01 September, 2011

Review: 3 Superb CD players Revox C221, Pioneer PD-T07A, Primare D20 and the AKM4324

Review: 3 Superb CD players
Talk Digital: Older, but better

I am in the process of setting up multiple stations in my room, and take the opportunity to run my large collection of idling CD players a little, or else they will go bust in the humidity here (I learned from mistakes!). For my last LFD exercise I tried out these three and found none wanting.

Revox/Studer C221 (1991)
This has been a long-term reference, not necessarily because it has the "best" sound (what does!) but because of its neutral balance, as befits a studio quality product that carries the Revox name! The Swiss counterpart of Revox has the exact same player as Studer C221. Unlike earlier Revox, and like Studer, the C221 has fully balanced circuitry and output. Digital out is RCA only.

Unlike the legendary Revox 225 and various iterations of the 226 (Studer 725, 727), the later Revox/Studer C221, circa 1991, is much less known. There is surprisingly little info on the net (this Polish site with internal views). Laser is CDM4, DAC is supposedly Philips Bitstream, probably the SAA7321 (but various sites also mention SAA7310, 7320 or 7350). On my unit, I cannot see the chip on the circuit board; perhaps it is underneath, so I cannot confirm.

According to the info I gleamed from this Taiwanese Blog in Chinese 音響白痴小痞, supposedly some Revox C221 were made in Germany and some in Switzerland. Aside from minor differences in the circuit boards, one can tell it is from Germany (most of them I think) by the following: 1) the Revox logo has a slightly protruding 3-dimensional tactility; 2) there is a transport lock underneath; 3) the transport motor is brushless and mechanism is CDM4-Pro. As my unit is made in Germany, I can attest that points 1) and 2) are true in my case, but when it comes to 3) my unit is fitted with a generic CDM4. Mine came from a TV studio, and was defunct when I received it. It was determined the laser had died, and I sourced a used CDM-4/(19 I think) as replacement. It was resurrected and had operated flawlessly ever since.

The C221 is a wonder to look at. If you ask me, it is even better looking than the C225 and C226, and approaches the coolness of the superb EMT 981. Using this studio player is a little inconvenient. One has to turn on a switch in the back and turn off the bottom-row buttons (otherwise it will only play 1 track). I was told that the laser in this kind of professional player is always on, and I suspect that is the truth as it plays a disc instantly. And so, as a caution, I always turn it off after use, which means it will take some time to warm up next round (note: see reader's comment below on how to circumvent this). Of course, there is no remote.

The sound is wonderful. It is quite detailed, smoother and just slightly on the light side if compared to better true multi-bit players, a refreshing change and improvement from the usual bloat (mostly due to unresolved bass) of Bitstream player. Its even-handedness is such that it gives pleasure when inserted into any system. If you ask me, sound through the XLR is a little better than through the RCA.

Personally, I think this player is even better than the LHH statement products of Philips that used the supposedly more advanced one-bit chip TDA1547, a little more musical than DPA (also using TDA1547), and on par with the best from Micromega. In sum, one of the best Bitstream players.

Pioneer PD-T07A/PD-77 (1992)
The original T07 was second-from-top in a series (others are T05 and T06; top model is the magnificent T09, the US version being PD-95). It looks almost identical to its descendants, but used Philips bitstream conversion.

The PD-T07A (and its even rarer variants S, U, and HS) sports the same legendary Stable Platter mechanism as the previous series, but the DAC section was designed in-house from scratch and a full assault on state-of-the-art. Pioneers developed their own DAC (I think it was 20-bit). The unit features balanced analogue outputs. There is precious little info on the internet on the PD-T07A per se (an English "translation" of a Japanese site here). Web info has it that the alleged US equivalent PD-77 is the same machine, but if you browse the pics available (few) the PD-77 seems to have a flat back and no balanced output, whereas the PD-T07A has the balanced output coming out of a sizable protrusion in the center of the back (as do the other variants and the earlier T07 and T09; see link above).

The sound through either RCA or XLR out is excellent. The player is highly resolving, but everything is delivered in a warm, bold and rich manner. Sound is a little more upfront than most players, and soundstage is perhaps not as deep as the best, but there is nothing unbalanced, as evidenced by the fact that its replay of classicals is every bit as sophisticated as jazz.

As a transport, to be frank, it is superior to most of today's megabucks stuff. The same warm, big and bold sound lends gravitas to even the thinnest sounding DACS.

