December 1, 2008
Reimyo CDT-777 CD Transport and DAP-999EX Digital-to-Analog Converter
That makes me wonder about the future of the Compact Disc. Once rightly derided as an abomination that exalted convenience over musical truth, the best CDs today can sound glorious when played through first-class equipment -- this at a time when the CDs "Red Book" standard is alleged to have been superseded by new formats that supposedly spell the end of its dominance. But these new challengers seem to have their own challengers. Theres a thrust toward enhancing consumer convenience, even at the cost of quality sound reproduction. My sons crowd turns to Apple iPods and iPhones as their primary music source. While all sorts of new platforms aim to make low-compression digital musical sources more listenable, what audiophile wants to settle for "more listenable"?
Surveying a landscape that includes an audio industry in flux, a global recession, and a multitude of new formats and listening preferences, its reasonable to ask a simple question: Whats an audiophile to do? This audiophile intends to refuse to compromise sound quality for the latest hype. My answer may not be a reasonable one in todays context, but it makes sense to those of us who find it difficult to live without great music reproduced with the maximum possible fidelity to the live event.
Which brings me to this new matched pair of products from Reimyo, the CDT-777 CD transport ($11,000 USD) and the DAP-999EX digital-to-analog converter ($9000) -- prime examples of superior CD reproduction at a time when CDs future is supposed to be shaky at best.
Im told that reimyo, roughly translated from the Japanese, means miraculous or wonderful -- an apt description of the companys products that Ive heard and/or reviewed over the years. Ive described in other Ultra Audio reviews (available via our Archive listings) my first encounter with Reimyos chief, Kazuo Kiuchi, whose transformation of an ordinary pawn-shop violin into a tonal match for a vintage French instrument by applying his Harmonix tuning devices to strategic spots on the cheap violin remains one of my most mind-blowing moments in audio. For his Reimyo brand, Kiuchi collaborates with other Japanese designers and high-tech companies in the search for musical truth. His previous venture into CD reproduction was the single-box Reimyo CDP-777, a February 2004 Ultra Audio Select Component, now discontinued. In its place is this new two-piece transport-DAC combination, unashamedly devoted to "Red Book" CDs, albeit with a twist.
CDT-777 CD transport
The JVC transport mechanism used in Reimyos CDP-777 is no longer available, so Kiuchi experimented with various other devices before settling on Philips highly regarded, top-loading CD-Pro M2 drive -- but only after three months of checking its reliability and sonic performance. He then designed a heavy-duty aluminum housing tuned with Harmonix resonance-conditioning technology. Kiuchis concern for resonance control extends to the CDT-777s 15mm-thick chassis, 12mm-thick slide rail, and 8mm-thick front panel, all of which are treated with Harmonix conditioning to eliminate unwanted internal vibrations. And, as always, Kiuchi uses internal wiring and transformers custom-developed to suit the component.
One unusual feature of the CDT-777 is its sole digital output socket, a 75-ohm cinch port, for use with Harmonixs specially designed digital cable. Another is the transports footer system. Every Reimyo electronics product Ive seen has custom-made footers on each of its four corners, but the CDT-777 goes a literal step further: its tuning feet are placed at a distance from the chassis via an extension strip to which are attached Harmonix spikes that direct any remaining resonances down to a set of RF-909X spike bases (supplied). Also supplied is a Harmonix XDC-2 power cord. At a time when every kind of product, from furniture to cheese, is touted as "artisanal," this kind of care, custom design, and manufacture truly earns the term.
The result is a well-built, 31-pound CD transport that screams quality, from the silky slide of the CD bays door to the magnetized puck that holds the disc firmly in place to what look like the footpads of a Lunar Excursion Module.
DAP-999EX D/A converter
Developing a new CD transport led Kiuchi to the next step: a new D/A converter specifically designed to enhance the transports design goals. Besides, the DAP-777, though excellent, had already been in production for nine years; it was time. The sleek, low-slung DAP-999EX DAC features, in Reimyos description, "JVCs K2 technology, a 24-bit DAC IC, rigidly constructed all-aluminum body, and custom design parts including transformers and condensers, special made super purity and ultra high-speed signal transmission internal wiring, and custom designed tuning feet." The K2 signal processor converts standard 16-bit/44.1kHz CDs to 24/88.2, then passes that digital signal through a Burr-Brown PCM1704U converter chip to create a 24-bit, 8x-oversampled analog output signal.
The front panel has buttons to select the input (AES, BNC, coaxial, or optical), LEDs to indicate the connected line and its status, and more LEDs to indicate the signals sampling frequency. The rear panel has the above-mentioned audio inputs, balanced and unbalanced analog outputs, phase and power switches, and the AC input for the included 1.5m Harmonix power cord.
