January 15, 2003
Accustic Arts Drive I CD Transport
The German reputation for devotion to music is second only to the country's reputation for the manufacture of high-quality and high-performance consumer goods. Indeed, the fortunate coincidence of these qualities has made Germany a source of some of the most highly praised, and highly priced, audio components in the world. Unfortunately, so far relatively few of these have found their way into the North American market.
Nowhere in Germany is the tradition of high-end manufacturing more evident than in Stuttgart, the Swabian capital, which is also home to such well-known concerns as Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and, with apologies to Porsche, Hohner harmonicas. Accustic Arts, short for "Accurate-Acoustic" Arts, is a product line from German audio-electronics maker SAE (Shunk Audio Engineering), located a stones throw from the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) in a small town near Stuttgart. A core of devoted recording engineers who became interested in extending their contribution to the audio chain all the way from the studio to the listeners living room formed the company in 1996. The production facility still features a fully functional recording studio that local artists use.
The Accustic Arts lineup includes all the components of a complete system, including the Drive I transport, the DAC I digital-to-analog converter, the Player I CD player, the Preamp I preamplifier, the Amp I power amplifier, and the Amp II-AC dual-mono power amplifier. The company also manufactures a line of loudspeakers.
The appearance of the Drive I ($3800 USD) is well beyond stylish and into funky, but stops just short of being sexy. Measuring 4"H x 19"W x 15"D and weighing in at more than 30 pounds, the medium-sized transport will fit into standard component racks, provided there is enough room between the shelves to accommodate top loading.
The faceplate features a pair of oversized polished silver knobs flanking the LCD display, as well as two silver pushbuttons, one for "stop" and the other for "play." A quarter turn of the left knob advances or reverses the track number, while a quarter turn of the right knob selects between "stand-by" and "operate" modes. The faceplate and cover are constructed of aluminum in a matte-silver finish. A nifty manually operated drawer made of mirrored glass etched with the Accustic Arts logo covers the CD while in play. (Manual operation of the drawer is actually an advantage, since you can still remove CDs after the transport is powered down.) After loading the disc, a small, circular magnetic disc clamp goes onto the spindle to hold the disc in place during playback. Closing the mirrored door causes the transport to read the table of contents of the CD and activates a series of blue LEDs cleverly concealed along the sides of the door. When closed, the stylized AA logo glows blue. Sehr cool.
Both S/PDIF RCA-type and AES/EBU balanced XLR-type digital outputs are provided, as well as the ubiquitous but generally reviled optical TosLink. I listened through both the RCA and the AES outputs, and ignored the TosLink. The accompanying literature specifies that the RCA and AES outputs have their own high-bandwidth transformers and are "professionally designed." One can only assume Accustic Arts did not intend to imply that the rest of the transport was designed by amateurs.
The remote control for the Drive I is nothing to jump up and down about, and requires an inordinately sustained force on the buttons to see results at the transport. If you want to change tracks on this baby, you have to really mean it!
Inside the chassis we find a CDM Pro2 CD drive and read unit, which is Philips top-of-the-line mechanism. Arrays of high-quality components are also revealed. In particular, it seems Accustic Arts has paid a lot of attention to radio-frequency isolation. The main power transformer is both toroidal (a topology known for its minimal external magnetic-field radiation) and potted, and, by its large size, looks as if it would be more at home in an amplifier than a CD transport. The power supplies are located on the left of the chassis in a walled-off compartment, with separate sections for the laser, drive motor, display, and digital signal processor. The signal-processing circuitry is located at the center rear, in the same compartment as the drive unit, and tucked under a shelf that separates it from the RCA and AES output jacks.
I compared the Drive I with my $3500 Sony SCD-777ES CD/SACD player acting as a transport on CDs only, using its S/PDIF RCA-type digital output. The SCD-777ES is in most respects identical to the more expensive Sony SCD-1, which retails for about $5000. Price-wise, the Drive I plays in the same league as the SCD-777ES and SCD-1, though they are admittedly not on the same team. The SCD-1 and SCD-777ES are complete CD/SACD players, while the Drive I is a CD transport only.
My main digital cable is the MIT Digital Reference, while I used the Transparent Reference AES/EBU Digital Link for balanced output into my reference DAC, the dCS Delius. The Delius drove a KR Enterprise 18BM single-ended high-output 300B triode amplifier directly feeding a pair of JMLab Electra 315.1 loudspeakers. Power cords were Transparent Audio PowerLink Super Series 2 with connectors at the component end upgraded with Furutech IEC connectors.
The transport I auditioned had several months of break-in, and I did not listen to it critically until after at least one hour of warm-up time. Initially, I played the Drive I through its RCA digital output into the Delius.
The Drive I presented some pleasant first impressions: laid-back, plush, pleasantly bloomy, and a strong sense of ambiance. On appropriate material, this transport fills the room with ambient detail retrieval and a compelling re-creation of the intended mood. Patricia Barbers Nightclub [Blue Note 27290], for example, had me reaching for a scotch and soda and blinking smoke out of my eyes, even though it was recorded in a studio. On "Autumn Leaves," the presentation was remarkably un-digital, boasting both exceptional smoothness and a notable continuity to the presentation. No instruments transients were unduly prominent, yet the transport delineated each one effortlessly. Barbers voice, which can be a little painful to hear through a peaky digital source, was mellifluous and believable. Imaging was good, with a wide soundstage and a palpable presence to each instrument.
