Accustic Arts REFERENCE DRIVE-II CD Transport

AA 21 CD REFDRIV
NZ$ 19,995.00 ea (incl. GST)
Accustic Arts

High-End from ACCUSTIC ARTS® is expected to sound natural and detailed,

New
PERFECT CD TRANSPORT
The DRIVE II is a CD transport of the absolute reference class and works according to the top-loader principle. The unit is designed exclusively to play CDs, CD-Rs, CD-RWs in uncompromising quality.

The core of the DRIVE II is the internationally renowned high-end CD module CD-Pro2LF. Contrary to most other conventional designs, this module is equipped with a very solid diecast chassis in metal. The die-cast chassis has excellent damping characteristics and simultaneously offers high stability and rigidity.

The CD module with its 3-beam laser is fitted in the DRIVE II using an elaborate construction with mechanical decoupling (sub chassis design principle) and is integrated in its own solid aluminium housing. 

Perfect power supply
In general, the building of a high-end CD drive requires a good power supply. Therefore, in the DRIVE II, 2 separate generously dimensioned and magnetically shielded transformers of the highest quality serve to provide a perfect voltage feed. These transformers are produced especially for the DRIVE II and are "Made in Germany" – just as all ACCUSTIC ARTS® transformers.

In addition, the DRIVE II has a mains filter located on the power unit board designed especially for the unit. This mains filter removes interfering signals from the power supply and therefore ensures consistent sound characteristics. It is possible, however, to also switch off the mains filter, which might be desirable if the DRIVE II is already connected to a filtered power supply, etc. 

In order to further improve the power supply of the unit is necessary to correctly pole the mains plug. To ensure this, on the rear of the DRIVE II there is a polarity indicator for the incoming voltage. If the signal lamp lights up, the switch located next to the lamp is simply pressed and the device is then connected to the power supply with the correct polarity.

Attention was also given to providing the individual drive components requiring power such as the motor control, laser control, digital signal processing, display control and display heating with their own, generously dimensioned high performance power supply units. This prevents, for example, the power signal for the laser control having a negative influence on the power signal for the digital signal processing. To ensure the correct function of the individual power units, a high reservoir capacity (in total approx. 61,000 µF) was selected. 

The perfect components
In order to attain absolute perfection, DRIVE II exclusively uses selected components with narrow tolerances and the highest possible quality classification. A number of the individual components are also manually measured and matched together.

There are also no compromises with the housing: solid, carefully crafted aluminium plates combined with chrome-plated turned parts in brass serve to provide a fantastic touch quality and extreme stability. Stability is important to make sure that the CD being scanned can be read by the laser without any interference. Interfering pressure waves are prevented from reaching the CD through an ultra-stable slide cover (own weight: 1.6 kg / 3.5 lbs) which is also acoustically damped.

The laser beam is protected from negative influences by the solid drive cover produced in aluminium in the inside of the CD bay with a special, light-absorbing paint (Nextel®). This allows 100% absorption of any diffused light present. The exact positioning of the CD is made with a magnetic puck.

Attention was paid even to the smallest of details during the development phase. For example, a very special and elaborate digital cable in pure silver is used. This cable connects the CD module to the board for the digital signal processing and although it is approx. 30 cm long, it has a remarkable influence on the sound. Numerous tests carried out with innumerable types of cable have clearly shown this cable in pure silver offers the best solution. 

Perfect operation
As with all ACCUSTIC ARTS® devices the DRIVE II impresses through its easy operation. In modern times, where most electronic devices are overloaded with unnecessary functions, this is surely a welcome change for many music lovers.

The DRIVE II can be operated with most of the basic functions even without using a remote control through two chrome-plated rotary and button controls. Both switch types are built to last an eternity. The switches are incredibly solid and the rotary switches produced in metal ("Made in Germany") are equipped with gold-plated silver contacts which are absolutely corrosion-free and also allow thousands of switching cycles.

The user who requires further functions can use the enclosed remote control which is also easy to use. The remote control also has a brushed and anodised aluminium housing which optically matches the housing of the DRIVE II. 