The Reimyo combo was inserted into my reference system, alongside the Cary SACD 306 Pro SACD player, the Reimyo CAT-777 line-stage preamplifier, modified Jadis JA-80 monoblock power amplifiers, Von Schweikert VR-4 Gen.III HSE speakers, and Harmonix AC cords and interconnects. The Harmonixes joined a compatible mix of wires that included Nordost Quattro Fil and Siltech G3 AC cords, interconnects, and speaker cables. Were they happy there? I cant tell with inanimate objects, but I sure was.
After a fairly long break-in period, I began my critical listening with a CD Ive always found problematic in my system: Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera House Covent Gardens terrific recording of Puccinis Tosca (CD, EMI 57173). In the Te Deum scene, the villainous police chief Scarpia sings of his plans to seduce the prima donna and execute her lover. A chorus enters the church, and as Scarpia sings of his evil designs, the chorus gradually moves forward until its singing at full volume, with the orchestra matching it. When I first heard this recording, I thought the engineers were at fault for the breakup at fairly loud volume levels. Then I heard it in a supersystem with enough power to light up all of Manhattan, and decided my relatively low-powered Jadis amplifiers had been the culprits. But now I wonder if Ive been fair to these amps that have served me so well for so long. Although the passage still sounds slightly strained, it no longer breaks up, suggesting that the clean signal and processing of the Reimyo transport and DAC could, to a large extent, mitigate the effects of less than optimal power reserves.
In fact, I played a wide variety of music through the Reimyos, and that recording of Tosca was the only one that even slightly stressed my system. It held firm even when I played James Judd and the New Zealand Symphonys recording of John Antills Corroboree (Naxos 8.570241), a no-holds-barred orchestral showpiece based on Australian Aboriginal ritual ceremonies and music. You may recall the old Everest LP of this work under Sir Eugene Goossens, once a regular feature of audio dealers demonstrations. This new recording is even more spectacular. The opening movement, Welcome Ceremony, begins ppp in the low strings -- its almost inaudible at moderate volume levels. But later, the central section is a virtual percussion festival on a wide soundstage, with xylophones on the far left and timpani deep along the far wall of the stage. Struck percussion instruments, including some of a decidedly exotic variety, test transient definition, and the huge dynamic spread includes a shattering climax that the Reimyos played cleanly and with visceral impact. The last few minutes of the final movement are so shattering they make Stravinskys Rite of Spring sound like a Mozart divertimento. This disc really puts a system through its paces, and the Reimyos passed every test, exhibiting dynamics, transients, and soundstage width and depth to induce audio Nirvana.
A more conventional work, Benjamin Brittens Simple Symphony, in Divertimenti, a recording by the Trondheim Solistene (SACD/CD/BD, 2L 2L50SACD), presented a different challenge: the sound of a string section, which I find crucial for judging timbre, timing, and reproduction of the mid-treble. I listened to the CD layer of this hybrid disc (also included in the set is a Blu-ray edition of this performance, but I lack a BD player), which struck me as being one of the best recordings of a small orchestra Ive ever heard. In the second movement, Playful Pizzicato, Britten turns the strings into a giant guitar; in the third, Sentimental Saraband, the strings take on a radiant silken quality. Throughout this disc, which also includes works for string orchestra by Bacewicz, Bartˇk, and Bj°rklund, the Reimyos delivered strikingly accurate sound, allowed the upper strings to display their bite as well as their smoothness, and put me in what would be the best seat in a small, lively hall.
More orchestral fireworks followed, with a reissue of Rafael FrŘhbeck de Burgoss recording of Manuel de Fallas El Amor Brujo -- one of the great Deccas engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson at Londons Kingsway Hall, in 1966 (LIM K2HD023). I made the mistake of playing this at a high volume very early in the Reimyos break-in period, and the famous opening trumpet solo was ear-piercing. Returning later to this disc, I heard a trumpet with a firm, rounded tone with the requisite pungency, but no excess of it. It was followed by a dynamic orchestra, plenty of the famous Kingsway Hall sound, and the thrilling chest tones of mezzo-soprano Nati Mistral in the Gypsy songs.
I dont want to give the impression that the Reimyos are only for orchestra buffs; they actually shone brightest in the glow of smaller forces and more intimate music. On Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile (Nonesuch CD512586) the double bassist and mandolinist delivered enjoyable duets that swung as well as providing intimacy. The woodiness of Meyers bass was palpably solid, without the unnatural bloat some recordings lend the instrument, and when he bowed his instrument I could feel the notes resonating through the floor. Thiles seamless mandolin runs retained the sharpness and unmistakable ping of his instrument.
