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Reviewer: Ken Micallef
Digital Source: Accustic Arts CD-Player 1, Audiomeca Mephisto II.X [on loan]
Analog Source: Rega P2/Grado Prestige Gold cartridge
Preamp: Shindo Monbrison
Amps: BAT VK-75
Speakers: DeVore Fidelity 7.1 [in for review], Gallo Reference 3 [in for follow-up review]
Cables: Stealth PGSX and 3D ICs, 3MLT Hybrid speaker cables [in for review]; Luminous Audio Synchrestra Reference ICs and Synchresta Signature speaker cables [in for review], Tone Speaker cables [on loan]
Stands: Salamander 5.0 rack, 2" Mapleshade platforms (8" x 15" x 2"), Blue Circle custom amp stand (for BAT)
Powerline conditioning: BPT Model BP-3.5 Signature Ultra Isolator for digital components and turntable, JPS Kaptovator power cords, Shunyata Black Mamba and Anaconda Vx Powersnakes
Sundry accessories: Mapleshade Surefoot and Heavyfoot brass points and IsoBlocks; (8) RPG ProFoam damping panels/ceiling treatment, Mapleshade Ionoclast for static cling, HALO-O Tube Dampers

Room size: 24' x 12' with 10-13' sloped ceiling, short-wall setup
Review component retail: $6,500

Ours is a jaded world, right? After all, we who live in the civilized world, who work our jobs, take our vacations and plan our lives consider ourselves to be the privileged and deserving few. We are the rugged individualists who have pursued our dreams and excelled at our chosen professions. Success is ours. Or you could say, 'I got mine, go get yours."

All of this blather and ballyhoo (okay, you might call it whining) is to express my own mid-holiday state of mind. I am jaded, I admit it. How many CD players have I reviewed over the years? Heck, I forgot already. Exceptional pieces of audio art and mass-market boxes of malarkey all have passed through my system. The super expensive items haven't always passed muster and I have been pleasantly surprised by non-audiophile players that fall near the $500 mark (Pioneer, Denon, Yamaha). As a reviewer, it is easy to forget that $500 is an awful lot of money to spend in pursuit of audio perfection, never mind the tens of thousands many of us run through as we seek to satisfy our lusts of the flesh (ears included). So it is easy to lose perspective. Not of the music and the love of hearing our favorite piece of music revealed fresh and new. Rather, it is easy to lose perspective of what constitutes a great CD player in the first place. That perspective is formed by our own systems, our personal likes and dislikes, the experiences that form our distinctive and at times illusory notions of audio nirvana. I spent much of my mid twenties as a musician, a drummer, listening for immaculate clarity in the studio and jazz nirvana on the stage. Rarely did I achieve either, but that pursuit coupled with my listening habits formed my views about how an audio system should reproduce music. The same thing can be said for your experiences, likes and dislikes. You came to this thing of ours through a unique set of circumstances.

I am going around my elbow to reach my nose and address a nasty, pesky little thing in this land of audio reviewing. How can one reviewer praise a piece of gear while another finds the same piece sorely lacking? As with everything in life from your choice of partner to your profession, it is all about synergy, about finding what makes you tick even when you don't know exactly what you are looking for. It's about intuition. I am listening for a certain sound, perhaps an unreachable, unquantifiable sound, a sound informed by the choices I have made regarding amplifiers, preamplifiers, speakers, cables and line conditioners, not to mention tweaks and the sound of my listening room. Reviewer A has an entirely different set of criteria than reviewer B. And he is probably listening for something different according to his tastes and life experiences. Is this to say that there are no absolutes, that a Sony boombox in the right room can sound as good as a Sony SACD player? Well, of course not. But in answering this question for myself, I have to pursue and consider all the angles. And as in this thing of ours, the pursuit is part of the process.

Which brings me to the Accustic Arts CD-Player 1.
A beautiful silver top-loading machine with a reflective sliding door that reveals a sturdy magnetic puck, the CD-Player 1 is design simplicity in its loveliest form. A heavy sucker, the CD-Player 1 comes with the classiest, most well-designed and smartly thought-out remote I have ever used and the sliding glass door and sand-blasted Accustic Arts logo (old timers will think American Bandstand) glows bright blue when the player is powered up. Darn cool. This is German engineering for sure: sleek, clean, assured, silent, accurate. It is funny that when moving to the $5000+ range, some manufacturers suddenly realize, "Hey! You mean people want simplicity in form, functionality and appearance?" The Audiomeca Mephisto II.X I previously reviewed also shared a vision of physical design as something simple and direct, though these two players could not be more different in philosophy, approach or sound.

A few more words about the remote. Stamped with the Accustic Arts logo and the odd "CD Remote Control - CDR III", the remote is one of the best things about this player. Buttons are few and well spaced for easy finger acceptance and logically labeled: Scan, Prog, Time, Fast, A/B, Pause, Stop, Play, and Shuf with single and double arrows for fast forward/reverse, advance and back. Add numbered buttons 1 through 0. It seems so simple but how often have you searched a remote simply to advance to the next track? This remote deserves a Blue Moon all its own! Hail Germany! Where is my Krupps? Fire up the 450SL! The AA remote is so cleverly designed, it never made me wonder which end to point at the player. The round end fits in your hand like a small Superball and the flat end squares to infinity. Perfectomundo!

The front plate of the Accustic Arts CD-Player 1 is superbly designed as well. Two small chrome buttons control stop and play functions, two larger chrome knobs handle skip and standby/operate tasks. Undeniably exquisite. 'Round back are balanced and RCA analog out connectors as well as a digital outs should you want to use the CD-Player 1 as a stand-alone transport. The question now was, would the sound match the cosmetics?

