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Interior
Inside the unit, the CD-77 screams quality with its cleanly laid out, modular design. The substantial power supply employs 14 different but specifically designed regulators that designer Thorsten Loesch believes are necessary because digital noise has a very wide frequency bandwidth. This approach is claimed to "reduce power supply noise by a factor of more than 1000 times compared to standard regulators to result in the virtual elimination of digital noise."

The CD-77's transport mechanism, a substantial floating top-loader, incorporates major proprietary improvements to an already excellent mechanism. The transport is custom implemented by AMR using the Sony K-series transport in conjunction with the Phillips CD-18 servo system.

Eschewing the conventional approach to jitter, AMR developed its proprietary OptiClockLock®system. AMR believes a major misconception abounds in the industry regarding CD source clock crystals – specifically, that, in terms of absolute frequency, "high precision is good." According to Loesch, conventional players use several generic clock crystals of mediocre commercial grade to accomplish jitter reduction (and this includes the so-called "super-clocks"). More importantly, Loesch claims all of these clocks have one further critical weakness -they all generate signals that are out of synch with each other. This allegedly results is unwanted beat frequencies, higher overall digital noise and increased jitter levels. Accordingly, rather than emphasizing absolute frequency precision, AMR submits that designers should concentrate on two more critical factors to maximize sonic performance: (1) the phase noise of the clock that creates jitter; and (2) synchronization of all clocks. To address these issues, AMR’s OptiClockLock® system ensures that all the clocks in the CD-77 are purposely synchronized to one temperature-compensated, low-jitter master clock module with its own dedicated power supply. This produces claimed noise performance at the limits of what’s physically possible.

The CD-77's digital-to-analog conversion embraces the “old school.” Around almost as long as the CD itself, the venerable Philips TD1541A DAC chip is AMR’s chip of choice. This rare, vintage chip has a loyal following. AMR purchased a large consignment of Philips TD1541A chips a few years ago (as well as the NOS tubes used in the CD-77) and AMR assures us they won’t be sold out any time soon. Many audiophiles tout the “double crown” version of the TD1541 chip for its alleged superiority over the single crown (standard) version. AMR extensively analyzed the TDA1541A and discovered that properly designed external circuitry can reduce the performance gap between the double crown and standard chips. Since the TDA1541A uses external digital and analogue filters (unlike later generation DAC chipsets where digital and analogue filters are located inside the chipset preventing any modification), AMR was free to choose the optimum solution for digital and analogue filtering. AMR’s conditioning circuit uses a Texas Instruments DSP (digital signal processing) digital engine giving the user six (6) different sampling settings - from Direct Master without any digital filtering/processing (called Digital Master I) or using AMR’s proprietary analogue filter (Digital Master II), to 2x and 4x over-sampling all the way to 96kHz and 192 kHz upsampling. In essence, the CD-77 comprises a six-in-one CD player adjustable on the fly to accommodate the most discriminating audiophile.

Finally, the CD-77 utilizes six NOS tubes for power supply regulation and in its analog output stage. A pair of EZ80/EZ81/6CA4 valves is used for dual mono rectification while a pair (one per channel) of ECC81/12AT7/6072A tubes is used for gain and a pair of 5687s (one per side) is used in the output stage.

But Can the Fat Lady Sing?
You bet she can! Let me cut to the chase - the AMR CD-77 just flat out knocked my socks off!! Oh I can hear the Doubting Thomas’s already: “Not another rave review by a ‘component du jour’ reviewer?” Hardly. Residing comfortably in my system for over four years, my reference Reimyo CD-777 hasn’t been seriously challenged and the challengers have been formidable. Excellent players such as the EMM Labs CDSE and DCC 2, the Nagra CDP, the Meridian G08 and various modified Sony players graced my system during that time. While each challenger had its relative strengths and weaknesses, the Reimyo always prevailed … that is until the AMR arrived, but I am getting ahead of myself.

