Full review and test of Denon DCD-2500NE SACD Player by Australian Hi-Fi Magazine. Free download.

Reviewers are supposed to reveal their biases and affiliations right up front. So I should reveal why I have always admired Denon as a company despite the fact that I have only ever owned two Denon products (a DL-103 phono cartridge and a step-up transformer for it) and I have absolutely no affiliations with the company or its distributors.

One reason for my admiration is that it’s very quietly one of the oldest audio companies in the world, having been established in 1910 to manufacture shellac records and the gramophones to play them. It was so successful at this that US record giant Columbia took a stake in the company in 1927. Denon then produced the first LPs to go on sale in Japan and manufactured a range of professional turntables and phono cartridges for use in recording studios and radio stations—along with open reel and cassette tapes—before building its first range of consumer audio products in 1971.

Another reason for my admiration is that the company has always built high-quality audio products, having never been tempted to go ‘down-market’ and compromise quality. That said, I really don’t know for a fact whether Denon was ever tempted to go down-market, but it’s certainly never succumbed, despite being subjected over the years to several mergers, most recently with Marantz, when both brands were owned by D+M Holdings. (Itself purchased earlier this year by Sound United, parent company to Polk Audio and Definitive Technology.)

Finally, I find it highly significant that Denon has always manufactured its products in Japan, and I was certainly most pleased to find that this DCD-2500NE is no exception.

The Equipment

I have to say that my fondness for Denon’s products and my admiration for their build quality doesn’t extend to their appearance, which I’d have to say is, at best, ‘utilitarian’. The company has always cared more about what’s going on inside its products, rather than what’s happening outside. You’d very probably deduce this yourself if you try to pick the DCD-2500NE up. You will discover that it’s unexpectedly heavy, tipping the scales at a shade under 14 kilos.

One reason for this weight is that rather than use one transformer with two windings to separate the digital and analogue sections of the player, as most manufacturers would do (though some would just use a single transformer), Denon goes the whole hog and uses two completely separate transformers to power two completely separate power supply sections. No way is the digital getting mixed up with the analogue in this player!

But I suppose you might not find the weight so unexpected if you also factor in the DCD-2500’s size: it measures 434 by 138 by 335 (HWD)… which makes it one of the largest CD players I have ever reviewed… though it’s really an SACD player, not just a ‘CD’ player.

I am not certain how many companies are still manufacturing SACD players, but my guess is that Denon must be one of the very last to be doing so. Whether this policy will continue under Sound United’s new ownership remains to be seen.

In addition to playing back SACDs and CDs, the DCD-2500 will also play back FLAC, WAV, AIFF, ALAC, AAC and MP3 files that have been recorded onto writable CDs. It will also play back DSD files (2.8 MHz or 5.6 MHz) that have been burned to DVD-R/RW. This last should really come as no surprise: SACD was the first DSD format to come to market.

What did surprise me was why, since the DCD-2500NE has all the internal processing on-board required to decode these formats, Denon didn’t see fit to include either an SPDIF or USB input. Given that such inputs have become almost de rigueur on nearly all audio components these days, it seems like a glaring oversight. By while the designers were being blinded by that glare, it obviously also blinded them to the fact that most players of the DCD-2500’s calibre are fitted with balanced XLR outputs as well as unbalanced outputs. The lack of balanced outputs actually doesn’t bother me that much, because technically there’s no real advantage in a consumer product having a balanced output (though I’d argue the exact opposite when it comes to professional audio components), but many potential buyers of the DCD-2500NE would expect to see them—irrespective of their usefulness—and there was certainly plenty of room on the rear panel to include a set.

Appearances to the contrary, the DCD-2500NE is not a slot loader, it just has a very, very slim disc tray… so slim it seems almost fragile when it’s in its open position. It’s a lovely tray though that uses what Denon calls an SVH (Suppress Vibration Hybrid) mechanism, where the centre of gravity of the drive mechanism is much lower than in ordinary disc drives, which minimises vibration during disc rotation. This means the laser pickup gets a much cleaner signal, so the laser servo’s operation is minimised.

