Denon DCD-825 CD-player
Reading the press release which preceded the arrival of this new Denon CD player gave me considerable pause for thought. In past reports I have spotlighted the use of British design teams harnessed to far east-usually Taiwanese economies of manufacture. However, historians will know that the Japanese people tend to insularity; indeed there have been extended periods in their past when complete isolation was maintained in spite of the fact that their own islands offer few natural resources. The second half of this century brought about a sea change as the people, struggling to recover from a disastrous war, used their innate skills to fabricate small, high value, products requiring the minimum of raw materials, and set about selling them to the rest of the world. A natural subject for this endeavour lay in electronic products of all types for which there were ready markets, particularly amongst the western nations.
The insularity, although giving way to commercial endeavour, remained in the background and there was a certain 'take it or leave it' attitude to be found in their marketing. Sensing resentment of their success, many larger companies then began to manufacture abroad and labelled themselves "International"; but product design was still Japanese. It largely remained so until the recent recession cracked the nut and the more enlightened companies began to take more notice of what their markets preferred. Audio can show classic examples: the roaring success of Pioneer's A-400 amplifier of a few years back, with its strong British design input, caused many crisis meetings in Tokyo boardrooms long aware that British press approval has great influence in many markets.
Thus it came about that a new openness pervaded the R&D departments of the Japanese majors who now discuss requirements and preferences before knocking up working models and then actively seek comment (and hopefully approval) of prototypes before manufacture commences. This is not an easy process if you accept that the final arbiter is what you hear. Having taken part in a number of such discussions I can report the look of intense puzzlement that crosses a Japanese engineer's face when an interpreter translates your detection of an unnatural edge to a soprano's upper register. If you add that the sound is grainy he may be left with the impression that she is about to jump off a cliff with a mouthful of rice!
Denon, like NAD and Rotel before them, have, in the case of the DCD-825, effectively short-circuited this laborious process by recruiting a UK design team who firstly defined the requirements, set a target price and mapped out how the desired result might be achieved. They presented the results of their work to the CD department at the Shirakawa factory in Japan where it was then fleshed out to an advanced prototype stage. By specifying known acceptable components in critical circuit positions it proved possible to meet the overall costing in spite of many of these individual items being of higher quality than the norm. Thus a minimum of expensive post-prototype tidying up was necessary before production could start.
Certainly the result has more than justified the effort: this is a remarkably complete machine for its modest £220 and the sound quality is quite comparable with players costing twice as much. So who are the winners? Well, certainly customers worldwide who are offered exceptional value for money, certainly the Japanese who have accessed acknowledged British skills and ears to marry to their cheap production abilities. And the losers? These must be our own manufacturers who cannot match the economies implicit in Japan's largely automated manufacturing facilities but who have given away the advantages available from native talent. As I said at the start, it all gives pause for thought.
Although Denon have spawned some attractive small system components, their standard 'separates' remain just that: standard. The DCD-825 is no exception-a black box with buttons, at 434mm slightly wider than some. Minor embellishment takes the form of a softening of the usual flat panel and more interestingly shaped and laid out controls. The slim disc tray is on the left and the motional controls on the right; between them is an excessively sunken and rather small bright white fluorescent display which fortunately can be doused when required. A headphones socket and adjacent volume control at lower right complete a complement of 21 front features which provide all the usual facilities required in daily use. The remote control supplied adds to these with A-B and total Repeat, Volume Up/Down etc. and there is some provision for tape editing and spacing. The rear panel is much simpler, just a couple of gold-plated phono sockets for left and right channel output, a plain one for digital output and one of those small shaver type mains connectors. The latter are reversible but Denon go to some effort, including a drawing in the quite good operating instructions, to persuade the user to insert the special supplied socket lead "with the protruding part facing up". As this directly connects to the primary of the adjacent power transformer-which therefore runs continuously - one wonders why, particularly as try as one might it was impossible to discern any difference. Perhaps more importantly one should be reminded that the prominent front button labelled Power On/Off is not telling the whole truth.
Internally one can see that the playing deck is a mainly plastics affair but that the actual disc and laser carriage is of metal and freely sprung. The adequate power transformer sits behind it. There are two main printed circuit boards, one behind the front panel caters for the display and push switches, the second carries components on both sides and occupies the remaining floor area; it is notable for the way the individual sections and components have been spaced out, subdivided, and joined by wire links. This is the first indication of the British contribution and a closer examination uncovers many more. Detailed isolation and regulation of power supplies to individual sections, intelligent and informed choice of components in critical positions; e.g. twin Burr Brown PCM61 18-bit converters, Precision Monolithics OP275 op-amps in the audio stages, noninvasive relay muting, a quality digital and de-emphasis chip plus numerous audio quality capacitors, bypassed where needed.
All this work and more has resulted in a fine specification which measurements on my sample supported. The output was a little higher than normal at 2.47 volts on the left channel and 2.45 volts on the right. Frequency response was absolutely flat up to 18kHz and a mere 0.3dB down at 20kHz. Signal to noise ratio including all wideband emanations checked at -105.5dB with or without de-emphasis. Linearity was within 0.5dB right down to the -90dB signal level, channel separation was in excess of 90dB over most of the audio band, only falling to 75dB at 20kHz, and absolute phase was correct. These are the sort of measurements one expects to make on the very best machines.
Performance Regular readers will know that I am a far from 'gullible listener so when I tell you that this Denon machine really impressed me and completely made me forget that it costs pennies less than £220, their designers can feel pleased with themselves. One thing stands out and that is that well set up multibit machines have a certain something which makes them shine over the majority of the 'more modern' single-bit devices which may boast a superior technology but fall foul of hidden snags not unconnected with their much higher frequency of operation.
My own reference is a once £1,000 multi-bit machine which has probably cost me half as much again in time, brain fatigue and rare parts for modifications; nowadays I never come across anything I think better. How does the Denon compare? Extremely well; the main differences lie in the extension and definition of the lowest bass which demands solidly stable and expensive attention to power supplies (also true of amplifiers) and there is just the slightest hint of unease in some female voices; vide the delightful Amanda Roocroft to be heard on EMI or perhaps the more outgoing tone of Anne Sofie von Otter singing Handel arias for Archiv. I would not hazard a guess at where this minor infelicity might occur but found it easy to dismiss, particularly in the absence of a direct comparison.
In complete contrast I have been playing some Japanese recordings in Sony Super 20 Bit Mapping which were given me by a recent oriental visitor. These are multi-miked and with some outlandish pan-potting, but the definition is amazing, particularly of a nightclub-ish jazz set-up with a slightly unsure lady vocalist centre stage and a drum kit spread all the way between the loudspeakers. Completely un-lifelike but fun and an excellent test piece which the Denon relished. In fact this player had a welcome affinity for music of all kinds and I can return it feeling confident in assuring Denon that they have a winner here/