08 Arcam CDS50 cTrying to compare seriously good CD players is like trying to compare supermarkets; it’s hard finding the differences. Nuance is a good word here; you have to listen closely to appreciate nuance. Shape is important too and when you’re concentrating hard enough to appreciate nuance you’ll also be hearing the music’s shape. Full and well-rounded beats slim and trim any day.

Most people who still listen to CDs do so using their DVD or Blu-ray players and if you’re one of these the odds are you have no clue what I’m talking about. Actually the best odds are that you’re not even reading this. But if you’ve made it to here the chances are pretty good that you love your music so much you’ll want squeeze every last bit of it out. Arcam’s new CDS50 is a very effective wringer for $1495.

08 Arcam CDS50 aAnd it does more than play CDS and SACDs; using wifi or ethernet it’s also an outboard digital to analogue converter (DAC) sweetening up the signal from your computer, phone or whatever you use for your hi-res music files. It’s all about the ESS Sabre 9038 DAC inside. This is a premium 32-bit, eight-channel chip with very high dynamic range, and it does full justice to any of the high definition websites, as well as DSD SACDs.

There are few file formats the Arcam doesn’t handle, and the music coming out is as pure as digital gets.

Every reviewer has their own method of judging music quality and the one that works for me is working my way down and noting what’s been lost. So I started off with a premium CD player I’ve been using for years that ticks all my boxes for nuance, subtly, roundness, detail and body, and then listened to the same recording on the CDS50. It turned my trusted methodology on its head. The music coming from it was immediately smoother, more finely textured and beautifully balanced. I was surprised less by the player, more that my 15-year-old speakers were capable of going to where it took them. It was when I went back to my own CD player that I noted loss.

There’s a recent CD from Icelandic composer/pianist Olafur Arnalds called Re:Member that is steeped in subtly and nuance; perfect for this job. Violins and cello that join in so lightly that it takes a while to realise they’re there, sweetly soft-focus percussion, voices as instruments and beautifully clear bass that’s so gentle I figured the sub was asleep. So I gingerly reached under to touch the cone. It was working away methodically.

Yo-Yo Ma’s Appalachian Journey SACD is joyous. Listen to the shimmers in the cello, violin and double bass as they test the line between classic and folk. A vocal from Alison Krauss is the bonus. Seldom have I enjoyed a road test this much.

08 Arcam CDS50 dThe CDS50 has both analogue and digital connections including RCAs, coaxial and optical as well as balanced XLR outputs. What surprised me was the lack of a headphone plug, but then Arcam’s attitude is probably that to do this player justice the headphones will need real horsepower, and building sufficient amplification into the CDS50 would cost too much and maybe raise the noise floor. If you’d like a headphone plug at the player get Arcam’s $895 rHead headphone amplifier and hook it into the CDS50’s XLRs.

If you still don’t get my drift here, if you think I’m off with the pixies, listen to Re:Member on Spotify, then on disc through a CDS50. Then you’ll get it.

First published by smh.com.au March 2019.


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