I personally would never buy a player of any sort that I could not operate from the front panel, and could not therefore recommend one that didn’t to readers, so I am happy to be able to report that you won’t need to find the remote before you use the Denon DCD-2500NE: all the controls you need are right there on the front panel. However I would keep the remote out on a coffee table or mantle-piece to impress your friends, because it’s beauty, simply reeking of quality. Even if you don’t want to impress your friends with the remote, you’ll need to keep it handy to access the DCD-2500NE’s advanced transport functions—program play, repeat and random play.

Advanced AL32 Processing Plus

Denon has been working on what it now calls ‘Advanced AL32 Processing Plus’ circuitry since ‘way back in 1972 when it ran into quantization noise issues when building its first PCM recorder. To solve these, it developed an algorithm it called an adaptive line pattern harmonized algorithm (ALPHA) to reduce it, which it claimed ‘reproduces 16-bit data with 24-bit quality’. In the intervening years, Denon has taken advantage of technological improvements to tweak this technology multiple times to be even more effective and now says it can ‘reproduce 16-bit data with 32-bit quality.’ But rather more importantly, it has optimised the filter algorithm so it can detect whether an incoming music signal is contiguous or transient and dynamically adapt the decoding algorithm as appropriate. A part of the processing involves up-scaling the original 16-bit/44.1kHz signals to 32-bit/705.6kHz data.

In Use and Performance

The DCD-2500NE certainly seems to have been optimised for use with SACDs, at least so far as the transport is concerned, because I was able to go from loading to playing an SACD within fifteen seconds, whereas going from load to play on an ordinary CD took almost thirty-three seconds. Eject times were fairly similar: six seconds for a CD and five seconds for an SACD.

As I have said in many previous reviews of SACD players, one of the reasons for buying an SACD player is that they seem to be able to extract higher levels of performance from ordinary CDs, and in the case of the DCD-2500NE, thanks to its AL32 processing plus circuitry, that was even more the case here. I was particularly pleased that I was able to experience the Denon’s sound with a fabulous album that I only just discovered, despite it having been out for more than two years. The album is ‘Songs from the Arc of Life’, on which cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott play pieces they had frequently performed together but recorded together… pieces they say map out a musical journey through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age and old age… hence the album’s title.

The album starts with Ave Maria (Bach/Gounod), probably one of the first pieces any child learns on the piano, and you can hear the superiority of the sound immediately, despite the limited range of the music being played. The lower string sound of the Steinway piano is so rich and sonorous there’s no way you could mistake it for a Fazioli, and you can hear Yo Yo Ma’s faultless technique as he stops the strings, always adding exactly the right amount of vibrato to match the note’s duration. I was bemused to find I still think of him as a ‘young’ musician, when he’s now actually 61 years old. The second track is the famous Brahms lullaby (Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 4) here arranged for cello and piano (you know the one… ‘my baby is sleeping’). Obviously both musicians’ talents are severely under-utilised when playing this work—to say the least!—but at least it’s kept short, and we get to admire the sweetness of Ma’s cello’s upper register.

The third track, Songs My Mother Taught Me, despite its brevity, affords ample opportunity for Ma to demonstrate his sensitive playing, with the cello just singing the melody as if it were a person, rather than an instrument. Sublime! My favourite on this disc was undoubtedly Delius’ Romance for Cello and Piano, a beautiful work and here beautifully played and beautifully recorded. The sustain of the lower strings on the cello is glorious and the almost-syncopation between the piano and the cello is heart-aching. The suspense the two bring to the music is material for a Masterclass.

My second favourite on this disc is a work I’d never heard before, Il Bell’Antonio, Tema III, by Giovanni Sallima, which I loved not only for the music, which is ghostly and ethereal, but for the sound, particularly that of the piano, where Stott keeps her toe on the sustain pedal for extended periods, allowing all the notes to mix in the air to create a glorious melange of sound. Also, listen to where Ma plays in unison with himself, starting at around 5.04: I could barely believe it was one person playing a single cello. But when I say these were my favourites, it was hard to put these above Messiaen’s Louange à L'eternité de Jésus (from Quartet for the End of Time), or Grieg’s The Wounded Heart, Op. 34, No. 1 (from Elegaic Melodies), and I laughed out loud when I heard the close-out track was Schubert’s Ave Maria, (D. 839, Op. 52, No. 6)… very fitting and very funny! If this album inspires you to purchase the Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (more accurately Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps), most authorities recommend the Tashi quartet on RCA, and I’d agree, but if you can’t find it, try the Deutche Grammophon version with Gil Shaham, Jian Wang, Myung Whun Chung and Paul Meyer.

