Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Emoti-Wah: Emotiva ERC-1 CD Player Reviewed

There are CD players and then there are CD players.  Since Play It Clear is an affordable audio site (by and large), the likes of the dCS Scarlati are not likely to find its way into the Play It Clear labs (aka my bedroom).  But that doesn't mean we deprive ourselves of quality digital sources in our quest for budget audio nirvana.  

One CD player that has been attracting a lot of chatter on the interwebs and among the audiophile community is the Emotiva ERC-1, from the relatively new internet-direct American company known primarily for its amplification products.  On the one hand are its die-hard loyalists who claim this is the finest digital source since sliced bread, and on the other are a group of people determined to knock Emotiva's credentials by means fair and foul.  

Such a polarising company and product would mean a reviewer would need to detach himself from all his biases before embarking upon a review.  I am incapable of doing that.  So i'll do the next best thing.  I'll disclose my biases.  Before setting eyes on the Emotiva ERC-1 I'd never seen, touched, felt or heard an Emotiva product, and had no views on it, but what has shaped a bias in their favour is the fact that most of the people trying to run them down on internet forums appear to be morons.  Their arguments are illogical, their positions untenable and their approach stinks of an ulterior motive.  So, quite illogically, I was inclined to believe that Emotiva was probably doing a few things right.

Packaging and Appearance

Unfortunately I was not able to see the packaging in which the ERC-1 is provided, but I understand that it is well packed in a solid box with enough damping material to ensure that you can check in the unit at the airport without too much concern.   The unit itself is hefty, weighing in at about 8 kgs (and not 10 as I mistakenly mentioned in my video preview).   The construction is solid, with the panels not showing any signs of flex, and the materials and surfaces exuding a quality feel.  

The appearance is a bit of a divisive topic.  I am not a fan of the extreme looks of the device and the Emotiva line-up in general, all blue LEDs and flashing lights, but I know people who have described it as gorgeous, so I guess it's highly subjective.  It's not going to please everyone, that's for sure.  The remote on the other hand is a thing of beauty.  It's a chunky piece of aluminium that's a joy to see, hold and operate.  The only un-joyful aspect is having to unscrew the six screws on the backplate with a philips screwdriver, to install the batteries.  

The back has a couple of RCA outs, a set of balanced outs, optical and coaxial digital outs and an IEC power socket, for you to use your schmancy after-market power cord that costs more than the ERC-1 itself.  

Operation

This is where this player departs from every CD player I've ever used.  Firstly it's a slot loader.  I have a slot-loading CD player in my car.  It acts up,  scratches CDs, swallows them and refuses to spit them out.  I don't like slot-loaders.  The mavens at Emotiva claim that this is no ordinary slot-loader.  They claim that upon the CD being placed in the slot, 12 vestal virgins gently caress the disc into place for playing.  Or something like that.  The short point being that it won't scratch your CDs. Ever.  I have no way of verifying that but I can tell you that operating it feels quite odd.  

Firstly, unlike my car stereo there's some felt material at the slot, so as soon as you put the CD in it's already touching something, so that's odd feeling no. 1.  Then the CD comes up against an obstacle of some sort, and there's a split second between encountering the obstacle and the vestal virgins doing their thing, so that is odd feeling no. 2.  Then it makes a noise while dragging the CD in and then flashes a 'loading' message for what seems like an eternity.  On some discs as much as 20+ seconds.  That's odd feeling no. 3.  

So overall, it feels strange to operate.  Perhaps once you get used to it you'll be comfortable.  But it definitely takes some getting used to. No deal-breaker, but worth keeping in mind.

Sound

The ERC-1 uses an Analog Devices AD1955 DAC chip, which is the top of the heap among the audio DAC chips offerred by Analog Devices, one of the leaders in the field.  It supports a 24-bits, 192 kHz sample rate, and SACD playback.  The former is utilised in the ERC-1 while the latter is not.  In addition to this, Emotiva claims to have used top quality op-amps and components, and discrete power supplies for the transport, display, and the digital and analogue sections.  The specs aside let's move on to the listening.

The following test CDs (among others) were used to evaluate the Emotiva ERC-1.

