Alpha 9 CD player
as reviewed by Bryan Gladstone, Francisco Duran, Larry Cox, and Roger McNichols, Jr.
I have recently been teaching Audiophile 101uh, I mean helping a couple of friends assemble their first system without setting foot in any Best Buy locations. The first subject covered was "Speakers, You, and Your Room," in which the goal was to find a pair of speakers that they both liked, and that would work well in their room. I tried to learn about the tastes of my friends, and be a guiding hand rather than influencing their opinions. Some speakers were too hard and some were too soft, but eventually, and without too much trauma, we found ones that were just right.
Unit two, of course, involved finding electronics to run the speakers. A little more guidance was necessary here, as the differences can be more subtle than with speakers. After reading the chapters on imaging, timbre, and overall musicality, they were ready to break out on their own. Sure enough, some amps were too hot, and some were too cold, but it wasnt really that hard to find an amp and preamp that was just right. Neither of my students, er, friends had large vinyl collections, so a CD player was the only source necessary. We listened mostly to single-box players from $800 to $2000, and you guessed it, some were too sweet, and some were too salty, but this time we had a hard time finding one that was just right. Unfortunately, we didnt try the Arcam Alpha 9.
The pre-plug-in impression of the Arcam was of a solidly built mid-fi component. There is no Krell-like solid machined aluminum here, but none can realistically be expected at this price. Matching the styling of the rest of the Arcam line, the front is well laid out, and includes a display dim and shut off control. Bravo! My only design-related complaint is with the remote. All of the buttons are the same size and equally spaced apart, making use in a dark room difficult at best.
I am hesitant to list the faults I find with the Arcam, because the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Also, I only seemed to be able to compare it to much more expensive players, which is not fair. I could tell you that the Alpha 9 is slightly bested by my Meridian 606 and other state-of-the-art players in most areas, but this just wouldnt tell the whole story. The Alpha is slightly rolled off, in both the high and the low ends. Some of the sheen that is heard from the best players is missing, but not much. Cellos, even double basses, seem to be all there, with wonderful woody timbres, even if they are not presented with quite as much authority as some of my recent favorites. Soundstaging is amply wide and deep, but not as monstrous as that of some of todays best players.
You know by now of my affinity for Meridian digital products. I had a chance to compare the Alpha 9 to the Meridian 506, another all-in-one player. Until now, the 506 has been my hands-down choice at this price point (slightly more money than the Arcam), but a choice between the two is not a clear one. The two players are different in character, not quality. The Meridian throws a huge soundstage, with a mountain of ambient detail. This gives a clear sense of the room in which the recordings were made. It is on the warm side of neutral (a character I happen to like), with wonderful bloom and midbass weight. By contrast, the Arcam sounded more neutral in timbre, with less ambience, but it brought prominent instruments and voices forward with more detail.
If the soundstage of each player was a painting, the musicians on the Meridians stage would be colorful, using warm rich tones, possibly in an impressionist style. They would be slightly larger than life, and their edges would be slightly fuzzy and blended into the background, making a beautiful scene. The Alpha 9s painting would use more realistic colors and style, with musicians having clearly defined outlines and details. The artist would obviously be more interested in the action than in the background. You might have to take a step closer to the Arcam painting before you realized that it wasnt a photograph, at which point you would be amazed by the care taken by the artist. Neither "painting" would be truly accurate, but both would be beautiful interpretations of the event. Which one you would prefer depends on you.
this price, I find few CD machines that I could live with for the long term. Most, despite
their strengths, have serious flaws that keep me from being able to mentally detach myself
from the electronics and enjoy the music. This was not the case with the Alpha 9, which
consistently allowed me to just listen and enjoy. Similarly, the Alpha 9 lacks the kinds
of frequency peaks or dips that would make its success system dependent. It should not be
ruled out, no matter what the character of your system. The Arcams designers have
made ingenious choices to keep its compromises few and slight. If you are looking for an
all-in-one player in this price range, I highly recommend an audition.
