- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created on Thursday, 01 November 2012 01:00
- Written by Hans Wetzel
Before there was Goldilocks, there was "The Story of the Three Bears." Published in 1837, in a collection of works by English poet Robert Southey, it featured an old woman, not the flaxen-haired young girl who populates more recent versions of the famous tale. Described as foul-mouthed, ugly, and dirty, the curmudgeonly old woman samples the porridge, chair, and bed of only the Wee Bear until, awakened by the returning anthropomorphized bear family, she jumps from a window and scurries into the woods. It was another decade before the crotchety woman became an innocent little girl, and almost a half-century more before the tale evolved into the version told to children today.
Like Goldilocks, many audiophiles are on a search for equipment that is "just right." From speakers to amplifiers to front ends, such a search can lead to equipment that is too clinical, too warm, bass shy, or too unattractive to bear (sorry) looking at for the next decade. As a reviewer, my search is racked with far less stress than the average consumer’s. Equipment comes and goes, some better than others, but sooner or later it all leaves, my total investment being a goodly amount of time and zero dollars. In theory, this should allow me to be more objective, since my evaluations are not colored by my monetary outlay.
In practice, it’s been enlightening. My initial trepidation, predicated mainly on the fear that I’d be unable to adequately discern and describe the aural differences between products, has been completely dispelled over my first 15 months of reviewing. Objectively speaking, everything I have reviewed has possessed an intrinsic sonic personality. While most every audiophile has a subtly different notion of what "just right" should sound like, I suspect that many would agree that, at least in principle, a "just right" sound should neither add to nor detract from the original recording. Semper fidelis is, for me, the order of the day.
Apropos of all this, when I first inserted Arcam’s Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) D33 DAC into my system, I was, in my naïveté, underwhelmed. Priced at $3299 USD, the D33 replaced my reference Benchmark DAC1 USB, with its characteristic clarity and signature edgy character. Gone was the edge. The slightly forward nature of the Benchmark was replaced by the Arcam’s more docile sound. The Arcam sounded completely nondescript: tame, pedestrian . . . in other words, British. The charmingly befuddled black box from Cambridge, UK, had apparently missed the memorandum on what a high-end digital front end should sound like.
Arcam, maker of the rDac DAC so favorably reviewed last year by Vince Hanada, claims to have invented the outboard DAC back in 1985. With such a wealth of digital design experience, it was no surprise that the English firm believes that its new, $3299 flagship digital product will "set a new benchmark." Despite my initial apathy toward the FMJ D33, the 13.5-pound, 17"W x 4.3"H x 14.5"D DAC possesses an impressive set of specifications. Harnessing a pair of Texas Instruments’ 24-bit/192kHz PCM1792A chips installed on two four-layer circuit boards, one per channel, the D33 is claimed to produce 0.0008% harmonic distortion from 20Hz to 20kHz, and to have a frequency response of +0.1dB/-0.5dB from 10Hz to 20kHz. The D33’s signal/noise ratio exceeds 110dB.
One interesting aspect of the D33’s design is its exhaustive connectivity. The rear panel houses two pairs of RCA outputs, along with the de rigueur pair of XLR outputs. There are also connections for RS-232, a 12V trigger input, and a remote input. Digital inputs include two optical ports, two coaxial ports, an AES/EBU port, a full-size USB input for Apple iDevices, and two USB inputs. One of the latter is for USB 1.1 connections, the other for USB 2.0 high-speed hookups. Both USB inputs are asynchronous, and are separated by a small switch that allows the user to choose which is active. The USB 1.1 and the two optical inputs are limited to a 96kHz sample rate; the other inputs can accept sample rates up to 192kHz.
The most interesting part of the D33, however, is its assortment of selectable digital filters. With a button on the 0.25"-thick faceplate of solid aluminum, users can choose from three: Texas Instruments’ filter, which is active out of the shipping container, or one of Arcam’s two minimum-phase digital filters. Like almost all stock digital filters, TI’s is linear-phase: there’s no shift in phase during the processing of a digital signal. The downside of such filters is that they produce pre-ringing with musical transients. This means that, with the stock TI filter, there is, ostensibly, a small amount of echoing that can be heard before the actual transient that triggers it. Many a white paper has been written on this rather complicated subject.
