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As mentioned above, the AA Player uses the famed top-loading CDM-Pro drive, a mechanism favored by many top-end manufacturers and second only to the best efforts by Teac/Esoteric when it comes to build quality, reliability and ability to extract the lowest-level details from silver discs. The inside of the CDM-Pro is lined herewith black felt to prevent unwanted reflections once the magnetic puck has been put in place to secure the disc on the spindle and the drawer has been closed (a safety mechanism prevents the disc from spinning if the magnetic plug isn't properly in place).

While on the subject of the drawer and overall physical appearance of this machine, I have to confess that neither received warm welcomes chez Frederic's. The chief interior designer took one look and mumbled something about "German clunkiness" (sorry Srajan, old Alsatian roots) and "obnoxiously shiny chrome" to finish off with a few well-chosen words for the AA logo awkwardly sticking out to double as door handle. All this was
before I ever plugged the player in. After it was turned on, mumbling turned to laughter with questions as to whether we should hang the player in a tree for Christmas decoration, with my wife referring to the huge blue logo that lines the trap top and perfectly matches the blue illuminations we cover our house with for the Holidays.

I didn't mind the blue logo as its subdued lighting was never a distraction even when listening at night (I listen with the blue meters of a McIntosh amplifier lighting up the room so my tolerance level for showy displays is much higher than most) but the big chrome knobs really didn't do it for me. Like any design that departs from the traditional black or matte-silver box, the AA player will seduce some and repel others. Our household simply did not belong in the seduced clan. Thankfully you can make up your own mind from the photos and I'll focus on how the player sounded like to me.

There is no denying the fact that reviewers are human (well, at least some of us are). No matter how hard we try, we can't review each piece of gear in a vacuum as though all other pieces of equipment we've heard before had never existed. Actually, any review probably would have even less value if it weren't anchored in past and present experiences. All that is to say that the Accustic Arts player had the misfortune to follow the Esoteric P05/D05 in my system while arriving at the same time as my personal Esoteric X03-SE. I can't deny that the very existence of those two machines heavily impacted the outcome of this review.

During the first month of audition, my system was composed of the SMc Audio VRE-1 preamplifier, Genesis GR360 amplifier with Max-Headroom power supply and Nomad Audio RPD speakers. Using either the P05/D05 or X03SE as sources, this is a highly transparent system -extremely resolved in the midrange and deliberately assembled for vanishing distortion and an intimate connection to the recorded event yet also selected to preserve overall tonal sweetness. You could call this system audiophile as opposed to music lover and although I disagree with the implied connotations, I would agree that it'd give most readers a decent idea of how it sounds: not lean, not harsh but tremendously close-up and intimate although unforgiving.

In this context, the Accustic Arts player was close but not quite a match for the slightly cheaper Esoteric X03-SE. The Esoteric offered more bass depth, tightness and detail; more midrange transparency; and more treble extension. The X03-SE was a little nimbler with sharper attacks and longer decays. And, it reads SACDs, which the AA player cannot. The X03-SE also offered more instrumental textures but had to concede it to the AA player on tonal richness (though not accuracy as I believe instruments through the X03 SE sounded more real yet had more body with the AA).

By comparison, in my system designed to be extremely revealing of gear and recording strengths and weaknesses, the German player sounded warmer, with slightly rolled-off highs, emphasized upper bass and a lack of ultimate resolution and "breathing space" in the midrange. All discs sounded warmer than with the X03-SE as though imbued by a gentle golden hue. This golden hue which I could hear on every disc reduced the tonal diversity the AA player would otherwise have been capable of. On the other hand, it was responsible in no small part for its ease of listening and overall enjoyability.

A month into the review process, two things happened; Steve McCormack's VRE-1 award-winning preamplifier and its absolute purity of sound found itself replaced by the great for its price yet severely limited Adcom GFP 750. Then an electrical problem with the GR360 forced me to send it back to Genesis and return the Musical Fidelity A5 integrated back to service configured as a stereo power amplifier (I use it through its HT input which bypasses the preamplifier section).

My system went from open, transparent and intimately resolving to tonally less sophisticated. Worse, I lost the overall connection to the recorded event. No surprise really but going from $20,000 worth of amplification to $3000 was easy to hear; not bad actually, more a matter of omissions than errors but clearly not operating on the same exalted level. The more relevant aspect pertaining to this review is that the Esoteric X03-SE did not mate quite as well with this scaled-down system. The X03-SE highlighted the confused upper midrange of the Adcom, its lack of deep bass and its sometimes compressed microdynamics. On the other hand, the easier-going AA player proved quite synergistic. Where the ultra-pure midrange of the X03SE turned at times glassy and harsh over the Adcom, the AA's warm sound remained warm, sweet and easy to listen to. Where the tight bass of the Esoteric turned dry and lean, the AA's upper bass bump produced nice and weighty bloom. Where the Esoteric's treble extension turned liability on harsher discs, the AA player's slightly rolled-off upper end remained well behaved.

I realized that a pure-blooded player like the X03-SE only does well surrounded by components operating at the same level of uncompromised transparency and lack of distortion. The AA player meanwhile very easily accommodated less ambitious ancillaries. Instead of revealing their flaws, it simply helped the overall system to maintain an enjoyable balance.