When’s the last time you heard a new CD player and thought wow, this sounds terrific? I’m not talking about digital in general or a DAC, but a one-box CD transport/DAC playing just a redbook CD. That happened to me with the very first CD I listened to with the Audio Research CD6 SE.
When we talk about advances in digital technology, in most cases we’re talking about DACs. We’ve seen plenty of innovative DACs over the last few years, usually employed in conjunction with high-resolution files and streaming from our favorite services. As far as “ordinary” CD players go, I feel like we hit the ceiling a few years ago. Most of the top-notch CD players over the last few years sound very similar, in my opinion—you play a disc and you think yeah, this sounds right. It’s been a long time since I bought a new CD player and thought it sounded much better than every player I’d heard before. I can probably go back close to 20 years ago, when I bought a Naim CDX2 and thought it couldn’t get any better.
From those first few seconds with the Audio Research CD6 SE, I had that feeling once again. I had missed it. I played CD after CD on the CD6 SE, all my favorites, and I kept thinking I was hearing more detail than ever before. But everything sounded so smooth and extended—just like all that hi-rez stuff I get from Qobuz and Roon and Tidal.
Am I crazy? (Don’t answer that.) I’ve started on a new quest in high-end audio over the last few months—finding a quality CD transport and DAC that will allow me to continue listening to my large CD collection while having all the new features that can integrate my digital streaming from Qobuz. The Audio Research CD6 SE might just be the solution.
Audio Research…At Last
Surprisingly enough, the Audio Research CD6 SE is the first ARC product I’ve used extensively in my own system. Many years ago I borrowed an old ARC SP-4 preamp for one of those “old school” columns, but I think I must have had it for an afternoon. It was noisy, but the tonality was superb. I have listened to many Audio Research products in other people’s systems, including one very illuminating audition at a dealer where he ran an ARC Classic 30 amplifier and SP-9 preamplifier with a pair of original MartinLogan CLS loudspeakers. The dealer wanted to see if the CLS could run okay with 30 watts per channel, and it did. In fact, it sounded beautiful—at low volumes.
The Audio Research CD6 SE is also the first top-loading CD player I’ve ever used. (It uses the Philips Pro2 transport, by the way.) I know, it seems weird but it’s true. I made the mistake of putting the CD6 SE in the middle shelf of my Fern & Roby rack, and while there was sufficient space above this fairly large player, I found it cumbersome to reach into the darkness to fit the CD onto the disc drive nub and then place the clamp on the disc. More than once I slid the door of the transport shut, which usually initializes all of the CD6 SE’s functions, but nothing would happen. Something wasn’t quite positioned right. That’s when I removed one of the two turntable rigs that took up the top shelf. Problem solved. That’s when top-loading became downright fun. I loved peering down into the transport well while I changed discs.
One more quick thing about the transport, and it’s that puck you place on the CD before you can slide the lid and press play. It’s not the first time I’ve had to use one. For many years I owned those Naim CD players, and they also used a puck. The only problem was the puck sometimes flew off the disc drive nub and into the open space within the player. I’d have to take the top off to retrieve it, which was tedious due to the amount of goofy plastic screws in the chassis. Fortunately, the transport on the ARC is perfectly sealed from the innards. You still might lose it out in the world, and the player doesn’t operate without it, so get in the habit of keeping track of it at all times.
Let’s Talk About DACs
If the Audio Research CD6 SE sounds so spectacular, and I think it does, it must be the DAC, right? This DAC is similar to the one used in the McIntosh MCD600 I just reviewed: both use quad 24-bit DACs running in mono mode. Audio Research describes this DAC configuration as:
“Dual master oscillators for highest performance; one for 44.1/88.2/176.4 sample rates, the other for 48/96/192kHz sample rates. Sample rate conversion is selectable for all inputs, allowing playback in native resolution or via upsampling, including compact disc and USB. Additionally, there is a selectable digital filter offering fast or slow roll-off. In addition to the digital inputs, the back panel includes two digital outputs (AES/EBU and BNC), and single-ended RCA and balanced XLR outputs.”
For me, the real surprise was how easy it was to break out the DAC for streaming off my laptop—that was the one feature I missed with the Mac player (but the MCD600 did allow me to listen to SACDs, so there). It was exceptionally easy to integrate Qobuz streaming with the CD6 SE, which is very important to me cuz I hate it when digital doesn’t work the first time. I downloaded the drivers from the ARC website, which took a few seconds tops, and I hooked my laptop to the ARC’s back panel via an Audioquest Cinnamon USB cable. I switched the input on the CD6 SE to USB via the remote, and music started playing.
