Arcam FMJ CD23T: Ring is The King

British company Arcam has a long history of middle to high class HiFi components. They have made some interesting things, like high qualitz CD transports and DACs and also Arcam Delta 100 – the first and to my knowledge the last European cassette deck having the most advanced Dolby S noise reduction system. Although I must admit that their electronics is very good indeed, the mechanical quality of the components is often not so fine: cheap housing, cheap fronts made of plastic prone to scratches and similar. My friend said: “British make it sound so good and then try to save money on all possible places.”

Arcam FMJ CD23T has simple but effective commands: basic transport buttons and forward/reverse through the track, that is all. This design has been kept until today. The display is green, good but really nothing special in terms of some Sony/Philips monster displays with so many information in so many different colors. On the other side, it contains music calendar, a fine addition. Unfortunately, the display shows it’s age and the calendar is the first to go, as you can see in the picture.

Arcam FMJ series of components was a change of direction in Arcam strategy. FMJ means Full Metal Jacket, but this acronym means nothing to the ordinary user. The thing was that Arcam decided to fight with cheap metal sheet chassis and airborne and ground vibrations by using Swedish material called Sontech. It is a sandwich made of two steel plates and a rubber-like material in between, resulting in very good resistance to vibrations but being pretty thin, indeed. The front panel also helps, being made from 8 mm extruded aluminium. At the end, Arcam also put nice fat rubber feet underside FMJ CD23.

The only weak point is the cover: made of undamped lightweight aluminium, prone to vibrations. It could be effectively dumped, but at the cost of keeping heat inside the player instead of transferring it to the surrounding.

Inside, this machine is mix of very good electronics and simple, almost poor CD transport. Talking of it, the mechanism is made by Sony and could be found in it’s cheapest models. It is based on sheet metal chassis with everything else made of plastic, but the transport substructure is better, using higher quality plastic material. Nice touch is some kind of simple disc stabilizator which lays over CD. The laser unit is also cheap and easy to find KSS210B.

This mechanism also contains printed board with servo circuits, but the one used on CD23 is different in the way the main clock has been adopted from Arcam’s DAC board – low class Sony players use different transport printed boards that include clock as well. This makes it hard to find in the case of failure, and the other possible issue is the way Arcam may have programmed the actual main transport servo controller.

The rest of electronics is organized around three printed boards, one is the main board, the second is for digital to analogue converter and the third contains buttons, display etc. The main board is almost the same as the one on Arcam CD72/73 players with some unpopulated circuits, namely DAC section used by the latter. This is clever solution to keep the production costs down, but users often don’t like to see that they are paying for some partly empty printed circuit boards. My Arcam has “T” postfix, so it is FMJ CD23T, meaning that it can read CD Text from discs recorded that way, and this required change in transport electronics and a new display. It should also have little improved power supply unit regarding basic CD23 model. The previous model in this class was Arcam CD92, very similar unit. Under inspection it can be recognized that Arcam added additional toroid transformer (comparing it to CD92) to the upper left corner of the player and put some long wiring reaching rectifiers and DC filter section. The old transformer which is surrounded by some ant vibration resin, has stayed in place. What is different, but maybe not better, are diode bridges: CD23T uses classic monolith bridges – older CD92 used discrete high speed diodes in the same place. Power supply of these CD23(T) has been made simple but good, with enough capacitance and with some low noise regulators. There are no exotic solution here like on some Japanese players, but it works well.

Somebody may ask what in the heaven made this 2002. player had 1950 EUR price tag? Well, the star of the show is DAC, being made by Arcam and dCS, the company well known for making some of the best digital to analogue converters ever. The legend says that the so called Ring DAC has been developed during their Eurofighter development engagement, and the Eurofighter is the famous European fight jet. dCS uses ring principle even today, ten years after.

Arcam was the only company ever to use dCS made DAC board in it’s players. It all started with Arcam compact disc player 9, continued with very fine CD92 and ended with CD23.

There is not much information about how Ring DAC works, this is what dCS says:

All digital data processed by the dCS Ring DAC™ is digitally filtered, noise shaped and oversampled to our proprietary Ring DAC™ format which is 5 bit at either 2.822MS/s or 3.072MS/s. A digital feedback system forms the ‘Ring’ decoding the 5 bit data to control an array of high speed latches which, together with an array of equal value precision resistors, reconstruct the analogue signal.