Suffice it to say that Arcam’s two filters eliminate pre-ringing. The first, a fast-rolloff filter, actually creates greater post-ringing than the standard TI filter. The second, and the one recommended by Arcam, is a slow-rolloff filter that not only eliminates pre-ringing but greatly minimizes post-ringing. Pre-ringing of any kind is unnatural, and purely a byproduct of converting a digital signal to analog. These apodizing filters purport to allow for a more musical, less fatiguing sound.
For all its connectivity and potentially clever filters, the FMJ D33’s appearance and build quality smack more of an inexpensive receiver than of a high-priced, high-end digital product from a company with 35 years of manufacturing experience. It’s not bad by any means, but it struck me as hardly commensurate with the price. While the remote control also felt a little cheap, it thankfully includes a power button, selections for every input, a button to change the active digital filter, and a Mute button that directly mutes my Krell integrated amplifier. Nice.
The Arcam FMJ D33 partnered a number of different speakers and amplifiers in my system. In its first long stint of playing time, it fed Musical Fidelity’s M6 500i integrated amplifier and my reference Mirage OMD-28 speakers. An entire loom of Nordost Blue Heaven LS wiring, including power cords and speaker, digital, and analog (XLR) interconnects, wired everything together. In the D33’s second stint, on which this review is based, it was paired with Peachtree Audio’s Peachtree220 amplifier and the preamplifier section of my Krell KAV-300il integrated amp, connected via an old pair of MIT RCA cables. Definitive Technology’s BP-8020ST speakers were wired to the Peachtree via Dynamique Audio’s Caparo speaker cable, with the Arcam connected to the Krell via a pair of Nordost XLR analog interconnects. In both setups I played my 16/44.1 digital collection using iTunes, and my high-resolution files with Songbird, via DH Labs’ Silver Sonic USB cable.
I can’t be sure when it struck me that the Arcam FMJ D33 was, perhaps, something special. My first description of the DAC’s sound, as being "nondescript," was intended as criticism. As the hours, days, and weeks wore on, "nondescript" remained, but took on a whole new meaning. I suspect this was not due to the review sample’s needing time to burn in, but rather to how long it took me to shed my preconceptions about what a digital product "should" sound like.
In my experience, digital has always been a high-definition affair: cavernous soundstage, laser-guided imaging, highs that "sparkle," bass that "pounds." Analog was always a bit more rounded . . . turning any performance into a slightly kinder, sweeter, richer doppelgänger of the original. Yet for all the accomplished digital and analog front ends out there, it’s uncommon, if not rare, to read a review that forgoes use of audiophile parlance to describe how something actually sounds. I suspect this is because, as in my experience, each and every product, regardless of price or level of performance, imprints its signature on the music it processes.
To my ears, the FMJ D33 was dead neutral. Its absence of audible imperfections effectively removed the DAC from my system’s signal chain. This did not leave me with perfect sound, but it did let me hear just how imperfect the rest of my gear is.
Genesis’s 1986 album, Invisible Touch (16/44.1 AIFF, Atlantic), was a family favorite for long road trips when I was younger. Re-exploring the album through the D33 let me hear the Surrey recording for the first time with complete honesty. It’s a thin recording, with much of the energy recessed and centrally focused in the soundstage. In "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight," Phil Collins’s voice is slightly harsh, with the metallic feel it has throughout much of the album. The soundstaging in this track was impressive -- the channel-dancing drums sounded perfect. Their quality was not so much in the amount of detail on tap, but in their realistic presentation within an artificial soundscape -- exemplary, considering the $1198/pair price of my Definitive Technology speakers. The album’s finale, "The Brazilian," was equally compelling. Played loud, this somewhat experimental instrumental was without flaw. Transients abound throughout the recording, and with the stock TI filter engaged, I felt it had slightly more ambience and zest than with Arcam’s slow-rolloff filter. Over time, though, I found this ambience to sound artificial, like traditional digital products. The difference between the filters was relatively subtle, but like an imperfection in a car’s paint, once I’d noticed it, I couldn’t ignore it. Over a long period, a relatively minor sonic characteristic could mean the difference between another few years of ownership and resale on Audiogon or eBay.
