TheFlash

A surprise mini-CDP bake-off in Kendal: Arcam CD23T, DV139, Pioneer PD-91

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Super Wammer

Imagine if all DACs and CD players didn't sound the same... hey, humour me here.

Mike (Stylesound) popped round this afternoon for a coffee and a natter: Mike might like to add to what follows. Those wammers with a memory (there must be one, surely?) may recall that I bought the heart of my vintage Pioneer Urushi-design system (M-90 power amp, C-90 pre-amp, Prologue 100 floorstanders) from Mike last year. I have since added the contemporaneous PD-91 CD player, F-91 tuner, CT-91 cassette player and earlier PL-530 turntable.

Conversation turned to the Arcam RingDAC-based CD players as Mike has been engaged in conversations about how they stack up against the multi-format DV139 which I also own and which some have been hailing as a great value alternative... and a mini-bake-off was born. Arcam CD23T vs Arcam DV139 vs (legendary, apparently: Eddie-Baby, your ears should be burning!) Pioneer PD-91.

Rest of system: Arcam A39, Celef LS8's, REL Strata II, Isotek GII MiniSub, ProAc Signature Black speaker cable, custom Thai/eBay interconnects, LAT AC-2 mains cables, Custom Design Oak rack, comfy cushions, Booths' Columbian coffee.

Just one track: Jamie Woon's Night Air from the album Mirrorwriting.

The incumbent Arcam CD23T was up first: an engaging listen across the spectrum - clear treble, lovely midrange, crisp and powerful bass, notably where the winding bass kicks in around 90 secs in. Arcam and dCS may have fallen out and failed to agree commercial terms to continue to deploy the superb RingDAC after its first few years but that DAC is legendary for a reason.

Next up the Arcam DV139: these machines are superb as a DVD player, with upscaling that works wonders. £1800 (!) new, now £300-400ish used: a "barg" as my kids would say. Conveniently the DV139 handles DVD-A (not tried) and SACD (excellent) as well as CD via its "CD DIrect" circuitry which I have never tried (why would I with a CD23T to hand?). So should Mike consider one as an excellent value and format-agnostic player? Well, no. I described the SQ as "thin" with which Mike agreed, though we didn't have a micrometer to hand to measure the thinness (sorry, Serge ;)). Just not emotionally engaging at all. I'd strongly recommend this player to anyone looking for a DVD player which will wring the best out of their "legacy lo-res" movies and will enjoy hi-res audio as a bonus, but it was a pale shadow of the CD23T from the same Arcam stable.

Finally the Pioneer PD-91: from 1990ish when Pioneer were pulling out all the stops to show just how good Japanese engineeering could be. Ridiculously over-engineered with for example a copper honeycomb chassis and an externally mounted transformer on which the mounting screws were to be tightened only for shipping so it could be decoupled from the rest of the player during playback. More buttons for playback options than a sane person would consider using if they wanted to spend more time listening to music than setting up the litening experience... Mad but beautiful.

Eddie-Baby, look away now: legendary it may be, and enjoyable it was today, with lovely clear treble and mid. But the bass was noticeably muddy compared with the Arcam CD23T.

The winner: Arcam CD23T. And by, to me, a surprising margin. This was not one of those repeat-listening-marginal-differences sessions and did not need to be.

If you're into that sort of thing (and most wammers are distinctly not) the only difference not documented above is that the CD23T was plugged into the Isotek GII MiniSub and the other two CDPs went straight into the wall. If that explains the performance difference then I'll electrocute myself with my own filthy mains.

A great afternoon - thanks Mike.

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4 hours ago, TheFlash said:

Imagine if all DACs and CD players didn't sound the same... hey, humour me here...................................

I haven't been on the Wam for a while but glad I dropped in now.

Hmm, that is interesting!  and it surprises me also, wish I had been around for that show.

I've been playing with CDP's myself lately also as a serial box swapper does, but trying to push the limits of it also. I've just provisionally sold a very impressive player which I've been enjoying for a while. If I had bottomless pockets and was a bit more of a wealthy hi-fi collector :) I think I would have kept it like some crown jewels as it was an 'extremely' impressive machine, but I just have a few other plans which I intend exploring also. You might have come across the player its a Resolution Audio Opus 21. Nothing like the build of the PD91 (but not many are) but its next-generation electronics and some! No less than 4 BurrBrown PCM1704 24-bit converters, and a quick search will tell you similar have been used in some ridiculously expensive red book players equivalent to a small mortgage. I do really like the Opus and I just had to own one, its a very special player.

