Arcam FMJ CD17 CD Player Review

October 10, 2011

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I have to admit that I haven’t owned a CD player in three and a half years. I ripped my entire 1300+ CD collection to hard disk in 2005, losslessly of course, and stored my CDs away. I immediately rip and store new CDs to my music server as I acquire them. I sold my Meridian 506 CD player in 2008. I’d only used it a handful of times in the interim. In retrospect, I think doing without a CD player and storing my CDs away has been a mistake, one which I am in the process of rectifying. To reiterate the essence of my new-found wisdom, there is a much to be said for going to the shelf, selecting a CD or LP, sitting down and reading the liner notes, and listening to an album from beginning to end. Engaging in the ritual of listening to music enhances the enjoyment of music. It can be done with a music server, but I think it routinely is not. With a music server, the tendency is to consume music rather than to listen to music. I now advocate maintaining a disc spinner even if you have a music server.

With that in mind, I thought I’d see what was available at the entry-level. Having just reviewed the Arcam FMJ A18 integrated amplifier here, and been favorably impressed, auditioning the $799 Arcam FMJ CD17 CD player was a natural. Arcam’s CD player is identical in appearance and occupies the same footprint as its integrated amplifier counterpart – 17” wide by 10.75” deep by 3.25” high. Not requiring such a hefty transformer to provide 50 watts/channel in amplifier power, it is considerably lighter at just over 11 pounds. Nevertheless, it retains a toroid transformer-powered linear power supply, eschewing the less expensive and now ubiquitous SMPS. All in all, it is solidly built.

The FMJ CD17 has the same well laid out front panel as the FMJ A18, with just the basic transport function buttons, and the disc tray, display and power button. While the disc tray is not as buttery smooth and silent as those found in some higher-end players, it is not clunky. Functions which I have never used on a CD player – shuffle, repeat, program, A-B, track display mode, and the like – are sensibly relegated to the lightweight remote, which also controls the integrated amplifier. The back plate sports two pairs of audio outputs (to facilitate copying your CDs to cassette I guess), both coaxial and Toslink S/PDIF outputs, and the usual voltage selector switch and IEC inlet.

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Arcam has spared no expense on the internals. EMI interference is kept at a minimum using proprietary “Mask of Silence” technology, including a unique metal fibre matting called the “Stealth Mat.” The marketing department was obviously working overtime. I’m willing to bet the engineering department was too. The power supplies for the digital, analog and servo sections are all separately regulated, and grounded in star fashion to prevent inter-stage noise. The DACs are 192kHz/24-bit Wolfson 8741s operating in differential mode. These are the same DACs used in Arcam’s BDP100 Blu-ray player ($1499) and top-of-the-line FMJ CD37 CD/SACD player ($2399). No mention is made as to whether the analog outputs are upsampled. Data flow is controlled by a high-precision clock, with individually buffered clock outputs. The output stage design is derived from Arcam’s $5995 FMJ AV9 surround sound processor (now replaced by the even more expensive AV888). In short, Arcam has brought to bear components and technologies found in its upper-end products in creating this affordable CD player.

I thought it might be a good idea to start off with James Taylor’s 2002 effort October Road for several reasons. First, male vocals provide a good test of the midrange. Second, James plays an Olson SJ guitar, seen on the album cover. This guitar from luthier James Olson has a cedar, rather than the usual spruce, top, which gives it a signature sound. Third, guitarists Ry Cooder, John Pizzarelli, John Sheldon, and session man extraordinaire Michael Landau all make appearances. Fourth, the always difficult to reproduce piano is featured on several cuts. Fifth, it has jazz and orchestral arrangements. Need I go on?