The perfect sound experience
The result of the best individual components, thorough development, careful production, elaborate testing and innumerable listening sessions is the ultimate sound experience.

In connection with our ACCUSTIC ARTS® D/A converters experience music with perfect acoustics "Handmade in Germany".

Features

Specifications

Reviews

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Features

Audiophile reference CD transport in top-loader design
High-Class CD mechanism (CD-Pro2LF) with heavy die-cast metal frame and involved mechanical decoupling, embedded in a massive aluminium housing (sub chassis construction principle)
2 generously dimensioned and magnetically shielded toroidal core transformers of premium quality ("Made in Germany")
Integrated, especially designed ACCUSTIC ARTS® line filter for perfect and extremely clean power supply (line filter switchable)
Separate generously dimensioned power supply units for laser control, digital signal processing, display control and display heating
CD positioning in drive using exceptionally precise clamper, whereby the integrated magnet inside the clamper guarantees ideal pressing and smooth running
Polarity switch for correct phase of the mains voltage
Extremely fine digital output stage with the following features:
- separate transformer
- separate extra large power supply unit with voltage stabilisation
- output stage with extremely low jitter
- 3 professionally designed digital outputs with HF-transformer (1 x XLR, 1 x RCA, 1 x BNC)
Very high power supply capacity (61,000 µF) for perfect power supply
All used components and parts are selected and of highest quality
Extremely stable, massive and resonance optimised housing, primarily made of 10 mm thick aluminium plates, ultra stable and acoustically damped top load cover; all chromed parts are made of massive brass
2 premium quality rotary switches ("Made in Germany") with gold-plated silver contacts
ACCUSTIC ARTS® aluminium remote control
ACCUSTIC ARTS® DRIVE II is "Handmade in Germany"

Specifications

CD mechanism: CD-Pro2LFwith3-beamlaserandglasslens
Digital outputs: 
1xAES/EBU;balanced–110Ω(XLR)
1xS/P-DIF;unbalanced–75Ω(RCA)
1xS/P-DIF;unbalanced–75Ω(BNC)
Outputvoltage: AES/EBU:3.1Vppon110Ω
S/P-DIF:0.42Vppon75Ω
Transformerpower: 2x75VA
Dimensions: 130H x482W x 375D mm
Weight: 18kg

Reviews

Its ability to convey the texture and emotion of the music is breath taking.

REVIEW SUMMARY:
When I think of a product being made in Germany there are immediately a number of clichés that come into my mind. It will be superbly engineered, very well made, efficient, the player is all of these and more, it is natural, musical, subtle, and beautifully posed, what is it not is clinical, sterile and humourless, it is a fun engaging player to live with. .....To a lot of people the words natural, musical and CD player do not fit comfortably together they need to hear this combo it will blow their mind!

EXTENDED REVIEW:
For those of you unfamiliar with Accustic Arts, they are a based in the town of Lauffen am Neckar on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany. With a back ground designing products for the studio market they started producing hifi equipment about 15 years ago. 
 
The name Accustic Arts is and abbreviated version of ACCUrate acouSTIC ARTS no less! 
 
Producing a wide range of exotic equipment the Drive 11 / tube dac 11 is their current state of the art reference series cd player. They have taken the rather unusual but not totally unique path of combining the latest digital dsp processing technology with thermionic valves, in this case ECC83s located in the analogue filter stage of the DAC. 
 
The drive is a top loader based around the hi-end manufacturers favourite, the renowned cdPro2LF cd module. This differs quite dramatically from the normal draw loading mech found on the vast majority of players, its most significant difference being it utilises a heavy die-cast metal frame with mechanical decoupling instead of the normal plastic or pressed metal chassis. This has excellent damping characteristics and simultaneously offers high stability and rigidity. Fairly par for the course so far. 
 
The really interesting things start happening when we get round to the tube hybrid dac. 
Here they combine very elaborate, digital signal processing with thermionic valves to give; they say extraordinary precision and musicality. They go to great lengths to tell you that this is not an up sampled dac but instead uses over sampling and dsp to product what is claimed to be true 32 bit signals.
 
