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Reviewer: Kari Nevalainen
Source: EMT 928 and 930; Verdier Nouvelle Platine; Lumiere/Ortofon/Denon cartridges on Ortofon and EMT arms; Audiomeca/Sentec for digital
Preamp/Integrated: Shindo and Marco and various vintage designs; Behringer 1024 digital equalizer
Amp: Shindo Montille EL84 p/p; Marco 6V6 p/p; various vintage designs; Sun Audio 2A3 SET [on loan]; Densen B-330 [on loan]; 200wpc Sony receiver; Plinius 9200 integrated
Speakers: open baffle Phy, Fostex, Seas and Stentorian single-driver designs
Cables: silver-coated copper
Room size: 4.5m x 7m

Review component retail: $4,995 

My favorite FM station, YLE Radio 1, is the one I listen to 80 - 90% of the time when I listen to the radio. Why? It's got:
  • 20,000 shellacs (78s, many more than 100 years old)
  • 150,000 LPs
  • 50,000 singles
  • 80,000 CDs

of Classic and art music, jazz, folk and popular though specializing in the first two. As if that weren't enough, they own 15,000 self-produced tapes recorded in their own spacious studio, of beautiful music and unique interpretations never heard anywhere else. And I'm not sure whether that figure covers all the concerts of their very own symphony orchestra -- yes, they've got one of those, too -- that they've been broadcasting live over the decades. Broms from London, recitals by the Musikverein Vienna, operas from New York (MO) etc - this is a small smattering of international productions I can regularly enjoy by inclining my ear to this station. Life is tough, huh?

And how many records do you own? Or I? It doesn't really matter, does it? It's clear who is king here. Radio -- and I mean true radio, not those commercial stations whose concept of music is as narrow as their play lists -- is such an incredible and immense source of musical inspiration that only a fool would turn his ear away from it. And it's not just music. The other week, I was given an excellent free introduction to Shostakovich's chamber music and the work he composed for violin especially. This commentary occurred during the break between his 1st Violin Concerto and 4th Symphony of a live broadcast. Indeed, so overwhelming is the steady supply from this one station that radio could easily become my sole music provider.

So what reason remains to keep one's records -- LPs/CDs -- and the machines necessary to play them back? Well, owning records does have intrinsic value to some though not all people. Wittgenstein, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, didn't see a need to keep many books around. To listen to what one wants when one wants provides another rationale. But more pertaining to the subject matter, I'm sure many would appeal to the sound quality. The implication being that the sound from a FM tuner is by necessity compromised. That it doesn't even come close to what's attainable with a digital or analog turntable. Why do they think that?

The first accusation stems not from the tuner itself but how typical FM stations process the signal beyond the original production. Unfortunately, that's standard practice in the current state of affairs. In order to attract more listeners, many of today's radio stations -- especially commercial ones -- seek an edge over the competition by being louder. In plain English, this means they compress and otherwise degrade the sound to stand out. The result is disaster - by audiophile standards anyway. The fact that the very same stations mainly broadcast music that is so dynamically limited to where extra compression seems to do little extra harm -- to an average listener anyway -- is hardly an excuse.

But there's compression and there's compression. Even my station uses it. Differently. They employ a high-quality Junger Audio Model D07 compressor and only in limited fashion (no expander etc). They compress over the whole bandwidth and use the compressor very conservatively, mainly to lift up the softest sounds e.g. of a piano above the noise floor. I once had a chance to try to distinguish between entirely non-compressed Mozart and Mahler symphonies and the same material when this station's standard compression was applied. Honestly, I had trouble telling them apart under the conditions then. I'm not saying that there is no difference but that the outcome is light years removed from the typical commercial FM sound in which all of music's dynamics are squeezed into a very narrow sliver. There is such a thing as compressing the sound in a civilized manner.

In fact, my station employs a committee which consists of producers, recording engineers, music journalists and others to decide on the exact degree and form of compression used. The latest decision has been to apply slightly stronger compression during daytime when music is mostly listened to in a more casual way. After the 9PM news when concerts and other material kick off that capitalize on sound quality, the compression is adjusted to its practical minimum (not to exceed the legal regulations regarding the deviation).