This is a masterpiece. In my house, it has received praise as much as the Revox.

click pics to enlarge

D20 (MkI; 1999)
And now for the dark horse. Not to mince words, I feel exactly like what the reviewer said in Soundstage: "I feel like I have discovered a rare jewel of a player."

The funny thing is, I didn't even buy this CDP. Captain Lo, my old friend took it to me unannounced when he last visited. The unit belonged to a friend of his who was not in a hurry to sell. Well, as if my place needs more stuff...

While the player was superbly built and above average in physical stability, there was not much inside. It bothered me that the transport mechanism used is the notorious Philips CDM 12.4, which received no special reinforcement here. On the other hand, I was much captivated and intriqued by the very small DAC and output board (the small board with the close-up). Amid the SM components I was excited to see the AKM4324 DAC chip.

While AKM is a reputable chip maker, in audiophile equipment their DAC chips are only rarely sighted (Rotel, Gryphon). This is because they are much more often seen in things like soundcards and Pro Audio (think Behringer).

Although the D20 is just a red-book CD player, the AKM4324 chip is 24/96 capable. Later, AKM would become more known for their so-called
Miracle DAC, the AK4396, a true 192kHz 24-bit 2-channel DSD-capable DAC used in the SlimDevices/Logitech Transporter. Current Primare CDPs though do not use AKM chips, instead the more ubiquitous Burr Brown's.

All it took was just one cut and I was hooked. The incredible air and purity of the treble have to be heard to be believed. I believe in terms of treble this is the best player I have heard, true transparency without any stridency, the Kondo of CDP if you will. The midrange is see-through and the bass well delineated. Dynamically, it is no slouch, able to scale above average, though not perhaps equal to the best here. This entry-level Primare IMHO beats out many much costlier rivals.
There is some confusion on the internet regarding this player. I think the unit I have, with Philips CDM 12.4 transport (and obviously Philips servo, including display, as in this pic)), is the so-called MkI. Very soon, Primare changed to a Sony mechanism (note the official manual pdf file shows the Sony, as well as Sony style display), and that became the so-called MkII. The DAC remained the AKM4324. It is likely Primare ran into the same problems with CDM12.4 as Micromega did with their Stage series, which in effect bankrupted one of the best digital companies in my book.

Excellence does not get out-dated. Things become different, but not always (if ever) better. Witness these 3 players. Each still sound thoroughly enticing, and should beat the hell out of many modern players, not to mention over-rated CAS.


  1. AnonymousMay 20, 2014

    I can confirm as a PD-77 owner that it does not have the balanced outputs. Sounds wonderful though.

    1. AnonymousJune 25, 2014

      i have pd 77, and i will NEVER sell it, beacause it is real hi end player, one of the best in the world, and i have heared a lot of good hi end audio systems

    2. Today cheapest Pioneer tank solution for great transport or player... oldies but goodies is Pioneer PD 9700/PD S901....grab them and enjoy....and if will someone send unit to you...unit must be well packed and transported upside-down for "lens security" this players is old and suffers from lens drop in bad or long transport....mecha and optic is upside-down in this units so remember this!
      Predrag Croatia

  2. AnonymousMay 25, 2014

    I agree :)

  3. Hi! I know this article is an old one, but:
    I recently purchased a used Revox C221, it came with a manual.
    There is a STOP function for C221, the player can be put to stop condition by pressing 'zero' key and then 'play' or 'pause'. It stops the disc motor. The laser is switched off.
    The stop condition is confirmed on the display by horizontal bars in all three bottom windows.
    One thing - a disc must be loaded.

    I use this option instead of the main power switch at the back of the player. It makes things easier for me,as my C221 is my only player now, and it needs approx. 45 minutes to warm up after switching off the mains. Do You think that's how it should be? How much time does your Revox take to start playing while switched on?

    1. Hi, thank you for the useful info.

      Do you mean after switch on your C221 takes 45 minutes to begin to work? This is ABNORMAL, as mine works immediately after switch on.

      Enjoy your Revox!

    2. You must refresh power supply caps....better all of them in path of power and optic supply....player will work better and stabile...and btw you will save laser.
      In most old players old caps is reason for bad functionallity or reading.
      Predrag Croatia

  4. hi doc
    your good reviews of revoxC221, primare D20 and EAR yoshino acute mkI make me wonder which one to choose. the EAR seems to play in a different league as budget goes but the laws of diminishing returns sometimes make me wonder... i run a small studio with alternative audio brands from eastern europe and try to find a reference cdp to match my vinyl set up (sp10 mkII+thomas schick 12" tonearm+zyx fuji RX100/DL103R. thanks for your feedback if you get a chance

  5. Hi hunter! What a question! Your turntable setup, with the solid Thomas Schick balancing the incisive Technics, should sound AWESOME. No wonder you have a hard time to find a digital system to match!

