There was a time when my pursuit of the high-end audio hobby was plagued by discs of dreadful sonics. Nowadays, when I go to the record store, I no longer feel weary about picking a possibly dreadful sounding disc from an otherwise reputable ensemble or conductor, because latest studio techniques, such as Deutsche Grammophon’s Original Image-Bit Processing, JVC’s XRCD K2 Super Coding, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s and Philip’s 24-Bit 96kHz productions, are imparting vitality of modern day’s sound to recordings by legends, restoring the much deserved glory and honor to the artists’ visions. What a precious comfort it is to be able to focus more of my purchasing decisions on artistic concerns.
Concurrently, the high-end audio industry has also been in keen pursuit of raising the quality of RBCDs playback, churning out machines that would do unprecedented feats in over-sampling and up-sampling. It would be a rare case for any audiophile not to have acquired CD players with newer technologies since the early 80’s, for colossal improvements to the sound of RBCD in his/her system.
Appreciative of what the record labels are doing nowadays to revitalize the value of their vaults, as well as the enormous progress the high-end audio industry has amassed since the early 80’s to improve the quality of CD playback, I find it a constantly disquieting reflection that a significant amount of cherished discs I have acquired all these years are not by audiophile labels and thus, will never sound as involving.
A former owner of the $5k CEC TL1 and $9k Wadia 27 until 2003, I tested the upsampling water in 2001 on the Perpetual Technologies P1A/P3A Review, progressing onwards to posting reviews on 6 other DACs, transports, and integrated players. Although mediocrity in studio mastering techniques continues to be blatantly evident in listening sessions, newer thinking on digital design is consistently and increasingly discerning more intrinsic treasures of music in CDs to allow for appreciation at a level only previously possible from notable productions.
The latest CD player that managed to intrigue me is the $6,500 CD Player I from Accustic Arts of Germany, the subject of this review.
Stefan Fritz Schunk Martin
Short for accurate acoustic arts, Accustic Arts is a German high-end audio equipment manufacturing company founded in 1996 by owner Fritz Schunk, an operational branch of SAE (Schunk Audio Engineering) that, at that time, already possessed over 10 years’ worth of experience and knowledge in development and production of near field monitors in professional studios. After creating Accustic Arts, SAE spent five years in R&D before introducing the first products.
In 1998, when SAE moved to its current location in a small town named Lauffen, in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, near the Helilbroon district north of Stuttgart, Germany, it consolidated all R&D and Sales & Marketing operations under one roof. In addition to that, this complex currently also houses the marque’s own commercial, professional recording studios.
Before founding SAE in 1996, Fritz Schunk also owned Fritz Schunk GmbH, a 1,000-employee, leading world-wide operation in industrial robot and handling technology, supplying key elements to members of automobile industries, such as Daimler Chrysler, BMW, Audi, etc. Then, Fritz founded SAE with his sons, Martin and Steffen. Recipients of undergraduate degrees, Martin and Steffen respectively run the hardware manufacturing and music studio branches of SAE.
Ambitious and systematic in its marketing and sales, Accustic Arts currently offers a complete system lineup with 28 products to choose from, ranging from a CD player to amplifiers to various loudspeakers, as well as various cable and accessory offerings.
Accustic Arts “Evolve Studio” Manual Assembly
Mercedes Benz Museum QC & Testing Accustic Arts Rack I
CD Player I
Uniform in its cosmetics with the company’s $4,800 Drive I, $4,800 DAC I MK-2, $4,600 Preamp I Balanced MK-2 and the $6,200 integrated amplifier Power I, the front panel of the all-aluminum casing CD player features two large, chrome control knobs separated by a center display and two smaller chrome push-buttons to its sides.
The outer large knobs at the sides serve the basic functions of track skipping and standby/power on, while the smaller push-buttons stop and play a disc. More advanced functionalities of track selection, scanning, programming, display selection, fast forward/backward, A/B memory, shuffling, repeating and pausing are provided on the remote control. The unit’s power switch is on the rear panel, so that if left on, only the unit’s active functions are shut down via the standby mode, minimizing warm-up time and putting the player in top performing condition at the first track for its user.
