Stereo Amplifier

Review: Arcam Alpha 8 CD-player

The new Alpha range replaces both the old Alpha and Delta series, and embodies ready upgradability as a central design tenet. Thus the Alpha 8 shares casework, display and power supply components with the less expensive 7, and can be created from it by plugging in new circuitry-an operation normally undertaken by a dealer, although all the upgrade kits will be packaged for retail sale to those with the necessary skills. Likewise the 8, if desired, will in due course be convertible into an Alpha 9. It’s an arrangement by which both customer and manufacturer benefit: the customer by not having to pay so much for an upgrade as the purchase of a replacement product would entail; the manufacturer by cannily encouraging brand loyalty.

In its early years of CD player making, Arcam - like many of the industry’s smaller manufacturers - relied heavily on Philips for transport mechanisms, digital filters and D/A converters. Today’s richer component market offers greater opportunity to mix and match elements from a variety of sources, and it's one Arcam has grasped enthusiastically. All its new players use Sony’s French-built CDM-14 transport, but the electronics are subject to marked variation as you ascend the range. Whereas the Alpha 7 has Burr-Brown PCM 1710 Delta-Sigma converters, the Alpha 8 sports an NPC SM5864 low-bit PWM DAC and superior 20-bit digital filter. The Alpha 9 sees a reversion to multi-bit conversion, albeit of a novel form, backed up by proprietary digital filtering executed by a Motorola DSP chip. Shades of the American high-end here.

Arcam commissioned Cambridge Design to develop the appearance design of the new range, which is most notable for its generous use of curved fascia features to soften the angularity of the usual rectangular casework. I’m not hugely enamored of the result, in part because I’m sick to death of black and dark grey hi-fi equipment, but this is down to personal taste, of course. The fact that Arcam determined to ring the changes stylistically is something it should be congratulated for, whatever your reaction to the result.

Oval fascia buttons - every man jack of them the same size and colour, which can’t be good ergonomics - control all the major functions: Load (drawer open/close), Play, Stop, Pause, Search and Track skip. Unusually, some of the ’higher functions’ more normally confined to the infra-red remote control are also available: Display (which dims, blanks or restores the player’s fluorescent display) and three programming controls - Repeat, Check and Programme). Power on/off is via a circular push-button at the right of the fascia. Additional controls provided on the handset are A-B repeat, Shuffle play, Clear (to delete a programme or programme step), Space (to insert four-second gaps between tracks for tape recording purposes), Scan (which plays the first 10 seconds of each track) and Remain (which switches the time display between the usual three options of track elapsed, track remaining and disc remaining lime). Although disc index points are shown on the comprehensive display, there is no method of accessing them. Mute and Volume up/down functions for Arcam’s amplifiers are also provided.

On the player’s back panel a familiar complement of analogue and digital output socketry awaits. One coaxial digital output is provided (but no inferior Toslink optical coupler, which strikes me as very sensible) and two pairs of gold-plated fixed-level analogue feeds.

General operation of the Alpha 8 is as slick as we have come to expect of modern CD players but two points bear comment, one positive and the other negative. Good news first: the display blanking function, of which I remain an unrepentant advocate for sound quality reasons, operates with a dogged determination many others lack. Once you have commanded the machine to blank the display, it obeys with utter fidelity. Other machines with this facility commonly rebel if you stop or pause a disc or open the disc drawer; the Alpha 8 does not. It restores the display when you pause or stop, and energizes it transiently if you issue any other command. Then it disappears again, with no need to reissue the blanking instruction. Three cheers!

Not so clever is the remote control’s insistence on at least two button presses to select a desired track from the keypad: track number, then play. This is plain obtuseness. When you press a keypad number the player should search for and play the selected track without further prompting.


There are some hi-fi components -a very few-which within a few bars of a familiar disc reveal themselves as something out of the ordinary, and in the process almost preclude the need for formal comparison procedures. The Alpha 8 is such a product.

When first I fired it up (nothing more than a check that it was functioning correctly-something the wise reviewer soon learns to do before committing equipment to a protracted settling-in period), it sounded uncomfortably bright and brash. But such initial impressions are almost always premature. Most electronic Hi-fi equipment rewards a pause of some hours or days after initial power-up, during which its sound quality improves. Sometimes the effect is small and quickly achieved; sometimes it is surprisingly large and won’t be hurried. Either way it is wise practice, having initially checked functionality, to allow new equipment a protracted period of settlement.

When I returned to the Alpha 8 it took no longer than a few seconds for residual worries about its sound to be banished, and for a smile to form and grow into a Cheshire cat grin. So often with middle-market CD players you have the impression that sound quality has been contrived: either tempered with an overlaying smoothness and civility calculated to obviate aural offence, or else pepped up with an assertiveness which grabs the attention but all too soon frays the nerves. This new Arcam certainly pulls no punches - it is as involving and informative as only a dynamic, transparent performer can be - but it keeps to the right side of caricature. The upshot is a remarkably assured musical performance, one which bears comparison with many products dangling heftier price tags.

I began my listening with Vivaldi's Stabat mater and other choral works (Harmonia Mundi CD HMC90 1571, 4/96). It’s a recording which, like many on period instruments, can easily sound steely but which nonetheless does not welcome an emollient sound quality, the effect of which is summary emasculation. Only if your hi-fi system can deploy clarity without coarseness will it really ‘sing’. Which is precisely what it did with the Alpha 8 calling the tune. Vibrant rendition of the vital rhythmic drive of the opening track (the Allegro of the Concerto for Strings in C, RV114) was alloyed to microscopic yet unobtrusive resolution which delineated instrumental lines with admirable clarity and set the performance within a believable, stable acoustic space.

The only caveat I can offer is standard for any forthright-sounding component: it should not be partnered with ancillaries which incline to harshness, Reviews elsewhere of the cheaper Alpha 7 have revealed unusually high levels of ultrasonic output, which can cause certain amplifiers to sound bright even if normally they do not. The Alpha 8, I’m assured by Arcam, does not behave similarly because of the different D/A conversion technology it uses, so this should not be an issue.

Otherwise I imagine the Alpha 8 will only beguile its purchaser - and others besides. As an Alpha 7 owner. I’d be delighted to know that such performance was readily and relatively inexpensively available in the future. As an Alpha 8 owner, I might well be sufficiently content to devote future resources to other parts of my system. But it’s impossible not to be fascinated at the prospect of the forthcoming Alpha 9. If it licks the 8, as we’re told it will, then we have a real treat in store.