My next CD was a world away from Messiaen, yet not. Spoon’s latest album, ‘Hot Thoughts’, is the best they’ve ever done, which is what I think I’ve said of every single one of the eight albums that preceded it. The band, led by Britt Daniel, is constantly inventing and re-inventing itself and has a talent for layering sounds and melodies over each other whilst still retaining a forward-moving cohesive musical thought-bubble. This time around Spoon’s added an extra layer of funk and paid homage to hip-hop and dance music styles, whilst also avoiding these styles forcing it into any strict tempos. Stand-outs for me were the title track, Do I Have To Talk You Into It, and Shotgun, but they were hard to pick over Whisper… and Can I Sit Next To You. The Denon DCD-2500NE delivered this album with a clarity that made me feel I was sitting in the control room at the studio, and this is one hell-of-a-well recorded album. Maybe it’s dynamically a little on the shy side, but the sonics are fabulous. If you’ve never heard Spoon, buy ‘Hot Thoughts’ right now to prove that I’m right, and you’ll love them, and then buy all their other albums in ‘date-of-release’ order. You can thank me later.

Switching to SACD playback, the light-bulb moment for me was that I didn’t experience the dramatic improvement in sound quality that I usually do when switching to SACD. In this case, this was a good thing, because it means that with the DCD-2500NE, Denon has finally been able to elevate CD sound to the same level as SACD. I was able to prove this with Michael Jackson’s classic ‘Thriller’, which I own on SACD and on CD. No matter how many times I hear it, the intro of that creaking door, the footsteps, the wind, the sudden violent crash of thunder… I always get a chill up my spine, plus a delicious sense of ‘knowing’ as I anticipate what will come next… that great bass line with syncopated percussion. Was there a difference? Yes, I think the sound from the SACD was still slightly better, with a better sense of musical flow, a weightier feel to the deepest bass and perhaps a better idea of timing but the CD was so close this time that it was a super-difficult call… and certainly close enough that I think I’ll keep my SACD version locked away to increase in value (the SACD is out of print and reportedly won’t be re-released) and happily listen to the CD version on the DCD-2500NE.

Conclusion

Anyone with a collection of CDs wants to be able to play them back with the highest possible fidelity. If it seems strange that that is now best done using an SACD player, rather than a dedicated CD player, so be it. The Denon DCD-2500NE is a truly superb machine that continues to be available at an amazingly low price and, although I don’t have a crystal ball, I chance that it may not continue on in Denon’s line-up. So if you don’t believe in taking chances, buy one now… while you still can! # Chris Croft

Readers interested in a full technical appraisal of the performance of the Denon DCD-1500NE SACD Player should continue on and read the LABORATORY REPORT published on the following pages. Readers should note that the results mentioned in the report, tabulated in performance charts and/or displayed using graphs and/or photographs should be construed as applying only to the specific sample tested.

Laboratory Test Results

All measurements made on the DCD-2500NE SACD player were obtained using a standard Philips test CD (SBC-429) so all data was 16-bit/44.1kHz. Using this disc, Newport Test Labs measured distortion at 0dB recorded level, the results of which are shown in Graph 1. You can see that all distortion components are at or more than 100dB down (0.001% THD), so detailing the levels of the individual harmonics is essentially an exercise in technicalities, with the second harmonic coming in at –105dB (0.00056%), the third at –100dB (0.001%), the fourth at –120dB (0.0001%), the fifth at –113dB (0.00022%), the sixth at –135dB (0.00001%) and the seventh at –128dB (0.00003%).

Obviously, the results at 0dB were excellent, but musical discs are not recorded at 0dB, because there needs to be some headroom for peaks, so it’s instructive to look at the distortion results at lower recorded levels that reflect what would be on a music CD. Graph 2 shows the Denon DCD-2500NE’s performance at –10dB recorded level and you can see there are just two harmonics visible in the output—a second harmonic at –135dB (0.00001%) and a third harmonic at –111dB (0.00028%). This is an exceptionally good result.