Disc loading is via a disc chamber forwardly situated on the top panel, the lid of which is tastefully executed in a multi-layered composition of a top, glass layer joined to a mirror bottom layer engraved with the Accustic Art “AA” emblem, which is lit up stylishly in blue when shut. Steffen offers the following words to shed lights on the blue-lit emblem:
“The blue lit silver mirror with the ACCUSTIC ARTS logo on the DRIVE I, as well as on the CD PLAYER I, has only a design function. Inside the chamber there is no blue light, as the blue LEDs are assembled on the side of the silver mirror, illuminating only the edge of the mirror. The ACCUSTIC ARTS logo is not on the surface of the silver mirror but is “floating” in the middle of the glass material.
There is absolutely no scattered light inside the disc chamber. In addition to that, the bottom of the chamber is additionally coated with a special light absorbing cloth, so the CD laser operates in 100% darkness for maximum accuracy and best results.”
The Accustic Art CD player’s cast metal, Philips CDM Pro-2 based top loading concept is reminiscent of CEC TL1 and Sony SCD-777ES’ insistence in an isolated platform dispensing with the tray mechanisms of conventional transports. Having used the CEC design for 7 years and 4 years on the Sony, I find the top-loading mechanical executions consistently assuring.
At the heart of the CD Player I is an upsampling, “24 bit/96kHz Enhanced Multi-Level Delta-Sigma DAC” in the form of an 8-times oversampling, “selected” Burr Brown PCM 1728. On the choice of DAC, Steffen Schunk pointed out that SAE considered the other famous BB chip carefully, namely the PCM 1704. Steffen:
“During the development of the ACCUSTIC ARTS CD PLAYER I, we have tested different configurations and DAC ICs. In the end, we had, in fact, two favorites: the BB PCM 1704 and the BB PCM 1728. On first view,the PCM 1704 is superior to the PCM 1728 in terms of measured values, and it is most definitively one of the best DAC ICs on today’s world-market.”
Positioned as a replacement for the PCM 1728, the PCM 1704 was promoted by Texas Instruments for its superior measurements. However, with sound quality being the ultimate determinant, SAE opted for the classic PCM 1728 for “its delta sigma construction, which generated excellent results regarding sound performance, and made up for the small disadvantages in terms of measured values in comparison to the PCM 1704 by its sign magnitude design.” Also, on the prospect of using a 192kHz, upsampling DAC, SAE opined it would bring about a fundamentally different sonic makeup that will require substantial redesign of the platform optimized for the PCM 1728, as substituting the classic chip with the PCM 1704 did not produce as “authentic” a sound via the same platform.
Augmenting the platform are 5 individual power supplies and one 75 VA, magnetically shielded toroidal transformer. See the “CD-Player I highlights” section below the body of the review.
Among preamplifiers and power amplifiers rotated, such as the $14k Harmonix Reimyo CAT-777 preamplifier, the $15k Loth X JI300 integrated 300B amplifier, Linn’s $9k Klimax Twin stereo power amplifier, and 47 Laboratory’s Gaincard S integrated amplifier, Audio Note’s $10k Audio Note M5 preamplifier with the $22k Harmonix Reimyo PAT-777 300B power amplifier harnessed qualities that surpassed others as my final preference. Details will be discussed in the ensuing paragraphs.
Digital and interconnect cables were Audio Note’s 42-strand, 99.99% pure silver Sogon throughout, with the 20-strand AN-Vx linking a preamplifier to power amplifier. Finally, AN’s 80-strand Sogon LX speaker cables sustained the speakers.
Having experienced DACs and players incorporating various techniques and technologies, including multiple converters in parallel implementation and custom algorithms, plus chips from names such as Analog Device, Cirrus Logic, Pacific Microsonics™ and Crystal Semiconductor™, I found the Burr Brown-anchored Accustic Arts to have been endowed with prominent lower and upper midrange resolution that fused beautifully with Audio Note’s $20k AN-E SEC Silver speakers, which captured an abundance of details from the German CD player, providing first-rate testimony to the DAC’s solid-state implementation with a sound not prone to inducing edginess or fatigue.