Donald Fagen - Morph the Cat
Michael Jackson - Thriller
Usher Demo CD 1 and 2
Dire Straits - Love Over Gold
Haydn's Symphony No. 104 - Vienna Philharmonic - Herbert Von Karajan
Steely Dan - Aja
  
First things first.  This is a FAST CD player.  The Pace Rhythm and Timing on this player is something else.  The notes don't hang around for a micro-second longer than they need to, the leading edges of notes are sharp and well defined and the timing and assuredness on offer are exceptional.  You just need to switch back to another CD  player (such as my fully modded CD63SE which is a very good CD player in itself) to understand the contrast.  This makes the sound tremendously realistic and well defined.  

Add to this some superb dynamics.  Both macro and micro dynamics are handled with consummate ease, whether it's the subtle nuances of a solo vocal performance or the immense adventures of a philharmonic orchestra, the sheer natural-ness of the dynamics of the performance as reproduced by the ERC-1 is soul-stirring.  While the idea of 'taking you closer to the live performance' is a much abused and somewhat misguided goal among audiophiles, the ERC-1 does accomplish some of it and boy is it fun!

Add to this the prodigious levels of detail, the superb imaging and soundstage and beautifully well-defined textures of all the notes from the cellos and kick drums, through the voices and guitars right up to the cymbals and hi-hats, and it's really really hard to find a flaw in this player.  The sound is transparent, no 'warmth' or added 'body', but at the same time the voices are substantial and life-like.  Cellos sound deep and melancholy, mark knopfler's electric guitar crackles with life and energy, and everything is good in the world.  
  
Conclusion

I could really go on and on about the sound of this CD player, but I'd be repeating myself.  The short point is that this is a glorious sounding CD player with fabulous PRaT, dynamics, detail, sonic texture and imaging.  When you consider the fact that this sells for 399 USD (369 this very moment on account of a holiday discount), it's quite something.  This is a CD player that sounds like it's worth at least a 1000 USD, if not much more!  It handily bested my fully-modded CD63SE and left me with a very strong upgrade-itch that I need to combat.  I have heard many budget CD players including the stalwarts from Marantz, NAD and Cambridge Audio and while they are all quite good in their own ways, they don't quite hold a candle to the Emotiva ERC-1 (i haven't compared them all in the same setup, but I think with a number of reference points, it's not hard to make this evaluation, the ERC-1 is that good).  If you imported all the way to India paying shipping and duty it would still be value for money.  Perhaps not the screaming steal it is like if you can get a friend or relative to bring it down from the US, but still an excellent deal. 


 So what are you waiting for?     

8 comments:

  1. Importing Comments from elsewhere:

    Anonymous said...
    I enjoyed the ERC-1 review. One interesting spec point to note is the output voltage on this CDP is rated at 7V Peak compared to the CD-63se (or most CDPs) of 2V Peak. In all likelihood, you are comparing this CDP to another one at very different volumes, some amount of evening out can be done by adjusting the volume control of the Topping, but this does not give you much of a controlled environment to work with. Some basic characteristics remain irrespective of volume but a number of others are very subjective depending on SPL :-)

    cheers
    Sridhar
    November 2, 2010 2:40 PM
    Smith said...
    hey Sridhar,

    Thanks for that. I am moving your comment and my reply to the ERC-1 post. Yes, I did realise that there is definitely a difference in SPL. So I did some rough compensation by turning up the volume on the TP20, the differences less pronounced for sure, but I thought the ERC-1 still had the overall edge.
    November 2, 2010 2:45 PM

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  2. keep your day job

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  3. above Joking (kinda :) : nice review mate

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  4. Hi, Nice review, why not change the background to white and text to blue or black so that it is less strenuous to go through the site.

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  5. @Anonymous 1 - I plan to
    @Anonymous 2 - Thank you (kinda)
    @Anonymous 3 - Thanks. And I think that's a good idea, let me figure that out.

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  6. Hi, good to see the suggested change implemented, now it is easy on the eyes and will make people revisit the pages.

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  7. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XflLmNQEtU4

    the reason why the music is spot on is explained ...

    ReplyDelete