The heart of the dac is the 32 bit digital filter and 26 parallel operating processors, which redefine the word as a 32 bit signal this is then processed by individual dacs for each channel. An oversampled player like an upsampler uses a higher sampling frequency but in this case it is a multiple of the original 44.1Khz (352.8Khz for 8 times oversampling as apposed to say 192Khz that most people use for upsampling.) What this is not doing is up converting the signal at this stage to a high bit rate. Where an upsampler increases its accuracy by decreasing the scan times and up converting the word to normally 24 bit an oversampler is in reality still processing at 44.1 KHz but is taking multiple samples in the same time frame and outputting the mean average so cutting down on error rate as a result. Both of these systems push the digital noise further from the audio band so mean less harsh filters can be used. In this case it is a Burrbrown OPA627 opamp followed by the ECC83 for each channel. 
 
Aesthetically the player is a mixed bag. You can see the superb engineering and quality of materials used in the construction but with the big bling chrome knobs on the front it is a bit brash for me, but hey that’s down to personal choice. Most people who have seen it when visiting have loved it. I also feel that although the loading cover looks impressive it is a little agricultural in its operation and does not have that silky smooth action I would expect at this price point. There is great attention to detail in the build and choice of components used with the obvious philosophy of nothing but the best being very evident.
 
There is a beautiful sense of fluidity with the player, lucidity and sweetness that is missing from all but a handful of cd players. Gone is the clinical sterility that can plague the medium in general including the vast majority of ‘hi-end players’. 
 
This combination really does get the to heart of the performance, its ability to convey the music in a natural analogue fashion combined with the transparency, clarity and dynamics you expect from the best digital source is astonishing. You are drawn into the music and find yourself simply enjoying the experience and performance. It has the ability to perform well across all genres of music, coping admirably with the dynamic swings of full scale orchestral work as well as the fast rhythmical beats of modern synthesised tracks and the raw energy of rock. 
 
If your ideal player is one that ekes out every last detail and ruthlessly exposes every aspect of the performance this is not a player for you. The detail is there but it does not jump out at you. The imaging and scale are impressive but not at the holographic levels presented by some of the players in the stratosphere of hifi exotica that this resides in. The bass is well extended and articulate; vocals are expressive and tonally very natural sounding. 
 
It seems silly talking about a player costing £14,000 getting back to basics but that is exactly what this does, it gets back to the core, the fundamental reason for having a hifi in the first place, the music. There is such an inherent sense of rightness about the player, the timing is metronomic, the subtleties and nuances of the music come through beautifully it just sounds right. there are players out there that will sound more impressive, that will give you greater scale and authority and that will give you pin point accuracy when it comes to imaging, but I am yet to hear one that is as musical, as natural or has the ability to put a smile on my face and draw me into the performance. The player is amazing adept at conveying the delicacy and subtleties of the harmonic structure of the music. 
 
Its ability to convey the texture and emotion of the music is breath taking. 
 
When I think of a product being made in Germany there are immediately a number of clichés that come into my mind. It will be superbly engineered, very well made, efficient, the player is all of these and more, it is natural, musical, subtle, and beautifully posed, what is it not is clinical, sterile and humourless, it is a fun engaging player to live with. 
 
To a lot of people the words natural, musical and CD player do not fit comfortably together they need to hear this combo it will blow their mind!
The Accustic Arts combo equals or betters my reference MBL 1521A transport and 1511F DAC combo in every grade on the audio report card
Marshall Nack

REVIEW SUMMARY:
An interesting point—the AA's treble is wholly unrestrained, yet it almost never sounds harsh. How do they do that? 
AA macro dynamics are exceptional. I had not met my mbl Noble front-end's match… until now.
The AA is a very neutral front-end. Neutrality means, among other things, you don't hear the same-old, same-old all the time. 

I'm happy to report the coronation of a new bits and bytes king. The ACCUSTIC ARTS DRIVE II and the companion TUBE-DAC IISE comprise a major contender in digital front-ends. At its price point, it is the best I've come across.