They say that timing is everything. Sometimes it works for you and sometimes it doesnt. In the case of the Arcam Alpha 9 CD player, it didnt. When I received the CD9 to review, the Kora Hermes DAC was laying waste to everything in the digital realm that had come through my house and has come since. So, as serious a unit as the Alpha 9 is, with all of the latest technology, it was just no match for the Hermes. I fully realize the price difference, so you accountants and financial analysts dont need to start sending me hate mail, but I felt I had to put things into perspective from the start.
I have read descriptions of the Arcams sound as the best thing since sliced bread, or even a digital toaster. Im sure it all depends on your perspective, but from mine, the Kora is an excellent CD player and the Arcam merely a very good one. Thats not bad at all. In fact, I think it is a great achievement. Ive had CD players in my system that cost two to three times as much as the Alpha 9 that didnt out perform it, and came very short in some areas. With an expensive CD player, you expect everything. With an affordable one, you expect satisfaction in sound and money well spent. The Arcam gives both.
So lets put the Alpha 9 through its paces, shall we? I listened to quite a lot of CDs while the Arcam was in housepop, rock, classical, and even the occasional movie soundtrack or two. Its my habit as soon as I get home to immediately throw on some music, for that glorious time I have to myself before my wife gets home. My wife just doesnt appreciate a lot of the music I listen to. One of the big strengths of the Arcam is its tonal balance. Music of all kinds has an evenness and coherence that is very pleasing. The sound of this CD player in my system was both warm and punchy. The musics pace was also a pleasure to behold, whether it was a guitar strumming, a drummer flailing away, or an orchestra at full tilt. Also adding to this is the fact that the bass and midbass on this player is taut, fast, and cleanjust the way Francisco likes it. My reference EADs midbass, on the other hand, is leaner, with more emphasis on the lower bass. This was one of the reasons I had my DAC modded in the first place, as it needed a shot of adrenaline in that area.
Spinning the Tutti Orchestral sampler from Reference Recordings on the Arcam was a real treat. Massed violins sounded smooth and coherent, with nary a hint of brightness or edge. Metal sounded like real metal when struck. In keeping with its great tonal balance, the Alpha 9s midrange was also in check.. Mostly because of the Arcams midrange, I was able to let the critical listening slide for awhile. I didnt think about soundstage depth or image placement, or whether the Arcam was better than the EAD. I didnt worry about tight bass, or tight Levis for that matter. I just let the little Arcam cook night after night, coming home to my treasured music time to play my favorite discs. I got used to the Alpha 9s sound on a casual basis, then boom, I did the old switcheroo, back to my EAD and back to critical listening. It was then that the differences between the Arcam and my EAD became apparent.
The differences popped out like a pimple on prom night. When I put my old tried and true CD, Sades Love Deluxe, on the Alpha 9, I immediately noticed that her voice and the sax sounded a little tight, like they needed to expand and relax, as they do with the EAD. With the EAD, Sades vocals sound like they are coming from her lungs and out of her mouth naturally, and not just falling off of the end of her lips. Similarly, on my Little Hatch and Jimmy Lee Robinson discs, which are mainly guitar, harp, and vocals, the sound has a nice warm tonal balance with the Alpha 9, but I kept wishing for more air and space. The EAD, with its more three dimensional sound and ambience, spreads these recordings out into the room, which makes for a more realistic setting. One more thing while Im beating up on the Alpha 9 is its soundstaging. It is very good, but the EAD is more spacious sounding. Hearing into the mix is easier, and there is a clearer picture into the stage. Details sound more articulate, and the sound is more relaxed and refined.