Bust my berimbeau, Charlie, Jorge Ben is calling
Clarity, projection, propulsion, snap, crackle, pop. All of these describe this player out of the gate. Playing Paula Morelenbaum's wonderful Berimbaum [Universal B000-3695], its blend of intoxicatingly lush vocals, alluring Brazilian melodies and spaced-out electronic production had the Accustic Arts up and at 'em, easily spinning sassy sounds. The music sounded clean but a little forward; dynamic but perhaps not as honeyed and fat in the bass regions as I prefer. The sound wasn't thin by any means but fast, tight, informational, precise, potent. Cymbals and upper register instruments jumped out at me. Tilted up? Not really. But neither was the sound a creamy midrange feast. The Accustic Arts likes it hot, brassy and in your face.

I also played more graceful Brazilian vocal music, this time from the 50s: Elizete Cardoso's A Meiga Elizete [EMI Copacabana 864362-2]. Recorded in 1958, this romantic CD is like traveling back to pre Bossa Nova Rio, all humming organs, plucked electric guitar and positively nervous Brazilian percussion that will have you reaching for somebody, anybody's waist to make a fool of yourself. Cardoso's vocals are elegant and expressive, her music matching bittersweet Brazilian harmonies with that glamorous nightclub groove of the late 50s. Not surprisingly, the sound was steely and brassy but the acoustic bass wonderfully bulbous, just as it must have sounded in the studio that balmy Brazilian day. The soundstage was flat and not very deep but then this is an old recording. Still, the player reproduced all the romance available.

I moved on to modern digital technology and Pat Metheny Group's The Way Up [advance CD.] Metheny's discs are always an indulgence of sound and texture, highly conceptualized arrangements woven in a big, bold soundstage that will transport you. This is some of the most epic and dynamic music being made today and surely will put your system through its paces. The energetic and li'l dynamo character of the Accustic Arts player makes this a special experience. On The Way Up's explosive opening track with its combustible rim clicks and rolling piano lines, the Accustic Arts revealed decent detail and good dynamics but had no real sense of front-to-back depth or soundstaging.

Everything was placed left to right, top to bottom. Instruments seemed truncated - very alive and dynamic but somehow flattened. Tonally, it all sounded of one accord. Everything was there, all the same notes and information I'd heard from this disc when played on the much more expensive Linn Unidisk 1.1 player and the $1000 dearer Audiomeca machine - everything but the romance and that unquantifiable thing that makes music truly sing and soar.

"$165 Million + Interest [Into] the Round Up" and "Lifting the Building" from David Holmes' soundtrack to Ocean's Twelve [Warner Sunset/WB 48045] fared much better. Funky, neo-noir tracks full of Latin cymbal bells, bongos, freaky organs and such, Ocean's Twelve pulled off a deeper soundstage with excellent decay of notes and a fat, even lush low end. The Accustic Arts own character still dominated the proceedings but with this modern disc, all was right with my world.

I figured the mighty AA would also rock it with some Cubano bop, a little acoustic music from the Cohiba-toting brothers who brought you Buena Vista Social Club. Celia Cruz, Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo light up Hecho En Cuba 3 [Isba/Escondida ESC6506], a brash

blowout of shouting brass and conguero strut that proclaims itself "The official soundtrack to Cuba!" This music sounds ancient but somehow modern, uncontaminated and pure. The CD sounded alive! Detail was exceptional and dynamics punched me hard in the stomach. Somebody pass me a stogie, I think I need to catch my breath. I got the sense that this music was recorded on crackling valve gear still full of possible shorts and buzzes. The music popped like a hot night in July. The Accustic Arts signature was still there in spades: clarity, love of upper register revelations, a tendency toward pushing the upper midrange over truly low bass.

From Arts to Meca
For kicks, I played the same discs through the Audiomeca Mephisto II.X. Hecho En Cuba was even more in my face but now left-to-right separation was improved, vocals sounded even more ancient and crusty and I could suddenly feel the bass of the buzzing upright. The sound was bigger, broader, more buxom; no more dynamic and perhaps a bit more lush and relaxed but the biggest difference really was in soundstage width, depth and overall tonality. The music just breathed more. Resonant details, percussion slaps and vocal decay were easier to enjoy.

The David Holmes Ocean's Twelve tracks packed a far bigger wallop at the expense of minute detail in the lower bass. The Audiomeca is a lush machine but its soundstaging abilities will go toe to toe with any manufacturer. Again, the sound was bigger top to bottom and back to front. Elizete Cardoso's A Meiga Elizete soared more sweetly as well, its bass notes booming while her voice was revealed with greater detail, enunciation and dead-center imaging. Overall and when compared to the Audiomeca, the Accustic Arts had the upper hand in precision, detail and energy but lacked bloom, low-end wallop, low-end warmth and displayed instead a kind of buttoned-down quality. The AA player left nothing to the imagination, its steely truthfulness commanding attention and getting it.

It ain't my cross to bear - or is it?
In my system and with my listening biases and musical preferences, the Accustic Arts CD-Player 1 excelled in some areas and failed to light my fire elsewhere. Its quickness, super-dynamic character and attention to musical detail in the upper registers always presented itself without grain, etch or coloration - first rate. However, it sounded rather taut and controlled in the bass - too much so for personal tastes. But then, I like a little coloration in the nether regions. I want to hear it kick. I need the grease of live performance. Heck, as a drummer, I like nether regions anyway you want to lay 'em on me. Who loves you baby? Kojak? His bald head would have worked well in my room to cancel some of the reflective surfaces I occasionally wrestle with. But I accept the biases I have built up over years of listening. I am always open to wonder. I look for revelation. I listen for that spark that will send me swooning. I want to get as close to the music as possible. But then, don't we all?
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