Arcam is one of those well established mid/high-end companies from the UK that offer more than just a taste of the high-end at very attractive prices. For some reason, they never seem to get much further than whispers of recognition in the US, but perhaps this is about to change.
Over the years I have encountered several of their superb products in my travels around the rather barren high end audio landscape of South Florida. I was therefore very pleased when I was approached to review the FMJ CDS27 player. Of course, for those of you who read my articles regularly, digital audio in general has not really been my thing. This is mainly because there have not been any digital audio players of any type without going into 5-figure stratospheric price tags, outside of the Conrad Johnson unit I have had for some time, that have delivered sonics that merited my sustained attention. Perhaps the Arcam will update this track record. With an MSRP of $1,499, the Arcam FMJ CDS27 is less than half the MSRP of my aging Conrad Johnson UDP-1 Deluxe and is comparable to other like-kind mid level products such as Sony or Marantz for instance.
Unpacking the factory fresh Arcam FMJ CDS27 frankly didn’t generate the sort of built-in excitement and anticipation factor as have other products I have had sent to my home. In fact, I believe this to be an appropriate beginning for a story about a completely unassuming product that is an over-achiever. At a weight of about 10 lbs., the entire unit in fact probably weighs less that the faceplate of my Conrad Johnson universal player. The thin svelte matte black unassuming Arcam unit however packs a wallop in terms of feature set. Its scope and breadth of capabilities and features are a marvel for an audiophile who has yet to move both feet forward into the high definition digital streaming domain. For the “old school” – types, the Arcam FMJ CDS27 plays CD and SACD. So, if you have a good-sized collection, this very capable unit has you covered. In addition to handling the plastic discs, the Arcam will play streamed music through a wireless (or wired) network connection, as well as via a USB port connection. Another nice feature is if you have, as many of us do, a separate A/V system for watching movies, the Arcam will output digital audio both optically, via a toslink connection, or coaxially, via a conventional 75 ohm coax cable. Analog audio output is via standard phono plugs or balanced connection. I chose balanced connection and configured my preamplification system accordingly. I chose to go with the best power cord I have in house, the amazing Enklein TRex powercord. Yes, I am well aware that nearly three Arcam players can be bought for the price of one TRex powercord, but this is the harsh reality of the cable business.
Inserting the CDS27 to my system was a breeze. Thankfully, the manual was very straight-forward and well-written and I was able to get the unit connected to my home network in no time at all. The USB capability also came in very handy for playing some of my Hi-RES albums that resided in my Pono Music / JRiver library. In fact, the only semblance of difficulty I had with setting up the ARCAM CDS27 in my system was just getting it connected without the lightweight unit going airborne as a result of cable weight and stiffness!
The ARCAM FMJ CDS27 supports Audio CD, CD-R, CD-RW, and Super Audio CD. In digital file playback, there are a number of supported file formats:
FLAC (up to 24/192), WAV (up to 24/192), AIFF (up to 24/192), OGG (up to 24/192), AAC (up to 24/96), MP3 (up to 320kbps/ 48kHz), WMA (up to 192 kbps / 48 kHz)
Noticeably absent are DVD-A and DSD formats. Perhaps DSD capability will become available in a future software upgrade. These are easily achieved via a web download and upload to the player via a USB drive.
After a quick initial listen, it was easy to hear that this thing really needed to get some play hours on it before I could listen to it for any length of time. I therefore took advantage of an extended set of business trips I was taking and had the unit play a burn-in track through the disc playback mechanism and then through the USB streaming method. I figured this would cover most if not all of the bases. Time constraints and family responsibilities being what they are, I revisited the unit after quite a long bit of time had passed and it was still silently playing the track. I knew that it was time to evaluate what the CDS27 can do.
The final configuration of the reference system worked out to be:
ARCAM FMJ CDS27
Pass Labs XP-20 linestage
Melody Audio AN 845 Monoblock power amplifiers
Eficion F300 speakers
MIT Magnum powercord
Enklein Aeros balanced interconnects
Enklein TRex powercords
Enklein David speaker cables (review forthcoming)
I fired up my big tube power amplifiers on one of the hottest days of the year and I refused to let my first session with the Arcam’s sonics end. The room got to be upwards of 100 degrees, but I was smiling ear to ear. This was indeed a very rare event. I spent the entire afternoon listening to CDs exclusively. I certainly had not planned to do so, but it happened. I played a wide blend of music, both well-recorded and not-so-well recorded as I worked to understand what kind of performance level the Arcam brought to the game, versus my reference Conrad Johnson unit, by playing 16/44 CDs and SACDs.
