Jul 202010
 

It only seems like yesterday that I came across an article in 6 Moons about an interesting new audio company, based in the UK but with manufacturing facilities in China, that were their own rather than a section of someone else’s. That company was Abbingdon Music Research (AMR), formed in 2006 and the article was about the use of the legendary TDA 1541 DAC in an upcoming CD player project, which would be the first product from AMR and this was very much a labour of love for those involved. This project finally became the CD-77 CD player.

I find it hard to believe that this was really three years ago but sadly for me a quick glimpse in any mirror will confirm the passing of that time, as  I am now slightly more rotund and grey in the hair than I was then. Fortunately for AMR time has been kinder to them than me, with many more products now on their books, one of which is the subject of this review.

The first fully completed product from AMR was the CD-77, a review of which was republished in AIHFA a short while ago as a kind of prologue to this one; which has taken longer to complete than I had at first anticipated. Despite the CD-777 having at least two hundred hours of use before I was sent the loan unit, it still required quite a bit more use (500 hours of additional use ) before it could be said to be fully run-in.

Now the topic of component run-in or burn-in is quite a hot one, having launched many a flame-war on internet audio forums and letters to the editor of printed audio magazines but it is in my opinion, not a fiction but a reality and once again my experience with the CD-777 has confirmed it. I guess I had hoped that the CD-77’s baby brother might be cut from slightly different cloth than it is and thus would not require the amount of use that the first CD player from AMR needed to reach its full, final operational sound.

Well the CD-777 instructions say 500 hours of run-in use is needed and I guess that is in and about now where I am at with it now and like the CD-77 its sound has changed quite a bit since I first got it.

From new AMR CD players don’t sound particularly good. The sound is closed in, flabby and ill defined in the bass with a similar effect in the treble and a somewhat flat midrange. This is the sound that will greet you on your first play. However not the sound you will hear when it is fully run in. Like the audio equivolent of a sunflower the sound will open up and gain extension at both frequency extremes, with the midrange gaining in life and fullness. This change is sadly not a quick one and will take time to occur. “Is the wait worth it” I hear you ask…..well lets see….in a moment or so but first lets have a look in more detail at what makes the CD-777 tick….

The AMR CD-77 set the bar high for the packaging it comes in and the accessories that are also part of the package. I was not surprised to see cost cutting in action with the way the CD-777 is packaged but truth be told I was a little disappointed.

The CD-77 comes in a metal flight case with back lit metal remote, high quality mains cable, interconnect, burn-in CD and a quality sampler of female fronted classical music. The CD-777 arrived in a good quality double cardboard box, with a burn-in CD, USB cable and a back lit plastic remote, basic mains cable.

While the CD-77 remote is a nice metal unit, the new remote for the AMR CD-777 despite being made of plastic has a nice design touch in that it can be stood up right due to the large shaped flat bottomed battery housing, this is a nice touch.  Thankfully it also retains the blue touch screen of the dearer CD player but plastic is not as nice as brushed metal..sigh !

However one area where there has been no cost cutting is in the CD-777 chassis and internal metal work, as it is identical to and made from the same high quality aluminium as the CD-77 just smaller in size.

After removing the CD-777 from its box I was happy to see that the fit and finish was slightly better than the sample of the CD-77 that I own; except for one slight niggle. The CD-777 which is a top loading CD player like the CD-77 has a little bit of side to side play with the sliding lid than I would expect to see with a player at this price point. When opening the CD-77’s lid there is none, it just slides smoothly open. I don’t know if this is a sample issue or is present in all CD-777s but it is in my opinion not really acceptable at this price point. (1)

At the back as standard and not as optional extras you get a Coax digital in and out + a USB digital input which gives a computer access to the high quality DAC within. There is also the usual RCA audio outputs and XLR audio outs. These are not balanced as the CD-777 is not a true dual differential design and thus in my experience don’t sound quite as good as the RCA outputs.

Within the player AMR use a ” Philips UDA1305AT Multibit chipset, a bespoke transport and premium quality valves, backed with cherry-picked components…. With the same OptiSample® technology as the CD-77, most important of all, Digital Master I and Digital Master II which were developed by AMR and are exclusive to the CD-77 and CD-777″

This multibit DAC choice is unusual as AMR explain. The ” Processor is AMR’s ‘continuous calibration’ Multibit Digital-to-Analogue Converter circuit using the Philips UDA1305AT Multibit Chipset. This is the first time this New Old Stock chipset has been used in a CD source and is worthy of the title “son” to the “King of Multibit” Philips TDA1541A chipset used in the multi-award winning CD-77. With AMR’s understanding of digital design down to the silicon die-level, the sonic performance of this “Prince of Multibit” chipset has been taken beyond the textbook limit.”