Other people who scorn FM sound point their finger at limitations inherent in the format: reduced bandwidth, diminished S/N ratio, higher distortion and so forth. Fair enough in many cases. Alas, are there theoretical reasons why FM sound has to be compromised? I don't think so. 19kHz -- the highest possible FM frequency -- versus CD's 22kHz is hardly significant. And the best tuners such as this Accuphase T-1000 push the S/N, distortion, channel separation and other figures very near to that of CD players. Whatever differences are left, there's every reason to think them musically irrelevant.

A foolproof means for checking how constrained, noisy or distorted the sound from FM reception may be is to connect a separate FM stereo signal generator directly to the tuner, bypassing poor reception issues. The task now is to simply switch between that and CD and compare. I believe many would be utterly blown away by how good the sound of an FM tuner can be in this type of even-handed test. The better the tuner in fact, the more frivolous the difference. When I was about to do this test with the T-1000 under review, the unit sold to a customer and no replacement was available. I fortunately had already finished my subjective listening tests.

So the next counter argument concerns not theoretical equality but actual practice. The incoming signal is often weak and distorted even in areas densely populated by broadcasting networks. But, practical problems are practical. They are meant to be solved. Unlike many theoretical problems, they almost always have a solution. With the case at hand, the solution -- besides a tuner with good sensitivity -- is a competent antenna system.

Accuphase's T-1000 comes without an antenna, not even a stretch of wire (given the quality of the tuner, the wire would have been a flaw). I used my shared central antenna, Magnum Dynalab ST-2 omni-directional whip and an active SV-9140. Both worked well. According to the Accuphase signal strength meter, the signal could barely have been better. On the other hand, it is well known that such meters can be rather generous. Signal reception can often be bettered even after the meter pegs max. Maybe certain high-quality, expensive outdoor antennas could have boosted the signal further but my prevailing conditions (sufficiently close proximity to the main station antenna without line-of-sight obstacles) were already so favorable that the present antennas proved more than adequate.

I was intrigued by the chance to review Accuphase T-1000 because I'd long wanted to know what level FM sound can achieve with a state-of-the-art tuner. All of my comments on the T-1000's sonic performance relate therefore to three stations that exhibited zero reception issues. I didn't try to verify how useful the T-1000 would be for poaching remote stations. Some features of the T-1000 imply that sound quality under good conditions was higher up in the firm's pecking order than selectivity under poor conditions. The fact that the tuner lacks multiple selective IF pass bands (from narrow to wide) rather speaks for itself.

The T-1000 does, however, have FR.TRIM. This function allows skewing a station's center frequency sideways in 10kHz steps while maintaining lock. This is useful when two closely adjacent stations interfere. If the center frequency is disturbed from both sides, the function naturally becomes useless. The stations I focused on were interference-free so I had no need for the FR.TRIM function. The same was true of the stereo noise filter.

When everything falls into place -- i.e. the broadcast is relatively uncompressed, reception is solid and the tuner up to its task -- the sound quality from a FM tuner can be wonderful. There's transparency, there's micro detail and there's a slew of other virtues audiophiles so dearly value. And the best part? The sound is rewarding not only technically but also emotionally. Well-broadcast cembalo music from a medieval church and symphonic music from a concert hall (even those that suffer inferior acoustics) through a top FM tuner must be an embarrassing experience for those who think that good sound is attainable only from records. Before looking closer at how the T-1000 performed in that regard, let's first find out what might have contributed to the T-1000 performing as well as it did.

That's more easily said than done. Some of the passive parts for instance are of standard rather than extraordinary quality. The D/A-converters are Analog Devices AD1853s and the output op-amps JRC5532s. Anybody who follows this business can make suggestions as to what parts might be considered more advanced. But it's never the parts per se but what one knows to do with them.

The same goes for the RF amplifier that inputs the antenna signal (together with the mixer) and the IF amplifier that takes care of the main signal amplification and is also responsible for the tuner's selectivity (i.e. the ability to separate adjacent channels from each other). Both amplifier stages seem to be really well made -- better than in a vast majority of commercial tuners in fact -- but their implementation doesn't appear to be particularly unconventional. Yet both are presumably critical for the T-1000's overall performance.

The three primary candidates for the T-1000's sonic excellence are the local oscillator (it feeds the mixer together with the antenna signal), the detector and the stereo decoder. Unlike with most receivers, the local oscillator isn't based on a conventional phase-lock-loop circuit but realized by DDS Direct Digital Synthesis. DDS has been in use in professional receivers for years but is a novelty in this type of consumer FM tuner. With both the detector (advanced differential gain linear) and the stereo decoder, Accuphase is deviating from the norm by opting for new digital implementations and minimal distortion, higher S/N ratio, improved channel separation and better general sound with weak or disturbed antenna feeds.

