Source: Distributor loan
Reviewer: Tom Lyle
A while back, I had an opportunity to listen to the now-discontinued Audio Alchemy ACD II as well as several other CD players in the $500 range. The winner of this face-off was ... (trumpet fanfare) ... Rotel's $599 RCD-970BX (which I'll refer to as the 970 from now on). My praise of the 970 was mainly because of its tighter control of bass and better handling of complex material.
The very close runner-up was the Marantz CD-63SE, but the 970 edged out even this overachiever. To complicate matters more, in KWN's review of the Marantz unit he said it sounded identical to the $100-less-expensive non-SE model, the CD-63. Still, despite the small difference between the Marantz and the Rotel players, it was more than significant enough to justify the price difference, whether it be $100 or $200.
Now, faced with the RCD-975 (I'll call it the 975 from now on), a unit $150 more expensive than the 970, one must wonder whether its price difference is justified. Like the 970, the 975 is, at least in these days of units packed with features, rather modest in that department. It has the basics one needs to enjoy the convenience of CD playback, but little else, there is no peak level search, no direct track access from the front panel, no headphone jack, no volume control, and no way to tell how many tracks are on a disc when the CD is spinning. What's more, on its display the track number and the elapsed time for that track are displayed, but not switchable to indicate how much time remains on the disc or track. It is programmable of course, and does have a feature that totals the time for the programmed tracks as you select them that is convenient for taping.
Nevertheless, I didn't find the lack of features to get in the way of my enjoyment of this player. It's the sound that counts.
There is one important design difference between the 975 its less expensive sibling, the 970: The 975 contains dual D/A converters, one for each channel. I'm not sure what the benefit would be in using two converters rather than one stereo module, but Rotel explains how they use the two separate converters to improve the sound in their promotional literature. They state that each D/ A simultaneously processes both the positive signal and an inverted version of the same signal, then the resulting analog signals are compared to each other. Any conversion errors appear as differences in the two signals, which can then be canceled out. The result, says Rotel, is the virtual elimination of digital conversion errors. [I hope this is not what the literature says, because this sounds like rank nonsense. --KWN]
Is there a very noticeable difference in sound between the 970 and the 975 because of this? I spent quite a bit of time trying to determine this. For more than a month I compared the 975 to the 970. The outputs of the players were identical according to a borrowed dB meter, so I would simply switch the cable between the two using the same preamplifier input. This way, I would never have to adjust the volume control. The difference between the players was minor, and so slight that at first I heard no difference between the two players at all. However, after a while I noticed a tiny, but important difference. Even though I chose the 970 in my survey above all the other players, it was still a little detail-shy in absolute terms. The 975 comes just a bit closer to the ideal, and it retains the benefits of the Rotel sound, such as a warm and natural sounding midrange, grainless treble, and excellent soundstage.
The difference between the two players was evident on, for example, the excellent CD of the complete film score to Alexander Nevsky as conducted by Uri Temirkanov. This CD is very complex, and is an outstanding recording of a full chorus and large orchestra. There are ferocious crescendos during the battle scenes where the orchestra challenges the chorus for the listener's attention. The 975 is just a bit better than the 970 at handling this involving CD.
As many readers of my previous reviews know, I am a devotee of electronic music. Some of this "music" tests the limits of the equipment under review very well. Although it is not a good judge of the naturalness of the sound, it is a good test of the frequency limits of the gear, as well as its resolving power. On the recent CD of the soundtrack to the TV series Babylon S on his own Sonic Images label Christopher Franke combines a live orchestra with his huge bank of synthesizers. The sound is then immersed in digital reverb to create the dark soundscape. The 975 was able to sort out this potential confusion, and present the material in a very affecting fashion.
The only complaint I have of the 975's sound is, that however good the 975 is, like the 970 below it and all the players I've heard so far in this price range, the 975 is shy in the very deep bass. It has a slightly tipped up midbass that gives the impression that there is sufficient low end, especially on orchestral recordings -- but on certain non-classical CDs there was a lack of bass slam. For some reason on orchestral recordings this lack of deep bass wasn't as noticeable, perhaps the slight peak in the midbass was enough to cover this up.
When I was listening to the excellent KWN--recommended disc of orchestral works by Erkki-Sven Tuur on ECM, I was never aware of this trait. I was able to enjoy the disc thoroughly. I surely would hear any of the 975's shortcomings while listening to it, and I was addicted to this CD of great music by this Estonian composer. I listened to it ceaselessly.
However, on certain CDs, this lack of bass slam was very apparent. On the Christopher Franke CD I cited previously, the lack of deep bass information did not give the music all the foundation it needed. The heavy bass information in his music is as important as any other frequency in conveying the message of this soundtrack. This is especially true during sections where he would use a pulsing bass synth to drive the tune. The otherwise superb 975 did not make this CD unlistenable, but I just I felt that I was missing something.
Despite this, I think that the increase in detail over the 970 is worth the extra $150 price of admission. That is, it would be worth it to me. Many listeners might not hear any difference between these two excellent players.
