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Source impressions, part 1

post #1 of 12
Thread Starter 
I've been looking for a new cdp to replace my Pioneer DV-343 -> modded MSB Link DAC. Not one to take baby steps, I figured I'd have to spend a few thousand to get a big improvement. So I went to a local hi-fi shop in search of a few good sources. My first choices to hear were the Musical Fidelity A3.2 and the Arcam FMJ-23. I could hear differences in their sound using the dealer's speaker systems, but I knew a home audition was in order. At this price point, it should be mandatory. Now, this is not a full-blown review... one weekend is not enough time to become intimately familiar w/ the sound of a new piece of equipment. But I do feel comfortable in describing my impressions of the units, and I think my impressions of their sound are solid enough that they wouldn't change drastically over a more extended period.

Associated equipment
--------------------
- Sources: Pioneer DV-343 -> modded MSB Link DAC; Musical Fidelity A3.2; Arcam FMJ-23
- Amplifier: Headroom Max (old version)
- Cables: Belden 89259 interconnects; Belden 1605A digital cable; Quail powercord
- Headphones: Audio-Technica W2002
- Misc: Balanced Power Technologies BP-Jr


Looks
--------------------
First up is the Musical Fidelity A3.2. This thing is beautiful (keep that word in mind, it describes the MF in more ways than one). Solid construction, though I didn't care for having all the screws shown on the faceplate, gives it a hint of industrial flavor. Very pretty gold coloring around the drive, which seems to be a standard dvd-rom tray. Next is the Arcam. Smaller than the MF in depth, w/ a smooth silver finish that gives it a sleek and classy look, while not really drawing too much attention. No visible screws on the faceplate, and also appears to use a standard dvd-rom tray.

Musical Fidelity A3.2
Arcam FMJ-23

Build
--------------------
Both of these players are solid machines... not quite tanks, but definitely quality construction. As fitting for its larger size, the MF is slightly heavier than the Arcam. My only complaint is the buttons on the Arcam. They feel a little wobbly, not as firm as the MF.

Ergonomics
--------------------
The button layout on the face of each player was fine. Both players operated quickly and quietly. I didn't care for either of the remotes. The MF remote is wide and thin, making it awkward for me to hold. The Arcam remote was easy to hold, buy why in the world were the Play/Stop buttons put on the bottom, while the Track Skip and number pad put at the top?

Sound
--------------------
First off, let me say that my current source is very good, has Dan Wright's highest mods from that time, and total cost was around $700. So when I say that certain aspects of the new players disappointed me, this means the improvements (if any) over my current source were not significant to my ears. Given that these candidates are all at least double the cost of my current source, I'm going to nit-pick them to my heart's content. I have high expectations for expensive equipment. Also, keep in mind that the rest of my system is pretty close to neutral, leaning slightly towards analytical, so systems w/ different qualities may match better or worse than mine did w/ these players. Now, onto the impressions...

Do you like beautiful music? If so, give the MF a try. The A3.2 gives one the impression of a beautiful, sunshiney day. Any instrument that reaches into the highs (cymbals, vocals, guitars, etc...) sounds beautiful. What this means is that the emotive quality of these notes is enhanced, so the music sounds passionate, airy, and soulful. Don't mistake this for brightness... these highs are clear, but silky smooth. Vocals are pretty close to neutral, w/ a dash of warmth. They sound natural, but vocal separation was barely improved over the MSB. The same went for instrument separation, which was disappointing. However, the instruments had a more neutral tone than the MSB, which tends to give everything a bit too much warmth to sound natural. Overall resolution and low-level detail was not a big improvement. Bass was somewhat clearer, easier to follow, but not a big jump... you had to concentrate too much to really follow basslines during complex passages. Bass had reasonable impact, good sense of pace. One thing that was done very, very well was
the soundstage. On discs that contain room ambience, you can hear it very clearly. Very wide and deep, good imaging, plenty of air. You could hear the echo w/in the echo, quite impressive.

And now, for something completely different! The Arcam has a much different tonal balance than either the MSB or the MF. Where the MSB was warm, where the MF was beautiful, the Arcam was clear. Crystal clear. Basslines could be followed effortlessly, and supermodels only wish their bottom-end was so tight. This is a double-edged sword, however, as I found the bass to lack sufficient warmth and impact on my system until the volume was up a little higher than I was comfortable w/ for long listening sessions. This tonality carried over into the mid-range, where male vocals just did not have the presence to be natural or realistic. Female vocals sounded much closer to natural, and the lack of warmth was usually not troublesome. Instruments, especially pianos and guitars, gained better definition, and notes sounded more solid, less like toys. The most improvement came in the area of vocal and instrument separation. Make no mistake, this really helped voices sound less like a recording, and more like you're listening to a real person singing or playing right next to you, and is something I place great value in. Every enunciation of a singer could be heard. The amount of inner detail and room ambience wasn't quite as great as the MF, and the soundstage wasn't quite as big, but it's still a nice improvement. Oh yes, and the Arcam's pace was fast enough to give you whiplash!