For some comparisons, I turned to Montrealer Densil Pinnock singing Nat King Cole-esque songs and Cole covers, sparsely accompanied by Bill Coon on guitar, on their Mona Lisa CD [Verve ERCD 6671]. This album, a little-known jewel, is under-appreciated, in my humble opinion. The same qualities I heard on Nightclub were in evidence here. On "Comes Love," a driving 2/4 tune reminiscent of a foxtrot in a minor key, Coons guitar had it all: detail, un-smeared transients, un-hurried die-away, and live-type reverberations blooming out from the instrument. Pinnocks voice floats solidly between the speakers. You can almost feel his breath on your face.
Then I switched to the Sony, also playing through the Delius via its RCA digital output. Hmmm, interesting. The tonal balance of the Sony had more energy on top, with equivalent frequency extension in the bass, but less bass presence than the Drive I. Images had perhaps less weight, but were more sharply focused, almost etched, through the Sony, probably owing to the greater high-frequency information coming through. Images through the Drive I had more weight but a softer focus relative to the Sony. This effect was not nearly as obvious as a late-era Elizabeth Taylor television commercial, but you get the idea. Pinnocks image in the soundstage was also larger through the Drive I than the Sony -- though both units presented the vocalist as larger than life. Its hard to say whether this exaggeration was a fault of the transports or the intent of the CD's producer. Midrange timbres were also somewhat more vivid through the Sony, while the Drive I was again more laid-back.
Rhythmically, these transports are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Sony is on the bouncy side, while the Drive I is more sultry. On rhythmically driven tunes such as "Comes Love," this gave the Sony an advantage in the excitement department. However, on the regal "Temptation," a sedate 4/4 number with a guitar bass-line ostinato, the Drive I had the upper hand against the Sony. Its more relaxed presentation and greater naturalness just let the longing feeling of the tune ooze through better. The Drive I tends to be smooth, musical, and natural, while the SCD-777ES is vivid, rhythmic, and focused.
Lets not forget that the Drive I has a secret weapon: its balanced digital output. In brief, balanced wire sends both the signal (call it A) and an inverted version of the signal (-A) through adjacent conductors. These are then recombined at the DAC by subtracting the inverted signal from the signal [A-(-A) = 2A]. Hence, any noise picked up in transit that is the same in both lines gets subtracted out. This trick is called common-mode rejection. The idea is similar whether dealing with analog signals in a balanced interconnect or digital signals, as in this case. Theoretically, balanced transmission lines are superior to single-ended lines, and considered necessary when conducting a signal through long lengths of cabling, such as in an auditorium. Practically, of course, the degree of success varies with the implementation.
I used a Transparent Audio Reference AES/EBU balanced digital cable from the Drive I to the AES/EBU digital input of the Delius. Comparing the single-ended RCA digital output to the balanced was electrifying. Wow! More ambiance, more palpability, longer decays, and richer timbres were all present. Dont tell me cabling makes no difference when the signal is digital. Switching back to the single-ended line returned the unit to a shadow of its former self.
The quirky, iconoclastic, and largely toothless Sonny Boy Williamson II made some beautiful-sounding studio recordings in Denmark, from which Keep It to Ourselves [Alligator 4787] was assembled. When listening to the title track through the Drive I, Sonny Boys piercing but indescribably lovely harmonica sound just seemed to materialize in the middle of my forehead and lance around the room like an electric discharge. The rhythm of Sonny Boys feet stamping as he wailed on the harmonica still drove harder through the Sony, but the naturalness and smoothness of the Drive I, combined with the turbo-charged richness and ambiance from the balanced connection, made the Drive I the more mature and less fatiguing, if not clearly the better transport. In case the Drive I was simply benefiting from a better brand of cable than the MIT Digital Reference, I also played the Sony through the Transparent Reference single-ended RCA digital cable -- which is the unbalanced equivalent of the balanced Reference used on the Drive I. Although the Transparent is certainly a different cable from the MIT, the results of the Sony single-ended versus the Drive I balanced comparison were essentially the same.
The Accustic Arts Drive I CD transport is an unusually natural-sounding piece of gear that seems to benefit from the use of superior parts and attention to radio-frequency isolation within the chassis. Rhythmic drive was less prominent through the Drive I than the Sony, and in that regard ones choice might depend on ones preferred styles of music and personal taste. Overall, I preferred this transport to the Sony SCD-777ES CD/SACD player used as a transport, particularly when taking advantage of the balanced digital outputs present on the Drive I.
For sophisticated, mature, natural, smooth, ambient, and unforced playback, the Drive I is your transport. Those who remember when vinyl was not a kind of clothing material will appreciate how rare these qualities can be in a digital source. While $3800 may be a lot of money to pay for a transport, at the rarified heights of digital-separates pricing, this is actually not that far from the ground floor. So if youre in the market for a CD transport, and your tastes run toward the sophisticated, give the Accustic Arts Drive I a listen.
Accustic Arts Drive I CD Transport
SAE GmbH & Co. KG
North American distributor:
Ultra Audio is part of the SoundStage! Network.