EXTENDED REVIEW:
When I set up the DRIVE II and the companion TUBE-DAC IISE from ACCUSTIC ARTS, a red light on the back of the transport lit up. Red lights are never a good thing. According to the manual, it was an AC Polarity Indicator. If it lights, polarity is inverted. The manual instructed me to push the adjacent button to reverse it. The light dimmed, but didn't go out. This occurred with both ACCUSTIC ARTS components plugged into my TARA Labs IDAT power conditioner.
 
When I disconnected both from the IDAT and plugged them into the wall via an Ensemble power strip, the light went out. Hmmm, I wondered, what does that say about my TARA conditioner?
 
I've never seen a Polarity Indicator on a transport before. Likewise the DRIVE II's Integrated Mains Filter. This feature came in handy, as it gave me the option of power conditioning without using the "red light" TARA IDAT unit. However, it wasn't as if the AA front-end needed any conditioning at all.
 
Plugged into the Ensemble power strip without any conditioning, I had a definite impression of less "improvements" being made, of less "goosing" of the signal. It was fast and focused and, interestingly, there was no appreciable increase in noise—noise being what conditioners principally address.
 
This speaks quite commendably about AA's power supply and circuit designs. It also reinforced the impression I got when I reviewed their Preamp I - Mk 3 a short time ago. That component was keenly sensitive to the power messenger. ACCUSTIC ARTS pays more attention to the power line than most companies.
 
But I was catching a chill and the AA's laser-like focus was bothering me. Contrary thinking mandated I should try engaging the DRIVE II's built-in conditioning. As expected, it became smoother, warmer and less forward. Still, in my solid-state system, I wanted more flesh on those bones and even more warmth, although some listeners really liked the direct and honest quality from straight into the wall. "Direct and honest" would keep cropping up in my listening notes.
 
I wanted the sound to be more like the way my reference mbl 1521A transport and 1511F DAC front-end does it. I knew I could get there largely by swapping to more synergistic wires. What I didn't care to know about were the other insights into the mbl's presentation that the AA made apparent.
 
What's Musical?
 
In a quick A / B, you'd probably say the mbl "sounds more musical." What does that mean? In pondering this question, I experienced another of those "ah-ha!" insights.
 
During the course of reviewing the McIntosh Mc501 monoblocks, it became obvious that transients in my current setup had lost their snap. As the amps were the only variable in play, I was able to trace back that persistent softness to my reference mbl 8011 AM amps. Now, guess what? Thanks to the AA, I'm hearing the same thing in the mbl digital front-end.
 
Remember how digital sounded back when it was first introduced? Like chalk on a blackboard. (Even today, the thought of it makes me wince.) Twenty-five years later, we're into the second (or third) generation of these products and designers have addressed those digital nasties. Typically, they opted to voice their products to sound more like analog or tubes. So, now we have the answer to why my mbl front-end "sounds more musical."
 
It has a degree of softening applied. Its sharpness has been moderated and its edges have been smoothed over. It has a round sound. And it has the same scooping transients and lingering tails as the mbl 8011 amps. One effect of this is that instruments make their entrance without "breaking" the silence.
 
I have to believe the voicing is done deliberately to address the problems of the medium. But at what cost?
 
Too high a cost for the designers at ACCUSTIC ARTS. This respected German high-end manufacturer doesn't buy into the softening strategy. And for their top-of-the-line digital product, they reject most of the other common solutions, too. Instead, they came up with their own approach. In the process, they created a front-end that doesn't sound like all the rest. I'll cover some of this when we get to the Technical Discussion below; more is available on their website. But solve the digital nasties they did all right—I can vouch for that.
 
Transient Quality
 
Let's start with speed. The AA front-end is fast as blazes. Its transient has a beautiful shape. It doesn't soften the onslaught. It also has excellent coherence. My mbl front-end doesn't approach its speed and sounds comparatively sluggish. I tell ya, I didn't need to know about this. But enough on the mbl front-end—let's get back to the AA.
 