Whatever the real cause of the T-1000's sonic performance, purely from a technical viewpoint, it is brilliant. Accuphase is already famous for its earlier models but somehow it seems that with the T-1000, the company has combined all its technical know-how to raise the bar. It's not far-fetched to say that the T-1000 is their current benchmark.

Its outward appearance is as Accuphase as it gets. There's nothing extraneous on the front panel - a tuning knob, a few round control buttons (muting, mono selector etc.) and two rows of buttons for presetting 32 stations. The only thing lacking that might make someone's wish list is a headphone socket (I know many who like to listen to the radio in the middle of the night). The rear panel is as bare-boned as the front: two pairs of analogue outputs (balanced and unbalanced), one SPDIF digital output and one IEC/F antenna input. Remote is standard.

The hardware I used for this review was my normal stuff including tube and solid state amps and speakers ranging from conventional low-sensitivity designs to high-sensitive single-driver wide-banders. No mains filter on the AC by the way. The only novelty from my usual routine was one interconnect. The Accuphase ships with a pair of very sturdy and well-shielded coaxial RCA cables. From the moment of insertion, I didn't feel any inducement to disconnect them so I did so only after I had finished my listening sessions.

As should be clear by now, even before the T-1000 arrived, I was already fully aware of just how good an FM tuner can sound at its best. I knew, for example, that it can be exceptionally concrete and tangible. The sense of being present in a live musical event -- especially with live broadcasts -- is particularly strong with the radio. I have always thought that hobbyists who get stimulated by ads that promise how the kit in question will transport the listener back to the concert venue and its atmosphere should instead give a try to superior FM broadcasts with a quality tuner. I also knew that an FM tuner can, ideally, convey a mass of intimate
information about how instruments are played and many other music-related details.

What was news to me prior to the Accuphase's arrival was the extent to which the sound can exhibit those qualities. With the T-1000, the sound was at times scarily transparent and present. I frequently felt that I heard things that I had never ever heard from a radio before. All the nuances and details -- reverberations inside the guitar, echoes in the room, perceptions associated only with the best of CD and vinyl players -- were there and with the same analytical clarity (in the positive sense of the term).

As compared to my personal Quad FM4, the most obvious difference was that my Quad sounded more restricted. Neither was its bass reproduction on the same level. Its sound in general didn't have the maturity and mellowness. This was easy to verify with many types of music. As to the two highest octaves, the sound of T-1000 was very clean and pure up to my limits of audibility. But here the margin with respect to my Quad wasn't that wide. This could imply that both were somewhat forgiving in the highest treble. I'm inclined to think that that is not the case, however.

In other respects, my Quad did quite well against its far more expensive competitor. Yet in closer and more attentive sessions, the FM4 always fell a few steps behind. It didn't have the same resolving power or fineness. It didn't unfold the soundstage in the same eloquent manner. The T-1000 was definitely more 3D. And so on. Over the days and weeks, the differences became clearer and clearer - like those between a decent and excellent CD player.

The way in which the T-1000 beat my Quad FM4 provided enough evidence to be convinced of the former's performance excellence. But the Quad FM4 is an old design. Not everybody would regard it as capable of giving the T-1000 a good run for the money. They would remind me of the Marantz 10b, Kenwood LO2, Sequerra References, Magnum Dynalab FT-101, Macintosh MR71, Luxman T-110 and other super stars.

I knew that nobody here in Helsinki who could loan me the Marantz 10b or some Sequerras but I did manage to acquire a Naim NAT 05 and a Magnum Dynalab Etude FT-101 K24 (thanks Jaakko) for comparison purposes. The latter sports silver wiring and a golden front panel, hence its K24 designation. Both had fuller bass than my Quad, but neither -- not even the mighty Magnum Dynalab -- could outdo the T-1000. The MD FT-101 turned out to be a more refined tuner than the cheaper Naim but its advantage remained within the same category whereas the T-1000 was in another league, again not necessarily in some particular areas of performance but in general.

