Product: Arcam FMJ CD36 CD player
Manufacturer: Arcam - UK
Serial Number: FC36PO1848
Reviewer: Maarten van Casteren - TNT UK
Reviewed: April, 2006
I know quite a few people with decent systems, and no brand is present in these systems like Arcam. In total I 'know' 3 Arcam CD players and 1 integrated amp. Just to check I walked into my local hi-fi shop and asked what's the CD player they recommend, and the answer was, yes, Arcam. Oh, or Quad if I wanted something more relaxed. It seems then that Arcam have the trust of the British audio community. They have been making CD players with a good reputation for over 20 years now, and are still devoted to 2-channel reproduction, in spite of the fact that they also make excellent multi-channel components. I was lucky enough to visit their factory a few weeks ago (see my report), and they kindly let me review their top of the line CD player. Another review of their excellent Solo has already been published here on TNT-Audio.
The FMJ CD36 is a further development of the CD33, with a new 4-layer printed circuit board, the use of 'stealth mat' technology and upgraded power supplies as the biggest differences. The outside hasn't changed much, if at all, as far as I can see. There was no real need for that anyway, as the player has a simple but stylish exterior. Arcam haven't precisely splashed out on luxury. The remote is very effective, but also quite plain and made of plastic. The player comes in a simple box with no extras and a rather elementary manual. But, for example, the foam supports holding the player in place in the box are of very good quality again.
So, overall the first impression is that the money has gone where it is really needed and has not been wasted on trivial extras or luxury. A promising start, as far as I am concerned, and in keeping with their reputation.
It all seems to work very well too, with a few minor niggles. For a start, the player is a little bit slow to respond, but since this is at most a couple of seconds, it isn't a problem really. Second, the display can be dimmed or switched off altogether, but it reverts to the default, full on, every time you change the CD. I like to have the display off, but soon stopped switching it off after each CD, also because you need the remote to do this. The manual actually claims that 'Turning the display off generally produces a slight improvement in sound quality'! I didn't really notice this, but if the guys at Arcam themselves think it is useful to switch the display off, they should have made it a bit easier, I think. Not a big flaw, I admit, but annoying and unnecessary. Finally, the player is not completely quiet, something that will only cause problems when it would be sited very near to your listening location.
And for the rest it is just right, making it as close to perfection as you can get with an audio component, I guess. At least closer than most.
FMJ stands for "Full Metal Jacket" and represents Arcam's top of the range components. The main chassis "U" section is made from Acousteel, a specially dampened form of laminated steel sheet, the front panel is 8mm extruded aluminium and the lid is made from aluminium sheet. The case stands on sturdy and dampening soft rubber feet, and the whole thing makes a very robust impression. Inside we can see the double power supply and a separate PCB for the more delicate circuits, mounted under an aluminium plate. Everything looks very carefully put together, with the top even slotting in a groove in the thick aluminium front to ensure rigidity and optimal shielding.
Digital to Analogue conversion is taken care of by a quartet of Wolfson 8740 dac chips. Each one of these is capable of handling two-channel conversion by itself, but Arcam use them in balanced mode, making one converter handle a single channel. This is common practice, of course, but here a pair of 8740 chips is used per channel. This is said to reduce noise and improve linearity by averaging out errors. The digital signal is upsampled to 192 kHz and 24 bit before conversion. This allows the use of higher frequency analogue filtering with fewer side effects in the audio band.
Another feature is the use of 'stealth mat', a material said to redirect and absorb high frequency interference. A small patch, about 4 by 4 inch, is attached to the inside of the top. It looks precisely like the Stillpoints ERS that I reviewed a couple of months ago and which I found to be very effective. There's no visible evidence of further use, but I wasn't able to look under circuit boards, of course. In addition to this extensive RF shielding has been applied.
Arcam further claim 10 separate power supplies, to minimise interaction between different sections of the player, and a high precision clock and other measures to keep jitter minimal.