For this review, I placed the CD-77 on the top shelf of my Silent Running Audio CRAZ Rack fitted with the same interconnects and power cord that fed the Reimyo. This placed both players on a level playing field. The AMR was a breeze to hook up and the remote very intuitive. Turning on the CD-77 engages its 45-second warm-up circuit. After start-up (or after any listening session) the player can be switched, via remote or its front panel, into “Standby” mode. This keeps the player’s digital circuitry active but cuts the power to the tubes thus prolonging tube life. I found that the CD-77 sounded best after being on for a while.

First up, I reached for one of my favorite CDs and a new reference torture disc - Let the Healing Begin by Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns. This fabulous 15-piece horn/funk/jazz group is comprised of professional musicians from the Vegas show circuit who unite on Monday nights to do their own gig as the house band at the Palms Casino and Hotel. Even better, the show is absolutely free! Check them out next time you are in Vegas or at CES, you’ll be in for a real treat! This live disc is explosive and powerful with excellent dynamics. At CES 2008, while talking with my buddy, Jeff Smith of Silversmith Audio, I asked the exhibitor to play this CD. On the first cut “Ain’t That Peculiar,” a dazzling 6-piece horn intro gives way to a thunderous bass driven melody. Jeff commented that the music was great but the recording was bad (too bright). Jeff was correct about the music but it wasn’t the recording that was bad. Through the CD-77 in my system, even at concert levels, there wasn’t a hint of brightness and the brass never made me wince. Even as trumpeter extraordinaire Gil Kaupp blasts into the upper register, his tone stays full with the bite and edge a soaring trumpet possesses. I know this because literally five hours after Jeff and I heard this cut at CES, we went to the Palms Hotel and heard the band play it live. While the real thing was understandably more exciting, the CD-77's reproduction captured the true essence of the band’s rhythmic drive and, more importantly, its soul. I attribute much of this to two things - the CD-77's absolute linearity and its non-editorialized tonal color.

The CD-77's bandwidth and spectral balance is unmatched by any player I’ve heard. From top to bottom it doesn’t bloat, editorialize, romanticize, emphasize or de-emphasize any single band throughout the frequency spectrum. I’ve always maintained that a reviewer should never paint him/herself into a corner by declaring any component to be the “absolute” best. My reason for this philosophy is simple - I’ve not heard every component and my perspective may change if and when something better comes along to reveal the limitations of a previous “reference.” Thank God for that disclaimer. The Reimyo CD-777 has remained my reference for almost five years due, in large part, to its even-handedness. While it may lean slightly toward the rich side of neutral, the Reimyo was seemingly equally adept from top to bottom. The AMR CD-77, however, revealed areas where the Reimyo falls short of providing a truly balanced attack.

The low frequency performance of the CD-77 was stunning in every aspect. From the upper bass down to 40Hz and below, the CD-77's low-end is articulate, tonally accurate, and impactful with foundation shaking extension. Subtle nuances are easily heard. Mid-bass is tight and punchy with outstanding transient attack and harmonic decay. This infuses the music with rhythmic drive yet does so without imposing on the music’s crucial midrange. If you think tubed players can’t do bass, think again. The tubed CD-77 bettered the solid-state Reimyo in every area you’d think transistors would have the edge. Big Horizon by David Wilcox [1994 A&M Records 31452] was one case in point. On track #1 “New World” and track #9 “Strong Chemistry”, the CD-77 reproduced the electric bass lines with such clarity and balance that the Reimyo’s presentation sounded ripe and bloated by comparison. Wilcox’s close-miked acoustic guitar can sound almost like a bass through many lesser players. Through the CD-77 you never get them confused. The AMR’s low-bass extension bettered the Reimyo’s digging deeper with greater authority with the proper source material. Victor Wooten’s subterranean electric bass on “Sojourn of Arjuna” from Bela Fleck and the Flecktone’s Left of Cool [Warner Bros. 9-46896-2] provided the sonic fireworks. While there may be CD players that produce more bass, I’ve not heard any with better bass.

