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For the tests, I configured my system to include the mighty Zanden quartet of Model 2000p transport and Model 5000 Signature DAC -- leashed together via Yamada-San's I-squared-S cable and both powered from outboard supplies -- and the Ancient Audio one-box Lektor Prime from Poland. The Zanden setup is $43,000 but not the latest version with the new SuperClock and associated upgrades. The Lektor Prime is $10,000 and sports a variable output capable of swinging +/-7V RMS which was adjusted to output the standard 2V. In this heavyweight company, the CD-77 was the light wallet contender, relatively speaking. Switching duties between the digital machines fell as usual on my Supratek Cabernet Dual two-box valve preamp from Oz. The first speakers called on the carpet were my customary Zu Audio Definition Pros. Their woofer arrays were powered by Anthony Gallo's SA Reference amplifier/crossover while the Yamamoto A-08S or FirstWatt F3 handled the fronts. For this round, the Abbingdon player was run in Digital Master 2 mode exclusively as the benchmark setting recommended by its designers. Exploring the subtle permutations of six possible filter/upsampling options would come later. The first order of business was to establish how the newcomer compared to its peers. Loreena McKennit's new An Ancient Muse CD [AMG 931585] set the stage.

Versus the polski player, the English had more developed low frequencies right off the bat - more weight, more obvious extension into the really low stuff. This aspect admittedly isn't of reference caliber with the Lektor Prime. It would show up second also when compared to the Esoteric machines I've tested. Called welly in Britlandia and slam in the colonies, the CD-77 has it in a serious way. It also edged out the granite player by being tonally even fuller, with slightly more color saturation. What it translated to in A/B comparisons was slightly grippier, possibly a fringe benefit of the sub 40Hz coverage. Unlike the obvious difference in bass extension and heft however, this side effect was far more subtle. The noise floor of the CD-77 seemed perhaps even lower for that slightly stronger sense of foreground relief and image pop against the blackground. In general though, both machines were closely matched.

The Zanden saw itself similarly out-bassed by the newcomer. Aside from that, it offered an even stronger dose of that peculiar TDA1541A Double Crown flavor I've now lived with for so long. Recognizing it is one thing, describing it sensibly quite another. Elements thereof have to do with corporeality and focus even though we're expressively not talking about etched image outlines. That focus comes from the inside out, i.e. from that which the image boundaries outline. It's the opposite of a woodblock print. There the outlines are the thing, with nothing really in the middle but plain textile or paper. This effect is reversed. The insides are sculpted and fleshy to the extent that no real outlines are needed. Focus or presence telegraph without any acute edging whatsoever.

The Zanden locked the most in this specific sense. That said, all three machines shared far more than they diverged. They were all relaxed, not driven. They were all non-fatiguing and organic. They all belong to the analogue school of sound. They are full-bodied rather than lean. On Dhafer Youssef's Divine Shadows [Jazzland 9877224], the opener "Cantus Lamenthus" is a simple vocal meditation above various drone pedals. The entire focus is placed on the otherworldly voice of this Tunesian oudist. While cut from the same cloth, the Zanden again demonstrated its seniority of presence lock over the AMR player. The elastic voice hovering midway between the speakers intensified as though the ghost image acquired further surface sculpting for more pronounced dimensional features. This effect also had to do with the Zanden
being somewhat slimmer - more articulated but slimmer. This was confirmed on "Valse Triste" of Café Noir's Waltz King [Carpe Diem 31012-2]. That's a gorgeous hybrid album of Sinti Jazz, Parisian musette and cabaret, with superb guitar and mandolin work by Jason Bucklin, Russian-style violins and Viennese chamber music interludes.

Texturally, the CD-77 was somewhat fatter than the Zanden. Simultaneously, it had more extension at either frequency extreme, here most demonstrable in the treble where the bridge bowing of the violin exhibited more upper harmonics and reach. The Lektor Prime showed a greater advantage in treble reach over the Japanese quartet yet but its general girth was closer to the Zanden than the AMR. Because the latter is the bass master of this grouping, by the time you prime the pump and spin something with solid grounding in the bottom octave, the CD-77 creates the subjectively biggest, most massive sonic event. Naturally, that mass also equals more rotundity. It's a bit cuddlier and not quite as defined and sophisticated as the Zanden. Yet when you let 'er rip, it's bolder in scope.

