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Armonia HiFi CD N.1 - CD transport kit

... instead of tweaking every CD player within reach!

[Armonia HiFi CD N.1]

[Italian version]

Product: Armonia HiFi CD N.1 - CD transport kit
Manufacturer: Albatron S.r.L. - Italy
Prices: mechanism KIT: 775 Euro; N4 C core power transformers: 172 Euro
Reviewer: Giorgio Pozzoli
Reviewed: April 2002

Armonia HiFi is an old acquaintance of ours. We have already reviewed a DAC (DAC 3) and a preamplifier (Pre 2) from this source. In both cases the products proved to be of a decidedly high level, with engineering and notable technological solutions, rendered possible only by the fact that Armonia HiFi is merely a brand name of a company that is concerned essentially with industrial electronics. All this delivered despite (presumably) relatively low audio production volumes.

Once again, therefore, we find ourselves before an attainment founded on the passion of the proprietors, more than on a well-defined business drive. It is a situation that unfortunately I see presented more and more frequently in Italy. I say unfortunately, because it seems to me ever more evident that the possibilities for achievement in the field of audio, also on the part of serious would-be investors, are steadily being reduced.

The kit is constructed around the Philips CD-PRO 2 (VAU1254) mechanism. This mechanism is encountered rather infrequently, compared to the classic CDM12 and the like, because of its high source price. To be candid, it is difficult to find it in systems costing less than several thousand Euro.

Philips' policy compounds this by enjoining an extremely selective and watchful licensing protocol on this item's commercial use, so as to restrict its utilisation to component manufacturers capable of fully exploiting its properties.

The process by which one obtains a licence is neither simple, nor quick, nor economical. For as far as I know, Albatron began establishing its prospects in this direction over two years ago.

In short, the very fact of utilising this mechanism guarantees the design competence and dependability of the manufacturer.

Description

First of all it is necessary to state that the kit provides no case, but only the mechanism itself and the electronic components needed to make it work, including the remote control.

So, if you buy it you will find only:

[Armonia HiFi CD 1 - Controller and Power Suppy boards] Essentially, what remains for the buyer to do is to acquire a case, connectors, and a power cable.

Note that the power supply as well as the controller board are entirely of Abatron design. The remote control, however, seems to be the standard one distributed by Philips.

The circuit boards are positively covered in industrial quality components - an absolutely essential choice made to avoid excessive costs (and consequent prices). The regulators are heatsinked.

>From the point of view of flexibility, the mechanism's own board (ready assembled, calibrated and tested SMD board by Philips) is commendably comprehensive. In fact it is equipped with:

The S/PDIF interface is the one that is normally found as digital electric input or output in transports or DACs. The one in the CD1 maintains the correct standard S/PDIF levels (range of between 0.5V and 1V) - not TTL compatible as in a few CD Rom units - and therefore can be used to connect directly to an external converter. It appears to be without an isolating transformer (I seem to record that the standard provides for one even if I don't find any evidence after a momentary check), anyway adding one is very simple: see for examp http://www.epanorama.net/documents/audio/spdif.html for a few directions.

The I2S output, on the other hand, is a three-wire interface (plus ground) suitable to drive (for example) a DAC chip or an oversampling digital filter directly. Originally designed by Philips, it is now in common use; for example it is supported by the Crystal/Cirrus chips. Armonia is finalising a D/A converter that is to be combined with this transport mechanism using this particular interface, which would give a complete CD player. Another possibility is to create a zero-oversampling CD player exploiting only the converter module of the Convertus: in fact even the TDA1543 could make use of such an interface.

Finally, I must report that a few commercial D/A converters are also starting to make provision for this interface (which avoids the jitter problems typical of the S/PDIF), but given that there is no standard I am not certain that the logic levels used are perfectly compatible.

Assembly

>From the electrical point of view, assembly is really simple. A detailed manual is provided with full instructions relating to the connectors and their use, and the number of necessary connections is limited.

The mechanical assembly is in principle also very simple, essentially requiring the fixing of the mechanism to the supporting plate furnished for this purpose with springs and rubber points. The plate is then fixed to the base (or in the worst instance to the cover) of the case with the appropriate spacers.

Note that the mechanism is rather delicate; given its cost, try to handle it as little as possible.

