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The Reference CD7 uses tried-and-true technology from the vaults of the Audio Research brain trust: seven 6H30 triode tubes, a gain stage taken directly from the very successful REF3 preamp, a Crystal 24-bit DAC, a Philips CD-Pro2 transport mechanism, and capacitors developed especially for ARC’s Reference line. In other words, all of the ARC goodies are in there. In fact, those who follow ARC lore should note that the CD7 is the first CD player to earn the company’s Reference designation, heretofore worn only by amplifying components. In short, the Reference CD7 is ARC’s statement CD player.
The look is classic ARC: a 19"W x 5 1/4"H x 15 3/8"D case with a brushed-aluminum faceplate in silver or black, with cutouts for the display (green numerals) and pushbuttons for the basic functions; a top-loading CD transport with a manually retractable cover; balanced and single-ended outputs; and an IEC connector for the power cord. The CD7 also has two digital outputs (AES/EBU, coaxial), for use with an outboard D/A converter. One slight disappointment is the lack of a digital input; it would be nice to have the ability to use the CD7’s DAC section with another source (such as a computer). The CD7 weighs 32.5 pounds.By the end of the review period, I’d come to appreciate that the beauty of music came through the Reference CD7 completely unfettered. The ARC provided a wellspring of enjoyment with my CD collection. It won’t stand out on your rack as something obviously extraordinary, but it won’t be something you’re constantly looking at upgrading to fix some deficiency, either. The fantastic vocals of Karen Casey singing the title track of her Distant Shore [Shanachie 78053] almost gave me shivers. Her traditional Irish, sing-song style was on pace, with the intact vocal inflection that makes the song skip along. The CD7 was right at home with real acoustic instruments and unprocessed vocals, the true tests of high-end equipment.
There are almost no one-size-fits-all products in high-end audio, so I try to not make blanket recommendations. Although I’ve been accused, usually by their wives, of "helping" my audiophile friends spend lots of money, I understand that sometimes money flies out the door a whole lot easier than it flies in. I want the people who buy the products I recommend to be happy with them for years to come. Given that criterion, here is who I think the ARC CD7 is made for:
If you have a large CD collection on your shelves, aren’t inclined to rip them all to a hard drive (read: enjoy the physical media, or don’t trust computer technology for long-term reliability, or simply don’t have the time to be messing with uploads, downloads, etc.), and if you’re OK with spending almost nine grand on a CD player, you should add the Reference CD7 to your audition list. It probably is for you if you value natural, honest sound over hi-fi hijinks. I’m listening to Nickel Creek’s "Out of the Woods," from their eponymous first album [Sugar Hill 3909], and the harmonies are just perfect. I couldn’t ask for more.
The sound quality offered by the Audio Research Reference CD7 is outstanding in the here and now. I hypothesize that it is components like the CD7 that stretch the limitations of the "Red Book" CD format, and not the other way around. That makes the CD7 about as future-proof as you can get in today’s audiophile marketplace. Consider it the ultimate sonic shovel for those wishing to maximize the sound of their CDs: Take care of it, and it’ll serve you in a way that you’ll appreciate for years to come. If you turn out to be the lucky owner of one, my guess is that you won’t be tempted to upgrade it for some "future-proof" thingy. ARC’s Reference CD7 will be long remembered as a solid musical investment in our seemingly ever-changing hobby.