On live recordings such as one of my more recent go-to recordings, Tokyo Day Trip Live by Pat Metheny with Christian McBribe on upright bass, and Antonio Sanchez on percussion, the CDS27 provided a good view of how it performs with well-recorded live performances. The presentation was very slightly softer yet greater in depth and ambient detail when compared to the CJ, but actually this made it closer to the sound of the LP through my system. I was intrigued. Overall on this CD the sound was transparent, free of any noticeable artifacts. Live cymbals shimmered with clarity and extension without ever sounding artificial. It simply sounded more detailed and correct. Information was being conveyed about the acoustics and tone of the venue that added that extra level of realism that the CJ player was simply lacking. McBride’s upright bass was right-sized and believable via the Arcam. I was a bit astonished at the apparent trouncing the CJ was getting so I went back and listened to the CJ just to assure that there were not other forces at work that would influence the sound. That effort in fact proved to be fruitful. My recent upgrade to the astonishingly good Enklein David speaker cables did indeed offer a partial answer to the lopsided comparison. The improvements in the sound of this CD through the CJ was demonstrably better in both lower level detail, ambient retrieval, and clarity. However, even with that discovery, it became clear that the CJ is simply no match for the Arcam.
I soon abandoned any further attempts to compare the two as it was clear that the updated technology simply out-classed the premium analog stage, power supply, and chassis of the aged Conrad Johnson UDP1 deluxe.
I next tackled playing high resolution as well as 16/44 and 320kbps WAV digital music files fed to the Arcam, and it proved to be very competent on all types of music. For instance, from my Pono Music purchases, I have accumulated a few high definition files by Pono founder Neil Young. One of those is the very highly regarded live album recorded at Massey Hall. Fed via a simple USB thumb drive, the album not only was read and played flawlessly by the Arcam FMJ CDS27, but its performance compared very favorably versus the vinyl pressing played back by my analog rig. These are words that I thought I would never speak, let alone write into a review document. It seems that to me, the time of reckoning finally seems to have come. Of course, production quality will heavily skew any results, but I must say that the superbly executed high definition digital transfers of Neil Young’s musical works have indeed yielded LP-quality or better results. A more modern recording such as Peter Gabriel’s New Blood which is a live recording and was produced with both an analog master and a high resolution digital master proved to be even more telling. In this case it was a toss-up. Assuming that both sources are of similar sound quality, the Arcam surfaced some weaknesses in my analog front-end especially in the lowest bass registers, while my analog rig surfaced a slight softening of dynamics and clarity in the Arcam. Again, you really needed to listen into the recording to hear these relatively minor nuances. This is an especially astonishing truth when you consider the fact that the Arcam is a circa $1,499 digital player!
Over the next several weeks and months, I played the Arcam during my sessions as my go-to digital front end. Each CD, downloaded music and SACD I played pretty much yielded the same results. This is not to say that the Arcam is without flaws. There are indeed several nits to be picked. While I found the user interface in general to be quite intuitive, great care must be taken with how the digital files are arranged on a drive; otherwise they will play in an order different from that intended. I am not sure if this is common or if this is specific to the Arcam. However, this is a very minor nit. Another minor issue is the sheer amount of time it takes for the Arcam to read a conventional disc. I’m not sure what processes are at work, but I would think that initializing and playing a CD or SACD should be able to be accomplished in less time than it takes this particular unit. I personally only own 2 DVD-A’s but I know there are some who have larger collections of music in this format. Well, this is one format that is not contemplated in the Arcam’s offerings, neither is Sony’s DSD. However, it does cover most of the bases in terms of “dead” formats and perhaps DSD is just a software update away. If it’s starting to sound to you that I am struggling to find flaw with the CDS27, you might be right.
The Arcam FMJ CDS27 was a surprise and a delight to audition. It is so understated in look and feel, that it catches you off-guard with the sound it produces. As much as I have learned to love and respect my Conrad Johnson UDP-1 deluxe universal player over the years, it’s time for retirement has been long overdue. The Arcam FMJ CDS27 confirms that in every way possible. If you want the last player you will need to own for playing discs and you can live without being able to stream DSD audio files, the Arcam is indeed the go-to product in this price class and perhaps well beyond it. It offers a superb value and as such I highly recommend it.
Copy editor: Laurence A. Borden
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