I listen to a lot of piano music, and so appreciated the Reimyos sound on Freddy Kempfs recording of Mussorgskys Pictures at an Exhibition (BIS 1580). It seemed made to be played through the Reimyos, where it had a striking naturalness and presence. The acoustic captured by BIS is flattering to Kempfs sound -- I could clearly hear details that lesser engineering muddles: the spooky pedaling and left-hand murmuring under the top line of the melody in The Old Castle, Kempfs light, feathery touch in The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, and the sheer length of the long fadeout of the depressed sustain pedal in Catacombe. There are plenty of opportunities in this piece for pianistic display and power, but it is those more subtle moments that stay with me as exemplars of revealing sound reproduction.
Im also a sucker for spectacular singing, and theres plenty of it on a disc of Handel arias sung by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (Virgin 519038). Yes, she rips off with breathtaking aplomb the dazzling coloratura runs that pepper Handels operas. And yes, the Reimyos reproduced her articulation of those runs with admirable accuracy, just as they captured the snarl in her voice as she expressed her fury in an aria from Teseo, and the array of vocal colors she employs in a scene from Serse. But what stunned me, on both the artistic and sonic levels, was the way she sang -- and the way the Reimyos reproduced -- her long, slow trills. Audiences love loud, fast coloratura passages, but theyre relatively easy compared to the slow, almost languorous trills we hear from DiDonato in arias from Hercules and Ariodante. She nails them brilliantly, and through the Reimyos, the purity of the notes, and of the minute spaces between them, became real and moving.
I played plenty of jazz during my audition of the Reimyos, mostly vintage swing and bop sessions from the 1930s and 1940s, and while those monophonic recordings werent even the state of the art in their own day, the timbral accuracy of Johnny Hodges alto and Lester Youngs tenor came across vividly. But if you want the best-sounding jazz, you need look no further than Chesky Records New York Sessions series. I especially loved the sound (and music) on West of 5th, which features veteran Hank Jones, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Jimmy Cobb (Chesky JD313). Jones, who was 88 when this recording was made in 2006, plays like a 30-year-old pianist, and a great one at that. He always had one of the sweetest tones of any jazz pianist, and here its colorful timbres and the sheer vitality of his fluent playing are undimmed. McBrides stirring solo on Charlie Parkers "Confirmation" is stunning in its logic and recorded presence, and I could clearly follow his fingering when he plays in the rhythm section. Cobbs drums are also recorded with lifelike presence; his cymbal strokes on "If I Were a Bell," the resonance of his snare drum, and the strength of his kick drum pushing the tempo forward, were all elements in making this recording so admirable in its realism, and in allowing the Reimyos to sparkle.
The CDT-777 and DAP-999EX exhibited all the qualities I associate with Reimyo gear, most especially a natural, relaxed projection of the music, timbral integrity, and a musical fluidity that most resembles what one hears in a good concert hall -- the kind of "continuousness" that realistically depicts note-to-note continuity and integrates pauses and silent moments into the musical fabric. In addition to those traditional Reimyo attributes, I now heard a greater sense of presence that made more convincing the illusion of actual musicians playing in my room.
Kazuo Kiuchi once told me that "making electronics is like art painting," and the CDT-777 and DAP-999EX reflect his arts patient process of developing and assembling the various pieces that go into the final product, and the shaping of them to reflect his vision of the correct sound of audio reproduction. He also said that, like a painting, "evaluation is to be made at the final stage." That can also mean that the auditor must decide whether the end product reflects his or her audio priorities and tastes; after all, we all have different priorities and hearing.
My own audio biases confirm those apparently held by Kiuchi: my time with the Reimyo CDT-777 and DAP-999EX was completely satisfying. Various people drifted through my home during my listening sessions, and most were as enthralled with the Reimyos sound as I was. One or two wanted more sizzle and pizzazz, but they werent regular concertgoers, and perhaps werent used to hearing the warmth and flow of live music reproduced with such realism. I hesitate to label the Reimyos as electronics for music-lovers, but thats really what they are. There was nothing artificially hi-fi about them. They didnt place undue emphasis on any single aspect of the audio spectrum, or stress discrete items on an audiophile checklist. And they didnt make bad recordings sound good or good ones sound jacked-up. If aural paintings of the musical truth are what youre after, then Kiuchi is your Rembrandt.
. . . Dan Davis
Reimyo CDT-777 CD Transport
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