AudioFile

Review

At the Eleventh Hour

Long transcript coming in. Stop. From ANDREW WONG. Stop. Something about an excellent American CD player. Stop. Says we have to read the review to believe it. Stop.

IF YOU'VE been around and are a fan of US-made gear, you'd instantly recognise the name Acurus and probably have heard of their impressive DIA 100 direct input amplifier of some years back.

Acurus

Acurus is basically a line of attractively-priced audio products from Mondial Designs, a New York-based company which is also the maker of those testicular audio components under the Aragon flag. As most are aware, Aragon products are famous for their chic, cutting-edge outlook; so visually stunning are they that the Museum of Modern Art in the United States has on exhibit the company's highly regarded 4004 power amplifier alongside works by modern contemporary artists.

Priced at real world prices (relatively!) for budding audiophiles who don't want to trade their car for serious high-end stuff, Acurus is to Aragon what Proceed is to Mark Levinson a compromise limited by the amount of dough you have in the vault. The company is reputed to be one of the very first high-end companies to bring high-end sound to the average audiophile-in-the-street, a rather noble mission that certainly deserves some appreciation.

With all these in mind, let's take a closer look at the ACD-11, Acurus' latest integrated compact disc player (actually, we've been trying to bag this one for some time now) and see if it lives up to the Acurus creed of providing serious sound without a price tag that'll make your wife (or husband) flip.

Features

The ACD-11 is a single-bit player housed in a sturdy 17-inch wide casing with a thick, machined face plate. On the brushed aluminium fascia lies a tiny back-lit liquid crystal display and gorgeous light grey buttons for basic operation these being arranged in an attractive vertical arch; conventional looks certainly isn't something Acurus will ever consider. The unit is solidly built all round, except for the rather flimsy drawer which I felt could do with a weightier feel.

There is a pair of standard RCA analogue outputs and a single co-axial digital output for those moments in your life when you think that having an external DAC will improve your image as a serious audiophile. Weighing in at 20lbs, the ACD-11 isn't a Krell in disguise so here you won't have the opportunity to impress your fellow audiophiles by asking them to "feel the weight of this player."

Back to the engineering and construction of the ACD-11. It's all pretty impressive: high quality glass optics are used to focus its laser instead of the usual plastic lenses (glass provides reliability and isn't so susceptible to heat over time). The disc-clamping mechanism is also unique as it covers a far larger area of your CD than your run-of-the-mill player. Theoretically, this has better control over vibration and therefore provides more accurate focus of the reading laser (take a good look at one of Krell's star-shaped disc clamps and you'll know what I mean).

Vibration control seems to be the premise of the ACD-11 as many of its unique features contribute substantially to this cause. Unusually heavy gauge steel is employed to house the innards of the player and "Air Constrained Dampening" (hence the initials), a proprietary suspension system, is put to use for the ultimate quest for vibration-free operation. The core of the ACD-11's suspension system are microcellular elastomers something that works like sorbothane.

This special material dampens vibration by deflecting energy, thus reducing the amplitude of resonance. It also provides a level of isolation by having a certain measured density and thickness to provide an effective spring constant; as such, resonance can be isolated by having the suspension system working in parallel with a structure's natural frequencies.

This means that the entire chassis of the ACD-11 is suspended on a cushion of air formed by a complicated structure of elastomer layers (which acts as a supporting arm for the chassis). In addition to the chassis suspension system, the transport boasts of a secondary suspension system overkill, or what?!

The heart of the digital section of the ACD-11 is a single-bit DAC which is mounted on the drive, aiming to achieve the shortest possible signal path. This helps eliminate jitter induced by the signal path. Its fully discrete analogue stage is made up of seriously high quality gizmos that are usually found in real pricey DACs.

Now catch this: to protect other components in your system from AC line nasties, a line filter is added to the ACD-11's power supply how adorably thoughtful!

With regard to its remote control, I found the ACD-11's handset rather quirky and irritating at times buttons are laid out in an illogical fashion perhaps a look at Marantz's designs might help the designers at Acurus.