Conclusion
So, which one did I get? Well, neither... the MF certainly lived up to its name by being musical, but it seemed more like a step sideways in the areas most important to me. The Arcam came REAL close to making me pull the trigger. But hey, I need more bass impact than some... ultimately the dissatisfaction w/ male vocals and the necessity of listening at higher volumes than I'd like to get that impact made me hesitate. So I went back to the dealer, and asked if there were any other options... oooh, I shouldn't have done that. Hirsch, may I borrow your chaplain? My wallet appears ready to faint any minute now...
post #2 of 12

GEE WIZZ!

Somebody else figuring out that no component is perfect, no matter how much you spend.
post #3 of 12
lol!

There's always the linn. . .
post #4 of 12
Alas, it seems the CD23 didn't quite match your bass preferences. Might I recommend a Sony then? Maybe either the SCD-777ES or the XA777ES, to keep within your price range. I think they will give you the slammin' bass you're looking for while maintaining outstanding detail retrieval.
post #5 of 12
Quote:
Originally posted by andrzejpw
There's always the linn. . .
Now that is one incredible cd player! Built out of two machined blocks of solid metal. The things a tank
post #6 of 12
or even better http://www.wadia.com/
post #7 of 12
If you're still looking for suggestions, may I offer the new Cary 308. The list is $1,500, but discounts may apply. I paid $1,200 for mine.

I'm still breaking mine in, and it sounds very nice as it is. Not quite to the level of its bigger brothers, but it is significantly less money.

Check the digital section of the Audio Asylum for a few members posted impressions.

Good luck.
post #8 of 12
Thread Starter 
Quote:
CRESCENDOPOWER said...

Somebody else figuring out that no component is perfect, no matter how much you spend.
Gee whiz, really, no, you don't say, I had no idea, I guess I should go back to using stock headphones and a Sony sports pcdp and save some money.
Quote:
Vertigo-1 said...

Alas, it seems the CD23 didn't quite match your bass preferences. Might I recommend a Sony then? Maybe either the SCD-777ES or the XA777ES, to keep within your price range. I think they will give you the slammin' bass you're looking for while maintaining outstanding detail retrieval.
It's a shame, really, because the Arcam was SO very close to being just what I wanted. Given your preferences, I see why you like it so much, it's an excellent fit for you and your system. If my system already had some more warmth in the bass and lower midrange, it still might've worked... but as it is now, my ears were getting tired after an hour of listening at the necessary volume, which just wouldn't do over the long term.

The XA777ES, eh? If I can find one, I'll give it a listen. And that would give me an upgrade path via Dan Wright's Absolute Truth mods, ala what kelly is doing.
Quote:
KR... said...

or even better http://www.wadia.com/
I was curious about hearing the 301, but it's next to impossible to hear one w/o actually buying it first around this area.
Quote:
smokey said...

If you're still looking for suggestions, may I offer the new Cary 308. The list is $1,500, but discounts may apply. I paid $1,200 for mine.
I was going to give Cary headquarters a call sometime soon, since they are very close to me. Heard good things about them, the question is will their sonic signature match my preferences? I'll find out soon enough...
post #9 of 12
great impressions, i was very interested in hearing more reviews of components in this price range.

are you going to try maybe the creek cd53 as well?
post #10 of 12
Thread Starter 
Quote:
grinch said...

are you going to try maybe the creek cd53 as well?
I would if I knew anywhere nearby that had them. Unfortunately, I don't know of any such place. I know jude is going to review one, though. Maybe you can persuade him to publish his findings sooner rather than later. [/wishful thinking]
post #11 of 12
Hi guys,

I'm also eyeing that new Cary. I currently have the Music Hall MMF CD25--> Bel Canto DAC 1. I am quite happy with the sound but, I've got a damn scary case of upgraditis at the moment. Damn itchy trigger finger

Smokey,

Let me know how that Cary's working out for you. What source did you replace?
post #12 of 12
Fortune,

Regarding the Cary 308. So far, so good. I'm still breaking it in, but at this point I really like the results. Cary is using a software solution to the upsampling in this unit, rather than the chip solution that they use in the 303/200 and 306/200. It does an amazing job with discs that I had thought were not that well recorded, turning them into near audiophile quality. However, it still can't help really cr*ppy cds. I'm using it in my den system with a Headmaster, and Senn 600s, so that may also have something to do with my positive response.

I must admit that I'm a real fan of the "Cary sound" as this is my third Cary CD player, previously owning a 303/100, which was later replaced with the 303/200 in my big rig in the living room. I also have a Cary SLI-80 in the big rig. So you could easily say that I am biased towards their equipment. So, keep that in mind when evaluating my comments.
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