JVC’s recent release of Manhattan In Blue (VICJ-61172) by saxophonist, Malta, is of supervisory mastering engineer Akira Taguchi’s prestigious XRCD24 Super Analog production in Jazz music, and the Accustic Arts CD player showcased the more liberal side of Malta accordingly in the newfound style sophistication in blowing, richly simmered in the magnificently textured saxophone luster.
Via the comparably priced Tannoy Churchill Wideband, however, this sound manifested itself as glare to my ears. This phenomenon from the 15-inch Dual-Concentric™ was not a complete shock, for no other model in the Tannoy America’s lineup would be as articulate and resolving as the CW’s, and the so-rendered tonal characteristics only served to contrast the great divide between the Tannoy speaker and all other makes’ with smaller drivers. As a solution, the Audio Note M5 proved indispensable while pairing with the Harmonix Reimyo PAT-777 in equalizing the sonic formula to my liking.
Under such amplification, strengths of the CD player were also complimented more completely, negating the need to revert to copper cables which treated the glare marginally but impacted ultimate resolution.
The Accustic Arts’ spectral make-up also provided generous breathing space for definitive spatial elements to develop between the $20K Audio Note speaker. Whether it was the deliciously delightful “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”, or the ageless “Sound of Music Medley” from the audiophile label First Impression Music’s luminous hybrid jazz SACD, Autumn In Seattle (FIM SACD 040), the Burr Brown 1728-based machine manifested astonishing abilities in appropriating each instrument and sound its defining localization onstage, imparting sense of realism and scale that I had not experienced even from my former reference, the Wadia 27.
Equally remarkable was the German CD player’s consistent delivery of a dynamic transient that was defined and yet incredibly fluidic via the Audio Note AN-E SEC Silver, insomuch that the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio’s communal playing from the FIM disc just seemed to gain progressive momentum all the way until the band had to quit altogether.
This pervasive persona injected considerable drive and thrills into classical music as well, and empowered “Mars, the Bringer of War” and the other movements from Gustav Holst’s The Planets (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD 4005) hybrid SACD with the unmistakably warring gravity and insistency. Particularly noteworthy is observation of discs in conjunction with the Tannoy CW, the large-diameter drive of which put forth a most complimentary drive and scale to the CD player’s presentation, even more diligently than Audio Note’s comparably priced AN-E SEC Silver, which would offer revelation of the CD player’s level of resolution alternately.
The Burr Brown-based Accustic Arts’ was also the first, sub-$10k player in my experience that had a platform competent enough to manifest the challenging dynamics of the JVC audiophile XRCD, Ondekoza (SVCD-1027). A disc mastered and manufactured with advanced techniques and technologies, the audiophile recording sounded dynamically captivating via the German player, differentiating magnitudes of miniscule nuances in portrayal of the singular shamisen against a backdrop of reverberating taiko, reenacting, without masking a powerful undertone, a breathtaking scene of beauty amidst an expanse.
The Transport Prospect
When used as a transport via the Audio Note Sogon digital cable in connection to the Audio Note DAC 5 Special, the Accustic Arts CD Player I exhibited clearly defined tonality with outstanding ambience decay, traits of an magnitude of which I have not heard from other sub-$10k CD transports. In this context, the aforementioned JVC Ondekoza XRCD was rendered most reverberatively, enforcing the realism of the shamisen most convincingly.
The Accustic Arts surpassed the Sony SCD-777ES as a CD transport summarily, exhibiting more vivid dynamics, soundstaging and tonality. From memory, it also outperformed the 47 Lab Flatfish in dynamic transient (liveliness), while conceding in ultimate textural and tonal contrasts.
When compared against the $26.8k 47 Laboratory PiTracer CD transport, the German player began to cast a dynamic transient less punctual than that of the PiTracer, also sounding less tonally pristine. To put into perspective, the PiTracer features components and designs that are custom-made to the designer’s specifications with a most liberal cost consideration, and it is given the most segregated power management ever devised.
Retrospectively, as I recently declined a review of a system of solid-state preamplifier and monoblock power amplifiers after auditioning per an agreed review audition arrangement, I did notice how that system equalized the sound of the PiTracer and the CD Player I.