Most often, when we talk about the leading edge we have the treble frequencies in mind. Our ears are keenly sensitive to timing aberrations in this band. This might sound silly, but did you know that a piano, for example, has the ability to produce low frequency notes with sharp attack? The closer you get to the instrument, the more pronounced this becomes as you're getting more direct sound, less hall reinforcement and decay. Certainly this is what the microphones register, since they are typically placed in the near field.
 
The AA is the first digital front-end I've heard that handles sharp low-frequency transients.
 
The Tail End
 
It's the same at the notes' tail. From a close orchestra seat, the tail of the note doesn't hang around, like it does in the balcony. And the closer you get to the stage, the shorter it becomes. On occasion I've heard languorous decays through the AA, as when the piano's sustain pedal is intentionally engaged, but I've never heard truly short ones from the mbl. The AA places you in the tenth row in terms of decay.
 
The Sustain
 
Even more exciting is what's happening in the sustain—there's actually resolution there! Digital playback never does this. Typically, it gives you a homogeneous and textureless span of time. With my mbl, for example, you get a beautiful tone, but it is smooth and glossy (again "musical," like old-fashioned tubes). Analog always gives you little variations of tone or timbre or texture. This goes a mighty long way towards establishing analog's vaunted credibility—it is one of the major feathers in its cap. The AA has this quality. (But it still doesn't sound like good analog. Analog brings other things to the table.)
 
Timbral Quality
 
In terms of timbre, the AAs is complete, but because it is so focused, it doesn't sound rich or robust. "Which one did you say has the tubes?" you might ask. The DAC II is a hybrid employing a pair of 12AX7 tubes, but it is not the one that sounds "tubey." It doesn't make timbres beautiful or lush. However, it succeeds in no small way in nailing the distinctive harmonic clusters of each instrument.
 
Neutrality, Benefits of
 
The AA is a very neutral front-end. Neutrality means, among other things, you don't hear the same-old, same-old all the time. Let's start with the Richard Strauss Sonata for Cello, with Johannes Moser (hanssler Classics 93.207), a young cellist I would recommend keeping an eye on. From his very first CD, he's been garnering awards left and right. On this recording of the Strauss sonata there's no imaging to speak of. Both instruments are bunched up in center stage. Perspective is approximately what you might hear from mid-hall seats. Decay is modest.
 
Contrast that with Johannes Moser doing the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 (hanssler Classics 93.222). I was tipped off to this CD by a short review I read on www.allmusic.com. The performance is excellent; the sound is demonstration quality. The orchestra doesn't have a lot to do in these concertos. Sections come in and out, occupying appropriate stage locations, which sometimes stretch clear across the width of my room. Imaging is quite discrete with no overlap. The perspective on this CD is close, approximately from tenth row orchestra seats, and it is a bit dry. I refer to it often to get a baseline.
 
Demonstration sound of an entirely different order can also be found on the RCA SACD reissue of the Richard Strauss Symphonia Domestica (RCA 88697-08282-2). Here the aural space literally explodes, pushing up and out in all directions, bearing no resemblance to the two previous CDs (or any hall I've ever been in). The reissue impresses in a hyped-up way.
 
The point is that you're not put into the same space all the time. Just a curious aside, but a lot of guys judge their music software by how well the new CD measures up to their most impressive one, impressive being defined as having the widest, deepest stage and dynamic range, among other things. Well, there are other things in life. There are tons of compositions in the repertory that are scored piano over long stretches.
 
Macro dynamics are exceptional. I had not met my mbl Noble front-end's match… until now. The AAs dynamics are on par. You can tell they're out of the ordinary because I've been spending inordinate time with the likes of Rimsky-Korsakov. While he is known principally for Sheherazade, there's much more to explore (admittedly, much of it is reminiscent of, and not as good as, that classical war horse). I have a four-disc set of his orchestral works (BIS-CD-1667/68) and I put one disc in each front-end. It makes for easy comparisons.
 
An interesting point—the AA's treble is wholly unrestrained, yet it almost never sounds harsh. How do they do that? As this is a well-known problem area for digital, some kind of band-aid must be in place. It sounds as if a degree of sweetening has been applied to the top end. This is the only frequency band with such a treatment that I can detect.
 