Anyway back to the PD91, I really enjoyed my time with it when I had one back in the 90s. Even today I still have fond memories of listening to it. Some of the old favourite CDs I played on it just opened my eyes to how nice hi-fi and in particular 'CD' could sound. It wasn't so much about ultimate resolution either. After years of box swapping CD players and evaluating their digital nuances, the PD91 sounded different, 'less digital' but it still had the good things associated with high-quality CD playback. It was almost like a trip to the warm loveliness that I used to enjoy from vinyl. Its strengths for me over everything though was the midrange and the almost organic quality it put there, it was euphoric and just a sheer joy to listen to from memory, but then again I was using it with epos es11's at the time and they just had midrange that emphasised this quality even more.

Edited by eddie-baby

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5 hours ago, TheFlash said:

and enjoyable it was today, with lovely clear treble and mid. But the bass was noticeably muddy compared with the Arcam CD23T.

perhaps its just the inevitable that gets us all, age! electrical components wear just like our joints and muscles :D

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Super Wammer

Hi Eddie, and welcome home! I think you might just need to accept that it is more likely to be nostalgia kicking in than tired electronics - and resultant denial that the PD-91 is beatable! It’s a lovely player and I’m very pleased to have it. Yesterday was a surprise to me too, I thought it would be more swings and roundabout than one clear winner but I doubt if you’d been in the room you would have been able to say hand on heart that the PD-91 sounded better, more musical or whatever. The CD23T is not one of those cold all-detail no emotion players.

I’ll still be taking the PD-91 to Kegworth to share the love of an all-Urushi system.

PS. I will also soon be selling a second immaculate PD-91 I collected on Saturday. Long story for another day. But PM me if you’re interested.

Other than that retro setup, I’m not looking around for another player. I hadn’t been as i was personally happy with the performance of my CD23T but yesterday just confirmed it’s not just my being lazy or used to it, it actually is a very good player indeed.

All the best, and hope you are able to make it to Kegworth despite your project workload.

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14 hours ago, TheFlash said:

...

The winner: Arcam CD23T. And by, to me, a surprising margin. This was not one of those repeat-listening-marginal-differences sessions and did not need to be.

If you're into that sort of thing (and most wammers are distinctly not) the only difference not documented above is that the CD23T was plugged into the Isotek GII MiniSub and the other two CDPs went straight into the wall. If that explains the performance difference then I'll electrocute myself with my own filthy mains.

I'll put the hat on of somebody in the trade who regularly asks this, just to pre-empt it:

Were these done level matched and unsighted......you may be surprised, yada yada? 

Back to being myself...

Not surprised by the results. Most Arcam's were always good value for money. I felt they often were polite or lacked drive on their lower end players, but the FMJ series with Ring DAC was/is very good. The CD37 is also excellent IMHO and I've heard it with cost-no-object pre/power and speakers and not really found it wanting. If you don't need SACD, the CD17 is nearly as good on redbook and can be picked up for about £250 used these days.

I sometimes feel that audiophiles initially chase resolution first and body/weight/imaging second. This often means starting with the likes of Arcam and departing for other brands only to find we need to spend a lot of money to get the weight/body in SQ that is often offered at a sensible price point in a lot of Arcam units.

11 hours ago, eddie-baby said:

You might have come across the player its a Resolution Audio Opus 21. ... No less than 4 BurrBrown PCM1704 24-bit converters, and a quick search will tell you similar have been used in some ridiculously expensive red book players equivalent to a small mortgage.

Ah yes, like the Linn CD12, which I demoed and found to beat the Chord DAC64 Mk2 I had just bought around the year 2000, much to my chagrin. This proved to me that the latest technology breakthrough in D/A conversion might not mean much if other peripheral aspects of a unit's design weren't as well performing as the core technology doing the conversion.

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4 hours ago, TheFlash said:

I think you might just need to accept that it is more likely to be nostalgia kicking in than tired electronics - and resultant denial that the PD-91 is beatable!

Oh, don't get me wrong Nigel, I don't think the PD91 is unbeatable in any way, I have heard way more advanced sounding digital than it since owning one, but from memory I still very much like what they sounded like. The fact that an Arcam player betters it surprises me though as I have heard/tried some of their better offerings but never really been that impressed, (but not the CD23T I will add! I have never heard that one).