I was told that burning in would take a minimum of 100 hours, but my experience was that it is better to double this figure. Initially the player sounded a bit harsh and lacked some weight. But after about a week of continuous playing it all started to sound much better, with the treble nicely cleaned up and the bass improved. Time for some more concentrated listening. It replaced my resident Micromega stage 3 player (heavily modified) and was used with my Anatek A50 integrated amplifier and my Dynaudio Contour 1.8 mk2 floorstanding speakers. Cabling was homemade pure silver shark cable with WBT NextGen plugs for the interlink and Cable Talk 3.1 for the speakers.
The first impression of this player is that it is very energetic and realistic sounding. Voices and instruments have a lot of 'presence', sometimes sounding as if they are actually in the room. In spite of this the presentation isn't really very 'forward'. The sound stage is nicely deep and wide with impressive focus and separation of individual sounds. Images are solid and stable. All of this is mostly because this player has fantastic treble. It is very detailed and dynamic without ever sounding brittle or fatiguing. This produces a sort of 'detail without pain' that is extremely enjoyable and makes you listen to all your favourate CD's again, discovering extra instruments, understanding more lyrics and discovering new instruments and melody lines everywhere. It produces clarity and transparency, without drawing too much attention to the higher frequencies. Cymbals sound very natural and are nicely locked in place within the whole soundstage, and don't stick to the speakers.
What catches the ear too is the amount of space in the picture. There is actual empty space between instruments, and this enables a view into a nice deep and 'black' background. There's also real silence between notes, sometimes even creating the suggestion that delays are a bit shorter that what I'm used to. But the whole presentation is very convincing and there is no doubt that the Arcam's version of things is very close to the truth.
Switching between my own Micromega or the Arcam Solo, which was also present at the time, consistently reveals the Arcam CD36 player to create a very convincing picture of the musical event. There's real space and real texture here, and the other players sounded a bit flat in comparison. Especially voices in the center are portrayed rock-solid and with uncanny realism. This really feels like a window to another reality, with the back wall just falling away.
Bass is a more complex story. It is impressively deep and the overall balance is good, albeit a little bit on the light side, sometimes creating the impression of lacking a bit of weight. I listen a lot to jazz, mostly recordings from the late 50's and early 60's but also some more modern stuff, and the Arcam doesn't seem to be at its best with these. All the qualities already mentioned are present, except that it still feels as if there's something missing down below. But, as I have just told you, bass is really deep and if there seems to be a little bit less of it than the rest of the spectrum, this is probably because of the spectacular treble talents of this player and not a problem in the bass itself. Still, the feeling remained that some recordings lacked 'a certain something'.
It was only when two friends were visiting that things started to become clearer. First we played some other recordings and they were very impressed, but when we switched to jazz, both older and more modern recordings, they noted the same problem. After a while I re-installed my own modified Micromega Stage 3, and although that old player couldn't even come close to the Arcam for treble, it was immediately clear that the Micromega sounded a bit warmer and especially more rhythmic in the bass. It seemed that the Arcam's problem was with music where the bass was driving the rhythm, especially when that rhythm was very complex. It actually felt as if the Arcam's bass was a tiny bit slower than the higher frequencies. For most recordings this is no problem at all, but sometimes this makes it sound as if the bass is lacking a bit of impact and drive. At least, this was the case in my system.
To be sure I took the CD36 to one of my friend's home a couple of days later and compared it with his player in his system. He has a Naim CD5 player, NAC 112 pre amp, NAP 150 power amp, flatcap 2 power supply and a pair of Living Voice Avatar OBX speakers. In addition to this a small subwoofer was used. This is a more revealing system than mine, but also an (even) warmer sounding one. We were amazed to find that this time there was very little evidence of any problems with the bass. Certainly, the Naim CD5 player, helped by the flatcap, sounded a bit warmer with more 'drive' in the bass, but the Arcam now actually sounded a bit more precise in the lower frequencies. And the CD36's treble was slightly superior, exposing a little bit of grain in the Naim player.