It took a while to realize just how good the midrange of the AMR was. Why? This is where the Reimyo truly excels. Yet when the dust settled, the AMR came out on top. While not quite as rich as the Reimyo’s, the CD-77's midrange is just as musically satisfying and more tonally correct. I’d say it was more “neutral” but this can imply a relative leanness. The AMR again revealed how the Reimyo’s midrange errs on the fuller, richer side of neutral. It is precisely this quality that makes the Reimyo such an engaging player in my book and why it’s been my reference for so long. My reference took an uppercut to the chin, however, on the late Chris Jones’ fabulous CD, Roadhouses & Automobiles, [Stockfish SFR 357.6027.2]. This album highlights the artist’s folk/blues vocals and lyrics and his beautiful acoustic guitar work. On track #6 “Fender Bender”, Jones and bassist, Grischka Zepf, engage in an up-tempo instrumental played, for the most part, in unison. The AMR allowed me to more easily differentiate the two guitars. The CD-77's quicker transient attacks and tonal purity markedly improved my appreciation and enjoyment of this fine disc. This effect was partially attributable to the AMR’s superior bass performance that allowed the midrange to sing without competition from the lower frequencies.

The CD-77's upper frequencies are extended, clean and crisp with no glare or unnatural edge. This was evident with the massed strings on Track #1, “Hedwig’s Theme” on John Williams’ soundtrack from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban [Nonesuch 7567-83711-5]. The CD-77 struck that difficult balance of resolution, clarity and detail without sounding strident or edgy. The strings were airy and rich with superb image and focus. Yet with all the busyness of this soundtrack, everything was coherent and of a piece. No desultory presentation here. Small scale acoustic music was equally well served. London-born signer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch’s impressive new album, Time Without Consequence [2006 Zero Sum Records], is a combination of expressive and introspective lyrics and moody guitar work. His vocals and strings on “Breathe” were rendered with intimacy, delicacy and rich tonal color.

Image stability, resolution and transparency, were all strong suits of the CD-77. Its leading edge and trailing transients are quick and true to life - no exaggerated, hyper-detailed leading edge to give the false impression of ultra-resolution. I never suffered listener fatigue regardless of the volume or length of listening session. The AMR’s soundstage width was very good - slightly wider than the Reimyo’s - while soundstage depth was commensurate with real music. Dynamically, the CD-77 can go from subtle to explosive and back without batting a sonic eyelash. Micro and macro dynamics are reproduced with equal aplomb. It accomplishes this feat with finesse and an effortlessness that belies its dynamic excellence. However, notwithstanding all of these outstanding individual characteristics, the AMR’s most impressive attribute is the sonic portrait it paints as a whole – a “whole” greater than the sum of its impressive parts. What the CD-77 does best is what it doesn’t do - it never calls attention to itself in any one area. Instead, like a good story teller, it keeps drawing you further and further into the experience literally preventing you from critical analysis.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss one of the most unique attributes of this excellent player - its adjustability. As mentioned above, the CD-77 has six different sampling settings allowing the user to select from among the settings “on-the-fly”. While I did experiment with all of the settings, I always came back to the Digital Master II mode (the mode suggested by AMR). All of my listening impressions in this review were in this mode. The Digital Master I mode is devoid of any filtering at all. AMR acknowledges that: “Due to the complete lack of digital or analogue filtering, the treble frequencies are slightly rolled off, making the sound somewhat soft and laid-back … This mode often helps to ‘tame’ overly-bright recordings.” As mentioned above, AMR recommends using Digital Master II which is identical to Digital Master I but with a special analogue filter to correct the treble roll-off. I found this mode to produce the most airy, transparent, realistic, non-digital sound. The other four modes, Oversampling 2x, Oversampling 4x, Upsampling at 96 kHz, and Upsampling at 192 kHz, include digital filtering or upsampling allowing the user to modify the sound to meet his/her preferences. In my system, the Digital Master I mode sounded too rich and rolled off. Conversely, the oversampling and upsampling modes produced a “perceived” increase in detail and dynamics but at the cost of sounding more unnatural, grainy and edgy (read: “digital”) on all but the worst recorded discs. Not all CDs or systems are created equal and some may benefit from such a sonic band-aid. Whatever your reason for using them, a CD-77 owner can’t help but appreciate the flexibility the various modes provide.