Nostalgia might be the right word Nigel for my thoughts on the PD91, I have 'often' wondered if I listened to one today and even worse compared it to other highly capable modern machines, would I still have the same view of it. But the fact that it is an ageing beauty cant help it. I used to be in the camp of, well if it isn't broke don't fix it, but I am kind of warming to the idea that electronic equipment the same as other equipment needs to be serviced if its to perform at its best. But often this can be more hassle than it works out to be worth. Hence the need for the constant supply of new and shiny consumer electronics, which keeps us going in this perpetual hobby ;)

1 hour ago, Metatron said:

Ah yes

Lots of flagships have tried the multiple burrbrown 1704's approach and charged ridiculous price tags, in that respect the Opus is in a bit of a class of its own, it uses the electronics but doesn't charge the 10's of thousands that some do, but its still far from cheap now even used. But its a great player, I'd recommend them.

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3 hours ago, Metatron said:

like the Linn CD12, which I demoed and found to beat the Chord DAC64 Mk2 I had just bought around the year 2000, much to my chagrin.

Mind you the CD12 was as far as it is possible to discern, probably the best CD player in the world - ever! :D (not my words but Hi-Fi World, Jun 01)

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21 minutes ago, eddie-baby said:

Mind you the CD12 was as far as it is possible to discern, probably the best CD player in the world - ever! :D (not my words but Hi-Fi World, Jun 01)

I think I agreed at the time. Not that I've heard anything hugely better since. And once I've got my streaming and room correction just how I want it, I might try and find one for CD replay because currently I only stream. Plus I feel the CD12 will end up an audiophile collectors item.

The Linn Ikemi was/is very good, but it wasn't as good as my Chord DAC64 Mk2 at the time, so I was quite pleased with that comparison. Given the law of diminishing returns, things that are hugely more expensive are usually only marginally better, but the Linn CD12 (6 times the cost of the DAC64) in SQ comparison was like this tank going over the Chord DAC except there wasn't much DAC left that hadn't been well and truly crushed.

Edited by Metatron
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I had one of those QBD76s (not a HD tho) despite the reviews with many claiming it was the best DAC ever invented at the time, it wasnt for me :) I havent given up on Chord yet though, I do intend on trying a Hugo 2 at some point (or possibly one of these new QUTEST's, if I can live without the headphone amp, but be nice to have one for headphones), I have to say though Chord stuff does look very nice.  

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I was the other member at this unscheduled mini bake-off and totally concur with the results as stated by Nigel.  The only problem was that the Arcam CD23T was streets ahead of the Pioneer PD91 and even further ahead of the Arcam DV139; normally when comparing high end CD players I hear very subtle differences only.  I am, therefore, not convinced that both the PD91 and DV139 did not have some electrical issues.  For example Nigel had only acquired the PD91 the day before prior to which it had been stood unplayed for many years, neither did it get any warm up immediately before we played just one track of the CD.  Furthermore  the transit bolts had not been freed. Components never got warmed up and old capacitors had no chance of reforming. Similarly the DV139 was turned on, played and assessed without any warm up after also being stood for a long long time.  Conversely the CD23T was being played on a regular basis and, as Nigel says, was played in conjunction with a subwoofer.

I suggest that final judgement be deferred until we know for sure that the PD91 and DV139 are performing at 100% and the tests are repeated.

For me three things were learnt;

1. The Arcam CD23T is a superb bit of kit.

2. The Pioneer PD91 is to drool over.

3.  I don't want to buy a DV139 anymore. 

Thanks Nigel for a very enjoyable Sunday afternoon.

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thanks for write up...to think i sold 2 arcam cd23!! must have been bonkers 

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1 hour ago, stylesound said:

3.  I don't want to buy a DV139 anymore. 

The result of DV139 does not surprise me in the slightest, and I know they're good for what they are, and they cost enough in their day!

I've heard some of the best multi-players and as good or even as incredible as they can be they struggle against a 'good' dedicated proper player in my opinion. It's a bit like AV amps some of these sound absolutely amazing but just get easily bettered by some fairly simplistic 2 channel stereo amps (and that is for 2 channel obviously), again in my opinion (and experience).

The PD91 is a very old dog now in many respects, it was quite old when I had one in the 90's :D as I bought mine well used and second hand, I'm not sure when they were exactly made to be honest? Maybe it would benefit from a service now, but who the hell would do it, and what exactly would you have to do to it. Take a look inside one of those players and its like OMG, this is not your average player. I bet half of those fancy components don't even exist anymore.

