Unmodified, the Arcam Alpha 9 was spectacularly better than its price point when released, comfortably going head-to-head with CD players and separate transport/DAC combinations costing several times the price! Nevertheless it has its issues, which can be effectively addressed by a good CD repairer/modifier. In particular, the power supply electronics run too hot and need to be better cooled. You should be able to pick one of these up for around $500. Spend a further $300 to have it checked out and optimised by a talented repairer, and you will have a CD player which out-performs almost any $5000 CD player you can name! Mine has its clock replaced by a Burson Audio ultra-low jitter clock, which improved the musicality even further. I confidently challenge anyone to comprehensively blow my CD player away with an alternative at any price!
This is HANDS DOWN the best sub $2k CD player available even when compared to NEW units. I have a BAT VK-5D and the RING DAC in the Alpha 9 is neck and neck with the BAT and for the $4500 price difference in my used Alpha 9 and my New VK-5D I feel a bit let-down. There is more musicality from the BAT but the Alpha 9 and the special DAC they use gives it a heck of a run for its money!
The Alpha 9 is one of the BEST audio values USED or even when NEW you are likely to find - EVERY.
The sound stage is HUGE, the dynamics are hard to conceive based on the price and the mid-range is liquid, velvet and silky all rolled into one. It is BLACK in so far as the music just POPS from the ether and appears from everyplace with great placement of the musicians.
At the current used price of this player and the very amazing DAC that is implemented I would grad one or two or even three.
Magnapan IIIa's Bryston 4Bst Amp Bryston BP-20 Line-Stage Arcam Alpha 9 Yamaha CT-7000 FM Tuner BEL interconnects Tara Labs RSC Prime Speaker Cable Richard Grey Power Treatment
Extremely detailed AND gentle (i.e. NOT HARSH) player. HDCD discs sound amazing. I wish there were more that I wanted to hear. The sound stage is very rich and, at least in my system, deep, e.g. one can hear a centered guitar track exceed a vocal track in soundstage-width while hanging behind the very same vocal track. 3-dimensionality, in other words, unfolds here.
TReats all formats well: *classical* (solo--Kissin's Beethoven, chamber/ensemble--Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, orchestral--Bruckner, voice--Renee Fleming); *rock/pop,* (math rock--King Crimson, lush rock--Dire Straits, indie vocal--Cat Power, oldies--Beach Boys, low-fit--Grifters); *jazz* (horns--Coltrane, piano/bass/drums--"Money Jungle" or "Dollar Band" and larger ensembles--Mingus), *alt/classic-country,* (Lucinda Williams, Vic Chestnut, Uncle Tupelo, Johnny Cash, etc.)
In sum: this is one righteous performer. I don't know if it is a great deal given I don't know what more expensive pieces sound like on my system. I thus gave it a 4 for value given I have troubles terming any player over a $1000 a "bargain."
P.S. I don't understand the "looks flimsy" or "unattractive worries". If there is a sonic problem, then let's talk about it (as there might be over time given the temperature at which it runs). Also, spare us the "it broke" review. They are uninformative and screw up the numerical rankings. These are reviews about how equipment presents music. If it doesn't present music, one has nothing to review.
I really did want to like the other players because of the price differential (>$500). In reading the reviews here and elsewhere and A/B comparing, I swallowed hard and picked up the 9.
For general listening, the cheaper players would be fine. Also, AAD to DDD recordings may sound the same. It's only when you get to HDCD, Telarc and later DDD recordings when the 9 comes into it's own. The other players can't keep up with sheer quantity of sound these CDs put out. Be prepared to become a sonic snob--recordings that I loved from some time back I can barely listen to now because of the sonic grime older recording techniques impart to them. Stuff from the 70s, 60s and earlier (Kind of Blue, Weather Report, Birds of Fire) sound ok because of the content; they're listenable. A mid-50's NYC Phil recording of Lizst's Rhapsodies is ok, despite the hiss from the source tape. The performances make the difference here. But Pete Townsend's White City just SUCKS! I had to pot my MA6500 to better than 60% just to overcome the crummy EQ.
Try one of the newer HDCD CDs from Sting or Mark Knopfler for a taste of what this player can do--and what it has over the earlier Alphas. If I went to 60% with either of these, I would be blown into my next door neighbor's living room! The Telarc discs of The Planets or EMI's Gershwin RIBlue (discs I used for the audition) were the deciding factor for me. Together with the Mac and Paradigm 100s, the soundstage opened considerably over the lower tech Alphas, and the renderings of the piano and brass sections were 9 out of 10 on goosebump scale. I thought this was impressive, as I am intimately familiar with both these recordings.
An earlier reviewer is right: this A9 puts out some HEAT--actually more than the MA6500. My listening room is kinda chilly, so I just go over and warm my hands from time to time.
I was impressed like others with the lightweight nature of the construction and "heft" of the player--my iBook probably weighs more. But since I don't lift the damned thing, why should I care? And yeah, the plastic front is kinda cheesy, but I turn the thingie on, put the disc in and listen to the sharp sound. I guess the Limies who put it together put the thing together spent the money on the sound algorithms--works for me!