Considering its USB input, digital filtering options and attractive pricing, the CD-77 is rather a monster. Its Zanden-esque ingredients aren't mere spin items to put recognizably esoteric stuff on the menu and manipulate expectations by sheer association with one genre leader. There is a definite resemblance of gestalt. That the Zanden would be even more refined and sophisticated at its own game is no blemish on the Brit machine. It counters with more bandwidth linearity at the outer edges where modern digiphiles would accuse the Zanden of being rolled-off and somewhat polite. Which it is - but to such a controlled and careful extent that it doesn't seem that way unless you conduct a direct A/B comparison. Then a component more endowed in those parts likely will still come up short where the Zanden reigns supreme.

For an initial run of digital modes, I selected two classical albums to be assured of authentic recorded ambience - Beethoven's Eroica Symphony with Harnoncourt conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on his complete Beethoven cycle for Teldec; and Nojima Plays Ravel on Reference Recordings. The sequence of processing modes is nuanced but it does progressively dry up audible space, curtail decays and sharpen up transients. With intricate material benefitting from ultimate separation power, some listeners could feel inclined to engage upsampling to various degrees.

In general, higher over- and upsampling math here equates to higher perceived separation at the expense of free-flowing gestalt as embodied by Digital Master I mode. That gestalt moves more and more into the background and honed edges and subtle grain into the foreground. Harmonic content shifts, tonalities are affected and what I hear as audible space between and around the notes shrinks. The pertinent issue of course isn't what I prefer -- I'd listen to Digital Master I 95% of the time -- but that you get to roll your own. This feature is available on the fly from the remote with the hard button engraved kHz. You could be surprised by how small the differences may seem at first. Over time, however, I predict that you'll discover a clear favorite to become your personal default setting.

"Ondine" of the Gaspard de la nuit cycle still on the Ravel disc is a tone poem suggesting a water sprite frolicking in her element. There's an abundance of tremolo/trill type work in the uppermost piano registers to mimic gushing water. As piano strings gets progressively shorter and shorter, they also sound harder and harder. The instrument's resonant woody traits are traded more and more for the percussive metallic ones. A superior pianist of course will modulate this and can make the treble sound sweet and the midrange harder. But in general, the very high notes on a piano will sound more metallic and glassy and thus become a particular challenge during playback. I call it the tinkles.

I deliberately spent more time with this particular track of water music to tease out finer distinctions between the players. I drafted my WLM Diva Monitors into service now whose treble is more extended than that of my Zu Audio Definitions. My Eastern Electric M520 integrated fitted with Mullard GZ34 rectifiers, Philips E80Fs and KT77s run in amp-mode (preamp section defeated) got strapped to the monitors first and in lieu of an external preamp, WLM's Pre/Passive Control handled master volume duties.

Again, the Zanden sounded slimmer and more finely honed. Notes in the many ultra-fast runs seemed like individual pearls hitting the floor in rapid, evenly spaced succession and the temporal ebb and flow of Nojima's elastic legato was most profoundly realized. The CD-77 again wasn't quite as filigreed but did present the more expansive upper harmonics with a more silvery rather than reddish-golden shimmer. In the sforzando interlude where the nymph's tail seems to violently thrash the water, this made for more steel on the attacks. Though this recording was captured in the digital domain, there is a modicum of 'tape hiss' present. This was more pronounced over the AMR than the Zanden. Outside of the different harmonic weighting -- the Zanden was centered a bit lower -- and the greater separation power of the Zanden, I found the players rather closely matched. Another non-technical word for the Zanden's peculiar quality and lead is elegance.