The DAC board on FMJ CD23 is very large, comparing it with other manufacturer’s players. It covers roughly around 30% of the inside surface, being put over the mainboard and connected with two flat cables. The board itself uses filtered DC from the mainboard but has it’s own multiple DC stabilization circuits for digital and analogue part. One of the reasons for being so big is that it is made using non-standard parts for DAC i.e. there are no Analog Devices, Burr Brown, Wolfson or other DAC integrated circuits inside, dCS made DAC circuit, including big DSP unit. Additionally, there is digital filter which supports HDCD standard. It’s name is Pacific Microsonics PMD200, and it was the best at the job.

Output section is also taken care of, and some of the best op amps at that time were used: Burr Brown OPA2134 (output buffer), Analog Devices AD797, OP275 and others.

So, everything looks so nice and beautiful… up to the point. Well, there is a serious problem with these players. After some years electrolytic capacitors tend to raise ESR. The problem is that they are ordinary ones, not high quality pieces except one Sanyo OsCon and two Elna Silmic. This, of course, reflects the sound: FMJ CD23 that I have was singing in the bad, boring way. The bass was not deep, it was more like somebody was making it through the carton box. The music right through it was totally uninspiring, like all musicians played for themself, not hearing each other, and like each of them was in a separate room playing at the same time. Voice of singer was so-so, I would say it was good. But the stage was bad… This player was singing like el cheapo Sony or Philips, or any other, you name it.

Having most of top of the line Sony Esprit players, Onkyo Grand Integra DX-G10, Linn, Lyngdorf and tested many others, I was curious how the Ring DAC will sound. Luckily, before FMJ CD23T I had CD92 and it sound was sky high comparing to this one, and it hasn’t been modified in any way. I also knew about the website www.condoraudio.com where the author made complete restoration of CD92, explaining the capacitor problems. I bought FMJ CD23T to do the same, but didn’t imagine that I will have to do it right away – it was so unlistenable.

So, I decided to change some of capacitors on the two layer main board by myself, and let these on DAC to be changed by professional technician – I don’t have much experience with four layer PCBs. We changed everything, except Elna Silmic and OsCon. The new capacitors originated mostly from NIC – Nippon Industries Co. (90% of them), and we also put some Nichicon, Panasonic FC (power supply section) and Elna bipolar capacitors, all better that the ones originally assembled by Arcam. I also changed the laser unit and some parts of the transport due to wear, buying the good condition cheapest second hand Sony player available.

After transport/mainboard restoration (before I gave DAC to the electronic expert) I let FMJ CD23T burn for some time and made a critical listening test: improvement was subtle, nothing special, so I begun to be suspicious about the final result. I decided not to give up hope and to finish restoration.

The DAC work was done in a few days and technician also checked clock circuit, explaining that it is also prone to failures on these players. He recommended 150-200 hours of burn in period.

The difference was obvious from the first note and the player was even better through next hundred hours of work. Everything was in place: musicians finally gathered to sing together in a cohesive way. Upper frequencies were much, much more detailed, natural and had a sense of transparency not even present before. This CD really started to sing, with warm, musical and rhythmical soul. Playing HDCD encoded discs (Eric Clapton live – The Clapton Chronicles) brought this FMJ CD23T to it’s best: soundstage was improved, and rhythm and timing were also better not by margin. It’s sound was now not in completely different class, but it was obviously better in almost all aspects – it reminded me like when you put some more expensive, better interconnects which increase volume of air and space in the sound.

This Arcam FMJ CD23T was so good that I found it better than my previous and gorgeous Sony CDP-X779ES with Swoboda 2 modification. Before these, during last year I had Lyngdorf CD1, a special piece of audio equipment. It is a little bit more detailed and with better air, but had drier bass response and slam comparing to Arcam. Of course Lyngdorf had 2.700 EUR price tag few years back. Arcam cost was 400 EUR for player plus parts and labor, which ended around 550 EUR. This is a small sum of money comparing it’s quality. you can easily compare restored CD23(T) to any 2.000 EUR new player. But, beware: laser unit and mechanism are easy to find, but not the servo board nor DAC parts. So, playing with such FMJ CD23(T) can be a bit risky: you may loose your money or get back a real winner. The choice is yours.

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