In the first place, it may be damaged by electrostatic discharges: when you work on it endeavour always to have all tools earthed, and if possible connect yourself to ground also. You could wear a metal finger ring with a wire connection to earth.

In the second place, the laser motor contains an extremely powerful magnet - strong enough to attract any ferrous particle that may be round about. If a grain of iron gets into the air gap of the motor you've got real trouble.

[Philips CD Pro 2 (VAU1254) ]

Therefore, it is essential to keep the mechanism protected right up to the moment it is used, and to mount it only when the entire appliance is complete. Knowing the impatience of those interested in DIY, this advice seems to me pretty difficult to follow

Another fairly critical point is the case. The mechanism has no loading device (read draw) whatsoever. There is a magnetic clamp, which for the lack of anything better, must be manually placed over the disc.

The mechanism is therefore thought of as being used in top-loading machines or else by those who are up to devising a draw themselves. Searching the web, however, I have seen several top-loading cases but none with a draw. Therefore the answer is a top-loading machine.

Now, the laser in the reader is still a laser, certainly of reduced power and invisible too, but potentially VERY dangerous to your eyesight - as is also clearly reported in the instructions. Even though it is invisible the danger of permanent damage is real and effective. Clear? Because of this it is absolutely essential to have a protection mechanism for the sake of children or less cognisant friends.

In fact, the norms rightly provide for automatically switching off the laser before gaining access to the disc. Therefore, it is necessary to cover the disc itself with a lid, the lifting of which also instantly extinguishes laser; for this purpose there is a connector with the appropriate switch.

Finally, once you have decided on a top-loading assembly and the use of a lid, there remains the problem of performing the operation of cutting the upper panel of the case so as to be able to access the mechanism. The aim is to create a well for the CD, anchored to the cabinet and not to the mechanism, which as I have said is suspended on springs. Thus allowing, on the one hand, the disc-carrying "plate" to protrude from the well so as to hold the disc raised from the well itself, and on the other hand, to touch neither the well nor the top panel with its own chassis. This means centring the base plate of the well between the mechanism's suspended chassis and the disc, that is a space of a scanty few (4 or 5) millimetres, without allowing it to touch one or other side.

That is the more proper solution. The simpler solution consists in allowing direct access to the mechanism, as it is, through the lidded aperture. In the limit case, you could mount a strictly non-magnetic plate around the CD carrying component of the mechanism and attached to the latter. Pay careful attention that it does not touch the lid.

Simplicity has its price, however. Even though the aesthetic aspect may be perfect with the lid closed, in the gap that remains between the top panel and the mechanism dust will intrude, and in case of clumsy manoeuvres perhaps even some CDs

Nevertheless, Armonia HiFi is considering producing a low-cost case for the mechanism (and the I2S input DAC that will shortly accompany it).

Are you asking yourselves what I have done myself? Well, I received the mechanism already nicely assembled I have to say it is very, very, very convenient, but not very presentable.

Operation

The machine is quite convenient to use. All the functions that interest me are present on the remote control. There is no scan or programme mode (which I have never used in my life), but all modes of repeat are available.

There is one aspect that leaves me perplexed: once the disc is changed - or rather the lid closed - the controller is not able to record a command (typically play) until the TOC has been read completely; several seconds are required.

This is an absolutely marginal problem: a bit of a nuisance only because I am not used to it, I have to say.

Nevertheless, keep well in mind that in case of changing CDs without resetting the disc (or rather opening and closing the lid of the draw) the machine is usually able to begin reading the new CD, but usually fails completely when certain commands are given, e.g. skip and the like. Still, all this seems absolutely correct and inevitable.

Positioning is a much more significant issue:

As I have said, the mechanism is conceived as being used in top-loading machines. Unfortunately, if you use a standard rack and you own a turntable the top level is probably already occupied and the case for the mechanism cannot be very low profile because of the dimensions of the circuit boards as well as those of the mechanism itself.

Moreover, the lid calls for a further increase in the height of the CD transport which in the instance of a hinged lid (the simplest solution) not possibly be inserted into a shelf of standard height.

Therefore, either throw out the turntable, or buy a rack with plenty of space between levels ... or make yourself a TNT Flexy.

How does it sound?

Well OK, up till now we have basically reported on a series of implementation difficulties and technical data. But we have not yet touched on the most important issue; what does it sound like?