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The opening cut September Grass spotlights James’s unique finger-picking style, light gauge phosphor bronze strings, and L.R. Baggs LB6 saddle pickup, all of which create a crisp, though sparse, guitar sound, with airy harmonics aplenty. As is often the case, less is more. His voice is reproduced so naturally it is spooky. The background vocals are subtle, yet distinct. A sense of ease pervades both the song and the sound. Dave Grusin won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist for Mean Old Man, which features a traditional jazz trio backed by strings. The piano appears naturally spread between the speakers, the brushes on the drum head are rendered with the perfect swoosh, and the bass underlies it all without calling too much attention to itself. The strings are smooth without being blended. It is exquisitely balanced. I also noted that the delay on the opening measures of Baby Buffalo is convincingly portrayed.

Sufficiently mellowed-out, I put on The Cars – Greatest Hits to try to stir myself up. Not even the FMJ CD17 could rescue the disc from mid-1980’s digital harshness and glare. It sounded terrible, just as it should. No sugar-coating going on here. The CD needed more tubes than an Audio Research 610T to take the edge off. Perfect sound forever would have to wait a couple of decades. It put a quick end to my listening session.

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The next day, I decided to play some Bela Fleck. Most reviewers will pull out his 1991 album Flight of the Hippo, which is a great album, but I wanted to listen to some of his earlier recordings. Places is a compilation disk from his 1982-1986 albums and demonstrates the breadth of his talent across multiple genres. To test a component’s rhythm and pace, go straight to Nuns for Nixon. This is from Deviation for which fellow audio reviewer Chip Stern is credited with the liner notes. If you are thinking banjo is limited to Dixieland jazz and bluegrass, think again. Better yet, listen. The cut has unbelievable leads from each of the members of New Grass Revival and an addicting swing rhythm. The FMJ CD17 gets it right. Lowdown is a banjo-bass duet, with Bela and famed acoustic bassist Edgar Meyer both supporting one another and trading licks. Edgar is all over the neck, from the low open E-string way up to way up on the G-string – violin territory, played both pizzicato and with a bow. There is no screeching. Each tone occupies its own space, as does each musician. Rush out and buy this disc.

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As a point of reference, I compared the digital to analog conversion and analog output stage of the FMJ CD17 to that found in the Benchmark DAC1 HDR by routing both the digital and analog outputs of the Arcam to the digital and analog inputs of the Benchmark, and switching between them. I was unable to do a quick A/B comparison because the digital and analog signals could not be level matched. Listening to one, adjusting the volume, and then listening to the other, I waffled on whether I could detect any differences on a whole variety of recordings. Perhaps the Benchmark is a little smoother and the Arcam is a little more detailed. Perhaps.

Conclusion

The tough question to ask with any CD player is whether you are better off purchasing a universal Blu-ray player instead. There are several, including the Oppo BDP-93, which are comparably priced. I would argue that if you don’t already own a DVD-A or SACD library, you are unlikely to acquire one at this late stage, so you are not foregoing much (other than bragging rights) by acquiring a disc player without those features. That leaves you with a decision – audio or audio/video? Think about this: there are lots of companies and individuals out there falling all over themselves offering, at significant cost, to replace the switch-mode power supplies found in even expensive universal players with linear power supplies to improve audio performance. Arcam has already done that for you. It shows. I’d recommend you seriously consider purchasing a quality CD player like the FMJ CD17 that you can keep for the long term, and buying an inexpensive Blu-ray player that you can replace when they change the HDMI spec again. Your music collection will thank you.

- Frank Berryman

Contact Information

Arcam
Pembroke Avenue
Waterbeach
Cambridge CB25 9QR UK
http://www.arcam.co.uk
support@www.arcam.co.uk

Associated Equipment

Analog Source: VPI Scout; Dynavector 20X2; Musical Surroundings Phonomena II
Digital Source: Windows 7 music server with ESI Juli@ soundcard; Halide Design Bridge
Preamplifier: Meridian G68ADV; Benchmark DAC1 HDR
Power Amplifier: Meridian 557; Arcam FMJ A18
Loudspeakers: Meridian DSP5500, Definitive Technology BP-8060ST
Cables: Digital: Meridian; Analog and Speaker: Audience Conductor “e”; Power: Volex/Marinco
Headphones: Etymotic ER-4S
Accessories: GIK acoustic treatments; dedicated 20 amp circuit