Review: Denon DVD - 3910 CD Player
On November 15, 2004, I posted a review, plus listening test results, for my APL modded Philips SACD 1000. That review can be found via this link:
At the time, I quoted Alex as saying that his latest changes had taken the SACD 1000 "just about as far as it can go" in producing warm, accurate and life-like sound. Indeed, I felt that in my listening test it ran a close second to the Meitner DCC2. However, subsequent discussions with Alex convinced me to sell my Philips on the open market and to replace it with the APL Denon 3910, which he felt provided a superior base on which to implement (and add to) his current set of mods. He was right! The new unit, which I have had in my system for two months now, has far exceeded even my most optimistic expectations.
First of all, it's probably incorrect to describe the APL Denon 3910 as a "modded" unit. What Alex has done is to replace almost all of its original components with his proprietary technologies. Only the chassis, the excellent Denon transport, and the DSP (a top quality digital signal processor developed by Sony) remain. The rest is all APL. This includes the capacitors, the signal wiring, the tubed output stage, the digital board with the new Crystal 4398 DAC's and non-decimating digital volume control, the power supplies, and all the clocking. This is effectively a APL branded product based on entirely new design and technologies.
Some of the unique features that Alex has added are:
-- A toggle switch on the back of the unit to facilitate switching to digital volume control when the player is directly coupled to the amp vs. analog volume control when using a pre-amp.
-- Control buttons on the remote to switch the digital filter from slow roll off (the default option) to fast roll off during PCM play back.
-- A remote control button to invert absolute phase (polarity) during play.
-- A remote control button to enable DSD direct. This feature bypasses the internal DSD processor of the DAC and sends DSD directly to the switched capacitor D to A converter (only possible with digital volume control disabled).
-- A remote control button to switch between internal and external PCM inputs. This feature will work in the future with the digital receiver board Alex has under development to permit listening to a variety of external digital sources.
-- Remote track and volume control.
So how does it sound? In a word -- FABULOUS! After a little over 150 hours of burn in, my Red Book CD's sound like I've never believed possible. (Note that PCM and DSD go through different processors. I have not yet begun the process of SACD burn in, but anticipate that after another 150 hours of dedicated burn in, the improvement in SACD reproduction will also become apparent).
All of the tonal advantages that I had come to associate with the APL SACD 1000 are present in spades. The highs are natural and lyrical, the mid-range realistic and mellow, and the bass authoritative and tight. In addition, the bass is much more extended and prominent. (No need to even think about using a subwoofer.)
But the real break-through with the APL Denon 3910 lies in its uncanny ability to reproduce life-like sound. Clearly, there is the sense of a lot more detail and micro dynamic information coming off the disk. The soundstage is as dimensional as before, but with the sensation of much more surrounding air and openess -- a truly ambient sound. Like the Philips, there is clear delineation of multiple instruments (or instrumental groups) playing simultaneously, but the sound of all instruments is much more transparent, unadorned and real. And finally the level of overall musicality is unlike anything I have ever experienced before in digital reproduction.
In short, the APL Denon 3910 represents an extraordinary balance of tonal neutrality, bass content, detail, and life-like acoustics that I feel clearly exceeds the performance of the Meitner and probably most of the other ultra high-end players in the market today.
As good as the APL unit is, to be fair it must be said that there are the always some tradeoffs (although far fewer than I have ever experience with the other players I have auditioned). Specifically, Alex's 3910 lets you hear, without coloration of any sort, exactly what is on the disc. This means that some older CD's, which evidence the lean digital sound that we associated with CD's in the early days, had profited over the years from the artificial warmth and mellowness imparted by my Conrad Johnson tube preamp. But the price on reinserting the CJ back into the loop instead of directly connecting the player to the amp was some loss of musicality, transparency and ambience. It should be noted, however, that this was not a problem on newer and/or better engineered Red Book CD's, or on SACD's.
Where to next:
-- First of all, I intend to begin immediately burning in the DSD circuit and repeating my tests.
-- Second, I plan to replace my old Spectron Digital One amp (300 wpc), which has worked extremely well in conjunction with several generations of digital sources, with the latest model, the Spectron Musician III. The Musician has more muscle (500wpc) and is a totally rearchitected Class D amp which the owner John Ulrick feels represents a significant advance in the state of the art. I believe that this unit, plus the APL player directly connected, and driving my B&W Nautilus 802 speakers should represent a winning combination with great synergy involving fewest number of boxes.
-- Third, I hope to renew my head-to-head listening tests using the APL 3910 against a variety of highly regarded alternatives, including a rematch with the Meitner DCC2 (this time with the new EMM transport and also directly connected to my new amp).
Product Weakness: None.
Product Strengths: Bass extension, transparency, detail, ambience (air), tonality, overall musicality.
Spectron Digital One Class D amp
Conrad Johnson PV-12 pre-amp (modified)
B&W Nautilus 802 speakers
Exact Power 1000 regenerator
Audience AU24 interconnects
Alpha Core Goertz MI-2 speaker cables
Philips SACD 1000 (APL)
Philips SACD 1000 (ModWright)
Sony 9000ES (Audience)
Sony 999ES (Audience)