Just for the record, in case you're getting the impression the AA's honesty comes bundled in an analytical envelope, you do have to choose ancillaries carefully. But pair it with synergistic wires and gear leaning to the musical side and it produces correctly-sized images with good body and satisfying weight.... .
 
Caveat
 
Also, please understand that my task is to highlight differences in the two front-ends. While the AA compares favorably or equally to my mbl Noble Line front-end throughout this copy, it's not as if it renders the mbl unlistenable. When I come home and put on the mbl, I'm quite content. It's only when I do A/Bs in quick succession that my grumbling begins and I stay with the AA for the rest of the session.
 
Design and Features
 
The DRIVE II and DAC II belong to ACCUSTIC ARTS' reference line. They share cosmetics with the AA Preamp I Mk3 I reviewed a few months ago. All three exude the same quality, attention to detail and build quality. This is well-made stuff.
 
Basic functionality is provided on the front panel controls of the DRIVE II. Additional functions are accessed via the matching aluminium remote. Everything operates with a silky, quality feel, except the CD drawer cover mechanism.
 
The top-loading DRIVE II sports a solid aluminium chassis of substantial weight—40 lbs. To operate, you slide back the drawer cover (which weighs 3.5 lbs on its own) and place the CD on the spindle of the CD-Pro2LF die-cast metal CD holder. Then stabilise it with the magnetic puck and close the cover. The drawer cover rails give the unit a sporty appearance, but the sliding action of the drawer cover has the feel of the flywheel on an inexpensive analog tuner, the ones you have to push, unlike the ones that glide.
 
The well known and highly regarded CD-Pro2LF is mechanically decoupled by steel springs and rubber bumpers, forming its own sub-chassis. Special attention is paid to the power supply, which has approximately 61,000 uF of capacitance available. Other nice features are the built-in conditioning and the Polarity Indicator.
 
Technical Discussion
 
In the TUBE-DAC II, the common solution of using oversampling was rejected in favor of something quite original. Oversampling typically generates a degree of high frequency noise. The higher the sampling rate, the more noise is generated. This necessitates the introduction of filters to clean it up, which bring their own set of issues. AA developed a new algorithm.
 
Instead, AA uses 26 "multiplying processors" working in parallel on the incoming signal. The arithmetic mean value of these 26 processors is computed and that is the bit stream sent forward. No noise is generated, no filters are needed, and more precision is the claimed result. The newly computed bit stream is also boosted to 32 bits. Moreover, left and right channels are separated at this point to become dual-mono—two 32-bit streams are generated from the original 16-bit one. From here forward, left and right are processed separately, requiring two DA converter chips, etc.
 
TUBE-DAC IISE Ref
 
The Tube DAC II I'm using is the Special Edition. The 12AX7 tubes in the SE version are military grade and are matched after 200 hours of burn-in. The SE version also has gold-plated tube and fuse holders and closer tolerances for parts and pcb boards. The SE costs $500 more.
 
Conclusion
 
I'm happy to report the coronation of a new bits and bytes king. The ACCUSTIC ARTS DRIVE II and the companion TUBE-DAC IISE comprise a major contender in digital front-ends. At its price point, it is the best I've come across.
 
ACCUSTIC ARTS opted not to follow the pack and pursued an original route to solving the digital nasties. For one thing, in their reference level product, they didn't buy into oversampling. For another, the DAC II may be a hybrid employing a pair of 12AX7 tubes, but it is not "tubey" sounding. And the trump card is they don't buy into the softening cover-up most designers use. Consequently, their top-of-the-line digital front-end does not sound like the rest of them.
 
The Accustic Arts combo equals or betters my reference mbl 1521A transport (MSRP US$10,950) and 1511F DAC (MSRP US$10,650) in every grade on the audio report card, but the difference is not huge. It is only when I do direct A / Bs that I start to grumble. Then I'm forced to swap to the AA for the rest of the session.
 
While the ACCUSTIC ARTS DRIVE II and TUBE-DAC IISE still doesn't sound like good analog, it brings you closer to the truth than any comparably priced digital front-end.
..........Marshall Nack

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