You might think that comparing an out-of-production DAC that has been modified to a top of the line, latest generation CD player is academic, but doing so it has helped me more easily describe the Alpha 9s sound. My listening biases lean toward the EAD. I dont just want my music to sound nice. I want my playback equipment to dig into every last musical nuance. It will take some serious digital, like the Kora, to say adios to my little old EAD. Although the Alpha 9 wont be the one to do this, it is a very good CD player, with no serious shortcomings. Compared to a lot of other players out there, expensive or otherwise, thats saying a lot. One also has the option to buy one of Arcams less expensive CD players and eventually upgrade to the Alpha 9. There arent that many stock CD players that I can put in my system, then forget about and enjoy. The Alpha 9 came close, though. Francisco Duran
There is something about politely spoken words which implies kindness, gentility, andperhaps by extensionmediocrity. Some perceive understatement as a polite dismissal. I think not. The Arcam Alpha 9 CD player is a product that does its job in an understated way. It is a very sweet-sounding CD player with a delicate, nuanced presentation of music. My initial reaction was that the Alpha 9 had a well-realized midrange with somewhat truncated frequency extremes. Sounds uninviting, doesnt it? There is something about thundering bass and treble with the weight and extension of Mount Everest that implies "performance," whereas an understated presentation does not. However, despite all the words and effort expended on Mount Everest, it is an inhospitable place. Few find it a place to stay, in either the literal or metaphorical sense. For me, the Alpha 9 was a great place to both visit and stay.
As an owner of mini-monitors, I confess to a bit of bass envy. Sometimes I listen to a component to see if it will deliver the bass performance that I want. I know, however, that I really dont care about this performance parameter unless I get what I perceive as appropriate timbre. Im not goose stepping with J. Gordon Holt here, but I agree with him that if you get the midrange right, you can listen through the rest. The Alpha 9 delivered the sonic goods for me in such a way that I never felt I was listening "through" anything. Not only was the issue of timbre addressed successfully, but I received a greater sense of notes connecting in a musically "sensible" way. Perhaps this requires an explanation. Im not musically trained, so the construct of bars and phrases has no meaning to me. However, with the Arcam, as with other exceptional products, I get a sense that each collection of notes has a particular duty, and when "spoken" by their instruments, I can sense when their job was complete, and why. In other words, the Alpha 9 CD player translates a foreign language into a dialog by which I was enraptured. This, for me, is what audio (and music) is all aboutcommunicating. The best performances make clearer and more comprehensible the same things that other performances only reach for.
Many people search for "transparency" in a component. Sometimes it seems this means that they want to be able to hear all of the instruments in an orchestra equally. I understand why someone would want this, but there are reasons why composers present certain instruments more prominently than others. For me, the Alpha 9 made sense of the relative apportionment of musical weight. I like the path the Alpha 9 treads. It will not be the product for people who want every instrument to have a front-row presentation. The sound is a bit laid back, and invites the listener to listen "into" the performance. Ive remarked that I appreciate this attribute in my EAR 802 preamp and ATC components. I also like it in the Alpha 9.
The Arcam showed up my CAL Icon MkIIs bass presentation as a bit fuzzy, overblown, and out of control. The Arcams bass, while full and round, was under control, and presented the low textures, timbre, and fullness that are present in many instruments. I know that in my quest to get more bass from my ATCs, Ive been listening for performance that is tight and fast in the lowest octave. The Arcams delivery reminded me that bass sounds are indistinct in some of their rumblings, though not all. With the Arcam, there were clearly delineated portions of bass sound, but also present were the overtones and rumblings that not nearly as clearly articulated in real life. Granted, my system will not reproduce the lowest octave, but what the Arcam uncovered were the important parts of bass reproduction.
The top end, as I indicated at the start, was somewhat truncated, but that may reflect the truncation of my EAR 802 preamp and the ATC SCM20 speakers. My system doesnt reach to the top of the range, but neither does the music I listen to. In my system, the Arcams top end wasnt what Id call especially open-sounding, but it was a presentation that I could gladly live with. A big surprise to me was that the Arcam showed my Icon to have a bit of ringing in the upper midrange. The Icon lacks the sweetness and detail that the Arcam delivers so effortlessly. Ouch!
Yes, there is
technology in the Alpha 9, like the "ring dac" which is somehow borrowed from
the dcs Elgar, but I dont really care about that. Im a listener. I dont
pretend to be an engineer who can explain technological things. I just use the gear, and
know when I like it and when I dont. The Arcam Alpha 9 is something I really liked.