While the D33 demonstrated the limits of certain recordings, it also articulated the finer nuances of exceptional recordings, such as Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s soundtrack for The Dark Knight (16/44.1 AIFF, Warner Bros.). "Aggressive Expansion" is typical of the rest of the album: a quiet opening followed by a rhapsodic explosion of drums, horns, and strings that recedes into a lengthy and ruminative interlude. Demanding scale, deep bass, and equal doses of abject submission and gentility, the track is a challenge to unravel -- and the Arcam DAC deftly disentangled it. Less able DACs may be able to paint a broad, deep soundstage, but may also stumble in accurately placing everything on that stage. Others may excel at passing along maximum resolution, but may impart a certain edge or exaggerated clarity that sullies the original performance in an effort to convince listeners that they’re listening to a high-fidelity product. The D33 hit the mark, in part due to Arcam’s custom filters, because it did without the harsh edge that educated listeners have come to expect from digital. Nor was the British front end soft. It was . . . just right, superbly rendering the harmonics in "Aggressive Expansion." I’d use some flowery adjectives to describe what I heard with the DAC in place, but it would be a needless exercise.
With hi-rez recordings such as "Misery," from Dave’s True Story’s Unauthorized (24/96 FLAC, Chesky), I sensed that my speakers and other electronics were hamstringing the Arcam. The sheer clarity afforded by this higher-bit-rate recording rang loud and clear, even through $1198 speakers and relatively modest amplification. The D33 exerted fine control over the lazy drums imaged way back in the soundstage, as they rang with the appropriate weight and size, but weren’t artificially accentuated. I wanted to make a Lance Armstrong analogy here. Hmm.
The Arcam FMJ D33 rendered irrelevant the DAC that is the personal, er, benchmark for me and several other SoundStage! Network writers: Benchmark’s DAC1 USB ($1295). The DAC1 produces very clear, clean, big sound, but always with the stereotypical digital edge. Instruments sound squeaky clean and are presented in strident fashion, farther forward and slightly more pronounced than they should be. While the Benchmark can roughly match the scale of sound cast by the Arcam, it is infinitely less composed. With one of Arcam’s optional digital filters activated -- I preferred their second, slow-rolloff filter -- the D33 made the Benchmark sound harsh and grating by comparison.
To say that the D33 sounded "analog" would do it a disservice. It sounded neither analog, like Musical Fidelity’s M1DAC, which I reviewed earlier this year; nor thoroughly digital, like the Benchmark. But in everything it did, it sounded "just right." If the Benchmark was, and potentially still is, a reference-level product at its price point of $1295, then the Arcam is arguably another at $3299.
A bear in sheep’s clothing
The Arcam FMJ D33 is the best digital product I’ve ever had in my listening room. Short of Devialet’s D-Premier integrated amplifier-DAC, it’s the best digital product I’ve ever heard. It’s a chameleon of a digital-to-analog converter, lending no personality of its own to the signals it decodes, and going on to reproduce sound of not only exceedingly high resolution, but sound that is exceedingly musical. Its modest chassis conceals first-rate levels of performance, and I suspect it will hold its own against much more expensive components from the industry’s top names. Highly, highly recommended.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- Definitive Technology BP-8020ST, Mirage OMD-28
- Amplifier -- Peachtree Audio Peachtree220
- Integrated amplifiers -- Musical Fidelity M6 500i, Krell KAV-300il (preamp section only)
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Pro computer running iTunes and Songbird; Benchmark DAC1 USB DAC
- Speaker cables -- Dynamique Audio Caparo, Nordost Blue Heaven LS
- Interconnects -- Nordost Blue Heaven LS XLR and USB
- Power cables -- Nordost Blue Heaven LS
Arcam FMJ D33 Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $3299 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
Cambridge CB25 9QR
Phone: (44) 1223 203 200
North American distributor:
American Audio & Video
4325 Executive Drive, Suite 300
Southaven, MS 38672
Phone: (866) 916-4667