Michael Camilo & Tomatito's Spain Again [Universal 9878135] is pure and inspired duetizing between the Dominican-born Jazz pianist and the Spanish Flamenco guitarist in a 7-year follow-up to their celebrated Spain predecessor except for the closer which adds guest vocalist Juan Luis Guerra for a change in atmosphere. With the piano's bass registers more predominant here than on the Ravel piece, the CD-77 gave a more satisfactory reading in the warmth department. Its greater LF heft made up for the equivalent action I usually inject with the Supratek valve preamp of which the Zanden was now deprived. This demonstrated how particular qualities can turn depending on context and material. With merely a passive volume control in the signal path, the CD-77's tonal balance was more fulsome than the Zanden now. With the active preamp in the previous setting, the Zanden felt correct and the AMR a bit too padded and just slightly porky.

Replacing the M520 with the Yamamoto A-08S, Diva Monitors high-passed at 80Hz to hand over to the Duo 12 sub below, I managed to instill further elegance into the CD-77 proceedings because the Yamamoto is plainly the superior amp. In this bass-lightened context, it had sufficient power to do the job uncompromised. The M520 is a warm, less resolved amplifier than the 45 SET. The combination of WLM speakers and AMR source wasn't in short supply of warmth and tone by itself. Component matching. It's key. This combo was matched very well now. Didier Duprat's Selmer guitar on Paris Musette [Just a Memory 9113-2] had bite and glassiness on peaks without artifice and the multitudinous accordeons the right balance of sweetness and nasality to suggest harmonicas at times. This is a fabulous album by the way, a kind of early Buena Vista Social Club project that captured yesteryear's greats of this vivacious and charming French music style before its maestros forever faded to dust.

The point of greatest distinction for the far dearer Zanden -- relatively speaking since the differences discussed here are nuances -- centered on vocals. At matched volumes, the Japanese champ projected a more complete sense of subjective hereness whereby the singer seemed to be in the room with you. In a store demo committed to selling the Zanden, a savvy salesman would hone in on vocal tracks. On instrumentals, that differentiator for most listeners would be harder to detect unless one happened to play the instrument personally to be truly attuned. While we're imagining a sales floor, let's say it plainly: Out of 20 punters prepared to shell out the very long green for the Zanden, upon being presented with an extended comparison session against the Abbingdon Music Research machine, 17 would pocket the difference and walk out with the Brit. The final three would care deeply over the
remaining differences but, make no mistake, would also be truly committed to brand ownership like others insist on an Aston Martin. From what Zanden owners tell me who've had the latest SuperClock and related upgrades installed, the basic platform is by no means exhausted. They report more focus, more bass, more extension on top - i.e. answers for all the mild criticisms leveled against my combo when considering newer comers. I'm thus prepared to concede that the Zanden's pricing, in its latest incarnation, is matched to performance that pulls ahead decisively once again.

As I heard it however, my setup (still current in early 2006 ) found itself hotly pursued by the far more sanely priced AMR machine. By all rights, the latter must be considered a Zanden for the more. I won't say many for the obvious reasons. This is still a niche market product. That comparison alone makes the CD-77 a huge success. Without fail, every serious reviewer lucky enough to take a swing at the Zanden has gone on record with superlatives. You might be inclined to accuse the CD-77 of more or less blatant copycatting by adopting a very similar platform. Considering its custom-fabricated parts and exclusive features, that really wouldn't be factual however. "Inspired by but pursued uniquely" could seem closer since Yamada-San's product launch predates the CD-77 by a few years. But that's still not it. Thorsten Loesch started working with the TDA1541 chip in the 1980s and shared his discoveries openly in the DIY world. He simply took longer to help author a formal production piece based on a fully matured TDA1541 platform that doesn't rely on the Double Crown units. The real head turner here is the price at which this has now been accomplished.