Before we get there, let's look at the testing procedure. The test compares the CD1 with the Linn Mimik and a PDS505 (the famous original Stable Platter mechanism, with many metal components) modified with a high quality clock and a digital electric output with transformer coupling, both used exclusively as transports. The converters were the Convertus with digital decimation (yes, it's here now!!!) and a TDA1541 based DAC in an very advanced stage of testing.

To allow a fair comparison between the three mechanisms, I have used only the S/PDIF output.

I would have liked to verify the performance obtainable with the I2S interface, which as I have said is free of the jitter problems typical of the S/PDIF. Unfortunately the cable I had available to me was too short to reach the interior of my DACs, and it is not good to use long cables without providing the appropriate buffering. So, rather than produce a meaningless test I preferred to skip it altogether.

So, now we come to the sound.

What is most striking is probably the ease, the naturalness and the immediacy of the passages.

Fluidity reigns supreme. Authority rules. There is not the slightest hint of trembling, of wow & flutter, of uncertainty, which so often characterises many economical digital reproducers, if not even worse, edgy sound and attendant listener fatigue. Despite the clock update, it is in this that the principal limitation of the PDS-505 consists: a certain residual lack of fluidity that becomes evident when confronting a machine like this one or the Mimik.

The tonal balance is simply perfect according to my tastes. However, it could be that it is displaced a little towards the treble for others' tastes: the sound is extremely transparent, open, clear. The bass gets its place of pre-eminence when that is its due, but it is always perfectly co-ordinated and controlled. The Mimik has more of it but often seems artificially swollen.

The higher frequencies are pure, simple and absolutely non-artificial. Detail is remarkable. Precision and realism are truly exemplary - if the ancillaries allow.

At the same time, even with the shrillest voices, the sound never becomes piercing in an unnatural manner. The extreme treble is resolved with utter sweetness, moreover without veiling or roll-off. The Mimik, however, tends to be a little less precise, a tiny fraction blurred.

The speed of pace and rhythm is just right: neither faster nor slower than you would expect. Which means that you could certainly not say sluggish, on the contrary it is decidedly brisk, though without showing any sign of rushing. Certainly quicker than the Mimik, but then the slowness of the Mimik is well recognised.

Transients are also agile. Precisely because of this, dynamics are slightly superior to the Mimik's. In point of fact the lighter bass should have reduced the dynamic impact, but evidently the greater velocity compensates with interest for what was lost in the bass.

The harmonic quality of the signal is remarkable. The sound is full, not sketchy or skeletal but complete and realistic.

Imaging is rock-steady, detailed, and precise. The performers stand out against the blackest of backgrounds. The soundstage is vast. Even in the most congested passages you do not loose sight of the details, even though the ensemble is perceived perfectly: truly a most natural situation.

When compared to the Mimik, the different handling of ambience signals also comes through. The Mimik treats them on a par with the other signals, sometimes mixing them, in a few instances swallowing them. The CD1 with its detail always keeps the direct and reflected components of sound separate. In particular the CD1, by correctly treating the faintest sonic trail that is perceived, for example with a damped piano and the echo in the surroundings, allows a more realistic spatial representation and a better characterisation of the recording venue.

As a consequence, the soundstage expands in all directions; it is decidedly wide as well as deep. The sensation of spatial localisation of the various sources is phenomenal, all the planes of sound are clearly perceived.

With the Mimik, however, a very strange effect is noticed (especially with piano solo). It is as though the trail of sound is brutally and unnaturally shortened by an over-absorbent environment. So the soundstage seems merely hinted at, never completely real.

Conclusion

The sonic performance is of a very high level indeed. Such as to fully justify even the price, which is far from low if you consider that we are dealing with a kit.

Assembly is really very simple and within the capability of all. Certainly, if you want to achieve an aesthetically perfect result, a certain complexity in assembly is inevitable. But it is also possible to begin with a less ambitious implementation and improve it over time, making it more complex and aesthetically pleasing.

There is also the prospect that a DAC with a dedicated I2S interface, and a purpose-designed case will soon be available, which renders this kit even more enticing.

In summary, an assemblage that can be more or less demanding and more or less complex according to the approach you choose to adopt, but which in its simplest form is really elementary. When combined with a DAC of sufficient quality it guarantees a thoroughly high end sound.

© Copyright 2002 Giorgio Pozzoli http://www.tnt-audio.com

Translation: Peter Janssen, May 2002.

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