Some may be annoyed that I don't have more to say about the sound of the T-1000, especially in comparison to other tuners. But I prefer it that way. When listening to music through the radio, the relationship to the sound is different from that with a CD player. As I see it, audiophiles with a CD player look for a certain desired sound, preferably conforming to the music they like best. In the process of selecting the best CD player to own, we evaluate various gear and experiment with carefully chosen music. With a tuner, things are less complicated. The only expectation or hope is that the sound will be such that it lets us get into the depths of music that is selected by others. That's why I believe it's slightly misleading to talk about the sound of a tuner. It would make more sense to talk -- as I've tried to do -- about how the tuner performs. And the T-1000 performed superbly. It allows the listener to firmly connect with the music material transmitted by the station. It was the most revealing tuner of the group.

The Naim NOT05 costs a bit over 1,000 euros while the T-1000 commands 4K. Is the T-1000 four times more revealing than the Naim? Certainly not. Is the T-1000 worth its price? I'd say yes. It's worth the money both as a technical achievement and because of the way it performs. But that's me. I'm a keen radio listener, a heavy user. If anybody wants to have the best tuner there is, the T-1000 is probably a good candidate. Others who have a less enthusiastic attitude toward radio listening could be entirely happy with the Naim, which is not a bad tuner at all. Even I can live with my Quad FM4 and at the same time acknowledge that the T-1000 is clearly a superior machine.

Every now and then, I reverted to listening to CDs just to understand how what I heard from the T-1000 was different. I tried to detect signs that would make the T-1000 betray weaknesses. But if the reception was good and the material well recorded and broadcast, I couldn't hear why I should prefer CD over FM. Perhaps the sound from the CD player was just slightly purer and cleaner? Impossible to say for certain.

Even if the CD sound was cleaner in some sense, it wasn't necessarily any more resolute and transparent. I would go as far even to say that there was a sense in which the CD was more veiled and curtailed than the T-1000 on the best FM material when its delivery was more stratified and less homogenous.

When I connected the T-1000 via its digital output to my Sentec DiAna DAC, I immediately liked the result. The sound was quieter, the reason for which eludes me (maybe a grounding issue), but that difference wasn't relevant. The essential thing was that everything appeared to sound really splendid. Were things better now? Hard to say again. It was certainly the case that the whole sound made a shift towards my converter's known attributes. Paradoxically perhaps, the T-1000 now sounded less analytical and less penetrating. The DAC added some musical softness and forgiveness.

Perhaps the T-1000 is slightly light and lean in the midrange, a property which reminds me of some of Accuphase's amplifiers that seem to possess a similar character. The DAC revealed that the T-1000 is closer to a high-quality transistor sound than the best tube sound. Every now and then, I was pondering whether this feature could be considered a defect but could not make up my mind. But I'd certainly urge people who decide to go for the T-1000 to experiment with separate DA-converters if they happen to have one.

Radio nicely shows what this hobby is all about. First, it's about listening to music. In assessing the Accuphase FM T-1000, I easily listened to more music than while testing many other components combined - Classic from classic channels, Blues from the blues channels, Jazz from the jazz channel, Pop from all the rest.

Secondly, when it comes to speech reproduction, it is beneficial but not crucial that the voice be correctly reproduced - as long as it is intelligible. But with music, the sound really matters. Music always appears to get more meaningful when we step up from an average reproduction to higher playback finesse. It's here where a tuner comes into its own. With a high quality tuner, it's an absolute delight to listen to the radio and enjoy the enormous variety of on-call music on tap. And the Accuphase FM T-1000 is one such high-quality tuner. If the music which your local FM stations freely transmit really matters to you, then you should do everything in your power to get as good a tuner as you can manage by hook or by crook. Make no mistake, tuners make a difference. Today's is a prime example for just how much.

P.S. Last November, I went to a dress rehearsal of my favored station's own Radio Symphony Orchestra. The piece was Brucker's 8th, the conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, the former conductor of the Toronto Symphony. I sat alone in the church and enjoyed the wonderfully tender and rich sound. During the break, I moved to the control van just outside the church to see how they were manipulating the sound. Next evening, the concert was broadcast live and I sat in my chair and relived the symphony again. And?

It wasn't what I heard in the church. How could it be? But it wasn't what I heard through the monitors in the control van either even though their signal arrived via direct feed from the microphone preamp just 20 meters away. No, what I heard at home that evening was much, much better.
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