In certain ways, AMR's launch strikes me as related to late Hyundai car models. Those package every conceivable feature in base trim where the competition steps you up to XE versions. They lower the price of admission and get you into a car within spitting distance of the established category leaders for a lot less bread, with fit'n'finish a very far cry now from the earliest cars that arrived from South Korea. I'm reminded of this specific brand simply because here in Cyprus, the local telecom company and electric power company drive Hyundai Santa Fes, not Toyota or Nissan equivalents. And yes, bragging rights for Hyundai are still low. Ditto for AMR at this early stage. That doesn't make such acquisitions any less smart. It does mean trusting your own impressions garnered during a test drive and personal inspection. After my inspection and test drive, the only complaint I can levy with some effort is the finger prints you'll leave on the remote's touch screen. When a reviewer has to stoop this low to seem critical, there's no worries about the component under review.

Resolution versus so-called musicality. Especially for digital source machines, this seems to remain the ongoing water shed that divides listener biases. The CD-77 lets you straddle that divide or shift your perception relative to it. In Digital Master II for example, a proprietary analog filter addresses the treble roll-off endemic to the completely unfiltered Digital Master I setting. Restoring treble brilliance of course affects subjective midrange performance yet does not invoke any up/oversampling whatsoever. That's why AMR considers Digital Master II the reference setting but leaves the ultimate decision up to you.

On the referenced Nojima recording for example, this setting could address, to a certain extent, the difference of treble performance between my Zu and WLM speakers, i.e. Zu + II vs. WLM + I bridged though didn't close that gap. The WLM setup still was more extended. For my biases, the remaining four digital modes were essentially superfluous. Naturally, you might disagree. The beauty of this flexibility is that we'd all be right. Should you change your mind or more recent equipment acquisitions shift your system voicing, this machine's voicing isn't etched in stone. It remains responsive to different source material and ancillaries. Allowing remote switching on the fly without muting the outputs simplifies using this feature. That's a rather brilliant benefit of the customary features/benefits proposition any salesman worth his salt wields when the time arrives to close a deal. Here it's very real too and not mere fluff and puffery. Even the included analog interconnect and 1.5m power cord are well above average.

As documented, build quality is sans pareil, the feature set from the remote complete. The extensive R&D period preceding the arrival of this CD player has clearly paid off. At its sub $10,000 price, this could be the current player to beat, especially because the very real benefits of the filterless Kusonoki approach have been wedded to excellent bass weight and improved treble reach. You get the organic, warm, 'analog' flavors you'd also find with 47lab as well as superior dynamics and bandwidth linearity. One early tester on the consumer side who presently owns an EMM Labs CDSD/DCC2 combo and auditioned the Reimyo CDP-777 and CD-77 found the EMM more resolved and staging bigger than the Reimyo, the Reimyo more analog but less resolved and staging narrower and shallower. To him, the CD-77 combined the best of both worlds. This confirms my own take that the AMR straddles the usual divide very effectively.

Even shoppers prepared to spend more should make its acquaintance as well just to insure that their excess funds aren't better spent elsewhere than on a more expensive player. The CD-77 doesn't make the Zanden separates obsolete but for those who've heard and lusted after them while not being able to justify their sticker, it offers a very viable alternative that comes close for an awful lot less and in certain quantitative audiophile aspects, actually exceeds them. In my book, that's a stunning achievement. Add the champagne or Titanium finish options and battle ship construction and our opening phrase madly ambitious comes full circle. Caligula is dead, hail the new Caesar who taxes his subjects far less severely.

Postscript: As part of the forthcoming AM-77 review, AMR has requested I hold on to the CD-77 to report on how both machines play together. This will serve a second purpose since I'm told that to fully blossom, the CD-77 needs about 800 hours of break-in. Should the digital machine undergo further changes during this elongated process, they will be reported on in that review.

Manufacturer's reply

Dear Srajan,
Thank you for your understanding and appreciation of the sonic performance of the CD-77 and the 6moons award in the "Advanced 1-Box Player" category.

Your review has gone down very well with the staff here at AMR who have all worked very hard over the past three years.

In fact, as you await the AM-77, we would like you to keep the CD-77 for a little while longer to ensure it has a few more hours of burn-in under its belt.

We have found that the full performance blossoms in subtle ways and especially in the area of subtleties over the first few months of use, even though the "rapid change of performance" period usually is around 100 Hours.

Many thanks
All the staff and Directors at AMR
Manufacturer's website