I don't make light of the difference in price between the 9 and the 8 or 7: it's significant. But the system I was putting together is built to last, and I didn't want to have to upgrade to a more sophisticate device when I got tired of the limitations of a player I might have "settled" for. At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking with it!
This player replaces my 5 year Parasound CDC-1500 changer which has served me well. Bought at under $600, it was an amazing player in its day, and lended the convenience of being a changer without sacrificing sound quality.
associated components for reference: Creek 4240SE amp Magnepan 1.6QR speakers Transparent speaker cables Monster interconnects
In the end of a long audition period and much thought, i bought the Arcam Alpha 9. I was very concerned about the "flimsy build" quality, and being so "lightweight." the cal and rotel, and adcom units along with my Parasound give one more confidence in the longevity of the player since they are built like tanks. but even with the best of these i noticed had pretty flimsy trays (why is this the trend in audio, i don't know. it seems that for over 1000, one would expect a very solid player. as a side note, my parasound changer tray is rock solid and well built)]. tray aside, the alpha 9 package is a lightweight by any measure. $1600 for a 9 lb weakling? all the other players i considered were about twice the heft of the Alpha 9.
i hate to admit it, but in the end its sonics won out. [and i hope and pray that it will last many years to come without breaking on me. i presume that since the transport has been around for over 3 years now with very little reported problems (so i am told), it'll be ok.
Anyway, the review and comparison:
Sonically, the Alpha 9 CD player is a masterpiece. not the "best" or most "perfect" CD player i have heard (that is reserved for the top of the line Mark Levinson and Linn CD12 which are much more expensive), but the best in the class i was considering in terms of value and overall sound. and in my humblest opinion, more "realistic" and transparent than the excellent Meridian 508-24 which i have adored for quite some time. Voices are so natural [i like listening to a lot of acoustic/folk music so it really shines here]. violins are sweet, but have a realistic bite when called for. Excellent ambient detail recovery. Dynamics are excellent although bested by the Rotel 991 and Cal Audio unit. Soundstage width is phenomenal, depth is excellent but not as deep as the Cal Audio unit. but hands down, it was the most transparent of the units i considered.
How does it compare to the FMJ23 which sells for 600 more? [the retail of the FMJ23 recently went up] the FMJ23, IMHO, was *marginally* better. slightly better dynamics, but still not as good as the Cal CL-15, and more air on things like cymbals. but, very subtle differences. The FMJ23 was subtlely more refined than the Alpha 9, but i couldn't justify the extra 600 bucks. the external cosmetics were nice, yet i still didn't get the feeling that it was indestructable (of course nothing is). in fact, both units i demoed had several scratches on the face, indicating that the metal is very soft and isn't as durable as one might have liked. better than the alpha 9, but not up to the standards of my old Parasound or the Cal Audio unit. The FMJ23 is a nice a unit, but no more a "value" than the cheaper built Alpha 9 since it costs $600 more. which is a big chunk of change for the minimal differences. by the way, the Arcam 9, however, is a huge improvement over the Alpha 8 and 8SE which i am very familiar with [helped my friend audition these and he owns the latter]. (both good players in the lower price bracket of under 1000)
anyway, here's some comparison thoughts with other comparably priced players:
i was considering players in the $1000-1500 range and narrowed it down to five players with a few exceeding my original budget. below, i list them, ranked in my order of preference regardless of price: (with retail prices)
as i said above the FMJ23 is very much like the Alpha 9, just a smidge better for a lot more money. the Rotel had a sweet sound with great dynamics but didn't seem to have quite the resolution nor transparency of the Alpha 9. it was still my second choice, because it was 2nd in transparency only to the A9 and FMJ23. The Cal unit had amazing dynamics and threw the deepest soundstage of all the players, but was a bit bright for my tastes. i think, on my system, it would have grown fatiquing in time with its hyper detail. the midrange wasn't as pure as the arcam units and a little less transparent than the Rotel. the adcom was my least favorite sonically. i loved the build quality, but this player did little for me. the sound wasn't very transparent, dynamics and soundstaging were good, but not close to the CL-15 nor the A9. i would have chosen a cheaper Arcam (alpha 8 or 8SE) or the Rotel 971 over it at lower price tags.
some aftermath thoughts: the unit runs warm to the touch which i've been told is normal. also, with the dirty power lines in Menlo Park, there is some resonance with the power transformer such that there is an audible hum from the unit...not audible from my listening position, only within a foot or so of the CD player itself. again, my dealer, arcam, and another owner on the net confirm this for their units. design flaw? i think so because all my other components don't exhibit such behavior. if i open my parasound unit and put my ear to it, i can hear something, but probably 10 db lower than the arcam 9.
but on the plus note: i've never been a big believer in the need to break things in, but i've, per the advice of the dealer, let it run on repeat for the past several days. it started off sounding fabulous, the has gotten even better after several days of running. any tiny haze initially there is gone.
so as long as the player doesn't break anytime in the first 5 years, then i'll be happy. sonically, this is a fabulous player and a great deal for the money. i do think the Rotel and Cal units might be better for other listeners, so i'd consider them on any shortlist. depends on your priorities. if it's transparency and musicality, the Arcam wins hands down. 4 stars for value [given the mediocre construction], 5 stars for sonics.