use the Paravicini DAC in my Acute 1, but no way. Finally, a DAC from the tube and transformer master, Baron Tim de Paravicini, with Toslink, S/PDIF, and USB inputs on board! It makes your server or Macbook sing a beautiful song, plus gives you a CD tray, as well. The III is the most detailed and truthful CD Player/DAC combo I've heard to date, to my ears clearly outperforming the substantially more expensive Ayre DX5 as well as the Acute 1 or 2 (basically the same machine.)
The $6595 Acute III comes in chrome on chrome and exudes quality and flexibility. The CD tray plays only red book CDs, but upsamples them to 24/192 automatically. The unit searches all inputs and chooses the one with a signal, though a CD in the tray is selected over any digital inputs. Any digital input below 24/192 is upsampled to that level. A true 24/192 signal is played native. It also features XLR/RCA analog outputs, a digital output on RCA, a remote volume control, the ability to use the unit as a preamp, and, of course, two PCC88 or 6DJ8 tubes in the filtering stage. The remote is most flexible and easy to handle. The unit is transformer-coupled and fully balanced. The DAC features 24-bit multi-level Delta Sigma conversion.
The review system consisted of the E.A.R. 912 Preamp, two E.A.R. 890 Mono Amps, and Marten Bird Loudspeakers, enhanced with a REL Stadium III Sub-woofer. Interconnects and speaker cables were all Jorma Origo. Power cords were the Kubala-Sosna Elation! and Emotion. The Acute 1 and Acute III were placed on the most current Townshend Seismic Sinks with the air bladder. I admit that I did a little bit of tube rolling, substituting a Mullard 6922 for the Paravicini PCC88 in the front position only. It added a bit of delicious warmth that I like. Kevin Deal at Upscale Audio stocks a mammoth selection of 6DJ8/7DJ8 variations for you to experiment with. After all, tube rolling is the sport of audiophile kings!
Design Details From E.A.R.
To quote from the E.A.R. Web site:
With the "acute III" Tim de Paravicini has applied his world renowned knowledge and attention to detail in the analog world to the digital domain. The "acute III" boasts a digital to analog converter with low jitter clock and enhanced operation. Retaining the Wolfson 24/96 oversampling DAC, the "acute III" is also armed with a Cirrus SPDIF receiver. This enables the "acute III"to interface to your existing digital setup. The "acute III" can accept up to 24/192 digital input from USB, coaxial SPDIF and Toslink SPDIF devices. Immediately upon returning to the analog domain, the audio signal is passed to analog filters of Tim de Paravicini's own design. The audio is output from a transformer-coupled PCC88tube line output stage as in EAR pro audio equipment. This allows true floating balanced output as well as identical quality unbalanced line out by RCA connectors. The maximum output is 5 volt, which means it can drive directly any power amplifier of any type, with analog volume control that can be controlled by remote handset.
As a CD Player
I already spilled the beans. In my opinion, the III is the state-of-the-art in CD players. When playing hybrid CD/SACD discs, I think that the CD layer often outperforms the SACD layer when auditioned in a top-notch SACD player. You like realistic, in-the-room, alive sound? You crave there-it-is, life-like imaging? You want to just get lost in the music and forget about oil prices, desert wars, and the Tea Party? Well, by golly, your CD player has just arrived! It's designed and built in England by the most extraordinary electronics designer alive today.
I have a huge CD collection and I want to play them one at a time. I want the max in performance out of each and every disc. Sure, you can spend $80k on the DCS stack. But folks, don't compare them to the Acute III. You will soil your pants. The Ayre DX5 for $10K is not bad. The latest French $30K CD player is nice. The Burmester and MBL players are a touch dry and thin to my ears, and really heavy to lift or afford. The new Vitus player is mega bucks, with more transistors than you can count. Sounds like it to me, too. If all the Acute III did was play CDs like Herbert von Karajan would have loved, it would be a true beauty and a masterpiece. You could easily and honestly place a one in front of its realistic price tag—that makes $16,500—and not blink an eye. In the here and now, it's the best and most musical player I've heard at any price. The Acute III is the pot of musical gold at the end of the digital rainbow!
As a DAC
With my Alesis Masterlink connected to the Acute III via the wonderful new Kubala-Sosna Elation! S/PDIF digital interconnect, I can truly immerse myself in my 24/96 live recordings. The Acute III is a great boon to Alesis owners, since the internal DAC of the Alesis is crap. I have been eagerly waiting to find a great tube DAC, and I can now retire my Benchmark DAC1, which I bought and paid for, to the closet.
Live recordings sound live on the Acute III. No ifs or buts—just in-the-room live! An Alesis and a III is a fabulous combo. Didn't try the Toslink… so sorry, but who could possibly care?
I did attach my Pioneer Laser Disc Player to the Acute III via S/PDIF with the new WyWire Digital Interconnect, and got superb musical results. I have never heard my concert discs sound so powerful and sophisticated. Through the Benchmark, the LD Player was pretty ugly. I resorted to listening with the internal DACs, not a Pioneer long suit I assure you. With the III and the WyWires, I'm in LD heaven, with the upsampling 44.1kHz/16-bit Redbook sound of those huge digital silver discs.
I heard the III with the Macbook Pro and a USB cable (sorry, I didn't write down the brand) which cost a cool $1000 playing a CD ripped to the Mac. We compared it to the actual CD played in the Acute. It was very, very close. I'd hate to have to tell you which one I liked. The Acute and the Mac were a top combo, and you won't be disappointed. Your server, regardless of brand, will sound superb on the Acute III DACs.
You like Ella? How about Margareta Bengston? Or maybe Nicki Parrott? Vocals are rendered with a sexy realism and mellifluous focus that gives you goose bumps! If I didn't have a London Reference and a Koetsu Rosewood Siggy in my turntable, I'd be completely happy with digital played on the the III. There isn't a hint of dryness. The female artists don't sound like they have been on a crash diet and lost half their body weight and vocal heft. So many super-duper ultra-expensive digital players sound like this. Not the III… ever!
Always the forté of CD sound, the III is without peer even compared to solid state machismo. My favorite Telarc and RR recordings produce drum thwacks never before produced on any reference system I have ever experienced, and I've heard a few. With ultra-fast ceramic woofers on my Birds, you live the sound. You feel the explosive force in your gut with the III. You want to know why Dr. Johnson of RR fame won a Grammy, play his disc on the Acute III. Kaboom!
I also love cello sound, and they bloom and groan on the III. Try the Yarlung Dialoghi CD and just live the cello warmth and beauty. Best-ever cello reproduction is through the Acute III. Listen to the Bach solo cuts. What a great combination: Wolfson DACS and tubes! Genius.
It's about time you gave us a DAC we can access externally. But Tim, how about a SACD player next time? Please!
Love a headphone jack, too.
With three digital inputs and much more powerful upsampling, the E.A.R. Acute III enters the big time, challenging player/DAC combos costing upwards of $80K with hugely realistic, intensely musical, digital reproduction. With more sophisticated sonics than I thought possible from CD reproduction, you'll enjoy high sampling rates up to 24/192 flawlessly produced. With an Alesis, MacBook, or server, get ready for the gorgeous sound of live performances. Vocal reproduction is unsurpassed. Bass power and focus is fantastic. The E.A.R. Acute III is most surely state of the art, and will be the player/DAC that all will be compared to—and, I suggest, will fall woefully short of, regardless of price.
You want the very, very best? The E.A.R. Acute III CD player is it! Robert H.Levi
Acute III CD player