Finally, if you haven’t noticed by now, the CD-77, which retails at $8,500.00, bettered my reference Reimyo CD-777 which retailed at exactly double that ($17,000) when it was last sold. Save for the Meridian G08, every other digital front end the CD-77 outclassed in my system cost thousands of dollars more than the AMR. While $8,500.00 is not exactly chump change, considering its competition, the AMR is as close to an audio “steal” as you can get.

Down sides? Even the fat lady has flaws right? Yes and no. I did experience a very intermittent problem with the CD-77. About once a month on certain discs, the CD-77 either failed to read a disc or, when playback began, emitted an annoying static sound. Most of the time, this problem was easily corrected by opening the drawer and re-seating the disc and puck. However, on a couple of my discs (out of hundreds I’ve played on it) the CD-77 simply failed to read them - while the Reimyo had no problem reading the same disc. Such an intermittent problem can be very difficult to re-create and, thus, correct. Thankfully, through AMR’s persistent and diligent efforts, I am informed they have isolated the problem and addressed it. The CD-77 also runs hot and does contain tubes that will ultimately need to be replaced. Fortunately, this shouldn’t be necessary for thousands of hours under normal operating conditions. While I know no component is perfect, in my system I just couldn’t find any noticeable sonic shortcoming in this excellent player. If that makes me a shill, too easily pleased, or a hearing impaired reviewer, so be it. With the AMR CD-77 driving my system, I never felt I was missing anything or wanted for anything more except music.

Curtain Call
I admit I’ve not heard every CD player available. I also have no aversion to “new school” digital technology and look forward to hearing hard-drive or memory based source components in this world of accelerating digital advancements. However, whether it’s “old school” or “new school”, when a component allows me to easily analyze and describe its characteristics - be they warts or strengths - it’s usually because the component is flawed, unnatural or calls attention to itself in a non-musical or artificial way. Whatever the reason, such a component directs the listener to its “sound” rather than to the music. The AMR CD-77 was the antithesis of such a component - the more I tried to concentrate on the sound, the more I found myself unable to do anything but tap my foot, sing along and play air guitar! To put it succinctly, for what I was commissioned to do (critically analyze it), it was a reviewer’s nightmare and a music lover’s dream. So I did what any music lover would do - I purchased it! What higher recommendation can I give?
 

Dear Stereo Times,

We thank you for a most thorough and eloquent review of the CD-77. The effort was certainly apparent and very much appreciated.

We were especially moved by the fact that you understood the heart of the CD-77 and what it means to us.

In addition, we would like to thank Mr Frank Peraino for allowing us to analyze his three problem disks. We found individual pressing faults had caused the problems.

Many thanks again.

Staff and Directors at Abbingdon Music Research
 

                            

Specifications:
Type: Single-box CD player
Input: 1x USB
Outputs: 1pr single-ended phono
1 pr balanced XLR
Output Level: 2V
Tube Complement: 2x ECC81
2x 5687 and 2x 6CA4 (NOS)
Dimensions (WxHxD): 460 x 160 x 470mm
Available Finishes: Champagne or titanium
Weight: 28kg
Guarantee: 5 years
Price: $8,500


U.S. Distributor:
Avatar Acoustics
Website: http://www.avataracoustics.com

Manufacturer:
Abbingdon Music Research
Website: http://www.amr-audio.co.uk