Now that this sleep-inducing part is over, let's get on to what you want to know ....

Sound

Sources used for comparison were Marantz CD-63SE and CD-67 CD players, while amplification duties were undertaken by an Audiolab 8000A (Series E) and Creek A42/P42 pre-power. Epos ES11 and Harbeth HL-P3 were speakers of choice for the evaluation sessions. Interconnects were van den Hul D102 MkIII Hybrid carbon, Kimber PBJ and Cardas Crosslink 1, while speaker cables were QED Qudos and Cardas Crosslink 1.

F-o-c-u-s. That's the word that kept coming at me each time I listened to the ACD-11 in my familiar reference system. It images credibly and projected good stereo depth with an ease that's common only in players of a higher pedigree. Tuck Andress' interpretation of Man in the Mirror was presented in a crisp fashion with plenty of funky rhythm to boot. Treble was clear and the level of the overall presentation here was most impressive.

The ACD-11 also showed its mettle in handling microdynamics and overall, had a well-balanced and neutral character that was involving without sounding warm or cold a balance that many will find right. The player also displayed excellent spatial detail and had just about the right amount of air without smearing images or being overly echoic.

To evaluate its prowess in handling vocals, I slipped in Tony Bennett's I Left My Heart in San Francisco again, vocals were pin-point and focused although sounding a little laidback. The soundstage was also a mite closed-in, but lower frequencies were clean and had no clear traces of overhang.

On Diana Krall's Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You, the piano sounded a little more coloured than that through the Marantz CD63SE, while higher octaves of guitars were at times accentuated. However, it must be taken into context that these are two instruments which are very difficult to reproduce faithfully.

Vocals, however, had good presence although sounding just a tad laidback this can be a blessing in disguise, especially if you don't favour an in-your-face kind of presentation.

Chamber music by Gil Shaham and Goran Sollscher on Paganini's Sonata Concertata for Violin and Guitar gelled well on the ACD-11. Violin was presented with a pleasant shine, while acoustic guitar sounded lively but not overly playful, lacking the edginess that marks out lesser players. It took everything in stride and sounded bold when the occasion demanded it and caressingly gentle when the score dictated so.

Guitar appregios sounded sweet and flowing and from pianoforte to mezzoforte; emotions stirred with the player's sense of aptness at the right moments. Ann-Sophie Mutter's violin rendition of Meditation was simply stunning on the ACD-11 the performance was emotion-wrenching, especially with the harp (in the background) that had excellent definition.

On heavy rhythm materials, the ACD-11 had good weight at the bottom end without sounding murky or slobbish; indeed, its fascinating character handles music in much the same manner a master craftsman shapes a delicate sculpture.

Pace, rhythm and timing are certainly the stronger points of the ACD-11, attested by the many slam-bang recordings I fed it. Although good partnering equipment makes the best sense in bringing out its best, the ACD-11 is also capable of behaving well in moderately-priced systems. Ultimately, it is a player which offers good resolution and detail, giving you a taste of what high-end audio is all about but given its asking price, don't expect a Mark Levinson.

Conclusion

The ACD-11 is an enticing, technically competent and well-engineered product. With its chic, post-modernist design and way above average sonic performance, Acurus looks like it has a sure-winner in hand. Certainly, this is an accomplished design that has a sound quality which easily justifies its asking price and gives established players like the Marantz CD-17 a run for its money.

So, if you want great sound but don't wish to jeopardise your marriage with that bank-breaking Wadia player, just hop on down to City Square and get an ACD-11 for yourself. Me? Let's just say that I might just buy one for myself too.

Model: Acurus ACD-11 CD player

Price: RM3,600

Size: 17-inch x 5-inch x 11-inch (WxHxD)

DAC: Single-bit

Review sample courtesy of RAVE SYSTEMS (03-263-2818/264-5568), Lot F115-F117, 1st Floor, City Square Centre, Jalan Tun Razak, 50400 Kuala Lumpur.

Verdict

For: Impressive sound certainly a great bargain for its asking price.

Against: Lousy layout on the remote handset; buttons assignment on the front fascia should be more user-friendly.

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