As in the AMR CD-77 the CD-777 also features “OptiSample® offers the best possible performance for CD replay. AMR appreciates that “no one sound fits all”. Hence, the CD-777 offers different sampling approaches from Digital Master to Oversampling to Upsampling. They are all user-selectable, offer different perspectives on the sound and reproduce the original recording to the highest degree. Most important of all are Digital Master I and Digital Master II which were developed by and are exclusive to AMR. With these two modes, the CD-77 and CD-777 are able to play “bit perfect” audio. This means music, not hifi is the outcome as there is no artificial manipulation of the signal.Along with AMR’s OptiSample, the CD-77 boasts full remote control of all sampling modes (these can be changed while the player is playing): Direct Mastering (AMR’s custom Non-Oversampling), Oversampling (2X, 4X) and Upsampling (96 kHz, 192 kHz).”

There are only two valves in the CD-777 to the six used in the CD-77. AMR talk more here about their choice of valves for the CD-777 “Going against the grain, AMR believes that having the ultimate in digital execution would count for little if the analogue section was not just as dedicated. Hence, the analogue section of the CD-777 utilises AMR’s OptiValve® analogue stage with zero negative feedback and 6H1n-EV valves. The “EV” designation represents the premium version of this valve. As these are a double triode per channel, one half amplifies and the other buffers. Rectification and filtering in the CD-777 uses low-noise, solid-state diodes with additional noise filtering and an electronic inductor instead of copper wire wound around iron. While simplified in execution and with slightly less elaborate power supplies, the analogue stage of the CD-777 is identical in basic concept and function to that of the CD-77. With no operational amplifiers or solid-state devices, this is a major factor behind the CD-777’s organic and “vinyl-like” music performance”

Despite the scaling down of this player compared to the CD-77 AMR have not resorted to using an off the shelf CD transport as they might have to save money. Instead they have developed an“OptiDrive® transport mechanism is an in-house, ground-up design” They used a “high-precision, reliable Sony K-series laser pickup mated to the Phillips CD-18 servo system along with a proprietary high-torque direct-drive motor. The laser is constantly bathed in blue LED lighting to maximise the sonic performance. The software is bespoke by AMR to extract the maximum performance.”

The CD is held in place by a small puck which has two O rings bands round its body, for dampening the puck and controlling resonances. This puck also has a hollowed out bottom which has some form of damping material in it. The CD-777’s puck is quite a bit smaller than that used for the CD-77 but despite this it did its job well. The CD mechanism was also silent during a CD playing.

There has also been no cost cutting in regard to internal transformers or component quality as AMR explain… “AMR’s expertise in specialised transformer design for audio use has led to the development of transformers with individual windings which offer the sonic benefit of individual transformers without the space required for separate transformers. Again, AMR has shunned the mainstream (and more cost-effective) approach to the use “off the shelf” transformers, preferring to have its own dedicated transformers hand-wound and hand-made. Power supply is an integral part of circuit design and AMR’s steadfast approach has ensured the highest possible quality of music performance. Underpinning the design behind each and every AMR component is the use of premium components which were chosen after judicious evaluation and extensive listening tests. These include silver leaf capacitors, Sanyo Oscon capacitors, precision wire wound resistors, 70um gold plated, military-grade printed circuit boards, German-made premium film capacitors, AMR’s own power supply polypropylene film Music Capacitors and zero-noise Schottky rectifiers.”

I had intended to do a comparison between the AMR CD-77 and AMR CD-777 but due to a bad back and knee injury during the review period I was unable to do this (the CD-77 weighs over 25kg and is in my upstairs system currently) but I am planning to compare them in a future additional thoughts article. See what I mean about AMR being in better heath than me, three years down the line.

So the question is, how does it sound ? Lets see…

Review System….

