It's getting harder and harder to justify the existence of CD-only players when you look around at the proliferation of DVD-A-only, SACD-only and universal players available at every price point. Unless, that is, you're of the school that no player can do everything, or even two things, as well as a single-function unit. Before even looking at the revised edition of this old stager, then, it's worth deciding where you stand, and why you may want to pass on it.
Briefly, there are only two reasons for buying a multi-format machine, keeping in mind that every player of silver discs has to play conventional CDs. The first is the cost/space issue. You simply may not have the money nor the shelf real-estate for two or more players. The other reason is that you want to be able to compare SACDs, CDs and DVD-As knowing that the only differences are the formats themselves, not the players. As the latter only really applies to anoraks and reviewers, and the former is strictly a personal issue differing from reader to reader, let me state right now: I prefer the dedicated player per format approach. Then again, my wife gave up on me years ago.
Audio Research even issued a 'mission statement' about the CD-only CD3 Mk II that states the case quite succinctly. Cynics might argue that it's mere excuse-making for not having a universal of their own, but trust me, ARC could come up with a universal if it wanted to circa 2004. Here's what they argued two years ago and still argue today: 'What sets the CD3 apart from the so-called 'combination' players on the market - whether DVD or SACD based - is that the CD3 is designed to do one thing superbly: that is, to play back normal 'redbook' music CDs, CD-R and CD-RW discs with maximum fidelity and full musical expression.
'The CD3 will not play back DVD video, DVD audio or SACD-only discs because it is our firm belief that the convenience of multi-format playback sacrifices sonic performance in the CD format. And, most customers and music lovers have extensive CD-based collections that continue to grow, so the priority on playback quality in this format, in our view, is eminently justified. While using the latest 24/192-capable Crystal DAC, the CD3 does not upsample, because our empirical research shows sonic compromise is unavoidable due to sample rate manipulation and approximating errors. The engineering focus of the CD3 is to maximize performance with the prevailing music format by keeping the overall player design simple, reliable and optimized for the one task it must accomplish.'
So welcoming the Mk II version of the Audio Research CD3 took little effort. I loved its Mk I version when I reviewed it over two years ago, aside from its top-loader layout, and I was pleased to note that its Mk II status involves extensive re-working to make it sonically a match for SACD. Like it or not, that is now the de facto standard for digital playback amongst audiophiles, and simply stating that CD-only players exist because of the presence of vast CD libraries isn't enough: plenty of you want to carry on with CD and have no intention of embracing SACD, two- or multi-channel.
At 19x14x6in (WDH) and 25lb, the CD3 Mk II impresses as a player with substance, like those from Wadia and Mark Levinson. Inside are massive regulated power supplies with two transformers and extensive regulation, and the company loves to sprinkle its units liberally with designer capacitors for both supply and bypass functions. All of the circuit boards are Audio Research-engineered with layouts optimised for lowest digital noise; the company still uses traditional hand-soldering methods.
Unsurprisingly, ARC stayed with the ever-dependable Phillips cast-metal, 3-beam Pro 2 laser mechanism transport, which they mount on a massive machined base for maximum rigidity and lowest jitter; the company also applies jitter-reducing technology in the circuitry. Alas, the Mk II still uses a manually operated sliding lid, which must be closed for the unit to operate, unlike YBA's and some others. The unit comes with a magnetic puck to hold the disc in place. And I'm not even gonna bother complaining about top-loading because I'm too old to give a damn. Let's just say that it's enough to keep me from coveting the player.
Read more about the CD3 CD player on Page 2.
As before, the CD3 Mk II is a standalone CD player with both BNC and
XLR digital outputs, transformer-coupled and are driven by a
high-current balanced line driver. But it does beg the question of why
anyone would buy a player of this grade to use as a transport, when its
raison d'etre is the DAC and output section. The line outputs are
offered in both single-ended and balanced mode, and it was - as ever,
I'm afraid - abundantly clear that balanced connection via XLR beats
single-ended via phono every time. It is NOT subtle.
Audio Research also applies mechanical damping to the internal
mounting of key components, the transport and the chassis structures,
and the CD3 sits on tuned polymer feet to further minimise
vibration-induced noise. The CD3 Mk II's servos operate entirely in the
digital domain; the previous transport models were hybrid designs using
analogue servos that placed greater demands on power supply reserves.
As minimalist as the back panel, the front is pure Audio Research right
down to the mix of brushed silver fascia, optional black handles and two
symmetrical cut-outs for the display on the left and the controls on
the right. Oh, how I wish the company would return to using the layout
of the CD2, where what is now the display was the CD tray! Enough - I
promised I wouldn't whine about the top-loading format. The display is
basic, blue-lit and telling track, time mode and accessed functions,
while the array of six buttons deals with only basic transport
manoeuvres. Everything else is found on the supplied remote.