The experience shows how a digital front-end’s strengths and weaknesses can be exploited and masked by way of equipment downstream. By sheer coincidence, I was given a frightening example of how a $6,500 machine can sound just like a $26.8k one.
Firstly, it is unheard of for any new company to offer a full line of products even in today’s market awareness and technological advancement. Secondly, for such companies to embark upon creating components carrying a $6.5k price tag in today’s format multiplicity and cost of living, resultant burden on the company to make the product excel is enormous on all aspects, if the product is to survive market scrutiny. Therefore, I offer my admiration for a company with such ambition and competency to achieve those objectives.
Most importantly, the $6,500, Accustic Arts’ CD Player I traversed an impressive path of the wondrous tonality blazed by the 47 Laboratory’s 4704 PiTracer CD transport and Audio Note’s DAC 5 Special. Though modest in ambition and performance when compared to the PiTracer/DAC 5 Special system, with a suite of superbly attuned components working in conjunction with the Burr Brown DAC, the CD Player I consistently made all CDs interesting to listen to, and by doing so, eclipsed achievement attained by all the integrated CD players I had used.
Finesse of today’s CD players has been largely summarized and embodied into the Accustic Arts CD Player I, showcasing a synergy of transport/DAC compatibility maximized and offered as a package, with an implementation that cast my experience with my former reference DAC of the solid-state arena, namely the $9,000 Wadia 27, into disadvantaged position for my denying it of its companion transport.
Although Audio Note’s $31k DAC 5 Special has been constantly exceeding with its radiometal, Supermumetal and spun mumetal fortified Analog Device DAC in dynamics and tonalities, the Accustic Arts has now managed to offer similar traits that more of us could experience. In this regard alone, the Accustic Arts not only has made a resounding point in its prowess, it rekindles the joy of CD shopping for the mere sake of music.
Digital Front End
47 Laboratory 4704 PiTracer CD transport
47 Laboratory 4705-G Gemini Progression DAC
Audio Note DAC One 1.1x Signature
Audio Note DAC 5 Special
Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD player
47 Laboratory 4706 dual mono Gaincard S with DACT24 & Cardas posts
Audion Silver Night PSE 300B monoblocks
Harmonix Reimyo CAT-777 preamplifier
Harmonix Reimyo PAT-777 300B stereo amplifier
Linn Klimax Twin
Loth X JI300 integrated amplifier
Reference Line Preeminence Two passive preamplifier
Reference Line Preeminence One Signature power amplifier]
Z-systems RDP-1 Reference Digital Preamplifier
47 Laboraotory 4722 Lens minimonitors
Apogee Duetta Signature
Audio Note AN-E SEC Signature
Audio Note AN-E SEC Silver
Murata ES103a/ES105 spherical super tweeter
Tannoy Churchill Wideband
Tannoy Dimension TD10
Tannoy ST-200 SuperTweeter
Audio Note Sogon digital cable (1m, RCA)
Audio Note Sogon interconnect (2m pair, RCA)
Audio Note AN-Vx interconnect (1.5m, RCA)
Audio Note Sogon LX speaker cable (5 feet, spade/banana, bi-wired)
Audio Note AN-V silver interconnect (RCA 1m, 2 pairs)
Audio Note AN-SPx speaker cable (2m, bananas, bi-wired)
Audio Note AN-La copper speaker cable (8 feet, bi-wired)
Audio Note Sogon speaker cable (5 feet, bi-wired)
Canare L-5CFB 75-ohm digital cable (RCA, 1.5m)
Canare D206 110 ohm digital cable (AES/EBU, 1.5m)
Cardas Quadlink 5C (8 feet)
Granite Audio #470 silver cables (RCA 1m, 2 pairs)
Granite Audio #560 AC Mains (2)
Harmonix Reimyo Studio Master AC cord (2)
Illuminations D-60 75 Ohm digital cable (1.5m, RCA)
Van den Hul MCD-352 (8 feet)
Harmonix Reimyo ALS-777 line conditioner
Salamander Synergy 20 (2), Twin 30 and Amp Stand, ASC Tube Traps and Flat Traps
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