The system used for the review was a Meridian G02 pre-amplifier, Meridian G56 power-amplifier, Anthony Gallo Ref 3.1 speakers. All the electronics where housed on Clearlight Audio Aspekt racks, though the Meridian electronics were also sited on SSC isolation platforms. The AMR CD player was tried on various isolation products but in the context of this set up sounded better on AMR feet. No mains regenerators were used during the review but Audience AU24 and Analysis Plus Power Oval mains cables were. Telos Audio Designs platinum XLR and RCA RFI/EMI blocking Caps were also used as well.

Interconnects tried included Mark Grant G1000 HDs, as well as Atlas Mavros but I felt that Kimber KCAG gave the best synergy with this player in the context of this system. Atlas Mavros XLR cables hooked the pre-amplifier to the power-amplifier and Atlas Mavros speaker cable was used to hook the power-amplifier to the Anthony Gallo speakers.

Music Used….

During the course of the review quite a wide selection of music was used but in the main the CDs were….

Thomas Dolby-Aliens ate my Buick (Manhattan records  CDP-7 48075-2)

The Dali CD (promo CD from Dali speakers)

Goldfrapp-Black Cherry (Mute Records CD Summ196)

Rosin Murphy-Overpowered (EMI Records)

Nightmares on Wax-Carboot Soul (Warp CD61)

Nitin Sawhney-Beyond Skin (Outcaste Records)

System matching, user preferences and a few problems……

The AMR CD-777 has an overall tonal balance that I would describe as being to the warmer side of neutral, with a soundstage that sits just forward of the speakers front plane (at least in the context of the review system). There was no brightness or digital nasties present in this player’s sound and overall it can be said to present music in a fairly natural way. However having tried a few combinations of electronics and cabling I would say that if your system sounds warm overall then the addition of the CD-777 will tip things too far in that direction. Systems that are neutral or just to the leaner side of neutral will be a much better match.

Talking of system matching, one other issue that raised its head early on was an output input mismatch between the Meridian G02 pre-amplifier and the AMR CD-777. This occurred when the pre-amplifier was hooked up to the Music Reference RM200 power-amplifier.

The AMR CD-777 seems in use to have a subjectively quite a high output voltage, though not excessively so, via its RCA outputs. This from time to time with modern recording, those with their dynamic range compressed and loudness ramped up caused the sound to become slightly distorted. This was only an occasional issue but after trying Rothwell attenuating plugs I opted to use a Meridian G56 power-amplifier instead of the RM200. This was a much better match overall (when using the CD-777) and at no time was there any further issues with this set up during the rest of the review period. (2)

All of my listening was conducted with the Filter setting set to Master 2, which is the setting AMR prefer and in the case of this player and its bigger brother the CD-77 I prefer as well. However there was the odd time when the 192 khz Upsampling setting was quite attractive but using this mode led to a slightly spotlit sound that could be described as being more HiFi sounding; whereas Master 2 was more coherent and musical. I would certainly encourage you to have a play around with the settings, as it could be said that with the 6 filters you have 6 separate CD players here. I would be more inclined though to say that you have one CD player with slightly different flavours, as the overall presentation of sound does not change as such, just the way in which it hangs together.

AMR have also designed this player with a display off setting and as with many CD players I have listened to in the past I felt that using this option gave the sound a tad more openness. So all my listening was done with the display switched off.

I have been listening to this CD player for at least a month now (with a few weeks before that in which it was being run-in with a burn-in disc playing 24/7) with the last week or so being with my reviewers hat firmly on and during that period I found that having a digital cable hooked up to the CD-777 degraded the sound slightly.

I discovered this one afternoon while trying out the internal DAC of the player. Before hooking it up I had listened to a piece of music which I also listened to with the digital input connected up. I thought that the music sounded slightly worse this way, so I removed the digital cable and it then sounded the way it had first time round……go figure. All additional listening after this was done with no digital connections in place. (3)

As mention in the review system details I also tried the player on various supports and found that it sounded best when sat upon AMR’s own Isolation wood pucks, so this is how I used it during the review. These pucks lifted the player just off the surface it was sitting on, so that there was a paper thin gap between the players own feet and the top of the Clearlight racks top shelf.

How it sounded….

I have been using the Thomas Dolby album Aliens ate my Buick for more years than I care to remember for evaluating the sound of systems and in particular CD players. This early digital recording while very good can sometimes sound a bit thin and harsh, because of this it is a very good tool for assessing if there are any nasties present in the sound of a CD player. At no time did this album sound thin or harsh while played on the CD-777 though bass lines did sometimes feel a smidge lacking in drive, compared to my Moon Andromeda CD player. In particular I felt this was the case while listening to the opening track Airhead and then Pulp.