Have you heard about the famous bartender, a former WWF wrestling champion, who put out a $1,000 bet that after he squeezed half a lemon no one, NO ONE could squeeze out one more drop? Many tried for the $1,000 but after he squeezed the lemon it was always a dry, wasted, seemingly juiceless peel. Well one day a small, thin, wimpy man wearing a bow tie entered the bar and upon hearing about the bet asked the bartender if he could try. The bartender roared with laughter and squeezed a lemon harder than he ever had before then plopped it in front of the little guy. Everyone watched with smirks on their faces. To the bartenders amazement and shock the little man held up the lemon and promptly squeezed out seven more drops. As the bartender paid out the money he asked, "What do you do if I may ask?" The little man smiled and replied, "I work for the I.R.S."
Todays digital sources are also routinely squeezing out more "musical drops" and Arcams Alpha 9 CD player is a prime example! The Alpha 9 features 24 bit resolution through the use of modified dCS Ring DACs, HDCD capability, a transport slaved to the master clock at the DAC for low jitter and a remote control. I found the front panel of the Alpha 9 to be quite stylish. The designers opted away from basic straight rectangular lines and went out of their way to provide curving lines. These curves are on the bottom of the panel, on the door to the CD tray and even on the digital display window. The curving shapes reminded me of the edges of musical instruments (guitars, cellos, violins?) which is what the designers were after Im suspect. This classy look stood out even more as I positioned the Alpha 9 on top of my Rotel RCD 975 CD player with its traditional, rectanglar designed front panel.
Both the Rotel RCD 975 and Alpha 9 were connected to my Rowland Design Groups Concentra integrated amp by Transparent Audio Music Wave interconnects. I was pleased that both CD players and the Concentra had convenient remotes. I placed duplicate CDs in each player and sat down to do some comparison A/B testing. To my intial dismay BOTH the Rotel and the Arcam units began operating regardless of which remote I was using. It was a little disconcerting to see both of them start up, or skip tracks, or pause and sometimes even display error messages while I was utilizing only one remote! I finally decided to ignore which ever players running display that wasnt being listened to, and I reset that player just before changing the input choice through the Concentra.
I have written before of my shameless enjoyment of the Rotel RCD 975, I call it my giant-killer. It was fun to compare these two British designed CD players. How did the $750 Rotel do against its fellow countrymans $1600 Alpha 9? It did both better and worse, yes, audio component comparisons are like life itself, complicated and sometimes confusing.
I noticed immediately that the Alpha 9 was a superb player and had much better resolution than the Rotel. This was no small feat as the Rotel features extremely linear 20 bit DACs and provides outstanding resolution in its own right. Depending on the source material squeezing out "seven more drops" of music information with the Alpha 9 was a real plus. On Eliot Fisks Guitar Virtuoso CD (MusicMasters 01612-67128-2) listening to classical acoustic guitar music was a joy. The detail was so sharp and vivid that I felt that I was sitting close enough to see his fingers strum the strings.
On Sara Ks Play on Words (Chesky Records JD105) I again jotted down "more detail, crisp cymbals, etc." but as the muted trumpet played its part I noticed an ever so slight bright, dry sound. The Rotel was one step behind in resolution but reproduced a much warmer, lush sound. I found that the Alpha 9 had excellent mid to high frequency balance but was edged out by the Rotels smoother bass. Both units had well defined soundstaging. On Dave Brubecks famous Time Out I again felt much closer to the musicians listening with the Alpha 9 but the Rotels slightly more dynamic bass cause me to swing a bit more. On Clair Marlos song "Its Just the Motion" on Sheffield Labs sampler CD Drive (Sheffield Lab 10037-2) this "swing" factor or toe-tapping urge always was stronger through the Rotel. Again it must be stated that depending on the source material more detail and resolution can be very impressive.
I began to wonder if I was too conditioned to the sonic signature of my Rotel and sought out another audiophile who brought over many of his reference CDs. He agreed that the resolution of the Alpha 9 was better but he felt that its overall sound leaned a bit toward the strident or digital-sounding side of the coin vs. the Rotels more liquid, velvety balance.
the end I give high praise to the Alpha 9 it is clearly another step forward with
its 24 bit resolution. Its other differences were always very slight as
Ive mentioned above. I invite you to listen to the Alpha 9 and remember that
"squeezing out seven more drops" of music resolution just may make a big
difference in your system.
Arcam Alpha 9 CD player