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Super Wammer
2 hours ago, stylesound said:

I was the other member at this unscheduled mini bake-off and totally concur with the results as stated by Nigel.  The only problem was that the Arcam CD23T was streets ahead of the Pioneer PD91 and even further ahead of the Arcam DV139; normally when comparing high end CD players I hear very subtle differences only.  I am, therefore, not convinced that both the PD91 and DV139 did not have some electrical issues.  For example Nigel had only acquired the PD91 the day before prior to which it had been stood unplayed for many years, neither did it get any warm up immediately before we played just one track of the CD.  Furthermore  the transit bolts had not been freed. Components never got warmed up and old capacitors had no chance of reforming. Similarly the DV139 was turned on, played and assessed without any warm up after also being stood for a long long time.  Conversely the CD23T was being played on a regular basis and, as Nigel says, was played in conjunction with a subwoofer.

I suggest that final judgement be deferred until we know for sure that the PD91 and DV139 are performing at 100% and the tests are repeated.

For me three things were learnt;

1. The Arcam CD23T is a superb bit of kit.

2. The Pioneer PD91 is to drool over.

3.  I don't want to buy a DV139 anymore. 

Thanks Nigel for a very enjoyable Sunday afternoon.

My pleasure as always, Mike. You raise some good points here and a couple of things I need to clarify:

  • All three players were hooked up in exactly the same way so all were played via the Celef LS8's and subwoofer.
  • The PD-91 had indeed stood for a good few years. I bought it on Saturday from a guy who had inherited it and left it sitting there. I had tried it late Saturday and it sounded like my incumbent one, though to be honest I was just checking that it actually worked (it did, and perfectly) rather than comparing its sound rigorously with my other PD-91. Next time I'm in Kendal, which won't be for a few weeks, I will test my first PD-91 vs CD23T and report back.
    • I'm going to be selling the recently acquired one, not because I think it's a duffer - if anything it just needed time to warm up - but because I don't need two. Why did you buy it then Nigel? That's another story, probably a Kegworth one.
    • I subsequently checked and the transit bolts had been loosened as per user guide. When Mike refers to the transit bolts he means those holding the external transformer ont the back of the player; they are intended to be tightened during transit but loosened when installed so as to decouple the transformer from the electronics.
    • I hear Eddie's age concerns and the PD-91 is c.1990 but the CD23 was c.2000 and the CD23T c.2002. 17 years old vs 27 years old is a fair difference but neither model is a spring chicken. And what exactly would one service in a CD player which would have any effect on the sound? Don't answer that, I wouldn't understand it anyway!
  • The DV139 had been used a few weeks earlier, so not warmed up - but not sitting unused for months or years either ie. not suffering from disuse. (The CD23T only gets used every few weeks too, but it had been running for a couple of hours out of the previous 24). However, I have never played a CD on the DV139. When the display showed "CD Direct" I knew it was bypassing the video circuitry and was expecting something pretty good but it simply wasn't.
    • I do have anothr DV139 here in the midlands so will give CD a spin on that and report back.

In other news:

Eddie earlier expressed his surprise that the PD-91 had been beaten by an Arcam; let's be clear here, the brand is not the model. If the PD-91 had sounded better than the CD23T, some Arcam fans might have expressed surprise that the Arcam had been beaten be "a Pioneer". The PD-91 is of course no ordinary Pioneer, and the Arcam players with RingDAC (Alpha 9, Diva CD92, FMJ CD23, FMJ CD23T) are no ordinary Arcams.

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33 minutes ago, TheFlash said:

Why did you buy it then Nigel? That's another story, probably a Kegworth one.

Yes, I'll be interested in that one when I see you Nigel.

33 minutes ago, TheFlash said:

And what exactly would one service in a CD player which would have any effect on the sound?

Don't tell that to naim or naim lovers as naim will go out of business! :D

I would imagine things like capacitors lose life over time and seriously affect the sound (but there's probably lots of other things as well). I know Nigel I'm like you I know nothing really, but I am starting to think that there is actually something in this servicing. All these people have been talking about servicing for years (and not just audiophiles, my musician friends are included also (some professional even)) and I've been quietly smirking behind their backs, thinking you're an idiot wasting your money!

But as I said who the hell would service a PD91? Naim stuff I can understand, and well it goes without saying really, how about Arcam stuff? yeah, possibly, doable if they don't try and sell you the latest model, but a PD91, hmm :?

33 minutes ago, TheFlash said:

the brand is not the model.

Yes, I think its pretty clear that Nigel, Arcam is pretty much an audiophile Brand, it's not always amazing stuff but you know what you're getting. I don't know how pioneer operates their business model but they make practically everything, but it is mainly sound and vision related. However it's not always a brand you associate with the ultimate hi-fi, (but its usually fairly good). The Reference stuff that you're talking about though and own is a different kettle of fish. Its specialist equipment and it's not your average Pioneer gear.

Edited by eddie-baby

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