One of my favourite tracks on this album is the sweeping epic majesty of Budapest by Blimp. This track had a wide deep soundstage with very good clarity and separation between Thomas’s vocals and that of the backing singer who accompanies him on much of this track. However the massed voices towards the end of the track were lacking somewhat in separation, sounding slightly more like a clump rather than a mass of individuals. Better CD players can unravel the massed voices so you can if you want focus in on the individuals. The AMR CD-777 reproduction of this element was more obscured than open but it  still did well at this task for a player in this price band.

Hugh Masekela’s wonderful song Stimela was up next and for the most part it sounded excellent but I was starting to feel that a lot of the AMR CD-777 magic was in the midrange, as the openness and air surrounding the strike and decay of percussion lacked a degree of fade into blackness that I have heard from this music many times before. However to be fair this has been on vastly more expensive CD players than the AMR. There was also a very slight truncation of the upper treble noticeable on cymbals and on brass instruments as well.

The sensual aural delight that is Goldfrapp’sBlack Cherry album sounded fantastic on the CD-777. Opening song Cyrstaline Green had a massive soundstage which was both deep and wide. The multi layered keyboard textures and swirling soundscape was beautifully rendered and the track lacked nothing in terms of drive or energy. Alison’s breathy voice was very real and solid with a strong palpable sensuality as it did throughout this album.

Train and Strict Machine rattled along on a wave of pulsing sound and it was only on Strict Machine that I noticed once again a slight lack of top end air and some lack of impact on some of the elements of this track. However the sound overall was still very good and the aspects that were lacking were only obvious if a comparison was made with the three times more expensive Moon CD player.

More electronica followed Goldfrapp in the form of Roisin Murphy’s amazing second solo album Overpowered. The title of this album in many ways reflects the possible sound that this album can have i.e relentless, in your face and very forward. It had none of these negatives but instead sounded powerful without being aggressive. The CD-777 was adding a slight sweetness to the sound which while welcome and musically enjoyable was nevertheless I think it fair to say, a slight colouration to the way this albums music normally sounds.

Nightmares on Wax’s album Carboot Soul has a very heavy somewhat over modualted bass and the AMR CD player did over egg this pudding slightly which made some of the tracks sound a tad fat in the low frequencies. However in saying that Les Nuits and Arghanoah both had very deep and wide soundstages with excellent positioning of instruments within the electronic soundscapes these songs presented.

Last but by no means least was Nitin Sawhney’s – Beyond Skin album. I played The Pilgrim and Tides. The bass on the Pilgrim was nicely extended but ever so slightly soft compared to what I am normally used to and lacked a smidge of drive because of that. Bass textures were also slightly thickened as well. The rap vocal throughout was solid and believable as coming from a real person.

The instrumental track Tides is very much all about the piano and the percussion that dominate throughout and while the piano was beautifully reproduced the percussion once again was lacking slightly in shimmer and decay. The brush work and stick strikes on cymbals while being detailed was also at the same time lacking in decay detail. The decay that follows on from the strike was somewhat curtailed and the shimmer from the strike seemed closed in a tad.

Conclusions…..

As with all audio designs there are compromises and the set of compromises made by Abbingdon Music Research for this CD player seem for the most part to be the right ones. The CD-777 is a very musical player with the ability to convey the emotion in music and most of the detail too. However if you want an etched lean matter of fact sound with tight bass and a bright treble this is not the player for you. If you want musicality in spades, then it is.

The AMR CD-777 has a broad brush strokes approach to the reproduction of music. The detail is all there but it does not force it upon you or create an overly etched/spotlit Hi-Fi sound. Instead it is organic, slightly to the warmer side of the sound reproduction camp and as such for the most part it manages to be very natural in its presentation. Despite the previously mentioned slight short comings in the bass and the upper treble there were none in the midrange and male and female voices sounded sublime. The piano a hard instrument to reproduce well, also sounded very good via the CD-777.

In many ways it is a bit of a mini-me and cut from a similar cloth to its bigger brother but the AMR CD-77 has a more open and detailed sound as you would expect with it being just over twice the price but the CD-777 does get you a fairly big slice of the CD-77’s sound, maybe about three quarters of the way there.

