I just spent a few hours doing an A-B comparison test between the Denon DVD 2900, a universal player, and the Arcam FMJ CD23, a relatively high-end dedicated CD player.
My goal was simply to test two-channel audio performance. Beyond that, Iâ€™m trying to get an idea as to whether a universal player can really serve as the only player you need for all disk-based media. More specifically, Iâ€™m wondering if a higher-end player like Denonâ€™s upcoming DVD 5900 could do everything I need it to do: play my extensive CD library as well as or better than the Arcam CD player, play the new hi-res audio formats (which the Arcam canâ€™t do), and play DVDs, my lowest priority (I like watching movies, but I like listening to music more).
I should also note that Iâ€™m generally a two-channel, analog-oriented music listener. At this point Iâ€™m not interested in going multi-channel for my music. At some point I might create a surround system for watching movies, but Iâ€™ll need some convincing to start listening to music in more that two channels.
My test system is as follows:
Denon DVD 2900
Arcam FMJ CD23
Arcam A32 integrated amp
Definitive Power Monitor 900s
Audioquest Python Interconnects for both players
PS Audio Ultimate Outlets
PS Audio Power Plus power cables for Arcam CD player and amp
Stock power cord for Denon DVD 2900
Nordost Blue Heaven speaker cables
The first disk I listened to was Lucinda Williamsâ€™ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. This is a HDCD recording, which the Arcam player can decode but the Denon cannot. However, since it happens to the only CD I have two copies of, I had to use it. Iâ€™m not an expert listener, but I was surprised that it took about an hour before I heard any significant difference between the Arcam and the Denon with this disk. This is to say that the Denon player held its own with Redbook audio compared to a $2500 dedicated CD player. The Denon reproduced the details very well in comparison, and the low-end held up also. The only noticeable difference is that the Arcam seemed to create a more expansive, fuller atmosphere than the Denon. Iâ€™m not sure if the HDCD encoding (20 vs 16 bits) created this effect, but it was pretty subtle. All in all, I could definitely live with the Denon for CDs, but given a choice of devices, Iâ€™d pick the Arcam.
The second test was not an ideal experiment but worth mentioning all the same. I compared the Stoneâ€™s SACD version of Beggarâ€™s Banquet to the original non-super-audio CD. As one might expect, the difference here was huge: in contrast to the SACD, the old CD sound like it was stuck in mud: it was far less dimensional, the instrument tracks were not distinct, and even Jaggerâ€™s voice sounded flat. But given the vast difference in the mixes â€“ these are almost completely different albums â€“ the comparison really doesnâ€™t hold water. The SACD version is a complete remix; even the tempo of many songs has been altered. For an ideal comparison, obviously, I would have used the Redbook layer of a SACD disk in the Arcam player. But this test reveals what the SACD format, in the right hands, can do to an older recording: give it magic. Iâ€™m not sure what would happen with a more recent, high-quality recording, but the difference between the old Beggarâ€™s Banquet CD and the new SACD version is as dramatic as the difference between analog television and a 1080i high def.
In conclusion, Iâ€™d say that the Denon player almost succeeds as my ideal universal player. This is surprising, because I didnâ€™t think that the 2900, which I bought essentially as a toy to test the new audio formats, would perform as well as it did against the Arcam. If it played Redbook audio just a bit better, Iâ€™d consider selling the Arcam. The bigger question is how the next generation of universal players, like the Denon 5900, will change the market. A slight improvement in Redbook audio quality, and in audio performance in general, could make it a winner.