What to think of this then? Well, in both cases the Arcam was the 'cooler' sounding player, with bass that was deep, but also very well controlled and a bit dryer that the other two players. My friend's system is very warm and full sounding, and in this context the Arcam player works fine, certainly if the recording has good bass weight. My system is less warm, although my own Dynaudio speakers certainly have good bass extension.
So, in a situation where the rest of the system and/or the recording do not provide much bass weight, the Arcam can sound a bit thin and rhythmically challenged in the lower frequencies. But when it gets a little bit of help in the bass department it can sound absolutely gorgeous.
Is the Arcam right, neutral perhaps, and are the other two players artificially warm? Or are the other two right and is the Arcam a little bit too analytic? I don't know. I wish I had been present in the studio when Miles Davis recorded 'Kind of blue' but I wasn't, so I don't really know how it is supposed to sound. What I do know is that a slightly warmer player is kinder to more recordings than the Arcam, and that this extra warmth, correct or not, rarely causes problems in itself.
A system can be good because it has a nice tonal balance or because it has great spatial capabilities. Either will grab your attention, the first by the richness and beauty of the tone and the other by placing you in the same room as the musicians. The Arcam is clearly in the second category. Mind you, it is brilliant in conveying the tonal details accurately, being able, for example, to separate two instruments playing the same melody or showing the difference between a tenor or alto saxophone. But the overall picture isn't as seducing as with some other players.
If the previous section has made you think that I don't like the CD36, then I've made the wrong impression. I do like it. It has many good qualities. Its best feature is its high frequency reproduction, which is as detailed, clean and open as you can expect from CD, at least as long as you're not willing to spend silly money. Sound stage wise it is also a champion. And finally it has great resolution, without ever sounding forced or tiring, which is an achievement in itself.
There are no real criticisms, actually. My comments on the bass are mostly a question of taste and general approach to sound. There certainly doesn't seem to be anything wrong with the bass reproduction of this player, even if it is not at the same level as its mid and high performance. And I am very aware of the fact that you cannot have it all at this price.
So, if you are looking for a smooth, warm, valvelike, glowing CD player then this is probably not the machine for you. But if you value detail, clarity, openness, 'air' and precision then this is a player you really have to audition. The choice is yours.
In the 10 years plus I have been voicing products it has been clear that one of the most difficult decisions in voicing a source is bass depth vs. bass precision. The most frustrating factor in this decision is that eventual results will depend greatly on the amplifiers abilities, speaker type, speaker position and room dimensions will often swamp any influence the player has. As you also identify in your piece the music itself plays some part!
Kick drum reproduction is a good example for the trade off. Imagine a drummer pushing the beater to strike the drum skin. As the beater hits it holds the drum skin taught for a short time. During this part of the beat the centre of the skin is prevented from vibrating and just the outer portions resonate creating sound. As the beater is released the whole skin starts to vibrate for a time before dying away. So, during the attack phase we have a more impulsive tone and building amplitude as opposed to the rounder tone and decaying amplitude of the sounds "tail".
If the system cannot manage accurate tracking of impulses like this the resulting sound is more bloated but is often taken as sounding more full. In reality its imply not accurate. To put the kick drum example in simple context, we do "THUD" others often only do "UDD"...
Your example of older recordings being less pleasing is also relevant here.
In many cases (leaving the analogue vs. digital recording argument aside for
the moment) older recordings simply do not have the bass precision that more
modern (and by that I mean "good" modern...) ones do. The improvements in studio
monitoring is a good example here. With modern amplifiers and speakers we can
get a much more accurate idea of what is going on in the bass end of a recording
at the impulse response of a modern accurate studio system will start and stop
in much closer to the relation to the recording itself.
Geoff Meads for Arcam
© Copyright 2006 Maarten van Casteren - www.tnt-audio.com