    IMHO, there is no definitive and, yes, the law of diminishing returns works in audio (I know, and it pains me), but I'd avoid those so-called "giant-killers" propagated on any various head-fi sites. I do think your inclinations are basically good. A good old CD player can still serve well. I am not sure what studio you run, but in any case a good professional CD player like a Revox/Studer, would not at all be amiss. I can gladly listen to digital music via a good 14-bit machine like the Philips CD100 (and its numerous offsprings); a 16-bit machine like the Studer A730, Sony R1 system etc; a delta-sigma like Revox C221, etc, etc. The list goes on. Experiment!

    For a reasonable price, you can get a Revox C221 to start!

    1. hi doc
      it's been a while since i've been here so i didn't read your fair answer until now; sorry- as you were very reactive. it happens that i finally invested in the EAr acute and don't regret it any minute. it seems to be a very good match with the electronics i run and according to the customers i met, the musical experience is beyond other (and more expensive) equipment they listened to - or acquired ;-)
      still need to hear that primare cdp though. keep on groovin'

    2. I am very glad you followed up. I'd LOVE to have the Acute CDP one day.

  6. AnonymousMay 23, 2015

    PD 77 - school example of real hi end cd player without digital sound. One of the best player of all in the world. and its price was quite normal, not cheap, but also not multi money price. In europe costed arround todays 4500-5000 euro.

  7. Hehh...true for Micromega.....Used for years really musicall Stage 1 and 3 and i must clean lenses every month and i dont know why cdm in Micromega is a magnet for dust even if equippment and house is superclean!
    I have Pioneer PD 9700 also.....great machine with analog soundstage ideal for open sistems, fantastic transport even today read great!
    I will buy this week Primare D20 to hear finally this AKM dac and to see if will be a better from my faw Wolfson's
    Predrag Croatia

  8. hi doc
    still enjoying the EAR but need good transport for a second system
    tried to cover the site about it but mainly read cdp (with DAC) reviews... any tip about good interesting budget transports will be welcomed ;-)

    1. Hello old friend! Many old players serve well as transports. the topic is too vast.

      Also, do you have a spare good DVD or Blue Ray Player? If so, try it as transport. You may be surprised! My experience with Sony DVD and Blu-Ray players have been overwhelmingly positive. Articles can be found under Label Brand-Sony.


  9. thanks doc. i had followed your advice on dvdp50 but my kids wont let me have it back ;-)and i need toslink or spdif on it. i may get hold of its follower you mentioned. i'll check your Sony reviews
    i have a lead on a renowned kenwood cdp, great as transport. currently full analog with a PS1 ;-)
    keep on groovin'

  10. If one is willing to take a risk, the various generations of the Theta Data transports (first laser disc player, then CDM-9 transport) are imho almost peerless for truthful bass. They are very reasonably priced now but reliability and longevity is a concern.

  11. can get a DVP-SR200P for $15 ;-)

    1. That is great! I am sure it is fine. A friend uses it as transport with his Wadia digital amp and Lowther to great effect. he is a VERY fussy guy with a very expensive hi-end main system.

      Drawback is there is no display.

  12. Hi Doc,

    I have been very fortunate recently yo come across some amazing finds in the secondary market Downunder here on Sydney.

    After much searching I have just acquired a Primare D20 MkII.

    I will be trialling it in an also recently acquired mint Yamaha C60/M40 combo to three speaker choices;
    Energy Veritas 2.3,
    Canton Karat M80
    and the lovely little JM Lab Focal Chorus 706s.

    I just wanted to thankyou in advance for helping me decide on some humble yet classic choices for my listening enjoyment.

    With your ok I'll report back after the weekend. Also if there are recommendations for other Pre Amp options for the M40 it would be very much appreciated.



    1. Hello Downunder! Please do report back on what you think about the Primare D20 MkII.

      I am not familiar with these Yamaha amps, but I always prefer tube preamps. If one has to go solid state, I'd say get an NAD 3020 (not i) - its preamp section is excellent, its phono no slouch, and you can use its pre-out or as an integrated amp. My blog covers the 3020 thoroughly.

      Come back soon.