Arcam Delta 170 & Black Box 3 CD-player
Advantages of two boxes include reduced levels of mutual interference between the control microprocessors, servo motors and display panels, and the audio circuits and DAC. Another plus is the ability to upgrade selectively the DAC or transport as the state of the art improves. Disadvantage are obvious: cost and bulk.
The 170 transport is the Philips die-cast metal CDM1 Mk 2 transport, with twin Arcam designed power supplies for the various circuit blocks, optical and coaxial outputs and a simple, old fashioned display which can be dimmed or switched off.
The Black Box 3 is a Philips Bitstream based unit, but it is no Philips clone. It is an in-house design based on Arcam's own PCB, using four converters in a full differential back-to-back configuration mediated by Arcam's own ASIC processor. It can process DAT signals as well as CD ones. Absolute phase can also be inverted and as CDs are often made with arbitrary phase, and many individual hi-fi components invert, it is worth experimenting.
The Arcam equipment is well built from good materials, and can handle long model runs and, in the DAC's case, upgrades using plug in replacement PCBs. However the standards of finish are modest.
BASSically Speaking showed perhaps the only real limitations of the Arcam, a slight feeling of treading on egg shells, an ability to back the sound up with a certain amount of strength. Mary Black's By the Time it gets Dark sounded a little opaque and earthbound by the standards of the best, though the sound was beautifully polished. On the whole though the Arcam performed with real class.
The Stravinsky recording offered superb orchestral sound, though again it was slightly lacking in authority and dynamics. Jennifer Warnes' version of Leonard Cohen's Bird on a Wire was beautifully poised, with a drum sound you could almost feel.
Experience of using the two components separately indicates that the transport is the stronger. There is little wrong with the DAC, but it does tend to show the problems that bitstream converters frequently have with those musical qualities variously described as dynamics, authority, architecture and space.