But exceptionally good got even better at a recorded level of –20dB, where Newport Test Labs measured just one single harmonic distortion component in the DCD-2500NE’s output at –121dB (0.00008%). I don’t recall any CD player—or SACD player—or DAC, delivering such good performance at this level.

The performance at –60dB was about standard for a high-quality player, with all the ‘grass’ on the noise floor being due to the fact that the –60dB signal on the test CD is not dithered, unlike all music CDs, which are dithered. Nonetheless, all the ‘grass’ was more than 120dB down (0.0001%).

The remarkable effect on distortion of dithering is shown graphically in Graphs 5 and 6, which both show performance with a 1kHz signal at a recorded level of around –90dB, but with one test signal dithered and the other not.

In Graph 5, when the test signal is not dithered, you can see third, fifth, seventh and additional harmonics. The second harmonic is at a real level of –110dB (0.00031%), but since the level of the fundamental is at –90dB, the relative level of the second is at –20dB (10%).

Graph 6 shows the same signal, with dither, and you can see all the harmonic distortion components have vanished below the noise floor at –120dB (0.0001%). If you’re interested in dither, there’s a good article called ‘The Magic of Dither’ written by Stephen Dawson.

Intermodulation distortion (IMD) was also excellent, as you can see from graphs 7 and 8, where Newport Test Labs has measured both CCIF twin-tone distortion (Graph 7) and SMPTE IMD (Graph 8). In graph 7 you can see the two test signals towards the centre of the graph. The two closest high-frequency sidebands (at 18kHz and 20kHz) are well down, at –108dB (0.00039%), while the next are both more than 130dB down (0.00003%). As for the unwanted difference signal re-generated at 1kHz, it was 122dB (0.00007%) down, which is excellent. SMPTE results were also excellent. The thickening around the base of the 7kHz test signal is some 60Hz components, but they’re all more than 110dB down (0.00031%).

Frequency response, as with all digital product that have not had their response deliberately adjusted to deliver specific sonic attributes, was ruler flat below 3kHz, after which it departed from being ‘ruler flat’ by ‘rolling off’ to be 0.22dB down at 20kHz. I put ‘rolling off’ in inverted commas because the roll-off is so slight it would be completely imperceptible to the ear. Indeed it’s only visible as a roll-off on Graph 9 because of the magnified vertical scaling. If normal vertical scaling had been used, you’d have seen only a ruler-flat horizontal line along the 0.00 scale mark. Expressed the usual way, the Denon DCD-2500NE returned a response of 20Hz to 20kHz ±0.11dB.

Channel separation was outstandingly good, with Newport Test Labs measuring a best result of 119dB at 1kHz, but even at the frequency extremes the results were outstanding: 117dB at 16Hz and 115dB at 20kHz. Channel balance was almost exact at 0.056dB. Channel phase was also outstandingly good, with absolutely no inter-channel phase errors at 16Hz or 1kHz, and only a 0.11 degree error at 20kHz. Group delay was typical for a TI PCM1795 8× filter, which is being used in the DCD-2500NE.

Linearity error, as tabulated in the accompanying test result sheet, was very low from –60dB right down to –90.31dB and also uniform in its errors, which is excellent. De-emphasis errors were also vanishingly low, just 0.007dB at 1kHz, 0.013dB at 4kHz and 0.2dB at 16kHz.

The digital output signal was very clean and stable, with very low jitter, with the only eye-raising result being the eye-narrowing result at 200mV of 9.9nS, which is a little higher than I’m used to seeing.

To see Denon’s AL32 processing in action you can do no better than look at the impulse and square wave responses. The impulse response is almost perfect, with almost no pre- or post-ringing. The same is true of the square wave response, which also shows almost no ringing at all, with the penalty appearing to be slight slopes on the leading and trailing edges of the wave. This is the best pulse and square wave performance I’ve seen from any digital player or DAC.

Output voltage was around 2.3-volts for a 0dB recorded signal, which means the Denon DCD-2500NE will interface perfectly with any ancillary components you might care to connect. Power consumption on standby is less than 1-watt and increases to only 22-watts when the player is operating.

The performance of the Denon DCD-2500NE as measured by Newport Test Labs was outstandingly good in every respect, and unbelievably good with it time domain responses exceptionally good. It receives my highest unconditional recommendation. # Steve Holding