As with all ARC products, burn-in is essential, and I was dismayed to
find that some putz shipped the review sample with the puck rattling
around in the CD aperture. Yes, it destroyed the laser, so a new machine
was dispatched, requiring burn-in from cold. So I had the thing left on
'repeat' for three weeks before I could settle down with it, and I'm
convinced there's even more to be gleaned. Beyond that, the unit also
takes a long time to warm up even after a few months' burn-in so, as
before, it is recommended that you place the CD3 Mk II in stand-by mode
when not in use, switching it on from the remote and not from the mains.
I used the player with the McIntosh C2200/MC2102 and the Marantz
SC-7S1/MA-9S1 pre/power amp combinations in balanced mode throughout,
through Wilson WATT Puppy System 7 and some prototype LS3/5As. My
reference was the Marantz CD12/DA12 CD player and DAC combo, also in
balanced mode, and all wiring was Transparent Reference.
Here's where things get a bit sticky, because three audio gurus
visited while I was assessing the CD3 Mk II. And I couldn't help but
overhear their musings, including those of one who chuckled and posited,
'How clever! They've rounded off the frequency extremes to make it
sound more analogue and valve-like!' At which I sighed with deep relief,
because it reminded me of what I wrote about the Mk I, and confirmed
that this was, indeed, a player 'voiced' for the vinyl-lovin',
Given that I'd spent the month prior to the ARC's arrival listening
almost exclusively to vinyl, it was a relief to learn that CD in 2004
continues to narrow the gap and to improve...despite the presence of
SACD. Like ARC's stereotypical client and most of you, I own a CD
library that I have no intention of replacing in SACD, DVD-A, Blu-Ray or
anything else that might come along. Enough is enough, and I just ain't
gonna buy the complete Led Zeppelin canon again. (Not that I'll live
long enough to see, say, SACD or DVD-A reissues of the Sopwith Camel's
eponymous debut, or The Best of Mickey Katz.)
What the CD3 MK II does is make it all smooth and silky and
non-aggressive. It has width and depth and incredible bloom, and the
performance improved in nearly every area on a daily basis. What I did
was leave the unit on 24/7 with a mix of real music and burn-in CDs,
playing the same disc each morning after 12-14 hours away from the
player. It would be nice if ARC could put a few hundred hours on each
machine at the factory but they don't, so consider life with the CD3 Mk
II like buying a brand new car. It just gets better and better before a
plateau months in the future.
Given that the machine may still have some burn-in ahead of it, I can
state that, relative to the CD12 package in particular, it is a
first-rank machine that will be of more appeal to those who prefer rosy
euphony over clinical, obsessive detail retrieval. In this area, it was
warmer, more lush and probably less accurate than the Marantz. Voices,
including the Judds' take of 'Don't Be Cruel' and Robert Plant's
gorgeous 'Darkness Darkness', had less tendency toward sibilance or
harshness, but brass had less punch and 'bite'. The lower registers
favoured acoustic bass - I dug out my stalwart Kodo drummers for that -
while synthetic music was slightly softened. But these traits are
minuscule in degree, and the arbiter has to be system-related.
One can only imagine how fat (as in 'sluggish' and 'obese', not
hip-hop talk) this would sound through, say, a 300B-based system. At the
same time, it would add some soul to an all solid-state package. That
it was so close to the never-bettered, Ken Ishiwata-hot-rodded Marantz
CD12/DA12 was nothing short of revelatory. The gains over its
predecessor? Judging by memory, and my notes from '02, I'd say it's more
precise, the soundstage scale is even larger and more open, and the
midband even more lifelike.
At 5190, it has its work cut out for it. But provided the demo you
hear involves a burned-in player, I can see it joining a very tiny
short-list of 'final CD-only players' to consider before the OEM
supplies of CD transports vanish in the wake of universal offerings.
This machine is pure Audio Research: high-end, thoroughbred and utterly
musical. If only it had a drawer at the front....
Absolute Sounds, 58 Durham Road, London SW20 0DE. Tel 0208 971 3909
SIDEBAR: The Change In Status From MK I to MK II
Sorry to disappoint you here, but ARC is playing its cards close to its
chest, and much of what I wrote about the first CD3 remains the same.
Like the Mk I, the Mk II uses the latest 24/192-capable Delta-Sigma
Crystal DAC, and does not upsample because ARC's 'empirical research
shows sonic compromise is unavoidable due to sample rate manipulation
and approximating errors. The engineering focus of the CD3 is to
maximise performance with the prevailing music format by keeping the
overall player design simple, reliable and optimised for the one task it
must accomplish.' The DAC was 'chosen for its resolution and musicality
when matched with our fully differential, Class A J-FET analogue output
stage.' But regarding the MK II edition, Audio Research states that
there are in total 45 parts changes and additions, '...made through the
careful application of proprietary electrical, Mechanical and optical
modifications and treatments.'