The AMR CD-777 is also future proofed in so much that it has digital inputs in the form of Coax and USB, so you can hook it up to a PC and listen to music files through the internal digital to analogue converter. I was unable to try the USB input as I am not myself as of yet into using my computer as a music source but I did try feeding the coax input from an external transport and it sounded very good used this way.

If I have any regrets in the context of this review it is that I did not have any similarly priced CD players to hand for comparison but what I can say is that while it has been at least two years since I heard a Camut CD3, Electrocompaniet EMC-1 and Audia Flight CD player in my system I have overall enjoyed my time with the AMR CD-777 slightly more than I did with those three players. In saying that, all I am saying is that the compromises made by those companies suited my ear and system less well than those as embodied in the CD-777.

You will have to try a CD-777 in your own system to see if it suits you as well as it did me.

Neil

(1) Having chatted with Select Audio about the lid problem, they have stated that this is very much a one off sample issue and probably down to slight play in the teflon roller guides that the lid slides up and down on.

(2) Puzzled  by this AMR will be looking into this issue but they like I feel this is probably as a result of a slight mismatch between the Meridian Pre and the Music Reference RM200 power amplifier that was highlighted by the AMR-CD777 as opposed to being caused by or as a result of the player itself.

The AMR-CD 777’s output voltage is 2.1 volts as stated in the specs which is close to the Redbook standard. Many other CD players on the market have a much higher output. The mystery here though is why and how this mismatch occurred.

(3) AMR feel that the “Digital cable would act as an antenna – so any such cable connected to any such equipment will act as an aerial.” I must admit to not having heard this effect quite as obviously before, with any other CD players that I have had in my system. Though I should point out here that the effect while audible was not a massive one.

However in saying that I must concede that with the recent review of the Telos Caps and the affect their presence in my system had, that the area in which I live may be particularly high in RF and EMI issues and some equipment and cabling may be more affected by these issues than others, when used in my location.

I think the bottom line here is to check for yourself whether or not having unused cables connected (to CD players, DACs, pre-amplifiers etc) degrade sound quality and whether or not the convenience of leaving them in place is outweighed by any slight or greater degradation that leaving them in place might cause. As they say the choice is yours.

CD-777 Specifications:

Transport: • Top-loading proprietary AMR transport mechanism
Operation modes:
• Direct Master I; no digital or analogue filter
• Direct Master II; no digital filter, anti-sin(x)/(x) analogue filter
.Oversampling 2x
• Oversampling 4x
• Upsampling 96 kHz
• Upsampling 192 kHz
Digital Audio Inputs:• 1 x USB interface, 1 X S/P-DIF Interface (shared)
Analogue Outputs:• 1 x RCA; 1 x XLR per channel
Digital Outputs:• 1 X S/P-DIF Interface
Thermionic Electron Valves amplification stage:• 6H1n-EV fitted
• ECC88, E88CC, 7308, Cca, 6DJ8, 6922 or • 6H23n-EV optional
Output voltage (Digital Full Scale):• > 2V (2.1)
Frequency Response:• 20Hz to 20 kHz +0.0, -0.5dB
Signal-to-noise ratio “A” Weighted:• > 100 dB
Total Harmonic Dist. + Noise (THD+N):• < 0.3%
Dynamic range:• > 90 dB
Channel separation:• > 90 dB
Power Transformer:• 32 VA Custom EI Transformer (Digital Section) and • 32 VA Custom EI Transformer (Valve Stage)
Power consumption:• Standby: < 1 W and • Power on: < 45W
Rated voltage:• 100V/120V/230V~ AC 50Hz – 60Hz
Colour:• Silver or Black
Dimensions:• 17.7 in W by 4.7 in H by 14.6 in D,• 45 cm W by 12 cm H by 37 cm D and • 57 cm W by 49 cm H by 25 cm D (shipped)
Weight:• CD-777: 25.4 lbs / 11.5 kg and • Shipped: 34.2 lbs / 15.5 kg
Unless specified otherwise, the specifications apply to the 4 x oversampling mode and a digital full scale signal using IHF loading.
.

Abbingdon Music Research http://www.amr-audio.co.uk/index.html

Retail Price…. £3195

© Text and Photos Copyright 2010 Adventures in High Fidelity Audio…..except for AMR product photos and album cover artwork Copyright belongs with their original publishers.

NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission.

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