I was deliriously happy.
I will state just one little quirk with the Audio Research CD6 SE. From the listening position, it’s hard to see what’s going on with the front panel and that makes it difficult to use the remote at times. It’s wonderful that you can adjust sample rate conversion, digital filters and digital inputs while sitting in your comfy chair, but all you can see is random green LEDs moving around. I couldn’t see the words, in other words. It’s a very dark front panel, but it is gorgeous and sexy.
My primary reason for needing a CD player is for my Vinyl Anachronist music reviews—most of the record labels send me stuff in the CD format because it’s cheaper to ship. I do review digital downloads at times, but it’s harder for me to keep track of those since they’re not physical. A pile of CDs (or LPs) is a constant visual reminder that keeps me organized.
The first few weeks with the Audio Research CD6 SE was spent reviewing albums I’d never heard before, so it was difficult to compare this player to others. That said, I noticed a few wonderful things about the sound of the ARC—it always sounded calm, poised and full. Deep bass was exceptional—low frequencies never felt forced or highlighted in a deliberate way, but they blended together perfectly with the entire musical picture. (Ah, we’re talking about that word coherence again.) The ARC was such an attentive reviewing partner that I ignored reviewing the LPs I had on hand for a while—I found myself saying oh boy, let’s review some CDs while the CD6 SE is here!
After a few weeks I suddenly thought, “Why haven’t I listened to any of my reference CDs? The best of the best?” I do have plenty of those from FIM, 2L, Analogue Productions, JVC XRCD, MoFi, you name it. When I was an exhibitor, I usually represented a company that still made CD players, very good ones, but it was often a challenge to find great-sounding redbook discs for demos—especially when everyone else was playing hi-rez files from a music server.
First, I brought out the big guns—the FIM reissues of the Shota Osabe Piano Trio’s Happy Coat and The Best of Play Bach from the Jacques Loussier Trio. I love Happy Coat because of Ray Brown’s bass, so warm and full of joy. (At high-end audio shows, I often started playing this on repeat because it sounded so nice, no one every complained, and I never got sick of it.) On the ARC, I could focus more on Ray’s fingers, how they moved around, and how the sounds of flesh would resonate in conjunction with strings and wood and air. The Loussier CD was extraordinary if only for the fact that it caused Colleen to come into the room, sit down and reminisce about this recording, and how her father used to play it all the time. (For the record, she rarely offers much more than “this is nice” or “what the hell are you listening to now?”)
Streaming Qobuz through the Audio Research CD6 SE’s DAC was always a pleasure. Of all the streaming rigs I’ve assembled, this solution was the most satisfying. If I have one reason to subscribe to Qobuz for the rest of my life, it’s to hear all those wonderful hi-rez reissues of The Beatles’ catalog over the last few years. My favorite of them all is The White Album—I just hear so many new things in these familiar tracks that I’ve never heard before. Usually, I’m detecting all those difference through headphones, which can be relatively easy, but the ARC DAC was the first one to flesh out those changes in a two-channel rig in a relatively large space. Once again, I’m thinking about the day where most of my listening will be done this way, and the Audio Research CD6 SE tempted me to move more toward this direction than ever before.
When I reviewed the McIntosh MCD600 CD player, I balked a little bit at the price—not because it wasn’t worth it, but because it seems few people these days are looking for a $6000 CD player. The Audio Research CD6 SE is—wait for it–$10,000. Is that an even tougher sell? I don’t think so.
The Mac sounded great and let me play SACDs in my home for the first time, but it didn’t allow me to connect to Qobuz via USB. The ARC doesn’t do SACD, but it sounds magnificent and does allow me to plug right into Qobuz. It really comes down to that extra $4000 that separates the two machines—what’s important to you? I could buy either one, depending on my budget.
Look at it this way. $10,000 is a lot of money for a CD transport/DAC, but not when you factor in all the connectivity options and features. Companies like dCS and Esoteric are still selling CD transports and DACs that are several times the price of the CD6 SE—but the people who buy those are probably looking for much more than a decent-sounding way to enjoy their CD collections. Even Audio Research offers a more expensive tubed player, the Reference CD9 SE, which costs $15,000. We all know about the crazy state-of-the-art DACs out there which cost as much as a new BMW.
Plus there’s this little tidbit: I don’t know if I’ve heard a better sounding one-box CD player than the Audio Research CD6 SE, especially with “lowly” redbook CDs. It’s one thing to want to keep listening to your CD collection, but it’s another thing to want them to sound their best. The Audio Research CD6 SE is an excellent way to achieve this lofty goal.