At this point, I'd like to try to put things in perspective by recounting in more detail the comparative listening I did between the Audio Alchemy ACDII, which received rave reviews when it came out, and some other players in the same general price category. When Sony stopped supplying the transport used by AA as the basis of the unit, AA was out of luck, and the ACDII was retired prematurely after a brief stint in the audiophile spotlight.
My own first view of the Audio Alchemy ACD II CD player was in the May 1996 issue of Stereo Review. I was impressed by the color photo: The ACD II had no front panel controls other than the basics on a pressure-sensitive light gray strip (a "soft-control actuator") to the right of its drawer and below its LCD display. I thought that this minimalist look, combined with the slightly rounded front panel gave the unit an attractive, modern appearance. When I got an ACD II in to listen to, I found that it looked just as good in real life.
On the LCD display, instead of showing the available tracks in a row at the bottom of the screen as many other CD players, it arranges them in a chart in five rows by four columns. It was much easier to tell from a distance which tracks had played and which had not. The remote featured a volume control. This is becoming a very popular feature on many CD players. As more and more preamps, integrated amps, and receivers have their own remote volume controls, I wonder how long manufacturers will continue to include this function. I don't have a remote controlled preamp, so I found this function to be very useful.
In the Stereo Review article, the reviewer stated he was impressed because the ACD II measured well. I was more curious to hear how it sounded. In my home for one time or another during my listening sessions were a few other CD players in the ACD II's price range, including an NAD 512 ($399), California Audio Labs DXI ($595), Marantz CD63SE ($499), Rotel RCD-970AX ($599), and an old Rotel RCD-955BX ($450 before it was discontinued in late 1993). Although my original intent was not to perform a CD player survey, that's what it sort of turned into during the course of my listening sessions. I was interested to hear how well the Audio Alchemy sounded compared to some other popular CD players in its price class. Rather than rely upon my memory of the sound of these other players in other systems, I ended up obtaining units to compare them in my own system.
The best of the group was the Rotel RCD-970AX, followed closely by the Marantz CD-63SE. I preferred the Rotel because of its faster and clearer sound, especially in the bass. I thought the Marantz's lows were very slightly tipped up in the mid-bass, and although this gave the impression of having more bass, it was a bit fat sounding. The warmed bass seemed to slow down its sound, and the Rotel's more natural sounding bass gave the impression that the player had a little more resolving power, This was made apparent especially during complex passages.
The Marantz was the dear winner in the convenience category, though, the Rotel having little more than the most basic of functions. The Marantz has a plethora of features including a peak search, a headphone jack, and direct access to tracks from its front panel. Plus, if you believe KWN (and there is no reason you shouldn't), the $399 Marantz CD-63 sounds identical to the CD-63SE, and therefore rates as the best buy of the lot. Nevertheless, I thought the Rotel's sound to be superior enough to warrant shelling out the extra bucks. Features are nice, but in the end it's the sound that counts.
The Audio Alchemy, NAD, and the CAL all sounded the same. In absolute terms, their bass was a bit lean, the raids somewhat reticent, and the highs a little grainy and electronic sounding. Notice I use qualifiers such as "a bit" and "somewhat" when discussing these players, as well as the difference bet-ween the Rotel and Marantz units. We're not talking about the differences between a group of speakers here. Despite their faults, the sound of all the players wasn't half bad.
In my listening tests I used a variety of source material, but I played certain CDs through every player, including the fabulous recording Boulez Conducts Webern II. This is one of DG's superb "4D" recordings. Through the Rotel, the double basses and the bass drum had the most low end authority. By "authority" I don't mean the Rotel's bass went any deeper than any of the other players--it didn't, but it was full sounding without bloat, and controlled without leanness. On this disc, through all the players other than the Marantz and the Rotel the string sound was not nearly as lush, and percussion seemed to sound less natural. As I said, the Marantz was a close second, but in the end it could never outshine the Rotel 970 because of the Rotel's ability to deal with more complex material. Its resolution sounded a degree greater.
Another CD in which the Rotel 970 showed its stuff was on the Kraftwerk album The Mix. The Rotel was better suited to handle passages such as at points where a bass synthesizer is playing, and then another one comes along with a different timbre and lower in pitch, superimposing its sound on the sound of the first synthesizer. The album isn't half bad either (one of their best, actually). I prefer not to use material I don't like just because it's a good recording and therefore a good tool for use in evaluating equipment. But sometimes even music I like will grow tiresome during repeated listenings. For me, this CD is less prone to induce this type of fatigue.
I also compared these players to the old Rotel RCD-955AX. All the CD players I've mentioned, including the Audio Alchemy, beat out this now-outmoded player. The 955AX used to be the best player for the money around. Progress, however, is rapid in the digital world.
These days, CD player technology has gotten to the point where differences between CD players are quite small. This was made painfully evident to me during my survey of players in the $500 range. I guess it depends on how much one is willing to shell out for very slight differences between units. In my case I'm spoiled by an excellent LP playback system (Oracle/Wheaton Triplanar/BenzMicro), so perhaps this is why these small differences between players become somewhat accentuated to me.
Until the Arcam Alpha 7 came along, I would have recommended the Rotel RCD975 as my top choice for anyone shopping for a CD player, especially those listeners that want just a bit more detail in their sound. This is an excellent unit, well worth an audition. -- TL